I’ve discussed before the topic of missed connections on subway systems, both here and on City Metric. I’ve for the most part taken it for granted that on a rapid transit network, it’s important to ensure that whenever two lines intersect, they offer a transfer. This seems like common sense. The point of this post is not to argue for this principle, but to distinguish two different kinds of missed connections: city center misses, and outlying misses. Both are bad; if I had to say which is worse I’d say it’s the city center miss, but city center misses and outlying misses are bad for distinct reasons.
A useful principle is that every pair of rapid transit lines should intersect, unless one is a shuttle, or both are circumferential. If the city is so large that it has multiple circular lines at different radii (Beijing has two, and London vaguely has two as well depending on how one counts the Overground), then they shouldn’t intersect, but rapid transit networks should be radial, and every radial line should connect to every other line, with all radial-radial transfers ideally located within the center. City center misses weaken the network by making some radials not connect, or perhaps connect at an inconvenient spot. Outlying misses often permit more central transfers, and their problem is that they make it harder to transfer to the better or less crowded radial on the way to the center. London supplies a wealth of examples of the latter without the former.
What counts as a missed connection?
Fundamentally, the following picture is a missed subway connection:
The red and blue lines intersect without a transfer. Even if a few stations later there is a transfer, this is a miss. In contrast, the following picture is not a missed connection:
It might be faster for riders to transfer between the southern and western leg if there were a station at the exact physical intersection point, but as long as the next station on the red line has a transfer to the blue line it counts, even if the blue line has one (or more) stations in the middle. Washington supplies an example of this non-miss: it frustrates riders that there’s no connection between Farragut West and Farragut North, but at the next station south from the intersection on the Red Line, Metro Center, there is a transfer to the Blue and Orange Lines. London supplies another pair of examples: the Northern line and the Waterloo and City line appear to intersect the District line without a transfer, but their next station north from the physical intersection point, Bank, has an in-system transfer to Monument on the District.
There are still a few judgment calls in this system. One is what to do at the end of the line. In this case, I rule it a missed connection if the terminal clearly has an intersection without a transfer; if the terminal is roughly between the two stations on the through-line, it doesn’t count. Another is what to do about two lines that intersect twice in close succession, such as the Bakerloo and Hammersmith and City lines in London, and Metro Lines 4 and 10 in Paris. In such cases, I rule that, if there’s just one station on the wrong side (Paddington on Bakerloo, Mabillon on M10) then I rule it a single intersection and allow transfers at the next station over, by which standard London has a missed connection (Edgware Road has no Bakerloo/H&C transfer) and Paris doesn’t (Odeon has an M4/M10 transfer).
How many missed connections are there?
In Paris, there are three missed connections on the Metro: M9/M12, M5/M14, M9/M14. As I discuss on City Metric, it’s no coincidence that two of these misses involve Line 14, which has wide stop spacing. Narrow stop spacing makes it easier to connect within line-dense city centers, and Paris famously has the densest stop spacing of any major metro system. M9/M12 and M9/M14 morally should connect at Saint-Augustin and Saint-Lazare, but in fact there is no in-system transfer. M5/M14 should connect at Gare de Lyon, but when M5 was built it was not possible to get the line to the station underground and then have it cross the Seine above-ground, so instead it meets M1 at Bastille, while M14 doesn’t serve since it expresses from Gare de Lyon to Chatelet. A fourth missed connection is under construction: the extension of M14 to the north misses M2 at Rome, prioritizing long stop spacing over the connection to the M2/M6 circumferential.
In Tokyo, there are many misses. I am not sure why this is, but judging by line layout, Tokyo Metro and Toei try to stick to major roads whenever possible, to avoid tunneling under private property, and this constrains the ability of newer lines to hit station locations on older lines. If I understand this map correctly, there are 19 missed connections: Ginza/Hibiya (Toranomon and Kasumigaseki should connect), Ginza/Mita, Ginza/Yurakucho, Ginza/Shinjuku, Marunouchi/Mita (Ginza and Hibiya should connect), Marunouchi/Yurakucho, Asakusa/Yurakucho, Asakusa/Hanzomon, Hibiya/Namboku, Hibiya/Yurakucho (Tsukiji and Shintomicho should connect), Hibiya/Hanzomon, Hibiya/Shinjuku, Hibiya/Oedo, Tozai/Oedo, Tozai/Fukutoshin, Mita/Oedo, Chiyoda/Oedo twice, and Oedo/Fukutoshin. Oedo is particularly notable for being a circumferential line that misses a large number of transfers.
In New York, there are even more misses. Here the culprit is clear: the two older layers of the subway, the IRT and BMT, have just two missed connections. One, 3/L at Junius Street and Livonia Avenue, is an outlying miss. The other is central: Bowling Green on the 4-5 and Whitehall on the R-W should connect. But the newer layer, the IND, was built to drive the IRT and BMT into bankruptcy through competition rather than to complement them, and has a brutal number of misses: ABCD/2-3, ACE/1-2-3, AC-F/2-3-4-5, AC-G/2-3-4-5-BQ-DNR, BD/NQRW, BDFM/NQRW, BD/JZ, E/1, E/F, M/NW, R/7, F/BD-NQ, F/NRW, F-Q/4-5-6, F/NW, G/7, G/JMZ. Counting individual track pairs, this is 46 misses, for a total of 48 including the two IRT/BMT misses; I’m excluding local-only transfers, such as Columbus Circle and 53rd/Lex, and counting the 42nd Street Shuttle as an express version of the 7, so it doesn’t miss the BDFM transfer.
Finally, London only has eight misses. In Central London there are three: the Metropolitan or Hammersmith and City line misses the Bakerloo line as discussed above, and also the Victoria line and Charing Cross branch of the Northern line at Euston. The other five are outlying: the Central line misses the Hammersmith and City line at Wood Lane/White City, and its branches miss the Piccadilly line’s Uxbridge branch three times; the fifth miss is Metropolitan/Bakerloo. But one more miss is under construction: the Battersea extension of the Northern line is going to intersect the Victoria line without a transfer.
The difference between the two kinds of miss
Many misses are located just a few stations away from a transfer. In New York, some misses are just a station away from a transfer, including the G/7 miss in Long Island City, the E/1 miss between 50th Street and 59th Street, and several more are a few stations away, such as the various BDFM/NQRW misses. In London, these include two of the three Central London transfers: there is an H&C/Bakerloo transfer at Baker Street and an H&C-Met/Victoria transfer at King’s Cross-St. Pancras. As a result, not counting the Waterloo and City line, only two trunk lines in the system do not have any transfer: the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line and the Metropolitan/H&C line.
On a radial network, if two lines don’t have any transfer, then the network is degraded, since passengers can’t easily connect. In New York, this is a huge problem: some station pairs even within the inner networks require two transfers, or even three counting a cross-platform local/express transfer. My interest in subway networks and how they function came about when I lived in Morningside Heights on the 1 and tried socializing with bloggers in Williamsburg near the JMZ.
In Paris the three misses are also a problem. Line 4 is the only with a transfer to every other main line. Line 9 intersects every other line, and Line 14 will when its northern extension opens, but both miss connections, requiring some passengers to take three-seat rides, in a city infamous for its labyrinthine transfer stations. Fundamentally, the problem is that the Paris Metro is less radial than it should be: some lines are laid out as grid routes, including Lines 3, 5, and 10; moreover, Lines 8, 9, 12, and 13 are radial but oriented toward a different center from Lines 1, 4, 7, and 11.
In London, in contrast, there is almost no pair of stations that require a three-seat ride. The Charing Cross branch of the Northern line doesn’t make any stop that passengers from the H&C or Met line can’t get to from another line with one interchange (Goodge Street is walking distance to Warren Street). A bigger problem is the lack of interchange to the Central line on the west, which makes the connections between the H&C stations on the west and some Central line stations awkward, but it’s still only a small number of stations on each line. So the problem in London is not network robustness.
Rather, the problem in London is severe capacity limitations on some lines. Without good outlying interchanges, passengers who want to get between two lines need to ride all the way to the center. Most likely, passengers between the Piccadilly and Central line branches to the west end up driving, as car ownership in West London is relatively high. Passengers without a car have to instead overload the Central line trunk.
The same problem applies to misses that are strictly speaking not missed connections because the two lines do not actually intersect. In Paris, this occurs on Line 7, which swings by the Opera but doesn’t go far enough west to meet Lines 12 and 13. In London, the best example is Hammersmith station: the H&C and District lines have separate stations without an interchange, but they do not intersect since it’s the terminus of the H&C line and therefore I don’t count it as a miss. But morally it’s an outlying miss, preventing District line riders from changing to the H&C line to reach key destinations like Euston, King’s Cross, and Moorgate without overloading the Victoria or Northern line.
In New York this problem is much less acute. The only outlying misses are the 3/L and the ABCD/2-3; the 3/L connects two very low-ridership tails, so the only serious miss is on the Upper West Side. There, passengers originating in Harlem can walk to either line, since the two trunks are two long blocks apart, and passengers originating in Washington Heights can transfer from the A-C to the 1 at 168th Street; at the other end, passengers bound for Midtown can transfer at Columbus Circle, using the underfull 1 rather than the overcrowded 2 and 3.
The role of circumferential lines
Outlying transfers are useful in distributing passengers better to avoid capacity crunches, but they are incidental. They occur when formerly competing suburban lines get shoehorned into the same subway network, or when two straight roads intersect, as in Queens. But the task of distributing passengers between radial lines remains important and requires good connections between as many pairs of radials as possible.
The usual solution to this is a circumferential line. In Moscow, there are several missed connections in the center (Lines 3/6, 3/7, 6/9) and one more planned (8/9), but the Circle Line helps tie in nearly all the radii together, with just one missed connection (to Line 10 to the north) and one more under construction (to Line 8 to the west). The point of the Circle Line is to allow riders to connect between two outlying legs without congesting the center. This is especially important in the context of Moscow, where there are only a handful of interchange stations in the center, most of which connect more than two lines.
In London, the Overground is supposed to play this role. However, the connections between the Underground and Overground are weak. From Highbury and Islington clockwise, the Overground misses connections to the Central line, the Victoria line, the main line of the District line, the Piccadilly line, the Hammersmith and City line, both branches of the Northern line, and the Piccadilly line (it also misses the Metropolitan line, but that’s on a four-track stretch where it is express and local service is provided by the Jubilee line, with which there is a transfer). Much of this is an unforced error, since the Underground lines are often above-ground this far out, and stations could be moved to be better located for transfers.
In New York, the only circumferential line is the G train, which has uniquely bad transfers, legacy of the IND’s unwillingness to build a system working together with the older subways. Triboro RX (in the original version, not the more recent version) would play this role better: with very little tunneling, it could connect to every subway line going counterclockwise from the R in Bay Ridge to the B-D and 4 at Yankee Stadium. On the way, it would connect to some major intermediate centers, including Brooklyn College and Jackson Heights, but the point is not just to connect to these destinations in the circumferential direction but also to facilitate transfers between different lines.
Going forward, cities with large metro network should aim to construct transfers where feasible. In New York there are perennial proposals to connect the 3 and L trains; these should be implemented. In London, the missed outlying transfers involve above-ground stations, which can be moved. The most important miss, White City/Wood Lane, is already indicated as an interchange on the map, but does not to my understanding have an in-system transfer; this should be fixed.
Moreover, it is especially important to have transfers from the radial lines to the circumferential ones. These improve network connectivity by allowing passengers to change direction (from radial to circumferential, e.g. from east-west to north-south within Queens), but also help passengers avoid congested city centers like outlying radial-radial transfers. Where circumferential lines don’t exist, they should be constructed, including Triboro in New York and Line 15 in Paris; where they do, it’s important to ensure they don’t miss connections the way the Overground does.
