Category: Transportation

Neighborhoods With Excess Capacity

In New York, the tech industry has clustered in the Meatpacking District, around 14th Street and 8th Avenue. Google’s building (the company’s largest office outside the Googleplex) is there, Samsung’s New York offices are there, startup incubators are there with co-working spaces. Stephen Smith has called for commercial upzoning there (on YIMBY three years ago, and on Twitter just now), despite NIMBY objections. He argues not only that there is pent-up demand for office space, but also that there is excess subway capacity there: “the L train’s capacity west of Union Square is essentially unlimited, after the hordes from Brooklyn headed to destinations east of Broadway change for the 4/5/6 and N/Q/R.” While his other arguments for upzoning are solid, this one is incorrect, and I’d like to explain which areas have excess capacity and which don’t.

Two years ago, I wrote this post about modeling transit crowding. The model is primitive – it assumes a one-dimensional city, 100% mode share, and independent job and residence distributions. For the purposes of this post, cities A, B, and C from the model are not relevant (they have perfect mixture of jobs and residences); cities D, E, and F, with separation of residences and jobs, are more relevant, with city F, with partial mixture, the most useful.

The results of the model are fairly predictable. In the morning peak, transit vehicles (or roads!) fill up toward the center as they pass through residential areas, and then empty in the commercial core. This means that more residences outward of the point of greatest congestion, and more jobs inward of it, add more crowding; more jobs outward of the point, and more residences inward of it, do not. More jobs on the other side of city center add to crowding, because people still ride through the point of greatest crowding.

On the L, the point of greatest crowding is between Bedford Avenue (the last stop in Brooklyn) and First Avenue (the first in Manhattan). This means that more residential development on the L in Brooklyn and more commercial development in Manhattan would add crowding – even commercial development on the West Side would attract riders living in Brooklyn, who would ride through the overcrowded segment under the East River. The other subway lines serving the Meatpacking District suffer from the same problem: those are the 2 and 3 at 7th Avenue and 14th Street, and the A, C, and E at 8th Avenue. With Second Avenue Subway having taken some crowds off the 4 and 5 on the East Side, it’s likely the 2, 3, and E are the most crowded subway lines in New York today (the A has more room). Yes, most riders on those lines get off in Midtown, but it doesn’t matter, because riders from the Upper West Side and Queens, attracted to new jobs in the Meatpacking District, would still ride through the most crowded point, at the entry to Midtown.

So if not the Meatpacking District, where is it better to add jobs, purely from the perspective of subway crowding? Superficially, the answer is to mix them across the residential parts of the city. But here, my model runs into problems with mode share. The model says that adding jobs in (say) Downtown Brooklyn increases subway crowding, because of riders from Uptown Manhattan riding to the south. Per the model, it’s best to add jobs on the side with more crowding, which is the north and Queens sectors, not the Brooklyn sector, where only the L is very crowded. This means, more jobs on the Upper East and West Sides, and maybe also in Long Island City, near Queensboro Plaza.

But in reality, there is some travel segmentation in New York. People who work on the Upper East and West Sides probably live in those neighborhoods or in Harlem and the Bronx, and people who work in Downtown Brooklyn probably live elsewhere in Brooklyn. Yes, it’s possible to commute between the Upper East Side and Downtown Brooklyn, but people would not ordinarily choose to do so – the commute is long and crowded (because of all the Midtown-bound workers), and there isn’t much saving on rent. People might still do it for various reasons, like a two-body problem or moving frequently between jobs – this is why through-running is important – but it’s much less common than living and working on the same side of city center.

So most likely, office development in Downtown Brooklyn would mainly attract ridership from within Brooklyn. Extra ridership from Uptown Manhattan and the Bronx is likely to be small. The upshot is that locations outside the most crowded point on each inbound subway line are likely to lead to large gains in subway ridership without much additional crowding.

I bring up Downtown Brooklyn and not just the Upper West and East Sides because it is better-connected to more bedroom communities by subway. These include the Lower East Side and Chinatown, Long Island City, and nearly all of Brooklyn. Long Island City is also highly accessible, from much of Queens and the parts of Brooklyn on the G train. But the Upper West and East Sides aren’t so accessible because of the lack of good east-west subway options.

Of course, the situation on the ground is different. New York is desperate to add tech jobs in Downtown Brooklyn, but the tech industry insists on clustering in the Meatpacking District. There’s only so much a city can force developers to site themselves in the areas most convenient for infrastructure. But from a long-term capacity standpoint, it’s in New York’s interest to encourage commercial development outside the Manhattan core, especially in areas that get decent subway service from multiple directions, like Long Island City, Downtown Brooklyn, and maybe Jamaica.

It would be easier if there were more service targeted at off-core destinations. This is part of why I harp on regional rail all the time – the LIRR would be able to serve Downtown Brooklyn and Jamaica better if it didn’t exist just for the benefit of suburban salarymen working in Midtown. But this also includes Triboro, which would give multidirectional service to nodes including Jackson Heights, the Bronx Hub, and Brooklyn College. This would encourage developers to build commercial at these nodes, which suffer from poor access to workers today.

Note that opening circumferential transit, in this model, has the opposite of the expected effect on radial lines. Normally, a new transit line reduces demand on parallel lines and increases demand on intersecting lines, which runs the risk of overloading them. But if a circumferential line encourages office development at intersection points with radials, it will still encourage more ridership on the radials, but this ridership will completely miss the congested inner portions of the radials.

Suspended Railways

Suspended railways are not a common mode of transportation. In Europe, the best-known example is the Wuppertal Suspension Railway, opened in 1901. Two examples exist in Japan, which is more willing to experiment with nonstandard rail technology. With essentially just these three examples in normal urban rail usage, it is hard to make generalizations. But I believe that the technology is underrated, and more cities should be considering using it in lieu of more conventional elevated or underground trains.

The reason why suspended trains are better than conventional ones is simple: centrifugal force. Train cars are not perfectly rigid – they have a suspension system, which tolerates some angle between the bogies and the carbody. Under the influence of centrifugal force, the body leans a few degrees to the outside of each curve:


If the train is moving away from you, and is turning left, then the outside of the curve is to your right; this is where the body leans in the image on the right. This is because centrifugal force pushes everything to the right, including in particular the carbody. This increases the centrifugal force felt by the passengers – the opposite of what a tilt system does. A train is said to have soft suspension if this degree of lean is large, and rigid suspension if it is small. The depicted image is rotated 3 degrees, which turns 1 m/s^2 acceleration in the plane of the tracks into 1.5 m/s^2 felt by the passengers; this is the FRA’s current limit, and is close to the maximum value of emergency deceleration. There are no trains with perfectly rigid suspension, but the most recent Shinkansen trains have active suspension, which provides the equivalent of 1-2 degrees of tilt.

On a straddling train, this works in reverse. A straddling train moving away from you turning left will also suspend to the right:


It’s almost identical, except that now the floor of the train leans toward the inside of the curve, rather than to the outside. So the suspension system reduces the lateral acceleration felt by the passengers, rather than increasing it. By softening the suspension system, it’s possible to provide an arbitrarily large degree of tilt, limited only by the maximum track safety value of lateral acceleration, which is not the limiting factor in urban rail.

This is especially useful in urban rail. Longer-distance railroads can superelevate the tracks, especially high-speed tracks, where trains have to be reliable enough for other reasons that they never have to stop in the middle of a superelevated curve. Some urban rail lines have superelevation as well, but not all do. Urban rail lines with high crowding levels routinely stop the trains in the middle of the track to maintain sufficient spacing to the train ahead; this is familiar to my New York readers as “we are being delayed because of train traffic ahead of us,” but the same routinely happens in Paris on the RER. This makes high superelevation dicey: a stopped train leans to the inside of the curve, which is especially uncomfortable for passengers. High superelevation on urban rail is also limited by the twist, i.e. the rate at which the superelevation increases per linear meter (in contrast, on intercity rail, the limiting factor is jerk, expressed in superelevation per second).

Another reason why reducing curve radius is especially useful in urban rail is right-of-way constraints. It’s harder to build a curve of radius 200 meters in a dense city (permitting 60 km/h with light superelevation) than a curve of radius 3 km outside built-up areas (permitting 250 km/h with TGV superelevation and cant deficiency). Urban rail systems make compromises about right-of-way geometry, and even postwar systems have sharp curves by mainline rail standards; in 1969, the Journal of the London Underground Railway Society listed various European limits, including Stockholm at 200 meters. The oldest lines go well below that – Paris has a single 40-meter curve, and New York has several. Anything that permits urban rail to thread between buildings (if above ground), building foundations (if underground), and other lines without sacrificing speed is good; avoiding curves that impose 30 km/h speed limits is important for rapid transit in the long run.

Suspended railways are monorails, so they run elevated. This is not inherent to the technology. Monorails and other unconventional rail technologies can go underground. The reason they don’t is that a major selling point for monorails is that their sleek structures are less visually obtrusive when elevated. But underground they can still use the same technology – if anything, the difficulty of doing emergency evacuation on an elevated suspended monorail is mitigated on an underground line, where passengers can hop to the floor of the tunnel and walk.

