Category: Sweden

Eno’s Project Delivery Webinar

Eno has a new report out about mass transit project delivery, which I encourage everyone to read. It compares the American situation with 10 other countries: Canada, Mexico, Chile, Norway, Germany, Italy, South Africa, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. Project head Paul Lewis just gave a webinar about this, alongside Phil Plotch. Eno looks at high-level governance issues, trying to figure out if there’s some correlation with factors like federalism, the electoral system, and the legal system; there aren’t any. Instead of those, they try teasing out project delivery questions like the role of consultants, the contracting structure, and the concept of learning from other people.

This is an insightful report, especially on the matter of contract sizing, which they’ve learned from Chile. But it has a few other gems worth noting, regarding in-house planning capacity and, at meta level, learning from other people.

How Eno differs from us

The Transit Costs Project is a deep dive into five case studies: Boston, New York, Stockholm (and to a lesser extent other Nordic examples), Istanbul (and to a lesser extent other Turkish examples), and the cities of Italy. This does not mean we know everything there is to know about these cases; for example, I can’t speak to the issues of environmental review in the Nordic countries, since they never came up in interviews or in correspondence with people discussing the issue of the cost escalation of Nya Tunnelbanan. But it does mean knowing a lot about the particular history of particular projects.

Eno instead studies more cases in less detail. This leads to insights about places that we’ve overlooked – see below about Chile and South Korea. But it also leads to some misinterpretations of the data.

The most significant is the situation in Germany. Eno notes that Germany has very high subway construction costs but fairly low light rail costs. The explanation for the latter is that German light rail is at-grade trams, the easiest form of what counts as light rail in their database to build. American light rail construction costs are much higher partly because American costs are generally very high but also partly because US light rail tends to be more metro-like, for example the Green Line Extension in Boston.

However, in the video they were asked about why German subway costs were high and couldn’t answer. This is something that I can answer: it’s an artifact of which subway projects Germany builds. Germany tunnels so little, due to a combination of austerity (money here goes to gas subsidies, not metro investments) and urbanist preference for trams over metros, that the tunnels that are built are disproportionately the most difficult ones, where the capacity issues are the worst. The subways under discussion mostly include the U5 extension in Berlin, U4 in Hamburg, the Kombilösung in Karlsruhe, and the slow expansion of the tunneled part of the Cologne Stadtbahn. These are all city center subways, and even some of the outer extensions, like the ongoing extension of U3 in Nuremberg, are relatively close-in. The cost estimates for proposed outer extensions like U7 at both ends in Berlin or the perennially delayed U8 to Märkisches Viertel are lower, and not too different per kilometer from French levels.

This sounds like a criticism, because it mostly is. But as we’ll see below, even if they missed the ongoing changes in Nordic project delivery, what they’ve found from elsewhere points to the exact same conclusions regarding the problems of what our Sweden report calls the globalized system, and it’s interesting to see it from another perspective; it deepens our understanding of what good cost-effective practices for infrastructure are.

The issue of contract sizing in the Transit Costs Project

Part of what we call the globalized system is a preference for fewer, larger contracts over more, smaller ones. Trafikverket’s procurement strategy backs this as a way of attracting international bidders, and thus the Västlänken in Gothenburg, budgeted at 20,000 kronor in 2009 prices or around $2.8 billion in 2022 prices, comprises just six contracts. A planner in Manila, which extensively uses international contractors from all over Asia to build its metro system (which has reasonable elevated and extremely high underground costs), likewise told us that the preference for larger contracts is good, and suggested that Singapore may have high costs because it uses smaller contracts.

While our work on Sweden suggests that the globalized system is not good, the worst of it appeared to us to be about risk allocation. The aspects of the globalized system that center private-sector innovation and offload the risk to the contractor are where we see defensive design and high costs, while the state reacts by making up new regulations that raise costs and achieve little. But nothing that we saw suggested contract sizing was a problem.

And in comes Eno and brings up why smaller contracts are preferable. In Chile, where Eno appears to have done the most fieldwork, metro projects are chopped into many small contracts, and no contractor is allowed to get two adjacent segments. The economic logic for this is the opposite of Sweden’s: Santiago wishes to make its procurement open to smaller domestic firms, which are not capable of handling contracts as large as those of Västlänken.

And with this system, Santiago has lower costs than any Nordic capital. Project 63, building Metro Lines 3 and 6 at the same time, cost in 2022 PPP dollars $170 million/km; Nya Tunnelbanan is $230 million/km if costs don’t run over further, and the other Nordic subways are somewhat more expensive.

Other issues of state capacity

Eno doesn’t use the broader political term state capacity, but constantly alludes to it. The report stresses that project delivery must maintain large in-house planning capacity. Even if consultants are used, there must be in-house capacity to supervise them and make reasonable requests; clients that lack the ability to do anything themselves end up mismanaging consultants and making ridiculous demands, which point comes out repeatedly and spontaneously for our sources as well as those of Eno. While Trafikverket aims to privatize the state on the British model, it tries to retain some in-house capacity, for example picking some rail segments to maintain in-house to benchmark private contractors against; at least so far, construction costs in Stockholm are around two-fifths those of the Battersea extension in London, and one tenth those of Second Avenue Subway Phase 1.

With their broader outlook, Eno constantly stresses the need to devolve planning decisions to expert civil servants; Santiago Metro is run by a career engineer, in line with the norms in the Spanish- and Portuguese-language world that engineering is a difficult and prestigious career. American- and Canadian-style politicization of planning turns infrastructure into a black hole of money – once the purpose of a project is spending money, it’s easy to waste any budget.

Finally, Eno stresses the need to learn from others. The example it gives is from Korea, which learned the Japanese way of building subways, and has perfected it; this is something that I’ve noticed for years in my long-delayed series on how various countries build, but just at the level of a diachronic metro map it’s possible to see how Tokyo influenced Seoul. They don’t say so, but Ecuador, another low-cost Latin American country, used Madrid Metro as consultant for the Quito Metro.

Quick Note: What’s a Megaproject?

I gave my webinar talk about the Stockholm case and uploaded the video here. I don’t want to repeat either the case or my presentation thereof, but rather just point to one thing I said during the Q&A, about what counts as a megaproject. At the time I thought it was just an extemporaneous answer, but Sandy Johnston highlit it in his livetweeting, and I think it has some deeper meaning.

The issue at hand is that the definition of what a megaproject is is relative to local capabilities and practices. Building 5 km of subway tunnel is a megaproject if you’re an American city or a small European capital, but not if you’re a large European or Asian city. What I mean by this definition is that the usual properties of megaprojects are relative to local capabilities in the following ways:

  • Megaprojects are hotly debated politically at the highest level – Crossrail and High Speed 2 were in the manifestos of both Labour and the Conservatives, and Grand Paris Express evolved with direct government involvement. In smaller cities, projects of similar levels of political importance are as one might expect smaller, like Citybanan (which is 6 km) and Nya Tunnelbanan (which is 19 km); in turn in Paris, extensions of the Métro totaling 19 km happen gradually without such political involvement.
  • Megaprojects are institutionally new. Grand Paris Express not only was decided by the government, as an expansion of Métro service almost as long as the preexisting system, but also stretched project management capacity to the point of collapse, setting up the cost overrun; thus, the current project is being built using institutionally novel techniques including a single-purpose delivery vehicle with some design-build aspect.
  • Megaprojects have a large, noticeable impact on the city or region if built; this can be an economic impact as with transport projects, but also a cultural impact, as with the Sydney Opera House, whose factor of 15 cost overrun is a case study in Bent Flyvbjerg’s oeuvre.

In a way, this means megaprojects are defined by cost. A 3 km expansion of the T-bana is not a megaproject, let alone a 3 km expansion of the Istanbul Metro, but a 3 km expansion of the New York City Subway is, because it’s a full order of magnitude costlier. A lower-cost city or country is one that builds more, simply because more projects are cost-effective, and thus it has more projects that are below the threshold of what counts as a megaproject and instead are routine extensions.

