Quick Note: Heavy Touch and Control
There’s a distinction between light- and heavy-touch forms of management and control. Light-touch systems try to stay out of the details as far as they can; heavy-touch systems do the opposite. American business culture considers light touch to be superior, and I think this is especially prominent in the public sector, which has some ready-made examples of how the light touch approach works better – for example, in the military, it’s called mission command and is repeatedly shown to work better than more centralized command-and-control. Unfortunately, the same does not work for rail infrastructure. Why?
Heavy touch in infrastructure
In practice, a heavy-touch system in infrastructure construction, for example the way Germany, France, and Southern Europe work, has the following features:
- The state agency maintains control of designs, and even when it outsources something to consultants, it owns the product and may tweak it or assume that future contractors will tweak it. There is little privatization of planning.
- There is reluctance to devolve decisions to local governments; if SNCF or RENFE lets a regional government get involved in a rail plan, it’s because it’s an unprofitable regional line and the national railroad would rather not know it exists, and even DB happily unloads these same unprofitable regional lines on Land governments while focusing on intercity rail.
- Regulators are technical and make specific decisions.
This is not the only way to organize things, but it’s the only way that works. The Nordic countries have been moving away from this system in the last generation, influenced by British governing ideology; the sources I reference in the Stockholm case study repeatedly treat privatization as self-evidently good and exhort Nordic agencies to be more like the UK and less like Germany and Switzerland, and meanwhile, in the last 20 years Nordic costs have exploded while German ones have been fairly stable.
I’ve talked about the issue of privatization of the state to consultants many times, most recently a month ago. This post is about something different: it’s about how regulators work, an issue on which Sweden appears little different from Germany to me, and profoundly different from the United States and its can’t-do government.
American light touch elements
To understand how American regulations work, we need to look at the regulators and grant funders, that is, the Federal Transit Administration and Federal Railroad Administration, henceforth abbreviated FTA and FRA. How do they work?
- The chief regulators are never especially technical. The most sought after background, equivalent to a French grande école degree, is as far as I can tell a law degree from Yale. Engineers and planners always have to have a non-technical generalist watching over their shoulder, and this is the most prominent for the most politically sensitive projects.
- FTA/FRA reviewers are in some cases not even allowed to probe into the funding package they are to decide on. One of the biggest projects relevant to what we’ve studied at the Transit Costs Project and what I’ve written on this blog has a multi-billion dollar package, one that will almost certainly be only partially funded due to competing priorities, but the regulators are not allowed to see any itemized breakdown to see what partial funding would even do. Nor are regulators allowed to say which priorities to build first if there’s only partial funding.
- The higher regulators themselves believe that light-touch approaches are better and are reluctant to engage in any direct management – if they’d like to be more involved but are prohibited from doing so by the law or by constitutional interpretations, they have not said so.
- There is little churn between operations and regulations – in fact, this separation is treated as sacrosanct, even as in all other aspects the governing ideology calls for breaking down silos (and thereby disempowering specialists in favor of generalists). The contrast here is with Sweden, where state planners who worked on Citybanan, a state project, have since moved on to work for Stockholm County on the county-led Nya Tunnelbanan.
None of this works. The people who make the big decisions on funding in this system do not have the ability to make professional judgments, only political ones, and agencies know this and don’t bother with technical soundness.
Heavy touch and expertise
The connection between heavy touch and expertise is, you can’t manage things directly if you don’t have a lot of subject matter knowledge. In this sense, light touch may not necessarily be by itself bad, but rather, like design-build project delivery, it is in practice used to mask incompetence at the top level. The non-technical boss, who is in all but name a political commissar, can make vague proclamations, not get into details, and not feel like they’re out of their league and must defer to the engineer in the room.
Cost and Quality
From time to time, I see people assume that low-construction cost infrastructure must compromise on quality somehow. Perhaps it’s inaccessible: at a Manhattan Institute event from 2020, Philip Plotch even mentioned wheelchair accessibility as one factor leading to the increase in costs since the early 1900s; one of my long-term commenters on Twitter just repeated the same point. Perhaps the stations are cramped: I can’t count how many times I’ve heard the “transit riders deserve great stations” point from various Americans (there are several such examples in the thread in the last link alone), or for that matter from the people who built the Green Line Extension, and even Korean media got in on the action, falsely assuming that the spartan, brutalist stations of the Washington Metro were cheap (in fact, Washington is building an above-ground infill station for around an order of magnitude higher cost than Seoul’s cost for an underground infill station).
If you want to know what very low-cost metro construction looks like, recall that the existing about 104 km (about 57 underground) Stockholm Metro was built in the middle of the 20th century for $3.6 billion in 2022 dollars. Here’s how the stations look:
Stockholm is famous for its exposed rock: the hard gneiss forms natural arches, and the T-bana elected to paint it over from the inside, producing the bright blue-and-white contrast with dark blue leaf paintings depicted above at T-Centralen. The stations look drastically different from one another, with many examples available from UrbanRail.Net, Flickr user Dyorex, Flickr user Kotka Molokovich, and the travel site Walk Slow Run Wild.