I’d normally say something about construction costs. Unfortunately, the technology I am plugging has three lines in regular urban operation, opened in 1901, 1970, and 1988. The 1988 line, the Chiba Monorail, seems to have cost somewhat more per km than other contemporary elevated lines in Japan, but I don’t want to generalize from a single line. Underground there should not be a cost difference. And ultimately, cost may well be lower, since, at the same design speed, suspended monorails can round tighter curves than both conventional railroads and straddle monorails.

Despite its rarity, the technology holds promise in the most constrained urban environments. When they built their next new metro lines, disconnected from the older network, cities like New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo should consider using suspended railroads instead of conventional subways.

Fare Integration

I said something on my Patreon page about fare integration between buses and trains, in the context of an article I wrote for the DC Policy Center about improving bus service, and got pushback of the most annoying kind, that is, the kind that requires me to revise my assumptions and think more carefully about the subject. The controversy is over whether fare integration is the correct policy. I still think it is, but there’s a serious drawback, which the positive features have to counterbalance.

First, some background: fare integration means that all modes of public transit charge the same fare within the same zone, or between the same pair of stations. Moreover, it means transfers are free, even between modes. Fare integration between city buses and urban rail seems nearly universal; big exceptions include Washington (the original case study) and London, and to a lesser extent Chicago. Fare integration between urban rail and regional rail is ubiquitous in Europe – London doesn’t quite have it, but it’s actually closer than fare integration between buses and the Underground – but does not exist in North America. In Singapore there is fare integration. In Tokyo, there are about twelve different rail operators, with discounted-but-not-free transfers between two (Tokyo Metro and Toei) and full-fare transfers between any other pair.

The reason North American commuter rail has no fare integration with other forms of transit is pure tradition: railroaders think of themselves as special, standing apart from mere urban transit. We can dispense with the idea that it is a seriously thought-out fare system. However, lack of integration between buses and trains in general does have some thought behind it. In London, the stated reason is that the Underground is at capacity, so its fares are jacked up to avoid overcrowding, while the buses remain cheap. In Washington, it’s that Metro is a better product than the buses, so it should cost more, in the same way first-class seats cost more than second-class seats on trains. Cap’n Transit made a similar point about this in the context of express buses.

There are really three different questions about fare integration: demand, supply, and network effects. The first one, as noted by Patreon supporters, favors disintegrated fares. The other two favor fare integration, for different reasons.

Demand just means charging more for a product that has higher demand. This is about revenue maximization, assuming fixed service provision: people will pay more for the higher speed of rapid transit, so it’s better to charge each mode of transportation the maximum it can bear before people stop taking trips altogether, or choose to drive instead. It’s related to yield management, which maximizes revenue by using a fare bucket system, using time of booking as a form of price discrimination; SNCF uses it on the TGV, and in its writeups for American high-speed rail from 2009, it said it boosted revenue by 4%. In either case, you extract from each passenger the maximum they can pay by making features like “don’t get stuck in traffic” cost extra.

Supply means giving riders incentives to ride the mode of transportation that’s cheaper to provide. In other words, here we don’t assume fixed (or relatively fixed) service provision, but variable service provision and relatively fixed ridership. Trains nearly universally have lower marginal operating costs than buses per passenger-km; in Washington the buses cost 40% more per vehicle-km, and perhaps 2.5 times as much per unit of capacity (Washington Metro cars are long). Using the fare system to incentivize passengers to take the train rather than the bus allows the transit agency to shift resources away from expensive buses, or perhaps to redeploy these resources to serve more areas. If anything, the bus should cost more. There are shades of this line in incentives some transit agencies give for passengers to switch from older fare media to smart cards: the smart card is more convenient and thus in higher demand, but it also involves lower transaction costs, and thus the agency incentivizes its use by charging less.

The network effect means avoiding segmenting the market in any way, to let passengers use all available options. The fastest way to get between two points may be a bus in some cases and a train in others, or a combined trip. This fastest way is often also the most direct, which both minimizes provision cost to the agency and maximizes passenger utility. This point argues in favor of free transfers especially, more so than fare integration. Tokyo fares are integrated in the sense that the different railroads charge approximately the same for the same distance; but transfers are not free, and monthly passes are station to station, with no flexibility for passengers who live between two parallel (usually competing) lines.

The dominant reason to offer integrated fares is network effects, more so than supply. Evidently, I am not aware of transit agencies that charge more for buses than for trains, only in the other direction. That fare integration allows transit agencies to reduce operating costs mitigates the loss of revenue coming from ending price discrimination; it is not the primary reason to integrate fares.

The issue at hand is partly frequency, and partly granularity. A typical transit corridor, supporting a reasonably frequent bus or a medium-size subway station, doesn’t really have the travel demand for multiple competing lines, even if it’s a parallel bus and a rail line. Fare disintegration ends up reducing the frequency on each option, sometimes beyond the point where it starts hurting ridership.

In Washington it’s especially bad, because of reverse-branching. The street network makes it hard for the same bus to serve multiple downtown destinations (or offer transfers to other buses for downtown service). Normally, riders would be able to just take a bus to the subway station and get to their destination, but Washington plans buses and trains separately, so two of the trunk routes, running on 14th an 16th Streets, reverse-branch. The hit to frequency (16-18 minutes per destination off-peak) is so great that even without fare integration it’s worthwhile to prune the branches. But such situations are not unique to Washington, and can occur anywhere.

The required ingredients are a city center that is large enough, or oriented around a long axis, with a street network that isn’t a strict grid and isn’t oriented around the axis of city center. New York is such a city: if it didn’t have fare integration, buses would need to reverse-branch from the north to serve the East Side and West Side, and from anywhere to serve Midtown and Lower Manhattan.

The granularity issue is that there isn’t actually a large menu of options for riders with different abilities to pay. This is especially a problem in American suburbs, with nothing between commuter rail (expensive, infrequent off- and reverse-peak, assumes car ownership) and the bus (in the suburbs, a last-ditch option for people below the poverty line). I wrote about this for Streetsblog in the context of Long Island; there’s also a supply angle – different classes of riders travel in opposite directions, so it’s more efficient to put them on one vehicle going back and forth – but this is fundamentally a problem of excessive market segmentation.

This also explains how Tokyo manages without fare integration between different rail operators. Its commuter rail lines are not the typical transit corridor. With more than a million riders per day (not weekday) on many lines, there is enough demand for very high frequency even with disintegrated fares. A passenger between two competing lines can only get a monthly pass on one, but it’s fine because the one line is frequent and the trains run on time.

The rest of the world is not Tokyo. Branches in Outer London and the Paris suburbs aren’t terribly frequent, and only hit one of the city centers, necessitating free transfers to distribute passengers throughout the city. They also need to collect all possible traffic, without breaking demand between different modes. If RER fares were higher than Metro fares, some areas would need to have a Metro line (or bus line) paralleling the RER, just to collect low-income riders, and the frequency on either line would be weaker.

The demand issue is still real. Fare integration is a service, and it costs money, in terms of lost revenue. But it’s a service with real value for passengers, independently of the fact that it also reduces operating costs. The 99.5% of the world that does not live in Tokyo needs this for flexible, frequent transit choices.

When Buses are a Poor Guide to Corridor Demand, Redux

Generally, the best guide to where a city should build rail lines is where the busiest buses are. However, there are exceptions. I have written two posts about this giving examples of exceptions, and am going to give a third exception; I also intend to write a separate post soon giving a fourth exception.

The first post, from four years ago, deals with cases where the bus alignment has to stay on a major street, but some major destinations are just away from the street; a subway can deviate to serve those destinations. Examples include Old Jaffa in Tel Aviv near the north-south spine of bus lines 1 and 25, and Century City near the Wilshire corridor. Here, buses are a good guide to corridor demand, but the rail line should serve microdestinations just outside the corridor.

The second post, from last year, is more properly about corridors. It describes street networks that are hostile to surface transit, by featuring narrow, meandering streets. The main example is Boston, especially the Green Line Extension, in a rail right-of-way in a city infamous for its labyrinthine streets. Another example is the Evergreen extension in Vancouver, serving Coquitlam; the bus the extension replaced, the 97-B, meandered through Coquitlam since the streets were so poorly configured, while the extension uses a short tunnel and runs parallel to a railroad.

In this post I’d like to expand on a point I made, obliquely, in the Voice of San Diego. In San Diego, there’s an under-construction light rail extension, in a rail right-of-way, into an area with not-great bus ridership. Consult the following map:

Preexisting light rail (“Trolley”) is in black, the extension (of the Blue Line) in blue, the parallel north-south arterial in purple, and two buses in green and red. The bus ridership on Ingraham is very low: the bus route running on it, 9, has 1,500 riders per weekday (source). The top bus in San Diego, the 7 (going north of downtown, then east), has 11,000. So on the surface, this suggests there isn’t much demand for north-south transit in that area of the city, called Pacific Beach.

But that’s wrong, because in an auto-oriented city like any US city except New York, the major streets are determined by car access. The relentless grids of so many North American cities – Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto, Vancouver – are not just where the buses go, but also where the cars go. Even in Manhattan, if you have the misfortune to find yourself going east-west in a car, you will probably use one of the major two-way streets, like 14th or 42nd, which are less clogged than the one-way streets in between. Non-gridded street networks for the most part obey this rule too – the commercial streets tend to be the wider ones used by car through-traffic.

