There’s an ongoing debate about free public transport that I’m going to get into later, but, for now, I want to zoom in on one aspect of the 9€ ticket, and how it impacted public transport capacity in Germany. A commenter on the Neoliberal Reddit group claimed that during the three months of nearly free public transport fares, there was a capacity crunch due to overuse. But in fact, the impact was not actually significant on urban rail, only on regional trains, in a way that underscores the importance of fare integration more than anything.
What was the 9€ ticket?
Last year, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, fuel prices shot up everywhere. This created populist pressure to alleviate the price of fuel through temporary tax cuts, which further exacerbated last year’s high inflation. The center-right element within the German coalition, FDP, moved away from its traditional position as deficit scold and demanded a cut in the fuel tax; as a compromise, the Greens agreed to it on condition that during the three months of reduced fuel tax, June through August, public transport fares would be cut as well. Thus the 9€ monthly was born.
The 9€ ticket applied throughout Germany. The key feature wasn’t just the deep discount but also the fact that on one ticket, people could travel all over Germany; normally, my Berlin monthly doesn’t let me ride the local trains in Leipzig or Munich. This stimulated massive domestic tourism, since people could travel between cities on slow regional trains for free and then also travel around their destination city for free as well.
The 9€ ticket clearly raised public transport ridership in the three months it was in effect. This led to demands to make it permanent, running up against the problem that money is scarce and in Germany ticket fares generate a significant proportion of public transport revenue, 7.363 billion € out of 14.248 billion € in expenses (source, p. 36).
One partial move in that direction is a 29€ monthly valid only within Berlin, not in the suburbs (zone C of the S-Bahn) or outside the system; unlike the 9€ ticket, which was well-advertised all over national and local media and was available at every ticketing machine, the 29€ monthly is only available via annual subscription, which requires a permanent address in the city, and the regular machines only sell the usual 86€ monthly and don’t even let you know that a cheaper option exists. The subscription is also not available on a rolling basis – one must do it before the start of the month, which is not advertised, and Ant6n‘s family was caught unaware one month.
Negotiations for a nationwide 49€ ticket are underway, proceeding at the pace of a German train, or perhaps that of German arms deliveries to Ukraine. This was supposed to start at the beginning of 2023, then in April, and now it’s expected to debut in May. I’m assuming it will eventually happen – German trains get you there eventually, if hours late occasionally.
What’s the impact on capacity?
The U- and S-Bahn systems didn’t at all get overcrowded. They got a bit more crowded than usual, but nothing especially bad, since the sort of trips induced by zero marginal cost are off-peak. Rush hour commuters are not usually price-sensitive: whenever one’s alternative to the train is a car, the difference between a 9€ monthly and an 86€ one is a fraction of the difference between either ticket and the cost of owning and using a car, and at rush hour, cars are limited by congestion as well. Off-peak ridership did visibly grow, but not to levels that congest the system.
But then the hourly regional trains got completely overcrowded. If you wanted to ride the free trains from Berlin to Leipzig, you’d be standing for the last third of the trip. This is because the regional rail system (as opposed to S-Bahn) is designed as a low-capacity coverage-type system for connecting to small towns like Cottbus or Dessau.
The broader issue is that there is always a sharp ridership gradient between large cities and everywhere else, even per capita. In some places the gradient is sharper than elsewhere; the difference between New York and the rest of the United States is massive. But even in Germany, with a smaller gradient than one might be used to from France or the UK or Japan, public transport ridership is disproportionately dense urban or perhaps suburban, on trams and U- and S-Bahns.
The regional trains are another world. Really, European and Japanese trains can be thought of as three worlds: very high-use urban and suburban rail networks, high-use intercity rail connecting the main cities usually at high speed, and low-usage, highly-subsidized regional trains outside the major metropolitan regions. Germany has relatively good trains in the last category, if worse than in Switzerland, Austria, or the Netherlands: they run hourly with timed connections, so that people can connect between them to many destinations, they just usually don’t because cities the size of Dessau don’t generate a lot of ridership. The 9€ ticket gave people a free intercity trip if they chained trips on these regional trains, at the cost of getting to Leipzig in a little less than three hours rather than 1:15 on the ICE; the regional trains were not expanded to meet this surge traffic, which is usually handled on longer intercity trainsets, creating standing-room only conditions on trains where this should not happen off-peak or perhaps ever.
The issue of fare integration
The overcrowding seen on the regional trains last summer is really an issue of fare integration, which I hope is resolved as the 49€ gives people free trips on such trains permanently. A cornerstone of good public transport planning is that the fare between two points should be the same no matter what vehicle one uses, with exceptions only for first-class cars if available. Ein Ticket für alles, exclaims the system in Zurich, to great success. Anything else slices the market into lower-frequency segments, providing worse service than under total fare integration. Germany understands this – the Verkehrsverbund was invented in Hamburg in 1965, and subsequently this idea was adopted elsewhere until the country has been divided into metropolitan zones with internal fare integration.
The regional trains that cross Verkehrsverbund zones have their own fares, and normally that’s okay. Intercity trains were never part of this system, and that’s okay too – they’re not about one’s usual trip, and so an intercity ticket doesn’t include free transfers to local public transport unless one pays extra for that amenity. The fares between intercity trains and chains of regional trains were not supposed to be integrated, and normally that’s fine too, because any fare savings from chaining trips on slower trains are swamped both by the headache of buying so many tickets and by the difference in trip time and reliability.
The 9€ ticket broke that system, and the 49€ ticket will have the same effect: for three months, trips on slower trains were free, leading to overcrowding on a low-capacity network that normally isn’t that important to the country’s overall public transport system.
Worse, the operating costs of slow trains are higher than those of fast trains: they are smaller and so have a higher ratio of crew to passengers than ICEs, and their slowness means that crew and maintenance costs per kilometer are higher than those of fast trains. Even energy costs are higher on slow trains, because high-speed lines run at 300 km/h over long stretches, whereas regional lines make many stops (which had very little usage compared with the train’s volume of passengers last summer) and have slow zones rather than cruising at 130 or 160 km/h over long stretches. So the system gave people a price incentive to use the higher-cost trains and not the lower-cost ones.
This is the most important thing to resolve about any future fare reductions. Some mechanism is needed to ensure that the most advantageous way to travel between two cities is the one that DB can provide the most efficiently, which is IC/ICE and not RegionalBahn.
Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that Macron and Scholz announced new train service between Paris and Berlin to debut next year, as intercity rail demand in Europe is steadily rising and people want to travel not just within countries but also between them. Currently, there is no direct rail service, and passengers who wish to travel on this city pair have to change trains in Frankfurt or Cologne. There’s just one problem: the train will not have any supportive infrastructure and therefore take the same eight hours that trains take today with a transfer.
