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 is a partial data dump from an in-progress database I’m compiling for subway construction costs around the world. The key point is that costs are rising: in cities with enough historical data points we can see a secular increase in construction costs. The difference between expensive cities like New York and London is that their costs have been high for a while, whereas cheap ones like Madrid and Seoul are seeing construction cost growth from a very low basis.
As a note of caution, while growth in costs seems universal, the rate of growth is not the same everywhere. Some cities, most notably Singapore and Toronto, have seen a cost explosion in the last 15-20 years; others, most notably Seoul, have seen only a moderate increase in costs.
I also urge readers to look at some 20th century historical costs here, as in this post I am going to focus on the very end of the 20th century and the 21st century.
Paris: the original Metro Line 14 cost €1.174 billion for 9.2 km (link), built between the 1990s and 2007; deflated to 2012 euros, the baseline year used for ongoing extensions, this is around €160 million per km. More recent projects in Paris cost around the same, including the Line 1 extension and Grand Paris Express – but those are mostly suburban extensions, whereas M14 had to go underneath central Paris.
Toronto: Jonathan English, who has been working with me on Canadian construction costs issues, notes that the Sheppard subway, opened in 2002, cost C$1 billion for 5.5 km, but ongoing projects are far more expensive. The one-stop 6.2 km Scarborough subway is projected to cost around C$3.5 billion not including extra items for interfacing with the existing rapid transit line along the same alignment, which is to be dismantled. Not only is the nominal cost 3 times higher – and the real cost is still around twice as high – but also the Scarborough subway has just one station to be constructed, which makes it a simpler project.
Montreal: Jonathan equally looks at the cost explosion in Montreal. The Laval extension was built in the 2000s and opened in 2007, costing C$742 million for 5.2 km and 3 stations, or C$143 million per km, crossing under the Rivière des Prairies. In contrast, an extension of the Blue Line planned for next decade is to cost C$3.9 billion for 5.8 km and 5 stations, or C$672 million per km – and even adjusting for inflation only reduces the cost differential to a factor of about 3.
(In case Canadian readers wonder why I’m not covering Vancouver, even though the escalations on the Broadway subway have pushed its per-km cost well beyond that of the Canada Line, the reason is that the Canada Line was built cut-and-cover whereas the Broadway subway will be bored.)
Singapore: Singapore’s cost overrun history in the 21st century has been unusually severe. Built mainly in the 2000s, the original Circle Line cost S$10 billion for 33.3 km, or S$300m/km, an overrun of 50% over the original budget. Subsequently, the Downtown MRT Line, built from 2008 to 2017, cost S$21 billion for 42 km, and the Thomson Line S$24 billion for 43 km. The Thomson Line has a complex interchange at Orchard, but also long segments in easy suburban areas – Upper Thomson Road, after which it is named, is very wide and borders modernist housing projects on one side and a forest on the other. Moreover, the last stage of the Circle Line, completing the circle, is to cost S$4.85 billion for 4 km and 3 stations – depending on PPP rates, it may be the first line outside New York to cross the US$1 billion/km line.
Seoul: South Korean costs are fairly stable. JRTR has data for the Seoul Metro going back to its start in the 1970s. After adjusting for inflation, costs were initially about $70 million per km, and rose gently to $80-90 million. The cost increases are continuing, albeit at a slow pace. As best as I can tell, the 2020s’ expansion program is budgeted at about $110 million per km in PPP terms.
Madrid: in the 1995-2003 period the city built tunnels for very low costs. The 1995-8 program cost $55 million per km, all underground, and the 1999-2003 program cost €3.147 billion for 74.7 km, 77% underground, around $52 million per km based on the era’s PPP conversion rate. In the conditions of 2010 this would be roughly $65-70 million per km – but the Line 2 extension, built 2008-11, cost €315 million for 4.6 km and 4 stations, and the Line 9 extension, built 2009-15, cost €191 million for 3 km and 2 stations, about $80-90 million per km.
Update: since people have asked for high-speed rail data, it confirms the same story. Ferropedia has costs in Spain, which have risen from €4.88 million per kilometer in 2001 terms for Madrid-Seville, which opened in 1992, to about €15-20 million per kilometer in 2006-7 terms for subsequent lines from the 2000s and 2010s. France displays the same history of escalation: built in the early 1980s, the LGV Sud-Est cost €5.5 million per km, much less than the late 1980s and early 1990s’ LGVs Nord and Atlantique (which cost €10 million), let alone this decade’s LGV Est (which cost €16 million for Phase 1 and €19 million for Phase 2); all of these lines are through comparable terrain, with very little to no tunneling.
A month ago I made maps proposing some subway and regional rail extensions in New York and noting what they would cost if New York could build as cheaply as the Scandinavian capitals. Here is the same concept, but with London rather than New York. Here is everything in a single large map:
A full-size (74 MB) map can be viewed here.
Solid lines are existing or under construction, that is Crossrail and the Battersea extension; proposed lines are dashed. Commuter rail lines, that is Thameslink, the soon-to-open Crossrail, and four additional Crossrail tunnels labeled 2 through 5, are always depicted as having separate stations from the other modes, to avoid confusion where one Crossrail station has connections to two adjacent Tube stations (such as Farringdon-Barbican and Moorgate-Liverpool Street). It has many additional interchanges between lines and branches, including some that were left out on purpose, like a Crossrail 1 connection to Oxford Circus, omitted from the under-construction line to discourage riders from using the oversubscribed Victoria line; with four more cross-city lines, the capacity problems would be lessened substantially.
The overall picture is sparser than my New York map. The total projected cost of all of these projects, including some allocated for redoing stations on commuter branches to be given to Tube lines, is £6.8 billion, compared with $37 billion for the New York maps. The reason is that unlike New York, London already has excellent coverage thanks to extensive branching – what it needs is core capacity, which consists of city center tunnels that have high cost per kilometer but need not be long.
There is considerable overbuilding planned in London. Crossrail 2 as depicted on my map is a 6.5 km tunnel between the approach to Victoria Station and the approach to Kings Cross. But as planned, Crossrail 2 extends to a long tunnel parallel to the South West Main Line, a four-track line in a right-of-way that could if truly necessary accommodate six, as well as a long tunnel going north to take over the Lea Valley Lines, which on my map go into Crossrail 5. With gratuitous suburban tunnels and extremely high British construction costs, the budget for Crossrail 2 is around £30 billion, about 20 times what Scandinavia might spend on such a project. Even allowing for the possibility that crossing under three lines at once at Bank is more complex than crossing under two at T-Centralen, this is a difference of a full order of magnitude, counting both total required tunnel length and cost per km.
In addition, there is network simplification. On the Tube this consists of segregating the Northern line’s Bank and Charing Cross branches (already in planning pending the Battersea extension and reconstruction of Camden Town) and through breaking the Circle line into separate Metropolitan and District lines. The latter was estimated by a British blogger to cost £5 billion, based on a rubric in which the Met/District transfer at Aldgate (or Tower Hill) should by itself cost £1 billion; Crossrail and Second Avenue Subway stations cost around half that much, and the more complex T-Centralen and Odenplan stations on Citybanan cost less.
On mainline rail, the service plan is supposed to be deinterlined, as is Transport for London’s long-term goal. The slow tracks of the various mainlines feeding into Central London turn into Crossrail branches, or occasionally Underground extensions, such as Hayes and the Hounslow Loop. The fast tracks stay on the surface to avoid interfering with high-frequency regional metro service. For historic reasons Thameslink mostly stays as-is, with a combination of fast and stopping services, but the curve toward London Bridge should not be used – instead, passengers should have access to Crossrail 3 plus interchanges to the City at London Bridge and a new infill station at Southwark.
London owes it to itself to understand why its construction costs are so high that instead of solving its transport capacity problems with multiple cross-city tunnels in a decade, it’s taking multiple generations to build out such a system. There’s a lot of ongoing discussion about the last-minute delays and cost overruns on Crossrail, but the absolute costs even before the overrun were very high, the highest in the world outside New York City – and Crossrail 2 is set to break that record by a margin.
I wrote a post last year proposing some more subway lines for New York, provided the region could bring down construction costs. The year before, I talked about regional rail. Here are touched-up maps, with costs based on Nordic levels. To avoid cluttering the map in Manhattan, I’m showing subway and regional rail lines separately.