Freeways throw a wrench into this system. They offer a convenient route for cars, but are abominable for commerce. Locations 5 minutes by car from the freeway are good; locations right along the freeway are not, unlike ones right along an arterial road. The main car route from Pacific Beach to the CBD is taking an east-west arterial to the I-5, not going south on Ingraham. This means that the demand for north-south traffic actually shows as strong commerce on east-west streets, hosting bus routes 27 and 30, and not on Ingraham. The 27 has weak ridership, and the 30 has strong ridership but not right along the I-5. But in a sense it doesn’t really matter, because, like the car- and bus-hostile narrow streets of old city centers, the freeway-centric road network in that part of San Diego suppresses bus ridership relative to future rail ridership.

In the presence of rail, the strong routes are the ones orthogonal to the rail line. Here, the 27 and 30 already preexist; there is a planned Trolley stop at the intersection with the 27, and presumably the 30 will be rerouted to serve that intersection rather than to duplicate the trains along the freeway. (I tried talking to the transit agency about this, but didn’t get any useful answers.) So the decent east-west bus ridership in Pacific Beach is actually an argument in favor of a north-south rail extension.

Like every exception to a general rule, this is not a common scenario. So where else are there cases where this special case holds? The necessary elements are,

  1. The city must be auto-oriented enough that car access is crucial to nearly all commercial drags. In Paris, it doesn’t matter how you reach the Peripherique by car, because car ownership is so low.
  2. The city should not have a strong mainline rail network, which leads to a hierarchical transit network (buses feeding train stations), in which both buses and cars use the same major streets to reach train stations. This means that Sydney and Melbourne are out, as are German cities short of Berlin and Munich’s transit mode shares.
  3. The city must have a strong network of urban freeways, disrupting the street network to the point of siphoning traffic away from the surface streets that would otherwise be the main routes.

As it happens, all three elements are present in Tel Aviv. North-south travel within the region uses Ayalon Freeway, inconveniently east of the traditional city center; the city has been building a CBD closer to the freeway, but it’s still not quite there. This suggests that traffic is suppressed on the north-south arterials to the west – Ibn Gabirol (hosting the planned second line of the subway) and Dizengoff (possibly hosting the third) – is suppressed, and those streets require subways. This is in part why, before the Red Line began construction, I argued in favor of putting a north-south subway under Ibn Gabirol, and not under freeway-adjacent Namir Road, where the Red Line goes.

In the future, this pattern suggests that Tel Aviv should make sure to build north-south subways under Ibn Gabirol and Dizengoff, and extend them north. The significance of the northern direction is that the effect I’m describing in this post only works when car ownership is high; Israel is poor enough that car ownership is not universal, and in the poorer southern suburbs it is low enough that the buses do give a good guide to corridor demand, whereas in the northern suburbs everyone owns a car. There is likely to be suppressed transit demand in Herzliya, Ramat HaSharon, and northeastern Tel Aviv (including Ramat HaHayal, an edge city with many tech jobs). Thus ridership on a subway line going elevated over Sokolov in Ramat HaSharon and Herzliya, or on Raoul Wallenberg to Ramat HaHayal, is likely to be higher than present-day bus ridership suggests.

An American example is Washington’s suburbs. The Metro extensions are planned with little regard for bus ridership. While the Silver Line is bad for multiple reasons – high construction costs, service to too far exurbs, too much branching on an overloaded trunk – the extension to Tysons Corner is its one good aspect. There is no point in discussing bus ridership at an edge city like Tysons – conventional buses wouldn’t be following the same route that the cars follow, and freeway express buses almost universally have trivial ridership.

Finally, Vancouver. While Vancouver itself is gridded, its suburbs are much less so. In the suburbs served by the Trans-Canada Highway, especially Surrey, it’s likely that car traffic mostly follows roads feeding the highway. People drive to their jobs in Downtown, Central Broadway, Metrotown, or any of Surrey’s internal centers; there aren’t a lot of park-and-rides at SkyTrain stations, which instead emphasize transit-oriented development, and in Surrey there are actually more park-and-ride spaces at the freeways, with express bus access, than at the one SkyTrain stop with parking, Scott Road. This suggests that there is suppressed bus ridership in Surrey and Langley parallel to the Trans-Canada, along Fraser Highway. Extending SkyTrain in that direction is on a distant priority list for the region, and this theory suggests that it should be moved up, to be just behind the Broadway subway to UBC.

Future Los Angeles Metro Investments

I just put up an article on Urbanize complaining about Los Angeles’s uniquely high operating costs on the subway and light rail. In the article, I offered a few explanations, but also said that none of them seems satisfying: high wages (wages are as high in Chicago), low frequency (frequency is as low in Atlanta), low train operator efficiency (the gap with London is too small), few lines with two different technologies (Atlanta has just two lines and Miami one).

Long-time readers may be used to my sneering at American transit operations for being primitive compared with European ones, but here, the best American system (Chicago) outperforms the four Western European systems for which I have data, and one more (Philadelphia) is within those four European systems’ range. Per car-km, Chicago spends $5 in operating costs, London/Paris/Berlin $6, Philadelphia and Madrid $7, New York $9-10, and Los Angeles $12.

So Los Angeles is special. Lisa Schweitzer suggests my discounting the frequency and system size explanations is in error, and when I brought up Atlanta on social media, she noted that Atlanta’s labor costs are lower than Los Angeles’s. Assuming this is correct (Southern California uniquely combines high nominal wages with a tiny subway network), Los Angeles should expect subway operating costs to come down as it builds its urban rail network. Some lines, like the Regional Connector, the Wilshire subway, and the Crenshaw light rail line, are already under construction. But as the system grows (especially the subway system, which is technologically incompatible with the light rail lines, even the fully grade-separated Green Line), average operating costs will fall, which suggests that marginal operating costs are low. If Los Angeles has not figured this into its calculation, this means that the finances of future subway lines are better than projected.

I drew this map of what rapid transit Los Angeles should build. The map isn’t new, but I want to use it to explain how I think cities should be building subways.

1. Every line is rapid transit, even lines built out of light rail lines today, like the Blue Line and the Expo Line. Unprotected grade crossings and street running, even in dedicated tracks, limit capacity and reliability elsewhere down the line, even though they do not reduce speed on other segments of the line. The Orange Line is replaced by a subway, not light rail.

2. Branching is rare. Only three subway lines branch. Two tunnel through Sepulveda Pass (where Let’s Go LA suggests four branches on each side of the tunnel), with each line branching into two in the north, in the Valley, where demand on each corridor is lower. The third is on Vermont, with a branch west to Torrance.

3. Many lines run elevated, in less dense areas with very wide streets. South Vermont is this south of Gage. This also includes the four north-south lines in the San Fernando Valley heading from the Sepulveda tunnel.

4. There are three distinct regional rail lines, all electrified, with two through-running; the branch to the airport is elevated. One branches, the others don’t. Local and express trains could happen, but the acceleration and reliability boosts from electrification are so great that speeds in the 70-80 km/h range are possible even with all the infill stops. The line to LAX could also host some intercity trains, provided it has four tracks. The dark blue line, labeled the I-5 line, should have four tracks at the very least on the shared segment, and likely longer, for planned high-speed rail; some of the work is already being done, but there is still going to be track sharing with freight trains.

5. The system is really a hybrid of a typical radial rail system and a grid, like the Mexico City Metro. There are fifteen lines, including commuter rail; eight, including the commuter lines, serve the CBD. Some (the Pink, Orange, and Atlantic Lines, and the southern half of the Green Line) are fully circumferential, the others (Harbor/Azure, Red, Crenshaw/Brown) serve secondary CBDs and try to avoid being too much like bad combinations of radial and circumferential transit. The reason for this structure is that Los Angeles has very strong secondary centers, including Century City, Burbank, El Segundo, Santa Monica, and Koreatown.

6. Much of the system assumes reasonable upzoning, for example the northern extension of the West Santa Ana/Lime Line to La Crescenta and Sun Valley. This includes replacing single-family zoning with multifamily zoning everywhere, and building up CBDs at major connection points such as Vermont/Wilshire and El Segundo.

7. There is a lot of service in LA County, but not much in the other counties except lines to the CBD. It’s possible to build up a fuller system in Orange County, extending the Purple Line east and also adding some grid routes, assuming extensive residential upzoning everywhere and commercial upzoning in Santa Ana, Anaheim, and the beach cities.

8. At LA construction costs (about $400-500 million per km underground), the entire map should be doable for maybe $90 billion; at reasonable costs, make it $40 billion. LA is spending comparable amounts of money on transportation out of the recent ballot measures, it just spends a lot of it on operational waste, on BRT (the current plans for Vermont are BRT, even though the corridor is busy enough to deserve a subway), or on roads.

Meme Weeding: Land Value Capture

Last month’s Patreon poll was about meme weeding – that is, which popular meme in public transit I should take apart. The options were fare caps on the model of London, popular among some US reformers; wait assessment, a schedule adherence metric for trains I briefly complained about on Vox as used in New York; and land value capture/tax increment financing/the Hong Kong model. The last option won.

Good public transit creates substantial value to its users, who get better commutes. It’s an amenity, much like good schools, access to good health care, and clean air. As such, it creates value in the surrounding community, even for non-users: store owners who get better sales when there’s better transportation access to their business, workers who can take local jobs created by commuters to city center, and landowners who can sell real estate at a higher price. All of these positive externalities give reason to subsidize public transit. But in the last case, the positive impact on property values, it’s tempting to directly use the higher land values to fund transit operations; in some cases, this is bundled into a deal creating transit-oriented development to boost ridership. In either case, this is a bad way of funding transit, offering easy opportunities for corruption.