This is especially frustrating, since Germany is already investing in improving its intercity rail. Unfortunately, the investments are halting and partial – right now the longest city pair connected entirely by high-speed rail is Cologne-Frankfurt, a distance of 180 km, and ongoing plans are going to close some low-speed gaps elsewhere in the system but still not create any long-range continuous high-speed rail corridor connecting major cities. With ongoing plans, Cologne-Stuttgart is going to be entirely fast, but not that fast – Frankfurt-Mannheim is supposed to be sped up to 29 minutes over about 75 km.
Berlin-Paris is a good axis for such investment. This includes the following sections:
- Berlin-Halle is currently medium-speed, trains taking 1:08-1:16 to do 162 km, but the flat, low-density terrain is easy for high-speed rail, which could speed this up to 40-45 minutes at fairly low cost since no tunnels and little bridging would be required.
- Halle-Erfurt is already fast, thanks to investments in the Berlin-Munich axis.
- Erfurt-Frankfurt is currently slow, but there are plans to build high-speed rail from Erfurt to Fulda and thence Hanau. The trip times leave a lot to be desired, but newer 300 km/h trains like the Velaro Novo, and perhaps a commitment to push the line not just to Hanau but closer to Frankfurt itself, could do this section in an hour.
- Frankfurt-Saarbrücken is very slow. Saarbrücken is at the western margin of Germany and is not significant enough by itself to merit any high-speed rail investment. Between it and Frankfurt, the terrain is rolling and some tunneling is needed, and the only significant intermediate stops are Mainz (close enough to Frankfurt it’s a mere stop of opportunity) and Kaiserslautern. Nonetheless, fast trains could get from Frankfurt to the border in 45 minutes, whereas today they take two hours.
Unfortunately, they’re not talking about any pan-European infrastructure here. Building things is too difficult, so instead the plan is to run night trains – this despite the fact that Frankfurt-Saarbrücken with a connection to the LGV Est would make a great joint project.
There’s sometimes a stereotype that in poor countries with low car ownership, alternatives to the car are flourishing. I saw a post on Mastodon making this premise, and pointed out already in comments that this is not really true. This is a more detailed version of what I said in 500 characters. In short, in most of the third world, non-car transportation is bad, and nearly all ridership (on jitneys and buses) is out of poverty, as is most walking. While car ownership is low, the elites who do own cars dominate local affairs, and therefore cities are car-dominated and not at all walkable, even as 90%+ of the population does not own a car.
What’s more, the developing countries that do manage to build good public transportation don’t stay developing for long. The same development model of Japan, the East Asian Tigers, and now China has built both rail-oriented cities and high economic growth, to the point that Japan and the Tigers are fully developed, and China is a solidly middle-income economy. The sort of places that stay poor, or get stuck in a middle-income trap, also tend to have stagnant urban rail networks, and so grow more auto-oriented over time.
The situation in Southeast Asia
With the exception of Singapore, nowhere in Southeast Asia is public transit good. What’s more, construction costs have been high for elevated lines and very high for underground ones, slowing down the construction of metro systems.
In Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, motorization is high and public transit usage is weak. Paul Barter’s thesis details how both cities got this way, in comparison with the more transit-oriented model used in Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The thesis also predicts that the poorer megacities of Southeast Asia – Jakarta and Manila – will follow the auto-oriented path as they develop, which has indeed happened in the 13 years since it was written.
The situation in those cities is, to be fair, murky. Manila has a large urban rail under construction right now, with average to above average costs for elevated lines and high ones for subways. But the system it has today consists of four lines, two branded light rail, one branded MRT, and one commuter line. In 2019, the six-month ridership on the system was 162 million. A total of 324 million in a metro area the size of Manila is extraordinarily low: the administrative Metro Manila region has 13.5 million people, and the urban or metropolitan area according to both Citypopulation.de and Demographia is 24-26 million. On the strictest definition of Metro Manila, this is 24 trips per person per year; on the wider ones, it is about 13, similar to San Diego or Portland and only somewhat better than Atlanta.
Jakarta is in the same situation of flux. It recently opened a half-underground MRT line at fairly high cost, and is modernizing its commuter rail network along Japanese lines, using second-hand Japanese equipment. Commuter rail ridership was 1.2 million a day last year, or around 360 million a year, already higher than before corona; the MRT had 20 million riders last year, and an airport link had 1.5 million in 2018. This isn’t everything – there’s also a short light metro called LRT for which I can’t find numbers – but it wouldn’t be more than second-order. This is 400 million annual rail trips, in a region of 32 million people.
The future of these cities is larger versions of Bangkok. Thailand is sufficiently middle-income that we can see directly how its transport system evolves as it leaves poverty, and the results are not good. Bus ridership is high, but it’s rapidly falling as anyone who can afford a car gets one; a JICA report about MRT development puts the region’s modal split at 5% MRT, 36% bus, and the rest private (PDF-p. 69) – and the income of bus riders is significantly lower than that of drivers (PDF-p. 229), whereas MRT riders are closer to drivers.
Even wealthier than Bangkok, with the same auto-oriented system, is Kuala Lumpur. There, the modal split is about 8% bus, 7% train, and the rest private. This is worse than San Francisco and the major cities of Canada and Australia, let alone New York or any large European city. The national modal split in England, France, Germany, and Spain is about 16% – the first three countries’ figures predate corona, but in Spain they’re from 2021, with suppressed public transport ridership. Note that rail ridership per capita is healthier in Kuala Lumpur than in Jakarta or Manila – all rail lines combined are 760,000 riders per day, say 228 million per year, in a region of maybe 7 million people. This is better than a no-transit American city like San Diego, but worse than a bad-transit one like Chicago or Washington, where the modal split is about the same but there is no longer the kind of poverty that is common in Malaysia, let alone in Indonesia, and therefore if people ride the trains it’s because they get them to their city center jobs and not because they’re poor.
Even in Singapore, the best example out there of a transit-oriented rich city, it took until very recently for MRT coverage to be good enough that people willingly depend on it; it only reached NUS after I graduated. In the 1990s, the epitome of middle-class Singaporean materialism was described as owning the Five Cs, of which one was a car; traffic suppression, a Paul Barter describes, has centered fees on cars, much more car purchase than car use (despite the world-famous congestion pricing system), and thus to those wealthy enough to afford cars, they’re convenient in ways they are not in Paris, Berlin, or Stockholm.
The situation in Africa
African countries between the Sahara and the Kalahari are all very poor, with low car ownership. However, they are thoroughly car-dominated.
From the outside, it’s fascinating to see how the better-off countries in that region, like Nigeria, are already imitating Southeast Asia. Malaysia overregulated its jitneys out of existence because they were messy and this bothered elites, and because it wanted to create an internal market for its state-owned automakers. Nigeria is doing the same, on the former grounds; to the extent it hasn’t happened despite years of trying, it’s because the state is too weak to do more than harass the drivers and users of the system.