Swedish construction costs today are several times higher, but remain below world average, and are nearly a full order of magnitude lower than in New York. The stations remain artistic, but this coexists with consistent, standardized engineering specs, modified based on local conditions only when necessary. Citybanan’s Odenplan is not at all spartan; the entire station, berthing 214 meter trains mined below the T-bana station by the same name, cost $250 million in 2022 dollars, which cost includes not just the station but also 2 km of mined tunnel. The data that I’ve seen while researching our Sweden case suggests that Nya Tunnelbanan station costs are dominated by civil infrastructure and not systems or finishes, which look like they’re about a quarter of overall station costs, rather than nearly half as in New York. Nice art is not expensive; for that matter, New York’s subway stations have pretty tiles, and this includes old stations predating the 1930s’ cost explosion.
Moreover, I doubt it was the case when the system was first built, but nowadays the entire T-bana is accessible to wheelchair users. In fact, a number of metro systems have made themselves fully accessible or are in the process of doing so, generally at low costs; I have some numbers from 2019, and the programs cited for Berlin and Madrid are behind schedule, but Berlin seems to be sticking to a budget of 2 million € for an ordinary station, and even taking into account inflation that Berlin needs one elevator per station and most cities need three, this isn’t quite $10 million per station, a cost similar to that of Madrid’s ongoing program. In New York, the cost cited for accessibility is $70 million per station.
What goes on here isn’t really a matter of high quality for high cost. In fact, when Eric, Elif, and I researched the New York case, we were stricken by how little of the problem concerned actual quality or safety regulations (for example, the fire code in New York in practice requires mezzanines at the depth of Second Avenue, but does not require them to be full-length). The oversize stations are neither grand public atria nor revenue-generating commercial spaces, but rather conventional stations flanked by excessive amounts of back office space. The lack of standardization concerns fittings, not art. The massive costs of New York elevator installation are barely about redundancy (a requirement driven by low but fixable reliability) and largely about utility conflicts, bad-and-worsening project delivery, and the soft costs crisis.
Making the user experience worse is an easy way to signal that one is cutting costs. It’s a combination of vice-signaling and prudence theater. It also has little to do with how actually low-cost infrastructure construction programs look like. They can be highly standardized even without the artistic component found in Sweden and Finland, and then people may complain that the system looks bland and corporate – but bland and corporate is not the same as spartan, it just means it looks like the 21st century and not the imagined 20th.
Good systems are certainly not willing to make compromises on human rights and build inaccessible infrastructure. In Seoul, there are massive protests by disabled people demanding that the Seoul subway go from 93% to 100% accessible and that the bus fleet immediately be transitioned to low-floor equipment, and meanwhile, New York and London both loiter around 25-30% accessibility. The conservative governments of the state and the city both dither, but past competence by Korea has led to high expectations by users, in the same manner that people in developed country protest inequality and poverty even fully knowing that it’s nowhere near as bad as in the third world. While I don’t know Seoul’s accessibility costs, I do know a deep-bored Line 9 extension with an undercrossing of Line 5 is budgeted at $180 million/km.
High Costs are not About Precarity
I’ve seen people who I think highly of argue that high construction costs in the United States are an artifact of precarity. The argument goes that the political support for public transportation there is so flimsy that agencies are forced to buy political support by spending more money than they need. This may include giving in to NIMBY pressure to use costlier but less impactful (or apparently less impactful) techniques, to spread money around with other government agencies and avoid fighting back, to build extravagant and fancier-looking but less standardized stations, and so on. The solution, per this theory, is to politically support public transportation construction more so that transit agencies will have more backing.
This argument also happens to be completely false, and the solution suggested is counterproductive. In fact, the worst cost blowouts are for the politically most certain projects; Second Avenue Subway enjoyed unanimous support in New York politics.
Cost-effectiveness under precarity
Three projects relevant to our work at the Transit Costs Project have been done exceptionally cost-effectively in an environment of political uncertainty: the T-bana, the LGV Sud-Est, and Bahn 2000.
The original construction of the T-bana was done at exceptionally low cost. We go over this in the Sweden report to some extent, but, in short, between the 1950s and 70s, the total cost of the system’s construction was 5 billion kronor in 1975 prices, which built around 100 km, of which 57% are underground. In PPP 2022 dollars, this is $3.6 billion, or $35 million/km, not entirely but mostly underground. This was low for the time: for example, in London, the Victoria line was $122 million/km and the Jubilee line was $172 million/km (source, p. 78), and Italian costs in the 1960s and 70s were similar, averaging $129 million/km before 1970.
The era of Social Democrat dominance in Swedish politics on hindsight looks like one of consensus in favor of big public projects. But the T-bana itself was controversial. When the decision was made to build it in the 1940s, Stockholm County had about 1 million people; at the time, metros were present in much larger cities, like New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo, and it was uncertain that a city the size of Stockholm would need such a system. Its closest analog, Copenhagen, did not build such a system until the 1990s, when it was a metro region of 2 million. It was uncertain that Stockholm should need rapid transit, and there were arguments for and against it in the city. Nor was there any transit-first policy in postwar Sweden: urban planning was the same modernist combination of urban renewal, automobile scale, and tower-in-a-park housing, and outside Stockholm County, the Million Program projects were thoroughly car-oriented.