A year ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a competitive $2.5 million grant, to be disbursed by what he dubbed the Genius Challenge. I wrote about it at the time, expressing skepticism that it would lead to anything useful. The panel of eight judges had only one person with background in the transportation industry, a former FRA administrator. The word “genius” itself is a tech mainstay that to me mostly means “I don’t know any Fields Medalists.” And the topics within the scope of the grant seemed more about what the tech industry thought were the most pressing issues and not what the lowest-hanging actually were. I had very low expectations, and the announcement of the winning entries met them.
The grant has three topics: signaling, rolling stock (interpreted broadly), and underground mobile or wireless service. The last three is by far the least important; it also got only half a million dollars, whereas each of the other two got a full million. Each of the two main ideas shows how weak the very concept of the genius grant is, but they do so in dramatically different ways.
The rolling stock winners included a vendor asking for a grant for New York to use its rolling stock (CRRC); the problems with that idea are more akin to those of the signaling section, so I will cover them there. A second rolling stock winner was a proposal to use better data collection to facilitate preventive maintenance; this idea may or may not work, it’s hard to tell from layers of obfuscating business language. It’s the third idea that deserves the most attention, and the most scorn: lengthening trains but not platforms.
The crank Idea: lengthening trains
The genius competition gave a $330,000 grant for the idea of lengthening trains from 10 to 14 cars without lengthening the platforms. Trains would alternate between only berthing the first 10 cars and only berthing the last 10. Transit Twitter has already dumped on this idea, and for good reason: the proposal reads like a crank paper purporting to prove the Riemann hypothesis or another famous result, starting with a lot of trivial observations and then making a leap of logic buried somewhere in the middle.
The basic problem with running trains that are longer than the platforms is that passengers need to be able to move to the correct car, which takes time. The report says that this is done on the London Underground, which is true, but only at outlying stations – as is the case on the subway in New York. The conductor announcement “only the first five cars will open” is familiar to anyone riding the 3 train and was familiar to anyone riding the 1 train before the new South Ferry station opened. This is fine as long as the station in question is low-volume enough that the extra dwell time does not interfere with operations. Lengthening trains beyond the platforms at busier stations than
Harlem-148th Street 145th Street or South Ferry would result in a shuffle forcing passengers to scramble within the train (if moving between cars is possible) or on the platform (if it isn’t). The dwell times would be brutal and would almost certainly reduce capacity measured in passengers per hour.
The proposal handwaves this critical flaw by saying that dwell times would decrease because crowding would decrease. This assumes that dwell times are a function exclusively of on-train crowding, rather than of the number of passengers getting on or off the train. The same number of passengers would have the same platform space, but would actually only be able to use a fraction of it: many would only be able to use the 6 cars that go to their chosen destination, and at those cars, the volume of passengers per unit of platform length would rise.
The second handwave is unlimited stations, with longer platforms. Acknowledging that the busiest stations should have all doors open, the proposal says,
[P. 20] Third, 18.5% of rides occur through just 10 stations in Manhattan. In the medium term, the platforms can, and should, be extended at these 10 stations to enable customers that embark and disembark at them to use any car at both ends of their trip. Accordingly, 9.25% of the customers that presently need to use the middle cars could instead use the end cars.
This is the equivalent of the logical leap from trivial to wrong in a crank paper. First, the number of central stations that would need to be lengthened is much more than 10, including some key origins (86th/Lex, Jamaica Center, etc.) and transfer points (West 4th, Canal, 96th/Broadway). And second and more importantly, the busiest stations are multilevel complexes, where just adding more pedestrian circulation is hard; London is spending a considerable amount of money on that at Bank. Lengthening platforms at these stations is prohibitively expensive. This problem is discussed in cities with constrained underground platforms in the CBD, such as Vancouver, where nearly all Expo Line stations are above-ground (thus, relatively easy to lengthen), but the most crowded in Downtown Vancouver are in a tunnel, where platform reconstruction costs too much to be economic.
The bigger question is why the judges did not catch the error. The proposal brings up London as an example, which serves to bring the magic of the foreign to people who are unfamiliar with best industry practices. Saying that New York does the same is equally true, and in a way more relevant to the proposal (since New York doesn’t let people move between cars, making this more challenging than in London), but would raise questions like “can the dwell times of relatively light stations like South Ferry or Harlem-145th be replicated at the top 40 stations?”. London is Anglophone and some reformist New Yorkers have used it as a source of foreign ideas the way they wouldn’t use non-Anglophone cities. But the judges didn’t do the basic due diligence of checking whether London really implements the idea as widely as the proposal implies, and if not, then why not.
The rent-seeking idea: CBTC by another name
New York State awarded four applicants $250,000 each for ideas about signaling. All four ideas boiled down to the same thing: introducing new technology for communication between trains permitting the functional equivalent of moving-block signaling, at a lower cost than preexisting communication-based train control (CBTC) installations.
The grantees all have experience in the transportation industry. Rail signaling vendors Thales and Ansaldo propose to use cameras to read automated signals; train sensor provider Metrom Rail and veteran rail manager and consultant Robert James propose ultra-wide broadband to improve train location precision. There’s nothing obviously wrong about their proposals. Nor is there anything outlandish, which is why each of the two technologies has two independent applicants behind it. Thales and Ansaldo in particular have experience in advanced signaling – Thales supplied CBTC to the L 7 train in New York and to Metro Line 13 in Paris, and Ansaldo supplied rail automation to Copenhagen and CBTC to a number of Paris Metro lines.
Even then, questions about cost remain. Robert James’ and Metrom’s proposals leave a bad taste in my mouth for their cost estimates. James has a systemwide cost estimate somewhat less than $200 million, not much more than $500,000 per km; Metrom says its system costs “$3 million per mile” and compares itself positively with legacy CBTC systems at $20 million per mile. Actual costs of CBTC without automation in Paris on Line 13 were about 5 million euros per km according to Wikipedia, and this includes modification of the railyards and not just the signaling system. So the Metrom system’s claimed figure is still cheaper, but not by quite as much. Metrom also complains that in Boston, CBTC would not improve capacity much because it would prohibit double-berthing, an issue that is only relevant to a subway-surface system and not to a full metro.
The broader problem with this part of the grant is that if the MTA put out an RFP about CBTC on the subway, it would get bids from Ansaldo, Thales, and Metrom, and James might well bid or consult for a bidder. It would be able to judge the technical merit of each proposal in much closer detail than given in the competition. Instead, the state is paying vendors to market their technology to the public, which would influence future procurement.
While the grant asks about whether the technology is proprietary, it makes no attempt at establishing a multi-vendor standards. Such standards exist: Thales and Ansaldo are both listed as ERTMS vendors. In France there’s already a discussion in the trade press about whether using ERTMS is better than using CBTC; the discussion specifically mentions New York’s uniqueness as a network with connected rather than isolated lines, and says CBTC is designed for isolated lines whereas ERTMS is designed for shared lines, such as the RER system. European experts might well recommend that New York use ERTMS for the subway, even though it’s a system originally designed for mainline rail.
New York’s highly-branched system means it must be more conservative with new technology – there’s nowhere to test it, now that the L and 7 already have CBTC. The shuttles might be useful test cases, or the 1 and 6 trains on weekdays, but without isolated lines, the cost of a mistake in procurement or technological failure is much higher. This suggests the MTA should try to reduce the complexity of branching (which is what I would’ve proposed if it had been within the grant’s scope), and until then concentrate on imitating proven technology rather than innovating. This is especially important given the potential for rent-seeking, in which the vendors use the grant to market themselves to the state over competitors selling similar product.
The judges don’t know any better
Would a panel of judges with more familiarity with metro operations around the first world have come to better decisions? Probably. Through blogs, railfan forums, and comments, I know people with great knowledge of existing operations in a number of cities in the first world, and for the most part they think highly enough of their local systems that they’d ask of any innovation, “why hasn’t it been implemented here already?”.
I wrote in 2011 that people in the US who make technical arguments in favor of public transit tend to be skeptical of many proposals, to the point of finding existing US agencies incompetent. This is US-specific: London Reconnections is a technical blog but it tends to support Transport for London’s process, Swiss and Japanese railfans seem to trust their local rail operators, and even Transport Paris is more positive about STIF’s capital investment than New York-based blogs are about the MTA’s. Experts (and not just bloggers like me) could point out innovations their cities have that can be imported into New York, as well as shoot down bad ideas for which “why doesn’t London/Paris/Tokyo do it?” is a useful sanity check.
Note that sometimes there is a legitimate reason to do something that nobody else has tried. New York’s highly branched network makes ERTMS a better deal there than on other metro systems, and an RFI would be prudent. But because the details of implementation matter more than the idea of innovative genius, it has to go through the regular procurement process.
Cuomo attempted to inject the inventions of the American tech industry into the subway. Instead, he created space for cranks to promulgate their ideas and for vendors to have a leg up over their competitors in any future bid. In effect, his attempt to improve the economic productivity of the public sector to be more in line with that of the American tech industry is going to make the public sector less productive, through weaker institutions (namely, a less robust CBTC bid) and distraction (namely, the useless train lengthening idea).
Amtrak’s Gateway project, spending $30 billion on new tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station, just got its federal funding yanked. Previously the agreement was to split funding as 25% New York, 25% New Jersey, 50% federal; the states had committed to $5.5 billion, which with a federal match would build the bare tunnels but not some of the ancillary infrastructure (some useful, some not).
When Chris Christie canceled ARC in 2010, then estimated at $10-13 billion, I cheered. I linked to a YouTube video of the song Celebration in Aaron Renn‘s comments. ARC was a bad project, and at the beginning Gateway seemed better, in the sense that it connected the new tunnels to the existing station tracks and not to a deep cavern. But some elements (namely, Penn Station South) were questionable from the start, and the cost estimate was even then higher than that of ARC, which I attributed to both Amtrak’s incompetence and likely cost overruns on ARC independent of who managed it.
But I’m of two minds about to what extent good transit advocates should cheer Gateway’s impending demise. The argument for cheering is a straightforward cost-benefit calculation. The extra ridership coming from Gateway absent regional rail modernization is probably around 170,000 per weekday, a first-order estimate based on doubling current New Jersey Transit ridership into Penn Station. At $40,000 per weekday rider, this justifies $7 billion in construction costs, maybe a little more if Gateway makes it cheaper to do maintenance on the old tunnels. Gateway is $30 billion, so the cost is too high and the tunnel should not be built.
Moreover, it’s difficult to raise the benefits of Gateway using regional rail modernization. On the New Jersey side, population density thins fast, so the benefits of regional rail that do not rely on through-running (high frequency, fare integration, etc.) are limited. The main benefits require through-running, to improve access on Newark-Queens and other through-Manhattan origin-destination pairs. Gateway doesn’t include provisions for through-running – Penn Station South involves demolishing a Manhattan block to add terminal tracks. Even within the existing Penn Station footprint, constructing a new tunnel eastward to allow through-running becomes much harder if the New Jersey Transit tracks have heavy terminating traffic, which means Gateway would make future through-running tunnels more expensive.
But on the other hand, the bare tunnels are not a bad project in the sense of building along the wrong alignment or using the wrong techniques. They’re just extremely expensive: counting minor shoring up on the old tunnels, they cost $13 billion for 5 km of tunnel. Moreover, sequencing Gateway to start with the tunnels alone allows dropping Penn South, and might make it possible to add a new tunnel for through-running mid-project. So it’s really a question of how to reduce costs.
The underground tunneling portion of Second Avenue Subway is $150 million per km, and that of East Side Access is $200 million (link, PDF-p. 7). Both figures exclude systems, which add $110 million per km on Second Avenue Subway, and overheads, which add 37%. These are all high figures – in Paris tunneling is $90 million per km, systems $35 million, and overhead a premium of 18% – but added up they remain affordable. A station-free tunnel should cost $350 million per km, which has implications to the cost of connecting Penn Station with Grand Central. Gateway is instead around $2 billion per km.
Is Gateway expensive because it’s underwater? The answer is probably negative. Gateway is only one third underwater. If its underwater character alone justifies a factor of six cost premium over Second Avenue Subway, then other underwater tunnels should also exhibit very high costs by local standards. There aren’t a lot of examples of urban rail tunnels going under a body of water as wide as the Hudson, but there are enough to know that there is not such a large cost premium.
