Category: Cars

The Leakage Problem

I’ve spent more than ten years talking about the cost of construction of physical infrastructure, starting with subways and then branching on to other things, most.

And yet there’s a problem of comparable size when discussing infrastructure waste, which, lacking any better term for it, I am going to call leakage. The definition of leakage is any project that is bundled into an infrastructure package that is not useful to the project under discussion and is not costed together with it. A package, in turn, is any program that considers multiple projects together, such as a stimulus bill, a regular transport investment budget, or a referendum. The motivation for the term leakage is that money deeded to megaprojects leaks to unrelated or semi-related priorities. This often occurs for political reasons but apolitical examples exist as well.

Before going over some examples, I want to clarify that the distinction between leakage and high costs is not ironclad. Sometimes, high costs come from bundled projects that are costed together with the project at hand; in the US they’re called betterments, for example the $100 million 3 km bike lane called the Somerville Community Path for the first, aborted iteration of the Green Line Extension in Boston. This blur is endemic to general improvement projects, such as rail electrification, and also to Northeast Corridor high-speed rail plans, but elsewhere, the distinction is clearer.

Finally, while normally I focus on construction costs for public transport, leakage is a big problem in the United States for highway investment, for political reasons. As I will explain below, I believe that nearly all highway investment in the US is waste thanks to leakage, even ignoring the elevated costs of urban road tunnels.

State of good repair

A month ago, I uploaded a video about the state of good repair grift in the United States. The grift is that SOGR is maintenance spending funded out of other people’s money – namely, a multiyear capital budget – and therefore the agency can spend it with little public oversight. The construction of an expansion may be overly expensive, but at the end of the day, the line opens and the public can verify that it works, even for a legendarily delayed project like Second Avenue Subway, the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport, or the soon-to-open Tel Aviv Subway. It’s a crude mechanism, since the public can’t verify safety or efficiency, but it’s impossible to fake: if nothing opens, it embarrasses all involved publicly, as is the case for California High-Speed Rail. No such mechanism exists for maintenance, and therefore, incompetent agencies have free reins to spend money with nothing to show for it. I recently gave an example of unusually high track renewal costs in Connecticut.

The connection with leakage is that capital plans include renewal and long-term repairs and not just expansion. Thus, SOGR is leakage, and when its costs go out of control, they displace funding that could be used for expansion. The NEC Commission proposal for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor calls for a budget of $117 billion in 2020 dollars, but there is extensive leakage to SOGR in the New York area, especially the aforementioned Connecticut plan, and thus for such a high budget the target average speed is about 140 km/h, in line with the upgraded legacy trains that high-speed lines in Europe replace.

Regionally, too, the monetary bonfire that is SOGR sucks the oxygen out of the room. The vast majority of the funds for MTA capital plans in New York is either normal replacement or SOGR, a neverending program whose backlog never shrinks despite billions of dollars in annual funding. The MTA wants to spend $50 billion in the next 5 years on capital improvements; visible expansion, such as Second Avenue Subway phase 2, moving block signaling on more lines, and wheelchair accessibility upgrades at a few stations, consists of only a few billion dollars of this package.

This is not purely an American issue. Germany’s federal plan for transport investment calls for 269.6 billion euros in project capital funding from 2016 to 2030, including a small proportion for projects planned now to be completed after 2031; as detailed on page 14, about half of the funds for both road and rail are to go to maintenance and renewal and only 40% to expansion. But 40% for expansion is still substantially less leakage than seen in American plans like that for New York.

Betterments and other irrelevant projects

Betterments straddle the boundary between high costs and leakage. They can be bundled with the cost of a project, as is the case for the Somerville Community Path for original GLX (but not the current version, from which it was dropped). Or they can be costed separately. The ideal project breakdown will have an explicit itemization letting us tell how much money leaked to betterments; for example, for the first Nice tramway line, the answer is about 30%, going to streetscaping and other such improvements.

Betterments fall into several categories. Some are pure NIMBYism – a selfish community demands something as a precondition of not publicly opposing the project, and the state caves instead of fighting back. In Israel, Haifa demanded that the state pay for trenching portions of the railroad through the southern part of the city as part of the national rail electrification project, making specious claims about the at-grade railway separating the city from the beach and even saying that high-voltage electrification causes cancer. In Toronto, the electrification project for the RER ran into a similar problem: while rail electrification reduces noise emissions, some suburbs still demanded noise walls, and the province caved to the tune of $1 billion.

Such extortion is surplus extraction – Israel and Toronto are both late to electrification, and thus those projects have very high benefit ratios over base costs, encouraging squeaky wheel behavior, raising costs to match benefits. Keeping the surplus with the state is crucial for enabling further expansion, and requires a combination of the political courage to say no and mechanisms to defer commitment until design is more advanced, in order to disempower local communities and empower planners.

Other betterments have a logical reason to be there, such as the streetscape and drainage improvements for the Nice tramway, or to some extent the Somerville Community Path. The problem with them is that chaining them to a megaproject funded by other people’s money means that they have no sense of cost control. A municipality that has to build a bike path out of its own money will never spend $100 million on 3 km; and yet that was the projected cost in Somerville, where the budget was treated as acceptable because it was second-order by broader GLX standards.

Bad expansion projects

Sometimes, infrastructure packages include bad with good projects. The bad projects are then leakage. This is usually the politically hardest nut to crack, because usually this happens in an environment of explicit political negotiation between actors each wanting something for their own narrow interest.

For example, this can be a regional negotiation between urban and non-urban interests. The urban interests want a high-value urban rail line; the rest want a low-value investment, which could be some low-ridership regional rail or a road project. Germany’s underinvestment in high-speed rail essentially comes from this kind of leakage: people who have a non-urban identity or who feel that people with such identity are inherently more morally deserving of subsidy than Berlin or Munich oppose an intercity high-speed rail network, feeling that trains averaging 120-150 km/h are good enough on specious polycentricity grounds. Such negotiation can even turn violent – the Gilets Jaunes riots were mostly white supremacist, but they were white supremacists with a strong anti-urban identity who felt like the diesel taxes were too urban-focused.

In some cases, like that of a riot, there is an easy solution, but when it goes to referendum, it is harder. Southern California in particular has an extreme problem of leakage in referendums, with no short- or medium-term solution but to fund some bad with the good. California’s New Right passed Prop 13, which among other things requires a 2/3 supermajority for tax hikes. To get around it, the state has to promise somthing explicit to every interest group. This is especially acute in Southern California, where “we’re liberal Democrats, we’re doing this” messaging can get 50-60% but not 67% as in the more left-wing San Francisco area and therefore regional ballot measures for increasing sales taxes for transit have to make explicit promises.

The explicit promises for weak projects, which can be low-ridership suburban light rail extensions, bond money for bus operations, road expansion, or road maintenance, damage the system twice. First, they’re weak on a pure benefit-cost ratio. And second, they commit the county too early to specific projects. Early commitment leads to cost overruns, as the ability of nefarious actors (not just communities but also contractors, political power brokers, planners, etc.) to demand extra scope is high, and the prior political commitment makes it too embarrassing to walk away from an overly bloated project. For an example of early commitment (though not of leakage), witness California High-Speed Rail: even now the state pretends it is not canceling the project, and is trying to pitch it as Bakersfield-Merced high-speed rail instead, to avoid the embarrassment.

The issue of roads

I focus on what I am interested in, which is public transport, but the leakage problem is also extensive for roads. In the United States, road money is disbursed to the tune of several tens of billions of dollars per year in the regular process, even without any stimulus funding. It’s such an important part of the mythos of public works that it has to be spread evenly across the states, so that politicians from a bygone era of non-ideological pork money can say they’ve brought in spending to their local districts. I believe there’s even a rule requiring at least 92% of the fuel tax money generated in each state to be spent within the state.

