550 new coronavirus cases in Berlin yesterday. 7,000 in Germany. 110,000 in the European Union, which at 240 per million people is even higher than the US, which is at 200/million. French hospitals are flooded with corona patients, and the state expresses its grave concerns but will still not set up quarantine hotels or universalize the use of surgical masks or do anything else that Taiwan did in less time. This is the second wave, and seven months after Taiwan showed the way how to deal with this and ended up being the only country this year to have positive economic growth to boot, Europe (and the US) still stays in its comfort zone of mass death.
It’s worth discussing the excuses, because so many of them port well to the realm of public transportation, where Europe is not so bad (there are even things East Asia can learn from us); Europe’s real disaster compared with rich Asia is in urbanism and its resistance to tall buildings. But the United States is horrific on all matters of transportation and urban redevelopment and the excusemaking there is ensuring no infrastructure can be built.
Excuse #1: the restricted comparison
The Max Planck Society (MPG) put out a statement three weeks ago, with some interesting insights about the need for a multi-pronged strategy, including contact tracing, hygiene, and social distancing. But it kept engaging in these silly intra-European comparisons, praising Germany in contrast with Britain. At no point was there any engagement with East Asia, even though we know that Taiwan has not had community spread since April, and that in Korea and Japan the current rates are about 2 and 4 daily cases per million people respectively.
Excuse #2: bullshit about culture
I’m told that there is general understanding within Germany that Taiwan and South Korea are doing far better. However, people keep making up cultural reasons why Europe can’t have what East and Southeast Asia have. This excuse unfortunately is not restricted to people who are totally unaware: a few months ago, Michel Bauwens, a Belgian degrowth advocate who lives in Thailand, talked up Thailand’s corona suppression, but attributed it to a communitarian, collectivist culture. The Thais are mass-protesting their autocratic government’s state of emergency (while wearing masks, unlike Western anti-regime protesters); what collectivism? The actual policy differences – mandatory centralized quarantine for people who test positive, mask wearing mandates – were not mentioned.
When I bring up the necessity of centralized quarantine, and even the fact that Israel used corona hotels to nearly eradicate the virus in the first wave (the second wave came from mass abandonment of social distancing – MPG is right about multi-pronged strategies), Europeans and Americans keep making a “but freedom” line. It’s strange. Yes, Thailand is autocratic. But Taiwan and South Korea are not – and they had authoritarian governments within living memory, and both are currently run by political parties that emerged out of democratic opposition to autocracy in the 1980s and 90s, and that far from becoming autocrats themselves, ceded power peacefully when they lost reelection in the past.
Excuse #3: the fake tradeoff
Many aspects of policy involve genuine tradeoffs. But many others don’t, and corona protection is one. Taiwan is the only developed country that is projecting positive economic growth in 2020. South Korea is projecting 1% contraction, the smallest contraction in the OECD, of which Taiwan is not a member. There is no economy-death tradeoff. Plowing through with reopening before the virus has been suppressed just means mass closures later and a weaker economy. The only major suppression country that is seeing economic contraction is Thailand, whose economy is based heavily on tourism and therefore more sensitive to crises outside its borders than are the industrial export-based economies of Taiwan and Korea.
Excuse #4: learned helplessness
I write occasionally about the importance of state capacity, but centralized quarantine is not some specialized technique only available to the most advanced states. It was routine in developed countries until the 1960s, when the incidence of infectious disease had fallen to a point that it was no longer necessary. The same is true of social distancing – Nigeria for example has used it and appears to be successful, with semi-decent test positivity rates and lower per capita confirmed infections than Korea.
However, various leaders keep saying “we can’t.” This is not about technical matters. Rather, it’s about political ones: we can’t established corona hotels, we can’t ban indoor dining and drinking, we can’t scale up surgical mask production like Taiwan did 8 months ago and require people to wear surgical masks in public. The only thing Europe seems capable of doing is prohibiting travel from countries that at this point often have less corona than we do.
This is learned helplessness. Risk-averse politicians who know on some level what needs to be done are still too spineless to do it, even knowing very well that successfully suppressing corona is an amazing crowd booster.
The connection with infrastructure
All of the above problems also lead to disastrous infrastructure projects. This is to some extent a problem in Germany, where “we can’t” is a common excuse for surrender to NIMBY opposition; this is why certain key high-speed rail segments have yet to be built. But it’s a truly massive drag on the English-speaking world, especially the United States. I have seen advocates engage in internal-only comparisons within the last 24 hours; the other excuses, I saw earlier this week, and many times in the last few months, with so many different American transit managers incanting “it’s not apples-to-apples” whenever Eric and I ask them about costs. One literally said “we can’t” and “it’s not possible” and is regionally viewed as progressive and forward-thinking.
In the same manner Europeans discount any knowledge produced outside of Europe and the United States, Americans discount everything produced outside their country. Occasionally they’ll glance at Canada and Britain to affirm prior prejudices. They treat foreign language fluency as either dilettantism or immigrant poverty and not as a critical skill in the modern world right next to literacy and numeracy. They’ll flail about as they die of corona and blame one another when, just as the EU flag today is twelve yellow coronaviruses on a field of blue, the US flag is fifty white viruses on a field of blue with red and white stripes.
There’s a number of very big cities in middle-income countries that don’t really have strong public transport, and I’d like to go over some of their features. The archetype for this urban form is Bangkok, but I think this is pretty common in much of Latin America too, it’s ubiquitous in Southeast Asia except in Singapore, and Cairo has it too and I suspect most of the rest of Africa will as it moves into the middle income category. I’m fairly certain in what I am saying as far as Southeast Asia is concerned, following Paul Barter’s thesis; in Turkey I am less certain, and in Latin America and Egypt I am speculating. Of note, while those regions have some shared features, one feature that is not shared is cost: while Southeast Asian construction costs are very high, Latin American ones are not, and Turkish ones are very low. Of course low costs enable Turkey to build more subways, but it’s only doing so right now as it’s converging to the high income category.
Density with cars
Bangkok is a dense city. It is not to be confused with Hong Kong, but it is not to be confused with Atlanta either. That said, the density has not much structure, similar to the situation of Los Angeles – there is no single central business district, just a big central area with sub-districts with high-rise office and residential towers. Private vehicle ownership is high, and as of 2014, the modal split (source, PDF-p. 44) was 58% car and motorcycle (trending up), 37% bus (falling rapidly), 5% metro (trending up).
My understanding is that this pattern is also how cities like Manila, Lahore, Karachi, and Jakarta look, and even São Paulo, which has a decent-size metro system with pretty high ridership but it’s still undersized for how big the region is. Dhaka (which is low- rather than middle-income) and Cairo have especially high residential densities.