In the 1960s, one source, giving construction costs per track-foot, finds that the Transbay Tube cost 40% more than the bored segments of BART; including systems and overheads, which the source excludes, BART’s history gives a cost of $180 million, equivalent to $1.38 billion today, or $230 million per km. The Transbay Tube is an immersed tube and not a bored tunnel, and immersed tubes are overall cheaper, but a report by Transport Scotland says on p. 12 that immersed tubes actually cost more per linear meter and are only overall cheaper because they require shorter approaches, which suggests their overall cost advantage is small.
Today, Stockholm is extending the T-bana outward in three direction. A cost breakdown per line extension is available: excluding the depot and rolling stock, the suburban tunnel to Barkarby is $100 million per km, the outer-urban tunnel to Arenastaden in Solna is $138 million per km, and the part-inner urban, part-suburban tunnel to Nacka is $150 million per km. The tunnel to Nacka is a total of 11.5 km, of which about 1 is underwater, broken down into chunks using Skeppsholmen, with the longest continuous underwater segment about 650 meters long. A 9% underwater line with 9% cost premium over an underground line is not by itself proof of much, but it does indicate that the underwater premium is most likely low.
Based on the suggestive evidence of BART and the T-bana, proposing that bare Hudson tunnels should cost about $2-2.5 billion is not preposterous. With an onward connection to Grand Central, the total cost should be $2.5-3 billion. Note that this cost figure does not assume that New York can build anything as cheaply as Stockholm, only that it can build Gateway for the same unit cost as Second Avenue Subway. The project management does not have to be good – it merely has to be as bad as that of Second Avenue Subway, rather than far worse, most likely due to the influence of Amtrak.
The best scenario coming out of canceling Gateway is to attempt a third tunnel project, this time under a government agency that is not poisoned by the existing problems of either Amtrak or Port Authority. The MTA could potentially do it; among the agencies building things in the New York area it seems by far the least incompetent.
If Gateway stays as is, just without federal funding, then the solution is for Amtrak to invest in its own project management capacity. The cost of the Green Line Extension in Boston was reduced from $3 billion to $2.3 billion, of which only $1.1 billion is actual construction and the rest is a combination of equipment and sunk cost on the botched start of the project; MBTA insiders attribute this to the hiring of a new, more experienced project manager. If Gateway can be built for even the same unit cost as Second Avenue Subway, then the existing state commitments are enough to build it to Grand Central and still have about half the budget left for additional tunnels.
At TransitMatters, we have finally released our regional rail paper, recommending improvements to the MBTA that regular readers of this blog are probably familiar with. Alert readers might even want to probe which parts were written by me and which by others; the main document underwent several edits but some stylistic differences might persist, and the appendices were mostly written individually. We are suggesting the following two-step process:
1. Modernize the system based on best industry practices. This includes full electrification and fleet replacement with electric multiple units (and not electric locomotives), high platforms at all stations, and high frequency all day, every half hour on every branch interlining to support a train every 10-15 minutes on urban trunk lines. In some areas, such as Revere, there should also be infill stops. The capital cost, excluding fleet replacement, should be on the order of $2-3 billion, but the first priority, the Providence Line, is maybe $100 million excluding rolling stock, mostly going to high platforms.
2. Build the North-South Rail Link, with four tracks connecting the South Station and North Station systems. This takes longer than electrification, so planning should start immediately, with the intention of opening somewhat after the entire system is wired. The capital cost should be $4-6 billion, per a study that we’re referencing in our report.
In my mind, regional rail serves three main markets:
1. Local trips on trunk lines, connecting to urban neighborhoods and subway transfer points. The main benefit of regional rail is that it provides an express subway at very high frequency, just as I use the RER to get to Western Paris faster than I would on the Metro. In Boston, areas that would benefit include Forest Hills, Allston and Brighton, Hyde Park, Dorchester and Mattapan along the Fairmount Line, Chelsea, Revere, and Porter Square. Residents of these neighborhoods are likely to travel to other neighborhoods and not just to Downtown Boston.
2. Suburban trips, which are dominated by peak commutes; I complained here that US commuter rail demand is peaky, with 67-69% of suburban trips on the LIRR and Metro-North and 80% on the MBTA occurring in the morning peak compared with around 47% on Transilien, but this is in large part about land use and not just frequency. We’re calling for replacing park-and-rides with town center stations in the report, but absent extensive transit-oriented development, suburban trips are likely to remain peaky and CBD-bound. This is the only market North American commuter rail serves, and its users are territorial about what they view as their trains. However, electrification would speed up these trips materially (the Sharon-South Station trip time would go from 35 to 23 minutes), and the North-South Rail Link would offer North Side suburbs access to the CBD, which is too far from North Station.
3. Intercity trips, which are not peaky except insofar as some people commute. Those tend to dominate off-peak ridership today: per a CTPS study from 2012, about half of the Providence Line’s off-peak ridership originates in Providence itself, which also accords with my observations taking the line on weekends. These trips gain less from high frequency, but need a consistent frequency all day, every day, at worst every 30 minutes, ideally every 15 or 20. Regional rail modernization also speeds these trips the most.
Bear in mind that even though the report just came out, the actual writing was for the most part done in November. This means that the technical aspects of scheduling reflect my thinking in November and not now. At the time, I hadn’t thought about peak-to-base ratios systematically, so my sample schedule for the Providence Line has a train every 15 minutes on each branch (Providence and Stoughton) at the peak and a train every 30 minutes off-peak. I had been assuming a peak-to-base ratio of 2 would be appropriate, by comparison with schedules in Tokyo and on the RER here in Paris. I knew that the ratio was lower in some other places I think highly of, including London and the German-speaking world, but my assumption had been that demand would be so peaky that the maximum acceptable peak-to-base ratio was the correct one.
I’ve argued before that the peak-to-reverse-peak ratio must be 1 or as close to it as practical, in order to avoid parking trains in city center midday. The capacity problems at South Station, which averages a train arrival per platform track per 35 minutes at the peak even though the system is capable of 10-minute turnaround times, come from trains going from the platform tracks to the layover yard during the peak, crossing the station throat at-grade and delaying peak arrivals.
But recently, I started thinking more carefully about operating costs, and wrote this post about peak-to-base ratios. I no longer think peak-to-base frequency ratios higher than 1 are supportable. The marginal labor cost of midday service when there’s a prominent peak is very low, since the railroad would be replacing split shifts with regular shifts, and this encourages running the same frequency during rush hour and midday, if not during the evening and on weekends. And as I explain in the linked post, the cost of rolling stock purchase and maintenance encourages running trains as often as possible. Only energy costs scale linearly with service-km, and those are low: at New England’s current electricity rates, it costs $180 to run a 320-ton 8-car EMU between Providence and Boston each way, and at current fares, inducing 16 extra passengers from the extra frequency is enough to make this pay.
In the report, we talk about American commuter rail operating costs, mostly because that’s what’s available. SEPTA’s are $311/car-hour, whereas those of the LIRR, Metro-North, New Jersey Transit, Metra, and the MBTA are $500-600/car-hour. Per car-km, SEPTA costs about $9 to operate. But a system built around cost minimization, with a peak-to-base ratio of 1 (thus, relatively empty off-peak trains), can get this down to about $2/car-km, or about $180/car-hour.
The reason I think the MBTA could run modern regional rail for $2/car-km, where the RER costs $6/car-km and the Singapore MRT $4-5/car-km, is that the schedule is faster. The costs of rolling stock and labor are based on time rather than distance, and the regional rail system we’re proposing has aggressive schedules, averaging 90 km/h between Boston and Providence. Even energy costs can be contained, since a fast schedule implies relatively few stops. For the same reason it’s easier to make a profit on high-speed rail averaging 200 km/h than on low-speed rail, it’s easier to make a profit on a 90 km/h train at the boundary between regional and intercity scale than on a 40 km/h local train.
In general, I believe that transit planning has to be opportunistic: no city is perfect, so it’s always necessary to find workarounds for some local misfeatures, or ways to turn them into positives. In Boston, the misfeature is very low suburban density, making intense regional service modeled after the RER less useful. The opportunity lies in retooling lines that serve low-density suburbs as intercity lines, connecting Boston with Worcester, Providence, Lowell, Nashua, and Hyannis. With the exception of Worcester, which is on a curvy line, these cities can be connected to Boston at an average speed of 90 km/h or so: the stop spacing is so sparse, and the lines are so straight, that long stretches of 160 km/h are feasible.
But none of this can happen under the present-day operating paradigm. The opportunity I’m describing relies on postwar travel patterns and to some extent even on 21st-century ones (namely, university travel between Providence and Cambridge), which requires reforming frequencies, rolling stock, and infrastructure decisions to incorporate best industry practices that emerged from the 1970s onward. The MBTA can offer a fast, affordable, frequent regional transportation system from as far north as Manchester to as far south as Providence, but for this it needs to implement the regional rail improvements we’re proposing.
Alex Armlovich asked me whether it’s possible to design a public-private partnership on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) to build high-speed rail. I took it to a Patreon poll, in which it prevailed over three other options (why land value taxation is overrated, why community groups oppose upzoning, and what examples of transit success there are in autocracies). On social media I gave a brief explanation for why such a privatization scheme would fail: the NEC has many users sharing tracks, requiring coordination of schedules and infrastructure, and privatizing one component would create incentives for rent-seeking rather than good work. In this post I am going to explain this more carefully.
Conceptually, the impetus for privatization is that the public sector cannot provide certain things successfully because it is politically controlled. For example, political control of infrastructure tends to lead to spreading investment around across a number of regions rather than where it is most needed; when Japan National Railways was broken up and privatized, the new companies let go of many lightly-used rural lines and focused on the urban commuter rail networks and the Shinkansen. Political control may also make it harder to keep down headcounts or wages. A competent government that recognizes that it will always be subject to political decisionmaking about services that should not be political will aim to devolve control of these services to the private sector.
The problem with this story is that privatization itself is a public program. This means that the government needs to be in good enough shape to write a PPP that encourages good service and discourages rent-seeking. Such a government entity does not exist in the realm of American public transportation. This doesn’t mean that all privatization deals are bad, but it means that only the simplest deals have any chance of success, and those deals in turn have the least impact.
When it comes to HSR, private operations work provided there is no or almost no need to coordinate schedules and fares with anyone else. One example is Texas, which has no commuter rail between Dallas and Houston nor any good reason to ever run such service. In California, this is also more or less the case: Caltrain-HSR compatibility is needed, but that’s a small portion of the line and could be resolved relatively easily.
In the Northeast, where there is extensive commuter rail, such coordination is indispensable. Without it, any operator has an incentive to make life miserable for the commuter rail operators and then demand state subsidies to allow regional trains on the track. Amtrak is already screwing other NEC users by charging high rates for electricity (which is supposedly the reason Conrail deelectrified, having previously run freight service on the NEC with electric locomotives) and by coming up with infrastructure plans that make regional rail modernization harder and demanding state money for them. If anything, the political control makes things less bad, because congressional representatives can yell at Amtrak; they will have less leverage over a private operator. In the other direction, Metro-North is slowing down Amtrak between New Rochelle and New Haven for the convenience of its own dispatching, and is likely to keep doing so under any PPP deal.
I have written many posts about what it would take to institute HSR on the NEC at the lowest possible cost. All of these make the same point, from many angles: organization – that is, improving timetabling – is vastly cheaper than pouring concrete and building bypass tracks. In chronological order, I’ve written,
- A post about MBTA-HSR compatibility
- A post about Metro-North-HSR compatibility between New York and New Rochelle
- A compendium of cost saving measures I called NEC, 90% Cheaper, back when Amtrak’s budget for it was only $150 billion
- A followup about capacity in the New York commuter belt
- A look at track-sharing around Washington Union Station
- A criticism of Amtrak’s lack of integration between rolling stock and infrastructure plans
- Another look at planning coordination
- A criticism of NEC Future’s overpriced plan ($300 billion for full-fat HSR!)
