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.
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.
This post is an attempt at explaining the following set of observations concerning government interference and transportation mode choice:
- High auto usage tends to involve government subsidies to motorways and other roads
- Nonetheless, more obtrusive government planning tends to correlate with more public transport and intercity rail
- 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.
Public transportation and roads both form networks. However, the network effects are more important for transit, for any number of reasons:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
The expression democratic deficit is most commonly used to refer to the European Union and its behind-the-scenes style of lawmaking. I’ve long held it is equally applicable to local politics, especially in the United States. With the EU election taking place later today, I am going to take this opportunity to zoom in one a key aspect: who gets to vote informedly? This is a critical component of the local democratic deficit. After all, there is universal franchise at the local level in modern democracies, same as at the national level, and when election dates coincide the turnout rates coincide as well. EU elections have had low turnout, but this has to be understood as a consequence rather than a cause of the democratic deficit.
This does not exist on the national level anywhere that I know of. In federal states it may not exist on the state level, either: as far as I can tell, Canada and Germany offer voters clear choices on the province/state level, and it’s only in the United States that the democratic deficit exists in the states.
On the EU level, the problem is slowly solving itself, since a highly salient issue is growing, namely, the legitimacy of the EU itself. People can clearly vote for parties that hold that the EU as it currently exists is illegitimate, such as right-populist parties under the ENF umbrella; for parties that offer continuity with the EU as it is, that is Christian-democratic, social-democratic, and liberal parties; and for various reform parties, that is greens and the far left on the left, or whatever remains of the Tories on the right. For what it’s worth, turnout so far has inched up from 2014 levels.
But on the local level, the problem remains as strong as ever. The main consequence is that local elections empower NIMBYs, simply because they have the ability to make an informed choice based on their ideology and other groups lack that power. The interest groups that benefit from housing shortages naturally get more political powers than those that benefit from abundant housing. In transportation, too, transit users tend to be politically weaker than drivers relative to their share of the electorate, but the problem is nowhere near as acute as that of general NIMBYism.
What is informed voting?
Informed voting does not mean voting the right way. A voter may be able to make an informed choice even for an uninformed position; for example, people who think cutting taxes reduces the deficit have an economically uninformed belief, but still count as informed voters if they recognize which parties they can vote for in order to prioritize tax cuts. Informed voting, at least to me, means being able to answer the following questions correctly:
- What are the political issues at stake?
- Which positions on these issues can plausibly be enacted, and how difficult would such enactment be?
- Which organs of state undertake the relevant decisions? Is it the entire legislature, a specific standing committee, the courts, the civil service, etc.?
- Which political groups have which positions on these issues, and how much they’re going to prioritize each issue? Which political groups may not have strong positions but are nonetheless potential allies?
National elections exhibit the most informed voting. For example, in the United States, most voters can identify that the key issues differentiating the Democrats and Republicans are abortion rights, tax rates (especially on higher incomes), and health care, and moreover, the abortion issue is decided through Supreme Court nominations whereas the others are in Congress with the consent of the president. Additional issues like foreign policy, environmental protection, and labor may not be as salient nationwide, but people who care about them usually know which party has what positions, where decisions are made (e.g. foreign policy is decided by the president and appointed advisors, not Congress), and which factions within each party prioritize these issues and which have other priorities.
This does not mean all voters are informed. This does not even mean most swing voters are informed. In the United States it’s a commonplace among partisans that swing voters are exceedingly uninformed. For example, here is Chris Hayes reporting on the 2004 election:
Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief–not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.
But the low levels of information among undecided voters, while important on the margins, come from a context in which a large majority of American voters consistently support one party or another, and over the generations the parties have perfected a coalition of interests ensuring each will get about half the vote.
This situation is not US-specific. Israeli voters are highly informed about the relevant issues, led by the control over the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They know which parties are prepared to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, withdraw from the settlements, and recognize an independent Palestinian state, and which will do no such thing, and vote accordingly. Parties for the most part announce in advance which bloc they are to be part of; even parties that would be fine cooperating with either side in order to get money for their special interests, such as the ultra-Orthodox parties, are compelled to announce in advance which side they’ll back (the right), and so far they have not deviated from it. Every single party in Israel’s most recent election had an obvious bloc, left or right; in 2015, every single party did but one, Kulanu, which was a member of the right bloc but at the time pretended to be undecided.
The European democratic deficit
The democratic deficit occurs when it is not possible for a large majority of voters to know in advance what the issues are and how to vote on them.
The European Parliament suffers from a democratic deficit, despite having strong, coherent political parties, because of its tradition of behind-the-scenes government by consensus of EPP and S&D. It is difficult for a voter to know what exactly the difference would be if S&D were somewhat stronger and EPP somewhat weaker. Europe Elects’ latest projection has a tight race for whether ALDE and the parties to its left will have a majority, making ALDE the median party on the left-right scale, or whether they will come just short, making EPP the median. And yet, I have no idea what it would mean, despite the fact that there are important issues, including climate change and immigration, on which there is a cleave between ALDE-and-leftward parties and EPP-and-rightward parties.
I am planning to vote for the Green Party rather than for the Social Democrats, since the Greens here opposed Article 13 whereas the Social Democrats expressed concern but mostly voted for it. But I genuinely do not know whether a stronger G/EFA and weaker S&D would matter much for digital freedom, nor do I know whether behind the scenes a stronger S&D and a weaker EPP would’ve resulted in a different law.
I found myself in a similar situation in the previous (and first) time I was enfranchised, in the Swedish local and regional elections of 2014. Thanks to EU reciprocity laws, I could vote in the local and regional elections but not the coincident national election. I had some knowledge of the salient political issues at the national level from reading the news, looking at slogans on street signs, and browsing party platforms, but had no idea what this would mean within the context of Stockholm County; lacking much of a local social network, I listened to my postdoc advisor’s advice to read the national platforms and vote based on the one I liked most, and voted Green (which, judging by my advisor’s reaction, was not what he would have preferred). Put another way, EU laws let me vote for a mayor and city council whose name I did not even know, but not for the Riksdag, where I had a decent idea of what the difference between the Greens and Social Democrats was.
The extreme right in Europe has ironically improved democracy, because it has given people something to vote against. I may not know how the EU would look different if EPP lost a few percentage points of its vote share and S&D and the Greens gained a few each, but I definitely know how it will look if ENF and parties that aren’t part of ENF but should be, like Hungary’s Fidesz, gain power. When the very existence of a multiracial EU is at stake, it is easier to figure out which parties are firmly committed (G/EFA, S&D, ALDE, and to a large extent EPP) and which aren’t, and on what grounds (GUE/NGL from the left, the Tories from the mainline right, ENF from the extreme right). That the pro-European parties will certainly win a huge majority of the vote among them is less relevant – the point is not to get more votes than ENF but to completely delegitimize ENF, so the margin of defeat counts.
The American democratic deficit
If in Europe the problem is the disconnect between voting for a party at the non-national (or non-state) level and seeing policy results, in the United States local government has no parties at all. Cities of primaries like New York, and cities with nonpartisan elections like San Francisco, make it exceedingly difficult for voters to know which politicians are likely to enact their local ideological agenda.
Knowing what the salient issues are is the easy part in the United States – education, crime, and housing tend to be the main issues across a variety of cities. The hard part is knowing which politicians will take which positions and have which priorities. Occasionally, one-party cities and one-party states have consistent factions, one moderate and more progressive or more conservative, but even then the factional identification is fluid.
David Schleicher has proposed to resolve this problem by forming state parties aiming at capturing about half the voters, on a similar model to that of Canada, where most provincial parties are distinct from federal parties, with ideological cleaves decided by provincial rather than federal voter preferences. Cities like New York and San Francisco would not have informal factions under this system but formal party institutions, one progressive and one moderate with perhaps some cross-party appeal to Republicans, and the parties could even compete in federal Democratic primaries for Congress.
Without parties, collegial institutions can create feudal results. Schleicher gives the example of councilmanic privilege, in which single-party city councils defer on local issues, such as housing, to the member representing the locality in question. Another possibility is standing committees with powerful chairs, as is the case in California today and as was the case in Congress before Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution of 1994. Despite widespread support, the YIMBY political priority SB 50 was recently frozen by fiat of one committee chair, Anthony Portantino, who represents a NIMBY suburb of Los Angeles; SB 50 passed two committees by majority vote but needed a pro forma vote from Portantino’s appropriations committee before the final vote in the entire State Senate. At the federal level, powerful postwar committee chairs tended to be Southern Democrats, who blocked civil rights law that enjoyed widespread support in Congress.