The Transit Costs Project hasn’t consciously made any comparison of megaprojects with technically similar non-megaproject transit expansion. The Istanbul case comes closest with its focus on Marmaray and smaller metro projects, but Istanbul Metro expansion writ large should be viewed as a megaproject (it’s certainly planned and politicized as such), and Marmaray is genuinely more technically difficult than just about any other urban rail project. A vulgar quantitative comparison across our database is probably infeasible – there are too few examples by definition, and, moreover, because megaprojects are in practice defined by cost, they’re likelier to be more expensive, even if their specific features do not raise costs.

That said, I do believe that megaprojects are likely to be costlier than equivalent non-megaproject extensions. Stockholm is not a good example for this because it isn’t doing incremental urban rail expansion, only megaprojects. But Paris is a good example, and the per-km cost rose dramatically in the wake of Grand Paris Express. In Barcelona, L9 is a very expensive megaproject; part of its mega- status comes from its worse-than-factor-of-3 cost overrun, but it’s also a large extension of the metro and its construction technique, a large-diameter tunnel boring machine, was new.

Berlin is more complex. We’ll need to wait to see which of the U-Bahn extensions under discussion are built, but those are liminally mega-, sharing some features of megaprojects (namely, political debate, consisting of modal warfare between U-Bahn and streetcar expansion) but not others (they’re not institutionally new and nobody claims they’re transformational for the city). That said, I tilt toward not viewing them as a megaproject, because the debate over them is more general modal warfare, in the same way I don’t think a project subject to debate over spending versus austerity or road versus public transport investment is a megaproject. The key political attribute is not that there’s any political debate, but rather that the political debate introduces politicization of technical decisions over alignment and construction methods; the modal warfare in urban Germany between streetcars and rapid transit is a proxy for much broader fight between consumption- and quality of life-oriented urbanism on the one hand (favoring streetcars and bike lanes) and production- and job access-oriented urbanism on the other (favoring rapid transit and also motorway construction).

The Sweden Cost Report is Launched!

You can read it here. It evolved a lot during writing, partly because of the rising costs in the Nordic countries, partly because of the tension between the forward-looking rhetoric of what the report calls the globalized system and what interviewees with more practical involvement have said, partly because of the voluminous literature on models of capital construction and maintenance that only look at Northern Europe or the UK.

In a similar manner to the webinar about the Italian and Turkish cases, there is going to be a webinar about this one. The date is the 20th of September, 17:00 Central European Summer Time (UTC+2); here is the Zoom registration page. It will take the format of a short presentation, around half an hour, to be followed by a Q&A of indefinite duration, and I will try not to be mostly negative – even with the cost overruns, Nya Tunnelbanan is noticeably cheaper per km than the average 2020s subway, and there are a lot of commendable aspects of the Nordic model of infrastructure construction including at least one (labor efficiency) that is superior to the otherwise-cheaper Southern European models.

Nordic Costs and Institutional Knowledge

Institutional knowledge at agencies that build infrastructure shapes up to be an important factor behind how well they handle projects. Good agencies build up a knowledge base over time that lets them see what works and what doesn’t, and this way they’re capable of making in-house planning decisions, and even when they use consultants, they make sure to learn what the consultants have taught them and implement those lessons in the future. In our Italian, Turkish, and (soon to be released) Swedish cases, the agencies have all built up this knowledge over decades.

Denmark provides an interesting test case for this, because Copenhagen opened its metro in 2002 (Helsinki: 1982; Oslo: 1966, Stockholm: 1950), and so it’s possible to compare it with the other Nordic capitals. The construction costs in Copenhagen are notably higher: the City Circle Line (built 2009-19) cost 25,300 DKK for 15.5 km, which in 2022 PPP dollars is around $280 million/km, and the soon-to-open M4 extension to Sydhavn is 9,100 DKK for 4.5 km, or $330 million/km; in contrast, we have the following costs for the other Nordic capitals:

CityLineLengthYearsCostCost/km (2022 PPP)
OsloLøren1.613-161.33b NOK$110 million
OsloFornebu8.220-2916.2b NOK, ’18
26.4b NOK, ’21
$330 million
StockholmNya Tunnelbanan1920-3032b SEK, ’16$235 million
HelsinkiWest Metro phase 113.509-171.171b€$145 million
HelsinkiWest Metro phase 2714-231.159b€$275 million

All of these costs are higher than you may have seen in past posts – this is mostly an inflation artifact (and in particular, you should mentally increment all costs by 25% if you remember them in mid-2010s dollars). But it’s notable that in both Oslo and Helsinki, real costs are sharply up; the Fornebu Line is more complex than the Løren Line, but much of its complexity is an engineering choice to deep-mine the stations.

In Stockholm there’s no similar comparison, but Citybanan cost, also in 2022 PPP dollars, $365 million/km, and a factor of 1.5 is an unusually low premium for city center regional rail carrying 250 meter trains over regular metro trains; the RER premium in Paris looks like a factor of 2, and the Munich S-Bahn tunnel was budgeted at a factor of 2 premium over a current U-Bahn extension and has since announced a factor of 2 overrun over that, for which it has been widely mocked in the German press. It’s plausible that when the regional rail premium is netted out properly, Stockholm has in fact seen a large real increase in costs, which matches the history of Nya Tunnelbanan’s cost overrun, from 23 to 32 billion kronor.

Denmark is seeing a real cost increase as well, but a much smaller one. In effect, what’s happening is that Copenhagen started building its metro in the 1990s at higher cost than Nordic norms, and in the generation since then, costs in the other Nordic countries have converged to Danish costs.

So what’s going on?

Some hints can be found in the details of the most recent Danish extension, M4 to Sydhavn. The soft cost multiplier over hard costs is higher than one would find elsewhere, and the contingency is 30% at the contract award, an unusually high figure; 20% is more typical, or even less at contract award (but more during earlier planning). Moreover, the entire project was awarded as a single design-build contract to a joint venture of Vinci and Hochtief, with hard costs worth 460M€.

The entire Nordic world is trying to transition to that style of contracting. This is inspired by British and Dutch models of privatization, which the state, academic, and consultant studies I’ve read while writing the Stockholm report view positively. The procurement strategy for Trafikverket in Sweden calls for transitioning to a so-called “pure client” model for the next big rail investment, Gothenburg’s West Link, like Citybanan not included on the above table as it is a regional rail through-running tunnel. The emerging model in the Nordic countries, which I call globalized in the report since it aims at international competitiveness attracting global contracting firms, can be compared with the traditional model as follows:

TraditionalGlobalized
Design-bid-buildDesign-build
Itemized contractsFixed price contracts
Smaller contracts (hundreds of millions of kronor)Larger contracts (billions of kronor)
Product procurement (“how to build”)Functional procurement (“what to build”)
Public client riskPrivate contractor risk

The Nordic project I’m most familiar with, Nya Tunnelbanan, does not use the globalized system; it uses elements of both the globalized and the traditional systems, but the trend is to be more globalized. Moreover, the Fornebu Line uses design-bid-build; its problem is partly that the private risk allocation encourages defensive design. If the builder strictly follows the design, all liability is on the designer, otherwise it’s on the builder; thus, the builder strictly follows the design, and because geotechnical surprises are inevitable during tunneling, the designer is overly cautious and tries to anticipate every potential problem rather than seeing what is actually necessary while the tunnel is dug. The traditional system has problems, especially when the risk allocation is improper like this. What’s more, the preference for larger contracts over smaller ones comes from ongoing industry consolidation – there just aren’t enough domestic contractors anymore, and pan-European ones, let alone global ones, are not going to enter an unfamiliar market for a $100 million contract. Unfortunately, the move to privatization of risk under the pure client model does not improve things, and is associated with higher costs.

I am less familiar with the Copenhagen Metro than with the Stockholm Metro, but from reading both how the expansion is done and what Eno is saying about its model (it did a case there but not in Stockholm), Denmark was an early adopter of the globalized system. Eno even pointed out that it uses design-build to showcase that low-construction cost cities use it successfully.

