New York is engaging in the process of redesigning its urban bus network borough by borough. The first borough is the Bronx, with an in-house redesign; Queens is ongoing, to be followed by Brooklyn, both outsourced to firms that have already done business with the MTA. The Bronx redesign draft is just out, and it has a lot of good and a great deal of bad.
What does the redesign include?
Like my and Eric Goldwyn’s proposal for Brooklyn, the Bronx redesign is not just a redrawing of lines on a map, but also operational treatments to speed up the buses. New York City Transit recognizes that the buses are slow, and is proposing a program for installing bus lanes on the major streets in the Bronx (p. 13). Plans for all-door boarding are already in motion, to be rolled out after the OMNY tap card is fully operational; this is incompetent, as all-door boarding can be implemented with paper tickets, but at this stage this is a delay of just a few years, probably about 4 years from now.
But the core of the document is the network redesign, explained route by route. The map is available on p. 14; I’d embed it, but due to file format issues I cannot render it as a large .png file, so you will have to look yourselves.
The shape of the network in the core of the Bronx – that is, the South Bronx – seems reasonable. I have just one major complaint: the Bx3 and Bx13 keep running on University Avenue and Ogden Avenue respectively and do not interline, but rather divert west along Washington Bridge to Washington Heights. For all of the strong communal ties between University Heights and Washington Heights, this service can be handled with a high-frequency transfer at the foot of the bridge, which has other east-west buses interlining on it. The subway transfer offered at the Washington Heights end is low-quality, consisting of just the 1 train at the GWB bus station; a University-Ogden route could instead offer people in University Heights a transfer to faster subway lines at Yankee Stadium.
Outside the South Bronx, things are murkier. This is not a damn by faint praise: this is an acknowledgement that, while the core of the Bronx has a straightforward redesign since the arterials form a grid, the margins of the Bronx are more complicated. Overall the redesign seems fairly conservative – Riverdale, Wakefield, and Clasons Point seem unchanged, and only the eastern margin, from Coop City down to Throgs Neck, sees big changes.
The issue of speed
Unfortunately, the biggest speed improvement for buses, stop consolidation, is barely pursued. Here is the draft’s take on stop consolidation:
The spacing of bus stops along a route is an important factor in providing faster and more reliable bus service. Every bus stop is a trade-off between convenience of access to the bus and the speed and reliability of service. New York City buses spend 27 percent of their time crawling or stopped with their doors open and have the shortest average stop distance (805 feet/245 m) of any major city. London, which has the second closest stop spacing of peer cities, has an average distance between stops of 1,000 ft/300 m.
Bus stop spacing for local Bronx routes averages approximately 882 feet/269 meters. This is slightly higher than the New York City average, but still very close together. Close stop spacing directly contributes to slow buses and longer travel times for customers. When a bus stops more frequently along a route, exiting, stopping, and re-entering the flow of traffic, it loses speed, increases the chance of being stopped at a red traffic signal, and adversely affects customers’ travel time. By removing closely-spaced and under-utilized stops throughout the Bronx, we will reduce dwell time by allowing buses to keep moving with the flow of traffic and get customers where they need to go faster.
Based on what I have modeled as well as what I’ve seen in the literature, the optimal bus stop spacing for the Bronx, as in Brooklyn, is around 400-500 meters. However, the route-by-route descriptions reveal very little stop consolidation. For example, on the Bx1 locals, 3 out of 93 stops are to be removed, and on the Bx2, 4 out of 99 stops are to be removed.
With so little stop consolidation, NYCT plans to retain the distinction between local and limited buses, which reduces frequency to either service pattern. The Bx1 and Bx2 run mostly along the same alignment on Grand Concourse, with some branching at the ends. In the midday off-peak, the Bx1 runs limited every 10 minutes, with some 12-minute gaps, and the Bx2 runs local every 9-10 minutes; this isn’t very frequent given how short the typical NYCT bus trip is, and were NYCT to eliminate the local/limited distinction, the two routes could be consolidated to a single bus running every 4-5 minutes all day.