Subways are set at $110 million per km underground, outside the Manhattan core; in more difficult areas, including underwater they go up to $200-300 million per km, in line with Stockholm Citybanan. Lacking data for els, I set them at $50 million per km, in line with normal subway : el cost ratios. The within-right-of-way parts of Triboro are still set at $20 million per km (errata 5/30: 32 out of 35 km are in a right-of-way and 3 are in a new subway, despite what the map text says, but the costs are still correct).
Overall, the subway map costs $22 billion, and the regional rail one $15 billion, about half as high as the figure I usually quote when asked, which is based on global averages. This excludes the $2 billion for separated intercity rail tracks, which benefit from having no stations save Penn (by the same token, putting the express rather than local lines in the tunnel is a potential cost saving for Crossrail 2). It also excludes small surface projects, such as double-tracking the Northern Branch and West Shore Line, a total of 25 and 30 km respectively, which should be $300-550 million in total, and some junction fixes. There may also be additional infill stations on commuter rail, e.g. at intersection points with new subway extensions; I do not have Nordic costs for them, but in Madrid they cost €9 million each.
The low cost led me to include some lines I would not include elsewhere, and decide marginal cases in favor of subways rather than els. There is probably no need for the tunnel connecting the local tracks of Eighth Avenue and Fulton Street Lines, but at just $1.2 billion, it may be worth it. The line on Northern Boulevard and the Erie Main Line should probably be elevated or in a private right of way the entire way between the Palisades and Paterson, but at an incremental cost of $60 million per km, putting the Secaucus and East Rutherford segments underground can be justified.
In fact, the low cost may justify even further lines into lower-density areas. One or two additional regional rail tunnels may be cost-effective at $300 million per kilometer, separating out branches like Port Washington and Raritan Valley and heading to the airports via new connections. A subway line taking over lanes from the Long Island Expressway may be useful, as might another north-south Manhattan trunk feeding University Avenue (or possibly Third Avenue) in the Bronx and separating out two of the Brighton Line tracks. Even at average costs these lines are absurd unless cars are banned or zoning is abolished, but at low costs they become more interesting.
The Nordic capitals all have extensive urban rail networks for their sizes. So does Madrid: Madrid and Berlin are similar in size and density, but Berlin has 151 km of U-Bahn whereas Madrid has 293 km of metro, and Madrid opened a second Cercanías tunnel in 2008 for around $100 million per km and is planning a third tunnel for next decade (source, PDF-pp. 104-108). Things that are completely ridiculous at American costs – say, any future subway expansion – become more reasonable at average costs; things that are completely ridiculous at average costs likewise become more reasonable at Nordic or Spanish costs.
I write a lot about stereotypes in the context of construction costs. Countries with a reputation for corruption, such as Spain, South Korea, Greece, and Italy, often build subways very cheaply. Germany, for all its stereotype of efficiency, has high costs and some dysfunctional decisionmaking in what to build. Singapore, the self-styled most efficient government, pays its transport minister more than a million dollars per year to make excuses for why it has such high construction costs.
In the Nordic countries, the stereotype is correct: those countries have transparent, clean governments, and also build infrastructure cheaply.
All four mainland Nordic capitals have recent or ongoing metro expansion projects:
Stockholm just opened Citybanan, a regional rail connection including 6 km of tunnel with two deep stations in Central Stockholm and a 1.4 km bridge. The total cost was 16.8 billion SEK in 2007 terms, which in today’s PPP terms is about $330 million per km. It’s expensive for a suburban subway but not for regional rail.
Copenhagen is currently wrapping up construction on the fully underground, driverless City Circle Line. It is a circular but not circumferential line through city center. With repeated schedule slips, the budget is now 24.8 billion DKK, or $3.4 billion in PPP terms, which is $220 million per km.
Stockholm is expanding its metro in three directions. The fully underground extensions are together 19 km and 22.4 billion SEK, which in PPP terms is $130 million per km.
Helsinki has just opened an expansion of its metro westward to Espoo. This is a 13.5 km, 8-station fully underground line with a water crossing. After cost overruns, the current cost estimate is €1,186 million, which is in PPP terms $115 million per km.
Oslo recently opened a short connection, called Lørenbanen. It’s 1.6 km long and includes a single new station, for a total of NOK 1.33 billion, including 150 million for modernization of an existing connecting line. In PPP terms this is just $90 million per km in today’s money.
Other rail infrastructure
Sweden is investing heavily in mainline rail modernization. This includes a planned high-speed rail network connecting the country’s three biggest cities, which are spaced far apart and not on a line, requiring the total system to be 740 km long. The cost projection as of 2015 is 125 billion SEK, which in PPP terms is $14 million per km; I do not know if it is in 2015 prices or expected year of construction prices. This cost figure is comparable to that of Madrid-Barcelona and about half the at-grade norm for Europe.
Sweden is simultaneously investing in its mainline network, rather than neglecting it in favor of just HSR the way France is. A document from 2009 lists some of these on p. 38 based on the national plan of 2010-21, which did not include HSR. Of note, two full double-track projects are coming it at about $10 million per km or slightly more. In contrast, in Berlin, suburban S-Bahn double-tracking is around twice as expensive per the list on PDF-pp. 73-77 of the official wishlist.
In Denmark, a recent double-tracking project cost 675 million DKK for 20 km, or $4.6 million per km, even cheaper than in Sweden. The project includes not just double track but also an upgrade to 160 km/h.
Denmark is also investing heavily in electrification – see here for a list of projects, without costs. Costs for some of these projects are provided by Railway Gazette. The Fredericia-Aalborg line is 249 km and 4.7 billion DKK, the Roskilde-Kalundborg line is 56 km and 1.2 billion DKK, and the Esbjerg-Lunderskov line is 57 km and 1.19 billion DKK; all three lines are double-track. The longer line is $2.6 million per km, the shorter two are $2.9 million. This is much cheaper than in the core Anglosphere but more expensive than projects for which I have data in France, Israel, and New Zealand.
It’s cheap, but do people ride it?
Absolutely. Low construction costs can occur for projects that nobody has any reason to build, they’re so low-ridership, while some high-cost projects remain cost-effective if they have extremely high ridership, like Second Avenue Subway Phase 1.
In the case of the Nordic capitals, the recent extensions are well-patronized. The ridership prognosis for the City Circle Line is 289,000 per weekday, which means its cost is $11,800 per rider. The link above for the Stockholm T-bana extension projects 170,000 riders per day, which I believe means weekday rather than literal day; in that case, the projected cost per rider is $14,500. Løren’s ridership is 8,000 per day, which one former resident says is just boardings without alightings, which means total ridership is actually 16,000, making the cost of the line just shy of $9,000 per rider. And Helsinki’s West Metro is projected to get 100,000 daily riders, which means its cost is about $15,500 per rider.
Moreover, Stockholm’s overall use of public transportation is very healthy. The first 6 pages of this PDF comprise a report on modal split in Stockholm, out of all trips, not just work trips. In 2015, 32% of all trips in Stockholm County were by public transport, 38% were by car, 9% were by bike, and 16% were on foot. There had been a notable shift from cars to the other modes since 2004.
Converting this statistic to work trip mode share, the most stable metric and the one reported for the US, Canada, UK, and France, requires some additional work. However, where both statistics are available, they do provide some insight: in Hamburg in 2008, the overall car mode shares for all trips and for just work trips were similar (48% for work trips vs. 42% for all trips in the city, 65% vs. 63% in the suburbs); work trips alone exhibit much higher transit mode share (33% vs. 18% in the city, 16% vs. 8% in the suburbs), at the expense of non-motorized trips, which are disproportionately for short errands. It is very likely that the work trip public transport mode share in Stockholm County is comparable to Ile-de-France’s 43%, in a metro area one fifth the size.
Transit ridership in the other Nordic capitals is weaker, though still impressive for their size. Copenhagen lags in transit but has a strong bike network. Oslo had 118 million metro riders in 2017 (source, PDF-p. 31 – per same link you can also see the operating costs per car-km work out to just short of PPP$4, compared with a typical first-world range of $4-7), plus some additional commuter rail ridership (65 million nationwide, not just around Oslo). Helsinki had 63 million annual metro passengers in 2015, before the extension opened, and somewhat fewer additional commuter rail passengers, for a total ridership of perhaps 120 million. Both of the smaller cities have about the same metro area rail ridership per capita as New York, which is about fifteen times their size.
What does this mean?
