Subways can be built in two ways: cut-and-cover, and bored tunnel. Cut-and-cover means opening up the street top-down, building the system, and roofing it to restore surface traffic; bored tunnel means opening up one portal and digging horizontally, with less surface disturbance. In the last generation or two there has been a shift toward bored tunnel even in places that used to build cut-and-cover, despite the fact that bored tunnel is the more expensive technique in most cases. Regrettably, people don’t seem to even recognize it as a tradeoff, in which they spend more money to avoid surface disruption – some of our sources have told us that avoiding top-down cut-and-cover is an unalloyed good, a kind of modernity. Even more regrettably, this same thinking is common in much of the developing world, where subways tend to be bored.
What are cut-and-cover and bored tunnel?
Cut-and-cover refers to a family of construction techniques all of which involve top-down tunneling. In New York, one of the sources cited on NYCSubway.org refers to the subway as “a covered trench” rather than a real tunnel. The oldest cut-and-cover subways were dug by hand, but in the last 100 years there have been technological innovations to mechanize some of the work as well as to reduce surface disruption, which is considerable and lasts for a few years. These innovations include the cover-and-cut system invented in 1950s Milan (“Milan method”) and the caisson system used to build T-Centralen in Stockholm. The Milan method sinks piles into the street early and builds retaining walls to allow for truly vertical construction, whereas traditional cut-and-cover must be sloped, which requires a wider street than the tunnel, like the Manhattan avenues or Parisian boulevards but not Milan’s Renaissance streets. The caisson method builds a concrete structure and then lowers it into the ground, which facilitates multistory cut-and-cover structures at transfer stations.
Bored tunnel involves digging just one portal, or sometimes a few to speed up work, and then drilling horizontally. This used to be called a tunneling shield, but the shield has been automated to the point that a small crew, only 8-12 people, are required to supervise it nowadays, and now it is called a tunnel-boring machine, or TBM. This method was first invented in London for the construction of the Thames Tunnel, and has been used for all of the London Underground lines since the first two, as London lacks for wide streets for cut-and-cover work. Most American, European, and East Asian cities have switched to this method in the last generation; thus for example New York started to build Second Avenue Subway in the 1970s cut-and-cover, but the program since the 1990s has always been bored.
The typical method used in the world is really a mix – the tunnels are bored, the stations are cut-and-cover. This is because, while the TBM is capable of building tunnels easily, it cannot build stations. Mining or blasting a station is expensive, and many modern examples run up to $500 million or more, not just in high-cost New York but also in otherwise low-cost Rome. This mixed method involves opening up the street at station sites for 1.5-2 years in Paris, intermediate costs, and disruption only at sites that would benefit from the opening of a station.
How much do these techniques cost?
The cost of a mined station starts at $500 million and goes up. But very few cities mine stations – New York and London do, and very rarely other cities do in constrained historic centers like Rome’s. The typical cost of bored tunnel is much less; the lines for which we have seen a breakdown in costs between tunneling and stations, which are a small fraction of our database, have tunneling costs ranging from around $50 million per km to somewhat more than $100 million per km, not counting systems, overheads, or stations. With everything included, this should be viewed as about $200 million per km; the actual median for subways in our database is about $250 million/km, but it includes expensive lines with mined stations, city center tunnels that can’t easily build cut-and-cover stations, and projects that are unusually bad.
Cut-and-cover is generally cheaper. The only cut-and-cover example in our database from Paris, the Line 13 extension to Courtilles, cost 83M€/km, which is around $130 million/km in today’s money; other Paris Métro extensions from the last 15 years are 50-100% more expensive, and the next tranche is even costlier, as Parisian costs are regrettably increasing. Low-cost cities in Southern Europe bore the majority of their subways, but their suburban subway extensions are often a mix of TBMs and cut-and-cover, which is one of many reasons they have low construction costs and Paris does not.
Bear in mind that the superiority of cut-and-cover to bored tunnel depends on the presence of an at least moderately wide straight street for it to go under. London ran out of such streets after it built the Metropolitan line; the District line was, per Wikipedia, three times as expensive, about $110 million/km in today’s money, because it needed to demolish property in Kensington, already then an expensive neighborhood. New York used bored tunnel to cross under rivers and under the hills of Washington Heights, switching to cut-and-cover elsewhere; readers who have gone to the New York Subway Museum will remember the exhibits about the dangerous work of the sandhogs underwater. However, that bored tunnel was no more expensive in turn-of-the-century London than cut-and-cover was in contemporary Paris and New York does not mean these relative costs persist today. Today, on the sort of streets most cities build subways under, cut-and-cover is cheaper, by a factor that appears to be 1.5-2.
The situation in developing countries
In developing countries, I am not aware of any cut-and-cover, which does not mean there isn’t any, just that in the places I’ve looked most closely, namely India and Thailand, the tunnels seem bored. Of note, both India and Thailand build extensive elevated networks, so their subways are to some extent built where elevated construction is infeasible or undesirable. However, to some extent is doing a lot of work here. The Bangkok MRT goes under Rama IV Road, which is about 35 meters wide, and under Asok, which is 30 meters wide. This is comparable to the Sukhumvit, a 35-meter-wide road that hosts the BTS el. Deep-level construction is not necessary on the main roads of Bangkok.
What of other developing-world cities? Bangkok may be unusual, in that it’s a solidly middle-income city, the dominant capital of a middle-income country with comparable GDP per capita to China. What of genuinely poor cities? At least in the bigger ones, wide boulevards for cut-and-cover are not in shortage. Nairobi has vast roads hosting matatu routes. Lagos has such wide main roads that when I crayoned it I proposed that the main radials be elevated, as the under-construction Blue Line is, to avoid having to tunnel underwater from the mainland to Lagos Island. In most cases, short bored segments may be needed, or else short segments that involve the purchase and demolition of private property, as happened in New York when the city carved Seventh Avenue South and Sixth Avenue through the Village.
I suspect the reason this is not done is that planners believe that TBMs are more modern. The physical TBM is an engineering marvel, and looks like advanced technology, even if what it produces is comparable in quality to what cut-and-cover could do when there are wide roads to tunnel under. Planners in the United States have treated it as a given that it’s better to avoid top-down construction. This isn’t even isomorphic mimicry, in which poor countries improperly imitate rich ones; this is proper imitation of a technique whose use in rich countries too is often in error.
Cut-and-cover is underrated
Instead of tunneling wherever possible, I would urge urban subway planners to look to cut-and-cover more. In poor countries, it can be done with the same labor-intensive techniques that produced $40 million/km subways (in today’s money) in New York and Paris. In rich ones, it can be done with more advanced technology to save labor and keep costs under control. This involves more surface disruption, but this disruption can be mitigated by using the Milan method on roads that are wider than those of the center of Milan, and the ultimate benefit is that a lot more subway can be built.
Robert Jackel asked me an excellent question in comments: what is a pulse? I’ve talked about timed transfers a lot in the last almost 10 years of this blog, but I never wrote a precise definition. This is a critical tool for every public transportation operation with more than one line, making sure that trains and buses connect with as short a transfer window as possible given other constraints. Moreover, pulse-oriented thinking is to plan capital investment and operations to avoid constraints that make transfers inconvenient.
When are pulses needed?