Construction costs in Sweden are a lot higher now than they were in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Nya Tunnelbanan is $230 million/km, compared with a post-1990s Italian average of $220 million; British costs have exploded in tandem, so that now the Underground extensions clock at $600 million/km. Our best explanation is that the UK adopted what we call the globalized system of procurement, privatizing planning functions to consultants and privatizing risk to contractors, which creates more conflict; the UK also has an unusually high soft cost factor. From American data (and not just New York) and some British data, I believe that the roughly 2.5 cost premium of the UK over Italy is entirely reducible to such soft costs, procurement conflict, risk compensation, and excessive contingency. And yet, Sweden itself, with some elements of the same globalized system, maintains a roughly Italian cost level, albeit trending the wrong way.
And today, too, the politics of rail expansion in Sweden are uncertain. There was controversy over both Citybanan and Nya Tunnelbanan, neither of which passed a cost-benefit analysis (for reasons that I believe impugn the cost-benefit analysis more than those projects); it was uncertain that either would be funded. Controversy remained over plans to build high-speed rail connecting Stockholm with Gothenburg and Malmö, and the newly-elected right-wing government just canceled them in order to prioritize investment in roads. Swedish rail projects today remain precarious, and have to justify themselves on cost and efficiency grounds.
Like nearly all other rich countries, France was hit hard by the 1973 oil crisis; economic growth there and in the US, Japan, and most of the rest of Western Europe would never be as high as it was between the end of WW2 and the 1970s (“Trente Glorieuses“). On hindsight, France’s response to the crisis models can-go governance, with an energy saving ad declaring “in France we don’t have oil, but we have ideas.” The French state built nuclear power plants with gusto, peaking around 90% of national electricity use – and even today’s reduced share, around 70%, is by a large margin the highest in the world. At the same time, it built a high-speed rail network, connecting Paris with most other provincial cities at some of the highest average speeds outside China between major cities, reaching about 230 km/h between Paris and Marseille and 245 km/h between Paris and Bordeaux; usage per capita is one of the highest in Europe and, measured in passenger-km, not too bad by East Asian standards.
But in fact, the first LGV, the LGV Sud-Est, was deeply controversial. At the time, the only high-speed rail network in operation was the Shinkansen, and while France learned more from Japan than any other European country (for example, the RER was influenced by Tokyo rail operations), the circumstances for intercity were completely different. SNCF had benefited from having done many of its own experiments with high-speed technology, but the business case was murky. SNCF had to innovate in running an open system, with extensive through-running to cities off the line, which Japan would only introduce in the 1990s with the Mini-Shinkansen.
Within the French state, the project was controversial. Anthony Perl’s New Departures details how there were people within the government who wanted to cancel it entirely as it was unaffordable. At the end, the French state didn’t finance the line, and required SNCF to find private loans on the international market, though it did guarantee those loans. It also delayed the line’s opening: instead of opening the entire line from Paris to Lyon in one go, it opened two-thirds of it on the Lyon side in 1981 and the last third into Paris in 1983, requiring trains to run on the classical line at low speed between Paris and Saint-Florentin for two years; in that era, phased opening was uncommon, and lines generally opened to the end at once, such as between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka.
Construction was extraordinarily inexpensive. In PPP 2022 dollars, it cost $8.4 million/km. This is, by a margin, the lowest-cost high-speed rail line ever built that I know about. The Tokaido Shinkansen cost 380 billion yen, or in PPP 2022 dollars $40 million/km, representing a factor of two cost overrun that forced JNR’s head to resign. Spain has unusually low construction costs, and even there, Madrid-Seville was $15.7 million/km. SNCF innovated in every way possible to save money. Realizing that high-speed trains could climb steeper grades, it built the LGV Sud-Est with a ruling grade of 3.5%, which has since become a norm in and around Europe, compared with the Shinkansen’s 1.5-2%; the line has no tunnels, unlike the classical Paris-Lyon line. It built the line on the ground rather than on viaducts, and balanced cut and fill locally so that material cut to grade the line could be used for nearby fill. Thanks to the line’s low costs and high ridership, the financial return on investment for SNCF has been 15%, and social return on investment has been 30% (source, pp. 11-12).
This cost-effectiveness would never recur. The line’s success ensured that LGV construction would enjoy total political backing. The core features of LGV construction are still there – earthworks rather than viaducts, 3.5% grades, limited tunneling, overcompensation of landowners by about 30% with land swap deals to defuse the possibility of farmer riots. But the next few lines cost about $20 million/km or slightly less, and this cost has since crept up to about $30 million/km or even more. This remains low by international standards (but not by Spanish ones), but the trend is negative.