Scandinavia has a reputation for efficient government at home as well as abroad. Right-wing pundits are far more likely to look for aspects of its governance that play to their desire for privatization, such as Sweden’s school voucher system or the contracting out of urban rail, than to assert that Scandinavia is a socialist failure. Unlike autocracies that have cultivated such reputation, the Nordic countries fully deserve this praise when it comes to building infrastructure cost-effectively. Sweden appears to consistently build rail for half the per-unit cost of Germany.
And yet, I don’t see that much praise for Nordic infrastructure. There are people in the English-speaking world making grandiose claims about how democratic countries need to be more like China and about how authoritarianism is just more efficient. I don’t know of any making that claim about how Nordic social democracy is more efficient, with its depoliticized state apparatus, multiparty elections, high levels of transparency, bureaucratic legalism, and near-universal collective bargaining.
Across all levels of public transportation investment, from high-speed rail down to routine track upgrades, we see inexpensive, efficient projects in the Nordic countries. They achieve high levels of rail usage without megacities in which only masochists drive, and keep expanding their networks in order to complete the green transition. Public transit managers in not just the laggard that is the US but also Germany and other relatively solid countries should make sure to study how things work in Scandinavia and how they can import Nordic success.
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.
It is much harder to find estimates of construction costs for elevator access to metro stations than to find estimates for the costs of new tunnels. Accessibility isn’t as flashy, so it does not get reported in the international trade press. If you’re a humble blogger who has no idea what the Japanese phrases for “elevator,” “wheelchair accessibility,” and “construction costs” are, you have no way of figuring out how much it cost Tokyo to get its legacy subway network to be about 80-90% accessible. Thankfully, there are enough European cities where I do know those phrases that I do have a list. It comprises just eight cities, two in the US and six in Europe, and in at least one case (Milan) I don’t fully trust the numbers.
New York:the current capital plan spends $740 million on 19 stations, and a single elevator is $10 million if I understand Curbed correctly. The headline figure is $39 million per station.
Boston: MBTA head of systemwide accessibility, Laura Brelsford, told me that Symphony is a $25 million, 4 elevator project, and that Copley and Arlington were in the $30-40 million range each. I can’t find a link, unfortunately.
London: here is a source saying a £76 million fund would make 12 stations step-free, but I don’t know which stations. This source states a higher figure, £200 million for 13 stations, which in PPP terms is about $22 million per station. The lower figure is only $9 million per station.
Paris: nothing is accessible except M14 and the RER and there are no plans to make anything accessible, but a disability rights organization estimates the cost of making all 303 Metro stations accessible at €4-6 billion. Subtracting M14-only stations this is also about $22 million per station at the midpoint.
Madrid: a 2016-20 plan breaks down costs per station. They’re about €5 million per station per line it serves (so a 3-line transfer is €15 million), and a single elevator is €1.5 million. The relevant numbers are on PDF-pp. 12-17. This document used to exist in English too but the URL broke and the Web Archive doesn’t have it. Lumping all remaining stations together, few of which are transfers, gives €531.9 million for 93 stations, or $7.5 million per station.
Berlin: follow the link from my tweetstorm. The U-Bahn is about to complete step-free access by 2020. The cost is €800,000 per elevator, €2 million per station, or $2.6 million per station.
Barcelona: I have three separate sets of numbers, and am placing the city on this list with the lower two. Here is a source describing the installation of elevators at 14 stations for €26.8 million. Here is a source describing a single station on a different line to be made accessible for €2.1 million. In contrast, a document describing the plan for universal accessibility states the cost up to 2009 at €390.97 million euros (PDF-p. 87) for 73 stations (PDF-p. 83). The first two sources average to $2.5 million per station, but the third one, covering more stations, including complex transfer points, averages $7 million per station in what I imagine are in 2009 prices.
Milan: this article seems to be saying that elevator installation at 21 stations is budgeted at €24.5 million, all on Lines 1 and 2, which are shallow cut-and-cover lines built under narrow medieval streets. I’m not sure whether all of these are elevators, though – the Milan Metro site says that it has elevators at some stations and stairlifts at others. This totals $1.5 million per station.
The low construction cost of elevator accessibility in Berlin is notable since the city’s tunneling costs are not so low. I am still trying to talk to local transit officials about this, but my surface understanding is that fewer elevators are needed per station. The city uses island platforms rather than side platforms and has shallow subsurface stations with access from raised street medians, so a single elevator covers the entire station.
That said, Paris and New York both have extensive cut-and-cover construction under very wide streets, much like Berlin. A multiple of 2 over Berlin costs is to be expected as they have side platforms, and thus all station infrastructure needs to be doubled. However, Paris’s costs are (apparently) higher than Berlin’s by a factor of 9 and New York’s by a factor of 15. Paris is not a high-cost city when it comes to tunneling, and it’s possible that the activists just estimated it based on London costs, or that the government made up a high number in order to sandbag the calls for step-free accessibility.
I’ve spoken my piece about why American infrastructure construction is so expensive. This is very much a work-in-progress, but it represents about the extent of my current knowledge on the subject. I want to follow up on this by talking about stereotypes and how they affect what people believe is possible when it comes to construction costs. I wrote about this to some extent here, 4.5 years ago, noting that my impression is that people on the Internet are far more willing to believe that there is efficient construction in Northern Europe than in Southern Europe even though the latter actually has lower construction costs.
Here I want to delve somewhat deeper into what stereotypes I’ve seen and how they lead people astray when it comes to infrastructure. It’s a lot more than just Southern and Northern Europe. Each of the following sections describes an aspect of infrastructure planning that doesn’t conform to American stereotypes.
The US has weak property rights
Americans are taught from a young age that America is about freedom. They’re taught about the American struggle against British tyranny, about the life-liberty-property triad, and about all manners of national origin stories that get extended to a ridiculous extent. The result is that Americans and even some immigrants who made it big in America and absorbed American ideas readily believe that they are the freest nation in the world in all ways. Faced with the reality that (for example) Germany has far stronger privacy protections, the reaction is either indifference (among most people in the US) or an attempt to castigate privacy as actually a weird imposition (among some tech boosters).
The same issue occurs with property rights. Objectively speaking, American law does not have strong protections for property rights. Japan has stronger individual protections in property rights. In addition to strong legal protections, there are strong extralegal protections in countries that have some tolerance of street protests; France is famously such a country, at least if the protesters are white, but Japan had airport riots delaying the construction of Narita and earlier riots blocking the expansion of an American military base.
In contrast to these cases, in the US, when the state wants your property, it will get it. Lawsuits can cause delays but not stop a project the state is committed to. Moreover, the state is allowed to time the market. The only thing the government is not allowed to do is excess takings – that is, taking more property than needed to build infrastructure in order to sell it at a profit later. If your property has low value due to past government activity, the government does not need to pay you extra. As mentioned in The Big Roads, the United States built the Interstates through redlined black inner-city neighborhoods because land there was cheaper; after the race riots of the 1960s Washington-area road builders even wanted to build a new round of roads since land would be especially cheap, and they were stopped only by political opposition to such optics rather than by any legal or extralegal challenge.
NIMBYism in the US in the context of infrastructure has to be understood as not a reaction to a state that is too weak but to one that is too strong. The denizens of rich suburbs like the sundown town Darien, Connecticut rely on the state to prop up their property values through exclusion, and any change that threatens such exclusion may cause losses that they have no way to recover. Lacking any way to legally prevent the state from slicing through the town to build faster roads and trains, they have to use political influence to prevent infrastructure from being built.
The US does not have safe railway operations
I made a post eight years ago scrubbing lists of rail accidents from Wikipedia and comparing the US, the EU, Japan, China, and India. I don’t believe the numbers are true for India or China as not everything may be reported in English sources, although I do believe they’re true for Chinese high-speed rail; but for Japan, the EU, and the US, the numbers are solid. American trains are several times less safe for passengers than European ones, and more than a full order of magnitude less safe than Japanese ones.
The US in theory has a culture of safety-first, but in reality it’s more safety theater than safety. Rail signaling is primitive, and automatic train protection (“positive train control,” or PTC) is not required in terminal zones with restricted speed, leading to fatal crashes. The favorite way to deal with danger is to slap an arbitrary speed limit – for example, to permit trains to use a bridge that has just been burned down but at restricted speed, with exactly the result you’d expect.