So the Denmark effect is real – this does appear to be a matter of experience. Having never built a metro before – the last urban rail tunnel in Denmark, the S-tog, opened in 1934 – Copenhagen never had the institutional knowledge of how to use the traditional system, so it opted for (elements of) the globalized system, which was not how the other Nordic countries did things but was what British consultants recommended. Note that this does not mean higher costs (that is, around global average, rather than far less) were inevitable in Denmark – it could have adopted the traditional system by leaning on intra-Nordic connections, which are extensive. But perhaps in the 1990s, and certainly in the 2000s, even the other Nordic countries started to come to believe in greater privatization of risk.

The tragedy is that we can see, in real time, how good institutional knowledge is forgotten. Nya Tunnelbanan is, by itself, a pretty straightforward case of cost overrun. But in the context of parallel trends in Helsinki and Oslo, and perhaps an imputation of how much more complex Citybanan was, the situation is different. Real costs increased over time – this was not a mere matter of cost underestimation. Moreover, they increased during a time of ongoing, successful construction of metro projects – the lines that have opened all have healthy ridership, encouraging plans to build even more. And yet, the real problems with the traditional system have led to the adoption of what appears to be a worse procurement system, supported every step of the way by the same agencies that used to compete for world records for low-cost construction.

Negative Exceptionalism and Fake Self-Criticism

Yesterday, Sandy Johnston brought up a point he had made in his thesis from 2016: riders on the Long Island Rail Road consider their system to be unusually poorly-run (PDF-pp. 19-20), and have done so for generations.

The 100,000 commuters on Long Island—the brave souls who try to combine a job in New York City with a home among the trees—represent all shades of opinion on politics, religion, and baseball. But they are firmly agreed on one thing—they believe that the Long Island Rail Road, which constitutes their frail and precarious life line between home and office, is positively the worst railroad in the world. This belief is probably ill considered, because no one has ever made a scientific survey, and it is quite possible that there are certain short haul lines in the less populous parts of Mongolia or the Belgian Congo where the service is just as bad if not worse. But no Long Islander, after years of being trampled in the crowded aisles and arriving consistently late to both job and dinner, would ever admit this.

(Life, 1948, p. 19)

The quoted Life article goes over real problems that plagued the LIRR even then, such as absent management and line worker incompetence stranding passengers for hours. This kind of “we are the worst” criticism can be easily mistaken for reform pressure and interest in learning from others who, by the critic’s own belief, are better. But it’s not. It’s fake self-criticism; the “we are the worst” line is weaponized in the exact opposite direction – toward entrenchment and mistrust of any outside ideas, in which reformers are attacked as out of touch far more than the dispatcher who sends a train to the wrong track.

Negative exceptionalism

The best way to view this kind of fake self-criticism is, I think, through the lens of negative exceptionalism. Negative exceptionalism takes the usual exceptionalism and exactly inverts it: we have the most corrupt government, we have the worst social problems, we are the most ungovernable people. The more left-wing version also adds, we have the worst racism/sexism. In all cases, this is weaponized against the concept of learning from elsewhere – how can we learn from countries where I spent three days on vacation and didn’t feel viscerally disgusted by their poor people?

For example, take the political party Feminist Initiative, which teetered on the edge of the electoral threshold in the 2014 election in Sweden and won a few seats in municipal elections and one in the European Parliament. It defined itself in favor of feminism and against racism, and talked about how the widespread notion that Sweden is a feminist society is a racist myth designed to browbeat immigrants, and in reality Sweden is a deeply sexist place (more recently, Greta Thunberg would use the same negative exceptionalism about environmentalism, to the point of saying Sweden is the most environmentally destructive country). The party also advocated enforcing the Nordic model of criminalization of sex work on the rest of the EU; the insight that Sweden is a sexist society does not extend to the notion that perhaps it should not tell the Netherlands what to do.

Sweden is an unusually exceptionalist society by European standards. The more conventional Sweden-is-the-best exceptionalism is more common, but doesn’t seem to produce any different prescriptions regarding anything Sweden is notable for – transit-oriented development, criminalizing sex work, taking in large numbers of refugees, deliberately infecting the population with corona, building good digital governance. This mentality passes effortlessly between conventional and negative exceptionalism, and at no point would anyone in Sweden stop and say “maybe we have something to learn from Southern Europe” (the literature I’ve consulted for the soon-to-be-released Sweden case of the Transit Costs Project is full of intra-Nordic comparisons, and sometimes also comparisons with the UK and the Netherlands, but never anything from low-cost Southern Europe).

And of course, the United States matches or even outdoes Sweden. The same effortless change between we’re-the-best and we’re-the-worst is notable. Americans will sometimes in the same thread crow about how their poorest states are richer than France and say that poor people in whichever country they’ve visited last are better-behaved than the American poor (read: American tourists can’t understand what they’re saying) and that’s why those countries do better. They will in the same thread say the United States is uniquely racist and also uniquely anti-racist and in either case has nothing to learn from other places. The most outrage I’ve gotten from left-wing American activists was when I told them my impression of racism levels in the United States is that they are overall similar to levels in Western Europe; the US is allowed to be uniquely racist or uniquely anti-racist, but not somewhere in the middle.

The situation in New York

New York’s exceptionalism levels are extreme even by American standards. This, again, includes both positive and negative exceptionalism. New Yorkers hold their city to be uniquely diverse (and not, say, very diverse but at levels broadly comparable with Toronto, Singapore, Gush Dan, or Dubai), but look down on the same diversity – “they don’t have the social problems we do” is a common refrain about any non-US comparison. Markers of socioeconomic class are local, regional, or national, but not global, so a New Yorker who visits Berlin will not notice either the markers of poverty that irk the German middle class or general antisocial German behavior. For example, in Berlin, rail riders are a lot worse at letting passengers get off the train before getting on than in New York, where subway riders behave more appropriately; but New York fears of crime are such that “Germans are better-behaved than New Yorkers” is a common trope in discussion of proof of payment and driver-only trains.

This use of negative exceptionalism as fake criticism with which to browbeat actual criticism extends to the lede from Life in 1948. Sandy’s thesis spends several more pages on the same article, which brings up the informal social camaraderie among riders on those trains, where the schedules were (and still are) bespoke and commuters would take the same trains every day and sit at the same location with the same group of co-commuters, all of the same social class of upper middle-class white men. These people may hold themselves as critics of management, but in practice what they demanded was to make the LIRR’s operating practices even worse: more oriented around their specific 9-to-5 use case, and certainly not service akin to the subway, which they looked down, as did the planners.

Fake criticism as distraction from reform

The connection between negative exceptionalism and bad practices is that negative exceptionalism always tells the reformer: “we’re ungovernable, this can’t possibly work here.” The case of proof-of-payment is one example of this: New York is the greatest city in the world but it’s also the most criminal and therefore New Yorkers, always held to be different from (i.e. poorer than) the speaker who after all is a New Yorker too, must be disciplined publicly and harshly. Knowledge of how POP works in Germany is irrelevant to New York because Germans are rulebound and New Yorkers are ungovernable. Knowledge of how street allocation works in the Netherlands is irrelevant to the United States because the United States is either uniquely racist (and thus planners are also uniquely racist) or uniquely antiracist (and thus its current way of doing things is better than foreign ways). Knowledge of integrated timetable and infrastructure planning in Switzerland or Japan is irrelevant because New York has a uniquely underfunded infrastructure system (and not, say, a $50 billion five-year MTA capital plan).

More broadly, it dovetails into New Right fake criticism of things that annoy the local notables. The annoyance is real, but because those local notables are local, they reject any solution that is not taken directly from their personal prejudices; they lack the worldliness to learn and implement best practices and they know it, and so their status depends on the continuation of bad practices. (Feminist Initiative is not a New Right party, or any kind of right, but its best national result was 3%; decline-of-the-West parties more rooted in the New Right do a lot better.)