Slow metro expansion
All of these cities are building urban rail, but not particularly quickly (except Istanbul, where costs are unusually low). Bangkok is adding a few lines, but even under current plans will keep having an underbuilt system. The same is true for plans in Manila, Jakarta, Lahore, Cairo, and low-income Dhaka. In most of Latin America, too, expansion is pretty slow – the only city where I’ve seen really fast expansion recently relative to size is Santiago, which is both approximately the richest in the region and also has below-average construction costs.
The slow construction is an important feature. Some cities build quickly and can transition toward reliance on public transport. For example, Taipei only began building its MRT network in the 1990s, long after the most similar capital city to it in overall development history, Seoul, had had a multi-line network. It was a city of motorcycles in the 1990s and so were the other Taiwanese cities, but through fast (albeit expensive) construction has become a transit city, developing higher-intensity central business districts at key MRT junctions and turning its older unstructured density into a structured one.
I am also excluding India from this analysis for the same reason. Indian cities are making enormous mistakes in metro construction, chief of which are poor integration with suburban rail and high construction costs, but they are building, and even keep a lid on costs by building mostly elevated systems. The Delhi Metro ridership is flagging, but it’s a big system, about the same size as New York or London, and it’s expanding quickly; the rest of India is still only catching up, but the plan for Mumbai in 10 years is extensive. Tehran is in the same basket as Indian megacities, judging at least by its healthy pace of metro expansion.
Even when most people do not own cars or even motorcycles, as was the case in Thailand until recently, the government prefers cars to public transport. This comes from the fact that unless the public transport is excellent, or only serves where the middle class works, richer people will use cars more than poorer people, and tilt government policy to their preferences. Lagos, for example, was seriously considering banning its jitneys in 2017, called danfos, even as car ownership was 150 per 1,000 people, and has periodically considered such a ban a few times since.
This domination exists even in very poor cities. Years ago, a cousin who was visiting Kampala described its traffic to me as a brutal pecking order in which cars fear trucks and pedestrians fear cars. If 5% of the population owns cars, that’s still the richest 5%, and they get to dictate the rules.
Is it governance?
Something most of those cities I’m describing have in common is a form of government called anocracy. It’s defined as an intermediate form between democracy and autocracy, but really should mean a system in which there is unclear authority – perhaps there are elections but they are not truly free, perhaps there is a deep state, perhaps there is a dictator but the dictator’s power is circumscribed by powerful magnates and norms that do permit some political criticism. Anocracies tend not to have very strong states – a strong state under a dictator rapidly becomes a stable autocracy, for example Russia’s transition to autocracy in the last 20 years under Putin, whereas a strong democratic state evolves enduring norms and institutions of civil liberties and pluralism, like Taiwan and South Korea starting in the 1990s.
I suspect there may be a connection here: anocracies do not really have the state planning ability to restrain local magnates, like these top 10-20% of the population who are drivers. They can build roads, because it takes much less state capacity to incrementally expand roads, often with local sponsorship, than to plan a multi-line metro system, let alone do the clever multimodal design integration between infrastructure and timetabling that Switzerland does.
This is not a perfect correlation. Egypt is autocratic and not anocratic, although its recent military coup suggests it may not be as stable as autocracies with full civilian control of the military like Russia and China. Vietnam appears even more stable, and showcased high state capacity through excellent management of the corona crisis (though coup-ridden Thailand has had an excellent response as well). Moreover, there is no correlation between anocracy and construction costs – even putting my finger on the scales and classifying Turkey as not-anocratic, the correlation between a dummy that takes the value 1 at what I think are non-Turkish anocracies and construction costs is 0.06.
That said, there may be something to the fact that we see rapid expansion of metro systems in a developing country with relatively strong democratic institutions, i.e. India, and saw such expansion in turn-of-the-millennium Taiwan, and likewise we also see rapid expansion in relatively stable autocracies like Iran and China, but we see much less of it in countries without strong governments. And Moscow’s fast metro growth in Russia’s anocratic phase in the 1990s and early 2000s can be excused as having some strong-state planning institutions, inherited from the USSR. Egypt in contrast never had these institutions, with its imperfect state control of the military.
If I have a bad idea and you have a bad idea and we exchange them, we now have two bad ideas.
But more than that. If I have a bad idea and you have a good idea and we exchange them, we should both land on your good idea – but that requires both of us to conceive of the possibility that your idea could in fact be better than mine. This is not always the case. In exchanges between Britain and Australia, both sides think of Britain as the metropole and Australia as the periphery, so ideas flow from Britain outward. The same is true in exchanges between either Britain or the United States and Canada.
We even see this in exchanges between the Anglosphere and the rest of the world. Europe knows what the United States is like. We speak English and read American news to some extent. We have occasional sympathy protests with American causes that we feel are reflected at home; I have never seen Americans do the same with people outside North America except for very small protests concentrated among a particular diaspora, such as small groups of Israeli-Americans protesting Netanyahu’s policies in front of Israeli consulates.
And most of us in Europe look at the United States with a combination of denigration and disgust, but it’s not everyone, and in a pandemic, the least responsible members of society set everyone’s risk levels. There’s been some American influence on the populist right in Europe – people who see Trump and think “we would like to be governed like that”; this is still sporadic, e.g. the Gilets Jaunes used French populist language and had no connections to the United States, but the corona denialist protests in Germany have imported some American language like QAnon symbols. And more broadly, seeing other countries fail emboldens the pro-failure caucus at home: the Israeli immigrant who told me 2 months ago that “800 cases a day is nothing” Germany-wide would probably not have said this if Israel maintained its May infection rates. Of course the vast majority of denialists here are not Israeli or Jewish, and many are even anti-Semitic, but they look up to the failure that is the United States and not to the one that is Israel.
The corona example above is specific to Germany and is a bad idea that remains a minority position in Germany, but good ideas from the United States have made it to Europe elsewhere. For example, France made it easier to start a business, to the point that incorporation takes a few days and 4,000 euros in a corporate account, regulations on small business are very friendly, and there is elite consensus in favor of making hiring more flexible and some movement in that direction in the Macron administration. On handling racial diversity, Europe is sporadically importing ideas from the US, some good, some terrible, but again there is little attempt at learning in the other direction even when our cops kill a few dozen people per year Western Europe-wide and America’s kill 1,000.
I bring this up, because in transportation, one sees a lot of learning of practices both good and bad, if they come from a higher-prestige place. I may even speculate that this is why the most culturally dominant part of the world has the worst institutions when it comes to building infrastructure: if New York were capable of building something for one eighth the cost of Paris or one sixth that of Berlin, instead of the reverse, then Paris and Berlin would be capable of learning to adopt New York’s institutions.