This is difficult for Americans to believe, especially with respect to Asia. I’ve repeatedly seen people insist that Japan does not prioritize safety, and the idea that China does not seems universal in the developed world. Richard Mlynarik’s report of a Caltrain official who, when told Japan turns trains faster than the official thought was possible, responded “Asians don’t value life the way we do,” seems par for the course when it comes to Western attitudes. Westerners are certain that Asians are not fully human but are part machine, with no individuality, perhaps thinking that since Westerners can’t tell East Asians apart East Asians can’t tell one another apart either.
China is not particularly efficient
The epitome of the American stereotype of dangerous tyrannical efficiency today is China. Ray Lahood, Obama’s first-term secretary of transportation, even mentioned that in connection with high-speed rail. In reality, Chinese infrastructure construction costs do not seem especially low. Not much information makes it to English-language media, and unlike in French or German I don’t know how to look up construction costs in Chinese, but the lines for which I can find data seem to be in line with the global average. Metro Report has an article mentioning two Shanghai Metro extensions: the all-underground Line 9 extension at $225 million per km, and the 46% underground Line 17 at $123 million per km, with very wide stop spacing.
Moreover, high-speed rail in China is on the expensive side. There are studies asserting that it isn’t, but they do not control for PPP. The Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line cost 218 million yuan, or about $55 billion adjusted for PPP, making it about $42 million per km, a high figure for a line with almost no tunnels (only 1.2% of the line’s length).
The other famously efficient East Asian dictatorship, Singapore, has high infrastructure costs as well, judging by what’s going on with the Thomson MRT Line.
Americans fixate on China because it’s so big and because they consider it a rival. But there is no reason to expect the best results to come from a large country. Most countries are small, so we should expect both the most successful and the least successful ones to be small. The actually cheap places to build infrastructure in, like Spain and South Korea, don’t really pattern-match to any American or European self-perception, so it’s much easier to ignore them than to look at Chinese or German efficiency.
Corruption does not work the same way everywhere
The United States has a fair amount of political corruption, but it’s not exceptional for this in the developed world. There’s widespread American belief that the public sector is incompetent, and Americans who have compared American and generic first-world public projects correctly think this is especially true of the American public sector, but this is not exactly about corruption. My quip on the subject is that Italy has low construction costs – and Italy’s high corruption levels are no mere stereotype, but are mirrored in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Moreover, low costs and high corruption perceptions seem endemic to Southern Europe and South Korea.
I’m not familiar with the precise nature of corruption everywhere. But what I’ve read from Italy and Greece suggests that it’s different from what happens in the United States. In diagnosing Italy’s stagnation over the last generation, Bruno Pellegrino and Luigi Zingales note that Italy has a widespread problem of tax avoidance, leading private companies to mostly hire within extended clans rather than by merit; the reason for the recent stagnation, they posit, is that the computer revolution has made hiring by merit especially important. In Greece the same problem of tax avoidance is endemic – see some links through Wikipedia – and Stathis Kalyvas’s paper about clientelism and political populism notes that Greece does not really have large prestigious private businesses with workers vs. bosses politics the way the US, Japan, South Korea, and the European core do.
In Southern Europe, or at least in Greece and Italy, it looks like corruption is endemic to the private sector. The public sector is affected by clientelism, but perhaps infrastructure construction is so removed from politics that there is no unusual corruption there, and thus engineers can innovate their way into lower costs, as postwar Milan did. If the public sector in Italy is as efficient in Germany, it will have lower costs than Germany simply because market wages in Italy are lower thanks to the private sector’s low productivity. This is not a complete story, since it specifically predicts that Italy should have a growing construction cost gap with Germany as their wages diverge, whereas at least based on the smattering of projects I’ve seen Italy was cheaper even in the 1990s and early 2000s, when wages were similar in both countries. Moreover, Scandinavia has low corruption, high wages, and low construction costs. But this is suggestive of how come countries with wages on the margin of the first world tend to consistently have lower construction costs.
The nature of American corruption is different. The private sector has little of it. Tax avoidance exists in the US, but not to the same extent as in Italy or Greece. Managerial fraud at big business exists, but is nowhere near the levels of Mediterranean small businesses. Instead, the public sector is inefficient, due to different problems – not quite clientelism, which describes party loyalty as a condition of hiring, but hiring based on personal loyalty to the governor or mayor. What’s more, since the problem goes all the way to the top, expecting the same authoritarian state and municipal officials to successfully privatize infrastructure to unleash private-sector productivity is fruitless.
The bureaucratic state can guarantee fairer outcomes than litigation
When writing my post about the causes of high American construction costs, I read different takes on the American tradition of adversarial legalism. A paper by Shep Melnick, which I linked in my post, asserts that adversarial legalism is good for various oppressed minorities, focusing on lawsuits forcing better accessibility for people with disabilities, looking at special education as an example.
And yet, if we look at the usual liberal standard of fair outcomes rather than fair processes, the outcomes in the United States do not seem especially fair. Workplace discrimination levels against nonwhites range widely between countries as well as between different studies in the same country, but the US seems to be roughly within the European median; there is a large set of references in the OECD’s International Migration Outlook of 2013, PDF-pp. 11-12, as well as a smaller list in the OECD’s The Price of Prejudice, p. 16. The latter source also compares international gender gaps, and the US seems fairly average as well. Only in the employment gap between second-generation immigrants and children of natives does the US do especially well, and that’s in the context of an unusually high-skill mix of immigrants, like similar high performers Canada and Switzerland, neither of which has an especially low discrimination level in equal resume studies.
When it comes to Melnick’s question of disability rights, the US is increasingly falling behind thanks to high construction costs. Berlin is about to complete installing elevators at all U-Bahn stations, aided by a process that allows it to make a station accessible for €2 million. Madrid, where this cost is about €5 million per line served by each station, has a large majority of accessible stations already and is looking at full installation next decade. Compare this with the tardiness of New York, where layers of consent decrees and grandfather clauses have created a subway system that is about as old as Berlin’s and only 25% accessible.
Incuriosity affects all American groups
I literally just saw a comment on Reddit that tried to slot the idea that the US should learn from the rest of the world into political liberalism or Democratic partisanship (“blue tribe”). This is not an idiosyncratic connection. In 2006, at Yearly Kos, a performer used the expression “French-loving” as a self-description for American liberals, and the entire audience said “preach on” in agreement; this and similar epithets hurled by conservatives in the same era may have been a unique artifact of France’s opposition to the Iraq War, but years later Republicans would keep complaining that Democrats want the US to imitate European welfare states.
The reality is very different. American indifference to rest-of-world practice is national. So is English Canadian indifference to rest-of-world practice excluding the US and occasionally Britain. If anything, New York is even more solipsistic than the rest of the US. I’ve recurrently seen New Yorkers use the same dismissive language that Americans use for the world outside their country for anything outside the city. In contrast, Bostonians do try to look at how things work in the rest of the US and the same is true of people in Sunbelt cities that build light rail.
The upshot of this is that there is not much to look for in intra-American politics. The institutions of American partisanship are not useful for this. Some good ideas can come from people who happen to identify with a party, but the distance between the legal scholars criticizing adversarial legalism and the practice of tort reform, like that between the recommendations of academic environmentalists and the practice of green jobs programs, is vast.
Moreover, the elite centrist politics that claims to be above partisanship has to be seen as yet another partisan institution, working hard to limit the scope of debate to what the same elites that have failed to provide good government services will find comfortable. The same can be said for populism. There is nothing to look for on the populist left and right, because as movements they are not concerned with governing, and tend to boost voices that are long on rhetoric and short on knowledge. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does not need to be correct for leftists to admire her, for one since the veto points on implementation details are members of Congress well to her right; why should she make an effort to educate herself about fuel taxes or about the white supremacy of the Gilets Jaunes? And the less said about ideological experiments like Walker-era Wisconsin or Brownback-era Kansas, the better.
Ultimately, not everyone has the same stereotypes
I focus on American stereotypes, and to some extent pan-Western ones, because stereotypes differ by culture. Americans self-perceive as risk-taking and entrepreneurial. Israelis perceive Americans as hopelessly square and rulebound, even in comparison with Europeans. Westerners perceive all East Asians as rulebound and machine-like. Chinese and Malay people self-perceive as dog-eat-dog societies, at least in Southeast Asia, to the point that when I learned Mahatir Mohamed’s criticism of human rights in Asia in university, I learned his take as “we Asians don’t naturally cooperate and require an authoritarian government” rather than as the more typically Western belief that Asians are naturally obedient.