The good news for New York at least is that the LIRR and Metro-North are genuinely bad. This means that even a program of social and physical bulldozing of the suburban forces that keep those systems the way they are generates real physical value in reliability and convenience to compensate some (not all) for the loss of status. The complaints will continue because the sort of person who announces with perfect confidence that their commute is the worst in the world always finds things to complain about, but the point is not to defuse complaints, it’s to provide good service, and those people will adjust.

But that’s specific to one case. The system of kvetching that empowers middle-class rider camaraderie, or for that matter the camaraderie of an overstaffed, overpaid workforce with a seniority system, imposes real costs in making change politically hard. Only when things are so bad are the benefits of breaking the tradition so large that it becomes politically advantageous to push for the necessary reforms. Two people may do the job of one and the negative exceptionalists would rail while resisting any improvement, but when five people do the job of one, there is a large enough pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.

Vancouver, Stockholm, and the Suburban Metro Model

I was asked by an area advocate about SkyTrain, and this turned into a long email with various models to compare Vancouver with. In my schema contrasting suburban metro systems and S-Bahns, Vancouver is firmly in the first category: SkyTrain is not commuter rail, and Vancouver’s commuter rail system, the West Coast Express, is so weak it might as well not exist. The suburban metro model forces the region to engage in extensive transit-oriented development, which Vancouver has done. Has it been successful? To some extent, yes – Vancouver’s modal split is steadily rising, and in the 2016 census, just before the Evergreen Line opened, was 20%; supposedly it is 24% now. But it could have done better. How so?

Could Vancouver have used the S-Bahn model?

No.

There is a common line of advocacy; glimpses of it can be found on the blog Rail for the Valley, by a writer using the name Zweisystem who commented on transit blogs like Yonah and Jarrett‘s in the 2000s. Using the name of Karlsruhe’s tram-train as inspiration, Zwei has proposed that Vancouver use existing commuter rail corridors in suburban and exurban areas and streetcars in the urban core.

The problem with this is that Vancouver has very little legacy mainline rail infrastructure to work with. There are two mainlines serving city center: the Canadian Pacific, and Canadian National. The CP line hugs the coast, full of industrial customers; the CN line is farther inland and has somewhat more fixable land use, but the Millennium Line partly parallels it and even after 20 years its ridership is not the strongest in the system. Most of the urban core is nowhere near a rail mainline.

This is completely unlike the Central European S-Bahn-and-streetcars systems, all of which have legacy commuter lines radiating in all directions, and use legacy streetcars rather than newly-built light rail lines. In the last generation they’ve expanded their systems, building connections and feeding rapid transit, but none of these is a case of completely getting rid of the streetcars and then restoring them later; the busiest system that’s entirely new, that of Paris, is largely orbitals and feeders for the Métro and RER.

Vancouver did in fact reuse old infrastructure for the suburban metro concept. The Expo Line involved very little greenfield right-of-way use. Most of the core route between the historic core of Vancouver and New Westminster is in the private right-of-way of a historic BC Electric interurban; this is why it parallels Kingsway but does not run elevated over it. The tunnel in Downtown Vancouver is a disused CP tunnel; this is why the tracks are stacked one over the other rather than running side by side – the tunnel was single-track but tall enough to be cut into two levels. This limited the construction cost of the Expo Line, which the largely-elevated Millennium Line and the partly underground, partly elevated Canada Line could not match.

The Stockholm example

In my post about S-Bahns and suburban metros, I characterized Stockholm as an archetypal suburban metro. Stockholm does have an S-Bahn tunnel nowadays, but it only opened 2017, and ridership so far, while rising, is still a fraction of that of the T-bana.

Stockholm’s choice of a full metro system in the 1940s, when it had about a million people in its metro area, had its critics at the time. But there wasn’t much of a choice. The trams were fighting growing traffic congestion, to the point that some lines had to be put in a tunnel, which would later be converted for the use of the Green Line as it goes through Södermalm. Working-class housing was overcrowded and there was demand for more housing in Stockholm, which would eventually be satisfied by the Million Program.

And there were too few commuter lines for an S-Bahn system. Swedes were perfectly aware of the existence of the S-Bahn model; Berlin and Hamburg both had S-Bahns running on dedicated tracks, and Copenhagen had built its own system, called S-Tog in imitation of the German name. But they didn’t build that. None of this was the integrated Takt timetable that Munich would perfect in the 1970s, in which branches could be left single-track or shared with intercity trains provided the regular 20-minute headways could be scheduled to avoid conflicts; the track sharing required in the 1940s would have been too disruptive. Not to mention, Stockholm had too few lines, if not so few as Vancouver – only two branches on each of two sides of city center, with most of the urban core far from the train.

So Stockholm built the T-bana, with three highly branched lines all meeting at T-Centralen, the oldest two of the three having a cross-platform transfer there and at the two stations farther south. The roughly 104 km system (57 km underground) cost, in 2022 US dollars, $3.6 billion. Stockholm removed all the regular streetcars; a handful running all or mostly in private rights-of-way were retained with forced transfers at outlying T-bana stations like Ropsten, as was the narrow-gauge Roslagsbana (with a forced transfer at KTH, where I worked for two years).

At the same time the T-bana was under construction, the state built the Million Program, and in the Stockholm region, the housing projects were designed to be thoroughly oriented around the system. The pre-Million Program TOD suburb of Vällingby was envisioned as part of a so-called string of pearls, in which towns would radiate from each T-bana station, with local retail and jobs near the station surrounded by housing. In 2019, the T-bana had 1,265,900 riders per workday, Citybanan had 410,300, and the remaining lines 216,100; Sweden reports modal split for all trips and not just work trips, but the commute modal split appears to be 40% or a little higher, a figure that matches Paris, a metro area of 13 million that opened its first metro line in 1900.

So why is Stockholm better?

There are parallels between Stockholm and Vancouver – both are postwar cities with 2.5 million people in their metropolitan areas with rapid growth due to immigration. Their physical geographies are similar, with water barriers inhibiting the contiguous sprawl of many peers. Both extensively employed TOD to shape urban geography around the train: Stockholm has Vällingby and other, less famous examples of TOD; Vancouver has Metrotown and smaller examples of residential TOD along the Expo Line, alongside a famously high-rise downtown. But the T-bana has more than twice the annual ridership of SkyTrain, and Stockholm has around twice the modal split of Vancouver – this is not a matter of Canadians riding buses more than Europeans do. So what gives?

Part of it is about TOD models. Stockholm is an exceptionally monocentric city, and this has created a lot of demand for urban rail to Central Stockholm. But Vancouver’s high-rise city center has a lot of jobs, and overall, around 30% of Metro Vancouver jobs are in the city or the University Endowment Lands (that is, UBC), and the proportion of Stockholm County jobs within an equivalent area is similar. Vancouver has never built anything as massive as the Million Program, but its housing growth rate is one of the highest in the world (around 11 gross units/1,000 people per year in the 2010s), and much of that growth clusters near the Expo Line and increasingly also near the worse-developed Millennium and Canada Lines.

I suspect that the largest reason is simply the extent of the systems. SkyTrain misses the entire West Side of Vancouver west of Cambie, has poor coverage in Surrey and none in Langley, and does not cross the Burrard Inlet. The T-bana has no comparable lacunae: Roslag is served by Roslagsbanan, and the areas to be served by the under-construction extensions are all target TOD areas with much less present-day density than North Vancouver, the cores of Fairview and Kitsilano, or the town centers in Surrey other than Whalley.

What’s more, Stockholm’s construction costs may be rising but those of Vancouver (and the rest of Canada) are rising even faster and from a higher base. Nya Tunnelbanan is currently budgeted at $3.6 billion in PPP terms – 19 underground km for about the same cost as the existing 104 – but Vancouver is building half of the most critical SkyTrain extension, that under Broadway, for C$2.83 billion (US$2.253 billion in PPP terms) for just 5 km, not all underground. The projected cost per rider is still favorable, but it’s less favorable for the planned extension to Langley, and there’s no active plan for anything to the North Shore.