To speculate even further, this may be why the cheapest place to build subways in East Asia is not Japan but Korea – if Japan were the best, South Korea would have learned from it. There are extensive similarities between these two countries’ institutions in general and urbanism and transportation in particular, coming from one-way learning of Japanese ideas in Korea more than from reciprocal learning. Evidently, Korea first of all learned from Japan that the primate city should be rail-oriented rather than car-oriented, and subsequently learned Japan’s extensive integration of urban rail with regional rail, its combination of local and express trains, its interest in rail technologies other than conventional subways, and so on. If Tokyo and Osaka were capable of building $120 million/km subways, Seoul would’ve picked that up. Instead, Seoul can do this but Tokyo and Osaka are evidently not learning.
In Europe, the same pattern holds. None of the most culturally dominant countries here has low costs. France and Germany’s construction costs are very average by global standards and on the high side by Continental European ones, and both have serious problems with how long it takes to build infrastructure projects. The stars of high-quality, low-cost construction in this part of the world are Southern Europe, Turkey, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. The first two are ridden by cultural cringe – nobody there other than a few railfans believes that they’re capable of doing better than Germany. And evidently, where Germany and France outperform Spain, for example in high-speed rail ridership, the Spanish discourse understands this and tries to correct the situation.
Switzerland and the Nordic countries are dicier, since they are rich and well-governed and everyone in Europe knows this. People in France and Germany even reference various Nordic models as examples to learn from, and, in contrast, the Nordic countries’ willingness to learn from non-Nordic examples is limited. However, these are all small countries that import culture more than exporting it. The vast majority of German culture is produced in Germany and not Switzerland; people in Germany are aware that Switzerland exists and is richer, but Germany’s size lets it get away with not learning. The Nordic countries, likewise, are small enough that other countries are not as regularly exposed to their ideas and therefore treat them as exotic more than as examples to learn from.
I bring up the issue of size, because it is so flagrant in the United States especially, and also in Britain. The US philosophy that economic or social might makes right is not done on a per capita basis, and practically every comparison to another country elicits the “we’re way bigger than them” excuse. Britain engages in the same excuse-making at every comparison to a European country smaller than Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, whereas these four it dismisses on a case-by-case basis; the Australian cultural cringe toward Britain is evidently not about per capita living standards, since Australia’s GDP per capita has been higher than Britain’s for most of the last 150-200 years, but rather about Britain’s greater size and historic status as a world power.
You may be wondering, maybe this is just a way to theorize around the fact that it really is easier to build infrastructure in a smaller country? But no. Turkey and South Korea and Italy and Spain are not small. Seoul is the second largest metropolitan area in the developed world, behind Tokyo and ahead of New York. The common factor to the lowest-cost countries in the world is not size, but rather their status on the periphery of the developed world, either economically or culturally.
Of course, peripheral status is not enough. Former colonies tend to have high construction costs, perhaps because they learn the wrong lessons from the developed world or from China. Italian wages and capital costs are by global standards approximately the same as German ones, so Italy can adapt German ideas where they’re superior, but Indian wages are so much lower and capital costs so much higher that it cannot blindly imitate Japan and expect success. In the developed world, too, we see failure, when countries learn from the wrong examples, that is Britain or the United States; Singapore has severe cultural cringe toward the Western world, but it finds it easiest to adapt British ideas out of familiarity rather than better Continental ones, in much the same way that reform proposals in the United States look to Britain and Canada rather than to Continental Europe or democratic East Asia.
The way forward must be to recognize this cringe, and know to look for ideas that do not obey the global social hierarchy. Southern Europe has a lot to teach Germany and France, and the Nordic countries are not exotic far north utopias but countries with real institutions that can be adapted elsewhere, and Turkey has a very efficient construction sector, and Korea has a lot to teach its former colonizer as well as the rest of Asia.
More to the point, the most dominant places in the world have very little left to teach others. Everyone knows what New York is like. There are many good things about New York, but we’ve done a decent job copying them. London, same thing. It’s time for New York and Los Angeles and Toronto and London to stop exchanging bad ideas and start learning from places that do not speak English as a first language, and not just from the world’s next largest language groups either.
I recently heard of state-level American standards for climate resilience that made it clear that, as a concept, it makes climate change worse. The idea of resilience is that catastrophic climate change is inevitable, so might as well make the world’s top per capita emitter among large economies resilient to it through slow retreat from the waterfront. The theory is bad enough – Desmond Tutu calls it climate apartheid – but the practice is even worse. The biggest, densest, and most desirable American cities are close to the coast. Transit-oriented development in and around those cities is the surest way of bringing green prosperity, enabling emissions to go down without compromising living standards. And yet, on a number of occasions I have seen Americans argue against various measures for TOD and transit improvements on resilience grounds.
The worst exhibit is Secaucus Junction. The station is a few kilometers outside Manhattan, on New Jersey Transit’s commuter rail trunk, with excellent service. So close to city center, it doesn’t even matter that the trains are full – the seats are all occupied but there’s standing room, which may not appeal to people living 45 minutes out of Midtown but is fine at a station that is around 10 minutes away today and should be 6 minutes away with better scheduling and equipment.
The land use around Secaucus is also very conducive to TOD. Most of the area around the station is railyards and warehouses, which can pretty easily be cleaned up and replaced with high-density housing, retail, and office development. A small section of the walkshed is wetlands, but the large majority is not and can be built up to be less ecologically disturbing than the truck traffic the current storage development generates.
Politically, this is also far from existing NIMBY suburbia. In North America, the single-family house is held to be sacrosanct, and even very YIMBY regions like Vancouver only redevelop brownfields, not single-family neighborhoods; occasionally there are accessory dwelling units, but never anything that has even medium density or visibly looks like an apartment building. Well, Secaucus Junction is far from the residential areas of Secaucus, so the most common form of NIMBYism would be attenuated.
And yet, there is no concerted effort at TOD. This is not even just a matter of unimaginative politicians. Area advocacy orgs don’t really push for it, and I’m forgetting whether it was ReThinkNYC or the RPA that told me explicitly that their regional rail proposal omits Secaucus TOD on climate adaptation grounds. The area is 2 meters above sea level, and building there is too risky, supposedly, because a 2 meter sea level rise would only flood tens of millions of South Asians, Southeast Asians, and Africans, and those don’t count.
This goes beyond just wasting money on needless infrastructure projects like flood walls, or leaving money on the table that could come from TOD. In the 2000s, New York City was emitting 7 metric tons of CO2 per capita, which was better than Germany and a fraction of the US average. This must have gotten better since – New York had an abnormally high ratio of building emissions (i.e. energy) to transportation emissions (i.e. cars), and in every developed country I’m aware of, only energy emissions have fallen, not car emissions.
A bigger New York, counting very close-in suburbs as New York, is an important part of the American green transition. To have the emissions of the inner parts of the city within the city is a luxury people pay $3,000 a month in rent for; to have it in exurbia means having a smaller car than everyone else in an environment in which accumulating lots of stuff is the only way one can show off status. Breaking the various interests that prevent New York (and Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and Boston, and Washington) from growing denser is a valuable political fight. But here, no such breaking is even needed, because the anti-growth interests think locally, and the only locals around Secaucus Junction live in one high-rise development and would if anything welcome more such buildings in lieu of the warehouses.