Empowerment for whomst?
Without political parties, the people who can make informed voting in local elections – that is, the people who know the salient issues, the reasonable positions, and who will prioritize what – are from specific demographics. They must have very strong social ties within the locality – they may well know the candidates personally, or know people who know them personally. They must have lived in the locality for a long time to have had these ties. There is no way I could have these ties in Berlin – I moved here three months ago, and socialize largely with foreigners.
Even though there is universal vote among citizens (and even among EU citizens here), people who lack these ties may not be able to vote informedly. Thus, their (our) vote may be completely random; in Berlin I have enough of an idea of what the difference between the left-wing parties and CDU is on transportation, but the Green-SPD difference is still subtle and unless I see more in the next few years in advance of the election I’m likely to vote based on other cues, such as which party has a more diverse slate of candidates.
With people like me not really having much political power even when enfranchised, local politics becomes the domain of the specific socioeconomic classes that do have access to information. These are typically retirees and small business owners. If you own a store, you almost certainly know all the little details of your neighborhood because that’s where your clients are located. If you work for a big business, your social network is much wider, as your coworkers are likely to commute from a wide variety of places, so even though your income is similar to that of the shopkeeper you are much weaker in local elections.
With much more power than the rest of the electorate, retirees and the petite bourgeoisie can create a political culture in which their situation is considered more moral than that of the rest – hence the use of the word transient as a pejorative.
The relevance to housing and transportation is that people with mostly local ties tend to be consistently NIMBY. They usually own housing rather than rent – if you live in one place for a long time you benefit from owning more than the average person. They have real local political power, which redevelopment may disrupt by introducing a large cohort of new people into the neighborhood. They have the ability to extort developers into providing community amenities in exchange for getting a building permit. Not for nothing, the vanguard class for YIMBY is working-age people who work for other people and have national social ties rather than local ones.
In transportation, too, the favored classes in local politics with a democratic deficit tend to be pro-car. Part of it is that enfranchised voters drive more than the disenfranchised – in the United States (per census data) and the Netherlands, immigrants drive less and use transit more than natives. Even within the electorate, the groups that have higher turnouts, such as comfortable retirees, drive more than groups that have lower turnouts, such as students. The petite bourgeoisie in particular drives a lot – if you own a store you probably drive to it because your store is on a local main street with a single bus line, whereas salaried workers are likelier to work in city center and take transit. The latter are less empowered in local politics, especially American politics, so their preferences count less than those of people who can show up to meetings during business hours and complain about bus lanes.
Democratic consensus, not democratic deficit
Tories like to use the real problem of democratic deficit at the EU level as well as the local level to argue in favor of strong unitary nations. But there are better democratic mechanisms than voting for a party once every four or five years and letting an internal party hierarchy decide everything in the interim.
Germany and Canada have strong democratic institutions at the state/province level as far as I can tell, Germany through a multiparty system and Canada through provincial parties. Canadian leftists like to complain about Rob Ford and Doug Ford, but the voters of both Toronto and Ontario knew what they were voting for. It’s not like when Donald Trump ran on promises about immigration and trade that he couldn’t keep and then cut corporate taxes.
There are glimpses of real democracy in the largest cities, at least the mayoral level: Rob Ford, Bill de Blasio, Sadiq Khan, Anne Hidalgo. This is not every city of that size class (Chicago has no such institutions), but mayors of large enough cities can at least be familiar to large enough swaths of the electorate that more than just retirees, retail landlords, and small business owners can express an opinion. In smaller cities, it may be completely impossible to have such democracy – too many residents work outside the city, or work in the city alongside suburban commuters.
Forced amalgamations of cities are likely required in the US as well as France, on the model of Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands, or any other European country with postwar municipal consolidation. Below a certain size class, moreover, it is not possible to have a professional full-time legislature; smaller US states have very small districts (New Hampshire has 400 Representatives for 1.3 million people, paid $100 a year each), leading to hobbyist legislators and bills written by lobbyists.
Referendums are an important component of democracy as well, provided precautions are undertaken to ensure they are more like Swiss ones and less like Californian ones. It is appropriate to vote on individual spending packages, such as a high-speed rail project or a subway, by a simple majority; it is not appropriate to vote on part of a project, as California did for high-speed rail, and put the remaining funding sources in a magic asterisk.
Democracy and housing
Even when homeowners are the majority, as in nearly every first-world country, there is no general interest in a housing shortage. Only homeowners in the most expensive and constrained areas as well as homeowners who look down on people who move frequently have this interest. These two groups can win thanks to a sustained democratic deficit on the local level.
This is why higher-level decisionmaking is consistently more YIMBY than local decisionmaking. At the national or even state level, homeowners can easily form a housing cartel and restrict construction – and yet, higher-level decisionmaking, such as in Japan (national) or Canada (provincial) is associated with higher construction rates. At the state level, interest groups like that of NIMBY homeowners have to share power with other interest groups, including middle-class renters, organized labor, and real estate; in California the NIMBYs just scored a win thanks to control of a legislative committee, but a full legislative vote might well go the other way. But at the local level, the NIMBYs have stronger local ties than the rest and can keep outsiders out, and even manipulate local interest groups, offering them scraps of the extortion money from developers in exchange for loyalty.
In accordance with the observation that higher-level decisionmaking yields YIMBYer results, France and Sweden have recently accelerated housing construction in their expensive capitals, both by force of national power. In the 2014 election, party posters on Stockholm pledged to build more housing, and after winning the election, the Social Democrats set a target for national housing production. Local NIMBYs still maintain some power in that housing production in Sweden has come from finding new brownfield sites to redevelop rather than from replacing smaller buildings with bigger ones, but construction rates in the last few years have been high, especially in Stockholm County; The Local describes the overall rental situation in Sweden as “cooling.” In France there has been acceleration in housing production as well, powered by both national and regional concerns, over the objections of rich NIMBY suburbs over social housing mandates.
The United States has continued devolving housing decisions to hyperlocal organs, with predictable results. YIMBYs in California may not have fully theorized this, but they understand the implications enough to focus on getting the state to override local control to permit mid-rise transit-oriented development. Whatever reasoning has led to this, the praxis of state preemption is solid, and activists in the United States should work to weaken local governments until and unless they begin solving their democratic deficit problems.
New York’s high construction costs are not just a problem for public transit. Roads exhibit the exact same problem. Case in point: replacing 2.5 km of the deteriorating Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) in Brooklyn Heights is slated to cost $3-4 billion, take 6-8 years, and require temporarily closing the pedestrian promenade supported on top of the highway. This is not even a tunnel – some local NIMBYs have proposed one in order to reduce the impact of construction, but the cost would then be even higher. No: the projected cost, around $1.5 billion per kilometer, is for an above-ground highway replacement.
The section in question is between the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the Brooklyn Bridge; the Promenade is the northern half of this section.
Is it worth it?
There exist infrastructure projects that are worth it even at elevated cost. Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 cost $4.6 billion where it should have cost $700 million, but the expected ridership was very high, 200,000 per day, and so far ridership is on track to meet projections: the three new stations had a total of 138,000 boardings and alightings between them in 2017, and the revamped 63rd Street station went up by another 8,000. The BQE replacement is not such a project. Current traffic on the highway is stated as 153,000 vehicles per day, so on a per-vehicle basis it’s similar to Second Avenue Subway’s per-rider projection, around $23,000. But cars are not transit and cities need to understand that.
The construction of a subway creates noise and traffic disruption, but once the subway is up, all of that is done. Even elevated trains cause limited problems if built properly from materials that minimize noise – the trains on the viaducts on the Paris Metro are less noisy than the cars on the street below. There are operating costs involved with subways, but fixed costs are so dominant that even in New York a busy line like Second Avenue Subway should be at worst revenue-neutral net of costs; for reference, in Vancouver the projection for the Broadway subway extension’s operating costs is well below the revenue from the projected extra ridership.
Cars are not like that. They are noisy and polluting, and greenwashing them with a handful of expensive electric cars won’t change that. There are benefits to automobility, but the health hazards cancel out a lot of that. The Stern Review estimates the cost of unmitigated climate change at 20% of global GDP (e.g. PDF-p. 38), which in current terms approaches $500 per metric ton of CO2. The US has almost the same emissions intensity per dollar of production as the rest of the world; the negative impact of cars coming from climate change alone is comparable to the total private cost of transportation in the US, including buying the car, maintenance, fuel, etc. Now add car accidents, noise, and local air pollution.