SNCF is coasting on its success from a generation ago, secure that funding for LGVs and state support in political contention is forthcoming, and the routing decisions have grown worse. In response to NIMBYism in Provence, the French state assented to a tunnel-heavy route, including a conversion of Marseille from an at-grade terminal to an underground through-station, akin to Stuttgart 21, which has not been done before in France, and the resulting high costs have led to delays on the project. Operations have grown ever more airline-style, experimenting with low-cost airline imitation to the point of reducing fare receipts without any increase in ridership. One of the French consultants we’ve spoken with said that their company’s third-party design costs are 7-8% of the hard costs, which figure is similar to what we’ve seen in Italy and to the in-house rate in Spain – but the same consultant told us that there is so much bloat at SNCF that when it designs its own projects, the costs are not 7% but 25%, a figure in line with American rates.
Switzerland has Europe’s strongest passenger rail network by all measures: highest traffic measured by passenger-km per capita, highest modal split for passenger-km, highest traffic density. Its success is well-known in surrounding countries, which are gradually either imitate its methods or, in the case of Germany, pretending to do so. It has achieved its success through continuous improvement over the generations, but the most notable element of this system was implemented in the 1990s as part of the Bahn 2000 project.
The current system is based on a national-scale clockface system (“Takt”) with trains repeating hourly, with the strongest links, like the Zurich-Bern-Basel triangle, running every half hour. Connections are timed in those three cities and several others, called knots, so that trains enter each station a few minutes before the connection time (usually the hour) and depart a few minutes after, permitting passengers to get between most pairs of Swiss cities with short transfers. Reliability is high, thanks to targeted investments designed to ensure that trains could make those connections in practice and not just in theory. Further planning centers adding more knots and expanding this system to the periphery of Switzerland.
Switzerland is famous for its consensus governance system – its plural executive is drawn from the four largest parties in proportion to their votes, with no coalition vs. opposition politics. But the process that led to the decision to adopt Bahn 2000 was not at all one of unanimity. There had been plans to build high-speed rail, as there were nearly everywhere else in Western Europe. But they were criticized for their high costs, and there was extensive center-right pressure to cut the budget. Bahn 2000 was thus conceived in an environment of austerity. Many of its features were explicitly about saving money:
- The knot system is connected with running trains as fast as necessary, not as fast as possible. Investments in speed are pursued only insofar as they permit trains to make their connections; higher speeds are considered gratuitous.
- Bilevel trains are an alternative to lengthening the platforms.
- Timed overtakes and meets are an alternative to more extensive multi-tracking of lines.
- Investment in better timetabling and systems (the electronics side of the electronics-before-concrete slogan) is cheaper than adding tunnels and viaducts.
Swiss megaprojects have to go to referendum, and sometimes the referendums return a no; this happened with the Zurich U-Bahn twice, leading to the construction of the S-Bahn instead. All Swiss planners know in a country this small and this fiscally conservative, any extravagance will lead to rejection. The result is that they’ve instead optimized construction at all levels, and even their unit costs of tunneling are low; thanks to such optimization, Switzerland has been able to build a fairly extensive medium-speed rail system, with more tunneling per capita than Germany (let alone France), and with two S-Bahn trunk tunnels in Zurich, where no German city today has more than one.
The American situation
The worst offenders in the United States are not at all politically precarious. There is practically unanimous consensus in New York about the necessity of Second Avenue Subway. At no point was the project under any threat. There is an ideological right in the city, rooted less in party politics and more in the New York Post and the Manhattan Institute, with a law-and-order agenda and hostility to unions and to large government programs, but at no point did they call for cancellation; the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas has proposed pension cuts for workers and rule changes reducing certain benefits, but not canceling Second Avenue Subway.
At intercity scale, the same is true of Northeast Corridor investment. The libertarian and conservative pundits who say passenger rail is a waste of money tend to except the Northeast Corridor, or at least its southern half. When the Republicans won the 2010 midterm election, the new chair of the House of Representatives Transportation Committee, John Mica (R-FL), proposed a bill to seek private concessionaires to run intercity rail on the corridor. He did not propose canceling train service, even though in the wake of the same election, multiple conservative governors canceled intercity rail investments in their state, both high-speed (Florida) and low-speed (Wisconsin, Ohio).
In fact, both programs – New York subway expansion and the Northeast Corridor – are characterized by continuity across partisan shifts, as in more established consensus governance systems. The Northeast Corridor is especially notable for how little role ideological or partisan politics has played so far. New York has micromanagement by politicians – Andrew Cuomo had his pet projects in Penn Station Access and the backward-facing LaGuardia air train, and now Kathy Hochul has hers in the Interborough Express – but Second Avenue Subway was internal, and besides, political micromanagement is a different problem from political precarity.
And neither of these programs has engaged in any cost control. To the contrary, both are run as if money is infinite. The MTA would surrender to NIMBYs (“good neighbor policy”) and to city agencies looking to extract money from it. It built oversize stations. It spent money protecting buildings from excessive settlement that have been subsequently demolished for redevelopment at higher density.
The various agencies involved in the Northeast Corridor, likewise, are profligate, and not for lack of political support. Connecticut is full of NIMBYs; one of the consultants working on the plan a few years ago told me there was informal pressure not to ruffle feathers and not to touch anything in the wealthiest suburbs in the state, those of Fairfield County. In fact, high-speed rail construction would require significant house demolitions in the state’s second wealthiest town, Darien – but Darien is so infamously exclusive (“Darien rhymes with Aryan,” say other suburbanites in the area) that the rest of the region feels little solidarity with it.