The result is that road money is wasted on low-growth regions. From my perspective, all road money is bad. But let’s put ourselves for a moment in the mindset of a Texan or Bavarian booster: roads are good, climate change is exaggerated, deficits are immoral (German version) or taxes are (Texan version), the measure of a nation’s wealth is how big its SUVs are. In this mindset, road money should be spent prudently in high-growth regions, like the metropolitan areas of the American Sunbelt or the biggest German cities. It definitely should not be spent in declining regions like the Rust Belt, where due to continued road investment and population decline, there is no longer traffic congestion.

And yet, road money is spent in those no-congestion regions. Politicians get to brag about saving a few seconds’ worth of congestion with three-figure million dollar interchanges and bypasses in small Rust Belt towns, complete with political rhetoric about the moral superiority of regions whose best days lay a hundred years ago to regions whose best days lie ahead.

Leakage and consensus

It is easy to get trapped in a consensus in which every region and every interest group gets something. This makes leakage easier: an infrastructure package will then have something for everyone, regardless of any benefit-cost analysis. Once the budget rather than the outcome becomes the main selling point, black holes like SOGR are easy to include.

It’s critical to resist this trend and fight to oppose leakage. Expansion should go to expansion, where investment is needed, and not where it isn’t. Failure to do so leads to hundreds of billions in investment money most of which is wasted independently for the construction cost problem.

Streaming the Biden Infrastructure Plan

I streamed my thoughts about the Biden infrastructure plan, and unlike previous streams, I uploaded this to YouTube. I go into more details (and more tangents) on video, but, some key points:

  • Out of the nearly $600 billion in the current proposal that is to be spent on transportation, public transportation is only $190 billion: $80 billion for intercity rail, $85 billion for (other) public transit, $25 billion for zero-emissions buses. This 2:1 split between cars and transit is a change from the typical American 4:1, but in Germany it’s 55:42 and that’s with right-wing ministers of transport.
  • Some of the spending on the car bucket is about electric vehicles, including $100 billion in consumer subsidies, but that’s still car spending. People who don’t drive don’t qualify for these subsidies. It’s an attempt to create political consensus by still spending on roads and not just public transit while saying that it’s green, but encouraging people to buy more cars is not particularly green, and there’s no alternative to sticks like fuel taxes in addition to carrots.
  • The $25 billion for zero-emissions buses is likely to go to battery-electric buses, which are still in growing pains and don’t function well in winter. In California, in fact, trolleybuses are funded from the fixed infrastructure bucket alongside light rail and subways and are ineligible for the bucket of funding for zero-emissions buses. It is unknown whether in-motion charging qualifies for this bucket; it should, as superior technology that functions well even in places with harsh winters.
  • The $85 billion for public transit splits as $55 billion for state of good repair (SOGR) and only $30 billion for expansion (including $5 billion for accessibility). This is a terrible idea: SOGR is carte blanche for agencies that aim to avoid public embarrassment rather than provide useful service to spend money without having to promise anything to show for it, and Amtrak in particular cycles between deferring maintenance and then crying poverty when money becomes available. Federal money should go to expansion alone; a state or local agency that doesn’t set aside money for maintenance now isn’t going to do so in the future, and periodic infusions of SOGR money create moral hazard by encouraging maintenance deferral in good times.
  • The Amtrak money is a total waste; in particular, Amtrak wants $39 billion for the Northeast Corridor while having very little to show for it, preferring SOGR, climate resilience, and agency turf battles over the Gateway project over noticeable improvements in trip times, reliability, or capacity.
  • The expansion money is not by itself bad, and in fact should grow by $55 billion at the expense of SOGR, but I worry about cost control. I’m just not sure how to express it in Washington policy language, as opposed to agency-level language regarding in-house design, more flexible procurement, civil service independence, adoption of foreign best practice and not just domestic practices, keeping station footprints small, using cut-and-cover more, and so on.

You should go watch the whole thing, which has some on-screen links to the breakdowns above, but it’s a 1:45 video.

Marketing Public Transport is Unlike Marketing Cars

I’ve written before about how planning public transport differs from planning cars, and how the macroeconomics of producing good public transport differ from that of exporting cars. Another difference between the two modes is marketing. I don’t usually like talking about marketing – I prefer making things to selling them – but it’s relevant, because private-sector marketing is a huge industry, and sometimes marketers end up making decisions about public transportation, and some of those lead to counterproductive planning.

The main difference is that public transportation does not have competition the way private industry does. In many travel markets, for example rush hour travel to city center, it is a monopoly. In others, it isn’t, but it remains fundamentally different from the competition, whereas private-sector marketing generally involves competition between fairly similar products, such as different brands of cars or computers or supermarkets. This also means that trying to turn public transit into a competition between similar providers is overrated: it is bad from the perspective of good planning, but it turns the industry into something private-sector marketers are more familiar with, and is therefore at risk of being adopted (for example, with EU competition mandates) despite being counterproductive.

Brand identity

Companies that make products that are very similar to their competition engage in extensive marketing. Coke vs. Pepsi is the most cliché example, but different brands of cookies, fast food, cars, computers, and smartphones do the same. The differences between these brands are never zero: I can generally tell different brands of bottled water by taste, Samsung- and Sony-made Androids have some differences (let alone iPhones), and so on. But it’s not large either.

Objectively, the cost of switching firms is small, so marketers first of all spend enormous amounts of money on advertising, and second of all aim to create identity markers to impose an emotional cost on customers who switch: “I am a Mac.” If the small differences involve differences in price point, then this can include a marker of class identity; even if they don’t, there’s no shortage of ways to tell people what brand of alcohol or food or video game best fits their microidentity. Establishing brand identity also involves loyalty programs, like airline miles and hotel points: why compete when you can lock passengers into your airline alliance?

This can even bleed into product development to some extent. Microsoft’s embrace, extend, exterminate strategy was designed around getting people to switch to Microsoft products from competitors. This was not a marketing gimmick – the people who developed Excel made sure everything that Lotus 1-2-3 users were used to would also feature in Excel in order to reduce the cost of switching to Microsoft, before using Windows’ power to lock people into Office.

Mass transit is not like this

Public transportation competes with cars as a system. It has a monopoly in certain travel markets, namely rush hour travel to city center, but the existence of those markets itself comes from real estate competition, in which it is necessary to entice companies to choose to locate in city center rather than in a suburban office park. Of note, the following features, all unusual for private-sector competition, apply:

  • Competition is for the most part binary: public transportation versus cars. (Bikes complement transit.)
  • The public transit side of the competition has economies of scale because of the importance of frequency of arrival, and thus is harmed by any internal competition, whereas the car industry has different automakers and works just fine that way.
  • The service has very little customization – everyone rides the same trains. Attempts to introduce product differentiation are harmful because of the frequency effect.
  • The product is completely different from the competition – useful at different times of day, in different neighborhoods, for different destinations. Switching incurs costs of similar magnitude to those of migration.
  • Much of the competition is not for customers, but for development – city center development is good for public transit, sprawl is good for cars.
  • There is competition over public resources, which cannot be divorced from the mode even in an environment of privatization – someone still has to build roads and finance subways.

The consequences of mass transit Fordism

Public transportation is and remains a Fordist product – no product differentiation, highly regimented worker timetables, one-size-fits-all construction, vertical integration. The vertical integration aspects go even farther than early-20th century industry, covering infrastructure, timetables, the equipment, and development. User choice is extensive regarding where to go within the system – I have access to far more variety of products as a consumer and jobs as a worker in Berlin (and had even more in Paris) than I would have driving in a sprawl environment, but I can’t choose what brand of train to use.