In a region where cars are an absolute lifeline, there’s a case for building connections. The costs are low since grading a road for medium speed with level crossings is not expensive. In cities, the situation is different. Drivers will grumble if the BQE is removed. They will not lose access to critical services.
Is anyone proposing removing the BQE?
Yes, there are some proposals to that effect, but they’re so far only made haltingly. Council Speaker and 2021 mayoral frontrunner Corey Johnson’s report on municipal control of the subway includes the following line: “Before spending $4 billion to reconstruct a 1.5 mile stretch of highway, the City should study alternatives to the reconstruction of this Robert Moses-era six lane road, including the removal of the BQE in its entirety.” The halting part here is that to study does not mean to enact; Johnson himself opposes repurposing car lanes for bus service in his own district.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who has relied on a lot of the information I have brought up in this space in his reports, proposes to keep the BQE but only allow access to trucks. Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan agrees with the idea and even pitches it as a brave alternative to the car. In other words, per the comptroller and former commissioner, billions of dollars are to be spent on the reconstruction of a somewhat narrower structure for 14,000 trucks per day. Stringer’s report even says that the comparable urban freeways that have been removed did not allow trucks in, which is incorrect for the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco and for the Voie Georges Pompidou in Paris (look for “camions” here). In reality, if closing the BQE means adding just 14,000 vehicles to surface streets, then it’s an almost unmitigated success of road dieting, since it means much less pollution and noise.
The Regional Plan Association proposes its usual quarter-measures as well, sold under the guise of “reimagining.” It does not mention closure at all – it proposes rebuilding the structure with four lanes, down from the current six, and even dares to cite the closure in Paris as precedent. Everything in its analysis points out to the benefits of full closure and yet the RPA feels too institutional to propose that. Presumably if the RPA had opined on lynchings in the midcentury American South it would have proposed a plan to cut total lynchings by 25% and if it had opined on Fourth Republic-era colonialism in Algeria it would have proposed to cut the incidence of torture by a third while referencing the positive precedent of British decolonization in India.
What should replace the BQE?
The BQE should be removed all the way from the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to the Williamsburg Bridge. Its curves in Downtown Brooklyn with the loops to the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges consume valuable real estate, and farther east they divide neighborhoods. The new Navy Yard developments are disconnected from the rest of Brooklyn because of the BQE.
Going east through Fort Greene, the BQE is flanked on both sides by Park Avenue. Buildings face the street, though many of the lots are empty or low-value. Thus, the surface streets have to stay. Selling what is now Park Avenue as parcels for residential and commercial development and mapping a street on the BQE’s 30-meter footprint is probably not viable. Instead, most of the footprint of the expressway should be parceled into lots and sold, converting Park Avenue into a one-way pair with streets about 12-15 meters in width each. East-west buses will continue running on Flushing and Myrtle, and north-south buses should probably not make stops at Park.
In contrast, going south through South Brooklyn, buildings do not face the abutting surface street, Hicks. They present blank walls, as if it was midblock. This is a prime opportunity to narrow the street as if the highway has never been there, creating an avenue perhaps 20 or 30 meters in width. The wider figure is more appropriate if there are plans for bus lanes and bike lanes; otherwise, if buses stay on Columbia, 20 is better.
In South Williamsburg, the road is nearly block-wide. The neighborhood is pro-development due to high birthrates among the Haredi population. Thus the footprint of the freeway must be used for private housing development. The area next to the Marcy Avenue subway station on the J/M/Z is especially desirable for the non-Haredi population, due to the proximity to Manhattan jobs. The city should retain an avenue-width roadway for Williamsburg Bridge access from the south, but beyond that it should restore the blocks of the neighborhood as they were before the BQE was built.
Heal, don’t placemake
If there’s a common thread to the various proposals by local politicians and shadow agencies (that is, the RPA), it’s an attempt at placemaking, defined to be any project that they can point to and say “I built that!”. A BQE rebuilt slightly narrower, or restricted to trucks, achieves that goal, with some greenwashing for what remains a waste of billions of dollars for motorist convenience.
But the same can be said of a park, as in one architect’s proposal for the BQE. I can see a case for this in Brooklyn Heights, where the Promenade is an important neighborhood destination, but elsewhere, the case is extraordinarily weak. In South Brooklyn, the most important benefit of removing the BQE is easier pedestrian access to the waterfront; recreation space should go there. Fort Greene and the Navy Yard are both rich in parks; BQE removal makes the large parks on both sides of the motorway easier to access. And Williamsburg is hungry for private development, whether near the subway for Manhattan workers or elsewhere for Haredi families.
Thirty years from now, nobody is going to walk on the remade street grid of South Williamsburg or the narrowed Hicks Street and wonder which politician set this up. But people may well notice the lower rents – and they may well notice them within a few years of the deconstruction of the road and the sale of the land for housing development. Ultimately city residents do notice if things are improving or deteriorating. It’s on the city to nudge infrastructure development in the direction of less pollution and fewer boondoggles.
My post about the boundary zone between the transit-oriented city and its auto-oriented suburbs led to a lot of interesting discussions in comments, including my favorite thing to hear: “what you said describes my city too.” The city in question is Philadelphia, and the commenter, Charles Krueger, asked specifically about park-and-ride commuter rail stations. My post had mentioned Southeast on the Harlem Line as an interface between commuter rail and the Westchester motorway network, and the natural followup question is whether this is true in general.
The answer is that it’s complicated, because like the general concept of the cars/transit boundary zone, park-and-rides have to be rare enough. If they’re too common, the entire rail system is oriented around them and is not really a boundary but just an extension of the road network. This is the situation on every American commuter rail system today – even lines that mostly serve traditional town centers, like the New Haven Line, focus more on having a lot of parking at the station and less on transit-oriented development. Even some suburban rapid transit lines, such as the Washington Metro, BART, and the recent Boston subway extensions, overuse park-and-rides.
However, that American suburban rail systems overuse such stations does not mean that such stations must never be built. There are appropriate locations for them, provided they are used in moderation. Those locations should be near major highways, in suburbs where there is a wide swath of low-density housing located too far from the rail line for biking, and ideally close to a major urban station for maximum efficiency. The point is to use suburban rail to extend the transit city outward rather than the auto-oriented suburban zone inward, so the bulk of the system should not be car-oriented, but at specific points park-and-rides are acceptable, to catch drivers in suburbs that can’t otherwise be served or redeveloped.
Peakiness and park-and-rides
I’ve harped on the importance of off-peak service. The expensive part of rail service is fixed costs, including the infrastructure and rolling stock; even crew labor has higher marginal costs at the peak than off-peak, since a high peak-to-base ratio requires split shifts. This means that it’s best to design rail services that can get ridership at all times of day and in both directions.
The need for design that stimulates off-peak service involves supportive service, development, and infrastructure. Of these, service is the easiest: there should be bidirectional clockface schedule, ideally with as little variation between peak and off-peak as is practical. Development is politically harder, but thankfully in the main example case, the Northeastern United States, commuter rail agencies already have zoning preemption powers and can therefore redevelop parking lots as high-intensity residential and commercial buildings with walkable retail.
Infrastructure is the most subtle aspect of design for all-day service. Park-and-ride infrastructure tends to be peaky. Whereas the (peakier, more suburban) SNCF-run RER and Transilien lines have about 46% of their suburban boardings at rush hour, the LIRR has 67%, Metro-North 69%, and the MBTA 79%. My linked post explains this difference as coming from a combination of better off-peak service on the RER and more walkable development, but we can compare these two situations with the Washington Metro, where development is mostly low-density suburban but off-peak frequency is not terrible for regional rail. Per data from October 2014, this proportion is 56%, about midway between Transilien and the LIRR.
This goes beyond parking. For one, railyards should be sited at suburban ends of lines, where land is cheap, rather than in city center, where land is expensive and there is no need to park trains midday if they keep circulating. But this is mostly about what to put next to the train stations: walkable development generating a habit of riding transit all day, and not parking lots.
Where parking is nonetheless useful
In response to Charles’ comment, I named a few cases of park-and-rides that I think work well around New York, focusing on North White Plains and Jersey Avenue. There, the parking-oriented layout is defensible, on the following grounds:
- They are located in suburban sections where the reach of the highway network is considerable, as there is a large blob of low density, without much of the structure created by a single commuter line.