- A very long and detailed look at New Rochelle-Greens Farms
Privatization is supposed to solve the problems of an incompetent public sector. But Amtrak’s incompetence is not really about wages or staffing; NEC trains are overstaffed relative to Shinkansen trains, but not relative to TGVs. Nor is it about unprofitable branch lines, not when the proposal is to privatize the NEC alone, rather than the entirety of Amtrak so that the private operator could shut down the long-distance trains. Some of the incompetence involves politicized procurement, but this is not the dominant source of high NEC costs. No: the incompetence manifests itself first of all in poor coordination between the various users of the NEC. Given better coordination, Amtrak could shave a substantial portion of its New York-New Haven runtime, perhaps by 10-20 minutes without any bridge replacements, and reduce schedule padding elsewhere.
To fix this situation, some organization would need to determine the timetables up and down the line and handle dispatching and train priority. In the presence of such an organization (which could well be Amtrak itself given top-to-bottom changes in management), a PPP is of limited benefit, because the private operator would be running on a schedule set publicly. Absent such an organization, privatization would make the agency turf battles that plague the entire NEC even worse than they are today.
In 2009, SNCF proposed to develop HSR in four places in the US: California, Texas, Florida, and the Midwest. The NEC, with its existing public intercity and regional rail operations, was not on its map. More recently, Texas Central is a private Japanese initiative to build HSR between Dallas and Houston. On the NEC the only Japanese initiative involved maglev between Washington and Baltimore, a mode of transportation that doesn’t fit the NEC’s context but is guaranteed to not share tracks with any state-owned commuter rail operation.
The invention of HSR itself was not privatized, and the European privatization paradigm involves public control of track infrastructure. Competing operators (some public, some private) can access tracks by paying a track charge, set equally across all operators. But even then, the track infrastructure owner has some decisions to make about design speed – mixing slower and faster trains reduces capacity, so if there’s a mixture of both, does the infrastructure owner assume the design speed is high and charge slower trains extra for taking high-speed slots or does it assume the design speed is low and charge faster trains extra? So far the public rail infrastructure operators have swept this question under the rug, relying on the fact that on high-speed tracks all trains go fast and on low-speed ones few HSR services go faster than an express regional train.
Unfortunately, the NEC requires large speed differences on the same route to avoid excessive tunneling. This complicates the EU’s attempts at a relatively hands-off approach to rail competition in two ways. First, it’s no longer possible to ignore the design speed question, not when regional trains should be connecting Boston and Providence in 51 minutes and high-speed trains in 20 minutes, on shared tracks with strategic overtakes. And second, the overtakes must be timed more precisely, which means whoever controls the tracks needs to also take an active hand in planning the schedules.
Handwaving the problems of the public sector using privatization works in some circumstances, such as those of Japan National Railways, but could never work on the NEC. The problems a PPP could fix, including labor and rolling stock procurement, are peripheral; the problems it would exacerbate, i.e. integrating infrastructure and schedule planning, are the central issues facing the NEC. There is no alternative to a better-run, better-managed state-owned rail planning apparatus.
This is my third post about scale variance in transit planning; see parts 1 and 2. In part 1, I discussed how good bus networks exist at a certain scale, which can’t easily be replicated at larger scale (where the slowness of city buses makes them less useful). In part 2, I went over a subway planning feature, especially common in the communist bloc, that again works only at a specific scale, namely cities with enough population for 3-4 subway lines; it gets more complex in larger cities, and cannot be imported to bus networks with 3-4 lines. In this post, I will focus on one scale-variant feature of surface transit: the grid.
The grid works only for surface transit and not for rapid transit, and only at a specific scale, so constrained as to never be maximally useful in an entire city, only in a section of a city. This contrasts with what Jarrett Walker claims about grids. Per Jarrett, grids are the perfect form of a transit network and are for the most part scale-invariant (except in very small networks). One of the impetuses for this post is to push back against this: grids are the most useful at the scale of part of a transit city.
Grid Networks Versus Radial Networks
I’ve written a few posts exhorting subway planners to build their networks in a certain way, which, in the most perfect form, is radial. In particular, tangential subway lines, such as the G train in New York (especially when it ran to Forest Hills), Line 10 in Paris, and Lines 3 and 6 in Shanghai, are weak. When the G train was running to Forest Hills, most local passengers would switch from it to the next Manhattan-bound train, leading New York City Transit to send more Manhattan-bound local subways to Forest Hills and eventually to cut back the G to Long Island City. Based on these examples, I contend that on a subway network, every line should be either radial, serving the CBD, or circumferential, going around the CBD.
My post about New York light rail proposes a network with some lines that are neither: in the Bronx, my proposal is essentially a grid, with north-south routes (Grand Concourse, Webster, 3rd) and east-west ones (161st, Tremont, Fordham) and one that combines both (145th-Southern). Regular commenter NewtonMARunner criticized me for this on Twitter. I answered that the lines in my proposal are based on the busiest buses in the Bronx, but this simply shifts the locus of the question to the existing network: if transit lines should be radial or circumferential, then why are the tangential Bx19 bus (145th-Southern) or the Bx40/42 and Bx36 (Tremont, with a long radial eastern tail) so successful?
To answer this requires thinking more carefully about the role of circumferential routes, which by definition don’t serve the most intensely-used nodes. In Paris, Lines 2 and 6 form a ring that misses five out of six train stations and passes just outside the CBD, and yet they are both busy lines, ranking fourth and fifth in ridership per km. The reason is that they are useful for connecting to radial Metro lines and to some RER lines (namely, the RER A and the southern half of the RER B). Tangential lines miss connections much more easily: in the west, Line 10 here has a decent transfer to Line 9 and a somewhat decent one to Line 8, but to Lines 12 and 13 it’s already not very direct. The G train in New York has the same problem to the south – few connections to lines that actually do go into Manhattan.
Consider the following three possible networks:
The radial network is a typical subway network. The full grid lets you go from everywhere to everywhere with just one transfer, at the cost of having far more route length than the radial network. The partial grid no longer lets you go from everywhere to everywhere easily, and has the outer two lines in each service direction missing city center, but still has more overall route-length than the radial network. The principle here is that a grid plan is useful only if the grid can be complete.
The scale, then, is that rapid transit is so expensive that there’s no money for a complete grid, making a radial plan more appropriate. But surface transit, especially by bus, can be spread across a grid more readily. The Bronx’s size, density, and bus ridership patterns are such that a mostly complete grid is feasible within the western two-thirds of the borough, supplemented by the subway. In this environment, a tangential route is fine because it hits all the radial routes it could, and could provide useful two-seat rides to a large variety of destinations.
Are Grids Really Grids?
Chicago has a relentless bus grid. The three busiest north-south routes are the tangential 8 (Halsted), 9 (Ashland), and 49 (Western), which are 22, 29, and 26 km long respectively. None enters the Loop; Halsted, the easternmost, is at the closest approach 800 meters from the Loop, across a freeway. The two busiest east-west routes, the 77 (Belmont) and 79 (79th), are also far from the Loop.
However, I contend that these routes don’t really form a grid, at least not in the sense that passengers ride between two arbitrary points in Chicago by riding a north-south bus and connecting to an east-west bus. Instead, their outer ends form tails, which people ride to the L, while their inner ends are standard circumferentials, linking two L branches. The L in turn is purely radial and doesn’t follow the Chicago grid, with the Blue Line’s O’Hare Branch, the Orange Line, and the Brown Line all running diagonally.
Vancouver is similar. The north-south routes are radial, veering to enter Downtown. The east-west ones are more circumferential than tangential: they connect the Expo and Canada Lines, and most also connect to UBC. The Broadway buses (9 and 99) pass so close to Downtown Vancouver they’re more tangential, but they also offer the shortest path between the Expo and Canada Lines (making them a strong circumferential) while at the same time serving high job density on Central Broadway (giving them some characteristics of a radial).
In the absence of a radial rail network to connect to, long grid routes are less useful. Cities have a center and a periphery, and the center will always get more ridership, especially transit ridership. The outermost grid routes are often so weak that they should be pruned, but then they weaken the lines they connect to, making it necessary to prune even more lines until the grid is broken.
The Optimal Scale for a Grid
A strong transit grid will not form in a city too small for it. There needs to be a large enough center with enough demand for transit ridership to justify more than a purely radial bus network with a timed transfer. At the same time, the city cannot be too big, or else the arterial buses are too slow to be useful for ordinary work and leisure trips, as in Los Angeles.
What’s more, there is no Goldilocks zone, just right for a grid. Chicago is already too big for a bus grid without the radial rail layer. It’s also too big for what Jarrett calls grid accelerators – that is, rapid transit routes that replace bus grid lines: the Red Line is plausibly a grid accelerator, but the other lines in Chicago are not, and if there were L lines only at grid points, then the Red Line and the one east-west route would get overcrowded heading toward the Loop. Even Vancouver, a compact metro area hemmed by mountains and the ocean, relies on the diagonal Expo Line to serve Downtown and doesn’t really have a grid beyond city limits. A less dense city in the same land area could have a grid, but without much traffic or a strong CBD, cars would always beat transit on time and only the poor would ride the bus.
The scale in which grid networks work more or less on their own seems to be that of Vancouver proper, or that of the Bronx. Vancouver is 115 km^2 and the Bronx is 110 km^2; Vancouver’s bus grid spills over to Metrotown and the Bronx’s to Upper Manhattan, but in both cases these are small increases in the relevant land area.
Tellingly, Vancouver still relies on the bus network to feed SkyTrain; the Canada Line is a grid accelerator, but the Expo Line is not. The Bronx is the more interesting case, because it is not a city or even the center of the city, but rather a dense outlying portion of the city with an internal arterial grid. In both cases, the grid is supplementary to the radial rail core, even if the routes that use it have a lot of independent utility (Metro Vancouver has higher bus ridership than rail ridership, and the Bronx buses combined have slightly more ridership than the combined number of boardings on the Bronx subway stations).
Geographical constraints matter as well. The Bronx and Upper Manhattan are hemmed by water and by the administrative border of the city (which also includes a sharp density gradient), and Vancouver is hemmed by water and by a density gradient in the east. This makes it easier to equip both with grids that are close enough to the complete grid in the middle image above rather than the incomplete one in the third image. The Bronx’s lower-density eastern tails happen to meet up with those of Queens, forming circumferential routes, and also have enough north-south subway lines to feed that they remain useful.
In a transit city, the grid cannot come first. Even if there is a street grid, the spine of the network has to be radial as soon as there is demand for more than two rapid transit lines. The role of surface transit remains feeding rapid transit. Grids look attractive, but the optimal scale for them is awkward: large-scale surface transit grids are too slow, forcing the city to have a rapid transit backbone, and if the city is too small for that then the arterial grid provides too good auto access for public transit to be useful.
The Macron administration commissioned a report about the future of SNCF by former Air France chief Jean-Cyril Spinetta. Spinetta released his report four days ago, making it clear that rail is growing in France but most of the network is unprofitable and should be shrunk. There is an overview of the report in English on Railway Gazette, and some more details in French media (La Tribune calls it “mind-blowing,” Les Echos “explosive”); the full proposal can be read here. Some of the recommendations in the Spinetta report concern governance, but the most radical one calls for pruning about 45% of SNCF’s network by length, which carries only 2% of passenger traffic. Given the extent of the proposed cut, it’s appropriate to refer to this report as the Spinetta Axe, in analogy with the Beeching Axe.
I wrote a mini-overview on Twitter, focusing on the content of the Axe. In this post I’m going to do more analysis of SNCF’s cost control problem and what we can learn from the report. The big takeaway is that cost control pressure is the highest on low-ridership lines, rather than on high-ridership lines. There is no attempt made to reduce SNCF’s operating costs in Ile-de-France or on the intercity main lines through better efficiency. To the British or American reader, it’s especially useful to read the report with a critical eye, since it is in some ways a better version of British and American discussions about efficiency that nonetheless accept high construction costs as a given.