Passengers perceive the disutility of a minute spent transferring to be more than that of a minute spent on a moving vehicle. This is called the transfer penalty and is usually expressed as a factor, which varies greatly within the literature. In a post from 2011 I quoted a since-linkrotted thesis with pointers to Boston and Houston’s numbers, and in a more recent post I found some additional literature in a larger variety of places, mostly in the US but also the Netherlands. The number 2 is somewhere in the middle, so let’s go with this.
Observe that the transfer penalty measured in minutes and not in a factor is, naturally, larger when service runs less frequently. With a factor of 2, it is on average equal to the headway, which is why it is likely the number is 2 – it represents actual time in the worst case scenario. The upshot is that the value of an untimed transfer is higher the higher the frequency is.
I used the principle of untimed transfers and frequency to explain why small subway networks do not look like small bus networks – they have fewer, more frequent lines. Subway lines that run every 3-4 minutes do not need transfer timing, because the time cost of an untimed transfer is small compared to the likely overall trip time, which is typically in the 15-30 minute range. But the lower the frequency, the more important it is to time transfers. Thus, for example, Berlin times the U6/U7 transfer at Mehringdamm in the evening, when trains run every 10 minutes, but does not do so consistently in the daytime, when they run every 5.
But note: while the value of an untimed transfer is higher at higher frequency, the value of a timed transfer is the same – it is zero-penalty or close to it no matter what. So really, the relative value of timing the transfer decreases as frequency increases. But at the same time, if frequency is higher, then more passengers are riding your service, which justifies more investment to try to time the transfer. The German-speaking planning tradition is the most concerned with transfer timing, and here, it is done commonly at 10 minutes, occasionally at 5 minutes, and never that I know of at higher frequency.
Easy mode: one central station
If all your buses and trains serve one transit center, then a pulse means that they all run at the same frequency, and all meet at the center at the same time. This doesn’t usually happen on urban rail networks – a multi-line urban rail system exists in a high-ridership, high-frequency context, in which the value of serving a mesh of city center lines is high, and the cost of bringing every subway tunnel to one location is high. Instead, this happens on buses and on legacy regional rail networks.
The pulse can be done at any frequency, but probably the most common is hourly. This is routine in small American towns with last-resort bus networks serving people too poor or disabled to drive. Two and a half years ago a few of us on Transit Twitter did a redesign-by-Twitter of the Sioux City bus network, which has ten bus routes running hourly, all pulsing in city center with timed connections. A similar network often underlies the night buses of a larger city that, in the daytime, has a more complete public transport network, such as Vancouver.
Even here, planners should keep two delicate points in mind. First, on buses in mixed traffic, there is an upper limit to the frequency that can be timetabled reliably. The limit depends on details of the street network – Jarrett Walker is skeptical that timetabling buses that run every 15 minutes is feasible in a typical American city, but Vancouver, with no freeways within a city and a rich arterial grid, manages to do so every 12 minutes on 4th Avenue. A half-hourly pulse is definitely possible, and even Jarrett writes those into his bus redesigns sometimes; a 20-minute pulse is probably feasible as well even in a typical American city. The current practice of hourly service is not good, and, as I point out in the Sioux City post, involves slow, meandering bus routes.
The second point is that once the takt is chosen, say half an hour, the length of each roundtrip had better be an integer multiple of the takt, including a minimal turnaround time. If a train needs 5 minutes to turn, and runs half-hourly, then good times for a one-way trip from city center are 10, 25, 40, 55 minutes; if there is no turnaround at city center, for example if there is through-running, then half as many turnarounds are needed. This means that short- and long-term planning should emphasize creating routes with good trip times. On a bus, this means straightening meanders as needed, and either extending the outer end or cutting it short. On a train, this means speedup treatments to run as fast as necessary, or, if the train has a lot of spare time, opening additional infill stops.
The issue of branching
Branches and pulses don’t mix well. The ideal way to run a system with a trunk and branches is to space the branches evenly. The Berlin S-Bahn runs every 3-4 minute on the Stadtbahn trunk and on the North-South Tunnel, mixing services that run every 10 and 20 minutes at roughly even intervals. In such an environment, timed transfers in city center are impossible. This is of course not a problem given Stadtbahn headways, but becomes serious if frequency is sparser. A one-trunk, two-branch regional rail system’s planners may be tempted to run each branch every half hour and interpolate the schedules to create a 15-minute headway on the trunk, but if there’s a half-hourly pulse, then only one branch can participate in it.
This is visible when one compares S-Bahn and RegionalBahn systems. High-frequency S-Bahn systems don’t use timed transfers in city center, because there is no need. I can get from Jannowitzbrücke to Ostkreuz without consulting a schedule, and I would get to the Ring without consulting a schedule either, so there is no need to time the crossing at Ostkreuz. There may be sporadic transfer timing for individual branches, such as between the S9 branch of the Stadtbahn, which diverts southeast without serving Ostkreuz, and the Ring, but S9 runs every 20 minutes, and this is not a pulse, only a single-direction timed connection.
In contrast, RegionalBahn systems, running at longer ranges and lower frequencies, often tend toward timed transfers throughout. The tradeoff is that they don’t overlie to create high-frequency trunks. In some cases, trains on a shared trunk may even platoon, so that all can make the same timed transfer, if high trunk frequency is not desired; this is how intercity trains are run on the Olten-Bern line, with four trains to a platoon every 30 minutes.
Medium mode: dendritic networks
A harder case than the single pulse is the dendritic network. This means that there is a central pulse point, and also secondary pulse points each acting as a local center. All cases I am aware of involve a mainline rail network, which could be S-Bahn rather than RegionalBahn, and then bus connections at suburban stations.
Already, this involves more complex planning. The reason is that the bus pulse at a suburban station must be timed with trains in both directions. Even if planners only care about connections between the suburban buses and trains toward city center, the pulse has to time with inbound trains for passengers riding from the suburban buses to the city and with outbound trains for passengers riding from the city to the buses. This, in turn, means that the trains in both directions must arrive at the station at approximately the same time. A few minutes of leeway are acceptable, since the buses turn at city center so the connection always has a few minutes of slack, but only a few minutes out of what is often a half-hourly takt.
Trains that run on a takt only meet every interval equal to half the takt. Thus, if trains run half-hourly, they can only have suburban pulses every 15 minutes of travel. This requires planners to set up suburban pulses at the correct interval, and speed up or sometimes slow down the trains if the time between suburban nodes. Here is an example I’ve worked on for a Boston-Worcester commuter train, with pulses in both Framingham and Worcester.
Hard mode: meshes
The next step beyond the dendritic network is the multi-node network whose graph is not simply connected. In such a network, every node must have a timed transfer, which imposes considerable planning constraints. Optimizing such a network is an active topic of research in operations and transportation in European academia.
Positive examples for such networks come from Switzerland. Large capital investments are unavoidable, because there’s always going to be some line that’s slower than it needs to be. The key here is that, as with dendritic networks, nodes must be located at consistent intervals, equal to multiples of half the headway, and usually the entire headway. To make multiple timed transfers, trains must usually be sped up. This is why pulse-based integrated timed transfer networks require considerable planning resources: planning for rolling stock, infrastructure, and the timetable must be integrated (“the magic triangle”) to provide maximum convenience for passengers connecting from anywhere to anywhere.