- They are near freeways, rather than arterials where timed connecting buses are plausible.
- They are immediately behind major stations in town centers with bidirectional service, namely White Plains and New Brunswick, respectively.
The importance of proximity is partly about TOD potential and partly about train operating efficiency. If the park-and-rides are well beyond the outer end of bidirectional demand, then the trains serving them will be inefficient, as they will get relatively few off-peak riders. A situation like that of Ronkonkoma, which is located just beyond low-ridership, low-intensity suburbs and tens of kilometers beyond Hicksville, encourages inefficient development. Thus, they should ideally be just beyond the outer end, or anywhere between the city and the outer end.
However, if they are far from the outer end, then they become attractive TOD locations. For example, every station between New York and White Plains is a potential TOD site. It’s only near White Plains that the desirability of TOD diminishes, as White Plains itself makes for a better site.
On rapid transit in American suburbia, one example of this principle is the Quincy Adams garage on the Red Line just outside Boston. While the station itself can and should be made pedestrian-friendlier, for one by reopening a gate from the station to a nearby residential neighborhood, there’s no denying the main access to the station will remain by car. Any TOD efforts in the area are better spent on Quincy Center and Braintree, which also have commuter rail service.
Where parking should urgently be replaced by TOD
American suburban rail lines overuse park-and-rides, but there are specific sites where this type of development is especially bad. Often these are very large park-and-ride structures built in the postwar era for the explicit purpose of encouraging suburban drivers to use mainline rail for commuter and intercity trips. With our modern knowledge of the importance of all-day demand, we can see that this thinking is wrong for regional trips – it encourages people to take rail where it is the most expensive to provide and discourages ridership where it is free revenue.
The most important mistake is Metropark. The station looks well-developed from the train, but this is parking structures, not TOD. Worse, the area is located in the biggest edge city in the Northeast, possibly in the United States, possibly in the world. Middlesex County has 393,000 jobs and 367,000 employed residents, and moreover these jobs are often high-end, so that what the Bureau of Economic Analysis calls adjustment for residence, that is total money earned by county residents minus total money earned in the county, is negative (Manhattan has by far the largest negative adjustment in the US, while the outer boroughs have the largest positive one). The immediate area around Metropark and Woodbridge has 46,000 jobs, including some frustratingly close to the station and yet not oriented toward it; it’s a huge missed opportunity for commercial TOD.
In general, edge cities and edgeless cities should be prime locations for sprawl repair and TOD whenever a suburban rail line passes nearby. Tysons, Virginia is currently undertaking this process, using the Silver Line extension of the Metro. However, preexisting lines do not do so: Newton is not making an effort at TOD on the existing Green Line infrastructure, it’s only considering doing so in a part of town to be served by a potential branch toward Needham; and the less said about commuter rail, the better. Mineola and Garden City on Long Island, Tarrytown in Westchester, and every MBTA station intersecting Route 128 are prime locations for redevelopment.
Commuter rail for whomst?
I believe it’s Ant6n who first came up with the distinction between commuter rail extending the transit city into the suburbs and commuter rail extending the suburbs into the city. If the trains are frequent and the stations well-developed, then people from the city can use them for trips into suburbia without a car, and their world becomes larger. If they are not, then they merely exist to ferry suburban drivers into city center at rush hour, the one use case that cars are absolutely infeasible for, and they hem car-less city residents while extending the world of motorists.
Park-and-rides do have a role to play, in moderation. Small parking lots at many stations are acceptable, provided the station itself faces retail, housing, and offices. Larger parking structures are acceptable in a handful of specific circumstances where there is genuinely no alternative to driving, even if the rest of the rail service interfaces with walkable town centers. What is not acceptable is having little development except parking at the majority of suburban train stations.
Public transportation use is higher in cities than in suburbs. Cities with stronger transit networks have larger transit-rich, auto-hostile cores, and some have good transit in lower-density suburbs, but ultimately the transit city has a limited radius, beyond which automobiles dominate. Successful examples of suburban transit, like Zurich, just keep the city-suburb gradient shallower than in other transit cities.
The most fascinating aspect of this is the boundary between the transit-oriented city and the auto-oriented suburbs. Uniquely in the metro area, the boundary region has good access by car as well as by transit, making it ideal for uses that want to interface with both modes of transportation. This specifically includes bus stations, stadiums, and big box retail, as well as more sporadic meeting points between urban and suburban residents.
Where the boundary is
Because the boundary zone is defined by good transit as well as highway access, it may not be the literal boundary as defined by modal split, car ownership, or any other metric of transportation usage. It can be the outer end of some rail line extending into the suburbs, and in that case it may be a salient into auto-oriented territory. There are a number of examples in the United States, where the postwar rapid transit projects have not been accompanied by much transit-oriented development, and thus their outer stations are in low-density suburbs where transit service functions as expensive S-Bahns. BART and most of the Washington Metro are like this, as are the suburban lines of the Boston subway.
For example, here is Newton Centre, on the Green Line D branch:
The light rail station is just to the left (south) of the street. This is a walkable suburban street with a train that comes pretty frequently all day, and yet the dominant mode of transportation here is clearly cars, as one can see in the parking lot to the left. Transit usage here is similar to the metro area’s average – Newton averages 11.9%, the Boston metro area 13.4% – but this says more about the rest of metro Boston than about Newton Centre. Nonetheless, such a location is convenient to access from the city if one lives near the Green Line, and is also reasonable convenient by car, as it is just 4 km from the freeway, and the majority of the distance is along the fast arterial that is Route 9.
The importance of highway access also works in reverse. In cities with strong transit networks and weak motorway network, there may be a freeway salient into the city, creating a zone that is car-friendlier than the rest. If it also has ample parking, which it usually does, then it will end up creating a boundary within an area that is on most metrics transit-oriented.
In London, the urban renewal zones around Stratford and Canary Wharf are examples – the city is unusually poor in freeway infrastructure, but two of the few radial motorways hit these two business districts. Here is Stratford:
The built-up density is high, and Stratford is one of the busiest Underground stations. But the roads are big for the city they’re in and there are large surface parking lots all over.
I’m deliberately including two examples with very different urban layouts and actual transit usage levels to hammer home the point that the boundary is defined merely by the existence of supportive infrastructure for both cars and public transit.
Can the entire city be friendly to both cars and public transit?
There are several reasons for this. The first and most fundamental is that public transit is only successful if it can leverage scale. The adage frequency is freedom comes from this fact, but the same can be said about related issues of span, reach, and network effects. This is why frequency-ridership spirals are so dangerous – a small cut in service can lead to a much greater reduction in ridership.
The second reason is that drivers prefer a different urban layout from transit users, cyclists, and pedestrians. Cars are space-intensive on the road as well as on the parking lot, but can achieve high average speed if there’s no traffic, so they end up preferring spread-out development. Public and active transport are space-efficient but involve a lot of slow walking, so they prefer dense development at distinguished nodes with train stations, featuring strong commercial city centers with high job concentration. The boundary zone I speak of must be underlain by a strong enough transit network in the city core that people will fill the trains at all hours of day.
Concretely, neither the example of Newton nor that of Stratford can work citywide. Newton cannot work citywide because if every residential metro station is a parking lot, then nobody will ride the trains off-peak, and the city will de facto be exclusively auto-oriented as a result. Two years ago I compared the proportion of boardings at suburban stations that occur in the morning peak in New York (67% LIRR, 69% Metro-North) and Paris (46% on the SNCF network). Well, I would later find data for the Washington Metro, which has high off-peak frequency like the RER but low-density parking lot stations like the LIRR and Metro-North, and the proportion of riders in the morning peak is much closer to that of the LIRR than to that of the RER.
Likewise, Stratford can’t work citywide, because most of the city is not a reclaimed railyard with enormous space for all manners of new development. Building the expansive motorway network that would allow cars to rapidly reach every part of the city would normally require extensive neighborhood demolitions; American cities only managed to do so because to the road builders, destroying working-class (and often black) neighborhoods was a feature rather than a bug. Building a new city with ample road infrastructure is possible without this history, but then one gets Houston, hardly an example of good transit accessibility.
Land use at the boundary
The boundary zone’s unique accessibility by both cars and transit makes it ideally suited for land use that really wants both. Such land use has to have the following features:
- It needs to have a large regional draw, or else distinct neighborhood centers, some transit-oriented and some car-oriented, can do better.
- It needs to specifically benefit from good highway access, for example for deliveries, but also from good transit access.