Value capture comes in several flavors:

  • In Japan, most urban private railroads develop the areas they serve, with department stores at the city end and housing at the suburban end.
  • In Hong Kong, the government sells undeveloped land to the now-privatized subway operator, the MTR, for high-density redevelopment.
  • In the US and increasingly Canada, local governments use tax increment funding (TIF), in which they build value-enhancing public infrastructure either by levying impact fees on development that benefits from it or by programming bonds against expected growth in property taxes.

In both Hong Kong and the major cities of Japan, urban rail operations are profitable. It is not the case that value capture subsidizes otherwise-money losing transit in either country, nor anywhere I know of; this did not prevent Jay Walder, then the head of New York’s MTA, from plugging the MTR model as a way of funding transit in New York. What’s true is that the real estate schemes have higher margins than rail operations, which is why JR East, the most urban of the remnants of Japan National Railways, aims to get into the game as well and develop shopping centers near its main stations. However, rail operations alone in these countries are profitable, due to a combination of high crowding levels and low operating costs.

The Japanese use case is entirely private, and does not to my knowledge involve corruption. But the Hong Kong use case is public, and does. For all the crowing about it in Anglo-American media (the Atlantic called it a “unique genius” and the Guardian said it supported subsidy-free operations), it’s a hidden subsidy. The state sells the land to the MTR, and the MTR alone, at the rate of undeveloped outlying land. Then the MTR develops it, raising its value. Other developers would be willing to pay much better, since they can expect to build high-density housing and have the MTR connect it to Central. This way, the government would pocket the profits coming from higher value on its land. Instead, it surreptitiously hands over these profits to the MTR.

While Western media crows about Hong Kong as an example of success, local media excoriates the corruption involves. Here’s the South China Morning Post on the MTR model:

The rail and property model was never anything but a delusion to which only Hong Kong bureaucrats could be subject. It traded on the odd notion that you cannot assign a value to property until you actually dispose of it.

Thus if you give the MTR the land above its stations, these sites suddenly and magically acquire value and the proceeds cover the cost of building the railway lines. Ain’t magic wonderful? We got the MTR for free.

Stephen Smith dealt with this issue in 2013, when he was still writing for NextCity. He explained the local corruption angle, the fact that MTR rail operations are profitable on their own, and the lack of undeveloped land for the state to sell in most first-world cities. (Conversely, one of his arguments, about construction costs, doesn’t seem too relevant: Hong Kong’s construction costs are probably similar to London’s and certainly higher than Paris’s, and doing value capture in Paris would be an urban renewal disaster.)

Stephen also tackles American examples of value capture. With no state-owned land to sell to the public transit agency at below-market prices, American cities instead rely on expected property taxes, or sometimes levy special fees on developers for letting them build TOD. Stephen talks about scale issues with the TIF-funded 7 extension in New York, but there are multiple other problems. For one, the 7 extension’s Hudson Yards terminus turned out to be less desirable than initially thought, requiring the city to give tax breaks. See for examples stories here, here, and here.

But there are more fundamental problems with the approach. The biggest one is the quality of governance. TIF is an attractive-looking option in American jurisdictions that recoil at raising direct taxes to pay for service. This means that as happened in New York, it is tempting for cities to promise property tax windfall, issue bonds, and then let successor governments raise taxes or cut services to pay interest. This opaqueness makes it easier to build bad projects. When the government promises especially high benefit-cost ratios, it can also keep issuing new bonds if there are budget overruns, which means there is no incentive for cost control.

TIF also requires the city to use zoning to create a shortage of land in order to entice developers to pay extra to build where it wants them to. Stephen complains that New York reamed problems on upzoning in Midtown East, one of the few locations in Manhattan where developers are willing to build supertall office towers without any tax breaks; the new zoning plan, in the works since he was writing for NextCity in 2013, only just passed. Another such location is probably the Meatpacking District, near the Google building at 14th and 8th, now the city’s tech hub – there is no tall office construction there due to the power of high-income residential NIMBYs. Were the city to loosen zoning in these areas and permit companies that need a prime location to set up offices in these areas, it would find it even harder to entice developers to build in a lower-demand area like Hudson Yards. Midtown East and the Meatpacking District are replete with subway lines, but there are no new plans for construction there, so the city wouldn’t do a TIF there.

The same problem, of TOD-reliant funding requiring the city to restrict development away from targeted investment areas, also works in reverse: it encourages development-oriented transit. In 2007, Dan Doctoroff, then a deputy mayor and now head of Google’s Sidewalk Labs, opposed Second Avenue Subway, on the grounds that the area is already developed. Second Avenue Subway was eventually built, but the 7 extension omitted a stop in an already-developed area amidst cost overruns, as Bloomberg prioritized Hudson Yards. This is not restricted to New York: San Francisco is more interested in a subway to Parkmerced than in a subway under Geary, the busiest bus route, busier than the subway-surface light rail branch serving Parkmerced today. Smaller American cities propose core connectors, aiming promoting redevelopment in and around city center. This in turn means ignoring low-income neighborhoods, where there is no developer interest in new buildings except as part of a gentrification process.

These problems are for targeted investments. But when there is more widespread TOD, TIF ends up being a tax on transit users. Cities build roads without levying special taxes on sprawling development, whether it sprawls by virtue of being near the highway or by virtue of being far from public transit. When they build transit, they sometimes tax TOD, which means they are giving developers and residents tax incentives to locate away from public transit.

Hong Kong is not the right model for any TOD scheme; its corruption problems are immense. It’s a shiny object for Americans (and other Anglophone Westerners), who are attracted to the allure of the exotic foreigner, like a premodern illiterate attributing magic to the written word. Instead of replicating its most questionable aspect, it’s better to look at models that are attractive even to local corruption watchdogs.

This means funding public transit and other services out of transparent, broad-based taxes. Paris uses a payroll tax, varying the rate so as to be higher in the city (2.95%) than in the outer suburbs (1.6%). Everyone will hate them, especially people who don’t use transit and don’t view it as directly necessary for their lives. This is why they work. They compel the transit agency to run efficient service, to stave off opposition from aggrieved center-right middle-class voters, and to run it well, to stave off opposition from populists (“why am I being taxed for trains that break down?”). They leave no room for waste, for cronyism, or for slush funds for favored causes, precisely because they’re hard to pass.

It’s easy to see why politicians avoid such funding sources. The democratic deficit of local governance in the US is immense, and that of Canada is only somewhat better. Nobody wants to lose an election over raising taxes, even in cities where the political spectrum runs from the center leftward. Value capture sounds like a good, innovative idea to fund government without hated taxation, and its abuses are hidden from sight. Even as it forces city residents to endure opaque fees (never call them taxes!), it wins accolades to politicians who propose it. No wonder it continues despite its failures.

Anti-Infill on Surface Transit

I wrote about infill stops on commuter rail two weeks ago, and said I cannot think of any example of anti-infill on that mode. But looking at Muni Metro reminded me that there is need for anti-infill on surface transit. This is called stop consolidation normally, and I only use the term anti-infill to contrast with the strategy of adding more stops on commuter trains.

The root of the problem is that in North America, transit agencies have standardized on 200-250 meters as the typical spacing between bus stops. In Europe, Australasia, and East Asia, the standard is instead 400-500 meters. Even without off-board fare collection, the difference in speed is noticeable. In Vancouver, the difference between the local 4 and the express 84 is substantial: on the shared segment between Burrard and Tolmie, a distance of 4.8 km, the 84 makes 5 stops and takes 10 minutes, the 4 makes 18 stops and takes 16 minutes. A bus with the normal first-world stop spacing would make 10-12 stops and take, linearly, 12-13 minutes. 23 km/h versus 18 km/h.

With off-board fare collection, the impact of stop spacing on speed grows. The reason is that a bus’s stop penalty consists of the time taken to stop and open its doors, plus the time it takes each passenger to board. The former time is independent of the fare collection method but depends on stop spacing. The latter time is the exact opposite: if the stop spacing widens, then there are more passengers per bus stop, and unless the change in stop spacing triggers changes in ridership, overall passenger boarding and alighting time remains the same. Another way to think about it is that judging by Vancouver data, there appears to be a 30-second stop penalty, independent of ridership. Off-board fare collection increases bus speed, so the 30-second stop penalty becomes more important relative to overall travel time; the same is true of other treatments that increase bus speed, such as dedicated lanes and signal priority.

In New York, there aren’t a lot of places with local and limited-stop buses side by side in which the limited-stop bus has on-board fare collection. One such example is the M4, meandering from Washington Heights down the 5th/Madison one-way-pair, over 15.3 km. At rush hour, the local takes 1:45, the limited-stop takes 1:30: 9 vs. 10 km/h. But the limited-stop bus runs local for 6 km, and over the other 9.3 km it skips 26 local stops if I’ve counted right. The B41 has a limited-stop version over 8.3 km (the rest is local), skipping about 17 stops; the time difference is 10 minutes.

One possible explanation for why the stop penalty in New York seems a little higher than in Vancouver is that the M4 and B41 routes are busier than the 4/84 in Vancouver, so every stop has at least one passenger, whereas the 4 in Vancouver often skips a few stops if there are no passengers waiting. Conversely, the higher passenger traffic on buses in New York comes from higher density and more traffic in general, which slows down the buses independently of stopping distance.