And yet, Americans argue from the position of climate resilience against such densification. Normally it’s just a waste of money, but this would not just waste money (through leaving money on the table) but also lead to higher emissions since housing would be built in other metropolitan regions of the US, where there is no public transportation. Once adaptation and resilience became buzzwords, they took over the thinking on this matter so thoroughly that they are now directly counterproductive.
Somehow, the goal of avoiding catastrophic climate change has fallen by the wayside, and the usual American praxis of more layers of red tape before every decisions can be made (about climate resilience, design for equity, etc.) takes over. The means justify the ends: if the plan has the word climate then it must be environmentally progressive and sensitive, because what matters is not outcome (it’s too long-term for populists, and all US discourse is populist) but process: more lawsuits, more red tape, more accretion of special rules that everyone must abide by.
Question. In what ways can a recession be useful for forcing inefficient public-sector agencies to lay off redundant workers and reduce bloat?
Every recession, going at least back to the Great Depression, you get economists and others who are certain that high unemployment can discipline firms into greater productivity. Back in the 1930s, this was Joseph Schumpeter saying that there was no need to fear a depression because it was good, like “a cold douche.” Liquidating unproductive firms and forcing the rest to get leaner was supposed to improve economy-wide efficiency. Today, you can find people arguing the same for inefficient public-sector agencies strapped by budget cuts.
It doesn’t happen. Productivity decreases in bad economic times; labor-saving productivity improvements happen when wages are high, not when sales are low. Cash-strapped firms do not have the ability to invest for the long run – they just sell portions of themselves and shrink to be easier to manage, to limit the loss.
In public-sector public transportation, this really is the same. The best time for converting a metro line to driverless operation is when unemployment is 3%, not when it’s 15%. When unemployment is 3%, it’s possible to place workers in the private sector, which means they’ll work well through the transition. This goes doubly so when the productivity improvement lets one person do a job that previously took three rather than eliminating the job entirely: workers can go on strike if they’re unhappy, and transit as an industry is very amenable to unionization, to the point that unions have succeeded in organizing the tech shuttles in Silicon Valley in an otherwise union-hostile setting. (Of note, American public-sector anti-union successes have mostly been about screwing young workers, who are already the least empowered within the union, rather than doing anything to 20-year veterans who are about to retire with a full pension.)
The issue here is that very, very few workers are redundant on a next-day basis, even in severely overstaffed agencies. New York can eliminate subway conductors but requires some planning in advance to do so, for example to move mirrors around and place CCTV cameras to enable drivers to see the platform and close the doors. American commuter rail agencies can eliminate rail conductors, in what is as close to next-day redundancy as I can think of, but even that requires hiring fare inspectors for proof of payment checks and often also buying ticketing machines at outlying stations where previously passengers bought tickets directly on the train.
More often, eliminating a large amount of waste requires spending a bit more money in the short run. It can be on capital, like more ticketing machines. It can be on labor, like more dispatchers to make the buses run more regularly to reduce delays and bus driver overtime. But it’s usually not something that can be done by the Chainsaw Al school of management. It takes time, and in a lot of cases, the cooperation of the workforce is necessary.
Time and time again, we see transit managers who think in terms of just cutting avoid making long-term investments to improve efficiency. We see hiring freezes, wage freezes, reticence to engage in any long-term hiring and planning even in temporary recessions, and hostility to electrification even among American governors who propose to spend billions of dollars on parking more trains in city center between the morning and afternoon peaks. Even below the top political level, managers who develop a siege mentality never think in terms of long-term improvement. That’s not what will get them ahead; avoiding short-term controversy will, and they adapt to bad practices readily.
The workers adapt, too. If they expect sudden layoffs, their morale will tank and so will their productivity doing anything but the most routinized work. Maintenance workers will skip things – nobody will notice until it’s too late. Cleaners will slack, and if the message sent from the top is that it’s time to retrench, it will be hard to argue for aggressive standards for cleanliness. Even absent unionization, productivity will flounder, and there will not be much room to replace truly lazy workers if there is a hiring slowdown.
So what works for increasing efficiency? The answer is growth. Kopicki-Thompson’s report on best practices for rail privatization has a chapter about the history of the breakup of Japan National Railways in the 1980s, which makes the connection between growth and efficiency clear. Between 1980 and the breakup of JNR into seven constituent JRs in 1987, the company laid off two-thirds of its workforce, after complex negotiations with the unions, some of which were militant socialists. Japanese work culture is that a man is expected to work for the same firm for his entire working life, from age 22 for a university graduate to retirement at 65; JNR had to place these workers in the private sector for a mid-career layoff. This could happen because Japan’s economic growth in that era was famously high, to the point that Americans soon bought business books about how to think like a Japanese manager.
It is best to instead use weak periods to plan for the long term. If there’s stimulus spending, take it and go build things. Even if there isn’t, remember that the recession won’t last forever and plan in advance. Part of the plan should be knowing which workers are supernumerary and making a plan to place them at private-sector jobs as soon as they become available. But don’t expect to be able to send masses of pink slips in a recession; that must be saved for when jobs elsewhere in the economy are plentiful.
I was recently asked about the issue of incrementalism in infrastructure, with specific reference to Strong Towns and its position against big projects (e.g. here). It’s useful to discuss this right now in context of calls for a big infrastructure-based federal jobs program in the United States. The fundamental question to answer is, what is the point of incremental projects?
The issue is that the legitimate reason to prefer less ambitious projects is money. If a new subway tunnel costs $5 billion, but you only have the ability to secure $1.5 billion, then you should build what you can for $1.5 billion, which may be a tram rather than a subway, or surface improvements to regional rail instead of a new regional rail tunnel, etc.
A secondary legitimate reason is that even if there is more money, sometimes you get better results out of building something less flashy. This is the electronics-before-concrete approach – in a developed country it’s almost always cheaper to invest in signaling, electrification, and platform upgrades than to build new tunnels. This can look incremental if it’s part of a broader program: for example, if there’s already investment in electrification in the region then extending wires is incremental, so that completing electrification on the commuter rail lines in New York, reopening closed suburban branches in Philadelphia with new wires, and even completing electrification in a mostly-wired country like Belgium and the Netherlands would count.
But the example of electrification in a mostly already electrified place showcases the differences between cost-effectiveness and incrementalism. The same investment – electrification – has a certain cost-effectiveness depending on how much train traffic there is. There’s a second-order effect in that the first line to be electrified incurs the extra cost of two train fleets and the last line has a negative cost in no longer needing two fleets, but this isn’t relevant to first order. Nonetheless, electrifying a system where electrification is already familiar is considered incremental, to the point that there were extensions of electrification in suburban New York in the 1980s and there remain semi-active projects to build more, whereas electrifying one that is currently entirely diesel, like Boston, is locally considered like a once-in-a-generation project.