I wrote a long thread about regional rail and population density, and I’d like to explain more and give more context. The upshot is that higher population density makes it easier to run a rail network, but the effects are most visible for regional rail, rather than either urban rail or high-speed intercity rail. This is visible in Europe when one compares the networks in high-density Germany and low-density Sweden, and has implications elsewhere, for example in North America. I stress that high-speed rail is not primarily affected by background density, but only by the populations of cities within a certain range, and thus France, which has one of Western Europe’s lowest densities, manages to have high per-capita ridership on the TGV. However, the density of a regional mesh comes from background density, which is absent in such countries as France, Sweden, and Spain.
What is density?
Population density is population divided by area. This post is concerned with overall density at the level of an entire country or region, rather than the more granular level of the built-up urban area of a single city. What this means is that density is in large part a measurement of how close cities are to one another. In a high-density area like western Germany, Northern Italy south of the Alps, England, or the Low Countries, cities are spaced very close together, and thus people live at densities surpassing 300/km^2. In contrast, low-density areas have isolated cities, like Sweden, Australia, Canada, or the Western United States.
For example, take Stockholm. The region has about 2.5 million people, and has a strong urban and suburban rail network. However, there just aren’t a lot of cities near Stockholm. The nearest million-plus metro areas are Oslo, Gothenburg, and Helsinki, all about 400 km away, none much bigger than 1 million; the nearest 2 million-plus metro area is Copenhagen, 520 km away. The region I use as an example of German polycentrism, Rhine-Neckar, is about the same size as Stockholm, and has a good deal more suburban sprawl and car usage. The nearest million-plus region to Mannheim is Karlsruhe, 55 km away; it is a separate metropolitan area even though the Rhine-Neckar S-Bahn does have an hourly train to Karlsruhe. Frankfurt is 70 km away. A 400 km radius from Mannheim covers nearly the entirety of Germany, Switzerland, and the Low Countries; it reaches into Ile-de-France and into suburbs that share a border with Amsterdam. A 520 km radius covers Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, Milan, and Prague, and reaches close to Vienna.
Density and regional rail
Kaiserslautern is a town of 100,000 people, served by the Rhine-Neckar S-Bahn every half hour even though it is not normally seen as part of the Rhine-Neckar region. It has, in addition to the east-west S-Bahn, independent regional lines reaching north and south. When I visited two years ago, I saw these lines pulse while waiting for my delayed TGV back home to Paris.
This is viable because there are towns ringing Kaiserslautern, close enough that a low-speed regional train could connect them, with their own town centers such that there is a structure of density around their train stations. This in turn exists because the overall population density in Germany is high, even in Rhineland-Pfalz, which at 206/km^2 is slightly below the German average. The alternative structure to that of Germany would have fewer, larger cities – but that structure lends itself well to regional rail too, just with fewer, thicker lines running more frequently. If those smaller towns around Kaiserslautern did not exist but people instead lived in and right around Kaiserslautern, then it would be a city of about 400,000, and likewise Mainz might have 500,000 and the built-up area of Mannheim would have more people in Mannheim itself and in Ludwigshafen, and then there would be enough demand for a regional train every 10-20 minutes and not just every half hour.
I bring up Sweden as a low-density contrast, precisely because Sweden has generally well-run public transport. Stockholm County’s per capita rail ridership is higher than that of any metropolitan area of Germany except maybe Berlin and Munich. Regional rail ridership in and around Stockholm is rising thanks to the opening of Citybanan. Moreover, peripheral regions follow good practices like integrated intermodal ticketing and timed transfers. And yet, the accretion of a mesh of regional lines doesn’t really exist in Sweden. When I visited Växjö, which is not on the main intercity line out of Stockholm, I had a timed connection at Alvesta, but the timetable there and at Växjö looked sporadic. Växjö itself is on a spur for the network, but poking around the Krösatågen system it doesn’t look like an integrated timed transfer system, or if it is then Alvesta is not a knot. I was told in the replies on Twitter that Norrbotten/Västerbotten has an integrated network, but it runs every 2 hours and one doesn’t really string regional rail lines together to form longer lines the way one does in Germany.
Integrated regional networks
The integrated timed transfer concept, perfected in Switzerland, is ideal for regional and intercity networks that form meshes, and those in turn require high population density. With these meshes, regional rail networks overlap, underlaying an intercity network: already one can get between Frankfurt and Stuttgart purely on lines that are branded as S-Bahn, S-Bahn-like, or Stadtbahn, and if one includes RegionalBahn lines without such branding, the network is nationally connected. Even in Bavaria, a state with lower density than the German average, nearly all lines have at least hourly service, and those form a connected network.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Italy, which has high density especially when one excludes unpopulated alpine areas, is adopting German norms for its regional rail. As in Germany, this originates in urban networks, in Italy’s case that of Milan, but Trenord operates trains throughout Lombardy, most of whose population is not the built-up area of Milan, and even lines that don’t touch Milan run hourly, like Brescia-Parma. Italy is not unusual within Southern Europe in looking up to Germany; it’s only unusual in having enough population density for such a network..
Once the network is in place, it is obligatory to run it as an integrated timed transfer system. Otherwise, the connections take too long, and people choose to drive. This in turn means setting up knots at regular intervals, every 30 minutes for a mixed hourly and half-hourly system, and investing in infrastructure to shorten trip times so that major cities can be knots.
The concept of the knot is not just about regional service – high-speed rail can make use of knots as well. Germany has some low-hanging fruit from better operations and under-construction lines that would enable regularly spaced knots such as Frankfurt, then Mannheim, then Stuttgart, and far to the north Hanover and then Bielefeld. The difference is that Germany’s ideal high-speed rail network has around 20 knots and its existing regional rail network has about as many in Hesse alone. Nor can regional rail networks expect to get away with just building strong lines and spamming frequency on those, as the Shinkansen does – regional rail uses legacy alignments to work, generating value even out of lines that can only support an hourly train, whereas high-speed lines need more than that to be profitable.
Globally, the lowest-hanging fruit for such a system is in the Northeastern United States, followed by China and India. Population density in the Northeast is high, and cities have intact cores near their historic train stations. There is no excuse not to have a network of regional lines running at a minimum every 30 minutes from Portland down to Northern Virginia and inland to Albany and Harrisburg.
A few modifications to the basic Swiss system are needed to take into account the fact that the Northeast Corridor, run at high speeds, would fill a train every 5 minutes all day, and the core regional lines through New York could as well. But regional rail is not a country bumpkin mode of transportation; it works fine within 100 km of Frankfurt or Milan, and should work equally well near New York. If anything, a giant city nearby makes it easier to support high frequency – in addition to internal travel within the regional system, there are people interested in traveling to the metropole helping fill trains.
What about low-density places?
Low-density places absolutely can support good rail transport. But it doesn’t look like the German mesh. Two important features differ:
- It is not possible to cobble together a passable intercity rail network from regional express lines and upgrade it incrementally. Intercity lines run almost exclusively intercity traffic. This tilts countries toward the use of high-speed rail, including not just France but also Spain and now Sweden. This does not mean high-density countries can’t or shouldn’t build high-speed rail – they do successfully in Asia, Italy has a decent network, Britain has high-speed rail plans, and Germany is slowly building a good network. It just means that high-density countries can get away with avoiding building high-speed rail for longer.
- The connections between regional and intercity lines are simpler. Different regions’ suburban networks do not connect, and can be planned separately, for example by state-level authorities in Australia or provincial ones in Canada. These networks are dendritic: intercity lines connect to regional lines, and regional lines branch as they leave city center. Lines that do not enter the primary city center are usually weaker, since it’s unlikely that there are enough strong secondary centers at the right places that a line could serve them well without passing through the primary center.