It’s notable that the Lagos discourse about the evils of the danfo – they are noisy, they are polluting, they drive like maniacs – there is little attention to how cars create all the same problems, except at larger scale per passenger served. The local notables drive (or are driven); the people who they scorn as unwashed, overly fecund, criminal masses ride the danfo. Thanks to aggressive domination by cars and inattention to the needs of the non-driving majority, Lagos’s car ownership is high for how poor it is – one source from 2017 says 5 million cars in the state, another from 2021 says 6.5 million vehicles between the state and Kano State. The denominator population in the latter source is 27 million officially, but unofficially likely more; 200 vehicles per 1,000 people is plausible for Lagos, which to be clear is not much less than New York or Paris, on an order of magnitude lower GDP per capita. Tokyo took until about 1970 to reach 100 vehicles per 1,000 people, at which point Japan had almost fully converged with American GDP per capita.
This is not specific to Lagos. A cousin who spent some time in Kampala told me of the hierarchy on the roads: pedestrians fear motorcycles, motorcycles fear cars, cars fear trucks. There is no pedestrian infrastructure to speak of; a rapid transit system is still a dream, to the point that a crayon proposal that spread on Twitter made local media. That the vast majority of Ugandans don’t own cars doesn’t matter; Kampala remains dominated by the few who do.
Transit and development
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the sort of developing countries that build successful urban rail systems don’t stay poor for long. Part of it is that public transportation is good for economic development, but that’s not most of it – the United States manages to be rich without it except in a handful of cities. Rather, I suspect the reason has to do with state capacity.
More specifically, the reason cities with 100-200 cars per 1,000 people are thoroughly dominated by cars is that those 10-20% drivers (or people who are driven) are the elites. Their elite status can come from any source – passive business income, landlordism, active business income, skilled professional work – but usually it tilts toward the traditional, i.e. passive. These groups tend to be incredibly anti-developmental: they own small businesses, sometimes actively and sometimes passively, and resent being made redundant through economies of scale. India has problems with economic dwarfism and informality, and this is typical of poor countries; if anything, India is better than most at developing a handful of big businesses in high-value added industries.
The upshot is that the sort of people who drive, and especially the sort of drivers who are powerful enough to effect local changes to get incremental upgrades to roads at the expense of non-drivers, are usually anti-developmental classes. The East Asian developmental states (and Singapore and Hong Kong, which share many characteristics with them) clamped down on such classes hard, on either nationalist or socialist grounds; Japan, both Koreas, and both Chinas engaged in land reform, with characteristic violence in the two socialist states and without it but still with forcible purchase in the three capitalist states. The same sort of state that can eliminate landlordism can also, as a matter of capital formation, clamp down on consumption and encourage personal savings, producing atypically low levels of motorization well into middle-income status. Singapore, whose elite consumption centers vacations out of the country, has managed to do so even as a high-income country – and even more normal Tokyo and Seoul have much higher rail usage and lower car usage than their closest Western analog, New York.
India is in many ways anti-developmental, but it does manage to grow. Its anti-developmentalism is anti-urban and NIMBY, but it is capable of building infrastructure. Its metro program has problems with high construction costs (but Southeast Asia’s are generally worse) and lack of integration with other modes such as commuter rail, which the middle class denigrates as only befitting poor people; but the Delhi Metro had 5.5 million daily riders just before corona, slightly behind New York in a slightly larger metro area, perhaps a better comparison than Jakarta and Manila’s San Diego.
It’s the slower-growing developing countries that are not managing to even build the systems India has, let alone East Asia. They don’t have high car use, but only because they are poor, and in practice, they are thoroughly car-dominated, and everyone who doesn’t have a car wants one. A rich country really is not one where even the poor have cars but where even the rich use public transportation – and those countries aren’t rich and don’t grow at rates that will make them rich.
The Effective Transit Alliance published its statement on Riders Alliance’s Six-Minute Service campaign, which proposes to run every subway line in New York and the top 100 bus routes every (at worst) six minutes every day from morning to evening. We’re positive on it, even more than Riders Alliance is. We go over how frequency benefits riders, as I wrote here and here, but also over how it makes planning easier. It is the latter benefit I want to go over right now: schedule planning staff is a resource, just as drivers and outside capital are, and it’s important for transit agencies to institute systems that conserve this resource and avoid creating unnecessary work for planners.
The current situation in New York
Uday Schultz writes about how schedule planning is done in New York. There’s an operations planning department, with 350 budgeted positions as of 2021 of which 284 are filled, down from 400 and 377 respectively in 2016. The department is responsible for all aspects of schedule planning: base schedules but also schedules for every service change (“General Order” or GO in short).
Each numbered or lettered route is timetabled on it own. The frequency is set by a guideline coming from peak crowding: at any off-peak period, at the most crowded point of a route, passenger crowding is supposed to be 25% higher than the seated capacity of the train; at rush hour, higher standee crowding levels are tolerated, and in practice vary widely by route. This way, two subway routes that share tracks for a long stretch will typically have different frequencies, and in practice, as perceived by passengers, off-peak crowding levels vary and are usually worse than the 25% standee factor.
Moreover, because planning is done by route, two trains that share tracks will have separate schedule plans, with little regard for integration. Occasionally, as Uday points out, this leads to literally impossible schedules. More commonly, this leads to irregular gaps: for example, the E and F trains run at the same frequency, every 4 minutes peak and every 12 minutes on weekends, but on weekends they are offset by just 2 minutes from each other, so on the long stretch of the Queens Boulevard Line where they share the express tracks, passengers have a 2-minute wait followed by a 10-minute wait.
The current situation creates more work for schedule planners, in all of the following ways:
- Each route is run on its own set of frequencies.
- Routes that share tracks can have different frequencies, requiring special attention to ensure that trains do not conflict.
- Each period of day (morning peak, midday, afternoon peak, evening) is planned separately, with transitions between peak and off-peak; there are separate schedules for the weekend.
- There are extensive GOs, each requiring not just its own bespoke timetable but also a plan for ramping down service before the start of the GO and ramping it up after it ends.
This way, a department of 284 operations planners is understaffed and cuts corners, leading to irregular and often excessively long gaps between trains. In effect, managerial rules for how to plan trains have created makework for the planners, so that an objectively enormous department still has too much work to do and cannot write coherent schedules.
Creating less work for planners
Operations planners, like any other group of employees, are a resource. It’s possible to get more of this resource by spending more money, but office staff is not cheap and American public-sector hiring has problems with uncompetitive salaries. Moreover, the makework effect doesn’t dissipate if more people are hire – it’s always possible to create more work for more planners, for example by micromanaging frequency at ever more granular levels.
To conserve this resource, multiple strategies should be used:
If all trains run on the same frequency all day, there’s less work to do, freeing up staff resources toward making sure that the timetables work without any conflict. If a distinction between peak and base is required, as on the absolute busiest routes like the E and F, then the base should be the same during all off-peak periods, so that only two schedules (peak and off-peak) are required with a ramp-up and ramp-down at the transition. This is what the six-minute service program does, but it could equally be done with a more austere and worse-for-passengers schedule, such as running trains every eight minutes off-peak.