How much frequency is there, anyway?
The draft document says that consolidating routes will allow higher frequency. Unfortunately, it makes it difficult to figure out what higher frequency means. There is a table on p. 17 listing which routes get higher frequency, but no indication of what the frequency is – the reader is expected to look at it route by route. As a service to frustrated New Yorkers, here is a single table with all listed frequencies, weekday midday. All figures are in minutes.
|Route||Headway today||Proposed headway|
|Bx38 (28 variant)||17||discontinued|
|Bx42 (40 variant)||20||cut to a shuttle, 15|
A few cases of improving frequency on a trunk are notable, namely on the Bx28/38 and Bx40/42 pairs, but other problem spots remain, led by the Bx1/2 and the local and limited variants on some routes.
The principle of interchange
A transfer-based bus network can mean one of two things. The first, the one usually sold to the public during route redesigns, is a grid of strong routes. This is Nova Xarxa in Barcelona, as well as the core of this draft. Eric’s and my proposal for Brooklyn consists entirely of such a grid, as Brooklyn simply does not have low-density tails like the Bronx, its southern margin having high population density all the way to the boardwalk.
But then there is the second meaning, deployed on networks where trunk routes split into branches. In this formulation, instead of through-service from the branches to the trunk, the branches should be reduced to shuttles with forced transfers to the trunk. Jarrett Walker’s redesign in Dublin, currently frozen due to political opposition (update: Jarrett explains that no, it’s not really frozen, it’s in revision after public comments), has this characteristic. Here’s a schematic:
The second meaning of the principle of interchange is dicey. In some cases, it is unavoidable – on trains, in particular, it is possible to design timed cross-platform transfers, and sometimes it’s just not worth it to deal with complex junctions or run diesels under the catenary. On buses, there is some room for this principle, but less than on trains, as a bus is a bus, with no division into different train lengths or diesels vs. electrics. Fundamentally, if it’s feasible to time the transfers at the junctions, then it’s equally possible to dispatch branches of a single route to arrive regularly.
New York’s bus network is already replete with the first kind of interchange, and then the question is where to add more of it on the margins. But the Bronx draft includes some of the second, justified on the grounds of breaking long routes to improve reliability. Thus, for example, there is a proposed 125th Street crosstown route called the M125, which breaks apart the Bx15 and M100. Well, the Bx15 is a 10.7 km route, and the M100 is an 11.7 km route. The Bx15 limited takes 1:15-1:30 end to end, and the M100 takes about 1:30; besides the fact that NYCT should be pushing speedup treatments to cut both figures well below an hour, if routes of this length are unreliable, the agency has some fundamental problems that network redesign won’t fix.
In the East Bronx, the same principle of interchange involves isolating a few low-frequency coverage routes, like the Bx24 and Bx29, and then making passengers from them transfer to the rest of the network. The problem is that transferring is less convenient on less frequent buses than on more frequent ones. The principle of interchange only works at very high frequency – every 8 minutes is not the maximum frequency for this but the minimum, and every 4-6 minutes is better. It would be better to cobble together routes to Country Club and other low-density neighborhoods that can act as tails for other trunk lines or at least run to a transfer point every 6-8 minutes.
Is any of this salvageable?
The answer is yes. The South Bronx grid is largely good. The disentanglement of the Bx36 and Bx40 is particularly commendable: today the two routes zigzag and cross each other twice, whereas under any redesign, they should turn into two parallel lines, one on Tremont and one on 180th and Burnside.
But outside the core grid, the draft is showing deep problems. My semi-informed understanding is that there has been political pressure not to cut too many stops; moreover, there is no guarantee that the plans for bus lanes on the major corridors will come to fruition, and I don’t think the redesign’s service hours budget takes this into account. Without the extra speed provided by stop consolidation or bus lanes, there is not much room to increase frequency to levels that make transfers attractive.