The incredulity I’ve encountered when trying to tell Americans how Israelis and Singaporeans perceive things is not just a matter of American solipsism. I’ve seen similar incredulity on this side of the Pond, for example when I told Spanish mathematicians, who are not railfans, that Spain has really low construction costs; they found it hard to believe, due to the widely-shared stereotype of Southern European corruption. By their nature, stereotypes appeal to base instincts, working through unexamined prejudices. Not for nothing, the people most invested in stereotypes, the racists, tend to be the most closed, to the point that openness to experience as a personality trait is almost a proxy for antiracist politics.
Neither widely-shared stereotypes (Japanese order, Southern European corruption, etc.) nor more internationally variable ones are enlightening when it comes to actual differences in infrastructure construction costs. The importance of international variability is that Westerners who are closed to the fact that how Asians perceive themselves is different from how Westerners perceive them are likely to be equally closed to a thousand details of governance, business, and engineering between successful and failed infrastructure programs.
The most importance difference in stereotypes when it comes to infrastructure is how Americans perceive the difference between Europe and the US and how Europeans perceive it. The US is certain it’s at the top of the world, so if there’s an aspect on which it isn’t, like life expectancy or public transit, then this aspect probably doesn’t matter much and the American entrepreneurial spirit will soon fix it anyway. Few people in the core European countries share this attitude. Americans need to choose between a sense of national pride and improving their infrastructure; for all the glory infrastructure can give, the methods with which they need to build it require letting go of their prejudices against the rest of the world.
Yesterday, New York City Council speaker and frontrunner in the 2021 mayoral race Corey Johnson released a document outlining his plan to seek city control of the subway and buses. In addition to the governance questions involved in splitting the state-run MTA between a city-owned urban transit agency and state- or suburb-owned commuter rail, it talks about what Johnson intends to do to improve public transit, befitting a mayor in full control of subway and bus operations. There are a lot of excellent ideas there, but also some not so good ones and some that require further work or further analysis to be made good.
Johnson proposes to spin the urban parts of the MTA into a new agency, called BAT, or Big Apple Transit. The rump-MTA will remain in control of suburban operations and keep MTA Capital Construction (p. 35), and there will be a shared headquarters. Some cooperation will remain, such as contributions toward cheaper in-city commuter rail fares, but there is no call for fully integrated fares and schedules: the recommendation “all trains and buses in the city will cost the same and transfers will be free” does not appear anywhere in the document.
Johnson also proposes that the BAT board will be required to live in the city and use transit regularly. There is a serious problem today with senior managers and board members driving everywhere, and the requirement is intended to end this practice. Cynically, I might suggest that this requirement sounds reasonable in 2019 but would have been unthinkable until the 2000s and remains so in other American cities, even though it would be far more useful there and then; the off-peak frequency-ridership spiral is nowhere nearly as bad in New York as it is in Washington or Boston.
One strong suggestion in this section involves appointing a mobility czar (p. 36), in charge of the NYC Department of Transportation as well as BAT. Given the importance of the subway, this czar would be in effect the new minister of transportation for the city, appointed by the mayor.
Ultimately, this section tends toward the weaker side, because of a problem visible elsewhere in the report: all of the recommendations are based on internal analysis, with little to no knowledge of global best practices. Berlin has city-controlled transit in full fare union with Deutsche Bahn-run mainline rail, but there has been no attempt to learn how this could be implemented in New York. The only person in New York who I’ve seen display any interest in this example is Streetsblog’s David Meyer, who asked me how DB and Berlin’s BVG share revenue under the common umbrella of the Berlin Transport Association (or VBB); I did not know and although I’ve reached out to a local source with questions, I could not get the answer by his filing deadline.
Finance and costs
This is by far the weakest section in the proposal. The MTA funds itself in large part by debt; Johnson highlights the problem of mounting debt service, but his recommendations are weak. He does not tell New Yorkers the hard truth that if they can’t afford service today then they can’t afford it at debt maturity either. He talks about the need to “address debt” but refrains from offering anything that might inconvenience a taxpayer, a rider, or an employee (pp. 42-43), and offers a melange of narrow funding sources that are designed for maximum economic distortion and minimum visible inconvenience.
In fact, he calls transit fares regressive (pp. 59, 61) and complains about century-long fare increases: real fares have risen by a factor of 2.1 since 1913 – but American GDP per capita has risen by a factor of 7.7, and operating costs have mostly risen in line with incomes.
He brings up ways to reduce costs. In operations these involve negotiations with the unions; even though the report mentions that drivers get paid half-time for hours they’re not working between the morning and afternoon peaks (“swing shift,” p. 48), it does not recommend increasing off-peak service in order to provide more mobility at low marginal cost. There is no mention of two-person crews on the subway or of the low train operator efficiency compared with peer cities – New York City Transit train operators average 556 revenue hours per year, Berlin U-Bahn operators average 829.
In capital construction the recommendations are a mixed bag of good and bad, taken from a not-great RPA report from a year ago. Like the RPA, Johnson recommends using more design-build, in flagrant violation of one of the rules set by global cost reduction leader Madrid. However, to his credit, Johnson zooms in on real problems with procurement and conflict resolution, including change orders (pp. 50-51), and mentions the problem of red tape as discussed in Brian Rosenthal’s article from the end of 2017. He suggests requiring that contractors qualify to bid, which is a pretty way of saying that contractors with a history of shoddy work should be blacklisted; I have heard the qualify-to-bid suggestion from some sporadic inside sources for years, alongside complaints that New York’s current bid-to-qualify system encourages either poor work or red tape discouraging good contractors. Unfortunately, there is no talk of awarding bids based on a combination of technical score and cost, rather than just cost.
Overall the talk of cost is better than what I’ve seen from other politicians, who either say nothing or use high costs as an excuse to do nothing. But it has a long way to go before it can become a blueprint for reducing subway construction costs, especially given the other things Johnson proposes elsewhere in the document.
Another mixed part of the document is the chapter about accessibility for people with disabilities. Johnson recounts the lack of elevators at most subway stations and the poor state of the bus network, featuring drivers who are often hostile to people in wheelchairs. However, while his analysis is solid, his recommendations aren’t.
First of all, he says nothing of the cost of installing elevators on the subway. An MTA press release from last year states the cost of making five stations accessible as $200 million, of $40 million per station. This figure contrasts with that of Madrid, where a non-transfer station costs about €5 million to equip with elevators, and a transfer station costs about €5 million per line served (source, PDF-pp. 11-12). In Berlin, which is not a cheap city for subway construction, the figure is even lower: about €2 million per line served, with a single elevator costing just €800,000.
And second, his proposal for finding money for station accessibility involves using the zoning code, forcing developers to pay for such upgrades. While this works in neighborhoods with ample redevelopment, not all city neighborhoods are desirable for developers right now, and there, money will have to come from elsewhere. For a document that stresses the importance of equality in planning, its proposals for how to scrounge funds can be remarkably inequitable.
That said, in a later section, Johnson does call for installing bus shelters (p. 74). A paper referenced in a TransitCenter report he references, by Yingling Fan, Andrew Guthrie, and David Levinson, finds that the presence of shelter, a bench, and real-time arrival information has a large effect on passengers’ perceived wait times: in the absence of all three amenities, passengers perceive wait time as 2-2.5 times as long as it actually is, rising to a factor of almost 3 for 10-minute waits among women in unsafe areas, but in the presence of all three, the factor drops to around 1.3, and only 1.6 for long waits for women in unsafe areas. Unfortunately, as this aspect is discussed in the bus improvement section, there is no discussion of the positive effect shelter has on people with disabilities that do not require the use of a wheelchair, such as chronic pain conditions.
I do appreciate that the speaker highlights the importance of accessibility and driver training – drivers often don’t even know how to operate a wheelchair lift (p. 63). But the solutions need to involve more than trying to find developers with enough of a profit margin to extract for elevators. Bus stops need shelter, benches, and ideally raised curbs, like the median Berlin tramway stations. And subway stations need elevators, and they need them at acceptable cost.
By far this is the strongest part of the report. Johnson notes that bus ridership is falling, and recommends SBS as a low-cost solution. He does not stop at just making a skeletal light rail-like map of bus routes to be upgraded, unlike the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations: he proposes sweeping citywide improvements. The call for bus shelter appears in this section as well.