Reducing the extent of reverse-branching would enable planning more parts of the system separately from one another without so much conflict. Note that deinterlining for the purposes of good passenger service has somewhat different priorities from deinterlining for the purposes of coherent planning. I wrote about the former here and here. For the latter, it’s most important to reduce the number of connected components in the track-sharing graph, which means breaking apart the system inherited from the BMT from that inherited from the IND.
The two goals share a priority in fixing DeKalb Avenue, so that in both Manhattan and Brooklyn, the B and D share tracks as do the N and Q (today, in Brooklyn, the B shares track with the Q whereas the D shares track with the N): DeKalb Junction is a timetabling mess and trains have to wait two minutes there for a slot. Conversely, the main benefit of reverse-branching, one-seat rides to more places, is reduced since the two Manhattan trunks so fed, on Sixth Avenue and Broadway, are close to each other.
However, to enable more convenient planning, the next goal for deinterlining must be to stop using 11th Street Connection in regular service, which today transitions the R from the BMT Broadway Line and 60th Street Tunnel to the IND Queens Boulevard local tracks. Instead, the R should go where Broadway local trains go, that is Astoria, while the Broadway express N should go to Second Avenue Subway to increase service there. The vacated local service on Queens Boulevard should go to IND trunks in Manhattan, to Eighth or Sixth Avenue depending on what’s available based on changes to the rest of the system; currently, Eighth Avenue is where there is space. Optionally, no new route should be added, and instead local service on Queens Boulevard could run as a single service (currently the M) every 4 minutes all day, to match peak E and F frequencies.
New York uses too many GOs, messing up weekend service. This is ostensibly for maintenance and worker safety, but maintenance work gets done elsewhere with fewer changes (as in Paris or Berlin) or almost none (as in Tokyo) – and Berlin and Tokyo barely have nighttime windows for maintenance, Tokyo’s nighttime outages lasting at most 3-4 hours and Berlin’s available only five nights a week. The system should push back against ever more creative service disruptions for work and demand higher maintenance productivity.
The MTA just released a draft of the Brooklyn bus redesign it and its consultant had been working on. It is not good. I’m not completely sure why this is – the Queens redesign was a good deal better, and our take on it at the Effective Transit Alliance was decidedly positive. But in the case of Brooklyn, the things that worked in Queens are absent. Overall, the theme of this is stasis – the changes to the network are minor, and the frequencies are to remain insufficiently low for good service. The only good thing about this is stop consolidation, which does not require spending any money on consultants and is a straightforward fix.
This is especially frustrating to me because my first project for Marron, before the Transit Costs Project, was a redesign proposal. The proposal can be read here, with discussion in blog posts here, here, and here. The official reaction we got was chilly, but the redesign doesn’t look anything like a more politic version, just one produced at much higher consultant cost while doing very little.
The four-color scheme
The Brooklyn project retains the Queens redesign’s four-color scheme of buses, to be divided into local (green), limited (red), Select Bus Service (blue), and rush (purple). The local buses are supposed to stop every 300-400 meters, which is not the best (the optimum for Brooklyn is about 400-500) but is a good deal better than the current spacing of about 200-250. The other three kinds of buses are more express, some running on the same routes as local buses as express overlays and some running on streets without local service.
In Queens, this four-way distinction emerges from the pattern in which in neighborhoods beyond the subway’s reach, bus usage is extremely peaky toward the subway. The purpose of the rush route is to get people to the subway terminal, such as Flushing or Jamaica, with not just longer stop spacing but also long nonstop sections close to the terminal where local service exists as an overlay, imitating the local and express patterns of peaky commuter rail operations in New York. I still think it’s not a good idea and buses should run at a more uniform interstation at higher frequency. But over the long stretches of Eastern Queens, the decision is fairly close and while rush routes are not optimal, they’re not much worse than the optimum. In contrast, Brooklyn is nothing like Queens: people travel shorter distances, and long routes are often used as circumferential subway connectors with ample turnover.
Ironically, this is something the MTA and its consultants understood: the Brooklyn map is largely green, whereas that in Queens has a more even mix of all four colors. Nonetheless, some rush routes are retained and so are some limited-only routes, in a way that subtracts value: if nearly all buses in Brooklyn offer me something, I should expect it on the other buses as well, whereas the rush-only B26 on Halsey Street is different in a way that isn’t clear.
In general, the notable feature of our redesign, unlike the more common American ones, is that there is no distinction among the different routes. Some are more frequent than others, but all have very high base frequency. This is because Brooklyn has unusually isotropic travel: density decreases from the East River south- and eastward, but the subway network also thins out and these effects mostly cancel out, especially with the high density of some housing projects in Coney Island; the busiest buses include some running only within Southern Brooklyn, like the B6 and B82 circumferentials.
In contrast, small-city redesigns tend to occur in a context with a strong core network and a weak peripheral network (“coverage routes,” which exist to reassure loud communities with no transit ridership that they can get buses too), and the redesign process tends to center this distinction and invest in the stronger core network. Queens has elements that look like this, if you squint your eyes sufficiently. Brooklyn has none: the isotropic density of most of the borough ensures that splitting buses into separate classes is counterproductive.
The frequency in the proposed system is, frankly, bad. The MTA seems to believe that the appropriate frequency for urban mass transit is a train or bus every 10 minutes. This is acceptable in the suburban neighborhoods of Berlin or the outermost parts of New York, like the Rockaways and the eastern margin of Queens. In denser areas, including all of Brooklyn, it is not acceptable. People travel short distances: citywide, the average trip distance before corona was 3.4 km, which works out to 18 minutes at average New York bus speed (source: NTD 2019). In Brooklyn, the dense mesh of buses going between subway lines rather than to them makes the average even slightly lower. This means that very high frequency is a high priority.
So bad is the MTA’s thinking about frequency that core routes in the borough are split into local and limited variants, each running every 10 minutes off-peak, including some of the busiest corridors in the borough, like the outer circumferential B6 and B82 and the more inner-circumferential B35 on Church (split in the plan into a local B35 and an SBS B55). This is not changed from the current design, even though it’s easy to do so in the context of general consolidation of stops.
To make this even worse, there does not appear to be any increase in service-km, judging by the plan’s lack of net increase in frequency. This is bad planning: bus operating costs come from time (driver’s wage, mainly) and not distance, and the speedup provided by the stop consolidation should fuel an increase in frequency.
The Battery Tunnel
The most annoying aspect, at least to me, is the lack of a bus in the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, connecting Manhattan with Red Hook. Red Hook is isolated from the subway and from the rest of Brooklyn thanks to the freeway, and has bus connections only internally to Brooklyn where in fact a short bus route through the tunnel would beat bus-subway connections to Lower Manhattan.