In extreme cases, no long-distance rail is viable at all. Australia is a borderline case for Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne high-speed rail – I think it’s viable but only based on projections of future population and economic growth. But Perth and Adelaide are lost causes. In the United States, railfans draw nationally-connected proposals, but in the Interior West the cities are simply too far apart, and there is no chance for a train to usefully serve Denver or Salt Lake City unless cars are banned. Connecting California and the Pacific Northwest would be on the edge of viable if the topography were flat, but it isn’t and therefore such a connection, too, is a waste of money in the economic conditions of the early 21st century.
Note that even then, cities can have suburban rail networks – Perth and Adelaide both have these, and their modal splits are about on a par with those of secondary French cities like Nice and Bordeaux or secondary American transit cities like Boston and Chicago. Denver is building up a light rail and a commuter rail network and one day these networks may even get ridership. The difference between the case of Perth or Denver and that of a German city is that Perth and Denver can rest assured their regional rail alignments will never be needed for intercity rail.
In less extreme cases, intercity trains are viable, and can still run together with regional trains on the same tracks. California is one such example. Its population density and topography is such that planning regional rail around the Bay Area and in Los Angeles can be kept separate, and the only place where intercity and regional trains could work together as in Germany is the Los Angeles-San Diego corridor. Blended planning with timed overtakes is still recommended on the Peninsula, but it’s telling that at no point have Bay Area-based reformers proposed a knot system for the region.
Those less extreme low-density cases are the norm, in a way. They include the Midwestern and Southern US, the Quebec-Ontario corridor, the Nordic countries, France, nearly all of Eastern Europe, and Southern Europe apart from Italy; this is most of the developed world already. In all of those places, regional rail is viable, as is intercity rail, but they connect in a dendritic and not meshlike way. Many of the innovations of Germany and its penumbra, such as the takt and the integrated intermodal plan, remain viable, and are used successfully in Sweden. But the exact form of regional rail one sees in Germany would not port.
A country or region that is good at manufacturing cars can export them globally and earn hard cash. But what about public transportation? How can a city that has the ability to build good, low-cost public transport get rich off of it? There is an answer, but it is more complicated than “export this,” mirroring the fact that public transport itself is a more complex system to run than cars. This in turn relates to housing growth rates and urban economies of scale, making this the most useful in a large city with high housing production rates, of which the best example is Seoul. The good news is that the world’s largest and richest cities could gain tremendously if they had better public transport as well as high housing growth rates.
Infrastructure is not exportable
I wrote more than two years ago about the difference between dirty and clean infrastructure. Cars, car parts, and oil are exportable, so the majority of the cost of cars as a system are exportable, making dedicated regions like Bavaria, Texas, and the Gulf states rich. Green tech is not like that – the bulk of the cost is local labor. A large majority of the operating costs of a subway system are local wages and benefits; in New York, depreciation on rolling stock is less than 10% of overall operating costs. Construction costs are likewise almost entirely local labor and management, which is why they are determined by where the project takes place, rather than by which engineering firm builds the project.
The upshot is that Madrid and other low-cost cities can’t just get rich by building other cities’ infrastructure for them. They can’t build turnkey systems for New York and London at Spanish prices – the problems with New York and London come from local standards, management, and regulations, and while a Spanish engineering firm could give valuable advice on what high-cost cities need to change, it’s not going to reap more than a fraction of the construction cost saving in consulting fees.
Good transit as an amenity
What a city can do with low-cost construction is build a large subway network like Madrid, and use that as infrastructure to help local economic production. This works as both a consumption amenity and a production amenity. As a consumption amenity, it enables people to commute without needing to own a car, which reduces living costs and lets employers get away with paying less in nominal terms; this is a bigger influence on local firms, because international ones tend to use cost of living adjustments that make profligate lifestyle assumptions and factor in car costs even in cities where car ownership is low, like Singapore or New York.
As a production amenity, public transit also enables work concentration in city centers. This is separate from the observation that it allows workers to commute more cheaply – if a large city produces in a concentrated center, then without rapid transit, workers can’t get in at all. About 23% of people entering the Manhattan core on a weekday do so by car per the Hub Bound Report, but at the peak hour, 8-9 am, this falls to 9%, because the road capacity is capped around 55,000 cars an hour and a maximum number of parking spots for them. Auto-centric cities of New York’s approximate size exist, not by building massive road capacity to support comparable city centers, but by not having strong city centers to begin with. Los Angeles has maybe 400,000 people in the widest definition of its central business district, where in the same area New York has more than 2 million – and Los Angeles’s secondary centers, like Century City, top in the mid-5 figures before they get completely choked with traffic.
So what a city can do with cheap infrastructure is build a large subway network and support a large high-rise central business district and then use that to produce more efficiently. This is possible, but more complex than just exporting cars or oil, because to export cars one just needs to be good at making cars, and to export oil one just needs to have oil underground, whereas to produce out of public transit one also needs a solid economy in other sectors that can make use of the better infrastructure. I suspect that this is why Southern Europe keeps not growing economically despite building high-quality public transport – the Madrid Metro is great but there isn’t enough of a private economy to make use of it.
The connection with development
To maximize the use of a subway for its economy, a city needs to make sure development can follow it. This means that city center needs high job density, which includes high-rise office towers at the busiest intersections, and many mid-rise office buildings in a radius of a few kilometers. Neither the typical European pattern in which there are few skyscrapers nor the American pattern in which there are skyscrapers for a few blocks and then the rest of the city is subject to strict residential zoning is ideal for this. It’s better to have a city whose central few square kilometers look like Midtown and whose surrounding few tens of square kilometers look like Paris, with the occasional secondary cluster of skyscrapers at high-demand nodes; let’s call this city “Tokyo.”
Residential development has to keep up as well. A city region that has a strong private economy but doesn’t build enough housing for it will end up with capped production. Normally it’s the lowest-end jobs that get exported. However, two problems make it more than a marginal reduction in production. First, expensive cities have political pressure to allocate apartments by non-market processes like rent control, keeping less productive but politically favored people; a large gap between market rent and construction costs creates plenty of surplus to extract, and a mass exodus of firms from cities like San Francisco in such a situation starts from thee least profitable ones, and by the time it affects the most profitable on, the system is entrenched. And second, breaking a firm’s chain between high-end headquarters jobs in a rich city center and lower-end subsidiary jobs elsewhere reduces firmwide productivity, since many connections have to be remote; Google has problems with all-remote teams and tries to center teams in the Bay Area when it gets too unwieldy.
For one example of a city that does everything right, look at Seoul. It has low construction costs, around $150 million per kilometer for urban subways. Thanks to its low costs and huge size, it keeps building up its system even though it already has one of the largest systems in the world, probably third in ridership after Tokyo and Osaka when one includes all commuter lines. It also has high density, high-rise CBDs, and fast housing construction; in 2019 the Seoul region built around 10 units per 1,000 people, representing a decline since the mid-2010s, and the state has plans to accelerate construction, especially in the city, to curb rising prices. This is till a better situation than the weak economy and flagging construction in much of Europe, or the NIMBY growth rates of both much of the rest of Europe and the richest American cities.