This is particularly important when preferences are heterogeneous. Different users have different walking speeds, transfer penalties, idiosyncrasies about access to wifi on board, etc. Planning has to use averages, and for the most part this works without too many seams, but it means that the standard way private businesses use product differentiation doesn’t work.

Of note, this Fordism also exists for the road network, if not for the cars themselves. It’s just far less visible. Drivers may have different preferences that translate to different costs and benefits for a cloverleaf versus a four-level interchange, but engineers can’t have two sets of interchanges, they just build one based on criteria of traffic density. However, the experience of driving on the interchange is not visible as part of the system to the drivers, who occasionally grumble about traffic at a particular intersection but don’t see it as clearly as transit riders see specific transfer stations or modal questions like streetcar vs. subway.

How private-sector marketing can harm transit

Because mass transit is a single system for everyone, standard private-sector marketing schemes involve changes to service that harm the overall system.

Creating brand identification with a specific subgroup of users, such as when some private buses market themselves to tech workers with wifi and USB chargers and charge higher fares, and still can’t make money. Public transportation has to work on an any vehicle, any place, any time principle. Only a handful of hyper-frequent routes can take multiple brands without losing passengers due to the lower frequency of each brand, but on those routes the only reliable way to timetable service is to run on headway management in which case any vehicle can substitute for any vehicle, which means you can’t brand.

This is especially bad when the brands are different modes: bus, bike, streetcar, subway, commuter train. When some modes are marketed to the rich and others are to the poor, capacity is wasted and frequency within each class is lower. Moreover, infrastructure planning is weaker with such differentiation, because often a region or subclass will be close to the wrong mode, forcing expensive additional construction. The United States fails by running commuter rail just for the rich while subways are for the rest, while India fails by doing the exact opposite; both countries build unnecessary infrastructure and underinvest in intermodal integration as a result.

Less harmful but still likely to suck oxygen out of the planning room are various gimmicks, especially at the political level. For example, a program in the mold of cash-for-clunkers to pay people to sell their car and ride public transportation is a waste of money – the main cost of switching from cars to transit or vice versa is that in either case the set of destinations one can easily travel to changes.

Finally, because public transportation is a complex system, trading the need for inter-organization and interdepartmental organization for much lower overall provision costs, people who come into it from consumer product markets may miss some of the required connections. This is especially true of development – people who sell consumer products, including cars, don’t need to think how urban design has to look for their product to succeed. Even people who have heard of transit-oriented development may get it wrong; in the United States, it is common to build some apartment buildings next to a train station but neglect retail and local services, and YIMBY as a movement is at best indifferent to city center office towers.

Cities With Underbuilt Public Transportation

There’s a number of very big cities in middle-income countries that don’t really have strong public transport, and I’d like to go over some of their features. The archetype for this urban form is Bangkok, but I think this is pretty common in much of Latin America too, it’s ubiquitous in Southeast Asia except in Singapore, and Cairo has it too and I suspect most of the rest of Africa will as it moves into the middle income category. I’m fairly certain in what I am saying as far as Southeast Asia is concerned, following Paul Barter’s thesis; in Turkey I am less certain, and in Latin America and Egypt I am speculating. Of note, while those regions have some shared features, one feature that is not shared is cost: while Southeast Asian construction costs are very high, Latin American ones are not, and Turkish ones are very low. Of course low costs enable Turkey to build more subways, but it’s only doing so right now as it’s converging to the high income category.

Density with cars

Bangkok is a dense city. It is not to be confused with Hong Kong, but it is not to be confused with Atlanta either. That said, the density has not much structure, similar to the situation of Los Angeles – there is no single central business district, just a big central area with sub-districts with high-rise office and residential towers. Private vehicle ownership is high, and as of 2014, the modal split (source, PDF-p. 44) was 58% car and motorcycle (trending up), 37% bus (falling rapidly), 5% metro (trending up).

My understanding is that this pattern is also how cities like Manila, Lahore, Karachi, and Jakarta look, and even São Paulo, which has a decent-size metro system with pretty high ridership but it’s still undersized for how big the region is. Dhaka (which is low- rather than middle-income) and Cairo have especially high residential densities.

Slow metro expansion

All of these cities are building urban rail, but not particularly quickly (except Istanbul, where costs are unusually low). Bangkok is adding a few lines, but even under current plans will keep having an underbuilt system. The same is true for plans in Manila, Jakarta, Lahore, Cairo, and low-income Dhaka. In most of Latin America, too, expansion is pretty slow – the only city where I’ve seen really fast expansion recently relative to size is Santiago, which is both approximately the richest in the region and also has below-average construction costs.

The slow construction is an important feature. Some cities build quickly and can transition toward reliance on public transport. For example, Taipei only began building its MRT network in the 1990s, long after the most similar capital city to it in overall development history, Seoul, had had a multi-line network. It was a city of motorcycles in the 1990s and so were the other Taiwanese cities, but through fast (albeit expensive) construction has become a transit city, developing higher-intensity central business districts at key MRT junctions and turning its older unstructured density into a structured one.

I am also excluding India from this analysis for the same reason. Indian cities are making enormous mistakes in metro construction, chief of which are poor integration with suburban rail and high construction costs, but they are building, and even keep a lid on costs by building mostly elevated systems. The Delhi Metro ridership is flagging, but it’s a big system, about the same size as New York or London, and it’s expanding quickly; the rest of India is still only catching up, but the plan for Mumbai in 10 years is extensive. Tehran is in the same basket as Indian megacities, judging at least by its healthy pace of metro expansion.

Car domination

Even when most people do not own cars or even motorcycles, as was the case in Thailand until recently, the government prefers cars to public transport. This comes from the fact that unless the public transport is excellent, or only serves where the middle class works, richer people will use cars more than poorer people, and tilt government policy to their preferences. Lagos, for example, was seriously considering banning its jitneys in 2017, called danfos, even as car ownership was 150 per 1,000 people, and has periodically considered such a ban a few times since.

This domination exists even in very poor cities. Years ago, a cousin who was visiting Kampala described its traffic to me as a brutal pecking order in which cars fear trucks and pedestrians fear cars. If 5% of the population owns cars, that’s still the richest 5%, and they get to dictate the rules.

Is it governance?

Something most of those cities I’m describing have in common is a form of government called anocracy. It’s defined as an intermediate form between democracy and autocracy, but really should mean a system in which there is unclear authority – perhaps there are elections but they are not truly free, perhaps there is a deep state, perhaps there is a dictator but the dictator’s power is circumscribed by powerful magnates and norms that do permit some political criticism. Anocracies tend not to have very strong states – a strong state under a dictator rapidly becomes a stable autocracy, for example Russia’s transition to autocracy in the last 20 years under Putin, whereas a strong democratic state evolves enduring norms and institutions of civil liberties and pluralism, like Taiwan and South Korea starting in the 1990s.

I suspect there may be a connection here: anocracies do not really have the state planning ability to restrain local magnates, like these top 10-20% of the population who are drivers. They can build roads, because it takes much less state capacity to incrementally expand roads, often with local sponsorship, than to plan a multi-line metro system, let alone do the clever multimodal design integration between infrastructure and timetabling that Switzerland does.

This is not a perfect correlation. Egypt is autocratic and not anocratic, although its recent military coup suggests it may not be as stable as autocracies with full civilian control of the military like Russia and China. Vietnam appears even more stable, and showcased high state capacity through excellent management of the corona crisis (though coup-ridden Thailand has had an excellent response as well). Moreover, there is no correlation between anocracy and construction costs – even putting my finger on the scales and classifying Turkey as not-anocratic, the correlation between a dummy that takes the value 1 at what I think are non-Turkish anocracies and construction costs is 0.06.