In 2017, an Amtrak Cascades train derailed outside Seattle. The train driver sped on a curve and the heavy locomotive derailed, dragging the trains with it, as had happened in 2013 in New York and in 2015 in Philadelphia. The primary culprit was the tardy installation of automatic train protection (“positive train control”), which would have prevented overspeed: the Philadelphia accident happened shortly before that section of track was scheduled to get PTC, the New York accident happened on a line with weaker protection against running red signals but not against overspeed, and the Seattle accident happened on a line not-yet equipped with PTC but with ongoing installation.
Despite the similarity, the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations, just released after a year and a half’s investigation, are different: it demands that Amtrak withdraw the passenger cars used. Those cars are tilting trains manufactured by Talgo, running on a waiver from federal regulations that have since changed. They are not what led to the derailment, and evidently the crash was less deadly than the New York crash (which killed 4) as well as the Philadelphia one (which killed 8). And yet, the NTSB wants these coaches removed where it said no such thing about the coaches used at previous accidents.
Rolling stock that is designed to avoid derailments at curves should focus on getting its center of gravity under control. Diesel locomotives have high centers of gravity, limiting their speed on curves. The standard measure for how fast a train can go on curves is called cant deficiency, and de facto has the conversion rate of 150 mm = 1 m/s^2 of lateral acceleration in the plane of the tracks (which may be banked, so the acceleration in the horizontal plane is larger). Top-of-the-line tilting trains in Europe can safely take curves at 300 mm cant deficiency, at which point the limiting factor isn’t passenger safety, but the complexity of maintaining the equipment’s tilt system. The Amtrak Talgos are less powerful – their tilt system allows only about 180 mm, but their center of gravity is so low that they could go much faster without derailing, just with a lot of passenger discomfort over the centrifugal force.
In contrast, the heavy diesel locomotive is limited to 6″ of cant deficiency, as its center of gravity is so high that going much faster could risk derailment, as indeed happened. Electric trains have no such problem – the Acelas do 7″ every day, and could have done 9″, but as with the Talgos the limit is passenger comfort and not train toppling. In fact, some non-tilting trains in Europe run about as fast on curves as the Amtrak Cascades service does, and FRA regulations from 2010 even suggest that modern non-tilting trains could do about 6″ of cant deficiency.
I bring all of this up to explain that the Talgos on their own, with a typical European locomotive, would not have derailed. Moreover, after the derailment, they stayed upright, unlike the Amtrak coaches in Philadelphia or the Metro-North ones in New York. The reason people died is that the train fell from a bridge. As far as factors that are controllable by the coach builder go, the Talgos performed well.
What’s more, the regulators who compared European and American designs for rolling stock have come to the same conclusion. This underlay the tests Caltrain used to argue in front of the FRA for its waiver to get rolling not compliant with the FRA’s then-current regulations demanding heavy trains designed around static buff strength; this would later underlie the FRA’s own rule change, now permitting lightly-modified European imports on American tracks.
So why is the NTSB so dead set against them? In three words: not invented here. The Talgos were designed and built in Europe. They are designed around European ideas of crash avoidance. Trains here have buff strength requirements too (and are too heavy as a result), but they’re much laxer than those of last generation’s American regulations, because at the end of the day lighter trains are no less safe than American tanks on rails. Lighter trains, designed to brake more quickly and not to derail in the first place, underlie the superior train safety of Europe to that of the United States – and Europe is downright dangerous compared with Japan, whose ultralight trains kill passengers in crashes at maybe 1/15th the per-passenger-km rate of American ones.
Foreign ideas threaten Americans, especially incurious Americans. Americans are not used to not being in the center of the world. They have many reactions to the fact that when it comes to transportation, the global centers of innovation are elsewhere. Some believe private cars are just superior. Others do not but still deny the need for trains, for example elements in tech media who cover Elon Musk as if he were God. And yet others assert that the US actually has amazing rail service on a variety of specious grounds – freight, safety, unique history. All of these are excuses made to avoid learning from foreigners.