The silver lining for Vancouver is that the West Side is big and underdeveloped. The region has the money to extend SkyTrain not just to Arbutus as is under construction but all the way to UBC, and the entire swath of land between Central Broadway and UBC screams “redevelop me.” The current land use is a mix of mid-rise, townhouses (“missing middle”), and single-family housing; Shaughnessy, whose northern end is within a kilometer of under-construction SkyTrain stations, is single-family on large lots, and can be redeveloped as high-rise housing alongside closer-in areas. Canada does not have Europe’s allergy to tall buildings, and this is a resource that can be used to turn Vancouver into a far more transit-oriented city along the few corridors where it can afford to build. The suburban metro is always like this: fewer lines, more development intensity along them.

How Comparisons are Judged

I’m about to complete the report for the Transit Costs Project about Sweden. For the most part, Sweden is a good comparison case: its construction costs for public transport are fairly low, as are those of the rest of Scandinavia, and the projects being built are sound. And yet, the Nordic countries and higher-cost countries in the rest of Northern Europe, that is Germany and the Netherlands, share a common prejudice against Southern Europe, which in the last decade or so has been the world leader in cost-effective infrastructure. (Turkey is very cheap as well but in many ways resembles Southern Europe, complete with having imported Italian expertise early on.)

This is not usually an overt prejudice. Only one person who I’ve talked to openly discounted the idea that Italy could be good at this, and they are not Nordic. But I’ve been reading a lot of material out of Nordic countries discussing future strategy, and it engages in extensive international comparisons but only within Northern Europe, including high-cost Britain, ignoring Southern Europe. The idea that Italians can be associated with good engineering is too alien to Northern Europeans.

The best way to illustrate it is with a toy model, about the concept of livable cities.

Livable cities

Consider the following list of the world’s most livable cities:

  1. Vienna
  2. Stockholm
  3. Auckland
  4. Zurich
  5. Amsterdam
  6. Melbourne
  7. Geneva
  8. Copenhagen
  9. Munich
  10. Vancouver

The list, to be clear, is completely made up. These are roughly the cities I would expect to see on such a list from half-remembering Monocle’s actual lists and some of the discourse that they generate: they should be Northern European cities or cities of the peripheral (non-US/UK) Anglosphere, and not too big (Berlin might raise eyebrows). These are the cities that urbanist discourse associates with livability.

The thing is, prejudices like “Northern Europe is just more livable” can tolerate a moderate level of heresy. If I made the above list, but put Taipei at a high place shifting all others down and bumping Vancouver, explaining this on grounds like Taipei’s housing affordability, strong mass transit system, and low corona rates (Taiwan spent most of the last two years as a corona fortress, though it’s cracked this month), it could be believed. In effect, Taipei’s status as a hidden gem could be legitimized by its inclusion on a list alongside expected candidates like Vienna and Stockholm.

But if instead the list opened with Taipei, Kaohsiung, Taichung, and Tainan, it would raise eyebrows. This isn’t even because of any real criteria, though they exist (Taiwan’s secondary cities are motorcycle- and auto-oriented, with weak metro systems). It just makes the list too Taiwanese, which is not what one expects from such a list. Ditto if the secondary Taiwanese cities were bumped for other rich Asian cities like Singapore or Seoul; Singapore is firmly in the one-heresy status – it can make such a list if every other city on the list is as expected – but people have certain prejudices of how it operates and certain words they associate with it, some right and some laughably wrong, and “livable” is not among them.

The implication for infrastructure

A single number is more objective than a multi-factor concept like livability. In the case of infrastructure, this is cost per kilometer for subways, and it’s possible to establish that the lowest-cost places for this are Southern Europe (including Turkey), South Korea, and Switzerland. The Nordic countries used to be as cheap but with last decade’s cost overruns are somewhat more expensive to dig in, though still cheaper than anywhere else in the world; Latin America runs the gamut, but some parts of it, like Chile, are Sweden-cheap.

Per the one-heresy rule, the low costs of Spain are decently acknowledged. Bent Flyvbjerg even summarized the planning style of Madrid as an exemplar of low costs recently – and he normally studies cost overruns and planning failures, not recipes for success. But it goes deeper than just this, in a number of ways.

  1. While Madrid most likely has the world’s lowest urban subway costs, the rest of Southern Europe achieves comparable results and so does South Korea. So it’s important to look at shared features of those places and learn, rather than just treat Spain as an odd case out while sticking with Northern European paradigms.
  2. Like Italy, Spain has not undergone the creeping privatization of state planning so typical in the UK and, through British soft power, other parts of Northern Europe. Design is done by in-house engineers; there’s extensive public-sector innovation, rather than an attempt to activate private-sector innovation in construction.
  3. Southern European planning isn’t just cheap, but also good. Metro Milano says that M5 carries 176,000 passengers per day, for a cost of 1.35b€ across both phases; in today’s money it’s around $13,000 per rider, which is fairly low and within the Nordic range. Italian driverless metros push the envelope on throughput measured in peak trains per hour, and should be considered at the frontier of the technology alongside Paris. Milan, Barcelona, and Madrid have all been fairly good at installing barrier-free access to stations, roughly on a par with Berlin; Madrid is planning to go 100% accessible by 2028.
  4. As a corollary of point #3, there are substantial similarities between Southern and Northern Europe. In particular, both were ravaged by austerity after the financial crisis; Northern Europe quickly recovered economically, but in both, infrastructure investment is lagging. In general, if you keep finding $10,000/rider and $15,000/rider subways to build, you should be spending more money on more subway lines. Turkey is the odd one out in that it builds aggressively, but on other infrastructure matters it should be viewed as part of the European umbrella.
  5. Italian corruption levels in infrastructure are very low, and from a greater distance this also appears true of Spain. Italy’s governance problems are elsewhere – the institutional problems with tax avoidance drag down the private sector, which has too many family-scale businesses that can’t grow and too few large corporations, and not the public sector.

I’m not going to make a list of the cities with the best urban rail networks in the world, even in jest; people might take this list as authoritative in ways they wouldn’t take a list I made up about livability. But in the same way that there are prejudices that militate in favor of associating livability with Northern Europe and the peripheral Anglosphere, there are prejudices that militate in favor of associating good public transport with Northern and Central Europe and the megacities of rich Asia. All of those places indeed have excellent public transportation, but this is equally true of the largest Southern European cities; Istanbul is lagging but it’s implementing two large metro networks, one for Europe and one for Asia, and already has Marmaray connecting them under the Bosporus.

And what’s more, just as Southern Europe has things to learn from Northern Europe, Northern Europe has things to learn from the South. But it doesn’t come naturally to Germans or Nordics. It’s expected that every list of the best places in Europe on every metric should show a north-south gradient, with France anywhere in between. If something shows the opposite, it must in this schema be unimportant, or even fraudulent. Northerners know that Southerners are lazy and corrupt – when they vacation in Alicante they don’t see anyone work outside the hospitality industry, so they come away with the conclusion that there is no high-skill professional work in the entire country.

But at a time when Germany is building necessary green infrastructure at glacial rates and France and Scandinavia have seen real costs go up maybe 50% in 20 years, it’s necessary to look beyond the prejudice. Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, Milan, Istanbul, Lisbon, and most likely also Athens have to be treated as part of the European core when it comes to urban rail infrastructure, with as much to teach Stockholm as the reverse and more to teach Berlin than the reverse.

Institutional Issues: Proactive and Reactive Regulations

So far, in this series on institutional factors behind differences in the quality and cost of public transportation infrastructure, I’ve gone over procurement, public-sector oversight, and transparency. These three posts can be read together as a series: procurement is the keystone, and to get it right it is critical to have high-quality in-house supervision of the work, and to get that right in turn it’s important to cultivate transparency.

Today I’m going to turn the camera 90 degrees and talk about another relevant issue: that of proactive versus reactive state regulation and supervision. This is related to the issue of oversight, in that proactive regulation requires deeper in-house expertise and detachment from politics, so that the state can effectively make changes as necessary based on changes in travel and social patterns and advances in knowledge by scientists and practitioners.