NIMBYs aside, there has not been any effort at coordinating the different agencies in the Northeast along anything resembling the Swiss Takt system. This is not about precarity, because this is not a precarious project; this is about total ignorance and incuriosity about best practices, which emanate from a place that doesn’t natively speak English and doesn’t trade in American political references.
The Green Line Extension
Boston’s GLX is a fascinating example of cost blowouts without precarity. The history of the project is that its first iteration was pushed by Governor Deval Patrick (D), with the support of groups that sued the state for its delays in planning the project in the 1990s, as a court-mandated mitigation for the extra car traffic induced by the construction of the Big Dig. Patrick instituted a good neighbor policy, in which everything a community group wanted, it would get. Thus, stations were to become neighborhood signatures, and the project was laden with unrelated investments, called betterments, like a $100 million 3 km bike lane called the Somerville Community Path.
At no point in the eight years Patrick was in power was there a political threat to the project. It was court-mandated, and the extractive local groups that live off of suing the government favored it. The Obama administration was generous with federal stimulus funding, and the designs were rushed in order to use stimulus funding to pay for the project’s design, which would be done by consultants rather than with an expansion of in-house hiring. It’s in this atmosphere of profligacy that the project’s cost exploded to, in today’s money, around $3.5 billion, for 7 km of light rail in existing rights-of-way (albeit ones requiring overpass reconstruction).
The project did fall under political threat, after Charlie Baker (R) won the 2014 election. Baker’s impact on Massachusetts governance is fascinating, in that he unambiguously cut its budget significantly in the short run, but also had both before (as budget director in the 1990s) and during (through his actions as governor) wrecked the state’s long-term ability to execute infrastructure, setting up a machine intended to privatize the state and avoiding any in-house hiring. Nonetheless, the direct impact of precarity on GLX was to reduce scope: the betterments were removed and the stations were changed from too big to too small. The final cost was $2.3 billion, or around $2.8 billion in 2022 dollars, and half of that was sunk cot from the previous iteration.
There was no expectation that the project would be canceled – indeed, it was not. A Republican victory was unexpected in a state this left-wing. Then, as Baker was taking office, past governors from both parties expressed optimism that he would get not just GLX done but also the much more complex North-South Rail Link tunnel. Nor did contractors have their contracts yanked unexpectedly, which would get them to bid higher for risk compensation. Baker cold-shouldered not jut NSRL but also much smaller investments in commuter rail, but at no point was anyone stiffed in the process. No: the Patrick-era project was just poorly managed.
As one caveat, I want to point out a place where precarity does lead to poor project cost-effectiveness: the project selection stage, in the context of tax referendums, especially in Southern California. None of this leads to high per-kilometer costs – Los Angeles’s are exactly as bad as in the rest of the United States – but it does lead to poor project selection, as an unintended consequence of anti-tax New Right politics.
The California-specific issue is that raising taxes requires a referendum, with a two-thirds vote. Swiss referendums are by simple majority, or at most double majority – but in practice most referendums that have a popular vote majority, even a small one, also have a double majority when needed, and in the last 15 years I believe the only two times they didn’t had the double majority veto overturning a 1.5% margin and a 9% margin.
California’s requirement of a two-thirds majority was intended to stop wasteful spending and taxation, but has had the opposite effect. In and around San Francisco, the voters are sufficiently left-wing that two-thirds majorities for social policy are not hard to obtain. But in Southern California, they are not; to build public transportation infrastructure, Los Angeles and San Diego County governments cannot rely on ideology, but instead cut deals with local, non-ideological actors through promising them a piece of the package. Los Angeles measures for transit expansion are, by share of money committed, largely not about transit expansion but operations, new buses, or leakage to roads and bridges; then, what does go to transit expansion is divvied by region, with each region getting something, no matter how cost-ineffective, while core improvements are neglected and so are cross-regional connections (since the local extractive actors aren’t going to ride the trains and can’t tell a circumferential project is useful for them).
This is not a US-wide phenomenon. It’s not even California-wide: this problem is absent from the Bay Area, where BART decided against an expansion to Livermore that was unpopular among technically-oriented advocates, and would like to build more core capacity if it could do so for much less than a billion dollars per km. New York does not have it at all (for one, it doesn’t require two-thirds majorities for budgeting).
At intercity scale, this precarity does cause Amtrak to maximize how many states and congressional districts it runs money-losing daily trains in. But wasting money on night trains and on peripheral regions is hardly a US-only problem – Japan National Railways did that until well past privatization, when its successors spun off money-losing branch lines to prefecture-subsidized third sector railways. This is not at all why there is no plan for Northeastern intercity rail that is worth its weight in dirt: Northeastern rail improvements have been amply funded relative to objective need (if not relative to American costs), and solid investments in the core coexist with wastes of money on the periphery of the network in many countries.
The issue of politicization
The precarious, low-cost examples all had to cut costs because of fiscal pressure. However, in all three, the pressure did not include any politicization of engineering questions. Sweden was setting up a civil service modeled on the American Bureau of Public Roads, currently the Federal Highway Administration, which in the middle of the 20th century was a model of depoliticized governance. France and Switzerland have strong civil service bureaucracies – if anything SNCF is too self-contained and needs reorganization, just not if it’s led by the usual French elites or by people from the airline industry.