- It is not so high-value that city center’s better transit access in multiple directions trumps access by transit in one direction and by cars in another.
Sporadic meetings satisfy all three criteria. For one personal example, in 2013 I visited New York and participated in a LARP taking place in a camp somewhere in Massachusetts, accessible only by car; I traveled with friends in the suburbs and we arranged that they would pick me up at Southeast, the northern end of the Metro-North Harlem Line’s electrification, so chosen because of its excellent multidirectional freeway access.
I bring up LARPing because it’s such a small community that it has to draw regionwide – in the case of the one I went to, participants came from all over Eastern New England and even beyond – and thus, anywhere with lower transit usage than New York, must appeal primarily to the driver, not the transit user. Nerdy conventions in general tend to either be enormous, like Comic-Con, or take place in cheap suburban edge city hotels, with meetings for carpools arranged at choice suburban train stations.
More common uses that like the boundary zones include major stadiums and big box retail. Stadiums appeal to a broad section of the population with little differentiation between city residents and suburbanites. They have to have good transit access even in auto-oriented American cities for reasons of capacity, but they also have to have good auto access for the use of drivers; stadiums are land-intensive enough that they can’t locate in city center at all, with its omnidirectional transit access, so instead they must be at the boundary zone. Thus Stratford hosts the London Stadium, the Stade de France is in Saint-Denis with good motorway as well as RER access, and Yankee Stadium is tucked at a corner of the Bronx with two subway lines and good expressway infrastructure.
Big box retail is more complicated – for one, its draw is so local that even a small city can support several Walmarts, Carrefours, and Aldis (Walmart is weak in big cities, but the big European retailers aren’t). Nonetheless, boundary zone stores exist: the big supermarket I’m most familiar with in Boston, Star Market at Porter, is on top of a subway station but also has a large parking lot, while the supermarket I shop at here in Berlin, Kaufland, is a two-story big box next to the Gesundbrunnen U- and S-Bahn station, with the ground floor devoted to parking.
I suspect the reason big box retail likes the boundary zone is that while it is local, there are extensive mixed areas rich in both drivers and non-drivers, where a big store must appeal to both in order to succeed. The Gesundbrunnen area is one of the city’s densest, but car ownership in Berlin is still higher than in Paris or New York. The same is true of the area around Porter Square in Cambridge and Somerville, albeit at lower density and with lower transit usage, so Star Market puts its parking on the surface rather than in a structure.
Bus station siting
The most interesting land use that prefers the boundary zone, and the origin of this post, is the intercity bus station. Here is Herbert in comments:
Can you do a post on the contradictory demands for the site of the main intercity bus station?
On the one hand, it is desirable that it is within easy reach from the highway. On the other hand it should be as close to downtown as possible and also easily reachable by public transit. And last but not least there should of possible be one interchange station for every city for connecting passengers.
It’s almost impossible to find a site that goes all requirements. Berlin ZOB certainly doesn’t…
Whereas train stations have obvious preferred sites – the central business district – bus stations have to balance centrality with highway access. In Paris, this is Gallieni. This station is just outside the city at the end of Metro Line 3, where the Boulevard Peripherique meets the A3 autoroute, which connects to further motorways with good access to the north, south, and east. Like Stade de France, Gallieni is a salient of the auto-oriented suburbs almost into city limits, in inner suburbs with high public transit usage.
In New York, there are a few sites that would work fine, but each points in a different direction, making interchange difficult. Port Authority is excellent for buses going to New Jersey and points west and south, and curbside buses tend to pick up in that general area as well, often near Hudson Yards; this is facilitated by a unique situation in which the Lincoln Tunnel has a dedicated inbound bus lane in the morning peak, which many area transit activists wish existed in both directions all day. Buses to Boston could depart from Yankee Stadium, which also benefits from being just beyond the outer end of subway express service, so that travel speeds to Manhattan are faster. However, in practice they depart from the same curbside location on the Far West Side as the buses to Philadelphia and Washington, frustrating riders who see their bus spend an hour in city traffic.
The situation of New York is unusual in that it is located next to two wide rivers with few crossings, and thus does not have a proper orbital motorway with a location like Gallieni. But New York is not unique in having difficult bus station siting choices. London has the same problem: for one, the M25 orbital is so far out of the city; and perhaps more importantly, British buses are priced cheaper than trains in order to control crowding levels on trains to London, and thus dumping bus passengers on a regional train to Central London would be strictly worse than just letting them ride the train the entire way for a reasonable fare.
In 2011, Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns coined the word stroad for a street that functions as a road. Chuck argues that there should be a separation between streets, which are destinations in and of themselves and are to be lined with walkable retail, and roads, which exist to move people between destinations. In contrast, auto-oriented arterials function as both: they are designed for high speed for through-traffic but also have extensive streetside destinations built at automobile scale, hence the portmanteau stroad.
In the last seven years this mentality has become quite popular within online urbanist circles. Unfortunately, it misses why major streets arise in the first place. Moreover, this is not just an issue for cars and car traffic – other modes of transportation want to funnel local and interregional traffic through the same corridors, creating a number of arteries that are in essence strails, like the Berlin S-Bahn. Good planning has to recognize that where people to go through and where people want to go to are often the same, and provide road and rail infrastructure of sufficient size to accommodate.
What is a street, anyway?
The main purpose of a city street is to connect destinations within the city. Major streets routinely form out of trails, post roads, and turnpikes connecting the city with villages that it swallows as it industrializes and grows. Broadway in New York started out as an Indian trail, the Strand grew as a road connecting London with Westminster and had previously been part of an intercity Roman road, Champs Elysees was built as a promenade into the periphery of Paris and gradually filled in with palaces, the Sveavägen/Götgatan axis goes back to the Early Modern era with connections from Stockholm to Roslag to the north and Götland in the south.
Not every street has this intercity or suburban history, but the important ones frequently do. The Manhattan grid was mapped as an entirely urban street network, but the wide north-south avenues were designed for easy access to the Lower Manhattan core from future residential areas. In ungridded cities, usually you can tell which streets are the oldest because they are longer, more continuous, and more commercially developed, and the exceptions come from heavyhanded state planning, like the shift from Rue Saint-Jacques to Boulevard Saint-Michel in Haussmannian Paris.
The importance of through-streets within cities continues even today, and even when cars are not too relevant. People who walk or take transit are likelier to do so on the main streets, and as a result, businesses prefer locating there. In Manhattan there’s even an expression for this: avenue rents versus street rents. In Vancouver, I could walk on any street, but crossing wasn’t any harder on the main streets than on the side streets, and there was more interesting stuff to look at on the main streets; even ignoring zoning, retail would prefer to locate on the main streets because that’s where all the other retail is. There’s a wealth of good restaurants I discovered just by walking next to them, to say nothing of the gaming store on 4th Avenue near MacDonald, which I saw from the bus to UBC.
All of this is magnified in cities that do not have consistent grids, like Paris, Berlin, and even Stockholm. In those cities, zoning does not micromanage use as much as in North America, and yet businesses locate on major streets where possible. Here is a map of the area I live in: the green dot is where I live, and the red dot is a government office I went to last week to register.
Walking east or west, I exclusively use Bernauer Strasse, the street the M10 tramway runs on; walking north or south, I use Brunnen Strasse, which hosts U8. Other streets can function as shortcuts, but with parks and small changes interrupting the grid, they’re less reliable for through-walking. And indeed, they are much quieter and largely residential, with retail mostly at street corners.
The invention of the stroad
The early American roads connected distinct cities, or linked cities with rural hinterlands. Within the cities, they fed preexisting arterial streets. For the most part these arterial streets were fairly wide – they were mapped in the 19th century based on 19th-century design standards, often 30 meters of width, rather than the narrow medieval streets London is famous for – but they still filled with cars fast. Two parking lanes and four moving lanes in a dense city with busy crossings aren’t much. American cities had traffic jams in the 1920s already.
My two go-to references about the history of American roadbuilding – Owen Gutfreund’s 20th-Century Sprawl, and Earl Swift’s The Big Roads – both explain what happened beginning in the 1920s: cities built bypasses. The idea was that the bypasses would segregate through-traffic from urban traffic, separating roads from streets properly.