Nudging and doing

One of the distinctions I’ve noticed regarding different regulatory traditions is whether the regulators do things or merely nudge. This is related to the issue of oversight, in that strong engineering bureaucracies that do design and planning in-house also come up with their own sets of clear rules.

The Italian civil service does rather than nudges: there are clear proactive rules by the Ministry of Culture about the protection of historical monuments, limiting the permitted building settlement in sensitive areas to 3 mm. Such proactive clear rules lead to a more predictable legal situation since it’s easy to measure what is and what is not legal, reducing risk. Long-term standards that impose real costs on business also soon sprout innovation for how to follow them while minimizing costs, as is the case for Japanese and Chinese zoning standards for light; ad hoc rules instead impose new costs every time, since the investment in trying to adapt to them would be spread across just one project rather than many.

The American regulatory apparatus has a mixture of doing and nudging. Environmental protection is almost entirely adversarial: the National Environmental Protection Act requires agencies to prepare environmental impact statements (EISes) before every project, but those are not judged by regulators but instead subject to lawsuit, and soon the nudge turns into red tape with hundreds of pages in an EIS aiming to anticipate every possible legal objection. Labor law is largely adversarial, but some states have passed triple damages statutes, in which the penalty for violation is specified at three times the missed wage and therefore workers do not have to litigate against much better-resourced employers.

The disability rights regime in the United States is a mix but include a significant amount of doing. There are clear standards for elevator accessibility, longest path of travel for people in wheelchairs, and maximum permitted gaps between the platform and the train; more recently, the FRA has wanted to mandate automatic gap fillers on mainline rail in order to permit passengers in wheelchairs to board unaided even across small gaps.

This is related to the issue of adversarial legalism, but is not exactly the same. There is plenty of adversarial legalism in the American disability rights regime, in which agencies refuse to follow the law and dare advocates to sue them.

Moreover, federal regulations in the United States remain a matter of nudging more than doing whenever there is any interaction with state and local authorities; instead of coordinating different authorities from a position of being able to engage in planning things itself, a federal agency will often try to nudge through offering incentives.

Two examples of equity

There’s a sense in much of the planning world in both the United States and Europe that it is necessary to proactively plan cities and transportation for the benefit of disadvantaged groups, or else even well-meaning planners would make unquestioned assumptions that harm such groups. It’s worthwhile examining the differences between the approaches to such planning, because one is proactive and the other reactive.

Before going on, I would like to point out a huge difference that is not about proactive planning: in the United States, the Title VI process for egalitarian planning (currently in revision, for which I’m very likely to submit comments make this and other points) centers racial equity, as a legacy of the civil rights movement that it came out of. In Europe, planners persistently ignore the problem of racism, and people of color are severely underrepresented in the civil services that I’ve seen, which issue is so glaring it makes Americans discount any European experience. However, European planners do look at class equity (for example, in Paris) and gender equity (for example, in Sweden), and there, they aim for proactive changes to reduce barriers to access.

The Swedish system is accessible to the English speaker, because feminist writers in English have occasionally looked to the Nordic world for inspiration, and outlets like Streetsblog have examined gender-based planning in Sweden. In 2015, Stockholm examined travel patterns by gender and found that women walk and take public transportation more and drive less than men, and as a result, it changed its snowplowing patterns to prioritize sidewalks over roads.

I was similarly told that when Swedish cities do surface construction, such as the cut-and-cover stations of Västlänken in Gothenburg or the cut-and-cover entry halls into the deep mined stations of the Stockholm T-bana extensions, by regulation the contractors must preserve sufficient sidewalk space on the street for pedestrians. If they need to open up most of the street, they can take car traffic lanes. The reasoning isn’t corrective discrimination, but rather that past planners, who prioritized keeping roads open over sidewalks, had erred because of conscious or unconscious discounting of the experience of women. The change in snowplowing practices led to a fall in injuries, since three times as many people in Sweden were injured walking in icy conditions as driving.

The Swedish system is proactive: the municipality or the state comes up with actionable, concrete changes based on its understanding of travel pattern. Researchers working for the city, perhaps in partnership with activists, notice a discriminatory practice, and come up with an alternative.

Now consider the American system. Title VI does not offer a clear set of practices for anti-racist transportation planning. It instead requires agencies to engage in review of their practices whenever they propose a change, leading first to status quo bias and second to arbitrary enforcement of rules. Much of the enforcement is not done top-down by regulators who are apolitical subject matter experts, but bottom-up from lawsuit or the threat thereof with supervision by judges trained in law but not in the specifics of transportation.

Status quo and reactivity

The worst aspect of reactive planning is that it leads to status quo bias. American regulations for civil rights and environmental protection require review of changes, but not of the status quo. The process can stop an agency from implementing a change or delay implementation until mitigations are done, but it cannot compel an agency to take an action it does not wish to take.

To nuance this somewhat, a judge can put an agency under a consent decree. But that already assumes an adversarial relationship between the state and itself. The process can imposing fines and constraints on an agency that does not want to do something, such as following ADA law and installing elevators at every subway station (something Berlin, an older system than New York, is about to complete systemwide). But it cannot literally build elevators there itself. It’s akin to the Jewish concept of a get, in which a rabbinical court can impose arbitrary fines on a husband who refuses to grant his wife a divorce, where what is needed is to permit women to initiate divorce without their husband’s permission.

A more proactive and less reactive regulatory culture can break out of the status quo trap. The first thing it must do is create a system that does not privilege the status quo: if a change is subject to review on such grounds as accessibility, racial equality, and environmental protection, then current practice must be as well. If it turns out that current practice falls short or is discriminatory, as Sweden’s snowplowing priorities were a decade ago, the agency must change its ways based on clear, concrete standards.

More proactive regulations are more obtrusive and visible, but they reduce costs and improve service quality. They are more sensitive to the current economic and social conditions and to the state of present-day knowledge than to the conditions and knowledge of a generation ago. They are more legible to the public and to contractors, who can then come up with ways to follow them without gambling on favorable judicial or political rulings. And they are less likely to surprise agencies deep into the process with a sudden imposition.

A state that acts as a helping hand rather than a grabbing hand helps more by governing more. Making it easier to ditch a status quo that worked for the world of yesterday but doesn’t for that of today or tomorrow, or one that never worked but was falsely believed to work, allows it to govern more efficiently. It’s necessary then to ensure that the highest-level civil servants who regulate transportation be empowered to make concrete decisions and coordinate lower-level agencies rather than just nudging in the right direction.

Institutional Issues: Professional Oversight

Continuing my series on institutional issues concerning infrastructure costs and quality, after the issue of procurement, I’d like to discuss the issue of the quality of public-sector oversight. It is critical to have extensive in-house expertise inside an apolitical civil service empowered to make technical decisions. The role of the political layer is to set up broad rules, not to micromanage. Conversely, while the top people should avoid micromanagement, they should be expert enough to be capable of making specific decisions.

Civil service and oversight

The importance of civil service to oversight is that it’s the professional layer that has to supervise planners, engineers, architects, and construction teams. There are too many small decisions for a single elected political layer, say a minister and a policy team the minister directly appoints and supervises.

In my procurement post, I was basing my recommendations on common threads I’d seen or read about in low- and medium-cost European countries, and to some extent practice in South Korea, a low-cost country on a par with Southern Europe. All of these make use of professional civil servants to make any of the following decisions:

  • In-house planning. The macro-level decisions on funding levels are political (and never devolved to the agency through dedicated slush funds, unlike for US highways), but the decisions at the level just below, such as what programs to ask the politicians to fund, are made by professional agencies. High-speed rail was invented this way in Japan and then reinvented in France, while upgraded legacy rail was so invented in Germany and perfected in Switzerland.
  • Design and engineering. Those can be done in-house or outsourced to consultants, or more likely some mixture of the two, but even if the design is contracted out, it’s the agency that owns the product and is responsible for it.
  • Contractor selection. It is irresponsible to award a megaproject design contract based on the lowest bid. A technical score is used nearly universally in the low- and medium-cost examples we have looked at, and this means someone needs to come up with sound criteria for scoring and then evaluate each proposal. This has to be done more intelligently than just by rubric. A British source told us of a problem with British technical scoring: every large project is parceled out between different consultants, and thus all consultants can claim experience on the same project, making it impossible at that level to tell which companies do better work than others, even as industry insiders know who does bad work. The same source, when I asked about French comparisons, said that France has extensive in-house expertise and therefore doesn’t hire their consultancy.
  • Contract supervision. Change orders are inevitable, especially for underground projects. Not coincidentally, in Eno’s database the American premium for subways is higher than for at-grade light rail, which is technically more predictable. It’s on the client agency to decide whether to accept or reject changes coming from unpredictable factors, and this requires extensive knowledge of the field.