And that is the real problem. American cities are hardly hotbeds of giant flashy construction. They barely are in highways – big highway construction plans are still done but in suburbs and not anywhere where public transit is even remotely relevant. And transit construction plans are always watered down with a lot of reconstruction and maintenance money; most of the money in the Los Angeles sales tax measures that are sold to the urbanist public as transit measures is not about rail construction, which is why with money programmed through 2060 the region is going to only have one full subway line; an extension of the Red Line on South Vermont is scheduled to open in 2067, partly because construction costs are high but mostly because there are maintenance projects ahead in line.
So in reality, there are two real reasons why incrementalism is so popular in the United States when it comes to transportation, neither of which is legitimate. Both are types of incompetence, but they focus on different aspects of it.
The first reason is incompetence through timidity. Building something new, e.g. rail electrification in Boston or in California, requires picking up new knowledge. The political appointees in charge of transit agencies and the sort of people who state legislators listen to do not care to learn new things, especially when the knowledge base for these things is outside their usual social networks. Can Massachusetts as a state electrify its rail network? Yes. Can it do so cheaply? Also yes. But can the governor’s political appointees do so? Absolutely not, they are incurious and even political people who are not beholden to the governor make excuses for why Massachusetts can’t do what Israel and Norway and New Zealand and Austria and Germany do.
In that sense, incrementalism does not mean prudence. It means doing what has been done before, because the political people are familiar with it. It may not work, but it empowers people who already have political clout rather than sidelining them in favor of politically independent technocrats from foreign countries who might be too successful.
The second reason is incompetence through lack of accountability. This is specific to an approach that a lot of American urbanists have backed, wrongly: fix-it-first, or in its more formal name state of good repair (SOGR). The urbanist emphasis on SOGR has three causes: first, in the 1980s New York had a critical maintenance backlog and neglected expansion in order to fix it, which led to positive outcomes in the 1990s and 2000s; second, in highways, fix-it-first is a good way to argue against future expansion while hiding one’s anti-car ideology behind a veneer of technical prudence; and third, Strong Towns’ specific use case is very small towns with serious issues of infrastructure maintenance costs and not enough residential or commercial demand to pay for them, which it then generalizes to places where there’s more market demand for growth.
In reality, the situation of 1980s’ New York was atypical. Subsequently, the SOGR program turned into a giant money pit, because here was an opportunity to spend enormous sums of capital construction money without ever being accountable to the public in the form of visible expansion. Ask for a new rail line and people will ask why it’s not open – California got egg on its collective face for not being able to build high-speed rail. Ask for SOGR and you’ll be able to brush away criticism by talking about hidden benefits to reliability. Many passengers may notice that trains are getting slower and less reliable but it’s easier in that case to intimidate the public with officious rhetoric that sounds moderate and reasonable.
Incrementalism is fundamentally a method of improving a legitimate institution. The EU needs incremental reform; China needs a democratic revolution. By the same token, in infrastructure, incrementalism should be pushed when, and only when, the status quo with tweaks is superior to the alternatives. (Note that this is not the same as electronics-before-concrete – what Switzerland did with its rail investment in the 1990s was very far-reaching, and had tangible benefits expressed in trip times, timed connections, and train frequency, unlike various American bus redesigns.) Strong Towns does not believe that there’s anything good about the American urban status quo, and yet it, and many urbanists, are so intimidated by things that happened in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s that they keep pushing status quo and wondering why there is no public transportation outside about eight cities.
The Deutschlandtakt plans are out now. They cover investment through 2040, but even beforehand, there’s a plan for something like a national integrated timetable by 2030, with trains connecting the major cities every 30 minutes rather than hourly. But there are still oddities that are worth discussing, especially in the context of what Germans think trains are capable of and what is achieved elsewhere.
The key is the new investment plans. The longer-term plans aren’t too different from what I’ve called for. But somehow the speeds are lower. Specifically, Hamburg-Hanover is planned to be a combination of legacy rail (“ABS”) and newly-built high-speed rail (“NBS”), dubbed the Alpha-E project, with trains connecting the two cities in 63 minutes.
The point of an integrated takt timetable is that trains should connect major nodes (“knots”) in just less than an integer number of half-hours for hourly service, or quarter-hours for half-hourly service. Trains connect Zurich and Basel in 53 minutes and each of these two cities with Bern in 56 minutes, so that passengers can change trains on the hour and have short connections to onward destinations like Biel, St. Gallen, and Lausanne. To that effect, Switzerland spent a lot of money on tunnels toward Bern, to cut the trip time from somewhat more than an hour to just less than an hour. So the benefits of cutting trip times from 63 minutes to just less than an hour are considerable.
What’s more, it is not hard to do Hamburg-Hanover in less than an hour. Right now the railway is 181 km long, but the planned Alpha-E route is shorter – an alignment via the A 7 Autobahn would be around 145 km long. The Tokaido Shinkansen’s Hikari and Nozomi trains run nonstop between Nagoya and Kyoto, a distance of 134 km, in 34 minutes. Kodama trains make two additional stops, with long dwell times as there are timed overtakes there, and take 51 minutes. Shinkansen trains have better performance characteristics than ICE trains, but the difference in the 270-300 km/h range is around 25 seconds per stop, and the Tokaido Shinkansen is limited to 270 km/h whereas an Alpha-E NBS would do 300. So doing Hamburg-Hanover in less than 40 minutes is eminently possible.
Of course, major cities have slow approaches sometime… but Hamburg is not a bigger city than Kyoto or Nagoya. It’s about comparable in size to Kyoto, both city proper and metro area, and much smaller than Nagoya. Hanover is a lot smaller, comparable to cities served by Hikari but not Nozomi, like Shizuoka and Hamamatsu. Hamburg-Hanover has 12 km between Hamburg and Harburg where trains would be restricted to 140 km/h, and around 6 in Hanover where trains would be restricted to 130 km/h; in between they’d go full speed, which at the performance characteristics of the next-generation Velaro would be a little more than 35 minutes without schedule padding and maybe 38 minutes with. This fits well into a 45-minute slot in the takt, permitting both Hanover and Hamburg to act as knots.
Moreover, if for some reason a full NBS is not desirable – for example, if NIMBY lawsuits keep delaying the project – then it’s possible to built a partial NBS to fit into an hourly time slot, trains taking around 53 minutes. The cost per minute saved in this context is fairly consistent, as this is a flat area and the legacy line is of similar quality throughout the route; if for some reason the cost per minute saved is too high, e.g. if nuisance lawsuits raise construction costs above what they should be on such a route, which is around 15-20 million euros per kilometer, then going down only to 53 minutes is fine as it makes the hourly takt work well.