This never happened. For the same reason preindustrial roads turned into busy streets, bypasses turned into busy auto-oriented streets. Retailers found that the best place to locate was where all the cars were. These bypasses became congested roads themselves, partly due to the induced auto-oriented development and partly due to general growth in car traffic volumes. This trend intensified after WW2, with the freeways leading another cycle of bypasses around congested urban roads becoming congested with urban traffic themselves. Wal-Mart and Carrefour invented the hypermarket in 1962-3, and in the 1960s office space began suburbanizing as well, since traffic conditions were better than in congested city centers.
This is not an obscure history, and Chuck is fully aware of it: among his complaints about stroads is that they reduce the tax base of the city by encouraging retail to decamp for the suburbs. He just fails to follow this through to the logical conclusion: the most intense demand for real estate is near the busiest through-routes. There is no real separation between the street and the road; the best you can do for walkability is run better public transit to the urban core and make sure the roads have street-facing retail rather than front parking lots.
The principle that the best place for local traffic is where long-distance traffic is is equally true of trains. An intermediate station on an intercity railway sited a convenient commute away from the city will soon fill with suburban travelers. The term commuter itself derives from the discounted commutation tickets American intercity railroads offered regular riders, starting in New York and Boston in the middle of the 19th century.
19th-century railways were not a complex system of branched lines dedicated to regional traffic. Such lines existed, for example the Ligne de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, now part of the RER A, but most of the lines continued onward to long-distance destinations, or had been built with the intention of continuing so. Look at this map of extant London-area railways by year of construction: there aren’t that many branches predating the Late Victorian era, and the branches that do exist tend to be reverse-branches in South London offering service to either a City station like Cannon Street or Blackfriars or a West End station like Victoria. The remainder are loop lines, built to offer four tracks’ worth of capacity on lines that had originally been built with only two, but then both routes filled with local traffic, making it harder to schedule express trains; for an example easily visible on the map, see the Lea Valley lines connecting to Cheshunt.
In contrast with the London loop lines, Prussian State Railways made sure to rebuild the Ringbahn and Stadtbahn to have adequate capacity, that is four tracks, two for local service and two for longer-distance service; the Ringbahn had initially been built with two tracks, but would be expanded to four in the 1880s and 90s. But even here, there are seams. German Wikipedia explains that the Stadtbahn had to take a less desirable route to avoid expensive takings on Leipziger Strasse, and has a winding route with S-curves between Alexanderplatz and Jannowitz Brücke. Moreover, some individual branches only have two tracks even if they are the best intercity routes: the S2 route is the most direct route to Dresden, but with two tracks, heavy local traffic, and only DC electrification, it cannot host intercity trains, and thus intercity trains to Dresden spend 20 minutes out of a 2-hour trip getting around this line.
Berlin at least has the good fortune that four tracks here are enough. Tokyo is so big and strongly-centered that it has ten tracks going south of Tokyo on the Tokaido Line and eight going north on the Tohoku Line, including four for local service, two for Shinkansen service, and two or four for medium-distance express regional trains. Widening railways to serve city centers is expensive, and only done when absolutely necessary, and yet JR East spent considerable money on widening the innermost Tohoku trunk from six to eight tracks.
Even high-speed rail can induce the same development effect as a freeway. It doesn’t have closely-spaced stations, but people might demand stations as a mitigation of construction impact and train noise. The Tohoku Shinkansen diverges from the Tohoku Main Line a few kilometers north of Tokyo, but the local communities demanded local service as well as a mitigation, and as a result Japan National Railways built a four-track line, with two Shinkansen tracks and two local tracks for the Saikyo Line.
Main streets want to be everything
Major streets are the best location for every destination and every mode of transportation. This extends beyond walking. Buses prefer wide streets optimized for higher traffic speed – and the few main streets that are not so optimized, such as the Manhattan crosstown streets (since traffic is optimized for north-south avenue throughput), have buses that win awards for how slow they are. Bicyclists prefer riding on major streets as well, which is why Copenhagen prioritizes bike infrastructure on major streets rather than on side streets – on side streets car traffic is so light and slow that mixed traffic is not so bad, but the desirable through-routes remain the major streets.
The problem is that every mode of transportation requires some piece of the street, whereas street width is finite. Brunnen Strasse is 40 meters wide, and hosts very wide sidewalks including a dedicated path for on-sidewalk cycling, a combination of parallel and angled parking, two moving lanes in each direction, and a generous road median. Even that width does not include dedicated public transit infrastructure: U8 runs underneath the street, leaving the street’s width for sidewalks and roadways.
The same situation occurs on railroads: all uses want the same piece of infrastructure, leading to the usual problems of mixing trains of different speed classes on the same tracks. Freight bypasses are possible, but passenger bypasses are rare – train passengers tend to want to go to the city rather than to some suburb, and unlike cars, trains have prescribed stop patterns. By rail as by road, bigger infrastructure is needed: four tracks for a mixed local and interregional railway, or about 36-40 meters or even more on a main street.
Wide enough streets don’t exist everywhere. New England streets are narrow. Midwestern streets are wider, but at least the one I’m most familiar with, Ann Arbor’s Washtenaw Avenue, is only around 25 meters wide – it only gets up to 40 if one includes setbacks. Road widening would be needed, which is exactly the opposite of what the Strong Towns approach prescribes. Cities this small could mix decent local and intercity rail service on two tracks with timed overtakes, but that would require them to run any passenger rail service to begin with, and to make sure to have enough development near the stations, both residential and commercial, that people would ride the trains.
But on a 30-meter wide street, something has to give. There simply is not enough room for everything. Give pedestrians their 4 or 5 meters of sidewalk in each direction, cyclists their 2 meters of bike lane, and cars their parking lane and two moving lanes, and you’re already at 30-32 meters. You can go with complete streets and reduce the extent of car infrastructure, for example by turning a moving lane per direction into a bus or tram lane, or by getting rid of street parking, but unless you’re in a city with high transit mode share, you’re driving away eyeballs from retailers. Paris can definitely do it, New York and Berlin can do it, even Boston can do it. Can a small American city where planners aspire to run a handful of buses every 15 minutes do it? Probably not.
One of the tech industry’s buzzwords for transportation is “on demand” – that is, available to the passenger immediately, without fixed schedules. When I said something about schedules at my Hyperloop One interview, the interviewers gently told me that actually, they intend their system to be on-demand; I forget what I said afterward, but I do remember I didn’t press the point. More commonly, people who insist on using ride-hailing apps rather than public transit talk about how great it is that they don’t have to follow fixed schedules.
But what does this really mean? Calling a cab, or hailing one via a TNC app, does not mean it comes immediately. There’s a wait time of several minutes. How many minutes depends on time of day and which city one is in. A Dallas air travel blog describes wait times of around 10 minutes. In and around Boston, Patreon supporter Alexander Rapp says “2-7 minutes is the typical range” with New York waits slightly longer. In Los Angeles, a dissertation studying racial bias finds that the average predicted wait times are 6-7 minutes for black people and 5-6 minutes for others (PDF-p. 147); both the absolute numbers and the difference are much higher for street-hailed cabs. In 2014, the median wait time in New York was 3 minutes.
On an urban transit line, an average wait of 10 minutes is equivalent to a 20-minute frequency, and an average wait of 5 minutes is equivalent to a 10-minute frequency. At the lower end, the fixed schedule is actually better – a well-run transit system with 20-minute frequencies publicly posts clockface schedules and sticks to them, so people know in advance how to time themselves to the bus or train’s arrival time.
Even the wait times of 2014’s New York, not since achieved in the city or elsewhere, are only equivalent to a subway train that comes every 6 minutes, which is decidedly mediocre. The outer subway branches in New York get a train every 8-10 minutes off-peak, but they are not what TNCs compete with. Bruce Schaller’s report alleging that TNCs are responsible for the decline in subway ridership uses data from mid-2016, when 56% of TNC trips in New York were in Manhattan south of West 110th and East 96th Streets and another 22% were in inner-ring neighborhoods, mostly before the subway branch points. And subway frequency in New York is not good for how busy the system is; during the daytime, longer headways than 5 minutes are rare on the Paris Metro and on the trunks in London and Stockholm. Milan, hardly a transit city, runs its driverless metro line every 4 minutes off-peak.
All of the comparable waits get longer outside the city. Stockholm’s highly-branched metro system runs every 10 minutes on some branches off-peak, and Tube waits go up to 10 minutes on some branches as well. Commuter rail waits start from 10 minutes on the busiest branches, like those of the RER A, and go up from there, sometimes even to a train every half hour off-peak in suburbs of respectable European transit cities. But the branches are not where people ride TNCs. Just as in New York the vast majority of TNC trips are downstream of the branch points, in London as of 2013, 74% of taxi trips were within Inner London; if New York’s subsequent evolution is any indication, TNC traffic is somewhat less dominated by the center, but has only differed from street-hailed cab traffic patterns in degree rather than kind.