In my procurement post, I spoke of flexibility. No client can have flexibility without oversight – flexibility without oversight is an anything-goes game in which the contractor abuses the client, the client abuses the contractor, or, most likely, both. And this oversight is necessarily detailed enough that it requires civil service.

An example from Sweden

I spoke to an experienced Swedish project manager earlier this year. The project manager talked to me about the major issues with the construction of Citybanan, the regional rail tunnel Stockholm opened 4 years ago, shortly after I left the country. This included issues of construction techniques (but for further engineering question my source referred me to an engineer) but also competition policy, negotiation, change orders, etc.

At one point in the interview, I asked about something a previous Swedish source told me about, called functional procurement. In functional procurement, the agency maximizes flexibility by specifying only the function of the project, such as the required capacity and schedule, and letting the contractors make suggestions as to how to fulfill it; this is similar to the military concept of mission command, stressing flexibility and training intermediate officers in how to use it in a hierarchical organization.

The project manager said of this growing trend in Swedish procurement: “I can’t say it makes it easier.” The manager then explained the constraints involved – railways have technical specs that make a functional contract not too different from a conventional one, where the design is already figured out and the contractors have to build to it with only minor modifications.

Let’s unpack what happened in that interview. A Swedish manager who does not know me, who I have never met, first of all talked to me in technically adept language, and second of all was willing to go on the record criticizing a trend in infrastructure construction procurement, a trend that the person who put us in contact had mentioned to me as a positive.

I have never heard this kind of internal criticism from American sources, unless they knew me well enough and were trying to get me to publish their internal problems in the media. And quite often, the criticism I would hear from the US was much more pungent, complaining about politics or a bad manager. “We have been trying this trend but I don’t think it’s working,” in exactly the tone you can imagine emerge from the style of quotation, is not a line I recall hearing from an American. The civil servants who criticize something are far more frantic, far more afraid. Sweden will trust its civil servants to literal death. The US (and UK) will not trust them to do anything but follow orders.

Is Sweden unique?

No. Strong traditions of professional civil service exist everywhere we’ve looked outside the US. Even the UK has a semblance of it; the problem there is that the topmost layer of civil servants – the Sir Humphreys – consists of lifelong generalist elites rather than domain experts.

In Italy, the situation is especially lopsided. The political layer of the government is weak because party control changes so often and ministers do not last, and there are so few political appointments that even with political instability, the civil service lasts across those changes. If anything, the instability makes the professional layer stronger.

Apolitical experts

It’s critical to ensure the civil service is not political. This doesn’t just mean that it should not be partisan. There are enough dominant-party jurisdictions in which it’s understood that the civil service exists to implement a predictable political agenda, which can be left-wing (Berlin, New York, California) or right-wing (Bavaria, Texas). Those jurisdictions all have problems coming from the lack of meaningful political competition, but those problems come from politicians, not civil servants. No: political noninterference goes much deeper, and means sidelining issues of petty personal priorities.

The ideal civil service has as few political appointees as possible. Those are neither elected nor meritorious. By their nature, they lack the legitimacy of both the politicians above them and the deep layer of domain experts below them. If they’re selected from among people with industry and operating experience then this is fine – technically senior generals are political appointments in both the US and Israel subject to the usual military norms, and Andy Byford was an external hire for New York City Transit with experience in the industry but not the agency. But letting generalist managers selected for political loyalty parachute in charge of agencies is a recipe for disaster.

The word for people who are always to be managed by people who are not from within their own social group is servants. Such people, knowing that their manager will always be someone who has other priorities that are not always transparent to them, will learn to lower their heads rather than proactively looking for ways to improve their institution.

A scientist working at a federal institution explained it to me this way: “There’s absolutely ways to speed things up, but they need cover from the political appointees at the top. A career officer understands their role to be following an existing plan, laid down in writing by either congress or by a planning process involving the top (i.e. political appointee) officers of the agency.”

This was meant to explain the sluggish FDA corona vaccine approval process, but can equally apply to infrastructure and operations of public transportation. Any variation from a plan written long ago by people who were often not even at the frontier of knowledge then requires political approval.

Trusting the civil service

A low-trust society isn’t one in which common people don’t trust the elites. It’s one in which the elites don’t trust the common people. In the context of civil service, it’s crucial to set up a system in which the top people affirm rather than scourge those below them.

Byford did it well, setting up a system encouraging employees to complain and suggest improvements, much to the surprise of managers at other MTA agencies who preferred scourging their subordinates. At the topmost level, it means the political layer needs to affirm the authority and expertise of the civil servants; in conflict between a petty actor such as a community advocate and the junior members of the state, the state must support its own, while internally ensuring that the proposal has technical merit. (Political merit is judged by elections, not by who screams the most loudly at midday community meetings.)

Civil servants who see that their superiors are hired and promoted from within the ranks or among peers, and judged for their ability to work with those below them and not just those above them (in the tech industry, a managerial hire spends some interview time with the team they are to supervise), will soon learn that they can show initiative. The ones with bad intuition will fail, whereas the ones whose initiative is more successful will be able to rise and transmit their ideas to the group. It goes without saying that this also requires staffing up to normal levels and paying competitive wages. This way, the state can ensure it can oversee its own projects competently; there is no alternative.

Institutional Issues: Procurement

This is the start of a multi-post series, of undecided length, focusing on institutional, managerial, and sociopolitical issues that govern the quality of infrastructure. I expect much of the content to also appear in our upcoming construction costs report, with more examples, but this is a collation of the issues that I think are most pertinent at the current state of our work.

Moreover, in this and many posts in the series, the issues covered affect both price and quality. These are not in conflict: the same institutions that produce low construction costs also produce rigorous quality of infrastructure. The tradeoffs between cost and quality are elsewhere, in some (not all) aspects of engineering and planning.

The common theme of much (but not all) of this runs through procurement. It’s not as exciting as engineering or architecture or timetables – how many railfans write contracts and contracting regulations for fun? – but it’s fundamental to a large fraction of the difference in construction costs between different countries. Some of the subheadings in this post deserve full treatments by themselves later, and thus this writeup is best viewed as an introductory overview of how things tie together.

What is procurement?

Procurement covers all issues of how the state contracts with providers of goods and services. In the case of public transportation, these goods and services may include consulting services, planning, design, engineering, construction services, equipment, materials, and operating concessions. The providers are almost always private-sector, but they can also be public companies in some cases – for example, Milan Metro provides consulting services for other Italian cities and Delhi Metro does for other Indian ones, and state-owned companies like RATP, SNCF/Keolis, and DB/Arriva sometimes bid on private contracts abroad.

The contracting process can be efficient, or it can introduce inefficiencies into the system. In the worst case I know of, that of New York, procurement problems alone can double the cost of a contract, independently of any other issue of engineering, utilities, labor, or management quality. In contrast, low-cost examples lack any such inefficiencies in construction.

The issue of oversight

On the list of services that are procured, some are more commonly contracted out than others. Construction is as far as I can tell always bid out to private-sector competition, including equipment (nobody makes their own trains), materials, and physical construction. Design and engineering may be contracted out to consultants, depending on the system. Planning never is anywhere I know of, except some unusually high-cost American examples in which public-sector planning has been hollowed out.

The best practice from Southern Europe as well as Scandinavia is that planning and oversight always stay with the public sector. Even with highly privatized contracts, there’s active in-house oversight over the entire process.