Importantly, low-cost countries with more clientelism and politicization of the state tend to be more deferential to the expertise of engineers. Greece has a far worse problem of overreliance on political appointees than the United States, let alone the other European democracies; but engineering is somewhat of an exception. Hispanic and Portuguese-speaking cultures put great prestige on engineering, reducing the extent of political micromanagement, even in countries without strong apolitical civil service bureaucracies. Even in Turkey, the politicization of public transportation is entirely at macro level: AKP promises to prioritize investment in areas that vote for it and has denied financing to the Istanbul Metro since the city flipped to the opposition (the city instead borrows money from the European Investment Bank), but below that level there is no micromanagement.
The American examples, in contrast, show much more political micromanagement. This is part of the same package as the privatization of state planning in the globalized system; in the United States often there was never the depoliticization that most of the rest of the developed and middle-income world had, but on top of that, the tendency has been to shut down in-house planning departments or radically shrink them and replace them with consultants. The consultants are then supervised by political appointees with no real qualifications to head capital programs, and the remaining civil servants are browbeaten not to disagree with the political appointees’ proclamations.
Those political appointees rarely measure themselves by any criteria of infrastructure utility. Even in New York they and the managers don’t consistently use the system; in Los Angeles, they use it about as often as the executive director of a well-endowed charity eats at a soup kitchen. To them, the cost is itself a measure of success – and this is true of other agencies, which treat obtaining other people’s money as a mark of achievement and as testament to their power. This behavior then cascades to local advocacy groups, which try to push solutions that maximize outside funding and are at bet indifferent and at worst actively hostile to any attempt at efficiency.
Just giving more support to agencies in their current configuration is not going to help. To the contrary, it only confirms that profligacy gets rewarded. A program of depoliticization of the state is required in tandem with expanding in-house hiring and reversing the globalized system, and the political appointees and the managers and political advocates who are used to dealing with them don’t belong in this program.
Who Learns from Who?
My interactions with Americans in the transit industry, especially mainline rail, repeatedly involve their telling me personally or in their reports that certain solutions are impossible when they in fact happen every day abroad, usually in countries that don’t speak English. When they do reference foreign examples, it’s often shallow or even wrong; the number of times I’ve heard American leftists attribute cost differences to universal health care abroad (in most of these countries, employers still have to pay health benefits) is too high to count. Within the US, New York stands head and shoulders above the rest in its incuriosity. This is part of a general pattern of who learns from who, in which the US’s central location in the global economy and culture makes it collectively stupid.
Some learning is symmetric. The Nordic countries learn from one another extensively. The Transit Costs Project’s Sweden case study has various references in the literature to such comparisons:
- Eliasson-Börjesson-Odeck-Welde compare Sweden and Norway in the use of benefit-cost analyses for road projects.
- Smith-Sochor-Sarasini compare Sweden and Finland in Mobility as a Service.
- The Finnish transport ministry compares Finland’s public transport system with those of the other Nordic countries and a selection of other Northern European countries.
- The Nordic Council of Ministers has long worked on pan-Nordic horizontal ties; here is its report on investment in transport infrastructure.
- Södrström-Schulman-Ristimäki compare Stockholm and Helsinki’s urban forms.
- Nilsson-Nyström benchmark Sweden’s privatization of maintenance to Finland, the Netherlands, and Britain.
- LO’s report on labor rights and repression in Swedish tunnel projects compares the situation to that of Norway (where immigrant workers readily join unions) and Denmark (where they do at much lower rates, albeit higher than Sweden’s).
This goes beyond transportation. People in the four mainland Nordic states constantly benchmark their own national performance to that of the other three on matters like immigration, education, energy, corona, and labor. This appears in the academic literature to some extent and is unavoidable in popular culture, including media and even casual interactions that I had in two years of living in Sweden. Swedes who criticize their country’s poor handling of the corona crisis don’t compare it with Taiwan or South Korea but with Norway. Likewise, Swedes who think of a country with open hostility to immigration think of Denmark rather than, say, the United States, Italy, or Lithuania.
Other macro regions exist, too, with similar levels of symmetric learning. The German-speaking world features some of this as well: the advocacy group ProBahn has long championed learning from Switzerland and Austria, and the current Deutschlandtakt plan for intercity rail is heavily based on both Swiss practice and the advocacy of ProBahn and other technically adept activists. Switzerland, in turn, developed its intercity rail planning tradition in the 1980s and 1990s by adopting and refining German techniques, taking the two-hour clockface developed in 1970s Germany under the brand InterCity and turning it into a national investment strategy integrating infrastructure construction with the hourly timetable.
This, as in the Nordic countries, goes beyond transport. Where Swedes’ prototype for hostility to immigrants is Denmark, Germans’ is Austria with its much more socially acceptable extreme right.