SNCF is Losing Money
The major problem that the report begins with is that SNCF is losing money. It is not getting state subsidies, but instead it borrows to fund operating losses, to the tune of €2.8 billion in annual deficit (p. 28), of which €1.2-1.4 billion come from interest expenses on past debt and €1 billion come from taxes. Its situation is similar to that of Japan National Railways in the 1970s, which accumulated debt to fund operating losses, which the state ultimately wiped out in the restructuring and privatization of 1987. The report is aiming to find operating savings to put SNCF in the black without breaking up or privatizing the company; its proposed change to governance (turning SNCF into an SA) is entirely within the state-owned sector.
Unlike the Beeching report, the Spinetta report happens in a context of rising rail traffic. It opens up by making it clear that rail is not in decline in France, pointing out growth in both local and intercity ridership. However, SNCF is still losing money, because of the low financial performance of the legacy network and regional lines. The TGV network overall is profitable (though not every single train is profitable), but the TERs are big money pits. Annual regional contributions to the TER network total €3 billion, compared with just €1 billion in fare revenue (p. 30). The legacy intercity lines, which are rebranded every few years and are now called TETs, lose another €300 million. Some of the rising debt is just capital expenses that aren’t fully funded, including track renovation and new rolling stock; even in the Paris region, which has money, rolling stock purchase has only recently been devolved from SNCF to the regional transport association (p. 31).
In fact, the large monetary deficit is a recent phenomenon. In 2010, SNCF lost €600 million, but paid €1.2 billion in interest costs (p. 27); its operating margin was larger than its capital expenses. Capital expenses have risen due to increase in investment, while the operating margin has fallen due to an increase in operating costs. The report does not go into the history of fares (it says French rail fares are among Europe’s lowest, but its main comparisons are very high-fare networks like Switzerland’s, and in reality France is similar to Germany and Spain). But it says fares have not risen, for which SNCF’s attempt to provide deliberately uncomfortable lower-fare trains must share the blame.
The Spinetta Axe
The Spinetta report proposes multiple big changes; French media treats converting SNCF to an SA as a big deal. But in terms of the network, the biggest change is the cut to low-performing rail branches. The UIC categorizes rail lines based on traffic levels and required investment, from 1 (highest) to 9 (lowest). Categories 7-9 consist of 44% of route-km but only 9% of train-km (p. 48) and 2% of passengers (p. 51). Annual capital and operating spending on these lines is €1.7 billion (about €1 per passenger-km), and bringing them to a state of good repair would cost €5 billion. In contrast, closing these lines would save €1.2 billion a year.
But the report is not just cuts. Very little of SNCF’s operating expenditure is marginal: on p. 34 the report claims that marginal operating costs only add up to €1 billion a year, out of about €5.5 billion in total operating costs excluding any and all capital spending. As a result, alongside its recommendations to close low-ridership lines, it is suggesting increasing off-peak frequency on retained lines (p. 54, footnote 53).
There is no list of which lines should be closed; this is left for later. Page 50 has a map of category 7-9 lines, which are mostly rural branch lines, for example Nice-Breil-Tende. But a few are more intense regional lines, around Lyon, Toulouse, Rennes, Lille, and Strasbourg, and would presumably be kept and maintained to higher standards. Conversely, some category 5-6 lines could also be closed.
The report is equally harsh toward the TGV. While the TGV is overall profitable, not all parts of it are competitive. Per the report, the breakeven point with air travel, on both mode share and operating costs, is 3 hours one-way. At 3:30-4 hours one way, the report describes the situation for trains as “brutal,” with planes getting 80% mode share (p. 61). With TGV operating costs of €0.06/seat-km without capital (€0.07 with), it is uncompetitive on cost with low-cost airlines beyond 700 km, where EasyJet and Air France can keep costs down to €0.05/seat-km including capital and Ryanair to €0.04.
And this is where the report loses me. The TGV’s mode share versus air is consistently higher than that given in the report. One study imputes a breakeven point at nearly 4 hours. A study done for the LGV PACA, between Marseille and Nice, claims that as of 2009, the TGV had a 30% mode share on Paris-Nice, even including cars; its share of the air-rail market was 38%. This is a train that takes nearly 6 hours and was delayed three out of four times I took it, and the fourth time only made it on time because its timetable was unusually padded between Marseille and Paris. On Paris-Toulon, where the TGV takes about 4 hours, its mode share in 2009 was 54%, or 82% of the air-rail market.
SNCF has some serious operating cost issues. For example, the conventional TGVs (i.e. not the low-cost OuiGo) have four conductors per 200-meter train; the Shinkansen has three conductors per 400-meter train. The operating costs imputed from the European and East Asian average in American studies are somewhat lower, about $0.05-6/seat-km, or about €0.04-5/seat-km, making HSR competitive with low-cost airlines at longer range. However, there is no attempt to investigate how these costs can be reduced. One possibility, not running expensive TGVs on legacy lines but only on high-speed lines, is explicitly rejected (p. 64), and rightly so – Rennes, Toulouse, Mulhouse, Toulon, Nice, and Nantes are all on legacy lines.
This is something SNCF is aware of; it’s trying to improve fleet utilization to reduce operating costs by 20-30%. With higher fleet utilization, it could withdraw most of its single-level trains and have a nearly all-bilevel fleet, with just one single-level class, simplifying maintenance and interchangeability in similar manner to low-cost carriers’ use of a single aircraft class. However, this drive is not mentioned at all in the report, which takes today’s high costs as a given.
Efficiencies not Mentioned
The biggest bombshell I saw in the report is not in the recommendations at all. It is not in the Spinetta Axe, but in a table on p. 21 comparing SNCF with DB. The two networks are of similar size, with DB slightly larger, 35,000 route-km and 52,000 track-km vs. 26,000 and 49,000 on SNCF. But DB’s annual track maintenance budget is €1.4 billion whereas SNCF’s is €2.28 billion. Nearly the entire primary deficit of SNCF could be closed just by reducing track maintenance costs to German levels, without cutting low-usage lines.
Nonetheless, there is no investigation of whether it’s possible to conduct track maintenance more efficiently. Here as with the TGV’s operating expenses, the report treats unit costs as a fixed constant, rather than as variables that depend on labor productivity and good management.
Nor is there any discussion of rolling stock costs. Paris’s bespoke RER D and E trains, funded locally on lines to be operated by SNCF, cost €4.7 million per 25 meters of train length, with 30% of this cost going to design and overheads and only 70% to actual manufacturing. In Sweden, the more standard KISS cost €2.9 million per 25-meter car.
Low-ridership dilapidated rural branch lines are not the only place in the network where it’s possible to reduce costs. Rolling stock in Paris costs too much, maintenance on the entire network costs too much, TGV operating costs are higher than they should be, and fleet utilization in the off-peak is very low. The average TGV runs for 8 hours a day, and SNCF hopes to expand this to 10.
The Impetus for Cost Control
The Beeching Axe came in the context of falling rail traffic. The Spinetta Axe comes in the context of rapidly growing SNCF operating costs, recommending things that could and probably should have been done ten years ago. But ten years ago, SNCF had a primary surplus and there was no pressure to contain costs. By the same token, the report is recommending pruning the weakest lines, but ignores efficiencies on the strong lines, on the “why mess with what works?” idea.
The same effect is seen regionally. French rolling stock costs do not seem unusually high outside Paris. But Ile-de-France has money to waste, so it’s spending far too much on designing new rolling stock that nobody else has any use for. This is true outside France as well: the high operating costs of the subway in New York are not a US-wide phenomenon, but rather are restricted to New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, while the rest of the country, facing bigger cost pressure than New York and Boston, is forced to run trains for the same cost as the major European cities. It is also likely that New York (and more recently London) allowed its construction costs to explode to extreme levels because, with enough money to splurge on high-use lines like 63rd Street Tunnel and Second Avenue Subway, it never paid attention to cost control.
This approach to cost control is entirely reactive. Places with high operating or capital costs don’t mind these costs when times are good, and then face crisis when times are bad, such as when the financial crisis led to stagnation in TGV revenue amidst continued growth in operating costs, or when costs explode to the point of making plans no longer affordable. In crisis mode, a gentle reduction in costs may not be possible technically or politically, given pressure to save money fast. Without time to develop alternative plans, or learn and adopt best industry practices, agencies (or private companies) turn to cuts and cancel investment plans.
A stronger approach must be proactive. This means looking for cost savings regardless of the current financial situation, in profitable as well as unprofitable areas. If anything, rich regions and companies are better placed for improving efficiency: they have deep enough pockets to finance the one-time cost of some reforms and to take their time to implement reforms correctly. SNCF is getting caught with its pants down, and as a result Spinetta is proposing cuts but nothing about reducing unit operating and maintenance costs. Under a proactive approach, the key is not to get caught with your pants down in the first place.
A much-awaited Regional Plan Association report about construction costs in New York has come out, as a supplement to the Fourth Regional Plan, and I’m unimpressed. I thought that I would either enjoy reading the RPA’s analysis, or else be disappointed by it. Instead, I’ve found myself feeling tepid toward most of the analysis; my objections to the report are that its numbers have serious mistakes, that the recommendations at the end conflict with the analysis, and that it seems to overvalue other English-speaking countries, even when their construction costs are the highest in the world outside the US.
The big contrast is with Brian Rosenthal’s expose in the New York Times. The main comparison city to New York there is Paris, where the extension of Metro Line 14 resembles New York’s subway extensions; for the article, Brian talked to construction managers here, and either visited the site himself or talked to people who did, to compare the situation with that of New York. As a result, I learned things from Brian’s article that I did not know before (namely, that the excavation per station for the Line 14 extension wasn’t less voluminous than for Second Avenue Subway). The RPA report gives a few details I wasn’t familiar with, such as escalators’ share of construction costs, but nothing that seems big.
I feel like I slag on the RPA a lot nowadays – it started with their report from three years ago about Outer Borough transit and continued with their wrong approach to Triboro, but more recently I didn’t think much of their take on suburban TOD, or the Gateway project, or the Fourth Regional Plan in general. This isn’t out of malice or jealousy; when I talked to Tom Wright six months ago I sympathized with the political constraints he was operating under. The problem is that sometimes these constraints lead either to unforced errors, or to errors that, while I understand where they come from, are big enough that the organization should have pushed and made sure to avoid them. In the case of the construction cost report, the errors start small, but compound to produce recommendations that are at times counterproductive; agency officials reading this would have no way of reducing costs.
Mistakes in the Numbers
The RPA is comparing New York’s costs unfavorably with those of other cities around the world, as well as one American city (Los Angeles). However, at several points, the numbers appear different from the ones I have seen in the news media. Three places come to mind – the first is a nitpick, the second is more serious but still doesn’t change the conclusions, the third is the most egregious in its implications.
The first place is right at the beginning of the report. In the executive summary, on page 2, the RPA gives its first example of high New York costs:
The Second Avenue Subway (SAS), for example, has the distinction of being the world’s most expensive subway extension at a cost of $807 million per track mile for construction costs alone. This is over 650% more per mile than London’s Northern Line extension to Battersea — estimated at $124 million per track mile.
Both sets of numbers are incorrect – in fact, contradicted by the rest of the document. SAS is $1.7 billion per route-km, which is $850 million per track-km. The Northern line extension to Battersea is also much more expensive. I can’t tell whether these figures are missing something, such as stations or overheads, but as headline numbers, they’re both lowballed.
The second place is when the report discusses station construction costs. Not having seen any advance copy, I wrote about this issue two weeks ago, just before the report came out: the three new SAS stations cost $821, $649, and $802 million, according to the Capital Program Dashboard. In contrast, on pp. 16-17, the RPA gives lower figures for these stations: just $386 million, $244 million, and $322 million. The RPA’s source is “Capital Construction Committee reports,” but my post on station costs looked at some of those and found costs that are not much lower than those reported in the Dashboard. The RPA figures for the last two stations, 86th and 72nd, seem close to the costs of finishes alone, and it’s possible that the organization made a mistake and confused the cost of just finishes (or perhaps just excavation) with the total cost, combining both excavation and finishes.