But the speaker goes beyond calling for bus shelters. He wants to accelerate the installation of bus lanes to at least 48 km (i.e. 30 miles) every year, with camera enforcement and physically-separated median lanes. The effect of such a program would be substantial. As far as I can tell, with large error bars caused by large ranges of elasticity estimates in the literature, the benefits in Eric Goldwyn’s and my bus redesign break down as 30% stop consolidation (less than its 60% share of bus speedup since it does involve making people walk longer), 30% bus lanes, 30% network redesign, 10% off-board fare collection.
There is no mention of stop consolidation in the paper, but there is mention of route redesign, which Johnson wishes to implement in full by 2025. The MTA is in support of the redesign process, and allowing for integrated planning between NYCDOT and the MTA would improve the mutual support between bus schedules and the physical shape of the city’s major streets.
Moreover, the report calls for transit signal priority, installed at the rate of at least 1,000 intersections per year. This is very aggressive: even at the average block spacing along avenues, about 80 meters, this is 80 kilometers per year, and at that of streets, it rises to 200+ km. Within a few years, every intersection in the city would get TSP. The effects would be substantial, and the only reason Eric’s and my proposal does not list them is that they are hard to quantify. In fact, this may be the first time an entire grid would be equipped with TSP; some research may be required to decide how to prioritize bus/bus conflicts at major junctions, based on transportation research as well as control theory, since conditional TSP is the only way to truly eliminate bus bunching.
Reinforcing the point about dedicated lanes, the study calls for clawing back the space given to private parking and delivery. It explicitly calls for setting up truck routes and delivery zones in a later section (pp. 86-87); right now, the biggest complaint about bus lanes comes from loss of parking and the establishment of delivery zones in lieu of letting trucks stop anywhere on a block, and it is reassuring to see Johnson commit to prioritizing public transit users.
This is another strong section, proposing pedestrian plazas all over the city, an expansion of bike lanes to the tune of 80 km (50 miles) a year with an eye toward creating a connected citywide bike lane network, and more bike share.
If I have any criticism here, it’s that it isn’t really about city control of the MTA. The bus improvements section has the obvious tie-in to the fact that the buses are run by the MTA, and getting the MTA and NYCDOT on the same page would be useful. With bikes, I don’t quite understand the connection, beyond the fact that both are transportation.
That said, the actual targets seem solid. Disconnected bike lane networks are not really useful. I would never bike on the current network in New York; I do not have a death wish. I wasn’t even willing to bike in Paris. Berlin is looking more enticing, and if I moved to Amsterdam I might well get a bike.
The sections regarding costs require a lot of work. Overall, I get the impression that Johnson based his recommendations on what he’s seen in the local press, so the suggestions are internal to the city or occasionally domestic; the only international comparisons come from the RPA report or from Eric’s and my invocation of Barcelona’s bus redesign. This works for such questions as how to apportion the MTA’s debt service or how to redesign the bus network, but not so much for questions involving subway capital construction.
New York has a large number of fluent Spanish speakers. It should have no problem learning what Spanish engineers know about construction costs, and the same is true for other communities that are well-represented in the cities, such as Korean-, Russian-, Chinese-, Brazilian-, and Polish-New Yorkers. Moreover, in most big cities that don’t send large communities to New York, such as those of Northern Europe, planners speak English. Johnson should not shy from using the expertise of people outside New York, ideally outside the United States, to get subway construction costs under control.
The speaker’s plan is still a very good first step. The proposed surface improvements to buses, bikes, and street allocation are all solid, and should be the city’s consensus for how to move forward. What’s needed is something to tie all of this together with a plan to move forward for what remains the city’s most important transportation network: the subway.
I am embarking on a long-term project to investigate why US construction costs are high using case studies, so everything I’m going to say so far is tentative. In particular, one of my favorite theories for most of this decade seems to be false based on the addition of just two or three new data points. That said, having spent the last nine years looking at topline costs and a few itemized breakdowns does let me reach some initial conclusions, ones that I believe are robust to new data. The context is that some mainstream American pundits are asking why, and I realized that I’ve written more posts criticizing incorrect explanations than posts focusing on more plausible reasons.
1. Engineering part 1: station construction methods
The most important itemized fact concerning American construction costs is that New York’s premium over Paris is overwhelmingly about stations. I have itemized data for a single line in New York (Second Avenue Subway Phase 1) and a single line in Paris (Metro Line 1 extension), from which I have the following costs:
Tunneling: about $150 million per km vs. $90 million, a factor of 1.7
Stations: about $750 million per station vs. $110 million, a factor of 6.5
Systems: about $110 million per km vs. $35 million, a factor of 3.2
Overheads and design: 27% of total cost vs. 15%, which works out to a factor of about 11 per km or a factor of 7 per station
These costs have some reinforcement with other projects in both cities. When New York built the 7 extension, there were calls for an intermediate stop in addition to the single stop built, and at the time the city definitively canceled the extra station, its cost was given as $800 million. Moreover, in Paris, another extension for which I have per-station cost data, that of Metro Line 12, costs €175 million for 2 stations and no tunnels, about $110 million per station, including overheads; the same is true of two more stations not on M12 given in a French report about the costs of Grand Paris Express (PDF-p. 10).
The difference concerns construction methods. In Paris, as well as Athens, Madrid, Mexico City, Caracas, Santiago, Copenhagen, Budapest, and I imagine other cities for which I can’t find this information, metro stations are built cut-and-cover. While the tunnels between stations are bored, at higher cost than opening up the entire street, the stations themselves are dug top-down. This allows transporting construction materials from the top of the dig, right where they are needed, as well as easier access by the workers and removal of dirt and rock. There is extensive street disruption, for about 18 months in the case of Paris, but the merchants and residents get a subway station at the end of the works.
In contrast, in New York, to prevent street disruption, Second Avenue Subway did not use any cut-and-cover. The tunnels between stations were bored, as in nearly all other cities in the world that build subways, and the stations were mined from within the bore, with just small vertical shafts for access. The result was a disaster: the costs exploded, as can be seen in the above comparison, and instead of 18 months of station box-size disruption, there were 5 years of city block-size disruption, narrowing sidewalks to just 2 meters (7′ to be exact).
In London, the Crossrail project was forced to mine stations as well, as it passes underneath and around many older Underground lines. Only one station could be built cut-and-cover, Canary Wharf, built underwater at very deep level. These stations have comparable construction costs to those of Second Avenue Subway. One way around this problem is to build large-diameter bores, as in Barcelona on Line 9/10, which used a bore so big it could fit two tracks with platforms. However, L9/10 has high costs by Spanish standards, and moreover the vertical access to the stations is exclusively by elevator, with lower capacity than escalators and stairs. A technique for slant bores for escalators exists in St. Petersburg, but I do not know its cost.
2. Engineering part 2: mezzanines
The other big problem with American metro construction methods is the oversized stations. This problem also occurs in Canada, where Toronto uses cut-and-cover stations like most of the world and yet has very high costs, as these cut-and-cover stations are palatial. But I do want to caution that this is a smaller problem than station mining, especially in New York. The total amount of excavation in Paris is barely lower than in New York.
But whatever the dig size issue is, one problem persists: American subway stations have mezzanines, usually full-length. This problem goes back to the 1930s. According to a historical review published in JRTR, costs in New York per kilometer rose to $140 million in the 1930s; in the 1910s and 20s costs were only $45 million per kilometer but there was extensive elevated construction, so per underground kilometer they were perhaps $80 million. This contrasts with $30-35 million per km on lines built in London and Paris from the 1900s to the 1930s.
A big cost driver in the 1930s was the higher construction standards. The subway built wider curves, even wider than those used in London and Paris. There were underground flying junctions allowing a complex system of branching on local and express trains to serve many different origin-destination pairs. And stations had full-length mezzanines.
The mezzanines have since turned into an American standard, featuring on all subsequent subways that I know of. BART has them under Market Street. Boston has them at some of the newer stations, alongside high ceilings at parts of stations the mezzanines don’t reach.
Outside the US, cities with such large station digs have high costs as well Toronto has had palatial construction at some of its newer stations, such as Vaughan Metro Center, leading to high costs even with cut-and-cover stations: while the Vaughan extension cost only C$320 million per kilometer, further projects in Toronto are slated to cost far more, including the single-stop Scarborough subway for C$520 million per km (only 18% less than Second Avenue Subway adjusted for station spacing) and the Downtown Relief Line at C$800 million per km.