European and American intercity train planning takes it as a given that every train must have a car dedicated to cafeteria service. This is not the only way to run trains – the Shinkansen doesn’t have cafe cars. Cafe cars waste capacity that could instead be carrying paying passengers. This is the most important on lines with capacity limitations, like the Northeast Corridor, the West Coast Main Line, the LGV Sud-Est, and the ICE spine from the Rhine-Ruhr up to Frankfurt and Mannheim. Future high-speed train procurement should go the Shinkansen route and fill all cars with seats, to maximize passenger space.
How much space do cafe cars take?
Typically, one car in eight is a cafe. The standard European high-speed train is 200 meters long, and then two can couple to form a 400-meter train, with two cafes since the two 200-meter units are separate and passengers can’t walk between them. In France, the cars are shorter than 25 meters, but a TGV has two locomotives and eight coaches in between, so again one eighth of the train’s potential passenger space does not carry passengers but rather a support service. Occasionally, the formula is changed: the ICE4 in Germany is a single 12-car, 300-meter unit, so 1/12 of the train is a cafe, and in the other direction, the Acela has six coaches one of which is a cafe.
A 16-car Shinkansen carries 1,323 passengers; standard class has 5-abreast seating, but even with 4-abreast seating, it would be 1,098. The same length of a bilevel TGV is 1,016, and a single-level TGV is 754. The reasons include the Shinkansen’s EMU configuration compared with the TGV’s use of locomotives, the lack of a cafe car in Japan, somewhat greater efficiency measured in seat rows per car for a fixed train pitch, and a smaller share of the cars used for first class. An intermediate form is the Velaro, which is an EMU but has a cafe and three first-class cars in eight rather than the Shinkansen’s three in 16; the Eurostar version has 902 seats over 16 cars, and the domestic version 920.
The importance of the first- vs. second-class split is that removing the cafe from a European high-speed train means increasing seated capacity by more than just one seventh. The bistro car is an intermediate car rather than an end car with streamlining and a driver’s cab, and if it had seats they’d be second- and not first-class. A German Velaro with the bistro replaced by a second-class car would have around 1,050 seats in 16 cars, almost even with a 4-abreast Shinkansen even with four end cars rather than two and with twice as many first-class cars.
How valuable are cafes to passengers?
The tradeoff is that passengers prefer having a food option on the train. But this preference is not absolute. It’s hard to find a real-world example. The only comparison I am aware of is on Amtrak between the Regional (which has a cafe) and the Keystone (which doesn’t), and Regional fares are higher on the shared New York-Philadelphia segment but those are priced to conserve scarce capacity for profitable New York-Washington passengers, and at any rate the shared segment is about 1:25, and perhaps this matters more on longer trips.
Thankfully, the Gröna Tåget project in Sweden studied passenger preferences in more detail in order to decide how Sweden’s train of the future should look. It recommends using more modern seats to improve comfort, making the seats thinner as airlines do in order to achieve the same legroom even with reduced pitch, and a number of other changes. The question of cafes in the study is presented as unclear, on PDF-p. 32:
|Food and Refreshments||Willingness to Pay|
|Coffee machine (relative to no service at all)||3-6%|
|Free coffee and tea in each car||6%|
|Food and drink trolley||11%|
|Restaurant with hot food||17%|
Put another way, the extra passenger willingness to pay for a cafeteria compared with nothing, 14%, is approximately equal to the increase in capacity on a Velaro coming from getting rid of the bistro and replacing it with a second-class car. The extra over a Shinkansen-style trolley is 3%. Of course, demand curves slope down, so the gain in revenue from increasing passenger capacity by 14% is less than 14%, but fares are usually held down to a maximum regulatory level and where lines are near capacity the increase in revenue is linear.
Instead of a bistro car, railroads should provide passengers with food options at train stations. In Japan this is the ekiben, but analogs exist at major train stations in Europe and the United States. Penn Station has a lot of decent food options, and even if I have to shell out $10 for a pastrami sandwich, I don’t think it’s more expensive than a Tokyo ekiben, and at any rate Amtrak already shorts me $90 to travel to Boston. The same is true if I travel out of Paris or Berlin.
Even better, if the station is well-designed and placed in a central area of the city, then passengers can get from the street to the platform very quickly. At Gare de l’Est, it takes maybe two minutes, including time taken to print the ticket. This means that there is an even broader array of possible food options by buying on the street, as I would when traveling out of Paris. In that case, prices and quality approach what one gets on an ordinary street corner, without the premium charged to travelers when they are a captive market. The options are then far better than what any bistro car could produce, without taking any capacity away from the train at all.
I’ve talked a lot recently about bad management as a root cause of poor infrastructure, especially on Twitter. The idea, channeled through Richard Mlynarik, is that the main barrier to good US infrastructure construction, or at least one of the main barriers, is personal incompetence on behalf of decisionmakers. Those decisionmakers can be elected officials, with levels of authority ranging from governors down to individual city council members; political appointees of said officials; quasi-elected power brokers who sit on boards and are seen as representative of some local interest group; public-sector planners; or consultants, usually ones who are viewed as an extension of the public sector and may be run by retired civil servants who get a private-sector salary and a public-sector pension. In this post I’d like to zoom in on the managers more than on the politicians, not because the politicians are not culpable, but because in some cases the managers are too. Moreover, I believe removal of managers with a track record of failure is a must for progress.
The issue of solipsism
Spending any time around people who manage poorly-run agencies is frustrating. I interview people who are involved in successful infrastructure projects, and then I interview ones who are involved in failed ones, and then people in the latter group are divided into two parts. Some speak of the failure interestingly; this can involve a blame game, typically against senior management or politics, but doesn’t have to, for example when Eric and I spoke to cost estimators about unit costs and labor-capital ratios. But some do not – and at least in my experience, the worst cases involve people who don’t acknowledge that something is wrong at all.
I connect this with solipsism, because this failure to acknowledge is paired with severe incuriosity about the rest of the world. A Boston-area official who I otherwise respect told me that it is not possible to electrify the commuter rail system cheaply, because it is 120 years old and requires other investments, as if the German, Austrian, etc. lines that we use as comparison cases aren’t equally old. The same person then said that it is not possible to do maintenance in 4-hour overnight windows, again something that happens all the time in Europe, and therefore there must be periodic weekend service changes.
A year and a half ago I covered a meeting that was videotaped, in which New Haven-area activists pressed $200,000/year managers at Metro-North and Connecticut Department of Transportation about their commuter rail investments. Those managers spoke with perfect confidence about things they had no clue about, saying it’s not possible that European railroads buy multiple-units for $2.5 million per car, which they do; one asserted the US was unique in having wheelchair accessibility laws (!), and had no idea that FRA reform as of a year before the meeting permitted lightly-modified European trains to run on US track.
The worst phrase I keep hearing: apples to apples. The idea is that projects can’t really be compared, because such comparisons are apples to oranges, not apples to apples; if some American project is more expensive, it must be that the comparison is improper and the European or Asian project undercounted something. The idea that, to the contrary, sometimes it’s the American project that is easier, seems beyond nearly everyone who I’ve talked to. For example, most recent and under-construction American subways are under wide, straight streets with plenty of space for the construction of cut-and-cover station boxes, and therefore they should be cheaper than subways built in the constrained center of Barcelona or Stockholm or Milan, not more expensive.