The United States should treat its mainline passenger rail as a tabula rasa. Its ridership is a rounding error by European and Asian standards, and this is in large part due to the failure of management to modernize over the last few generations. An American regulator, investigator, or manager who neither knows how to adapt best industry practices, none of which is domestic, nor has any interest in learning, has no business working in the industry. Moreover, to reinforce the need to learn from the best, the NTSB should begin an exchange program with European and East Asian regulators; exchange programs among railroads in Western Europe, Russia, and Japan already exist, but to my knowledge American railroads do not participate in them.
The lessons from the Cascades crash are the same as those from the New York and Philadelphia crash, and drawing different lessons is prima facie evidence of irrational prejudice against foreign design elements that in fact work better than domestic ones. The people at the NTSB who authored the recommendation to get rid of the Talgos have just shown themselves to be incurious about practices in parts of the world with better rail safety. Thus, they should all be immediately dismissed from their jobs and replaced by people who are more informed. Any day they keep their jobs is a signal that the NTSB will be an obstacle to any program to make American passenger rail not only faster, more convenient, and more reliable, but also safer for passengers and employees.
Ten years ago, Amtrak began putting out its outrageously expensive proposals for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor. Already then, when it asked for $10 billion to barely speed up trains, there was a glaring problem with coordination: Amtrak wanted hundreds of millions of dollars to three-track the Providence Line so that its trains could overtake the MBTA’s commuter trains between Providence and Boston, even though the same benefit could be obtained for cheaper by building strategic overtakes and electrifying the MBTA so that its trains would run faster. Unfortunately, Amtrak has not only displayed no interest in coordinating better service with the MBTA this way, but has just actively blocked the MBTA.
The issue at hand is MBTA electrification: the MBTA runs an exclusively diesel fleet. These trains are slow, polluting, and unreliable. Lately they have had breakdowns every few thousand kilometers, whereas electric trains routinely last multiple hundreds of thousands of kilometers between breakdowns. The current scheduled trip time between Boston and Providence is about 1:10 on the MBTA with a total of nine stops, whereas Amtrak’s southbound trains do the same trip in 35 minutes with three stops, leading to a large schedule difference between the trains, requiring overtaking. Fortunately, modern electric multiple units, or EMUs, could make the same stops as the MBTA in about 45 minutes, close enough to Amtrak that Amtrak could speed up its trains without conflict.
The MBTA would benefit from electrification without any reference to Amtrak. Connecting Boston and Providence in 45 minutes rather than 70 has large benefits for suburban and regional travelers, and the improved reliability means trains can follow the schedule with fewer unexpected surprises. The line is already wired thanks to Amtrak’s investment in the 1990s, and all that is required is wiring a few siding and yard tracks that Amtrak did not electrify as it does not itself use them. With the diesel locomotives falling apart, the MBTA has begun to seriously consider electrifying.
Unfortunately, the MBTA has made some questionable decisions, chief of which is its attempt to procure electric locomotives rather than self-propelled EMUs. The MBTA’s reasoning is that EMUs require high platforms, which cost about $10 million per station, which is a small but nonzero amount of money on the Providence Line. As a result, it neglected any solution involving buying new EMUs or even leasing them from other railroads for a pilot project. It’s only looking at electric locomotives, whose travel time benefits are about half as large as those of EMUs.
And yet, Amtrak is blocking even the half-measures. The MBTA sought to lease electric locomotives from Amtrak, which uses them on its own trains; Amtrak quoted an unreasonably high monthly price designed to get the MBTA to lose interest. As of last week, the MBTA put the plan to lease electric locomotives for its electrification pilot on hold. No plans for purchase of rolling stock are currently active, as the MBTA is worried about lead time (read: having to actually write down and execute a contract) and does not know how to buy lightly-modified European products on the open market.