Moreover, my recollection of riding the MRT in Singapore, another high-cost country, is that its stations are palatial as well, more so than recent American ones, let alone French ones. Singapore has high construction costs: the under-construction Thomson Line is to cost S$600 million per km according to information from 2012, and since then there has been a schedule slip, though I can’t find more recent cost estimates, and I do know of rail infrastructure projects with schedule overruns that stay within budget. Individual stations in Singapore are fairly expensive, with the central one (Orchard) approaching American costs at S$500 million, and in a speech full of excuses for construction costs, Singaporean transport minister Khaw Boon Wan mentioned that the new line has more exits per station, signaling larger station footprints.
3. Management part 1: procurement
The best industry practice, outlined by Madrid Metro’s Manuel Melis Maynar, is to award contracts by a combination of cost, construction speed, and a technical score judged by an in-house oversight team. Moreover, in Madrid there is separation between design and construction, in order to permit construction teams to make small changes as they go along without being wedded to their own plans. With this system, Melis built a wave of metros for an underground construction cost of, in today’s terms, $80 million per kilometer (almost all but not 100% underground), including rolling stock, which I have attempted to exclude from other lines whenever possible.
The American practice is to award contracts by cost alone. This leads to one of two problems, depending on the coast.
In California, the problem is, in two words, Tutor-Perini. This contractor underbids and then does shoddy work requiring change orders, litigated to the maximum. Ron Tutor’s dishonesty is well-known and goes back decades: in 1992 Los Angeles’s then-mayor Tom Bradley called him the change order king. And yet, he keeps getting contracts, all of which have large cost overruns, going over the amount the state or city would have paid had it awarded the contract to the second lowest bidder. In San Francisco, cost overrun battles involving Tutor-Perini led to a 40% cost overrun. This process repeated for high-speed rail: Tutor submitted lowest but technically worst bid, got the contract as price was weighted too high, and then demanded expensive changes. It speaks to California’s poor oversight of contractors that Tutor remains a contractor in good standing and has not been prosecuted for fraud.
In New York, this is not a problem, as the state makes sure to avoid shoddy work through overexacting specs, down to specifying the materials to be used. Unfortunately, this kind of micromanagement reduces flexibility, increasing construction costs in two ways. First, the direct effect raises the hard costs of construction, by about 15-25% plus overheads and contingency according to many contractors interviewed for Brian Rosenthal’s New York Times article on the subject. And second, since many contractors are turned off by the red tape, there is less competition – the 7 extension had just a single bidder – and thus contractors can demand an extra profit on top.
Some American cities try to get around this problem by using design-build contracts. However, these merely move the locus of micromanagement from the public to private sector. Madrid eschews them and prefers using public oversight to macromanage contractors.
While this may well by the single most important institutional factor in New York, it is not universal in the United States. In Boston, a manager at the MBTA, Jaime Garmendia, reassured me that the agency would “would cease to do business with that contractor in a heartbeat” if anyone acted like Tutor.
4. Management part 2: conflict resolution
In Madrid, Melis Maynar insisted on itemizing construction contracts. Thus, every contract would have a pre-agreed cost per extra item if changes were needed. Since changes are inevitable, this provides fast conflict resolution without expensive courtroom battles and without too much risk on the contractor.
I know of one additional example of itemization: in a paper studying electricity generation contracts in India, Nicholas Ryan compares cases in which there was a pre-agreed system for price escalation in case of changes in input prices and cases in which there were one-off negotiations whenever the situation suddenly changed. Pre-agreed escalation based on input prices leads to lower costs, first because there is less risk to the contractor, second because the negotiation happens in a situation in which if the contractor walks away the state can find another without incurring too much of a sunk cost, and third because the process attracts more honest contractors than Tutor.
In the United States, itemizing does not happen. Contracts are by lump sum, and every time a change is needed, there is a new negotiation, which involves lawyers and potentially courtroom litigation. Robert Kagan calls this tradition adversarial legalism, and contrasts it with European bureaucratic legalism, in which regulators and judges have more power than individual lawyers. Kagan gives an example of litigation about the Oakland Harbor dredging project. Tellingly, a civil rights-centered critique of the concept, arguing that adversarial legalism produces more liberal outcomes for minorities and the disabled (in the context of special education) – but when it comes to transit, the United States lags in wheelchair accessibility.
This is not intended as a broad attack on American legalism, although I do think such legalism also leads to worse infrastructure decisions in general. This is a specific attack on the tradition of using lawsuits to resolve conflicts between contractors and the state, rather than agreeing on itemized costs in advance, a technique that is legal in the US and that international firms, which have successfully bid on many American projects at American costs, are already familiar with.
5. Management part 3: project management
Some problems are not about procurement or the law, but purely about managerial competence. In Boston, consensus concerning the Green Line Extension seems to be that its high costs are the result of poor project management. The Green Line Extension’s costs were at one point estimated at $3 billion for 6.4 km of light rail in preexisting mainline rail rights-of-way; it’s so expensive that it was misclassified as a subway in one Spanish analysis, which still found it was a premium over European subways.
The current estimate is down to $2.3 billion, of which $1.1 billion was wasted in the initial project, and only the remaining half is actual construction costs of the restarted project. Several Boston-area insiders, including the aforementioned Jaime Garmendia, explain that the MBTA had no prior experience in managing a large project, and did not hire an experienced manager for it, leading to a pileup of errors. When it finally hired a new manager and a new team and restarted the project, costs fell, but not before a billion dollars were wasted.
The remaining cost of the extension, $190 million per km, is still very high for a light rail line. However, in conjunction with the other problems detailed here, this is not so surprising.
6. Management part 4: agency turf battles
There is little cooperation between different public transit providers in the US in the same region. Usually, the effect is only on operations. Whereas in Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland the fare within a metro area depends on the start and end point and perhaps on whether one rides in first or second class but not on whether one uses a bus, a tram, a subway, or a commuter rail line, in the United States fares are mode-dependent and transfers between separate agencies are not free. Nor do American agencies coordinate schedules between different modes of transit even within the same agency: the MBTA is forbidden to coordinate suburban bus and commuter rail schedules.
While this by itself does not impact construction costs, it can lead to overbuilding when construction for one agency impinges on another agency’s turf. This problem is particularly acute when mainline rail is involved, as there is an institutional tradition of treating it as a separate fief from the rest of public transit: “commuter rail is commuter rail, it’s not public transit,” said MBTA then-general manager Frank DePaola in 2016. Extensive turf battles may also occur between different commuter rail operators run as separate units, for example in New York. The same tradition occurs in Canada, where Toronto regional rail modernization plans came from an overarching planning agency, which had to force the commuter rail engineers and managers to go along.
I covered turf battles in a post from the end of 2017. In short, two distinct problems may occur. First, there may be visible overbuilding: for example, plans for California High-Speed Rail included a gratuitous tunnel in Millbrae, near the airport, in order to avoid reducing BART’s territory even though BART has three tracks at a station where it needs only one or at most two; overall, area advocate Clem Tillier found $2.7 billion in high-speed rail cost savings between San Francisco and just south of San Jose. The same problem afflicts plans for extra regional rail capacity in New York: the commuter railroads do not want to share turfs, forcing the construction of additional station tracks in Midtown Manhattan at great cost.
The second problem is that without coordination of capital planning and operations, schedules for construction may be constrained. I believe that this contributes to the high cost of Boston’s Green Line Extension, which is high by American light rail standards. Without agreement on construction windows, right-of-way modifications such as moving bridge foundations to make room for extra tracks become difficult.
7. Institutions part 1: political lading with irrelevant priorities
There is a kind of overbuilding that comes not from American engineering practices that became accepted wisdom in the 1930s, but from active interference by politicians. I caution that I do not know of any case in which this has seriously impacted tunneling costs, the topic I feel more qualified to compare across the world. However, this has been a problem for other public transportation and livable streets projects, especially on the surface.
When a city announces a new public transit initiative, it comes with the expectation of an infusion of money. Usually this money comes from outside sources, such as higher-level governments, but even when it is purely local, individual stakeholders may treat it as money coming from other parts of the city. In this environment, there is an incentive to demand extra scope in order to spend other people’s money on related but unnecessary priorities. The most common example of this is the demand for street reconstruction to be bundled with light rail and even bus rapid transit.