And yet, it’s not done. The biggest cities are not planned to have regular half-hourly knots, because there’s too much traffic there. But Hanover is in fact a perfect place for a knot, with trains going east to Berlin, west to the Rhine-Ruhr, north to Hamburg, and south to Frankfurt and the cities of Bavaria. Hamburg is at the northern margin of the country, with trains going mostly south to Hanover, but having some timed connection with trains continuing north to Kiel and eventually Copenhagen is not a bad idea.
For some reason, German rail activists, including presumably the ones who pushed the Deutschlandtakt from the bottom up while the ministry of transport was run by pro-car conservatives, are just too conservative about the capabilities of trains. I’ve seen one of the D-Takt groups, I forget which one, criticize plans to build an NBS between Hanover and Bielefeld, a segment on which the existing line is fairly slow, on the grounds that it could never fit into a knot system. It is not possible to do the roughly 100 km between Hanover and Bielefeld (actually closer to 95 km) in less than half an hour to fit a knot, they say – average speeds higher than 200 km/h are only found on very long nonstop stretches of high-speed rail, as in France, they insist. Shinkansen trains achieve such speeds over such segments every day, and even with the slightly lower performance characteristics of the next-generation Velaro, Hanover-Bielefeld in 24 technical minutes and 26 minutes with 7% pad (and the Shinkansen only has 4% pad) is feasible.
I genuinely don’t know why there is such conservatism among German rail planners and advocates. It could be that Europeans don’t like learning from Asia, just as Americans don’t like learning from Europe. There are examples of faster trains than in Germany within Europe, but maybe German advocates discount French and Spanish examples because of genuine problems with French and Spanish rail operations, leading them to also make excuses like “the trains run nonstop for 500 km and that’s why they’re fast” to avoid adopting the things where France and Spain are genuinely superior to Germany.
Nothing about the integrated timed transfer schedule idea impedes high speeds. On the contrary, in some cases, like Hanover-Hamburg but also the planned Frankfurt-Stuttgart line (already in place south of Mannheim), high speeds are necessary to make the desired knots. Moreover, where distances between cities are long compared with desired frequency, as on Berlin-Hanover, it’s possible to build 300 km/h lines and cut entire half hours or even full hours from trip times. Germany could innovate in this and build such a network for an amount of money well within the limits of the corona recovery package, which includes €50 billion for climate mitigation.
But either way, Germany is about to make mistakes of underinvestment because it’s not quite willing to see where the frontier of rail transport technology is. This is not the American amateur hour, it’s not the sort of situation where I can spend a few hours with maps and come up with better timetables myself, but even so, the plans here are far too timid for Germany’s medium- and long-term transportation needs.
The D-Takt is a step forward, don’t get me wrong. None of the investments I’m seeing is bad. But it’s a small, hesitant step forward rather than a firm, bold walk toward direction of intercity rail modernization. A country that expects intercity rail ridership to double, putting Germany’s per capita intercity rail ridership in the vicinity of Japan’s, should have something similar to the Shinkansen network, with a connected network of NBS links between the major cities averaging 200-250 km/h and not 120-160 km/h.
I have a pretty concrete institutional theory for why the United States, and to some extent the rest of the Anglosphere, lags in infrastructure. It mostly fits the available evidence, but “mostly” and “available” are the operative words, and I don’t want to expound on it too much before doing more interviews to contrast American infrastructure planning with Continental European and democratic Asian examples, to see if there’s basis to what I’m saying.
But one piece of the theory is worth talking about early: the concept of managerialism. The relevance to infrastructure is roughly the following set of propositions that constitute this theory as applied to public policy:
- Big outfits should be run by professional managers, who should be trained primarily in management and not in a specific industry; it is acceptable and even desirable for a CEO to bounce between different industries. A successful founder or manager in one field should be presumed capable of quickly acquiring expertise in another field if they move to a new industry.
- Domain knowledge is suspect, because the people who hold it are self-interested – in public policy this relates to public choice theory. At best, domain knowledge means you get to work for a manager.
- Managers should set up the right incentives to force underlings with domain knowledge to innovate, and do not need to acquire detailed domain knowledge themselves. For example, they should set up objective metrics to evaluate employees by rather than have close enough relationships with the employees to know intuitively who to promote.
- The recruitment pipeline for the managers should combine a set of institutions producing a single elite (Oxbridge, Ivy League) with a proof-of-pudding system measuring success by earned wealth.
The upshot is that if you don’t trust any of your workers (public choice theory, again) and do trust the managerial elite to be able to run all industries equally, then you can just do whatever you want and blame the inevitable failure on the workers being too stupid or incompetent.
Note that even though this is often an anti-government theory of how to run public-sector agencies, it is as written politically neutral, and even used by leaders on the left. Politicians of all stripes appoint people with the wrong skillset to run public agencies, preferring political appointees (who in both the US and UK come from the same institutions as the private-sector managerial elite) to career professionals. Career professionals may be too politically independent and have long-term plans that are not compatible with self-aggrandizing schemes to build visible infrastructure that a politician can claim full credit for.
Note also that even though the full set of propositions I associate with managerialism comes from the English-speaking world, segments of it can be found elsewhere. France, for example, has a Grande Ecole-educated elite that views itself as omnicompetent. It differs from the Anglo-American model somewhat in that the institution that produces engineering executives (Polytéchnique) are not the same as the one that produces politicians (ENA), and a a lot in that bouncing between industries is narrower, so that SNCF is run by airline executives without experience in railways rather than by industrialists and financiers without experience in transportation.
I make no claim about whether managerialism works in other spheres, like general business. That said, in the fastest-growing high-end segment of the American economy, tech, the business culture is very different: everyone, including management, is expected to know how to code; managers are recruited from among experienced programmers; the culture regards external managers much less than it does coder-founders like Larry Page, Sergey Brin, or Mark Zuckerberg, to the point that most people in tech and tech media regard Microsoft’s stagnation in the 2000s as the fault of the transition from founder Bill Gates to the more managerial Steve Ballmer.
But in the public sector, at least in infrastructure, managerialism has not succeeded. Any of the following reasons may be relevant to the failure of turnaround experts, political appointees, private-sector CEOs, and other non-industry professionals to improve American public transportation.
- American business culture assumes that the same methods work regardless of scale. Public transit is scale-dependent, which fries a lot of common private-sector assumptions. Most importantly, starting small is not always possible, especially in trains. Managers who are used to starting small end up deemphasizing the most productive parts of public transportation, like rail operations, in favor of things that can be done incrementally, like bus lanes.