Most of the learning from others that we see is not symmetric but asymmetric: one place learns from another but not vice versa, in a core-periphery pattern. Countries and cities prefer to learn from countries that are bigger, wealthier, and culturally more dominant than they are. In our Istanbul case, we detail how the Turks built up internal expertise by bringing in consultants from Italy, Germany, and France and using those experiences to shape new internal practices.
In Europe, the biggest asymmetry is between Southern and Northern Europe. Few Spaniards, Italians, and Turks believe that their respective countries build higher-quality infrastructure than Germans – some readily believe that the costs are lower but assume it must be lower quality rather than higher efficiency. The experts know costs are low, but anything better from Northern Europe or France penetrates into Southern European planning with relative ease. It didn’t make it to the infrastructure-focused Italian case, but Marco Chitti documents how the German clockface schedule is now influencing Italian operations planning, for example here and here on Twitter. Spain’s high-speed rail infrastructure provides another example: it was deeply influenced by France in the 1990s, including the idea of building it, the technical standards and the (unfortunate) operating practices, but the signaling system is more influenced by Germany.
In contrast, in the other direction, there is little willingness to learn. Nordic capital planners and procurement experts cite other Northern European examples (in and out of Scandinavia) as cases to learn from but never Southern European or French ones. The same technically literate German rail activists who speak favorably of Swiss planning look down on French high-speed rail, and one American ESG investor even assumed Italy is falsifying its data. In the European core-periphery model, the North is the core and the South and East are the periphery, and the core will not learn from the periphery even where the periphery produces measurably better results.
Domestically, it’s often the case that smaller cities learn from larger ones in the same country. Former Istanbul Metropolitan staff members were hired by the state, and many staff and contractors went on to build urban rail projects in Bursa, İzmir, and Mersin. In France, RATP acts as consultant to smaller cities, which do not have in-house capacity for metro construction, and overall there is obvious Parisian influence on how such cities build their urban rail. In Italy, Metropolitana Milano has acted as consultant to other cities. This is the primary mechanism that makes construction costs so uniform within countries and within macro regions like Scandinavia.
In this core-periphery model, the Anglosphere is the global core, the United States views itself as its core (Britain disagrees but only to some extent), and New York is the core of the core. New Yorkers respond to any invocation of another city or country with “we are not [that country],” and expect that their audience will believe that New York is superior; occasionally they engage in negative exceptionalism, but as with positive exceptionalism, it exists to deflect from the possibility of learning.
This asymmetry may not be apparent in transportation – after all, Europe and Asia (correctly) feel like they have little to learn from the United States. But on matters where the United States is ahead, Europeans and Asians notice. For example, the US military is far stronger than European militaries, even taking different levels of spending into account – and Europeans backing an EU army constantly reference how the US is more successful due to scale (for examples, here, here, and here). Likewise, in rich Asia, corporations at least in theory are trying to make their salaryman systems more flexible on the Western model, while so little learning happens in the other direction that at no point did Europe or the US seriously attempt to imitate Taiwan’s corona fortress success or the partial successes of South Korea and Japan.
In this schema, it is not surprising that New York (and the United States more generally) has the highest construction costs in the world, and that London has among the highest outside the United States. Were New York and London more institutionally efficient than Italian cities, Italian elites would notice and adapt their practices, just as they have begun to adapt German practices for timetabling and intermodal integration.
On the surface, Americans do learn from the periphery. There are immigrant planners at American transit agencies. There’s some peer learning, even in New York – for example, New York City Transit used RATP consultants to help develop the countdown clocks, which required some changes to how train control works. And yet, most of this is too shallow to matter.
What I mean by “shallow” is that the learning is more often at the level of a quip comment, with no followup: “[the solution we want] is being used in [a foreign case],” with little investigation into whether it worked or is viewed positively where it is used. Often, it’s part of a junket trip by executives who hoard (the appearance of) knowledge an refuse to let their underlings work. Two notable examples are ongoing in Boston and the Bay Area.
In Boston, the state is making a collective decision not to wire the commuter rail network. Instead, there are plans to electrify the network in small patches, using battery trains with partial wiring; see here and follow links for more background. Battery-electric trains (BEMUs) exist and are procured in European examples that the entire Boston region agrees are models for rail modernization, so in that sense, this represents learning. But it’s purely superficial, because nowhere with the urban area size of Boston or the intensity of its peak commuter rail traffic are BEMUs used. BEMUs trade off higher equipment cost and lower performance for lower infrastructure costs; they’re used in Germany on lines that run an hourly three-car train or so, whereas Massachusetts wants to foist this solution on lines where peak traffic is an eight-car train every 15 minutes.
And in San Jose, the plan for the subway is to use a large-diameter bore, wide enough for two tracks side-by-side as well as a platform in between, to avoid having to either mine station cavern or build cut-and-cover stations. This is an import from Barcelona Metro Lines 9 and 10, and agency planners and consultants did visit Barcelona to see how the method works. Unfortunately, what was missing in that idea is that L9 is by a large margin Spain’s most expensive subway per kilometer, and locally it is viewed as a failure. In Rome, the same method was studied and rejected as too risky to millennia-old monuments, so the most sensitive parts of Metro Line C use mined stations at very high costs by Italian standards. Barcelona’s use case – a subway built beneath a complex underground layer of older metro lines – does not apply to San Jose, which is building its first line and should build its stations cut-and-cover as is more usual.