That said, there may be something to the fact that we see rapid expansion of metro systems in a developing country with relatively strong democratic institutions, i.e. India, and saw such expansion in turn-of-the-millennium Taiwan, and likewise we also see rapid expansion in relatively stable autocracies like Iran and China, but we see much less of it in countries without strong governments. And Moscow’s fast metro growth in Russia’s anocratic phase in the 1990s and early 2000s can be excused as having some strong-state planning institutions, inherited from the USSR. Egypt in contrast never had these institutions, with its imperfect state control of the military.

Pedestrianizing Streets in New York

I was asked a few months ago about priorities for street pedestrianization in New York. This issue grew in importance during the peak of the corona lockdown, when New Yorkers believed the incorrect theory of subway contagion and asked for more bike and pedestrian support on the street. But it’s now flared again as Mayor de Blasio announced the cancellation of Summer Streets, a program that cordons off a few streets, such a the roads around Grand Central, for pedestrian and bike traffic. Even though the routes are outdoors, the city is canceling them, citing the virus as the reason even though there is very little outdoor infection.

But more broadly, the question of pedestrianization is not about Summer Streets, which is an annual event that happens once and then for the rest of the year the streets revert to car usage. It’s about something bigger, like the permanent Times Square and Herald Square pedestrianization.

In general, pedestrianization of city centers is a good thing. This can be done light, as when cities take lanes off of roadways to expand bike lanes and sidewalks, or heavy, as when an entire street loses car access and becomes exclusive to pedestrians and bikes. The light approach should ideally be done everywhere, to reduce car traffic and make it viable to bike; cycling in New York is more dangerous than in Paris and Berlin (let alone Amsterdam and Copenhagen) since there are too few separated bike lanes and they are not contiguous and since there is heavy car traffic.

The heavy approach should be used when feasible, but short of banning cars cannot be done everywhere. The main obstacle is that in some places a critical mass of consumers access retail by car, so that pedestrianization means drivers will go elsewhere and the region will suffer; this happened with 1970s-era efforts in smaller American cities like Buffalo, and led to skepticism about the Bloomberg-era Times Square pedestrianization until it was completed and showcased success. Of course, Midtown Manhattan is rich in people who access retail by non-auto modes, but it’s not the only such place.

Another potential problem is delivery access. This is in flux, because drone delivery and automation stand to simplify local deliveries, using sidewalk robots at pedestrian scale. If delivery is automated then large trucks no longer offer much benefit (they’re not any faster than a bicycle in a congested city). But under current technology, some delivery access is needed. In cities with alleys the main street can be pedestrianized with bollards while the alleys can be preserved for vehicular access, but New York has about three alleys, which are used in film production more than anything because they connote urban grit.

Taking all of this together, the best places for pedestrianization are,

  1. City centers and near-center areas. In New York, this is the entirety of Manhattan south of Central Park plus Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City. There, the car mode share is so low that there is no risk of mass abandonment of destinations that are too hard to reach by car.
  2. Non-residential areas. The reason is that it’s easier to permit truck deliveries at night if there are no neighbors who would object to the noise.
  3. Narrow streets with plenty of commerce. They’re not very useful for drivers anyway, because they get congested easily. If there are deliveries, they can be done in off-hours. Of note, traffic calming on wider streets is still useful for reducing pollution and other ills of mass automobile use, but it’s usually better to use light rather than heavy traffic reduction, that is road diets rather than full pedestrianization.
  4. Streets with easy alternatives for cars, for example if the street spacing is dense. In Manhattan, this means it’s better to pedestrianize streets than avenues.
  5. Streets that are not useful for buses. Pedestrianized city center streets in Europe are almost never transit malls, and the ones I’m familiar with have trams and not buses, e.g. in Nice.

Taking this all together, some useful examples of where to pedestrianize in New York would be,

  1. Most of Lower Manhattan. There are no residents, there is heavy commerce, there is very heavy foot traffic at rush hour, and there are enough alternatives that 24/7 pedestrianization is plausible on many streets and nighttime deliveries are on the rest.
  2. Some of the side streets of Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City. This is dicier than Manhattan – the mode share in those areas as job centers is far below Manhattan’s. A mid-2000s report I can no longer find claimed 50% for Downtown Brooklyn and 30% for LIC, but I suspect both numbers are up, especially LIC’s; Manhattan’s is 67%, with only 15% car. So there’s some risk, and it’s important to pick streets with easy alternatives. Fulton Mall seems like a success, so presumably expansions can start there and look at good connections.
  3. St. Mark’s. It’s useless for any through-driving; there’s a bus but its ridership is 1,616 per weekday as of 2018, i.e. a rounding error and a prime candidate for elimination in a bus redesign. There’s so much commerce most buildings have two floors of retail, and the sidewalk gets crowded.
  4. Certain Midtown side streets with a lot of commerce (that’s most of them) and no buses or buses with trivial ridership (also most of them). One-way streets that have subway stations, like 50th and 53rd, are especially attractive for pedestrianization. Two-way streets, again, are valuable targets for road diets or even transit malls (though probably not in Midtown – the only east-west Manhattan-south-of-59th-Street bus route that screams “turn me into a transit mall” is 14th Street).

The Importance of Decarbonizing Transport

While researching my previous post about nuclear power, I found various sources about the construction costs of renewable electricity. They all point to the same conclusion: the installation costs of solar and wind power took a nosedive in the 2010s. By now they are down to 1-1.50 per watt for onshore wind, 1.50-2.50 per watt for offshore wind (PDF-p. 24) and around $1.10 per watt for utility-scale solar power (PDF-pp. 7, 50-51). The levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for onshore wind and solar power is, depending on source, 4-7 cents per kWh (see Fraunhofer, Lazard, IRENA), at which point it’s cheaper than new coal and gas without subsidies or carbon taxes and cheaper than existing coal and gas with mild carbon taxes. Intermittency is still an issue, but at continental scale it is much more of an irritant than a serious impediment. Decarbonization of electricity is substantially a solved problem.

The problem is that decarbonization of transportation is not a solved problem.

The world of 2020 is not that of 2000. The greenhouse gas inventory of 2020 is not that of 2000. In developed countries, electricity is down, and transportation is up or at best flat. In developing ones (i.e. China and India) the situation is different, but there too there’s growing public concern with coal power pollution, to the point that one of the premier sites for information about air pollution levels, AQICN, is Beijing-based. Nonetheless, cars remain aspirational in those countries, despite high levels of investment in urban and intercity rail transportation (periodic reminder: about two-thirds of global high-speed rail ridership is in China).

The problem with transportation is cars.

Cars are not getting better. There’s a growing but very small share of the market for new cars that is electric; so far production costs remain high, and there are real long-term issues with rare earth metals used in the batteries. Costs are inching down, but it’s firmly in “more research is needed” territory. And meanwhile, in the carbon tax-free developed world (i.e. the US) the vast majority of cars that are not electric are getting bigger and less fuel-efficient. American transportation emissions peaked in the mid-2000s and fell as fuel prices rose, but now that fuel is cheap they’re rising, faster than population (source, PDF-p. 32).

The problem is partly, but not only, the United States.

Whatever historical causes made Americans this way, American culture of the early 21st century is still one that thinks it’s normal to want every American to have an SUV and deviant to want every American to have an apartment in a big city with a good subway system. This mentality cuts across classes, parties, subcultures, and states, and was recently affirmed in California, particularly Los Angeles. Decarbonizing solutions on the road that may be popular in segments of the tech industry, like electric cars and mobility as a service, are still brushing against a culture that equates the size of one’s car and engine with one’s moral worth. One of two things will happen: this culture will vanish, or hundreds of millions of people in countries Americans can’t find on a map will be inundated.

But it’s not just the United States.