- American culture is generally closed to foreign knowledge. It is also pragmatic and anti-theoretical, viewing foreign knowledge as a kind of theory that must be tested at very small scale before being applied widely; one American big-city transit manager denigrated international cost comparisons as “Paris or something.” The difference between managers and industry professionals is that some of the latter understand that public transportation works better in Europe and East Asia and try to learn, whereas managers see nothing to learn in countries with living standards that are (on average) comparable to the US’s or (for senior managers) much lower.
- Public transportation has a lot of moving parts that have to be planned together – timetable, infrastructure, equipment, and more broadly also development. Even within operations, there are different departments that affect one another closely, like dispatching and actual operations. This makes typical responses to bad news, like a hiring freeze, atrocious, because an overstaffed agency may have one understaffed department creating too much work for everyone else; only an experienced transportation professional would know to fix the problem department by hiring more people even in a bad economy in order to increase productivity elsewhere.
- Infrastructure has very long time horizons. Agency heads have to think on the scale of decades, not quarterly earnings calls with the shareholders.
- Competition is destructive. The real competition is cars, and not other modes of public transportation. Competitive private businesses generally understand coordination (“synergy” was a much-mocked buzzword in the 1990s and 2000s), but less deeply than researchers with familiarity with the situation of multimodal public transportation.
What this means is that the penchant of so many American politicians to hire outsiders to the field is not part of the solution to the problem of failing transit agencies, but rather part of the problem. Success comes from hiring people who are experienced in the field, and if the agency bureaucracy seems too inflexible, then hiring from other countries. There’s a reason Andy Byford, a career transportation planner with experience in London and Toronto, was such a hit success in New York – and there’s a reason this success involved developing much greater levels of mutual trust between management and the workers. In contrast, a string of people whose background is in a culture that treats everything as an American business to be turned around with tough management does not produce good results – rather, such leaders create problems that justify their own continued existence, blaming their own failures on the people below them.
Practically any change has some beneficiaries (why else would it happen?), but a separate question, often with a separate answer is, who does it empower? For examples, expansion of education benefits students but empowers teachers and school administrators, and expansion of health care benefits patients but empowers medical care providers, especially ones below the prestige level of doctors. In both cases, the groups that were empowered back expansion, and at least in the case of teachers, the other side assumes that there are no beneficiaries, hence for example Humphrey’s comment in Yes, Minister that comprehensive education was adopted only because of the teachers’ unions.
The relevance of this distinction is that improvements in public transport mostly have the same set of beneficiaries – current and potential transit riders – but empower different groups of people depending on what the proposed improvement is. This matters, because it’s easier for change to happen if it empowers people who are already important. This is not restricted to politics – a change in how a business is run is easier to accept if it empowers senior management than if it empowers grunt workers, even if the ultimate beneficiary, that is the shareholders, is the same. The upshot is that there are changes in how to run public transportation that empower the already-powerful, and those changes are not necessarily best for the riders.
Politicians and civil servants
Politicians, especially high-level ones, are more powerful than civil servants. It is therefore easier to pass changes that empower them than ones that empower the civil service.
I think the Anglosphere’s fascination with design-build comes from this, at least partially. Traditional design-bid-build procurement means that an in-house team reviews bids and selects separate contractors for design and construction. In contrast, design-build removes power from the civil service. The consultants who get to draw design specs get empowered, but I don’t think this is why governments adopt design-build. Rather, design-build means that high-level politicians get to make big decisions, first since they often have casual ties to the consultants through a revolving door, and second since each bid is bigger (one firm might do everything) and therefore it is evaluated at a higher level.
Consulting in business is a good analogy, since there are some analogies between how the state is run and how big businesses are. The relevant one is the tyranny of the org chart; see some examples here and here by Aaron Renn, and here and here by other consultants. Senior management in the private sector has serious problems with listening to people who the org chart asserts are subordinates, from middle management all the way down. Management consultants often succeed by talking to lower-level workers, getting good ideas from them, and then packaging them to senior management in glossy presentations that look like they came from the consultants, who have nebulous job titles so as to convince senior management that the consultants are their peers. In effect, consultants are a workaround to the fact that senior management is unlikely to adopt ideas that empower subordinates.
The greatest irony here is that the sort of political operatives who are most educated in public choice theory are the ones who most consistently act according to its precepts. They dislike public-sector unions, so they institute public-sector hiring freezes and instead outsource work to consultants. In effect, they empower themselves, as senior political operatives who get to make more important decisions when the decisions are about higher-level things (that is, who gets the work among design-build bidders).
National vs. international comparisons
The issue of outside comparisons depends heavily on what the agency is to be compared to. The difference is that in the United States, managers are well-traveled domestically but not internationally, so domestic comparisons empower them and international ones do the opposite. In Europe, managers are more internationally traveled but largely within Europe, so comparisons to Asia are as problematic for them as comparisons to non-English-speaking European countries are to American managers.
What this means is, a study delivered to Boston or Los Angeles or Chicago that does a domestic comparison will bring up things that top managers and politicians are at least somewhat familiar with. A manager in Boston may have happened to work only in New England, but this is not common, and the manager’s social circle will include people with experience from other parts of the United States. This manager can read a report employing domestic comparison and will have heard about some of the success cases in the report, and if anything is unclear, the manager can call up friends and former coworkers and get clarifications. The manager is thus empowered to implement the report’s recommendations.
An international comparison has the opposite effect. The American manager might be facing a report that brings up case studies from European and East Asian countries, where few Americans have ever lived. The report might mention things that all American transit managers have convinced themselves are impossible, because those managers only ever talk to other Americans. It devalues most of the expertise of the American insider. If anyone within the agency is empowered, it is often a junior planner who has delved into foreign cases out of interest, or perhaps an immigrant whose knowledge is foreign and not just American. It completely upends the hierarchy: the senior manager has no way to contribute to the process and is at the mercy of outsiders and subordinates.
The trick that management consultants use to persuade senior managers to accept recommendations that came from below is not useful here. The report cannot hide its foreign provenance; it screams right there, “your experience as a senior American manager is not as valuable as you think it is.”
Is there a way out?
I believe that there is. I don’t know this for a fact, but I have some circumstantial evidence pointing in a more optimistic direction.
First, not only is the idea of the tyranny of the org chart well-known to consultants, but also a brief Googling revealed a number of different consultants openly pitch their skills to management in how to avoid the problem. That people who get paid to give outside expert advice to corporate leaders believe they can tell to those leaders’ faces, “you need to listen to your subordinates better and here’s how you can do it” suggests that it is possible to get at least some managers to listen.
Second, on an abstract level, managing others is a valuable skill on top of the deep experience managers must possess in the industry they lead, and moreover, general management skills are highly valued in American business culture in the private as well as public sector. This means that even though the use of foreign advice devalues senior managers’ industry-internal skills, and maybe even some precepts that they’ve learned in other industries if they’ve jumped around from industry to industry, it still does not devalue general management skills, not should it.