We got the idea for the inclusion of such a bus service from planners that we spoke to when we wrote our own redesign. The service is cheap to provide because of the short length of the route, and would complement the rest of the network. It was also popular in the neighborhood meetings that tee consultants ran, we are told. And yet, it was deleted on a whim.
I streamed a longer version of this on Twitch on Tuesday, but the recording cut out, so instead of uploading to YouTube as a vlog, I’m summarizing it here
Manhattan has an attractive, amply-used park in the Meatpacking District, called the High Line. Here it is, just west of 10th Avenue:
It was originally a freight rail branch of the New York Central, running down the West Side of Manhattan to complement the railroad’s main line to Grand Central, currently the Harlem Line of Metro-North. As such, it was a narrow el with little direct interface with the neighborhood, unlike the rapid transit els like that on Ninth Avenue. The freight line was not useful for long: the twin inventions of trucking and electrification led to the deurbanization of manufacturing to land-intensive, single-story big box-style structures. Thus, for decades, it lay unused. As late as 2007, railfans were dreaming about reactivating it for passenger rail use, but it was already being converted to a park, opening in 2009. The High Line park is a successful addition to the neighborhood, and has spawned poor attempt at imitation, like the Low Line (an underground rapid transit terminal since bypassed by the subway), the Queensway (a similar disused line in Central Queens), and some plans in Jersey City. So what makes the High Line so good?
- The neighborhood, as can be seen above in the picture, has little park space. The tower-in-a-park housing visible to the east of the High Line, Chelsea-Elliott Houses, has some greenery but it’s not useful as a neighborhood park. The little greenery to the west is on the wrong side of 12th Avenue, a remnant of the West Side Highway that is not safe for pedestrians to cross, car traffic is so fast and heavy. Thus, it provides a service that the neighborhood previously did not have.
- The area has very high density, both residential and commercial. Chelsea is a dense residential neighborhood, but at both ends of the line there is extensive commercial development. Off-screen just to the south, bounded by Eighth, Ninth, 15th, and 16th, is Google’s building in New York, with more floor area than the Empire State Building and almost as much as One World Trade Center. Off-screen just to the north is the Hudson Yards development, which was conceived simultaneously with the High Line. This guarantees extensive foot traffic through the park.
- The linear park is embedded in a transit-rich street grid. Getting on at one end and off at the other is not much of a detour to the pedestrian tourist, or to anyone with access to the subway near both ends, making it a convenient urban trail.
These three conditions are not common, and trying to replicate the same linear park in their absence is unlikely to produce good results. For example, consider the Rockaway Cutoff, or Rockaway Beach Branch:
The Cutoff has two competing proposals for what to do with this disused LIRR branch: the Queenslink, aiming to convert it to a rapid transit branch (connecting to the subway, not the LIRR), and the Queensway, aiming to convert it to a linear park. The Queenslink proposal is somewhat awkward (which doesn’t mean it’s bad), but the Queensway one is completely drunk. Look at the satellite photo above and compare to that of the High Line:
- The area is full of greenery and recreation already, easily accessible from adjoining areas. Moreover, many residents live in houses with backyards.
- The density is moderate at the ends (Forest Hills and Woodhaven) and fairly low in between, with all these parks, cemeteries, and neighborhoods of single-family houses and missing middle density. Thus, local usage is unlikely to be high. Nor is this area anyone’s destination – there are some jobs at the northern margin of the area along Queens Boulevard (the wide road signed as Route 25 just north of the LIRR) but even then the main job concentrations in Queens are elsewhere.
- There is no real reason someone should use this as a hiking trail unless they want to hike it twice, one way and then back. The nearest viable parallel transit route, Woodhaven, is a bus rather than a subway.
The idea of a park is always enticing to local neighborhood NIMBYs. It’s land use that only they get to have, designed to be useless to outsiders; it is also at most marginally useful to neighborhood residents, but neighborhood politics is petty and centers exclusion of others rather than the actual benefits to residents, most of whom either don’t know their self-appointed neighborhood advocates or quietly loathe them and think of them as Karens and Beckies. Moreover, the neighborhood residents don’t pay for this – it’s a city project, a great opportunity to hog at the trough of other people’s money. Not for nothing, the Queensway website talks about how this is a community-supported solution, a good indication that it is a total waste of money.
But in reality, this is not going to be a useful park. The first park in a neighborhood is nice. The second can be, too. The fifth is just fallow land that should be used for something more productive, which can be housing, retail, or in this case a transportation artery for other people (since there aren’t enough people within walking distance of a trail to justify purely local use). The city should push back against neighborhood boosters who think that what worked in the Manhattan core will work in their explicitly anti-Manhattan areas, and preserve the right-of-way for future subway or commuter rail expansion.
As we’re finalizing edits on our New York and synthesis reports, I’m rereading about Second Avenue Subway. In context, I’m stricken by how easy it is to waste money – to turn what should be a $600 million project into a $6 billion one or what should be a $3 billion project into a $30 billion one. Fortunately, it is also not too hard to keep costs under control if everyone involved with the project is in on the program and interested in value engineering. Unfortunately, once promises are made that require a higher budget figure, getting back in line looks difficult, because one then needs to say “no” to a lot of people.
This combination – it’s easy to stay on track, it’s easy to fall aside, it’s hard to get back on track once one falls aside – also helps explain some standard results in the literature about costs. There’s much deeper academic literature about cost overruns than absolute costs; the best-known reference is the body of work of Bent Flyvbjerg about cost overruns (which in his view are not overruns but underestimations – i.e. the real cost was high all along and the planners just lied to get the approval), but the work of Bert van Wee and Chantal Cantarelli on early commitment as a cause of overruns is critical to this as well. In van Wee and Cantarelli, once an extravagant promise is made, such a 300 km/h top speed on Dutch high-speed rail, it’s hard to walk it back even if it turns out to be of limited value compared with its cost. But equally, there are examples of promises made that have no value at all, or sometimes even negative value to the system, and are retained because of their values to specific non-state actors, such as community advocacy, which are incorrectly treated as stakeholders rather than obstacles to be removed.
In our New York report, we include a flashy example of $20 million in waste on the project: the waste rock storage chamber. The issue is that tunnel-boring machines (TBMs) in principle work 24/7; in practice they constantly break down (40% uptime is considered good) and require additional maintenance, but this can’t be predicted in advance or turned into a regular cycle of overnight shutdowns, and therefore, work must be done around the clock either way. This means that the waste rock has to be hauled out around the clock. The agency made a decision to be a good neighbor and not truck out the muck overnight – but because the TBM had to keep operating overnight, the contractor was required to build an overnight storage chamber and haul it all away with a platoon of trucks in the morning rush hour. The extra cost of the chamber and of rush hour trucking was $20 million.