As far as Amtrak is concerned, speeding up the MBTA is not really relevant. Yes, such a speedup would improve Amtrak’s own scheduling, removing a few minutes from the Northeast Corridor’s travel time that would otherwise cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But Amtrak has time and time again displayed little interest in running fast trains. All it wants is money, and if it can ask for money without having to show anything for it, then all the better. Coordinating schedules with other railroads is hard, and only improves the experience of the passengers and not Amtrak’s managers.
The MBTA’s decisionmaking is understandable, in contrast, but still questionable. It was worth asking; the MBTA is no worse for having received an unreasonable offer. However, it is imperative that the MBTA understand that it must be more proactive and less hesitant. It must electrify, and commit a real budget to it rather than a pilot. This means immediately raising the platforms on the stations of the Providence Line that do not yet have level boarding and buying (not leasing) modern EMUs, capable of running fast schedules.
Even with some infill, there are only seven low-platform stations on the mainline and two on the branch to Stoughton, none in a constrained location where construction is difficult. This is at most a $100 million project, excluding the trains themselves. The MBTA could operate the Providence Line with seven to eight trainsets providing service every 15 minutes and the Stoughton Line with another four providing the same. Procuring trains for such service would cost another $250 million or so, but the MBTA needs to buy new rolling stock anyway as its diesel locomotives are past the end of their useful lives, and buying EMUs would pay for itself through higher ridership and lower operating expenses coming from much faster trips.
The MBTA is fortunately salvageable. It has a serious problem in that the state leadership is indecisive and noncommittal and prefers a solution that can be aborted cheaply to one that provides the best long-term financial and social return on investment. However, it is seriously looking in the right direction, consisting of better equipment providing higher-quality service to all passengers.
Amtrak is unfortunately not salvageable. An intercity railroad whose reaction to a commuter railroad’s attempt to improve service for both systems is to overcharge it on rolling stock proves that it is ignorant of, indifferent to, and incurious about modern rail operations. A chain of managers from the person who made the decision to offer the MBTA bad lease terms upward must be removed from their positions if there is any hope for improved intercity rail in the Northeastern United States.
Berlin has a deceptively simple S-Bahn network. There’s the Ringbahn circling city center. There’s the elevated east-west Stadtbahn, which has two tracks dedicated to S-Bahn service and two for everything else, including longer-range regional trains and intercity trains. And there’s the two-track North-South Tunnel, which only carries S-Bahn traffic; longer-range traffic uses the four-track north-south mainline through Berlin Hauptbahnhof, whereas the North-South Tunnel intersects the Stadtbahn one station east of Hauptbahnhof, at Friedrichstrasse.
The main S-Bahn capacity needs in Berlin are east-west; meanwhile, the North-South mainline is underfull, with Wikipedia listing around 7 trains per hour. And yet, Berlin’s big S-Bahn capital project is a new tunnel, dubbed S21, adding yet another north-south track pair through Hauptbahnhof. Fortunately, the project is salvageable, but only if the city and the federal government act quickly, within a few years, to change yet-unbuilt phases to run in the right direction.
Berlin urban rail traffic map
Here is a map of traffic demand on every interstation on the combined Berlin U- and S-Bahn network (source, p. 6):
The numbers are in thousands of passengers per weekday in both directions combined.
The U-Bahn is in blue. It’s a weird-looking network because two lines (U7, running northwest-southeast in the west, and U9, running north-south also in the west) were built in the Cold War to serve West Berlin’s center around Kurfürstendamm, whereas the S-Bahn and the older U-Bahn lines serve the historic center. Since reunification, Germany has made an effort to move the Berlin central business district back to the historic center, and S21 is to reinforce that, serving the western end of Mitte.
Unfortunately, as we see in the green lines, that’s not where the pressing S-Bahn capacity needs are. First, the Stadtbahn is busier than the North-South Tunnel. Second, the busiest branches heading into the city come from the east, with substantially more traffic than from the north and south.