With the correct costs, the difference from what Paris spends on a station (about $110 million on average) seems so stark that the recommendations must center station construction specifically, and yet they don’t.
The third and most problematic mistake is table 10 on page 50, which lists a number of subway projects and their costs. The list is pretty short, with just 11 items, of which 3 are in New York, another is in Los Angeles, one is in Toronto, and 2 are in London. The Toronto project, the Spadina subway extension to Vaughan, and one of the London projects, the Northern line extension, are both lowballed. The RPA says that the Northern line extension’s cost is $1.065 billion, but the most recent number I’ve seen is £1.2 billion, which in PPP terms is $1.7 billion. And the Vaughan extension, listed as $1.961 billion in the report, is now up to C$3.2 billion, about $2.55 billion in PPP terms. Perhaps the RPA used old numbers, before cost escalations, but in such a crucial report it’s important to update cost estimates even late in the process.
But most worryingly, the costs on table 10 also include mistakes in the other direction, in Paris and Tokyo. The cost estimate listed for Line 14 South in Grand Paris Express is $4.39 billion. But the Cour des Comptes’ report attacking Grand Paris Express’s cost overruns lists the line’s cost as only €2.678 billion, or about $3.3 billion; this is in 2012 euros, but French inflation rates are very low, well below 1% a year, and at any rate, even applying American inflation rates wouldn’t get the cost anywhere near $4 billion. In Tokyo, the RPA similarly inflates the cost of the Fukutoshin Line: it gives it as $3.578 billion, but a media report after opening says the cost was ¥250 billion, or about $2.5 billion in today’s PPP conversion, with even less inflation than in France.
I can understand why there would be downward mistakes. Reports like this take a long time to produce, and then they take even longer to revise even after they are supposedly closed to further edits; I am working on a regional rail report for TransitMatters that has been in this situation for three months, with last-minute changes, reviews by stakeholders, and printing delays. However, the upward mistakes in Paris and Tokyo are puzzling. It’s hard to explain why, since the RPA’s numbers are unsourced; it’s possible they heard them from experts, but didn’t bother to write down who those experts were or to check their numbers.
The Synthesis Doesn’t Follow the Analysis
Manuel Melis Maynar’s writeup in Tunnelbuilder about how as CEO of Madrid Metro he delivered subway construction for, in today’s money, around $60 million per km, includes a number of recommendations. The RPA report cites his writeup on several occasions, as well as his appearance at the Irish Parliament. It also cites secondary sources about Madrid’s low construction costs, which appear to rely on Melis’s analysis or at least come to the same conclusions independently. However, the RPA’s set of recommendations seems to ignore Melis’s advice entirely.
The most glaring example of this is design-build. Melis is adamant that transit agencies separate design from construction. His explanation is psychological: there are always some changes that need to be made during construction (one New York-based construction manager, cited on p. 38 of the RPA study, says “there is no 100% design”), and contractors that were involved in the design are more likely to be wedded to their original plans and less flexible about making little changes. This recommendation of Melis’s is absent from the report, and on the contrary, the list of final recommendations includes expansion of design-build, a popular technique among reformers in New York and in a number of English-speaking cities.
Another example is procurement. I have heard the same explanation for high New York costs several times since I first brought up the issue in comments on Second Avenue Sagas: the bidding process in New York picks the lowest-cost proposal regardless of technical merit (Madrid, in contrasts, scores proposals 50% on technical merit, 30% on cost, and 20% on speed), and to avoid being screwed by dishonest contractors, the state writes byzantine, overexacting specs. As a result, nobody wants to do business with public works in New York, which means that in practice very few companies bid, leading to one-bid contracts. Brian’s article in the New York Times goes into how contractors have an MTA premium since doing business with the MTA is so difficult, and there’s also less competition, so they charge monopoly rates.
The RPA report’s analysis mentions this (pp. 3-4):
In addition, the MTA’s practice of selecting the lowest qualified bidder, even though they are permitted to issue Requests-for-Proposals, has resulted in excessive rebidding and the selection of teams that cannot deliver, resulting in millions of dollars in emergency repairs.
However, the list of recommendations at the end does not include any change to procurement practices to consider technical merit. The recommendations include post-project review for future construction, faster environmental review, reforms to labor rules, and value capture, but nothing about reforming the procurement process to consider technical merit.
Finally, the report talks about the problem of change orders repeatedly, on pp. 3, 15-16, and 38-39, blaming the proliferation of change orders for part of the cost escalation on SAS. Melis addresses this question in his writeup, saying that contracts should not be awarded for a lump sum but rather be itemized, so that change orders come with pre-agreed costs per item. None of this made it to the final recommendations.
There’s a World Outside the Anglosphere
If the report’s recommendations are not based on its own analysis, or on correct construction cost figures, then what are they based on? It seems that, like all failed reform ideas around the US, the RPA is shopping for ideas from other American cities or at least English-speaking ones that look good. Its recommendations include “adopt London’s project delivery model” and “expand project insurance and liability models,” the latter of which is sourced to the UK and Australia. Only one recommendation so much as mentions a non-English-speaking city: “develop lessons learned and best-practice guidance as part of a post-project review” mentions Madrid in passing, but focuses on Denver and Los Angeles.
This relates to the pattern of mistakes in the cost figures. Were the numbers on table 10 right, the implication would be that London, Paris, and Tokyo all have similar construction costs, at $330, $350, and $400 million per km, and Toronto is cheaper, at $230 million per km. In this situation, London would offer valuable lessons. Unfortunately, the RPA’s numbers are wrong. Using correct numbers, London’s costs rise to $550 million per km, while those of Paris and Tokyo fall to $260 and $280 million. Toronto’s costs rise to $300 million per km, which would be reasonable for an infill subway in a dense area (like the Fukutoshin Line and to some extent the Metro Line 14 extension), but are an outrage for a suburban extension to partly-undeveloped areas.
Using correct numbers, the RPA should have known to talk to people in countries that don’t speak English. Many of the planners and engineers in those countries speak English well as a second language. Many don’t, but New York is a large cosmopolitan city with immigrants with the required language skills, especially Spanish.
Nonetheless, the RPA report, which I am told cost $250,000 to produce, does not talk to experts in non-English-speaking countries. The citations of Melis are the same two English-language ones I have been citing for years now; there is no engagement with his writings on the subject in Spanish or his more recent English-language work (there’s a paper he coauthored in 2015 that I can’t manage to get past the paywall update: kind souls with academic access sent me a copy and it’s not as useful as I’d hoped from the abstract), nor does the RPA seem to have talked to managers in Madrid (or Barcelona) today. Across more than 200 footnotes, 30-something are sourced to “expert interviews,” and of those all but a handful are interviews with New York-based experts and the rest are interviews with London-based ones.
As a result, while the report is equipped to explain New York’s internal problems, it fails as a comparative piece. The recommendations themselves are primarily internal, based on things Americans have been discussing among themselves for years: streamlining environmental review, simplifying labor rules, expanding design-build.
The labor reforms mentioned include exactly one specific case of excessive staffing, reported in the New York Times (and, beforehand, on an off-hand remark by then-MTA Capital Construction chief Michael Horodniceanu), about the number of workers it takes to staff a tunnel-boring machine. The New York Times article goes into more detail about the entire process, but the RPA report ignores that in favor of the one comparison that had been going around Transit Twitter for years. Instead of proposing specifics for reducing headcounts, the report talks about changing the way workers are paid for each day, relying on internal reforms proposed by people dissatisfied with the unions rather than on any external analysis.
The Cycle of Failure
I’ve been reading policy papers for maybe a decade – mostly American, a few Israeli or Canadian or British or French. There’s a consistent pattern in that they often treat the practices of what they view as a peer city or country as obvious examples of what to do. For example, an American policy paper on Social Security privatization might explain the Chilean system, and recommend its implementation, without much consideration of whether it’s really best industry practice. Such papers end up at best moving sideways, and at worst perpetuate the cycle of failure, by giving governments the appearance of reform while they in fact cycle between bad options, or occasionally stumble upon a good idea but then don’t understand how to implement it correctly.
If New York wants to study whether design-build is a good idea, it’s not enough to put it in the list of recommendations. It needs to do the legwork and read what the best experts say (e.g. Melis is opposed to it) and look at many cities at once to see what they do. I would feel embarrassed writing a long report like this with only 7 case studies from outside the US. I’d want to examine many more: on the cheap side, Stockholm, Milan, Seoul, Barcelona, Madrid, Athens, Naples, Helsinki; on the expensive side, London, Singapore, Hong Kong, Toronto, Melbourne, Munich, Amsterdam; in between, Paris, Tokyo, Brussels, Zurich, Copenhagen, Vienna. On anything approaching the RPA’s budget for the paper, I’d connect with as many people in these places as I could in order to do proper comparative analysis.
Instead, the RPA put out a paper that acknowledges the cost difference, but does not make a real effort to learn and improve. It has a lot of reform ideas, but most come from the same process that led to the high construction costs New York faces today, and the rest come from London, whose construction costs would astound nearly everyone in the world outside the US.
One of the things I learned working with TransitMatters is that some outside stakeholders, I haven’t been told who, react poorly to non-American comparison cases, especially non-English-speaking ones. Ignorant of the world beyond their borders, they make up excuses for why knowledge that they don’t have is less valuable. Even within the group I once had to push back against the cycle of failure when someone suggested a nifty-looking but bad idea borrowed from a low-transit-use American city. The group’s internal structure is such that it’s easy for bad ideas to get rejected, but this isn’t true of outside stakeholders, and from my conversation with Tom Wright about Gateway I believe the RPA feels much more beholden to the same stakeholders.
The cycle of failure that the RPA participates in is not the RPA’s fault, or at least not entirely. The entire United States in general and New York in particular is resistant to outside ideas. The political system in New York as well as the big nonprofits forms an ecosystem of Americans who only talk to other Americans, or to the occasional Canadian or Brit, and let bad ideas germinate while never even hearing of what best industry practices are. In this respect the RPA isn’t any worse than the average monolingual American exceptionalist, but neither is it any better.
It seems to be common wisdom that the subway in New York is at capacity. Last year, the New York Times ran an article that repeated the MTA’s claims that growing delays come from overcrowding (which they don’t). A few weeks ago the NY Times quoted Riders Alliance campaign manager Rebecca Bailin saying “Our system is at capacity” and “subways are delayed when people can’t fit in them.” So far so good: some parts of the subway have serious capacity issues, which require investment in organization and electronics (but not concrete) to fix. But then some people make a stronger claim saying that the entire system is at capacity and not just parts of it, and that’s just wrong.
A few days ago there was an argument on Twitter involving the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas and Alex Armlovich on one side and Stephen Smith on the other. Stephen made the usual YIMBY point that New York can expect more population growth in the near future. Nicole argued instead that no, there’s no room for population growth, because the subway is at capacity. Alex chimed in,
People are not going to be willing to pay market rents for places they can’t commute from. A large number of folks underestimate the self-regulation of NYC housing–it just can’t get that bad, because people can always just move to Philly
Like, if upzone Williamsburg, people who move into new housing aren’t going to try to ride the L–they’ll only come if they can walk/bike or ride in off-peak direction. Just like people are leaving in response to the shutdown. Neighborhoods and cities are in spatial equilibrium!