No such superficiality is apparent in the core examples of both symmetric and asymmetric learning. Swedes, Danes, Finns, and Norwegians are acutely aware of the social problems of one another, and will not propose to adopt a system that is locally viewed as a failure. At most, they will propose an import that is locally controversial, with the same ideological load as at its home. In other words, if a Swede (or more generally a Western European) proposes to import a solution from another European country that is in its home strongly identified with a political party or movement, it’s because the Swede supports the movement at home. This can include privatization, cancellation of privatization, changes to environmental policy, changes to immigration policy, or tax shifts.
This includes more delicate cases. In general the US and UK are viewed as inegalitarian Thatcherite states in Sweden, so in most cases it’s the right that wants to Anglicize government practice. But when it comes to monetary policy, it was Stefan Löfven who tried to shift Riksbank policy toward a US-style dual mandate from the current single mandate for price stability, which the left views as too austerian and harsh toward workers; globally the dual mandate is viewed as more left-wing and so it was the Swedish left that tried to adopt it.
In contrast, in superficial learning, the political load may be the opposite of what it is in its origin country, because the person or movement who purport to want to import it are ignorant of and incurious about its local context. Thus, I’ve seen left-wing Americans proposing education reforms reinvent the German Gymnasium system in which the children of the working class are sent to vocational schools, a system that within Germany relies on the support of the middle-class right and is unpopular on the left.
Individual versus collective knowledge
Finally, I want to emphasize that the issue is less about individual knowledge and learning than about collective knowledge. Individual Americans are not stupid. Many are worldly, visit other countries regularly and know how things work there, and speak other languages as heritage learners or otherwise. But their knowledge is not transmitted collectively. Their peers view it at best as a really cool hobby rather than a key skill, at worst as a kind of weirdness.
For example, an American planner who speaks Spanish because they are a first- or second-generation Hispanic immigrant is not going to get a grant to visit Madrid, or for that matter Santo Domingo, and form horizontal ties with planners and engineers there to figure out how to build at low Spanish or Dominican costs. Their peers are not going to nudge them to tell them more about Hispanic engineering traditions and encourage them to develop their interests. American culture writ large does not treat them as benefiting from bicultural ties but instead treats them as deficient Americans who must forget the Spanish language to assimilate; it’s the less educated immigrants’ children who maintain the Spanish language. In this way, it’s not too different from how Germany treats Turks as a social problem rather than as valuable bicultural ambassadors to a country with four times Germany’s housing production and one third its metro construction costs.
Nor is experience abroad valued in planning or engineering, let alone in politics. A gap year is a fun experience. Five years of work abroad are the mark of a Luftmensch rather than valued experience on a CV, whereas an immigrant who comes with foreign work experience will almost universally find this experience devalued.
Even among the native-born, the standard pipelines through which one expresses interest in foreign ideas are not designed for this kind of learning. The United States most likely has the strongest academic programs in the world for Japanese studies, outside Japan itself. Those programs are designed to critique Japanese society, and Israeli military historian of Japanese imperialism Danny Orbach has complained that from reading much of the critical theory work on the country one is left to wonder how it could have ever developed. It goes without saying such programs do not prepare anyone to adapt the successes of the big Japanese cities in transportation and housing.
This, as usual, goes beyond transportation. I saw minimal curiosity among Americans in the late 2000s about universal health care abroad, while a debate about health care raged and “every rich country except the US has public universal health care” was a common and wrong line among liberals. Individual Americans and immigrants to the US might be able to talk about the French or Japanese or Israeli or Ghanaian health care system, but nobody would be interested to hear except their close friends; political groups they were involved with would shrug that off even while going off about the superiority of those countries’ health care (well, not Ghana’s, but all of the other three for sure, in ignorance of Israel’s deep problem with nosocomial infections, responsible for 9-14% of the national death rate).
The result is that while individual Americans can be smart, diligent, and curious, collectively the United States is stupid, lazy, and ignorant on every matter that other parts of the world do better. This is bad in public transportation and lethal in those aspects of it that use mainline rail, where the US is generations behind and doesn’t even know where to start learning, let alone how to learn. It’s part of a global core-periphery model in which Europe hardly shines when it comes to learning from poorer parts of Europe or from non-Western countries, but the US adds even more to that incuriosity. Within the US, the worst is New York, where even Chicago is too suspect to learn from. No wonder New York’s institutions drifted to the point that construction costs in the city are 10 times higher than they can be, and nearly 20 times as high as absolute best practice.
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:
|City||Line||Length||Years||Cost||Cost/km (2022 PPP)|
|Oslo||Løren||1.6||13-16||1.33b NOK||$110 million|
26.4b NOK, ’21
|Stockholm||Nya Tunnelbanan||19||20-30||32b SEK, ’16||$235 million|
|Helsinki||West Metro phase 1||13.5||09-17||1.171b€||$145 million|
|Helsinki||West Metro phase 2||7||14-23||1.159b€||$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:
|Itemized contracts||Fixed 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 risk||Private 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.
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?
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.