Public transportation usage in Europe is increasing, unlike in the United States – and it’s increasing from an already nontrivial base. But it’s not increasing fast enough. The same motorist culture of the United States exists in a more attenuated form here. There are high fuel taxes and they help a lot – SUVs and pickup trucks are rare, and vehicle-km per capita are maybe half what they are in the US – but the difference between greenhouse gas emissions of 17 and 8 metric tons-CO2 per capita is one of whether catastrophic climate change will happen soon or shortly later.

It’s a priority for Europe specifically, precisely because it’s in uncharted territory.

The United States needs to learn to imitate and get from 17 to 8 on its way to 0, but Europe needs to get from 8 to 0 and to figure out how to do so. Switzerland and the Netherlands are already at the forefront of improving mainline rail, and yet have widespread auto usage in local as well as interregional travel.

There are a number of headwinds to the replacement of cars with public transportation, all of which are politically or technically nontrivial in ways that mass installation of solar and wind power isn’t:

  1. Public transport is the most convenient in large cities and least convenient in rural areas, but modern nationalism holds the rural to be more authentic and moral. Thus, when rural motorists riot the state is paralyzed with inaction and the media urges understanding of populist anger at elites, whereas when urbanites riot the state immediately engages in mass arrests and the media urges law and order.
  2. The pace of urban redevelopment is too low, thanks to local NIMBYism, making it hard for people to live in cities where car-free living is already convenient. Local housing activism always focuses on people already present; Berlin passed a new rent control law that is projected to reduce investment by 25%. Even Paris, which is building more housing, is doing so almost exclusively in the suburbs and not in the city proper.
  3. Local notables tend to drive even controlling for income and social class. One does not become a local notable by working at a city center office with people from many neighborhoods, many of whom are recent migrants to the city, but by staying within one neighborhood and interacting with old-timers. The latter kind of economic and social network is less convenient to travel by train. Thus, the loudest voices in a local discussion are against seizing space from cars and giving it to pedestrians, cyclists, buses, or trams.
  4. At low levels of public investment, the car will predominate, for two reasons. First, some state action is needed to give buses priority on roads. Second, public transportation has more moving parts that must be integrated – fares, schedules, infrastructure, equipment, development. This makes fiscal austerity a drag on the ability of a developed society to demotorize unless this austerity specifically takes the form of very high taxes on cars and fuel.
  5. A political process that slows down investment in order to mollify NIMBY opposition makes it very hard to shift priorities on the ground. In this sense, the freeway revolts and the changes they led to are the best thing that ever happened to car culture, even more than the freeways themselves; in the American context, the revolts happened largely only when the freeways intruded on middle-class neighborhoods.

These headwinds are phrased politically, but all have various technical components, like construction costs for new rail lines, public transport network design, interagency cooperation issues that are too far removed from mass politics to be truly political, etc. Is the problem solvable? Most likely, yes. It’s not only in the biggest cities in the world that public transport usage is high; getting Stockholm, Vienna, Zurich, and so on to demotorize is within the realm of possibility, and getting other cities to have what those cities have is as well.

But “within the realm of possibility” is not a statement of utmost confidence. It’s a difficult program, one where failure is regrettably an option. Every aspect is hard: convincing governments that don’t like spending money on mobile people to invest more in rail, raising taxes on fuel and on cars, building more housing in the cities, reclaiming street space from cars, improving the quality of public transport service, improving connections between lines. It all takes money, and though the required subsidies may well fall with better technology and higher usage, the most optimistic view is that public transportation now is like wind and solar power in 2010, when they was still an economic gamble, and not what they are today that the gamble is paying off.

Urban Freeways and Rapid Transit

A ride-hailing trip today reminded me of something about freeway travel in cities – namely, it is untethered from the surface street network. Oddly enough, for a different reason this is equally true of rapid transit. The commonality to these two ways of travel is that they change the geography of the city, rather than just extending the range of walking along the usual paths as surface arterial streets and surface transit do.

Rapid transit compression

Rapid transit networks compress distances along the lines, and by the same token magnify distances in orthogonal directions. Manhattan is a good example of how this works: north of Midtown the subway only runs north-south, not east-west, so there are separate East Side and West Side cultures. Moreover, as middle-class gentrifiers are displaced by rising rents coming from even richer gentrifiers, they tend to move along subway lines, and thus people from the Upper West Side and Columbia end up in Washington Heights and Inwood.

The contrast here is with surface transit. Bus networks are far too dense to have the same effect. A citywide bus grid would offer 15 km/h transit in all directions in New York, and a tramway grid like what parts of Berlin have (and what big Eastern European cities like Prague and Budapest have) offers 15-20 km/h transit in all directions. It extends walking, in the sense that the most important throughfares probably get their own routes, or if they don’t they are closely parallel with roads with surface transit.

This is not how rapid transit works. A handful of very strong orthogonal routes can and should get rapid transit, hence the Ringbahn, M2/M6 in Paris, and the under-construction M15 – and by the same token, 125th Street in New York should get a subway extension off of Second Avenue. But that still leaves the city with a wealth of major routes that have no reason to get rapid transit, ever. Most of these are crosstown routes, for example the east-west streets of Manhattan, but in less gridded cities they can just be major streets that don’t quite fit into a regionwide radial metro network.

Rapid transit spikiness

I get a lot of pushback when I talk about this, but rapid transit encourages spiky density. This does not mean that every transit city is spiky and every spiky city is a transit city. Density in Paris within the city is fairly uniform, aided by zoning rules that prohibit high-rises even though many could succeed commercially on top of Métro transfer points or RER stations. In the other direction, some American auto-oriented cities have spiky density near transit, like San Diego’s Mission Valley or Atlanta’s Buckhead, but it’s not big enough a development to permit people to comfortably walk and take transit to all destinations.

Nonetheless, for the most part, rapid transit tends to be associated with spiky development forms, especially if it’s been built more recently and if the interstation is long (as in Vancouver, Singapore, Hong Kong, or Stockholm). This isn’t really how a pedestrian city works: pedestrians have no need for spikiness because they don’t have particular distinguished stations – at most, the corner nodes are distinguished, but that includes all corners, which are placed at far shorter intervals than subway stops.

Freeways as street bypasses

Surface transit promotes urban forms that look like an extended pedestrian city. This is equally true of surface roads designed around car access. The car was originally not supposed to take over the entire city, but merely provide convenient intra-urban transportation at a faster speed than walking. It was originally just a faster, more private, more segregated streetcar. The effect on urbanism was to reduce overall density (as did the streetcars and rapid transit in New York, which used to have inhuman overcrowding levels on the Lower East Side), but not to change the urban form beyond that.

Freeways, like rapid transit, are completely different. This does not mean that they change the city in the same way as rapid transit, just that both operate independently of the usual street grid. Freeways, like rapid transit, compress travel distances along the freeway, and simultaneously lengthen them in all other directions because of the effect of traffic congestion.

Moreover, freeways are different from rapid transit in typical alignments. They are far more land-intensive, which is why they tend to be placed in formerly marginal parts of the city. This can include the waterfront if it is originally industrial and low-value, as it was in midcentury America, rather than a place of high-end residential consumption because of the views.

Interface with the street

How does a surface street transit network interface with either rapid transit or freeways?

With rapid transit, the answer is that surface transit is slow, so it should feed rapid transit using transfers, which may be timed if the trains are not so frequent (say, 15 minutes or worse, as is common on suburban rail branches). Rapid transit should then be constructed to connect with surface transit this way, that is the stations should be at intersections with arterial corridors for bus connections.

With freeways, the answer is that often interface is impossible. San Diego provides a convenient example: there is an arterial road that’s great for buses running northward from city center toward the beachfront neighborhood of Pacific Beach. But there’s also a parallel freeway inland, so drivers mostly use the freeway, and commerce on the north-south arterial is neglected. In contrast, the main east-west arterials feeding the freeway are bustling, and one of them has of the city’s strongest buses. Buses can make stops on these arterials and then express to city center on the freeway, but on the freeway itself the buses are not very efficient since there’s minimal turnover, and chaining a few neighborhoods together on one frequent route is usually not possible.