And then there’s the Görlitz Railway. It is the line heading to the southeast, without its own trunk line through the city – it reverse-branches to the two directions of the Ringbahn. Moreover, going north there’s additional reverse-branching, to the Stadtbahn (S9) and around the Ring to the northern branches (S8, S85), with each service running only every 20 minutes. Total traffic across these services is quite high, 107,000 weekday passengers, compared with 144,000 on the Prussian Eastern Railway (S5, S7, S75; S5 is the mainline), 128,000 between the two branches feeding the North-South Tunnel from the south, and 133,000 between the two branches feeding the North-South Tunnel from the north. The brief segment where S9 runs alongside the Ring has 184,000 weekday passengers, the city’s busiest.
S21: what Berlin is actually building
Berlin Hauptbahnhof is a new station. It only opened in 2006, when the North-South Intercity Line opened. The new four-track line has ample capacity for additional S-Bahn traffic, but nonetheless it hosts no S-Bahn trains in regular service. Instead, there are plans for two additional S-Bahn tracks, mostly in tunnel, parallel to the line, with service to Hauptbahnhof:
The map does not show the phasing. The segment from the Ringbahn in the north down to Hauptbahnhof is just about complete, with opening expected soon. The segment from Hauptbahnhof to Potsdamer Platz, which contrary to the map is to be nonstop, is in early stages of construction, and Wikipedia says it is expected to open in 2023.
Farther south of Potsdamer Platz is still not under construction, and frankly should not be built as is. The only real addition this would give to the network is the stop at Gleisdreieck, where the line intersects the east-west U1; the North-South Tunnel intersects U1 without a connection, the only place in the city where there is a missed U-Bahn/S-Bahn connection unless one counts the marginal U9/Stadtbahn miss in which the next station, Zoologischer Garten, is a transfer.
However, the North-South Main Line’s tunnel portal lies just south of Gleisdreieck, and thus it should be feasible if nontrivial to add platforms there for two of the tracks. Farther south, at Yorckstrasse, it is well outside the portal and adding platforms should be fairly easy.
Görlitz Railway S-Bahn: what Berlin should be building
A radial rail network with three lines should aim to have them meet at a triangle in city center. Berlin has two S-Bahn radial lines, and S21 is to add a third. Instead of running parallel to the North-South Tunnel, it should provide a third trunk line. North of Potsdamer Platz the route is already baked in, but farther south, the Görlitz Railway route is a perfect legacy line to link to. It is quite busy, and the likely locations of the intermediate stops between existing infrastructure and Potsdamer Platz are busy U-Bahn stations in their own right.
I was delighted to see this already discussed on the technical transit blog Zukunft Mobilität. It has a long list of potential Berlin rail extensions, some in accordance with current long-term plans, some not. It specifically criticizes S21 for duplicating existing infrastructure, and proposes an extension to the southeast, mentioning that there were plans to that effect in the 1930s. There are two variants, one through Hermannplatz and one through the old route of the Görlitz Railway.
A higher-zoom 11 MB image is available here.
The dashed lines denote under-construction lines, including S21 to Potsdamer Platz, the 4.5-kilometer Siemens Railway to the northwest, and the U5-U55 connection. Dotted lines denote lines I am proposing: either variant connecting S21 toward the southeast, paired with the Siemens Railway as well as two new-build lines through the area of Tegel Airport, which is slated for redevelopment after the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport finally opens. Two branches are depicted toward Tegel, one toward airport grounds to be redeveloped, and one going farther north taking over S25; there are already discussions of a rapid transit line to Tegel, branching off of U6, but this option does not force the outer parts of U6 to contend with reduced frequency.