On subways, there’s reason to have more densely-spaced stops in denser areas, chief of which is the CBD. On surface transit, it’s less relevant. The reason is that absolute density doesn’t matter for stop spacing, except when expected ridership at once station is so high it would stress the egress points. What really matters is relative density. Putting more stops in an area means slowing down everyone riding through it in order to offer shorter station access times to people within it. On surface transit, relative density gradients aren’t likely to lead to variations in stop spacing, for the following reasons:

  1. Historically, surface transit stop spacing was always shorter than rapid transit stop spacing because of its lower top speed and the faster braking capabilities of horses vs. steam trains; often people could get off at any street corner they chose. So it induced linear development, of roughly constant density along the corridor, rather than clusters of high density near stations.
  2. If there is considerable variation in density along a surface transit line, then either density is medium with a few pockets of high density, which would probably make the line a good candidate for a subway, or density is low with a few pockets of higher density, and the bus would probably skip a lot of the low-density stops anyway.

Most importantly, the 400-meter standard is almost Pareto-faster than the 200-meter standard. In the worst case, it adds about 4 minutes of combined walking time at both the start and the end of the trip, for an able-bodied, healthy person not carrying obscene amounts of luggage. The breakeven time on 4 minutes is 8 skipped stops, so 3.2 km compared with the 200-meter standard. Bus trips tend to be longer than this, except in a few edge cases. In New York the average unlinked bus trip is 3.4 km (compare boardings and passenger-km on the NTD), but many trips involve a transfer to another bus or the subway, probably half judging by fare revenue, and transfer stations would never be deleted. If the destination is a subway station, guaranteed to have a stop, then the breakeven distance is 1.6 km.

This also suggests that different routes may have different stop spacing. Very short routes should have shorter stop spacing, for example the 5 and 6 buses in Vancouver. Those routes compete with walking anyway. This may create a spurious relationship with density: the 5 and 6 buses serve the very dense West End, but the real reason to keep stop spacing on them short is that they are short routes, about 2 km each. Of course, West End density over a longer stretch would justify a subway, so in a way there’s a reason short optimal stop spacing correlates with high bus stop density.

The situation on subways is murkier. The stop penalty is slightly higher, maybe 45 seconds away from CBD stations with long dwell times. But the range of stop distances is such that more people lose out from having fewer stops. Paris has a Metro stop every 600 meters, give or take. Some of the busiest systems in countries that were never communist, such as Tokyo, Mexico City, and London, average 1.2 km; in former communist bloc countries, including Russia and China, the average is higher, 1.7 km in Moscow. The difference between 600 meters and 1.2 km is, in the worst case, another 1.2 km of walking, about 12 minutes; breakeven is 16 deleted stops, or 20 km, on the long side for subway commutes.

One mitigating factor is that subway-oriented development clusters more, so the worst case is less likely to be realized, especially since stops are usually closer together in the CBD. But on the other hand, at 1.2 km between stations it’s easy for transfers to be awkward or for lines to cross without a transfer. London and Tokyo both have many locations where this happens, if not so many as New York; Mexico City doesn’t (it’s the biggest subway network in which every pair of intersecting lines has a transfer), but it has a less dense network in its center. Paris only has three such intersections, two of them involving the express Metro Line 14. Even when transfers do exist, they may be awkward in ways they wouldn’t have been if stop spacing had been closer (then again, Paris is notorious for long transfers at Chatelet and Montparnasse).

In all discussions of subway stop spacing, New York is sui generis since the lines have four tracks. On paper its subway lines stop every 600-700 meters when not crossing water, but many trains run express and stop every 2 km or even more. Average speed is almost the same as in Tokyo and London, which have very little express service, and it used to be on a par until recent subway slowdowns. This distinction, between longer stop spacing and shorter stop spacing with express runs, also ports to buses. Buses outside the US and Canada stop every 400-500 meters and have no need for limited-stop runs – they really split the difference between local and limited buses in North America.

On a subway, the main advantage of the international system over the New York system is obvious: only two tracks are required rather than four, reducing construction costs. On a bus line, the advantages are really the same, provided the city gives the buses enough space. A physically separated bus lane cannot easily accommodate buses of different speeds. In New York, this is the excuse I’ve heard in comments for why the bus lanes are only painted, not physically separated as in Paris. Mixing buses of different speeds also makes it hard to give buses signal priority: it is easy for buses to conflict, since the same intersection might see two buses spaced a minute apart.

Buses also benefit from having a single speed class because of the importance of frequency. In Vancouver, the off-peak weekday frequency on 4th Avenue is an 84 rapid bus every 12 minutes, a 44 rapid bus every 20 minutes, and a local 4 every 15 minutes. The 84 keeps going on 4th Avenue whereas the 4 and 44 divert to Downtown, but the 4 and 44 could still be consolidated into a bus coming every 10 minutes. If there were enough savings to boost the 84 to 10 minutes the three routes could vaguely be scheduled to come every 5 minutes on the common section, but without dedicated lanes it’s probably impossible to run a scheduled service at that frequency (pure headway management and branching don’t mix).

The example of 4th Avenue gets back to my original impetus for this post, Muni Metro. Only diesel buses can really run in regular surface mode mixing different speed classes. Trolleys can’t. Vancouver runs trolleys on the local routes and diesels on the limited routes. At UBC, it has different bus loops for diesels and trolleys, so people leaving campus have to choose which type of bus to take – they can’t stand at one stop and take whatever comes first.

On rail, this is of course completely impossible. As a result, American subway-surface trolleys – the Boston Green Line, SEPTA’s Subway-Surface Lines, and Muni Metro – all run at glacial speed on the surface, even when they have dedicated lanes as in Boston. In Boston there has been some effort toward stop consolidation on the Green Line’s busiest branch, the B, serving Boston University. This is bundled with accessibility – it costs money to make a trolley stop wheelchair-accessible and it’s cheaper to have fewer stops. Muni Metro instead makes one stop every 3-5 accessible (on paper), but keeps stopping at all the other stops. It would be better to just prune the surface stops down to one every 400-500 meters, which should be accessible.

If you view rail as inherently better than bus, which I do, then it fits into the general framework: anti-infill on surface transit has the highest impact on the routes with the best service quality. Higher speed makes the speed gain of stop consolidation more important relative to travel time; trolleywire makes it impossible to compensate for the low speed of routes with 200-meter interstations by running limited-stop service. Even on local buses, there is never a reason for such short stop spacing, and it’s important for North American cities to adopt best industry practice on this issue. But it’s the most important on the highest-end routes, where the gains are especially large.

Infrastructure for Mature Cities

A post by Aaron Renn just made me remember something I said in the Straphangers Campaign forum ten years ago. I complained that New York was building too little subway infrastructure – where were Second Avenue Subway, Utica, Nostrand, various outer extensions in Queens and the Bronx that we crayonistas liked? Shanghai, I told people in the forum, was building a lot of subway lines at once, so why couldn’t New York? The answer is not about construction costs. Ten years ago, China’s construction costs relative to local incomes were about the same as those of New York; even today, the difference is small. Rather, it is that China is a fast-growing economy that’s spending a lot of its resources on managing this growth, whereas the US is a mature economy without infrastructure problems as urgent as those of developing countries.

Aaron posits that American cities are too conservative, in the sense of being timid rather than in the sense of being on the political right. He gives examples of forward-looking infrastructure projects that New York engaged in from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th century: the Manhattan grid, the Erie Canal, the Croton Aqueduct, the subway, the Robert Moses-era highways and parks. Today, nothing of the sort happens. Aaron of course recognizes that “New, rapidly growing cities need lots of new infrastructure and plans. Mature cities need less new infrastructure.” The difference is that for me, this is where this line of questioning ends. New York is a mature city, and doesn’t need grand plans; it needs to invest in infrastructure based on the assumption that it will never again grow quickly.

If not grand plans like building the Manhattan grid far beyond the city’s then-built up area, then what should a mature city do? Aaron talks about dreaming big, and there is something to that, but it would take a profoundly different approach from what New York did when its population grew by 50% every decade. I stress that, as with my last post critiquing another blog post, I agree with a substantial part of what Aaron says and imagine that Aaron will treat many of the solutions I posit here as positive examples of thinking big.

Rationalization of Government

Mature societies have accumulated a great deal of kludge at all levels, coming from social structures and government programs that served the needs of previous generations, often with political compromises that are hard to understand today. Welfare programs are usually a kludge of different social security programs (for the disabled, for retirees, for various classes of unemployed people, sometimes even for students), housing benefits, reduced tax rates for staple goods like food, child credit, and in the US food stamps. A good deal of the impetus for basic income is specifically about consolidating the kludge into a single cash benefit with a consistent effective marginal tax rate.

In transportation, bus networks have often evolved incrementally, with each change making sense in local context. When a new housing development opened, the nearest bus would be extended to serve it. In Israel, which grew late enough to grow around buses and not rail, this was also true of dedicated industrial zones. In cities that used to have streetcar networks, some buses just follow the old streetcar routes; the Washington bus system even today distinguishes between former streetcars (which have numbers) and routes that were never streetcars (which use letters). Jarrett Walker‘s bus network redesigns are partly about reorganizing such systems around modern needs, based on modern understanding of the principles behind transit ridership.