Cars-and-Trains Urbanism

For all of the rhetoric about banning cars and the inherent conflict between public transportation and private automobiles, the dominant political view of urbanism in large chunks of the world is the cars-and-trains approach. Under this approach, cities build extensive infrastructure for cars, such as parking, wide arterials, and some motorways, as well as for trains, which are as a rule always rapid transit, never streetcars. In the midcentury developed world this was the unanimous view of urban development, and this remains the preference of mainline center-right parties like CDU, the French Republicans, and the British and Canadian Tories; various 1960s urbanist movements with roots in the New Left arose in specific opposition to much of that mentality, which is why those movements are usually NIMBY in general.

In the post-consensus environment of political conflict in most issues, in this case between auto- and transit-oriented urbanism, it’s tempting to go back to the midcentury elite consensus as a compromise, and call for making cities friendly to both transit users and drivers. This is attractive especially to people who hope to defuse culture war issues, either because they identify as political moderates or because they identify as socialists and have some nostalgia for the Old Left. However, this kind of urbanism does not really work. While a destination can sometimes be friendly to both drivers and transit users, the city overall cannot be; the majority of the points of interest in a successful transit city are hostile to cars and vice versa.

Moreover, this cars-and-transit failure is not just historical. It keeps going on today. Middle-income countries waste vast sums of money on building two separate transportation networks that do not work well together. The United States, too, has adopted this mentality in the cities that are building new light rail lines, resulting in large urban rail systems whose ridership is a rounding error since most of the city isn’t oriented around public transportation.

What is cars-and-trains urbanism?

Postwar West Germany built a number of subway networks in its large cities, such as Munich, Frankfurt, Cologne, Dortmund, Essen, and Hanover. With the exception of Munich and Nuremberg, these are subway-surface systems, in which the trains are underground in city center but run in streetcar mode farther out. For the most part, these systems were built with the support of the driver lobby, which wanted the streetcars out of city center in order to be able to drive more easily, and once those systems opened, the cities dismantled the streetcars. Most of West Germany thus eliminated the streetcars that did not feed into the tunnels, just as the US eliminated nearly all of its streetcars except the ones that were part of a subway-surface system in Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

In the United States, such development only happened in San Francisco, where Muni buried the main streetcar trunk in conjunction with the construction of BART along the same alignment on Market Street. More commonly, cars-and-trains urbanism led to the development of park-and-rides in the suburbs. An early example is the Green Line D branch in Boston, designed for suburban commuters rather than urban residents using the line for all purposes and not just work. Subsequently, light rail lines have been built with park-and-rides, as have full rapid transit systems in the suburb of Atlanta, Washington, and San Francisco. In the same period, American mainline rail networks evolved to be car-oriented, replacing city center stations with park-and-rides for commuter as well as intercity rail uses.

American cars-and-trains development was not without conflict. The auto lobby opposed trains, believing buses were cheaper; top civil servants in what is now the Federal Highway Administration advocated for bus lanes to create more capacity at the peak into city centers such as Washington’s. However, the trains that were built in this era followed the same mentality of creating more peak capacity in areas where widening roads was too expensive because of high city center land prices.

In the US as well as in Europe, and nowadays in developing countries, construction of rapid transit in the biggest cities and high-speed rail between them is paired with large highway systems for everything else. When the Tories won the 2010 election, they proclaimed the end of Labour’s so-called war on motorists, but maintained their support for Crossrail in London and High Speed 2 from London to the major provincial cities. And in Toronto, even Rob and Doug Ford, for all their anti-walkability demagogy, support subways, just not at-grade streetcars that would take lanes away from cars.

How does cars-and-trains transportation fail?

In the United States, public transportation is divided into three groups. There is transit-oriented urbanism, which covers about half to two thirds of New York, and very small segments of Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Washington, and Philadelphia. There are people riding public transportation out of poverty. And there is cars-and-trains behavior, common in the outer parts and suburbs of cities with urban rail networks. In the major American metropolitan areas with urban rail other than New York, people who commute by public transport actually outearn people who drive alone, because so much transit ridership consists of rich suburban commuters. Because of the weight of those commuters and because American metro areas with public transportation are richer than the rest of the country, the national gap in income between drivers and transit commuters is small and shrinking. And yet, fuel consumption as a proportion of overall consumption is constant around 3.5% in the bottom nine deciles.

In other words: the United States has spent a lot of money on attracting the rich to public transportation, and has succeeded in the sense that transit commuters earn about the same as car commuters, but the rich still drive so much that they consume as much fuel as the poor relative to their total spending. This is not because rich people inherently like driving – rich Manhattanites don’t drive much. This is because the postwar American transportation network does not provide adequate public transportation for non-commute trips. Off-peak frequencies are low, and service to destinations outside city centers is weak.

In Germany, the politics of cars-and-trains infrastructure is still around. A few months ago, when some Berlin Greens proposed congestion pricing, CDU came out in opposition, saying that without park-and-rides, how can people be expected to use the U- and S-Bahn? Walking or biking to the station is apparently not possible in outer Berlin, per CDU.

How does cars-and-trains urbanism fail?

The problem with cars-and-trains urbanism is not just about lack of frequency. The off-peak frequency on some of the American light and heavy rail systems serving park-and-rides is not terrible for regional rail – trains come every 10 or 12 or 15 minutes. But the development repels non-commuter uses of the system. The stations are surrounded by parking rather than high-density office or residential development. People who already own cars will drive them wherever it’s convenient: they’ll shop by car since retail has no reason to cluster in the central business district, and they’ll probably drive to jobs that do not have such agglomeration benefits as to have to be in city center.

That is not just an American problem. Western Europe, too, has built extensive infrastructure to extend auto-oriented postwar suburbia into older city centers, including motorways and parking garages. If the streets are narrow, then the sidewalks may be extremely narrow, down to maybe a meter in Florence. This encourages anyone who can afford to do so to drive rather than walk.

If there is no transit-oriented core to the city, then the result is a standard auto-oriented city. Examples include Los Angeles and Dallas, both of which have large urban rail networks with approximately no ridership. In the three-way division of American transit ridership – New York (and to a small extent a handful of other city cores), suburban commuters, very poor people – Los Angeles’s transit ridership is mostly very poor, averaging half the income of solo drivers. Public transit construction in this case has been a complete waste without policies that create a transit city, which must include both liberalization (namely, zoning liberalization near stations) and coercion (such as higher car and fuel taxes and removal of parking).

If there is a transit-oriented core, then the result cleaves the metro area in two. To people who live in the transit zone, the auto-oriented parts are inaccessible, and vice versa. A few places at the boundary can be crosshatched, but the city itself cannot be entirely crosshatched – the sea of single-family houses in the suburbs is not accessible except by car, and transit-oriented cities have no room for the amount of parking or road capacity required for auto-centric density.

Does rapid transit mean cars-and-trains?

No. In opposition to the postwar elite consensus and the center-right’s support of cars-and-trains urbanism, the New Left tends to be hostile to rapid transit, on the theory that it’s only good for cars and that tramways with dedicated lanes are as good as subways. This theory is hogwash – enough cities built metros before mass motorization in order to avoid streetcar and horsecar traffic jams – but it’s attractive to people who associate subways with the failings of CDU and its equivalents in other countries.