What people are used to
In Massachusetts, to the extent there is any curiosity about rest-of-world practice, it comes because TransitMatters keeps pushing the issue. Even then, there is reticence to electrify, which is why the state budget for regional rail upgrades in the next few years only includes money for completing the electrification of sidings and platform tracks on the already-electrified Providence Line and for short segments including the Fairmount Line, Stoughton Branch, and inner part of the Newburyport and Rockport Lines. In contrast, high platforms, which are an ongoing project in Boston, are easier to accept, and thus the budget includes more widespread money for it, even if it falls short of full high-level platforms at every station in the system.
In contrast, where high platform projects are not so common, railroaders find excuses to avoid them. New Jersey Transit seems uninterested in replacing all the low platforms on its system with high platforms, even though the budget for such an operation is a fraction of that of the Gateway tunnel, which the state committed $2.5 billion to in addition to New York money and requested federal funding. The railroad even went as far as buying new EMUs that are compatible not with the newest FRA regulations, which are similar to UIC ones used in Europe, but with the old ones; like Metro-North’s management, it’s likely NJ Transit’s had no idea that the regulations even changed.
The issue of what people are used to is critical. When you give someone authority over other people and pay them $200,000 a year, you’re signaling to them, “never change.” Such a position can reward ambition, but not the ambition of the curious grinder, but that of the manager who makes other people do their work. People in such a position who do not know what “electronics before concrete” means now never will learn, not will they even value the insights of people who have learned. The org chart is clear: the zoomer who’s read papers about Swiss railroad planning works for the boomer who hasn’t, and if the boomer is uncomfortable with change, the zoomer can either suck it up or learn to code and quit for the private sector.
You can remove obstructionist managers
From time to time, a powerful person who refuses to use their power except in the pettiest ways accidentally does something good. Usually this doesn’t repeat itself, despite the concrete evidence that it is possible to do things thought too politically difficult. For example, LIRR head Helena Williams channeled Long Island NIMBYism and opposed Metro-North’s Penn Station Access on agency turf grounds – it would intrude on what Long Islanders think is their space in the tunnels to Penn Station. But PSA was a priority for Governor Andrew Cuomo, so Cuomo fired Williams, and LIRR opposition vanished.
This same principle can be done at scale. Managers who refuse to learn from successful examples, which in capital construction regardless of mode and in operations of mainline rail are never American and rarely in English-speaking countries, can and should be replaced. Traditional railroaders who say things are impossible that happen all the time in countries they look down on can be fired; people from those same countries will move to New York for a New York salary.
This gets more important the more complex a project gets. It is possible, for example, to build high-speed rail between Boston and Washington for a cost in the teens of billions and not tens, let alone hundreds, but not a single person involved in any of the present effort can do that, because it’s a project with many moving parts and if you trust a railroad manager who says “you can’t have timed overtakes,” you’ll end up overbuilding unnecessary tunnels. In this case, managers with a track record of looking for excuses why things are impossible instead of learning from places that do those things are toxic to the project, and even kicking them up is toxic, because their subordinates will learn to act like that too. The squeaky wheel has to be removed and thrown into the garbage dumpster.
And thankfully, squeaky wheels that get thrown into the dumpster stop squeaking. All of this is possible, it just requires elected officials who have the ambition to take risks to effect tangible change rather than play petty office politics every day. Cuomo is the latter kind of politician, but he proved to everyone that a more competent leader could replace solipsists with curious learners and excusemongers with experts.
An online conference just concluded in which I gave a half-hour presentation about construction costs. Instead of giving my usual spiel, showing parts of our growing database and pointing out patterns, I spent a lot of time on why this is important. I’d written about this before, twice, but I’ve since looked more carefully at an example of two countries that are similar enough in their rail and public transit tradition that their large difference in costs must be the primary reason one has a bigger and more successful urban rail system than the other. I focused on developed countries, that is countries that manifestly have high incomes, good public health, good education, and so on; however, I believe the importance of costs is also a big reason behind delays in public transportation in high-cost developing countries like India.
You can read the slides here; this was recorded, and I’ll update this post with a link when it gets published.
Proof-of-payment with ungated train stations is a useful technique for reducing construction costs. It simplifies the construction of stations, since there is no need for a headhouse or mezzanine – people can go directly from the street to the platform. A station without fare control requires just a single elevator, or two if side platforms are desired, and can be built shallowly using cut-and-cover. Cities across the size spectrum, perhaps only stopping short of hypercities, should take heed and use this to build urban rail more cheaply.
Is this a common cost control technique?
No. The vast majority of low-construction cost countries use faregates, which is why I was reticent to recommend proof-of-payment as a cost mitigation strategy. Spain, Italy, Korea, and Sweden are all faregated; among the world’s lowest-cost countries, I believe only Finland and Switzerland use proof-of-payment fare collection on urban rail.
However, there are exceptions. In Italy, the Brescia Metro uses proof-of-payment. This is not typical for the country or the region – Italian metros have fare control, like the vast majority of systems outside Germany and Germany-influenced countries. However, because Brescia is small, the system was forced to engage in value engineering, removing scope that would be routine in larger cities like Milan. The majority was built cut-and-cover or above-ground; the typical urban Italian metro is entirely bored. Italian metro systems prefer short stations on new lines to minimize costs and provide capacity through automated operations and extremely high frequency; Brescia takes this to an extreme and has 30-meter trains. Among these cost minimization tactics is the lack of fare control. The result of this entire package is that Brescia spent 915 million euros on a 13.7 km metro system.
Station size and station cost
So far, we believe that the cost of the station, excavation excluded, should be proportional to the floor area. This is based on something told to us in an interview about electrical system costs for the Boston Green Line Extension, which is light rail in a trench rather than a tunneled metro system, so I recommend caution before people repeat this uncritically.
Moreover, on somewhat more evidence, it appears that the cost of station excavation should be proportional to the volume excavated. Some of the evidence for this is circumstantial: media reports and government reports on the construction of such urban rail projects as Second Avenue Subway, Grand Paris Express, and the RER specify the volume of excavation as a measure of the difficulty of construction. But it’s not just circumstantial. In Paris, the depth of some of the GPX stations has led to some construction complications. Moreover, preliminary interviews in Paris suggest, albeit not definitively, that station construction costs are predominantly a matter of dig volume. Finally, the insistence on short platforms and high frequency as a cost saving technique on new-build metro systems in Italy as well as in Denmark and on the Canada Line in Vancouver is suggestive too, even if it says nothing about whether the relationship between volume and cost is linear, degressive, or superlinear.
How does one minimize station costs with POP?
Proof-of-payment means that there is no fare control between the street and the station. This means any of the following ways of constructing station access become available:
- Cut-and-cover with the platform on level -1, with direct stair and elevator access from the street. The Berlin U-Bahn is built this way, with access points in street medians where available, such as U8 on Brunnenstrasse. It’s easy to build staircases at each end of the platform to increase access, with an elevator in the middle.
- Bored tunnel with large enough bores to fit the platform within the bore. The Barcelona method for this is to use 12-meter bores, but smaller, cheaper versions exist with smaller trains, for example in Milan. It’s also possible to use double-O-tube TBMs for this, but ordinarily they are more expensive than twin bores. Access involves vertical bores down to the platform with elevators or slant bores with escalators; there is no need for intermediate levels or entry halls.
- Bored tunnel with cut-and-cover stations, with no mezzanine levels. Here, the dig volume is unchanged, and the saving from lack of fare control is only in the finishes and elevator costs, not the excavation.