Governance often needs to be rationalized as well. In the early 20th century, it was important to connect outlying neighborhoods to city center, and connections between lines were less important. This led to excessively radial surface transit (rapid transit is always radial), but also to rail lines that don’t always connect to one another well. Sometimes due to historical contingency the lines are run by separate agencies and have uncoordinated schedules and different fare systems charging extra for transfers. Occasionally even the same agency charges for bus-rail transfers, often because of a history of separate private operators before the public takeover. In the US and Canada, the special status of commuter rail, with different unions, fares, schedules, and management is of particular concern, because several cities could use commuter rail to supplement the rest of the transit network.

In New York, this points toward the following agenda:

  • Modernization of commuter rail, with full fare integration with the subway and buses, proof-of-payment fare collection to reduce operating costs, high off-peak frequency on the local lines, and through-running where there is infrastructure for it (i.e. Penn Station).
  • Some bus service reorganization. New York already has extensive frequent buses, but some of its network is still questionable, for example some branches of the Third/Lexington and Madison/Fifth one-way pairs in Harlem.
  • Subway reorganization. The subway branches too much, and at several places it could have higher capacity if it reduced the extent of reverse-branching; see discussion here and in comments here. Some elevated lines could also see their stops change to support better transfers, including the J/M/Z at Broadway and Manhattan to transfer to the G, and maybe even the 7 at 108th Street to enable a transfer to a straightened Q23 bus.
  • Fare integration with PATH, and demolition of the false walls between the PATH and the F/M trains on Sixth Avenue, to enable cross-platform transfers.

Serve, Don’t Shape

There are two models for building new infrastructure: serve, and shape. Serve means focusing on present-day economic and demographic patterns. Shape means expecting the project to change these patterns, the “build it and they will come” approach. When New York built the 7 train to Flushing, Flushing already existed as a town center but much of the area between Long Island City and Flushing was open farmland. I’ve argued before that third-world cities should use the shape model. In contrast, mature cities, including the entire developed world except a few American Sunbelt cities and analogs in Canada and Australia, should use the serve model.

The serve model flies in the face of the belief that public transit can induce profound changes in urban layout. In reality, some local transit-oriented development is possible, but the main center of New York will remain Midtown; so far Hudson Yards seems like a flop. In the suburbs, more extensive redevelopment is possible, with apartment buildings and mixed uses near train stations. But these suburbs, built after WW2, are less mature than the city proper. In fast-growing cities in North America outside the traditional manufacturing belt the shape model still has validity – Vancouver, still a relatively new city region in the 1980s, got to shape itself using SkyTrain. But in New York, there is no chance.

This also has some ethnic implications. Jarrett likes to plan routes without much regard for social circumstances, except perhaps to give more bus service to a lower-income area with lower car ownership. But in reality, it is possible to see ethnic ties in origin-and-destination transit trips. This is why there are internal Chinatown buses connecting Chinatown, Flushing, and Sunset Park, and a bus connecting two different ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn. In Washington, there is origin and destination data, and there are noticeable ties between black neighborhoods, such as Anacostia and Columbia Heights.

In a mature city with stable ethnic boundaries (Harlem has been black for ninety years), it is possible to plan infrastructure around ethnic travel patterns. This means that as New York disentangles subway lines to reduce branching, it should try choosing one-seat rides that facilitate known social ties, such as between Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. While New York’s ethnic groups are generally integrated, this has special significance in areas with a mixture of linguistic or religious groups with very little intermarriage, such as Israel, which has two large unassimilated minorities (Arabs, and ultra-Orthodox Jews); Israeli transportation planning should whenever possible take into account special ultra-Orthodox travel needs (e.g. large families) and intra-ethnic connections such as between Bnei Brak and Jerusalem or between Jaffa and Nazareth.

Integrated Planning

A few years ago, I wrote a post I can no longer find talking about building the minimum rail infrastructure required for a given service plan. In comments, Keep Houston Houston replied that no, this makes it really difficult to add future capacity if demand grows. For example, a single-track line with meets optimized for half-hourly service requires total redesign if demand grows to justify 20-minute frequency. In a growing city, this means infrastructure should be planned for future-proofing, with double track everywhere, no reliance on timed overtakes, and so on. In a mature city, this isn’t a problem – growth is usually predictable.

It is relatively easy to integrate infrastructure planning and scheduling based on today’s travel patterns, and impossible to integrate them based on the future travel patterns of a fast-growing city such as Lagos or Nairobi. But in a slow-growing city like New York, future integration isn’t much harder than present-day integration. Alone among North American cities, New York has high transit mode share, making such integration even easier – transit usage could double with Herculean effort, but there is no chance that a real transit revival would quadruple it or more, unlike in cities that are relatively clean slates like Los Angeles.

Since the mature city does not need too much new infrastructure, it is useful to build infrastructure to primarily use existing infrastructure more efficiently. One example of this is S-Bahn tunnels connecting two stub-end lines; these are also useful in growing cities (Berlin built the Stadtbahn in the 1880s), but in mature cities their relative usefulness is higher, because they use preexisting infrastructure. This is not restricted to commuter rail: there is a perennial plan in New York to build a short tunnel between PATH at World Trade Center and the 6 train at City Hall and run through-service, using the fact that PATH’s loading gauge is similar to that of the numbered subway lines.

In New York, this suggests the following transit priorities:

  • Open commuter rail lines and stations based on the quality of transfers to the subway and the key bus routes. For example, Penn Station Access for Metro-North should include a stop at Pelham Parkway for easy transfer to the Bx12 bus, and a stop at Astoria for easy transfer to the subway.
  • Investigate whether a PATH-6 connection is feasible; it would require no new stations, but there would be construction difficulties since the existing World Trade Center PATH station platforms are in a loop.
  • Change subway construction priorities to emphasize lines that reduce rather than add branching. In particular, Nostrand may be a higher priority than Utica, and both may be higher priorities than phases 3 and 4 of Second Avenue Subway. A subway line under Northern Boulevard in Queens may not be feasible without an entirely new Manhattan trunk line.
  • Build commuter rail tunnels for through-running. The Gateway project should include a connection to Grand Central rather than Penn Station South, and should already bake in a choice of which commuter lines on each side match to which commuter lines on the other side. Plan for commuter rail lines through Lower Manhattan, connecting the LIRR in Brooklyn with New Jersey Transit’s Erie Lines, and, accordingly, do not connect any of the lines planned for this system to Penn Station (such as with the circuitous Secaucus Loop in the Gateway project).


New York still needs infrastructure investment, like every other city. Such investment requires thinking outside the box, and may look radical if it forces different agencies to cooperate or even amalgamate. But in reality the amount of construction required is not extensive. More deeply, New York will not look radically different in the future from how it looks today. Technological fantasies of driverless flying cars aside, New York’s future growth is necessarily slow and predictable, and cities in that situation need to invest in infrastructure accordingly.

In my post about third-world transit, I posited an epistemological principle that if the presence of a certain trait makes a certain solution more useful, then the absence of the trait should make the solution less useful. The shape vs. serve argument comes from this principle. The same is true of the emphasis on consolidating the kludge into a coherent whole and then building strategically to support this consolidation. A fast-growing city has no time to consolidate, and who’s to say that today’s consolidation won’t be a kludge in thirty years? A mature city has time, and has little to worry about rapid change obsoleting present-day methods.

But at the same time, the same epistemology means that these changes are less critical in a mature city. In the third world, everything is terrible; in the first world, most things are fine. New York’s transportation problems are painful for commuters, but ultimately, they will not paralyze the city. It will do well even if it doesn’t build a single kilometer of subway in the future. Nothing is indispensable; this means that, in the face of high costs, often the correct alternative may be No Build. This illustrates the importance of improving cost-effectiveness (equally important in the third world, but there the problem is the opposite – too many things are indispensable and there isn’t enough money for all of them).

I emphasize that this does not mean transportation is unimportant. That New York will not be destroyed if it stops building new infrastructure does not mean that new infrastructure is of no use for the city. The city needs to be able to facilitate future economic and demographic growth and solve lingering social problems, and better infrastructure, done right, can play a role in that. New York will most likely look similar in 2067 to how it looks in 2017, but it can still use better infrastructure to be a better and more developed city by then.

More Things that are not Why New York’s Construction Costs are High

The most annoying person I regularly deal with on social media is Walkable Princeton/YIMBY Princeton, a biology professor at Rutgers who constantly criticizes my writings on comparative construction costs, and usually raises good points. Dealing with zombie arguments (China, anything Elon Musk says, etc.) is so much easier. A few days ago, he put up a post summarizing 20 potential reasons why subway construction costs in New York (and in the US in general) are high. He’s also repeatedly made a separate argument on social media, not mentioned in the post, expressing skepticism that the construction cost differences are real, rather than just statistical artifacts.

In this post, I am going to purposely not talk about the two biggest criticisms – the claim about the statistical differences, and the argument from local expertise (points #7 and #8 in his post). Those require dedicated posts, and the argument from local expertise should really be tackled in two separate posts, one about project size (comparing cities that build long subway lines with ones that build many short subway extensions) and one about the undisputed negative correlation between construction costs and the extent of construction across cities. I will deal with this in the next few weeks or months, depending on publishing schedules elsewhere. In this post I’m instead going to deal with the weaker criticisms.