Paris provides a positive example of rejecting cars-and-trains urbanism while building rapid transit. Postwar France was thoroughly cars-and-trains in its mentality, but 21st-century Paris is the opposite. Mayor Anne Hidalgo has narrowed roadways and removed freeways in order to make the city pedestrian-friendlier. Ile-de-France is expanding its tramway network, but it’s at the same time investing enormous amounts of money in expanding the Metro and RER. I do not think there is any city outside China with more underground route-km built than Paris in 2000-30 – Indian metros are mostly above-ground. In my under-construction database, which largely omits China and Russia due to difficulties of finding information in English, Grand Paris Express is 10% of the total route-length.

Postwar Japan is another example of rapid transit without cars-and-trains typology. Unlike present-day Paris, which is ideologically leftist and green, Japanese development has been in an ideological environment similar to the center-right elite consensus, called dirigism in France. Nonetheless, Tokyo’s motorway network is not large relative to the city’s population, and suburban development has been quite dense and rail-oriented. The private rail operators have preferred to build high-density housing at their suburban stations to encourage more ridership, rather than park-and-rides.

It’s one or the other

Drivers are most comfortable on high-speed arterial streets with generous shoulders and setbacks, with parking right next to their destinations. This encourages dispersal – just try building parking for all the jobs of Midtown Manhattan or Central Tokyo on-site. Pedestrians would need to walk long distances along noisy, polluted streets and cross them at inconvenient signal times or places or risk being run over. Public transit users fare little better, as they turn into pedestrians at their destination – and what’s more, public transportation requires destinations to cluster at a certain density to fill a train at a usable frequency.

This situation works in reverse in a transit city. On a robust public transportation network, the most desirable locations are in the very center of the city, or at key interchanges. Usually the density at those nodes grows so high that drivers have to contend with heavy traffic. Widening roads is not possible at reasonable cost in dense centers of economic production; the very reason for cars-and-trains urbanism as opposed to just 100% cars is that it was never economic to build 20-lane highways in city centers.

On the street, too, conflict is inevitable. A lane can be shared, which means dominated by cars so long as a car with one person inside it gets the same priority as a bus or tram with 40; or it can be dedicated to buses and trams, which means cars have less space. And then there are pedestrians, who need adequate sidewalks even in historic city centers where the street width from building to building is 10 meters rather than the more modern 30.

Defusing conflict is attractive, but this is not possible. A city cannot be friendly to drivers and to non-drivers at the same time. The urban designs for the two groups are too different, and for the most part what most appeals to one repels the other. Trying to build two redundant transportation networks may be attractive to people who just like the idea of visible development with its construction jobs, but both will end up underused and overly costly. Good transit has to convert drivers into non-drivers – sometimes-drivers are too expensive to serve, because the urbanism for them is too peaky and expensive.

As a corollary of this, political structures that have to give something to drivers too have to be eliminated if public transportation is to succeed. For example, infrastructure funding formulas that give set amounts of money to the two modes, like the 80% cars, 20% transit split of American federal funding, are bad and should ideally be reduced to 0 if the formula itself cannot be changed; the investment in highways is making public transportation less useful, both through direct competition and through incentives for auto-oriented development. The same is true of schemes that are really fronts for highway widening, like some bus rapid transit in the US and India. Good transit activists have to oppose these, even if it means less money in overall spending, even if it means less money in spending specific for some public transit programs. The cost of highways is just too high to try to maintain a culture truce.

Costs are Rising, US Highway Edition

There’s a preliminary paper circulating at Brookings, looking at American infrastructure construction costs. Authors Leah Brooks and Zachary Liscow have tabulated the real costs of the American Interstate program over time, from the 1950s to the 1990s, and find that they increased from $5.3 million per km ($8.5 million/mile) in 1958-63 to $21.3 million/km ($34.25 million/mile) in 1988-93.

Moreover, they have some controls for road difficulty, expressed in slope (though not, I believe, in tunnel quantity), urbanization, and river and wetland crossings, and those barely change the overall picture. They go over several different explanations for high American infrastructure costs, and find most of them either directly contradicted by their results or at best not affirmed by them.

I urge readers to read the entire paper. It is long, but very readable, and it is easy to skip the statistical model and go over the narrative, including favored and disfavored explanations, and then poke at the graphs and tables. I’m going to summarize some of their explanations, but add some important context from cross-national comparisons.

Why costs (probably) aren’t rising

The authors identify four hypotheses they rule out using their research, in pp. 19-23 (they say five but only list four):

Difficult segments postponed and built later – they have some controls for that, as mentioned above. The controls are imperfect, but the maps depicted on pp. 59-61 for the Interstate network’s buildout by decade don’t scream “the segments built after 1970 were harder than those built before.”

Time-invariant features – these include cross-national comparisons, since the United States has always been the United States. I will discuss this in a subsequent section, because two separate refinements of what I’ve seen from cross-national comparisons deal with this issue specifically.

Input prices – this is by far the longest explanation the authors deal with. Anecdotally, it’s the one I hear most often: “labor costs are rising.” What the authors show is that labor and materials costs did not rise much over the period in question. Construction worker wages actually peaked in real terms in 1973 and fell thereafter; materials costs jumped in the aftermath of the oil crisis, but came down later, and were back at pre-crisis levels by the 1990s (p. 48). Land costs did rise and have kept rising, but over the entire period, only 17.7% of total costs were preliminary engineering and land acquisition, and the rest were in construction.

Higher standards – the authors looked and did not find changes in standards leading to more extensive construction.

There are several more incorrect explanations that jump from the data. I was surprised to learn that throughout the 1970s and 80s, completion time remained mostly steady at 3-3.5 years of construction; thus, delays in construction cannot be the explanation, though delays in planning and engineering can be.

The authors themselves list additional explanations that have limited evidence but are not ruled out completely from their data, on pp. 32-35. Construction industry market concentration may be an explanation, but so far data is lacking. Government fragmentation, measured in total number of governments per capita, has no effect on the result (for example, California has high costs and not much municipal fragmentation); I’ll add that Europe’s most municipally fragmented country, France, has middle-of-the-road subway construction costs. State government quality, as measured by corruption convictions, has little explanatory power – and as with fragmentation, I’ll add that in Europe we do not see higher costs in states with well-known problems of clientelism and corruption, like Italy and Greece. Work rules requiring the addition of more workers may be relevant, but unionization and left-right politics are not explanatory variables (and this also holds for rail costs).

Economies of scale look irrelevant as well: there is negative correlation between costs and construction, but the causality could well go the other way. Finally, soft budget constraints are unlikely, as the federal government can punish states that mismanage projects and take more money; it’s possible that as the Interstate program ended states felt less constrained because there wouldn’t be money in the future either way (“end of repeated game”), but the fact that costs keep rising in subway construction suggests this is not relevant.

Favored explanations

Two explanations stand out to the authors. The first is that nearly the entire increase in construction costs over time can be attributed to a mix of higher real incomes and higher house prices. While the construction workers themselves did not see their wages rise in the late 1970s and 80s, a richer population may demand more highways, no matter the cost.

Higher real estate costs could have an impact disproportionate to the share of land acquisition in overall costs by forcing various mitigations that the paper does not control for, such as sound walls and tunnels, or by sending roads over higher-cost alignments.

The second explanation is what the authors call citizen voice. Regulatory changes in the 1960s and early 70s gave organized local groups greater ability to raise objections to planning and force changes, reducing community impact at the cost of higher monetary expenditures. The authors give an example from suburban Detroit, where a highway segment that disrupted a Jewish community center took 25 years to be built as a result of litigation.

The authors don’t say this explicitly, but the two explanations interact well together. The citizen voice is very locally NIMBY but is also pro-road outside a handful of rich urban neighborhoods. Higher incomes may have led to public acceptance of higher costs, but local empowerment through citizen voice is the mechanism through which people can express their preference for higher costs over construction inconvenience.

How time-invariant are national features, anyway?