I responded by talking about rents, but in a way my response conceded too much, by focusing on Williamsburg. The L train has serious crowding problems, coming from lack of electrical capacity to run more than 20 trains per hour per direction (the tracks and signals can handle 26 trains, and could handle more if the L train had tail tracks at its 8th Avenue terminal). However, the L train is atypical of New York. The Hub Bound Report has data on peak crowding into the Manhattan core, on table 20 in appendix II. The three most crowded lines entering the Manhattan core, measured in passengers per floor area of train, are the 2/3, 4/5, and L. Those have 3.6-3.8 square feet per passenger, or about 3 passengers per m^2, counting both seated and standing passengers; actual crowding among standees is higher, around 4 passengers per m^2. Using a study of seating and standing capacity, we can get exact figures for average space per standee, assuming all seats are occupied:
|Line||Peak tph||Seats||Standee area||Passengers||Passengers/m^2|
|B/D/N/Q (4 tracks)||38||18,612||10,008||43,550||2.49|
Three additional snags are notable: crowding in 53rd Street Tunnel looks low, but it averages high crowding levels on the E with low crowding levels on the M (see review), and the 1 and 7 achieve peak crowding well outside Midtown (the 1 at 96th at the transfer to the 2/3 and the 7 at Jackson Heights at the transfer to the E/F) whereas the table above only counts crowding entering Manhattan south of 59th Street. But even with these snags in mind, there is a lot of spare capacity on the Upper West Side away from 72nd and Broadway, and in Queens in Long Island City, where passengers can take the undercrowded 7 or M. Crowding in Brooklyn is also low, except on the L. In both Brooklyn and on the West Side locals there’s also track capacity for more trains if they are needed, but New York City Transit doesn’t run more trains since peak crowding levels are well below design guidelines.
This isn’t a small deal. Williamsburg is where there is the most gentrification pressure, but the Upper West Side is hardly a slum – it’s practically a byword for a rich urban neighborhood. The trains serving Brooklyn pass through some tony areas (Park Slope) and gentrified ones (South Brooklyn), as well as more affordable middle-class areas further south. From NYCT’s perspective, developing South Brooklyn and Southern Brooklyn is especially desirable, since these areas are served by trains that run through to Queens, Uptown Manhattan, and the Bronx, and with the exception of the B are all much more crowded at the other end; in effect, lower subway demand in Brooklyn means that NYCT is dragging unused capacity because of how its through-service is set up.
Actual perceived crowding is always higher than the average. The reason is that if there is any variation in crowding, then more passengers see the crowded trains. For example, if half the trains have 120 passengers and half have 40, then the average number of passengers per train is 80 but the average perceived number is 100, since passengers are three times likelier to be on a 120-person train than on a 40-person train.
Subway in New York has high variation in crowding, probably unusually high by international standards, on account of the extensive branching among the lines. The E/M example is instructive: not only are the E trains more crowded than the M trains, but also they come more often, so instead of a perfect E-M alternation through 53rd Street, there are many instances of E-E-M, in which an E train following the M is more crowded than an E train following another E train. I criticized NYCT’s planning guidelines on this account in 2015, and believe it contributes to higher crowding levels on some lettered lines than the table shows. However, the difference cannot be huge. Evidently, in the extreme example of trains with 40 or 120 passengers, the perceived crowding is only 25% higher than the actual average, and even the maximum crowding is only 50% higher. Add 50% to the crowding level of every branching train in Brooklyn and you will still be below the 2/3 and 4/5 in Uptown Manhattan.
So on the Upper West Side and in Long Island City and most of Brooklyn, there is spare capacity. But there’s more: since the report was released, Second Avenue Subway opened, reducing crowding levels on the Upper East Side. Second Avenue Subway itself only has the Q, and could squeeze additional trains per hour by shuffling them around from other parts of the system. In addition, the 4/5 and 6 have reportedly become much more tolerable in the last year, which suggests there is spare capacity not only on the Upper East Side but also in the Bronx.
Moreover, because the local trains on Queens Boulevard aren’t crowded, additional development between Jackson Heights and Queens Plaza wouldn’t crowd the E or F trains, but the underfull M and R trains. This creates a swath of the borough, starting from Long Island City, in which new commuters would not have a reason to use the parts of the system that are near capacity. It’s especially valuable since Long Island City has a lot of new development, which could plausibly spill over to the east as the neighborhood fills; in contrast, new development on the Upper West Side runs into NIMBY problems.
Finally, the residential neighborhoods within the Manhattan core, like the Village, are extremely desirable. They also have active NIMBY groups, fighting tall buildings in the guise of preservation. But nowhere else is it guaranteed that new residential development wouldn’t crowd peak trains: inbound trains from Brooklyn except the 4/5 are at their peak crowding entering Lower Manhattan rather than Midtown, so picking up passengers in between is free, and of course inbound trains from Uptown and Queens drop off most of their peak morning load in Midtown.
It’s not just a handful of city neighborhoods where the infrastructure has room. It’s the most desirable residential parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and large swaths of middle-class areas in Brooklyn and parts of Queens. In those areas, the subway is not at capacity or even close to it, and there is room to accommodate new commuters at all hours of day. To the extent there isn’t new development there, the reason is, in one word, NIMBYism.
I ran a Patreon poll about theory-oriented posts, and this option won over the concepts of skin in the game and of cities and assimilation. It came to me when I tried understanding why on several distinct measures of good governance related to urbanism and public transportation, the US is unusually weak by developed-country standards. I was reminded of something regular commenter Max Wyss once said: in French and in German, there’s a word that means “the state” and has positive connotation, whereas in native English use it usually refers to a sinister external imposition.
My main theory is that the US has problems with governance that ultimately stem from its racist history, and these have unrelated implications today that lead to poor urban governance and low transit usage. This is not a straightforward claim about white flight leading to high car use, or even a general claim about racism-poor transit correlation. (I don’t think the US is currently more racist than the average Western European country, and the costs in Europe don’t seem to correlate with my perception of racism levels.) In particular, fixing racism is not by itself going to lead to better transit or better urbanism, only to improvements in quality of government that in the future could prevent similar problems with other aspects of public policy that are yet unforeseen today.
This is a three-step argument. First, I am going to go over the weakness of US civil service and its consequences. Second, I am going to step back and describe the political mentality that leads to weak civil service, which centers the local community at the expense of the state. And third, I am going to relate this and similar examples of excessive localism in the US to the country’s unique history of racism. In effect, I am going to go backward, describing the effect and then looking at its causes.
Effect: Weak State Capacity
The argument is as follows: the US has a weak civil service. There’s relatively little in-house expertise, and weak planning departments. The rapid transit extensions of London and Paris are driven mostly by professional planning departments (Transport for London is especially powerful), with the budgets debated within their respective national parliaments. In contrast, in New York, while Second Avenue Subway was similarly driven by an internal process, other rail extensions were not: the 7 extension is Bloomberg’s project, the ongoing plans for BQX and the LaGuardia AirTrain are de Blasio and Cuomo’s projects respectively, and Gateway in its various incarnations is political football among several agencies and governments. Similarly, while the TGV was developed internally at SNCF with political approval of the overall budget, American plans for high-speed rail involve a melange of players, including consultants.
The more obvious effect of the weakness of the American civil service is that, with political control of planning and not just of the budget, it’s easy to build low-performance infrastructure such as the 7 extension. However, there are three ways in which this problem can increase costs, rather than just lead to poor priorities.
First, it is easier to have agency turf battles. The US has no transport association coordinating planning like STIF in Ile-de-France or any number of German-speaking Verkehrsverbünde (Berlin’s VBB, Zurich’s ZVV, etc.). Even when one agency controls all transit in an area, like SEPTA in Philadelphia or the MBTA in Boston, powerful internal cultures inhibit reforms aiming at treating mainline rail like regular public transit. An instructive example of better civil service is Canada: while Canadian civil service is also weak by Continental European or Japanese standards, it is strong enough that Metrolinx plans to raise off-peak frequency and at least in theory aims at fare integration, over the objections of the traditional railroaders who, like their American counterparts, like the situation as it is today.
Without any structure that gets different agencies to coordinate plans, overbuilding is routine. I blogged about it a few months ago, giving the examples of Gateway and East Side Access in New York and San Jose Diridon Station. A second Bay Area example, not mentioned in the post, concerns Millbrae, where BART holds on to turf it does not need, leading California High-Speed Rail to propose a gratuitous $1.9 billion tunnel: see posts on Caltrain-HSR Compatibility here and here.
Second, there is less in-house supervision of contracting. Brian Rosenthal’s article about Second Avenue Subway’s construction costs talks, among other things, about the lack of internal expertise at the MTA about running large projects. This is consistent with Manuel Melis Maynar’s admonition that project management should be done in-house rather than by consultants; Melis managed to build subways in Madrid for around $60 million per km. It’s also consistent with what I’ve heard from MBTA insiders as an explanation for the cost blowout for Boston’s Green Line Extension, an open-cut light rail so expensive it was misclassified as a subway in a Spanish comparison; as I mention in CityLab, once the MBTA found a good project manager it managed to substantially reduce costs.
Weaker in-house supervision has knock-on effects on procurement practices. An agency that can’t easily oversee the work it pays for has difficulty weeding out dishonest or incompetent contractors. One way around it is strict lowest-bid rules, but these offer dishonest contractors an opportunity to lowball costs; California has a particular problem with change orders. In New York, I’ve heard from several second-hand sources that to prevent contractors from doing shoddy work, the specs micromanage the contractors, leading to more expensive work and discouraging good builders, who can get private-sector work, from bidding. If fewer contractors bid, then there is less competition, increasing cost further. In contrast, Melis Maynar’s prescription is to offer contracts based primarily on the technical score and only secondarily on cost, to ensure quality work. But this requires objective judgment of technical merit, which American bureaucrats are not good at.
And third, the US’s weaker state capacity leads to problems with NIMBY opposition to infrastructure. This does not means the US can’t engage in eminent domain (on the contrary, its eminent domain laws favor the state). But it means that agencies feel like they’re politically at the mercy of powerful local interests, and can’t propose projects with high community impact that they can negotiate with local landowners. The impetus for the SECoast’s hiring me to analyze high-speed rail in Fairfield County is that the NEC Future plan was vague about that area; an insider at one of the NEC Future consultants told me that this was specifically because the consultant was worried about NIMBYism in that part of the state, so an “unspoken assumption” was that the area should not be disturbed.
This kind of preemptive surrender to NIMBYism leads to inferior projects, like agency turf battles: cost-effective solutions are not pursued if consultants are worried about political pushback. But, like agency turf battles, it also leads to higher costs, if the reports propose expensive remediation such as tunnels.
Any attempt to build a strong bureaucracy in the United States runs into entrenched interests, most of which are local. These interests are empowered politically rather than legally. The NIMBYism example is the cleanest case study. The United States does not have a legal regime that empowers NIMBY opposition in eminent domain cases. On the contrary, the state can condemn property with relative ease, and the arguments are over price. Under Kelo, the state can even expropriate land and to give to a private developer.
In contrast, in Japan the process is more difficult: in a 1994 Transportation Research Board paper, Walter Hook says that urban landowners in Japan enjoy strong legal protections, which requires the state to pay a high price for property takings. About 75-80% of the cost of urban highway construction in Japan is land acquisition, versus only 25% in the US (both figures are lower for rail, which is more space-efficient; the paper argues that Japan’s difficult land acquisition led it to favor the more space-efficient mode for its urban transportation network).
Moreover, in Japan as well as in France, property owners have extralegal means of fighting infrastructure: they can take to the streets. The construction of Narita Airport faced riots by landowners, encouraged by leftists who opposed the airport’s use by the US military; and in France, blocking roads is a standard way of protesting, and there is little the state can do against it. SNCF resolves this issue in building high-speed lines for TGVs by spending years negotiating with landowners and coming up with win-wins in which it pays extra to make the owners go away quietly.
With a legally stronger state, the US needs to come up with different ways to protect powerful property owners from arbitrary expropriation. The mechanism the country settled on is political empowerment of local interests. If rich individuals in Fairfield County or on the San Francisco Peninsula can interfere with the construction process, then they can rest assured the state will not be able to build a rail alignment that wrecks their real or imagined quality of life. The point I made repeatedly in my writeup about high-speed rail in Fairfield County (funded by those rich individuals) is that there is some real visual and noise impact, but it’s possible to mitigate it in most cities using noise barriers and trees, and as compensation use the faster tracks to offer faster commuter rail service; only Darien has unmitigable impact.