This calculation does not mean that transit is better than TNCs on out-of-vehicle times. It is not. Walk times to stations are considerable. Trips that require transfers have extra wait time. In New York, there appear to be about 1.6 unlinked trips per linked trip, but most likely multiple-seat rides have shorter waits on average, because they include local-express transfers, which passengers make preferentially if the waits are short. In London, judging by the origin-destination matrix, 61% of trips do not require any interchange, and another 34% require just one. So even with transfers, frequent subways are still a little bit ahead, but then the walk time to the station makes a big difference in favor of TNCs.
But here’s the thing: tech workers who talk about the greatness of on-demand transportation do not talk about station access time. Evidently, Hyperloop One, which has to use stations, talks about on-demand service. The company did try to think about how to branch in the cities in order to reduce station access time, but reduce does not mean eliminate. Moreover, the same kind of branching is already available to trains and even more so to intercity buses, and yet they rarely make use of it: intercity buses do not make milk runs within cities, leading to awkward situations in which a person in Upper Manhattan traveling to Boston has to take the subway to Midtown and then get on a bus that slogs through Manhattan streets going toward Upper Manhattan on its way to the freeways to Boston.
So what’s going on here? There’s a legitimate advantage to cars over transit in that they don’t require you to travel to a subway station or transfer, but that’s not the argument that opponents of transit who talk about TNCs and app-hailed services and on-demand travel make. They talk about wait times, never mind that well-run urban transit offers shorter wait times than app-hailed TNCs.
My suspicion is that this involves business culture. Urban transit is extremely Fordist: it has interchangeable vehicles and workers, relentlessly regular schedules, and central allocation of resources based on network effects. The tech industry has corners that work like this as well, like Amazon’s monitoring its warehouse workers’ bathroom breaks, but for the most part the industry comes from a post-Fordist world. The idea that there should be people writing down precise schedules for service is alien, as is any coordinated planning; order should be emergent, and if it doesn’t work at the scale of a startup, then it’s not worth pursuing.
There have been positive examples of using better software technology to improve public transportation. The Internet itself has been amazing at improving access to information; the single most important technology for transit reform in lagging regions like North America is Google search, followed by Wikipedia, and even in places with healthy transit these tools are valuable. Within schedule planning, new software tools make it easier to track delays. Tech is a tool, and as such it has been very useful for transit, as for many other industries.
However, all of this occurs within the usual culture of transportation planning. In contrast with this culture, most companies that produce software use a culture of startups, which have to work at a small scale to get anywhere. Where network effects are required, as with social media, it’s necessary to find a small, high-prestige network of early adopters, e.g. Harvard students for Facebook. Anything that requires more initial capital than a VC is willing to risk on a single firm is out; thus Hyperloop One views itself as a consultancy developing a technology rather than as a railroad actually building its own Hyperloop infrastructure.
A corollary of this is that people within the tech industry dismiss schedules out of hand. Thus they insist that transportation be on-demand, even when in practice the wait is longer than on a competing mode of travel that is scheduled. The idea of on-demand travel is reassuring, and because Swiss scheduling precision is alien to the American tech entrepreneur, it’s not a big deal if on-demand means a promised 5-minute wait and an actual 10-minute wait.
But what reassures the tech entrepreneur does not reassure the average rider. By overwhelming numbers, people who have a choice between even mediocre public transportation and TNCs slog through 9-minute bus and train frequencies; people who have access to good public transportation keep taking it where available. In New York, where transit isn’t even that great by the standard of large European cities, there is an ongoing panic about a 2% decline in annual subway ridership, which Schaller wrongly attributes to TNCs rather than to internal decline in subway service quality. Ultimately, the experience of waiting a few minutes for a train is annoying and passengers try to avoid it, but over time they don’t find it any more annoying than the experience of waiting for the app-hailed car driver to show up. Rhetoric about on-demand service aside, passengers do notice how long they’re actually waiting.
American progressive media is talking about the possibility of a Green New Deal, which involves spending money in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. So far details are scant, and most likely no real plan is likely to emerge for a number of years, since the proposal is pushed by the Democratic base, which is no more supportive of cooperation with President Trump than I am. Because the plan is so early, people are opining about what should go in it. My purpose in this post is to explain what I think the main priorities should be, and to leave to others the politics of how to package them.
The primacy of transportation
The main sources of greenhouse gas emissions are transportation, electricity generation, and industry. In the US this is in descending order, transportation having just overtaken power generation; the reduction in coal burning and the collapse in solar power production costs are such that in the long term, electricity generation should be viewed as a solved problem in the long term. Lingering issues with storage and base load are real, but the speed of progress is such that ordinary taxes on carbon should be enough to fix whatever is left of the problem.
Transportation is the exact opposite. American transportation emissions fell in the 2007-8 oil price spike and ensuing economic crisis but are now increasing again. Newer cars have higher fuel efficiency, but Americans are buying bigger cars and driving more. Electric cars, the favored solution of people who think spending $50,000 on a new car is reasonable, are still a niche luxury market and have trouble scaling up. Scratch an American futurist who looks exclusively at electric cars and denigrates mass transit and you’ll wound a solipsist who looks for excuses to avoid the humiliation of having to support something where other countries lead and the US lags.
The upshot is that the primary (but not the only) focus of any green push has to be expansion of public transportation. This includes ancillary policies for urban redevelopment and livable streets, which have the dual effects of buttressing public transit and reducing residential emissions through higher-density living. Overall, this turns any such program into a large public works project.
Spend money right
It’s paramount to make sure to avoid wasting money. A large infrastructure program would run into an appreciable fraction of federal spending; money is always a constraint, even when the goal is to spend funds on economic stimulus. The first lesson here is to keep construction costs under control. But an equally fundamental lesson is to make sure to spend money on transit expansion and not other things:
Don’t spend money on roads
A large majority of American public spending on transportation is on roads. Adding in subsidies for cars makes the proportion go even higher. It reflects current travel patterns, but if the goal is to reduce the environmental footprint of driving, the government can’t keep pumping money into road infrastructure. Accept that in developed countries the generally useful roads have already been built, and future construction just induces people to suburbanize further and drive longer distances.
Congress spends transportation money in multi-year chunks. The most recent bill passed in 2015 for five years, totaling $300 billion, of which $50 billion went to public transit and $200 billion went to highways. Raiding the road fund should be the primary source of additional transit funding: most of the line workers and engineers can build either, and even the physical act of building a freeway is not too different from that of building a high-speed railway. In contrast, outside of a deep recession, increasing total spending on transportation infrastructure requires hiring more workers, leading to large increases in costs as the program runs up against the limit of the available construction labor in the country.
$60 billion a year on public transit is a decent chunk of money for a long-term program, especially with expected state matches. Over the next decade it would be $600 billion, and around a trillion with state and local matches, if they are forthcoming (which they may not be because of how political incentives are lined up). That is, it’d a decent chunk of money if the federal government understands the following rule:
Fund expansion, not maintenance or operations
The sole legitimate source of regular budgeting for public transit is regular spending at the relevant level of government, which is state or local in the United States. Outside infusions of money like federal spending are bad government, because they incentivize deferring maintenance when the federal government is stingy and then crying poverty when it is generous. Amtrak did just that in the 2000s: faced with pressure from the Bush administration to look profitable for future privatization, Amtrak fired David Gunn, who wouldn’t defer maintenance, and replaced him with the more pliable Joe Boardman; then in the economic crisis and the stimulus, it discovered a multi-billion dollar backlog of deferred maintenance, permitting it to ask for money without having to show any visible results.
If the federal government credibly commits to not funding state of good repair backlogs or normal replacement, and to penalizing agencies that defer maintenance and giving them less money for expansion, it can encourage better behavior. Unlike ongoing maintenance, capital expansion is not necessary for continued operations, and thus if funding dries up and a transit agency stops expanding, there will not be problems with service cancellation, slow zones, frequency-ridership spirals, and other issues familiar to New Yorkers in the 1970s or Washingtonians today.
One potential way to change things is to federally fund expansion without expecting much if any local match, provided the agency commits to spending the required operating funds on running the service in question. This separation of federal and local responsibility also reduces the political incentives to grandstand by rejecting federal money in order to make the president look bad.