The issue of competition

It is necessary to ensure there’s healthy competition between contractors. This requires casting as wide a net as possible. This is easier to do in environments where there is already extensive private- and public-sector construction going on: Turkey builds about 1 million dwellings a year and many bridges, highways, and rail lines, and therefore has a thick domestic market. In Turkish law, it is required that every public megaproject procurement get at least three distinct bids, or else it must be rebid. This rule is generally easy to satisfy in the domestic market.

But if the domestic market is not enough, it is necessary to go elsewhere. This is fine – foreign bidders are common where they are allowed to participate, always with local oversight. Turkish contractors in Northern Europe are increasingly common, following all of the local labor laws, often partnering with a domestic firm.

Old boy networks, in which contractors are required to have a preexisting relationship with the client, are destructive. They lead to groupthink and stagnation. A Turkish contractor held an Android in front of me and, describing work in Sweden, said, “If a Swede said it’s an iPhone, the Swedes would accept that it’s an iPhone, but if I did, they’d check, and see it’s an Android.” In Sweden at least the domestic system is functional, but in a high-cost environment, it is critical to look elsewhere and let foreigners outcompete domestic business.

It is even more important to make sure the experience of bidding on public contracts is positive. A competent contractor has a choice of clients, and a nightmare client will soon lose its business. Such a loss is triple. First, the contractor would have done a good job at an affordable price. Second, the negative experience, such as micromanagement or stalling, is likely to increase costs and reduce the quality of work. And third, the loss of any contractor reduces competition. In the United States, we have repeatedly heard this complaint from contractors and their representatives, that they always have to deal with the “agency factor,” where the agency can be the MTA or any other transit agency, making things difficult and leading to higher bids.

Good client-contractor relations

The issue of avoiding being a nightmare client deserves special scrutiny. It is critical for agencies to make sure to be pleasant clients. This includes any of the following principles:

  • Do not change important regulations midway through the project. In Stockholm, the otherwise-good Nya Tunnelbana project has had cost overruns due to new environmental regulations that required disposal of waste rock to the standards of toxic waste, introducing new costs of transportation.
  • Avoid difficult change order process (see below for more details on itemization). It should be everyone against the project, not the agency against the contractors or one contractor against another.
  • Avoid any weird process or requirements. The RFPs should look like what successful international contractors are used to; this has been a recent problem of American rolling stock procurement, which has excessively long RFPs defining what a train is, rather than the most standard documents used in Europe. This rule is especially important for peripheral markets, such as the entire United States – the contractor knows what they’re doing better than you, so you should adapt to them.
  • Require some experience and track record to evaluate a bid, but do not require local experience. A contractor with extensive foreign experience may still be valuable: Israel’s rail electrification went to such a contractor, SEMI, and the results are positive in the sense that the bid was well below expectations and the only problems stem from a nuisance lawsuit launched by a competitor that bid higher and felt entitled to the contract.
  • For a complex contract, the best practice here is to have an in-house team score every proposal for technical merit and make that the primary determinant of the final score, not cost. Across most of the low- and medium-cost examples we have looked at, the technical score is 50-70% of the total and cost 30-50%.
  • Do not micromanage. New York’s lowest bid rules lead to a thick book of regulations that force the bids to be as similar to one another as possible in quantity and type of goods, to the point of telling contractors what materials they are allowed to use. This is bad practice. Oversight should always be done with flexibility and competent in-house engineers working in conversation with the stakeholders and never with a long checklist of rules.

Flexibility

Contracts should permit as much flexibility as practical, to allow contractors to take advantage of circumstances for everyone’s benefits and get around problems. This is especially important for underground construction and for construction in a constrained city, where geotechnical surprises are inevitable.

Most of the English-speaking world, and some parts of the rest (Copenhagen, to some extent Grand Paris Express) interpret flexibility to mean design-build (DB) contracts, in which the same firm is given a large contract to both design a project and then build it. However, DB is not used in the lowest-cost examples I know of, and rarely in medium-cost ones. If design is contracted out, then there are almost always two contracts, in what is called design-bid-build (DBB). Sources in Sweden say they use single build contracts, but they often use consultants for supplementary engineering and thus they are in practice DBB; Italy is DBB; Turkish sources claim to do design-build, but in reality there are two contracts, one for 60% design and another for going to 100% and then doing construction.

The Turkish system is a good example of how to ensure flexibility. Because the construction contractor is responsible for the finalized (but not most) design, it is possible to make little changes as needed based on market or in-the-ground conditions. In Italy and Spain, the DBB system is traditional, but the building contractor is allowed to propose changes and the in-house oversight team will generally approve them; this is also how the more functional American DBB contracts work, typically for small projects such as individual train stations, which are within the oversight capacity of the existing in-house teams.

DBB can be done inflexibly – that is, wrong – and often when this happens, everyone gets a bitter taste and comes out with the impression that DB is superior. If the building contractor has to go through onerous process to vary from the design, or is excessively incentivized to follow the design to the letter, then problems will occur.

One example of inflexibility comes from Norway. Norwegian construction costs are generally low, but the Fornebu Line’s cost is around $200 million/km, which is not as low as some other Nordic lines. Norway uses DBB, but its liability system incentivizes rigidly adhering to the design: any defect in the construction is deemed to be the designer’s fault if the builder followed the design exactly but the builder’s fault if the builder made any variation. This means small changes do not occur, and then the design consultants engage in defensive design, rather than letting the building contractor see later what risks are likely based on meter-scale geology.

Itemization and change orders

Change orders, and defensive design therefor, are a huge source of cost overruns and acrimony. Moreover, because of the risks involved, any cost overruns are transmitted back into the overall budget – that is, every attempt to clamp down on overruns will just increase absolute costs, as bidders demand more money in risk compensation. California is infamous for the way change orders drive up costs. New York only avoids that by imposing large and growing risk on the bidders (including, recently, a counterproductive blacklisting system called disbarment, a misplaced effort by Andrew Cuomo to rein in cost overruns); the bidders respond by bidding much higher.

Instead of the above morass, contracts should be itemized rather than lump-sum. The costs of materials are determined by the global, national, and local markets, and the contractor has little control over them; in fact, one of the examples an American source gave me of functional change orders in a DBB system is that the bench at a train station can be made of wood, metal, or another material, depending on what costs the least when physical construction happens.

Labor costs depend on large-scale factors as well, including market conditions and union agreements. The use of union labor ensures that the wages and benefits of the workers are known in advance and therefore unit costs can be written into the contract easily. Spain essentially turns contracts into cost-plus: costs depend on items as bid and as required by inevitable changes, and there is a fixed profit rate based on a large amount of competition between different construction firms.

The upshot is that itemized costs prevent the need to individually negotiate changes. If difficult ground conditions or unexpected utilities slow down the work, the wages of the workers during the longer construction period are already known. It is especially important to avoid litigation and the threat thereof – questions of engineering should be resolved by engineers, not lawyers.

Here, our results, based on qualitative interviews with industry experts, mirror some quantitative work in economics, including Ryan and Bolotnyy-Vasserman. Itemization reduces risk because it pre-decides some of the disputes that may arise, and therefore the required profit rate to break even net of risk is lower, reducing overall cost.

The impact of bad procurement practices

One of our sources told us that procurement problems add up to a factor of 2 increase in New York construction costs. Five specific problems of roughly equal magnitude were identified:

  • A regulation for minority- and woman-owned businesses (MWB), which none of the pre-qualified contractors in the old boy network is.
  • The MTA factor.
  • Change order risk.
  • Disbarment risk.
  • Profit in a low-competition environment.

MWB and disbarment are New York-specific, but the other three appear US-wide. In California, the change order risk is if anything worse, judging by routine cost overruns coming from change orders. California, moreover, is very rigid whenever a contractor suggests design improvements, as Dragados did for its share of California High-Speed Rail, even while giving contracts to contractors that engage in nuisance change orders like Tutor Perini.

Aligning American procurement practice with best practice is therefore likely to halve construction costs across the board, and substantially reduce equipment costs due to better competition and easier contractor-client relations.