The same localism encourages agency turf battles. The LIRR, Metro-North, and New Jersey Transit could provide much better rail service in their respective service areas by integrating planning, but this would compel local interests to give up control. Long Islanders would have to interact directly with the Tri-State Area’s transport association, in which they’d be only 12% of the population and 5% of transit ridership; today they interact with planning via their powerful elected representatives, who can block any change that is unfavorable to incumbent riders.
The main losers here are potential riders. It is possible to come up with a win-win (there’s so much schedule padding a local train could be as fast as today’s super-express trains), but it is not possible for any coordinated planning department to credibly promise that the suburbs would retain the priority they have today. For the same reason, even vertically integrated SEPTA and the MBTA find it difficult to engage in integration – the suburbs would lose their special status.
In contrast, planning in France and Britain is more centralized, and the local communities were never so empowered. The two main players in STIF are RATP and SNCF. RATP serves Paris, and SNCF is the national railroad and does not view itself as catering to the suburbs even if those suburbs are the overwhelming majority of SNCF’s ridership. The rich can exercise direct political influence: thus, the state just committed to building the entire Grand Paris Express, despite cost overruns, without pruning the unnecessary airport connector that is Line 17 or the low-ridership favored-quarter suburban circumferential that is Line 18. But they can’t block projects as easily as in the US.
The US achieves democratic checks and balances by having many veto points on every law. In Congress, a law needs majorities in both houses and a presidential signature, or supermajorities in both houses. Moreover, achieving a majority in each house requires not only the support of the majority of legislators, but also the support of the majority of legislators in the majority party (the Hastert Rule). In each state legislature, the process is largely similar. In nonpartisan or effectively single-party legislatures, such as the New York City Council, votes on such local issues as rezoning informally require the approval of the legislator representing the district in question; David Schleicher, who has elsewhere investigated high US subway construction costs, has a paper on this local representative privilege explaining why upzoning is difficult in large cities.
This localism is absent from other democracies. Westminster systems just don’t have checks and balances, only traditions, occasionally supplemented by narrow civil liberties-oriented constitutions like the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As a result, Ontario could pass a rent control law overnight; with this regulatory uncertainty, it’s no wonder that for years, even before the law, fearful developers built mostly condos rather than rental units.
In most other democracies, checks and balances instead rely on proportional representation and a multiparty system: laws in Germany or Scandinavia require a parliamentary majority, and restrictions on the government’s ability to pass big changes overnight with no debate come from the ability of class-based and ideological interests to activate entire political parties. Coalition agreements still specify the agenda, roughly equivalent to the Hastert Rule, but parties can freely campaign for changes in elections, reducing the ability of a minority to block change. In some systems, most notably Switzerland, it’s also possible to use referendums to direct spending. This way, local magnates opposed to the expansion of civil service are disempowered, while at the same time the civil service cannot easily use its powers to create internal slush funds, because it is still overseen by a political majority that cares little for corruption.
Ultimate Cause: Democratic Deficit and Racism
The superficial reason why the US prefers localism to civil service is that it is historically localist. New England had powerful town halls from early white settlement, and Americans like to tell themselves that they have a lively tradition of self-government and individualism. But this is incorrect. Israelis in the United States often comment that far from individualist or self-governing, Americans are unusually rule-bound and obedient, compared with not just Israelis but also Europeans.
More to the point, traditions of localism exist in much of Europe. Switzerland is famous for this, and yet it’s managed to develop civil service planning transportation; referendums exert a powerful check on the ability of the state to spend money, but do not micromanage planning, and as a result the state makes cost-effective plans rather than retreating and letting local suburbs decide what to build.
Moreover, most European countries have undergone rounds of municipal consolidation, converting formerly independent suburbs or villages into parts of larger cities or townships. France has uniquely not done so, and is therefore extremely fractionalized, with 30,000 communes, about the same as the number of municipalities in five times more populous America; but in France the communes are for the most part weak, and most subnational government is done by departments and regions. The US, in contrast, maintained its suburbs’ autonomy.
The answer to the question of why the US has done so is simple: racism. Suburban consolidation came to a hard stop once the cities became more diverse than the suburbs. Relying on prior town lines could offer suburban whites something they craved: protection from integration, especially school integration.
It would be difficult to consolidate education policy, even at the state level, and maintain the white middle and working classes’ desired segregation levels. Thus, the US prefers the second-best policy of maintaining localism. The same principle also underlies much election disenfranchisement (giving white poll workers authority to reject black voters’ credentials), today and even more so before the Voting Rights Act.
Transit faces the same issue. The traditional American transit cities’ suburbs have fast expensive trains for middle-class, mostly white suburban commuters to city center, and slow, cheap suburban buses for poor minorities working service jobs in the suburbs. Stephen Smith, who spent some time on the NICE buses on Long Island and compared their demographics with those of the LIRR, calls this “separate and unequal.” This segregation would not survive any coordinated planning; even ignoring racial equality, it’s inefficient.
The underlying cause is that it is very difficult to have a clean herrenvolk democracy. Neither of the two main examples of herrenvolk democracies, the American South in the eras of slavery and Jim Crow and South Africa in the apartheid era, had good government. On the contrary, the antebellum South opposed public infrastructure investment (“internal improvements” in the era’s language), and the Jim Crow South was a single-party state ruled by corrupt political machines. Apartheid South Africa, too, was effectively a single-party state with totalitarian characteristics trying to stamp out communism. The ability of the state to respond to even the white population’s economic and social needs was constrained by the overwhelming need to credibly promise to maintain apartheid. Ta-Nehisi Coates notes this of George Wallace:
I frequently reference the story of George Wallace’s evolution. Wallace was once a sensible politician who generally was seen as fair-minded by black leaders in Alabama. But he lost the gubernatorial election after being tarred by John Patterson as too friendly to black people. Wallace subsequently vowed to never be “out-niggered” again and thus began his long dark march into history.
You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor.
The only way to maintain racism is to weaken institutions. It’s hard to have a clean system of apartheid justice, because then the oppressed minority can simply demand the state treat it the way it treats the herrenvolk. A state that attempted to impose apartheid with clean government would not be able to credibly promise to the racists that the system would stay as is. Instead, it would need to engage in arbitrary justice, giving individual cops, judges, and juries broad latitude to make decisions, which could survive the end of formal apartheid to some extent.
The Impact of Racism on Property Rights
The US built roads in the 1950s and 60s by running them through low-income black urban neighborhoods. The book The Big Roads says that road planners figured that those areas were already declining and had low property values, so it was cheap to build there; in one tone-deaf example, planners in Washington tried surveying roads after a race riot, figuring that it was the best time to demolish buildings, until outraged civil rights groups put a stop to the process. The problem is that black neighborhoods were cheap because of redlining. The federal government spent 30 years wrecking the property values of black neighborhoods and then acquired property for cheap to build infrastructure for then-white suburban drivers.
For the same reason, there is much less tolerance toward protest in the US than in other democracies. If Americans tried reacting to adverse changes the way the French react, the police would shoot them. If the US engaged in a process to reduce its police brutality rates to levels that Europeans tolerate, black people would be able to free to roam the streets and make racist whites uncomfortable.
Thus, the US refrains from giving property owners any formal legal or extralegal protections from expropriation. Instead, it promises security of property to the middle class by underinvesting in institutions that could come up with bureaucratic rules for expropriation. Legally excluding minorities is difficult; politically excluding them is easy. The natural end of this system is to ensure the locus of protection from expropriation is political rather than legal.
When the US protects individuals from the predations of the state, it does so by letting people sue the government; this contrasts with regulatory protections, such as the Nordic ombudsman system. While suing the government is in theory a legal protection, in practice it depends on familiarity with the court system, which privileges people with connections and legal knowledge. When the state does spend political capital on getting what it wants, some rich individuals can sue indefinitely to delay projects; the poor have no such recourse. While this is partly a legacy of the common law system, indefinite delay by lawsuit is rare in the rest of the common law world, leading to British stereotypes that Americans are overly litigious.
The US is not uniquely racist. Its levels of economic discrimination against minorities seem fairly average to me by developed-country standards. Moreover, the extent of political exclusion of black Americans is arguably the smallest among all large groups of nonwhite minorities in white-majority countries. Barack Obama faced considerably racism as president, but he did win by a fair margin, and for years beforehand the media normalized the idea of a black president (as in the TV show 24 or the film Deep Impact). In contrast, a Muslim French president would be unthinkable. Even the Trump cabinet is more diverse than the Macron cabinet, which has one black member (the minister of sport) and one part-Algerian member (the minister of public accounts); the Clinton, Bush, and Obama cabinets all had minorities in far more senior positions.
However, the US is unique in that it was racially diverse early, requiring its political system to adapt to a state of slavery and subsequently apartheid. Europe, in contrast, formally applies the rules of liberal democratic participation, developed when there were few minorities, to an increasingly diverse electorate. To the extent that European racists are dissatisfied with this arrangement, they try to push for localism as well: British xenophobia borrows rhetoric from American local racism, substituting neo-Confederate dislike for the US federal government for anti-EU sentiments. Similarly, Swiss racists push for rules putting every naturalization to a referendum, ensuring that long-settled white Germans and Italians could naturalize while nonwhites could not.
Conclusion: the Origins and Future of Poor Governance
With the need to maintain apartheid embedded into the American legal and political systems, it had to underinvest in state capacity. A uniform civil service with clear rules would have to treat everyone equally, and if it didn’t, it would be so obvious that civil rights advocates would be able to easily push for change.
For the same reason, the US didn’t design rules that would guarantee security of property to all citizens while allowing the government to function in those cases where expropriation was required. Such rules would equally protect whites and blacks, and allow the black middle class to build wealth on the same terms as whites. Instead, its legal system empowers the state in eminent domain cases and requires individuals to either use their political pull to protect themselves or to attempt to sue the government for just compensation, neither of which option protects unorganized or disempowered communities.
With planning done by ad hoc arrangements and excessive empowerment of local interests, it is difficult to engage in any regional coordination. Even when none of the actors is a racist, or when all relevant communities are white, parochial local interests are stronger than the civil service and have many levers with which they can block change. With a change-averse political system, planning is run by autopilot, keeping traditional arrangements as they are.
Aversion to change, poor coordination, and ad hoc planning all lead to bad government, but are especially deleterious for public transit. Two road agencies that work independently in neighboring jurisdiction could build a single continuous road. Two public transit agencies in the same situation could build a railroad but not operate it. Moreover, with the bulk of spending on roads coming from individual consumers buying cars and fuel, a car-based transportation system is more resilient to bad government than a transit-based one, in which all spending is directed by a transit agency.
It’s hard to have an organization-before-electronics-before-concrete mentality when organization is stymied by the overarching need to maintain white middle-class local autocephaly. The end result is that transit planning departments are too weak to prioritize projects the right way and even to control costs of spending that benefits the white middle class.
None of this was intentional. Racism was of course intentional, but the political compromises between racist and nonracist whites that created American governance as it is today were not intended to wreck American state capacity. They just did so as a side product of guaranteeing the desired levels of political and economic exclusion.
The importance of intent is that reducing the extent of racism in the US in the future, while obviously desirable, is independent of fixing public transit. Some individual bad decisions today, such as Larry Hogan’s cancellation of the Red Line in Baltimore, are directly racist, but a lot of agency turf (such as between different commuter rail agencies) is not, and neither are high construction costs. Fixing the problems of US transit planning requires improving the relevant planning departments, but this is so narrowly-focused as to neither require nor be a natural consequence of fighting racism.
However, there is an entire world out there beyond public transit. When the US built its current racist system, during the midcentury transition period from apartheid to more-or-less equal democracy, probably the most obvious racially charged issue was school integration; the effect on transportation policy was a byproduct. Likewise, if the US makes a concerted effort to move toward racial equality, or if any European country with high immigration rates makes a concerted effort to avoid falling into an American racist trap, the improvements in governance will have far-reaching unforeseen benefits in the future.