Another $11 million is surplus extraction at a single park, the Marx Brothers Playground. As is common for subway projects around the world, the New York MTA used neighborhood parks to stage station entrances where appropriate. Normally, this is free. However, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation viewed this as a great opportunity to get other people’s money; the MTA had to pay NYC Parks $11 million to use one section of the playground, which the latter agency viewed as a great success in getting money. Neither agency viewed the process as contentious; it just cost money.
But both of these examples are eclipsed by the choice of construction method for the stations. Again in order to be a good neighbor, the MTA decided to mine two of the project’s three stations, instead of opening up Second Avenue to build cut-and-cover digs. Mined stations cost extra, according to people we’ve spoken to at a number of agencies; in New York, the best benchmark is that these two stations cost the same as cut-and-cover 96th Street, a nearly 50% longer dig.
Moreover, the stations were built oversize, for reasons that largely come from planner laziness. The operating side of the subway, New York City Transit, demanded extravagant back-of-the-house function spaces, with each team having its own rooms, rather than the shared rooms typical of older stations or of subway digs in more frugal countries. The spaces were then placed to the front and back of the platform, enlarging the digs; the more conventional place for such spaces is above the platform, where there is room between the deep construction level and the street. Finally, the larger of the two station, 72nd Street, also has crossovers on both sides, enlarging the dig even further; these crossovers were included based on older operating plans, but subsequent updates made them no longer useful, and yet they were not descoped. Each station cost around $700 million, which could have been shrunk by a factor of three, keeping everything else constant.
Why are they like this?
They do not care. If someone says, “Give me an extra,” they do not say, “no.” It’s so easy not to care when it’s a project whose value is so obvious to the public; even with all this cost, the cost per rider for Second Avenue Subway is pretty reasonable. But soon enough, norms emerge in which the appearance of neighborhood impact must always be avoided (but the mined digs still cause comparable disruption at the major streets), the stations must be very large (but passengers still don’t get any roomy spaces), etc. Projects that have less value lose cost-effectiveness, and yet there is no way within the agency to improve them.
Shaul Picker is working on an FAQ for the benefit of people in the New York area about the concept of commuter rail through-running and what it’s good for. So in addition to contributing on some specific points, I’d like to step back for a moment and go over who the expected users are. This post needs to be thought of as a followup from what I wrote a month ago in which I listed the various travel markets used by modern commuter rail in general, making the point that this is a predominantly urban and inner-suburban mode, in which suburban rush hour commuters to city center are an important but secondary group, even where politically commuter rail is conceived of as For the Suburbs in opposition to the city, as in Munich. My post was about all-day frequency, but the same point can be made about the physical infrastructure for through-running, with some modifications.
The overall travel markets for regional rail
The assumption throughout is that the city region has with a strong center. This can come from a few square kilometers of city center skyscrapers, as is the norm in the United States (for example, in New York, Chicago, or Boston, but not weaker-centered Los Angeles), or from a somewhat wider region with office mid-rises, as is the norm in European cities like Paris, Stockholm, Munich, Zurich, and Berlin. Berlin is polycentric in the sense of having different job centers, including Mitte, City-West at the Zoo, and increasingly Friedrichshain at Warschauer Strasse, but these are all within the Ring, and overall this inner zone dominates citywide destinations. In cities like this, the main travel markets for commuter rail are, in roughly descending order of importance,
- Urban commuter trips to city center
- Commuter trips to a near-center destination, which may not be right at the one train station of traditional operations
- Urban non-work trips, of the same kind as subway ridership
- Middle-class suburban commutes to city center at traditional mid-20th century work hours, the only market the American commuter rail model serves today
- Working-class reverse-commutes, not to any visible office site (which would tilt middle-class) but to diffuse retail, care, and service work
- Suburban work and non-work trips to city center that are not at traditional mid-20th century hours
- Middle-class reverse-commutes and cross-city commutes
I center urban commuter trips because even in places with extensive suburbanization, commutes are more urban than suburban. Long Island, an unusually job-poor, commuter-oriented suburb, has 2.9 million people as of the 2020 census and, per OnTheMap, 191,202 Manhattan-bound commuters and 193,536 outer borough-bound commuters. Queens has 2.4 million people, 871,253 in-city commuters, 384,223 Manhattan-bound commuters, and 178,062 commuters to boroughs other than itself and Manhattan. The Metro-North suburbs – Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, and Fairfield Counties (New Haven omitted as it’s not really a suburb) – have 2.35 million people and 143,862 Manhattan-bound commuters and 79,821 outer borough-bound commuters. To work regionwide, commuter rail needs to be usable by the largest commute market; it’s urban rail that’s capable of also serving the suburbs without building suburban metro tunnels, rather than predominantly suburban rail.
Through-running means that trains run from one side of the region to the other through city center, rather than terminating at a traditional city terminal. Rarely, this means running trains through a city center station that already has through-tracks, like Penn Station or Stockholm Central; usually, this requires building new tunnels to connect different terminals, as it would to get to Grand Central and as it did in the other European comparison cases.
This rearranges the travel markets for commuter rail, but only somewhat. The largest group, urban commuters to city center, shrinks somewhat: terminating trains to some extent already serve it. The qualifiers come from the fact that city center is rarely entirely within walking distance of the terminal; it is in Stockholm, but it’s small and I suspect the reason Stockholm’s monocentric CBD is walking distance from the intercity station is that it opened as a through-station in 1871 already. In Boston, most of the CBD is close to South Station, but much of it isn’t, and little is within walking distance of North Station. In New York, the CBD is large enough that service to multiple destinations is desirable when feasible, for example both East Side and West Side destinations in Midtown and even Lower Manhattan, requiring additional through-running commuter rail tunnels.
What really shines with through-running is urban trips that are not commutes, or are commutes to a near-center destination on the wrong side of the CBD (for example, south of it for commuters from Uptown Manhattan or the Bronx). New York is unusually asymmetric in that there’s much more city east of Manhattan than west of it, where there’s just the urban parts of Hudson County and Newark. But even there, New Jersey-Brooklyn and New Jersey-Queens commutes matter, as do Bronx-Brooklyn commutes.
Even then, the urban commutes are significant: there are 55,000 commuters from the Bronx to Manhattan south of 23rd Street. These in-city travel markets are viable by subway today, but are for the most part slow even on the express trains – the A train’s run from Inwood to Jay Street and the 4’s run from Woodlawn to Brooklyn Bridge are both scheduled to take 45 minutes for 22.5 km, an average speed of 30 km/h. And then the New Jersey-to-outer borough commutes are largely unviable by public transportation – they cost double because there’s no fare integration between PATH and the subway and the transfers are onerous and slow, and besides, PATH’s coverage of the urban parts of North Jersey leaves a lot to be desired.
Adapting the city
Berlin is in a way the most S-Bahn-oriented city I know of. It’s polycentric but all centers are within the Ring and close to either the Stadtbahn or (for Potsdamer Platz) the North-South Tunnel. This shouldn’t be surprising – the Stadtbahn has been running since the 1880s, giving the city time to adapt to it, through multiple regime changes, division, and reunification. Even Paris doesn’t quite compare – the RER’s center, Les Halles, is a retail but not job center, and the five-line system only has two CBD stops, the RER A’s Auber and the RER E’s Haussmann-Saint-Lazare.