The authors contrast two proposed explanations – higher incomes and property values, and stronger NIMBY empowerment – with what they call time-invariant features, which could not explain an increase in costs. But can’t they?

I spent years plugging the theory that common law correlates with high subway construction costs, and it does in the developed world, but upon looking at more data from developing countries as well as from before the last 25 years, I stopped believing in that theory. It started when I saw a datapoint for Indonesia, a civil-law country, but even then it took me a few more years to look systematically enough, not to mention to wait for more civil-law third-world countries to build subways, like Vietnam. By last year I was giving counterexamples, including Montreal, low rail electrification costs in some common law countries, and the lack of a London cost premium over Paris until the late 20th century.

In lieu of common law, what I use to explain high costs in the US relative to the rest of the world, and to some extent also in most first-world common law countries as well as third-world former colonies, is weak civil service. In the developed world, the theory behind this is called adversarial legalism, as analyzed by Robert Kagan. Adversarial legalism enforces the law through litigation, leading to a web of consent decrees. Some are naked power grabs: for example, in Los Angeles, a union sued a rolling stock vendor for environmental remediation and agreed to drop the lawsuit in exchange for a pledge that its factory be unionized, which may play a role in why the trains cost around 50% more than equivalent European products.

American litigiousness developed specifically in the 1970s – it’s exactly how what the authors of the paper call citizen voice is enforced. In contrast, on this side of the Channel, and to some extent even generally on this side of the Pond, laws are enforced by regulators, tripartite labor-business-government meetings, ombudsmen, or street protests. French riotousness is legendary, but its ability to systematically change infrastructure is limited, since rioting imposes a real cost on the activist, namely the risk of arrest and backlash; in contrast, it is impossible to retaliate against people who launch frivolous lawsuits.

I bring up the fact that I said most of this last year, and the rest at the beginning of this year, whereas I was not aware of the paper under discussion until it was released a few hours ago, to make it clear that I’m not overfitting. This is something that I’ve been talking about for around a year now, and a jump in American construction costs in the 1970s and 80s – something that also looks to be the case in subway construction – is fully compatible with this theory.

Public Transportation and Active Planning

This post is an attempt at explaining the following set of observations concerning government interference and transportation mode choice:

  1. High auto usage tends to involve government subsidies to motorways and other roads
  2. Nonetheless, more obtrusive government planning tends to correlate with more public transport and intercity rail
  3. In places where state planning capacity is weak, transportation evolves in a generally pro-car direction

The main thread tying this all together is that building roads requires a lot of money, but the money does not need to be coordinated. Local districts could pave roads on a low budget and improve incrementally; this is how the US built its road network in the 1910s and 20s, relying predominantly on state and even local planning. In contrast, public transportation requires very good planning. Rapid transit as an infrastructure project is comparable to motorways, with preplanned stopping locations and junctions, and then anything outside dense city cores requires network-wide rail schedule coordination. Good luck doing that with feuding agencies.

I’ve talked a bunch about scale before, and this isn’t exactly about that. Yes, as Adirondacker likes to say in comments, cars are great at getting people to where not a lot of other people want to go. But in cities that don’t make much of an effort to plan transportation, anyone who can get a car will, even for trips to city center, where there are horrific traffic jams. An apter saying is that a developed country is not one where even the poor drive but one where even the rich use public transport.

Right of way and surface transit

The starting point is that on shared right-of-way, cars handily beat any shared vehicle on time. Shared vehicles stop to pick up and drop off passengers, and are just less nimble, especially if they’re full-size buses rather than jitneys. No work needs to be done to ensure that single-occupant vehicles crowd out buses with 20, 40, or even 60 passengers. This happens regardless of the level of investment in roads, which, after all, can be used by buses as well as by cars.

Incremental investment in roads will further help cars more than buses. The reason is that the junctions most likely to be individually grade-separated are the busiest ones, where buses most likely have to stop to pick up and discharge passengers at the side of the road at-grade, whereas cars can go faster using the flyover or duckunder. For example, in New York, the intersection of Fordham Road (carrying the Bx12, currently the city’s busiest bus) and Grand Concourse (carrying the Bx1/2, the city’s sixth and the Bronx’s second busiest route) is grade-separated, but buses have to stop there and therefore cannot have to cross more slowly at-grade.

Within cities, the way out involves giving transit dedicated right of way. This can be done on the surface, but that removes space available for cars. Since cars are faster than public transport in cities that have not yet given transit any priority over private vehicles, they are used by richer people, which means the government needs to be able to tell the local middle class no.

The other option is rapid transit. This can be quite popular it if is seen as modern, which is true in the third world today and was equally true in turn of the century New York. The problem: it’s expensive. The government needs to brandish enough capital at the start for a full line. This is where transit’s scale issue becomes noticeable: while a metro area of 1-2 million will often support a rapid transit line, the cost of a complete line is usually high compared with the ability of the region to pay for it, especially if the state is relatively weak.

The third world’s situation

The bulk of the third world has weak state capacity. Tax revenue is low, perhaps because of political control by wealthy elites, perhaps because of weak ability to monitor the entire economy to ensure compliance with broad taxes.

This does not characterize the entire middle- and low-income world. China has high state capacity, for one, leading to massive visible programs for infrastructure, including the world’s largest high-speed rail network and a slew of huge urban metro networks. In the late 20th century, the four East Asian Tigers all had quite high state capacity (and the democratic institutions of Korea and Taiwan are just fine – the administrative state is not the same as authoritarianism).

In 1999, Paul Barter’s thesis contrasted the transit-oriented character of Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Singapore, with the auto-oriented character of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, and predicted that Manila, Jakarta, and Surabaya would evolve more like the latter set of cities. Twenty years later, Jakarta finally opened its first metro line, and while it does have a sizable regional rail network, it is severely underbuilt for its size and wealth, which are broadly comparable to the largest Chinese megacities. Manila has a very small metro network, and thanks to extremely high construction costs, its progress in adding more lines is sluggish.

Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok both have very visible auto-centric infrastructure. Malaysia encouraged auto-centric development in order to stimulate its state-owned automakers, and Thailand has kept building ever bigger freeways, some double-deck. More to the point, Thailand has not been able to restrain car use the way China has, nor has it been able to mobilize resources to build a large metro system for Bangkok. However, Indonesia and the Philippines are not Thailand – Jakarta appears to have a smaller freeway network than Bangkok despite being larger, and Manila’s key radial roads are mostly not full freeways but fast arterials.

Planning capacity

Public transportation and roads both form networks. However, the network effects are more important for transit, for any number of reasons:

  1. Public transportation works better at large scale than small scale, which means that urban transit networks need to preplan connections between different lines to leverage network effects. Freeway networks can keep the circumferential highways at-grade because at least initially they are less likely to be congested, and then built up gradually.
  2. Public transportation requires some integration of infrastructure, service, and rolling stock, and this is especially true when the national rail network is involved rather than an urban subway without any track connections to the mainline network.
  3. The biggest advantage of trains over cars is that they use land more efficiently, and this is more important in places with higher land prices and stronger property rights protections. This is especially true when junctions are involved – building transfers between trains does not involve condemning large tracts of land, but building a freeway interchange does.

None of this implies that cars are somehow smaller-government than trains. However, building a transportation network around them does not require as competent a planning department. If decisions are outsourced to local notables who the state empowers to act as kings of little hills in exchange for political support, then cobbling together a road network is not difficult. It helps those local notables too, as they get to show off their expensive cars and chauffeurs.

Trains are more efficient and cleaner than cars, but building them requires a more actively planned infrastructure network. Even if the total public outlay is comparable, some competent organ needs to decide how much to appropriate for which purpose and coordinate different lines – and this organ should ideally be insulated from the corruption typical of the average developing country.