It is noteworthy that the most common technique for metro construction, by far, is the last one, where the savings from POP are the smallest. The vast majority of world metros have fare control, including in low-cost countries, and this perhaps makes metro builders not notice how two separate ways of reducing costs – cut-and-cover and POP – interact especially well together. Nonetheless, this is a real saving.
What does this mean?
A technique can be uncommon in low-cost countries and yet be useful in reducing construction costs. It is useful to think of the way Madrid, Milan, Turin, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki, and Seoul build their urban rail systems as good, but not always perfect. A trick that these cities might not pay attention to may still be good. The caveat is that it requires a good explanation for why they have not employed it; in the case of Italy, I believe it’s simply that the non-German world views fare control as the appropriate way to run a metro system and POP as a light rail technique and therefore only good for low-volume operations. There may also be backward compatibility issues – Brescia is a new build, like POP Copenhagen, whereas Milan is building extensions on top of a gated system.
Nonetheless, the evidence from station costs, the success of POP operations in Germany even on very busy lines, and the experience of Brescia all suggest that POP is good for metro construction in general. Cities smaller than New York building new systems should use it exclusively, and cities that already have faregates should tear them down to improve passenger circulation and facilitate the construction of POP lines in the future at lower cost.
I sometimes see a claim in comments here or on social media that the reason American costs are so high is that scarcity makes it hard to be efficient. This can be a statement about government practice: the US government supposedly doesn’t support transit enough. Sometimes it’s about priorities, as in the common refrain that the federal government should subsidize operations and not just capital construction. Sometimes it’s about ideology – the idea that there’s a right-wing attempt to defund transit so there’s siege mentality. I treat these three distinct claims as part of the same, because all of them really say the same thing: give American transit agencies more money without strings attached, and they’ll get better. All of these claims are incorrect, and in fact high costs cannot be solved by giving more money – more money to agencies that waste money now will be wasted in the future.
The easiest way to see that theories of political precarity or underresourcing are wrong is to try to see how agencies would react if they were beset mostly by scarcity as their defenders suggest. For example, the federal government subsidizes capital expansion and not operations, and political transit advocates in the United States have long called for operating funds. So, if transit agencies invested rationally based on this restrictions, what would they do? We can look at this, and see that this differs greatly from how they actually invest.
The political theory of right-wing underresourcing is similarly amenable to evaluation using the same method. Big cities are mostly reliant not on federal money but state and local money, so it’s useful to see how different cities react to different threat levels of budget cuts. It’s also useful to look historically at what happened in response to cuts, for example in the Reagan era, and spending increases, for example in the stimulus in the early Obama era and again now.
How to respond to scarcity
A public transit agency without regular funding would use the prospects of big projects to get other people’s money (OPM) to build longstanding priorities. This is not hypothetical: the OPM effect is real, and for example people have told Eric and me that Somerville used the original Green Line Extension to push for local amenities, including signature stations and a bike lane called the Community Path. In New York, the MTA has used projects that are sold to the public as accessibility benefits to remodel stations, putting what it cares about (cleaning up stations) on the budget of something it does not (accessibility).
The question is not whether this effect is real, but rather, whether agencies are behaving rationally, using OPM to build useful things that can be justified as related to the project that is being funded. And the answer to this question is negative.
For every big federally-funded project, one can look at plausible tie-ins that can be bundled into it that enhance service, which the Somerville Community Path would not. At least the ongoing examples we’ve been looking at are not so bundled. Consider the following misses:
Green Line Extension
GLX could include improvements to the Green Line, and to some extent does – it bundles a new railyard. However, there are plenty of operational benefits on the Green Line that are somewhere on the MBTA’s wishlist that are not part of the project. Most important is level boarding: all vehicles have a step up from the platform, because the doors open outward and would strike the platform if there were wheelchair-accessible boarding. The new vehicles are different and permit level boarding, but GLX is not bundling full level boarding at all preexisting stations.
East Side Access and Gateway
East Side Access and Gateway are two enormous commuter rail projects, and are the world’s two most expensive tunnels per kilometer. They are tellingly not bundled with any capital improvements that would boost reliability and throughput: completion of electrification on the LIRR and NJ Transit, high platforms on NJ Transit, grade separations of key junctions between suburban branches.
The issue of operating expenses
More broadly, American transit agencies do not try to optimize their rail capital spending around the fact that federal funding will subsidize capital expansion but not operations. Electrification is a good deal even for an agency that has to fund everything from one source, cutting lifecycle costs of rolling stock acquisition and maintenance in half; for an agency that gets its rolling stock and wire from OPM but has to fund maintenance by itself, it’s an amazing investment with no downside. And yet, American commuter rail agencies do not prioritize it. Nor do they prioritize high platforms – they invest in them but in bits and pieces. This is especially egregious at SEPTA, which is allowed by labor agreement to remove the conductors from its trains, but to do so needs to upgrade all platforms to level boarding, as the rolling stock has manually-operated trap doors at low-platform stations.
Agencies operating urban rail do not really invest based on operating cost minimization either. An agency that could get capital funding from OPM but not operating funding could transition to driverless trains; American agencies do not do so, even in states with weak unions and anti-union governments, like Georgia and Florida. New York specifically is beset by unusually high operating expenses, due to very high maintenance levels, two-person crews, and inefficient crew scheduling. If the MTA has ever tried to ask for capital funding to make crew scheduling more efficient, I have not seen it; the biggest change is operational, namely running more off-peak service to reduce shift splitting, but it’s conceivable that some railyards may need to be expanded to position crews better.
Finally, buses. American transit agencies mostly run buses – the vast majority of US public transport service is buses, even if ridership splits fairly evenly between buses and trains. The impact of federal aid for capital but not operations is noticeable in agency decisions to upgrade a bus route to rail perhaps prematurely in some medium-size cities. It’s also visible in bus replacement schedules: buses are replaced every 12 years because that’s what the Federal Transit Administration will fund, whereas in Canada, which has the same bus market and regulations but usually no federal funding for either capital or operations, buses are made to last slightly longer, around 15 years.
It’s hard to tell if American transit agencies are being perfectly rational with bus investment, because a large majority of bus operating expenses are the driver’s wage, which is generally near market rate. That said, the next largest category is maintenance, and there, it is possible to be efficient. Some agencies do it right, like the Chicago Transit Authority, which replaces 1/12 of its fleet every year to have long-term maintenance stability, with exactly 1/12 of the fleet up for mid-life refurbishment each year. Others do it wrong – the MTA buys buses in bunches, leading to higher operating expenses, even though it has a rolling capital plan and can self-fund this system in years when federal funds are not forthcoming.
Right-wing budget cuts
Roughly the entirety of the center-right policy sphere in the United States is hostile to public transportation. The most moderate and least partisan elements of it identify as libertarian, like Cato and Reason, but mainstream American libertarianism is funded by the Koch Brothers and tends toward climate change denial and opposition to public transportation even where its natural constituency of non-left-wing urbane voters is fairly liberal on this issue. The Manhattan Institute is the biggest exception that I’m aware of – it thinks the MTA needs to cut pension payments and weaken the unions but isn’t hostile to the existence of public transportation. In that environment, there is a siege mentality among transit agencies, which associate any criticism on efficiency grounds as part of a right-wing strategy to discredit the idea of government.
Or is there?