Can New York become more like Berlin if it builds through-running? The answer is yes. Midtown would remain dominant, and overall the region would become less rather than more polycentric as better commuter rail service encouraged job growth in the Manhattan core. But it’s likely any of the following changes would grow the market for commuter rail to take advantage of through-running over time:
- Job growth in Lower Manhattan, which has struggled with office vacancy for decades
- Job growth in non-CBD parts of Manhattan that would become accessible, like Union Square, or even Midtown South around Penn Station, which is lower-rise than the 40s and 50s
- Job growth in near-center job centers – Downtown Brooklyn may see a revival, and Long Island City is likely to see a larger upswing than it is already seeing if it becomes more accessible from New Jersey and not just the city
- Residential location adjustment – Brooklyn workers may choose to depend on the system and live in the Bronx or parts of New Jersey with good service instead of moving farther out within Brooklyn or suburbanizing and driving to work
- Residential transit-oriented development near outlying stations, in urban as well as suburban areas
While trying to hunt down some numbers on the costs of the three new U5 stations, I found media discourse in Berlin about the U-Bahn expansion plan that was, in effect, greenwashing austerity. This is related to the general hostility of German urbanists and much of the Green Party (including the Berlin branch) to infrastructure at any scale larger than that of a bike lane. But the specific mechanism they use – trying to estimate the carbon budget – is a generally interesting case of knowing the costs more certainly than the benefits, which leads to austerity. The underlying issue is that mode shift is hard to estimate accurately at the level of the single piece of infrastructure, and therefore benefit-cost analyses that downplay ridership as a benefit and only look at mode shift lead to underbuilding of public transport infrastructure.
The current program in Berlin
In the last generation, Berlin has barely expanded its rapid transit network. The priority in the 1990s was to restore sections that had been cut by the Berlin Wall, such as the Ringbahn, which was finally restored with circular service in 2006. U-Bahn expansion, not including restoration of pre-Wall services, included two extensions of U8, one north to Wittenau that had begun in the 1980s and a one-stop southward extension of U8 to Hermannstrasse, which project had begun in the 1920s but been halted during the Depression. Since then, the only fully new extension have been a one-stop extension of U2 to Pankow, and the six-stop extension of U5 west from Alexanderplatz to Hauptbahnhof.
However, plans for much more expansive construction continue. Berlin was one of the world’s largest and richest cities before the war, and had big plans for further growth, which were not realized due to the war and division; in that sense, I believe it is globally only second to New York in the size of its historic unrealized expansion program. The city will never regain its relative wealth or size, not in a world of multiple hypercities, but it is growing, and as a result, it’s dusting off some of these plans.
Most of the lines depicted in red on the map are not at all on the city’s list of projects to be built by the 2030s. Unfortunately, the most important line measured by projected cost per rider, the two-stop extension of U8 north (due east) to Märkisches Viertel, is constantly deprioritized. The likeliest lines to be built per current politicking are the extensions of U7 in both directions, southeast ti the airport (beyond the edge of the map) and west from Spandau to Staaken, and the one-stop extension of U3 southwest to Mexikoplatz to connect with the S-Bahn. An extension to the former grounds of Tegel is also considered, most likely a U6 branch depicted as a lower-priority dashed yellow line on the map rather than the U5 extension the map depicts in red.
The carbon critique
Two days after the U5 extension opened two years ago, a report dropped that accused the proposed program of climate catastrophe. The argument: the embedded concrete emissions of subway construction are high, and the payback time on those from mode shift is more than 100 years.
The numbers in the study are, as follows: each kilometer of construction emits 98,800 tons of CO2, which is 0.5% of city emissions (that is, 5.38 t/person, cf. the German average of about 9.15 in 2021). It’s expected that through mode shift, each subway kilometer saves 714 t-CO2 in annual emissions through mode shift, which is assumed to be 20% of ridership, for a payback time of 139 years.
And this argument is, frankly, garbage. The scale of the difference in emissions between cities with and without extensive subway systems is too large for this to be possibly true. The U-Bahn is 155 km long; if the 714 t/km number holds, then in a no U-Bahn counterfactual, Berlin’s annual greenhouse gas emissions grow by 0.56%, which is just ridiculous. We know what cities with no or minimal rapid transit systems look like, and they’re not 0.56% worse than comparanda with extensive rapid transit – compare any American city to New York, for one. Or look again at the comparison of Berlin to the German average: Berlin has 327 cars per 1,000 people, whereas Germany-wide it’s 580 and that’s with extensive rapid transit systems in most major cities bringing down the average from the subway-free counterfactual of the US or even Poland.
The actual long-term effect of additional public transport ridership on mode shift and demotorization has to be much more than 20%, then. It may well be more than 100%: the population density that the transit city supports also increases the walking commute modal split as some people move near work, and even drivers drive shorter distances due to the higher density. This, again, is not hard to see at the level of sanity checks: Europeans drive considerably less than Americans not just per capita but also per car, and in the United States, people in New York State drive somewhat shorter distance per car than Americans elsewhere (I can’t find city data).
The measurement problem
It’s easy to measure the embedded concrete of infrastructure construction: there are standardized itemized numbers for each element and those can be added up. It’s much harder to measure the carbon savings from the existence of a better urban rail system. Ridership can be estimated fairly accurately, but long-term mode shift can’t. This is where rules of thumb like 20% can look truthy, even if they fail any sanity check.
But it’s not correct to take any difficult to estimate number and set it to zero. In fact, there are visible mode shift effects from a large mass transit system. The difficulty is with attributing specific shifts to specific capital investments. Much of the effect of mode shift comes from the ability of an urban rail system to contribute to the rise of a strong city center, which can be high-rise (as in New York), mid-rise (as in Munich or Paris), or a mix (as in Berlin). Once the city center anchored by the system exists, jobs are less likely to suburbanize to auto-oriented office parks, and people are likelier to work in city center and take the train. Social events will likewise tend to pick central locations to be convenient for everyone, and denser neighborhoods make it easier to walk or bike to such events, and this way, car-free travel is possible even for non-work trips.
This, again, can be readily verified by looking at car ownership rates, modal splits (for example, here is Berlin’s), transit-oriented development, and so on, but it’s difficult to causally attribute it to a specific piece of infrastructure. Nonetheless, ignoring this effect is irresponsible: it means the carbon benefit-cost analysis, and perhaps the economic case as well, knows the cost of everything and the value of little, which makes investment look worse than it is.