Build the rail lines that are appropriate
Each region in the US should be getting transit expansion money in rough proportion to its population. However, the meaning of transit depends on the local and regional geography:
- In big cities it means rapid transit expansion: new lines for the New York City Subway, the Chicago L, etc. In somewhat smaller cities with light rail-based systems it means light rail expansion, which may also involve upgrading at-grade light rail to full rapid transit: Dallas is considering a downtown tunnel for its light rail network and Los Angeles is already building one, and those could lead to upgrading capacity elsewhere on the system to permit longer trains.
- In suburbs and some smaller cities with large mainline rail networks, it means commuter rail. It’s especially valuable in the Northeast and secondarily in the Midwest and the odd older Southern city: cities like Milwaukee and Cincinnati don’t really have compelling corridors for greenfield urban rail, but do have interesting S-Bahn corridors.
- In periurban and rural areas, it means longer-range regional rail, transitioning to intercity rail in lower-density areas. In some smaller metro areas, it means actual intercity rail to bigger cities. Examples include Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, both of which can be connected with Denver, and Hans-Joachim Zierke’s proposed regional rail line for Medford, Oregon.
I focus on rail and not buses for two simple reasons: rail has higher capital and lower operating costs, so it’s more relevant for a capital program, and rail gets higher ridership for reasons including better right-of-way quality and better ride quality.
Transmit knowledge of best practices
The federal government has the ability to assimilate best practices for both limiting construction costs and designing good transit networks. Local governments can learn the same, but for the most part they don’t care. Instead they run their transit systems in manage-the-decline mode, only occasionally hearing about something done in London, hardly the best-run European transit city.
The best practices for network design are especially important given the magnitude of the program. The US is not spending $60 billion nationwide a year on transit expansion. The NTD says annual spending on capital among the top 50 American transit agencies was $14.6 billion as of 2016 (source, PDF-p. 11), and a lot of that (e.g. most of the MTA’s $3.5 billion capital expenditure) is the black holes that are state of good repair and normal replacement. $60 billion a year apportioned by population is on the order of $2 billion for New York City annually, which is $20 billion over 10 years, and the city doesn’t necessarily know how to spend that money even at today’s construction costs, let alone rational construction costs.
At least New York has an internal bank of enthusiasts at the MTA and at shadow agencies like the RPA who have ideas for how to spend this money. Smaller cities for the most part don’t. Does Cleveland have any idea what it would do with $5 billion over ten years for regionwide transit expansion? Does Tampa? The federal government has to play an educational role in giving regions sample zoning codes for TOD, network design guidelines, and procurement guidelines that help reduce costs.
Start planning now
A large infrastructure bill planned for 2021 has to be planned now. Its proponents do not intend for it to be a regular jobs program based on existing local wishlists: they intend for it to represent a shift in national priorities, which means that each item of spending has to be planned in advance, mostly from scratch. It means the political work of aligning various interest groups toward the same goal has to start early, which seems to be what the proponents are doing; even the name Green New Deal evokes progressive nostalgia for olden days before neoliberalism.
But alongside the political work, there must be good technical work. Regional planning agencies have to be aware this may be coming and have to have solid ideas for how they’d like to spend a few billion dollars over the decade. Simultaneously, organs including federal offices like the GAO, transit agencies, shadow agencies, and thinktanks have to learn and transmit a culture of good operating and capital practices. A government that plays a bigger role in the economy or in society has to become more competent; managerial competence is required for any program that allocates money with any precision, and very good cost control is a must to make sure the available budget goes to a green transition and isn’t wasted on red tape.
To the transportation user, holidays are nothing but pain. Synchronized travel leads to traffic jams and very high rail and air fares, and synchronized shopping by car leads to parking pain. American commercial parking minimums are designed around the few busiest days of the year (source, endnote #8), timed for the Christmas rush. In France, synchronized travel at the beginning and end of school holidays is so bad that each region begins and ends its winter and spring breaks on different dates. There’s so much travel pain, and associated waste in designing transportation around it, that it’s worth asking why even bother.
The travel pain is even worse than mere congestion. When I visited London in early July, Eurostar broke in both directions. This was not a pair of random delays. French holiday travel is synchronized even though there are two months of summer break and only about one month of paid vacation net of the other holidays: traditionally people from all over the country and the world visit Paris in July, and then Parisians visit other places in August.
With slow boarding at the stations courtesy of security theater and manual ticket checks with just two access points per train, it takes longer than usual to board the trains when they are full. With full trains throughout the day, the delays cascaded, so by afternoon the trains were hours off schedule. Eurostar let passengers on trains on practically a first-come, first-served basis: people with tickets on a train got to ride the next available train. I had a ticket on an 11:39 train, and got to ride the train that was nominally the 11:13 (there were a few available seats) but departed at 12:58, and my nominally-11:39 train departed even later.
Eurostar’s inability to deal with crowds that occur annually, at a time when revenue is highest, is pure incompetence. But even if that particular problem is resolved, the more fundamental problem of unnecessary swings in travel volumes remains. On domestic TGVs it’s seen in wild price swings. Today is the 8th. In two weeks, a one-way TGV ticket from Paris to Marseille costs €72-74 on Thursday the 22nd or Friday the 23rd (Friday is the traditional peak weekend travel date and increasingly Thursday joins it) and about €62 on Saturday the 24th. But next month, on the 23rd, I see tickets for about €150, and even the low-comfort OuiGo option, which usually has €10 tickets (from the suburbs, not Paris proper), shoots up to €100; even with these prices, most trains are sold out already.
In some cultures, common holidays serve a religious or otherwise traditional purpose of bringing the extended family together. This is the case for Chinese New Year, which causes overcrowding on the mainline rail network at the beginning and end of the holiday as urban workers visit their families back home, often in faraway interior provinces. The same tradition of extended families occurs on Passover, but Israel has little travel pain, as it is so small that Seder travel is the same as any other afternoon rush hour.
However, there is no religious or social value to synchronized school holidays, nor is there such value to Western holidays. Western Christian civilization has centered nuclear families over extended families for around a millennium. In modern-day American culture, people seem to spend far more time complaining about the racist uncle than saying anything positive about catching up with relatives.
Christmas has religious significance, but much of the way it is celebrated in rich countries today is recent. The emphasis on shopping is not traditional, for one. The travel peak is probably unavoidable, since Christmas and New Year’s are at a perfect distance from each other for a week-long voyage, but everything else is avoidable. A source working for a bookstore in Florida, located strategically on the highway between Disneyland and the coast, told me of two prominent peaks. In the summer there would be a broad peak, consisting mostly of European tourists with their long paid vacations. But then there would be a much sharper peak for the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, in which the store would fill every cashier stall and pressure employees, many of whom temps working seasonally, to work overtime and get customers through as quickly as possible.
Some holidays have political significance, such as various national days, but those do not have to create travel peaks or shopping peaks. Bastille Day doesn’t.
Finally, while it’s accepted in Western countries today that summer is the nicest season to travel, this was not always the case, and even today there are some exceptions. The Riviera’s peak season used to be winter, as the English rich fled England’s dreary winters to the beaches; Promenade des Anglais in Nice is named after 19th century winter vacationers. When I lived in Stockholm, I was more excited to visit the Riviera in the winter, fleeing 3 pm sunsets, than in the summer. Today, Japan has a peak for the cherry blossom in the spring, while in New England (and again in Japan) there is a tradition of leaf peeping in the fall.
Instead of centering synchronized holidays, it’s better for states to spread travel as well as shopping behavior throughout the year as much as possible. Different people have different preferences for seasonality, and this is fine.
For bigger shopping seasons, the best thing to do is to emphasize birthdays. Instead of trying to fix major holidays, the way Lincoln did for Thanksgiving, it’s better to encourage people to make their biggest trips and biggest shopping around birthdays, anniversaries, saint days in Catholic countries, and idiosyncratic or subculturally significant days (such as conventions for various kinds of geeks). There are already well-placed traditions of birthday and anniversary gifts. In academia it’s also normal to extend conference trips into longer vacations, when they don’t conflict with teaching schedules.
The impact on labor is reduced seasonality, and far less peak stress. With less seasonal employment, the natural rate of unemployment may also end up slightly lower. The impact on transportation is a large reduction in travel peaks, which would make it easier to run consistent scheduled service year-round, and to maintain car travel and parking capacity at its average day level rather than building parking lots that go unused 364 days out of every year.