California does not have a Republican Party to speak of. The Democrats have legislative 2/3 majorities, and Senate elections, using a two-round system, have two Democrats facing each other in the runoff rather than a Democrat and a Republican. In San Francisco, conservatism is so fringe that the few conservatives who remain back the moderate faction of city politics, whose most notable members are gay rights activist and magnet for alt-right criticism Scott Wiener, (until his death) public housing tenant organizer Ed Lee, and (currently) Mayor London Breed, who is building homeless shelters in San Francisco over NIMBY objections. The biggest organized voices in the Bay Area criticizing the government on efficiency grounds and asserting that the private sector is better come from the tech industry, and usually the people from that industry who get involved with politics are pro-immigration climate change hawks. Nobody is besieging the government in the Bay Area. Nor is anybody besieging public transit in particular – it is popular enough to routinely win the required 2/3 majority for tax hikes in referendums.
In New York, this is almost as true. The Democrats have a legislative 2/3 majority as of the election that just concluded, there does not appear to be a serious Republican candidate for either mayor or governor right now, and the Manhattan Institute recognizes its position and, on local issues of governance, essentially plays the loyal opposition. The last Republican governor, George Pataki, backed East Side Access, trading it for Second Avenue Subway Phase 1, which State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver favored.
One might expect that the broad political consensus that more public transportation is good in New York and the Bay Area would enable long-term investment. But it hasn’t. The MTA has had five-year capital plans for decades, and has known it was going to expand with Second Avenue Subway since the 1990s. BART has regularly gotten money for expansion, and Caltrain has rebuilt nearly all of its platforms in the last generation without any attempt at level boarding.
How a competent agency responds to scarcity
American transit agencies’ extravagant capital spending is not in any way a rational response to any kind of precarity, economic or political. So what is? The answer is, the sum total of investment decisions made in most low-cost countries fits the bill well.
Swiss planning maxims come out of a political environment without a left-wing majority; plans for high-speed rail in the 1980s ran into opposition on cost grounds, and the Zurich U-Bahn plans had lost two separate referendums. The kind of planning Switzerland has engaged in in the last 30 years to become Europe’s strongest rail network came precisely because it had to be efficient to retain public trust to get funds. The Canton of Zurich has to that end had to come up with a formula to divide subsidies between different municipalities with different ideas of how much public services they want, and S-Bahn investment has always been about providing the best passenger experience at the lowest cost.
Elsewhere in Europe, one sees the same emphasis on efficiency in the Nordic countries. Scandinavia as a whole has a reputation for left-wing politics, because of its midcentury social democratic dominance and strong welfare states. But as a region it also practices hardline monetary austerity, to the point that even left-led governments in Sweden and Finland wanted to slow down EU stimulus plans during the early stages of the corona crisis. There is a great deal of public trust in the state there, but it is downstream of efficiency and not upstream of it – high-cost lines get savaged in the press, which engages in pan-Nordic comparisons to assure that people get value for money.
Nor is there unanimous consensus in favor of public transportation anywhere in Europe that I know of, save Paris and London. Center-right parties support cars and oppose rail in Germany and around it. Much of the Swedish right loathes Greta Thunberg, and the center-right diverted all proceeds from Stockholm’s congestion charge to highway construction. The British right has used the expression “war on the motorist” even more than the American right has the expression “war on cars.” The Swiss People’s Party is in government as part of the grand coalition, has been the largest party for more than 20 years, and consistently opposes rail and supports roads, which is why the Lötschberg Base Tunnel’s second track is only 1/3 complete.
Most European transit agencies have responded effectively to political precarity and budget crunches. They invest to minimize future operating expenses, and make long-term plans as far as political winds permit them to. American transit agencies don’t do any of this. They’re allergic to mainline rail electrification, sluggish about high platforms, indifferent to labor-saving signaling projects, hostile to accessibility upgrades unless sued, and uncreative about long-term operating expenses. They’re not precarious – they’re just incompetent.
I spoke with Paul Lewis yesterday about the Eno study of construction costs that I criticized over a statistical error, and he pointed something out to me: the line that there is no US cost premium does not come from him or from elsewhere at Eno. Streetsblog’s coverage was just bad – it claims there is little to no US premium and quotes Lewis, but the quotations from Lewis do not actually say that, it’s Streetsblog’s own editorializing.
What’s more, Streetsblog took this editorializing into directions that were not mentioned by Eno or by me. On top of calling high US costs “a persistent myth” and “mostly bunk,” it turns it into a labor issue, saying that other countries get away with paying lower wages by linking to an article about construction costs in China, and talking about “hard-won wages of union construction workers.” Streetsblog even does so while linking to a 3-year-old article of mine in CityLab that states clearly that,
European subway construction uses union labor, just like American construction, but the work rules that have accumulated over the decades permit higher productivity and fewer workers doing each task.
The other source that transformed Eno’s analysis into “the US doesn’t really need to learn more from foreign countries” hurt more than Streetsblog. This was Beth Osborne, who spoke on a panel for Tri-State alongside BART’s president of the board of directors Lateefah Simon and consultant Peter Peyser. Osborne and Simon generally said the right things on the panel, while Peyser seemed pretty useless. But in between talking about good transit reforms, Osborne took my audience question about costs and said that per the Eno study there may not be a US cost premium – if I remember correctly her exact words were “there is no need to self-flagellate.”
Well, there is a need to self-flagellate. American mainline rail planners are barely aware of trends in other American cities; $200,000/year managers are unaware that FRA regulations permit buying standard European train, and people all over the industry say things are impossible that happen thousands of times daily in Central and Northern Europe. In urban transit the situation is better but not by much. Agencies make assumptions that are unwarranted about station footprint, fare collection, and similar engineering-level cost raisers and are usually unaware of economic research into best procurement practices.
And there’s the rub. Eno wrote a study – one that seems honest, even if it did make a statistical error of the kind that every data scientist abstractly knows they must avoid and yet every data scientist still makes. The clear text of the study – and I want to emphasize that Eno’s direct quotes to the media are in line with the clear text – is that the US has a small premium for light rail and a large one for subways. This turned into a screed about how the US cost premium is a myth and people just say this out of hate for organized labor. To the sort of American who has no interest in learning how the rest of the world works, everything boils down to internal American politics, it can’t possibly be that someone might get curious about why the Nordic countries do infrastructure so efficiently or how Italy brought down construction costs in the 1990s as part of the mani pulite process.
And the reason it hurts the most when it’s Beth Osborne is, she’s generally good on transit reform. I’ve never met her, and the panel alone was not enough to make an impression, but I know people who’ve met her who would not have a reason to give unwarranted praise, and they describe her as curious and sharp. American public transportation advocates who I trust were hopeful that she might even get appointed secretary of transportation in President Joe Biden’s administration, until Biden announced he picked Pete Buttigieg. And even she can’t get into a mindset in which the US really needs to learn to imitate places with lower costs and better outcomes.
In a sense, then, it’s not Eno’s fault, even unintentionally. In the last few months I’ve gotten to meet a number of American advocates who I otherwise think highly of who seem completely closed to any discussion of construction costs. They tell me that nobody cares, by which they mean they don’t care. They also insist, for political reasons, on including domestic and not foreign comparisons even when foreign ones work better. There’s so much demand out there in the American advocacy sphere for someone to come in and say that the US is doing fine, all it needs is more money with no oversight, that any criticism of high costs is equivalent to pro-car advocacy. Eno didn’t even say that, but Streetsblog could squint its eyes until it found something in there approximating the desired conclusion, and it appears that, regrettably, so did Osborne.