I suspect that this is what’s behind the low willingness to invest in urban rail here. The benefit-cost analyses can leave too much value on the table, contributing to public transport austerity. When writing the Sweden report, I was stricken by how the benefit-cost analyses for both Citybanan and Nya Tunnelbanan were negative, when the ridership projections were good relative to costs. Actual ridership growth on the Stockholm commuter trains from before the opening of Citybanan to 2019 was enough to bring cot per new daily trip down to about $29,000 in 2021 PPP dollars, and Nya Tunnelbanan’s daily ridership projection of 170,000 means around $23,000/rider. The original construction of the T-bana cost $2,700/rider in 2021 dollars, in a Sweden that was only about 40% as rich as it is today, and has a retrospective benefit-cost ratio of between 6 and 8.5, depending on whether broader agglomeration benefit are included – and these benefits are economic (for example, time savings, or economic productivity from agglomeration) scale linearly with income.
At least Sweden did agree to build both lines, recognizing the benefit-cost analysis missed some benefits. Berlin instead remains in austerity mode. The lines under discussion right now are projected between 13,160€ and 27,200€ per weekday trip (and Märkisches Viertel is, again, the cheapest). The higher end, represented by the U6 branch to Tegel, is close to the frontier of what a country as rich as Germany should build; M18 in Paris is projected to be more than this, but area public transport advocates dislike it and treat it as a giveaway to rich suburbs. And yet, the U6 branch looks unlikely to be built right now. When the cost per rider of what is left is this low, what this means is that the city needs to build more infrastructure, or else it’s leaving value on the table.
Sandbagging is the practice of making a proposal one does not wish to see enacted look a lot weaker than it is. In infrastructure, this usually takes the form of making the cost look a lot higher than it needs to be, by including extra scope, assuming constraints that are not in fact binding, or just using high-end estimates for costs and low-end estimates for benefits. Unfortunately, once a sandbagged estimate circulates, it becomes real: doing the project cleanly without the extras and without fake constraints becomes politically difficult, especially if the sandbaggers are still in charge.
Examples of sandbagging
I’ve written before about some ways Massachusetts sandbags commuter rail electrification and the North-South Rail Link. In both cases, Governor Charlie Baker and the state’s Department of Transportation are uninterested in commuter rail modernization and therefore ensured the studies in that direction would put their fingers on the scale to arrive at the desired conclusion. As we will see, the electrification sandbag is one example of how sandbagged estimates can become real.
In New York, the best example is of sandbagging alternatives. Disgraced then-governor Andrew Cuomo wanted to build a people mover to LaGuardia Airport in the wrong direction, and to that effect, Port Authority made a study that found ways to sandbag other alignments; here at least there’s a happy ending, in that as soon as Cuomo left office, the process was restarted and the rapid transit options studied the most seriously are the better ones.
Another example I have just seen is in Philadelphia. There have long been calls for extending the subway to the northeast along Roosevelt Boulevard; Pennsylvania DOT has just released a cost estimate of $1-4 billion/mile ($600 million-$2.5 billion/km). The high end would beat both phases of Second Avenue Subway, in an environment that both is objectively easier to tunnel in and has a recent history of building and operating services much less expensively than New York.
How to sandbag public transportation
An obstructionist manager who does not care much for public transit, or doesn’t care about the specific project being proposed, has a number of tools with which they can make costs appear higher and benefits appear lower. These are not hard to bake into an official proposal. These include the following:
- Invocation of NIMBYs as a reason not to build. The NIMBYs in question can be a complete phantom – perhaps the region in question is supportive of transit expansion, or perhaps there was NIMBYism in recent memory but the NIMBYs have since died or moved away. Or they can be real but far less powerful than the obstructionist says, with a recent history of the state beating NIMBYs in court when it cares.
- Scope creep. Complex public transportation projects often require additional scope to be viable – for example, regional rail tunnels often require additional spending on surface improvements for the branches that are to use the tunnels. How much extra scope is required is a subtle technical question and there is usually room for creative innovation for how to schedule around bottlenecks (whence the Swiss slogan electronics before concrete). The obstructionist can take a maximalist approach for the scope and just avoid any attempt to optimize, making the costs appear higher.
- Scope deflection. This is similar to scope creep in that the project gets laden with additional items, but differs from scope creep in that the items are what the obstructionist really wants to build, rather than lazy irrelevances.
- Excessive contingency. Cost estimates are uncertain and the earlier the design is, the more uncertain they are. Adding 40% contingency is a surefire way to ensure the money will be spent, as is citing a large range of costs as in the above-mentioned case in Philadelphia.
How sandbags become real
Normally, the purpose of a sandbag is to block or delay the entire project; the scope deflection point is an exception to this. And yet, once a sandbagged estimate is announced, it often turns into the real cost. Philadelphia was recently planning subway expansion for not much more than the international cost, but now that numbers comparable to Second Avenue Subway are out there, area advocates should expect them to turn into the real cost, absent a strong counterforce, involving public dismissal and humiliation of people engaged in such tactics.
The reason for this is that cost control doesn’t always occur naturally, unless one is already used to it. It’s very easy to waste money on irrelevant extras, some with real value to another group (“betterments”), some without. Second Avenue Subway has stations that are two to three times as big as they needed to be, without any sandbagging – different requirements just piled up, including mechanical rooms, crew rooms with each department having its own space, and additional crossovers, and nobody said “Wait a minute, this is too much.” The station designs are also not standardized, again without a sandbag, and it’s very easy to promise neighborhood groups bespoke design just to make them feel important, even if the bespoke design isn’t architecturally notable or useful for passengers.
Likewise, if there’s any conflict between different users, for example different utilities and infrastructure providers in a city, then it takes some effort to rein it in and coordinate. The same situation occurs for conflict between different users of the same tracks on mainline rail: it takes some effort to coordinate timetables between local and long-distance rail services. The planning effort required is ultimately orders of magnitude cheaper than the cost of segregating the uses – hence the electronics before concrete maxim – but people who don’t care for coordination can find ways to define a project in a way that makes additional concrete (on mainline rail) or extra work with utilities (in urban subways) seem unavoidable.
Moreover, a betterment, non-standardized design, concrete-instead-of-electronics, or scope deflection occurs in context of other people’s money (OPM). If a light rail project pays for a municipality’s streetscaping, the municipality will not try to value-engineer any of it, resulting in unusually high costs.
In New York, one of the reasons for high accessibility costs on the subway, beyond the usual problems of procurement and utility conflict, is scope deflection. The agency doesn’t care about disabled people, and treats disability law as a nuisance. Thus it sandbags elevator installations by bundling them with other projects that it does care about, like adding more staircases or renewing the station finishes, and charging those projects to the accessibility bucket and telling judges how much it is spending on mandated accessibility.
Political advocacy is unwittingly one of the mechanisms for this cost blowout. Transit advocates tend to value transit more than the average person, by definition, and therefore are okay with pushing for projects at higher costs than are acceptable to most. Once a sandbagged budget is out there, such groups often say that even at the higher estimate the project is a bargain and should go ahead. And once there’s political support, it’s easy to spend money with nothing to show for it.