The advocacy organization Light Rail Now claims that bundling street reconstruction has raised some American light rail costs. Moreover, I know examples of this happening for BRT. The Albuquerque project ART, which I covered in the context of electric buses, is one such example: it cost $135 million for 25 km, of which about 13 km were reconstructed to have wider sidewalks, trees, and street lighting. Moreover, in Tampa, the highway department insists that the transit agency find money for repaving roads with concrete if it wishes to run buses more frequently.
This is not just an American problem: the Nice tramway, which at €64 million per km for the first line is France’s costliest, spent 30% of its budget not on the tramway itself but on drainage, rebuilding a public plaza, and other related but unnecessary amenities.
Commuter rail exhibits this problem in droves. Either local suburbs or agencies that are captive to them insist on building large transit centers with plentiful parking, retail that is not necessary if trains arrive on time, and a sense of place. Spartan stations, equipped only with level boarding, shelter, and a convenient spot for connecting buses to drop people off on the street or at a bus bay, cost a few million dollars apiece in Boston and Philadelphia. In contrast, veritable palaces cost many tens of millions: the four stations of Penn Station Access, in the low-car-ownership Bronx, are projected to cost a total of $188 million per the 2015-9 capital plan (PDF-p. 225); in West Haven, an infill station cost $105 million including land acquisition.
8. Institutions part 2: political incentives
Politicians in the United States do not have an incentives to control costs. On the contrary, if anyone complains, their incentives are to accommodate even if costs rise as a result. While the American legal system favors the state over the individual in property takings, for example in contrast with the Japanese system, the political system favors NIMBYs and really anyone who complains. Infrastructure construction takes a long time and the politician who gets credit for it is rarely the one who started it, whereas complaints happen early. This can lead to many of the above-named problems, especially overbuilding, such as tunneling where elevated segments would be fine or letting agency turf battles and irrelevant demands dictate project scope.
Politicians have the ability to remove obstructive officials, as Governor Andrew Cuomo did when LIRR head Helena Williams opposed Penn Station Access on agency turf grounds. But they rarely have the will to do so. Coordination and good government are not their top priorities. American politicians who are ambitious enough to embark on big infrastructure projects govern their respective states and cities like comets, passing by quickly while expecting to move on to a bigger position within a few years. They can build better institutions if they want, but don’t care to.
This goes beyond individual high-profile politicians. In planning for the NEC Future project, a planner who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said that there was an unspoken assumption that there must not be impact to the richest suburbs in Fairfield County, Connecticut; such impact can be reduced, but not eliminated, and to forestall political controversy with very rich suburbs the process left that segment for later, never mind that it is the slowest portion of the Northeast Corridor today outside major city areas.
This problem can be mitigated by raising the political cost of poor infrastructure construction decisions. One way to do so is using referendums. In Switzerland, all major infrastructure construction must be approved by referendum. Thus, if cost overruns occur, the state must return to the people and explain itself in asking for more money. In contrast, California High-Speed Rail went to ballot on $9 billion (plus $950 million for connecting transit) out of a budget that at the time was estimated at $42 billion in year-of-construction dollars. The state did not need to identify funding sources for the remaining $33 billion, and thus there was no incentive to control costs, as it was not possible to complete the project for the budget on hand no matter what.
9. Institutions part 3: global incuriosity
The eight above factors all explain why American infrastructure costs are higher than in the rest of the world, and also explain high costs in some other countries, especially Canada. However, one question remains: how come Americans aren’t doing anything about it? The answer, I believe, has to do with American incuriosity.
Incuriosity is not merely ignorance. Ignorance is a universal trait, people just differ in what they are ignorant about. But Americans are unique in not caring to learn from other countries even when those countries do things better. American liberals spent the second Bush administration talking about how health care worked better in most other developed countries, but displayed no interest in how they could implement universal health care so that the US could have what everyone else had, even when some of these countries, namely France and Israel, had only enacted reforms recently and had a population of mostly privately-insured workers. In contrast, they reinvented the wheel domestically, coming up with the basic details of Obamacare relying on the work on domestic thinktanks alone. The same indifference to global best practices occurs in education, housing policy, and other matters even among wonks who believe the US to be behind.
This is not merely a problem in public policy. In the private sector, the same problem doomed the American auto industry. American automakers have refused to adopt the practices of Japanese and German competitors even after the latter produced small cars better suited for post-1973 oil prices. They instead dug in, demanded and got government protection, and have been in effect wards of the American federal government for about 40 years.
American business culture does not care much for imitation, not does American society give high prestige to people who perfect something that someone else invented. The industry that teaches how to adopt best practices, consulting, has poor reputation in American culture. Instead, Americans venerate founders and innovators, an approach that works in industries where the US is in the global frontier, like tech or retail, but not in ones where it lags, like cars and the entire public sector. To avoid learning from others, Americans end up believing in myths about what is and isn’t possible: they insist they are so much richer than Europe that they have nothing to learn from across the Pond, and hang all their hopes on any flim-flam artist who comes from within American business culture who insists there is no real need for public transit or any of the other things Europe and high-income Asia do better.
In transit, we see it in politicians and agency officials who say things that are so funny they are sad, or perhaps so sad they are funny. Richard Mlynarik tells me of an official at either Caltrain or the California High-Speed Rail Authority, I forget which, who did not know Germany had commuter trains. Another Caltrain official, confronted with the fact that in Japan trains turn faster than Caltrain thought possible, responded “Asians don’t value life the way we do” – never mind that Japan’s passenger rail safety per passenger-km is about 1.5 orders of magnitude better than the US’s. In stonewalling about its safety regulations, since positively reformed, an FRA official insisted American trucks are heavier than European ones, where in fact the opposite is the case. Boston’s sandbagged North-South Rail Link process included a best practices section but insisted on only including North American examples, since European ones would make America look bad. To advocate for transit among Americans is to constantly hear things are not possible that in fact happen in various parts of Europe on a daily basis.
Canada is not much better than the US. Americans’ world is flat, with its corners in Boston, Seattle, San Diego, and Miami. Canadians’ world includes the United States and Canada, making it flat with the northern ends of the quadrilateral stretched a few hundred kilometers to the north. A study of a long-overdue extension of Vancouver’s Millennium Line to UBC has four case studies for best practices, all from within North America. This is despite the fact that in the developed world the system most similar to Vancouver’s SkyTrain in technology and age is the Copenhagen Metro, whose construction costs are one half as high as those of Vancouver despite cost and schedule overruns.
Meiji Japan sent students to the West to assimilate Western knowledge and catch up, avoiding the humiliations inflicted upon China in the same era and instead becoming a great power itself. The historian Danny Orbach, who wrote his dissertation on the historical arc leading from the Meiji Restoration to Japan’s World War Two atrocities, argues that Japan was able to modernize because it understood early that it was not at the center of the world, whereas China and the Ottoman Empire did not and thus only realized they were technologically inferior to the West too late, at the signing of the unequal treaties or at dismemberment. The United States at best thinks it’s the center of the world and at worst thinks it’s the only thing in the world, and this has to change.
Can this be reformed?
The answer is absolutely. There are no examples of good transit under construction in the United States, but there are many partial successes. The California State Rail Plan is moving toward coordinated planning, and Massachusetts has some inklings of reform as well. Boston’s ability to restart the Green Line Extension is to be commended, and the large gap in cost between the original project and the current one should encourage other American transit agencies to hire good project managers with a track record and pay them competitively; paying high six figures to a manager or even more can easily justify itself in ten-figure savings.
The legal problems can be reformed as well without turning the United States into something it is not. Politicians would have to be more courageous in telling constituents no, but so many of them have no chance of losing reelection that they can afford to piss off a small proportion of the population. Contracts could include itemized costs to control change orders. California already awards contracts based on a mix of cost and a technical score, it just needs to adjust the weights and figure out how to avoid doing business with Ron Tutor, and if possible prosecute him.
However, all of this depends on solving the last of the above nine problems. Americans have to understand that they are behind and need to imitate. They can try to innovate but only carefully, from a deep understanding of why things are the way they are in such global transit innovation centers as Spain, South Korean, Japan, Switzerland, and Sweden. They have to let go of the mythology of the American entrepreneur who does not listen to the experts. They can solve the problem of high construction costs if they want, but they need to first recognize that it exists, and that internal politics and business culture are part of the problem rather than the solution.