Third, beneficiaries matter, rather than just the people whose skills are valued more under the changes required to improve American public transportation. This means that a politician who is seen as successfully improving infrastructure will get accolades from the public, because there’s general political consensus that infrastructure is good, and specific political consensus in the parts of the United States with the most public transit ridership that public transportation infrastructure is good. Political advisors may be sidelined by change that relies on knowledge they don’t have, but elected politicians who are seen building infrastructure cheaply become more popular.
And fourth, the situation in the United States in general and New York is particular is so bad that change is possible even while respecting at least some degree of turf. Gradual replacement is possible, if New York implements one change that reduces costs by a factor of 2 while leaving other causes of high costs unchanged, and then the people who successfully shepherded the change implement more such changes. Future changes can devalue the skills of managers who only know how to build and run bad transit and not good transit, but a manager who was responsible to a large cost reduction will get enough internal and public clout that empowering this manager further through further-reaching reforms will be easier for the hierarchy to swallow.
In the last week or two, I have seen a worrying trend in multiple North American cities: transit managers and advocates who call for measures to reduce the number of people riding public transportation, all in the name of social distancing and safety from Covid-19. These ideas include limiting the number of people entering a bus, marking off seats on buses and trains to maintain a minimum distance between passengers, and using apps to limit the number of people entering a train station. Even transit activists openly say that it’s good to reduce occupancy per bus or train, they just use this as an argument for running more off-peak frequency and staggering shifts. The message from everyone is clear: public transit is dangerous, don’t ride it, especially if it is crowded.
Public transportation is not especially dangerous, but the danger that does exist is not ameliorated by any physical distancing. Trying to reduce the number of passengers on a bus or train is safety theater and non-English-speaking cities have reduced infection rates without this. Even Jarrett Walker has taken to saying that public transportation should not aim at getting high ridership, though to his credit he steers clear of saying that transit is dangerous in a pandemic.
I’ve already gone over why I don’t think the subway in New York, by a margin the dirtiest I have ridden, is the reason the city’s infection rate is so high. Instead of rehashing that, I want to focus on the converse: on cases in which people do get infected on transit. These clearly exist – my contention isn’t that trains and buses make one invulnerable to the virus, merely that they’re not any more dangerous than the places people might travel to, such as work. Does social distancing on such vehicles help?
There is an answer, in the form of a study out of China about infection on a bus. The answer is no. Here is the graphic of who was and was not infected on a bus that one infected person rode for a 100-minute roundtrip (passengers sat in the same seats on both legs of the trip):
There were 67 passengers on the bus, including the index patient; the index patient infected 23 of them. Proximity to the patient – that is, the distinction between zones 1 and 2 – is not statistically significant. The window passengers on the left side of the bus did not get infected, except the one sitting next to the index patient, but on the right side of the bus, six window seat passengers got the virus.
American and Canadian attempts to limit bus occupancy do not prevent the spread of the virus. The safe occupancy, if people do not wear masks, is 1, or maybe 2 if passengers sit at opposite ends of the vehicle. Limitations on how many passengers can ride the bus at most reduce the number of people one patient can infect, but only if the bus is so crowded that the agency would otherwise add more service. If the bus would have had 20 passengers either way, spreading them around evenly would not help.
What does work is masks. In Taipei, masks are mandatory, and Alex Garcia of Taipei Urbanism tells me that there is universal compliance. In Berlin, I just observed an U-Bahn train in the evening rush hour, noticeably less full than the usual by a factor of perhaps 2, but still far too full for the tastes of the American transit manager, with nearly all seats occupied and a few people standing; about 85% of the passengers wore masks covering their noses and mouths and maybe 5% more incorrectly wore a mask so as only to cover their mouths. There was a mixture of cloth and surgical masks.
I hesitate to mention Taipei and Berlin in the same sentence. Germany, a country of 83 million people, considers itself a success because it has 170,000 cases and 8,000 deaths. But Taiwan, a country of 24 million people, has had 440 confirmed cases since the beginning of the outbreak. As of yesterday, it had had no new cases in eight days; excluding imports, it had had no new cases in 33 days. A month ago, sailors were erroneously allowed to roam the streets and only recalled to quarantine after three had tested positive; no civilians were infected, because masks were mandatory at the time even on the street.
That said, by solipsistic Western standards, Berlin is doing fairly well. Infection rates are noticeably below the German average, and while 181 people have died citywide, this is still low enough not to be detectable in the overall death rate (“excess mortality”). It joins a list of cities that had a plague but are getting it under control: it is nowhere near as good as Seoul, where train crowding is pretty extensive, but its trends seem cautiously positive.
Despite this optimistic picture painted by the success of places with high mask usage, to a large extent even if it isn’t universal, American transit managers and even advocates seem to be giving up. If the point of public transit is to exist but not get ridership, it’s much easier to push for nice-seeming networks, untethered from any passenger demand.
The general population is hearing the message loud and clear: public transit is dangerous, avoid it if at all possible. The New York Stock Exchange is therefore reopening its famously crowded indoor floor, where a superspreader event is likely if just one infected person comes in, but banning traders from getting there by public transportation. The MTA is already splurging on a McKinsey study saying it will need to spend $700-800 million to attract people back to the subway; so far, low-cost, high-impact measures like photo-ops in which the governor or the mayor wears a mask and rides the subway at rush hour surrounded by other masked riders, are not implemented, sending the same message, important people avoid public transit and so should you.
This ends in a national effort in the United States, and perhaps also Canada, to collectively give up on having any public transit. The advocates aren’t pushing back, the managers are happy with high-tech restrictions on usage, even Streetsblog talks about bike lanes instead of about getting more people on trains, and nobody stops to think, maybe there is a way to preserve transit ridership?
Take the fall in economic activity due to the demand-side recession induced by the virus. Now add the fall coming from the required mass abandonment of New York and to some extent San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, all of which have centers with too many jobs to be served by cars, taxis, or bikes. Maybe it’s possible to get people to work from home, but it’s unclear if they can maintain productivity; I have heard many more people telling me they can’t than people telling me they can, especially among parents. I still don’t think it’s likely, but the US may well fall below Taiwanese GDP per capita, and in a true crisis coming from such mass abandonment it could even drop below Germany and Sweden, which are projecting something like a 7% contraction this year due to the virus’s effects.
This is not something Americans are ready for. They’re used to being on top of the world. Even when they describe social problems that they know other countries have solved, they do this in a kind of self-deprecating way that screams to the outsider, “Yeah, it’s a problem, but we’re so great we’re not that bothered about fixing it.” They’re used to a world whose economic and cultural capital is New York and not Shanghai or Tokyo; they’re used to not needing to learn a foreign language and acquire fluency in foreign cultures to be viewed literate. This solipsism is to some extent pan-Western and is why the West is hurting, but the geopolitical center of the West, the monolingual country that thinks it invented freedom, looks like it’s hurting the most.