The two branches should of course not both be built. The main advantage of the southern option is that it hits Hermannplatz, one of the busiest stations in the system: the above diagram of rail ridership shows a large change in U8 demand north and south of the station, and a factsheet from 2010 asserts that it is the second busiest U-Bahn station, closely behind Alexanderplatz. In effect, it functions as an express link from Neukölln to city center. U8 isn’t especially crowded – nothing in Berlin is – but it’s busiest than the North-South Tunnel; this link is at least as justified as the S21 tunnel to the south. This would require about 7 km of tunnel. While S-Bahn tunnels cost more than U-Bahn tunnels, this is deliberately an express line, so keeping costs down to the per-km level of the U5-U55 connection (€525 million for 2.2 km) is reasonable, making it a €1.8 billion project or thereabout.
The northern option works differently. It doesn’t hit anything as interesting as Hermannplatz on the way, but it does serve Alt-Treptow, one of the bigger rapid transit deserts inside the Ring. The infill station would also break what is the second or third longest interstation on the Ring. Closer in, it has better coverage in the center – Checkpoint Charlie offers another CBD station in addition to Potsdamer Platz. The cost is more of an open question here. From Görlitzer Bahnhof to Potsdamer Platz it’s about 4 km; east of Görlitzer Bahnhof it’s plausible that the line could reuse the Görlitz Railway’s right-of-way and run elevated, or at worst underground with cut-and-cover. However, the per km cost of the tunnel would be higher, since proportionately more of it is in city center, and it has the same number of stations over shorter length; my vague guess is somewhat less than €1.5 billion.
The Berlin S-Bahn would become a system with three radial lines, meeting at Hauptbahnhof, Friedrichstrasse, and Potsdamer Platz. All reverse-branching would cease: the various branches on the Görlitz Railway, including the existing ones as well as an under-construction one to the airport-to-be, would feed into the S-Bahn trunk, rather than to the Ring or the Stadtbahn. The removal of S25 from the North-South Tunnel would create space for the S8 and S85 services in Pankow to use the North-South Tunnel instead of diverting to the Ring and Görlitz Railway. Potentially, the North-South Tunnel could also be realigned to serve Gleisdreieck, as depicted on the map. Finally, with S9 removed from the Stadtbahn, there would be room to beef up service on S3 and/or end the current practice in which S75 trains from the east stop at Ostbahnhof rather than running through.
Germany isn’t perfect
Writing about North America, I talk a lot about how it can Germanize its regional rail network. But it’s important to understand that while far better than North America, Germany is not perfect. It makes mistakes of many kinds: some involving high construction costs, some involving schedule slips, some involving unnecessary prestige projects. These can mostly be prefaced by “by Continental standards,” though the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport disaster is bad even by the standards of the Anglosphere and its billion-dollars-per-kilometer subways.
The Berlin S-Bahn is a case in point. It has a pretty hefty peak-to-base ratio by German standards – the Ring lines (S41 and S42) run every 5 minutes peak and every 10 off-peak, and a number of other lines have a peak-to-base ratio of 2 as well. It also has a peculiarity in that S75 trains only run east of Ostbahnhof; I can’t tell if there’s a problem with track capacity or demand mismatch, but if it’s the former then it’s strange since peak S-Bahn traffic on the Stadtbahn is only 18 trains per hour (Munich achieves 30 through its central tunnel, with much higher crowding levels), and if it’s the latter then it’s again strange – why not run through to Westkreuz like S5?
S21 is another of these little mistakes. It’s a prestige project on the heels of the construction of Hauptbahnhof, rather than a solution to a transportation need. There are six north-south tracks through Berlin between the S-Bahn and the mainline and they’re not anywhere near capacity; the mind boggles at why anyone would add seventh and eighth tracks before adding fifth and sixth east-west tracks.
Fortunately, the mistake is fixable. Germany’s dragging infrastructure timeline means that there’s often room for modifications to make things more useful. The airport is a lost cause, but S21 is not. From Potsdamer Platz south there’s a good option that adds S-Bahn service exactly where it is needed and simplifies citywide schedules by making it feasible to eliminate reverse-branching. In lieu of building more autobahns, Berlin should commit to building the southeastern extension via Alt-Treptow or Neukölln.