The first five points made in the post come from arguments I discussed here, saying that they are not real reasons why US construction costs are high. The sixth point concerns project size. Since the seventh and eighth point will be a dedicated post, I will start with the ninth point.

Of note, many of the explanations offered are serious and relevant, just not to the specific problem of high construction costs of urban rail. They are relevant to some construction costs problems for high-speed rail, and operating costs, and rolling stock procurement costs. But the explanation for expensive urban tunneling is most likely elsewhere. Only one point below, #13, begins to address that specific issue, and even it seems to me to be at most a partial explanation.

9. ‘Buy America’ provisions – Regulations requiring transit agencies to purchase equipment built in the US may drive up costs, as overseas manufacturers have to build a factory in the US to produce the needed kit. Other nations buy transit equipment more regularly, so have ready access to an efficient supply chain.

Buy America provisions indeed raise American costs for small orders – but only for rolling stock. Dedicated factories, often built in-state for added protectionism, make trains for $3-5 million per car (for example, compare Muni Metro’s $4 million/car order for 23-meter cars with Strasbourg’s $4 million/car order for 45-meter cars). Only the biggest orders, such as those for the New York City Subway, the LIRR, and Metro-North, have enough scale to control costs.

However, this is not an issue for infrastructure construction. The bulk of the cost of civil infrastructure is not specialized machinery, which American cities import anyway (the tunnel-boring machine for the 7 extension was made in Germany). It’s local labor and materials, and less specialized machinery for digging earthworks for stations.

10. Bad attitude – Call it a ‘New York state of mind’ – MTA old dogs may prefer to see a project fail than to be proven wrong or see praise go to an agency rival. Not clear that New Yorkers have a worse attitude than people from other big cities, but certainly worth considering.

11. Chaotic political environment – Transit projects must be agreed by too many agencies and personalities, some of whom may have conflicting priorities. For example, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo doesn’t seem to get on with Mayor Bill DiBlasio, and the less said about Governor Christie the better. Personality clashes and inter-state squabbling at the Port Authority board have frustrated long-term planning. Donald Trump controls federal funds that may be needed to fund new transit projects.

These are really the same criticism: agency turf battles. Those can make cities build the wrong project, or overbuild a tunnel in order to avoid sharing facilities with another agency. The bulk of the construction costs of high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor, and a large fraction of those of California HSR, come from this. Readers who are familiar with debates about California HSR will know about the Altamont vs. Pacheco Pass controversy and about avoidable tunnels like Millbrae.

However, this isn’t really what’s happening in urban subways. The Gateway project has unnecessary scope like Penn Station South, but even the bare tunnel is estimated at $11 billion.

12. Lack of stable long-term funding – Long-term funding for transit projects is uncertain, and even part-built projects can be canceled at any moment (see Governor Christie, ARC tunnels). New York has a long track record of abandoning transit projects, and the Second Avenue Subway project took nearly 100 years to do.

Midway cancellations are really a symptom of high costs rather than a cause. At cancellation, ARC was projected to cost $10-13 billion, up from $3 billion in the major investment study from 2003. This is not unique to the United States: high costs and construction impact for Stuttgart 21 led to widespread opposition to the project from within Stuttgart, leading to the election of Germany’s first Green-led state government; the Green Party opposed Stuttgart 21 and proposed a cheaper, lower-impact project without tunneling. It did not cancel the project, but put it up to referendum, which failed – the majority of state voters, and even of Stuttgart voters, wanted the project to keep going. Going to a second referendum on canceling a project, rather than canceling it by executive fiat as in New Jersey, is not unique to Germany: in Florida, Governor Jeb Bush put a second referendum on the ballot in 2004, successfully killing high-speed rail.

13. Project bloat – Planners may over-do transit infrastructure, for example by hiring a superstar architect like Santiago Calatrava to design the Port Authority PATH station instead of ‘Joe Goodenough’. Cavernous two-level stations in the new Second Avenue Subway stations may not contribute substantially to function, and drive costs up a lot.

This is indeed a serious problem! New York has been overbuilding stations since the 1930s, when the IND subways had full-length mezzanines. I encourage the New York-based readers to compare the size of the stations on the IND, such as West 4th Street or 145th Street on the A/B/C/D, and that of the stations on the IRT and BMT, such as Union Square. The Calatrava-designed PATH terminal was massively expensive more recently, and Second Avenue Subway is expensive in part because of the large stations.

And yet. Even relatively utilitarian American projects aren’t always cheap – again, the bare Gateway tunnel. Moreover, some of the project bloat is not really about overdesign, but about wrong political choices. Second Avenue Subway had no cut-and-cover construction except at 96th Street to stage the tunnel boring. Second Avenue is wide and the entire line could be built cut-and-cover. Cut-and-cover is highly disruptive to street merchants, but a hybrid solution, with cut-and-cover stations and bored tunnels between them, is possible and widespread in several low- and medium-cost cities, such as Madrid and Copenhagen. But even the stations were bored, which limited surface disruption at each station to a few cross streets, but made construction take much longer; the corner of 72nd and 2nd was unpleasant to walk around for most of the duration of the ten-year project.

14. Fire safety regulations – Modern standards for smoke clearance and emergency evacuation may require larger two-level stations that appear bloated.

15. Environmental regulations – Disruption to fragile ecosystems may not be as tolerated in the New York area as in some other countries, driving up costs.

16. ADA standards – Transit stations in New York must comply with federal accessibility requirements, meaning many elevators that drive up costs.

These issues exist throughout the developed world. New subways are step-free even in cities that make no effort to retrofit the rest of the system for wheelchair accessibility, such as Paris. We also know how much it costs to add elevators to stations, and it is a rounding error: during construction, making five more Crossrail stations accessible costs £19 million. Even retrofitting an old subway station for accessibility after construction is $25-40 million in the US (source: article about New York, interview with an accessibility planner in Boston). And as for environmental regulations, I doubt there are endangered species on the Upper East Side under Second Avenue.

17. Americans don’t care about transit – Other nations may take pride in their fancy rail systems, but we’ve got aircraft carriers and don’t care if the subway looks pretty worn.

18. High levels of sprawl – Whereas NYC is dense at the core, the surrounding metro area is not very dense. The Los Angeles metro area is in fact denser than the New York metro area. Low housing density, especially in the areas where rich folks live, makes transit less efficient and undermines public support for expensive transit investments.

Suburban drivers may not want to spend money on subways, but that should not make subways more expensive to build. It should reduce cost per rider, in the sense of lowering the maximum cost per rider that the political system is willing to build; but the effect on cost per km should be neutral.

19. Corruption – Is the Mob siphoning off loads of the money that is supposed to go to build transit??

It probably is. And yet, corruption levels in Italy are far higher than in the United States, and yet costs are pretty low. Corruption levels in Spain and South Korea aren’t especially low. And Singapore, renowned for its clean government (below the level of the prime minister, at least, but he doesn’t decide on subway alignments), is a serious contender for most expensive subway outside the United States.

20. Terrible leadership – Ronnie Hakim, the current MTA Director, is supposedly seen as incompetent by many of her staff. Joe Lhota, the MTA Chair, doesn’t even work full-time at the job. The Port Authority Board is stuffed with Chris Christie stooges, some of whom may know nothing about transit.

Hakim is incompetent and I have sources within the MTA who are exasperated with her indifference to one of the most fundamental goals of rapid transit (namely, being rapid). Much like explanation #9, there is a serious problem here, but it doesn’t affect tunneling costs. It affects operating costs, which appear to be higher in New York than in any other city participating in CoMET (see PDF-p. 7 here: the highest-cost system on the right is in fact New York). But it is not about tunneling. Unlike Hakim, long-time MTA Capital Construction chief Michael Horodinceanu is not hated by the junior and mid-level planners who leak to the press, and unlike Lhota, he works the job full-time worked the job full-time until retiring earlier this year.

Commuter Rail Infill Stops

This is a close second option in a poll I conducted among my Patreon backers. Thanks to everyone who participated. The winning option, about branching and transfers, I covered last week.

Modernizing commuter rail to run it like rapid transit means a lot of things. It means high all-day frequency, fare integration, good transfers to local transit (which requires fare integration), and ideally through-running in order to hit multiple business districts. In North America, these are absent, resulting in low ridership. So let’s posit that these problems are already being solved: commuter rail is being run frequently, the lines are electrified, the fares are the same as on local transit with free transfers. What should the stop pattern look like? This is not a purely hypothetical discussion, because in Toronto the under-construction RER system includes high off-peak frequency, electrification, and through-running, with fare integration under consideration.

So let’s imagine a city with modernized regional rail, maybe in the early 2020s. Trains run every 15 minutes off-peak, charge the same fare as local transit, and run fast EMUs, on track that’s good for 130 km/h outside station throats. The stop pattern, expressed in kilometers out of city center, is any of the following:

Line Stop #1 Stop #2 Stop #3 Stop #4 Stop #5 Stop #6
Chicago Metra Electric 1.3 2.3 3.6 4.3 5.2 9.5
Chicago UP-North 4.5 10.5 15.1 17.7 19.3 21.4
GO Transit Lakeshore West 3.2 10.8 15.4 20.6 26.9 34.4
GO Transit Lakeshore East 8.4 13.8 17.1 20.3 26.6 33.6
SEPTA Paoli/Thorndale Line (PRR Main Line) 8.7 9.7 10.9 11.9 13.7 13.7
Metrolink Antelope Valley Line 9.3 17.5 24.9 35.4 48.3 55.1
Metrolink Orange County Line 14.4 27.1 35.2 41.3 50.2 53.5

(Metrolink data comes from measuring on Google Earth, the rest comes from Wikipedia.)

Two patterns emerge:

  1. Metrolink and GO Transit have very wide stop spacing. GO has straight track it owns outright on the Lakeshore lines, and Metrolink is straight with few curves on the Orange County Line (but freight owns much of the route) and straight until stop #4 on the Antelope Valley Line, Sylmar. EMUs could average 90 km/h on these lines, counting schedule padding.
  2. SEPTA and Metra have wide stop spacing in the core but very narrow spacing in the suburbs; I discussed this issue for Metra in an old post comparing its stop distribution through stop #12 with that of the RER. Metra Electric has a few inner stops, e.g. for the convention center (stop #4), but then there’s a 4-km gap from stop #5 to stop #6 (Kenwood).

Both patterns are compatible with modernized rail operations. But both have problems with dealing with passenger demand. Consider what happens to a transit user in Burbank (stop #2 on Antelope Valley), or Ravenswood on the North Side of Chicago (stop #2 on UP-North), or Danforth and Main (stop #1 on Lakeshore East). Such a passenger would get an incredibly fast train to the CBD, running either nonstop or with one stop. Demand would boom. But is this really the most efficient way of running transit? Not really. This is for the following reasons:

  • The downstream locations would still be very attractive infill train stations, with potential for high ridership. After all, they’d get fast service, too.
  • If you get a 1-stop, 10-minute train ride to work, then adding four more stops to turn it into a 15-minute ride sounds like an imposition (it raises trip times by 50%), but it really isn’t, because most likely your actual commute is 30 minutes, with 10 minutes of walking at each end.
  • With fare integration, buses should really be feeding the major train stations. Making every bus feed a small number of stations with fast commuter rail service compromises the rest of the network, whereas siting train stations at the intersections with the major grid buses in cities like Toronto, Chicago, and Los Angeles facilitates transfers better.

As a result of these principles, my proposal for Electrolink in Los Angeles, built out of the Antelope Valley and Orange County Line, involves extensive infill stops. See map below:

I drew even more extensive (and somewhat fanciful) maps for Los Angeles and Chicago, with more infill, but I want to focus on my Electrolink map, because it showcases some caveats.

Of note, there is much more infill on the Antelope Valley and Ventura County Lines than on the Orange County Line. This is because there is less residential density near the Orange County Line, and much more industrial land use. Los Angeles has a strong manufacturing sector, using the railroad for freight access, so residential upzoning near potential infill station locations is speculative. In the San Fernando Valley the land use near the railroads is not great, but there is a decent amount of residential density beyond the near-railroad industrial uses, there are strong bus corridors intersecting the railroads (and potential for light rail); the corridors also have less freight, so it’s easier to kick out industrial uses from station sites and do residential and commercial upzoning.

In New York and Boston, there are other caveats, explaining why my various regional rail proposals for these cities call only for mild infill. The biggest caveat is that there exist parallel subway lines. Boston’s Old Colony trunk passes through relatively dense areas in Dorchester and Quincy, with just three stops: JFK/UMass at km-point 3.7, Quincy at km-point 12.7, Braintree at km-point 17.6. But the Red Line runs parallel to the trunk making more stops, enabling commuter rail to work as an express overlay. Thus, only the busiest locations deserve a commuter rail stop, and those are precisely the three existing stops. In Somerville, the Green Line Extension plays a similar role, providing local service that commuter rail would otherwise have to provide under any modernization scheme. As a result, my proposal for how to run the Old Colony Lines and the Lowell Line through Somerville is more intercity rail than local commuter rail.

In contrast, the Worcester Line has no parallel subway except on the innermost few km, so it’s already getting two infill stops (Boston Landing and West Station) and I’ve called for several more. The same is true of the Fairmount Line, which is expanding from five stops including the endpoints to nine.

There is an analog for this in Paris, on the RER. Within the city and La Defense, the RER A mostly runs as an express overlay for Metro Line 1, stopping at the major stations, omitting just Bastille, which is too close to Gare de Lyon. But the RER B really has two separate stop regimes. North of Chatelet, parallel to Line 4, it expresses to Gare du Nord, and then doesn’t stop again until reaching the suburbs. But south of Chatelet, all trains make 5 stops in 5 km to Cite-Universitaire, even ones that run express in the suburbs; this is the older part of the line, much of which predates the Metro, so Line 4 was built along a different alignment via Gare Montparnasse.

In New York, the commuter trunks going north and east are closely parallel to the subway, which is often four-tracked. Since the subway already provides relatively fast service, with stops every 2-3 km, commuter rail should be even faster, with sparser stops. The principles here are,

  • Infill stops are more justified at intersections with major orthogonal bus or rail corridors or in dense, transit-deprived areas. Areas with little residential development are to be categorized based on redevelopment potential.
  • Infill stops are less justified parallel to a subway line. The faster the subway is, the faster commuter rail should be.
  • Infill stops are more justified on a shorter line than on a longer line. Here, “shorter” and “longer” do not mean the length of the line to the endpoint, but the length to the endpoint of local service, if the infill stops would not be served by express trains.

Metro-North is parallel to the four-track Lexington Avenue Line, which has four tracks. Between 125th Street and Grand Central, the 4 and 5 trains make just two intermediate stops, at 86th and 59th Streets. Metro-North runs nonstop between 125th and Grand Central, and because the 4 and 5 exist, it has no reason to make more stops, even at 59th for additional service to Midtown

In the Bronx the trunk line isn’t so close to the subway, but already makes multiple stops. There may be plausible infill in Morrisania between Melrose and Tremont. But even that is marginal – for one, Melrose, Tremont, and Fordham are all located at the intersections with high-ridership east-west bus routes, whereas nothing in between is. This distinction between an inner and outer part of the same line also holds for the Atlantic Branch: west of Broadway Junction it parallels the four-track A/C, so no infill is needed, but farther east it parallels the slower J/Z and isn’t even that close to the subway, so infill is useful.

Going east, the LIRR Main Line is parallel to the Queens Boulevard Line, like the Lex a four-track line. There is no real point in infill, except at Sunnyside Junction, where the line meets the Northeast Corridor. The Port Washington Branch is a shorter line than anything on the Main Line, even the Hempstead Branch (but not by much), and isn’t as close to the 7 as the Main Line is to the Queens Boulevard Line; the 7 is also slower. This means an infill stop or two may be justified – my map has three (at Queens Boulevard, Broadway, and Junction), but that may be too much.

It’s the west direction that is the most speculative, toward New Jersey. I have called for new Hudson tunnels to feature a station at Bergenline (building a station in the existing tunnels would disrupt current service and slow down express trains) based on the above principles. Additional infill is possible, but only subject to transit-oriented development plans alongside the line. The land use from just west of Bergen Hill, including Bergenline, to just east of Newark, is a combination of industrial warehouses and wetland preserves. The warehouses should be redeveloped, but until there is rezoning, it is pointless to add more stops. Moreover, Secaucus Junction is already in the middle of the warehouse area, so rezoning should start from there, and if the newly-built residential neighborhood grows big enough so as to justify a second station, a second station can be added later.

The upshot is that even though New York has very wide stop spacing on commuter rail near the core, it does not need as much infill as Los Angeles or Chicago. What about Toronto, the original impetus for the post? There, Metrolinx is already considering minor infill. But if the principles emerging from how I think about infill in the US and on the RER are correct, Toronto needs far more infill. The Lakeshore lines are not really close to the subway: they run east-west, as does the Bloor-Danforth Line, but Lakeshore West is about 2 km from Bloor, and Lakeshore East is mostly 1 km from Danforth, with just a short segment within walking distance. The inner areas of Lakeshore West are very dense, with some blocks at 30,000 people per km^2, and only served by buses and slow mixed-traffic streetcars; even some areas along Lakeshore East are fairly dense, more than 10,000/km^2. Toronto’s bus and streetcar grid hits or can be extended to hit several potential station locations, offering better connections than riding to the Bloor-Danforth Line and then changing to Yonge to reach the CBD.

The one drawback in Toronto: the commuter lines are very long. Not all trains have to make all stops, but if there’s one stopping pattern making 3 stops in 15 km and another making 12, then it isn’t really possible to mix them on the same tracks at high frequency. The core lines have four tracks, but Lakeshore needs to eventually mix four classes of trains: local commuter rail, longer-range commuter rail, intercity rail, freight. There are ways around four-way mixture (for example, there is little freight on Lakeshore in Toronto proper, where the local trains would run), and intercity trains can probably share tracks with long-range commuter trains. It’s solvable, just like the three-way track-sharing between local, express, and eventual high-speed trains around New York, but it isn’t trivial.

In general, North American commuter trains make too few stops in the urban core. Tellingly, while I can come up with many examples of lines that require infill, I can’t name five good examples of anti-infill, where a station served by commuter trains full-time should be closed. But not all commuter lines are equally good candidates for infill stops, and there are large networks, such as Metro-North, where the current stop spacing is fine, just as there are ones, such as GO Transit and some Metra lines, where some inner segments could plausible see the number of stops quadruple.