Many years ago, probably even before I started this blog, I visited family in Hamden, a suburb of New Haven. I took the bus from Union Station. When it was time to go back to New York, I timed myself to get to the bus that would make my train, but it rained really hard and there was no shelter. The time passed and as the bus didn’t come, I sought refuge from the rain under a ceiling overhang at a store just behind the bus stop, in full view of the road. A few minutes later, the bus went through the station at full speed, not even slowing down to see if anyone wanted to get on, and to get to my train I had to hitchhike, getting a ride from people who saw that I was a carless New Yorker.
Fast forward to 2018. My Brooklyn bus redesign plan with Eric Goldwyn calls for installing shelter everywhere, which I gather is a long-term plan for New York but one that the city outsourced to a private advertising firm, with little public oversight over how fast the process is to take. When I asked about the possibility of reducing costs by consolidating stops I was told there is no money for shelter, period. It was not a big priority for us in the plan so we didn’t have costs off-hand, but afterward I went to check and found just how cheap this is.
Streetsblog lists some costs in peripheral American cities, finding a range of $6,000-12,000 per stop for shelter. Here‘s an example from Florida for $10,000 including a bench. In Providence I asked and was told “$10,000-20,000.” In Southern California a recent installation cost $33,000 apiece. I can’t find European costs for new installation, but in London replacing an existing shelter with a new one is £5,700, or $8,000.
So let’s say the costs are even somewhat on the high American side, $15,000. What are the benefits?
I’ve found one paper on the subject, by Yingling Fan, Andrew Guthrie, and David Levinson, entitled Perception of Waiting Time at Transit Stops and Stations. The key graph is reproduced below:
The gender breakdown comes from the fact that in unsafe neighborhoods, women perceive waits as even longer than the usual penalty, whereas in safe ones there is no difference between women and men.
The upshot is that if the wait time is 10 minutes, then passengers at a stop with a bench and shelter perceive the wait as 15 minutes, and if there’s also real-time information then this shrinks to 11 minutes. If there are no amenities, then passengers perceive a 15-minute wait when they’ve waited just 6.5 minutes and an 11-minute wait when they’ve waited just 4. In other words, to estimate the impact of shelter we can look at the impact of reducing waits from 10 minutes to 6.5, and if there’s also real-time info then it’s like reducing waits to 4 minutes.
If the wait is 5 minutes then the impact is similar. With bench and shelter the perceived wait is 8.5 minutes, equivalent to a 3-minute wait without any amenities; with real-time information, the perceived wait is 6.5 minutes, equivalent to a 2-minute wait without amenities. There is some scale-dependence, but not too much, so we can model the impact of shelter as equivalent to that of increasing frequency from every 10 minutes to every 6.5 minutes (without real-time displays) or every 4 minutes (with real-time displays).
I have some lit review of ridership-frequency elasticity here. On frequent buses it is about 0.4, but this is based on the assumption that frequency is 7.5-12 minutes, not 4-6 minutes. At the low end this is perhaps just 0.3, the lowest found in the literature I’ve seen. To avoid too much extrapolation, let’s take the elasticity to be 0.3. Fan-Guthrie-Levinson suggests shelter alone is equivalent to a 50-66% increase in frequency, say 60%; thus, it should raise ridership by 15%. With real-time info, make this increase 30%.
What I think of as the upper limit to acceptable cost of capital construction for rail is $40,000-50,000 per weekday rider; this is based on what makes activists in Paris groan and not on first principles. But we can try to derive an equivalent figure for buses. On the one hand, we should not accept such high costs for bus projects, since buses have higher operating expenses than rail. But this is not relevant to shelter, since it doesn’t increase bus expenses (which are mostly driver labor) and can fund its ongoing maintenance from ads. On the other hand, a $40,000/rider rail project costs somewhat more per new rider – there’s usually some cannibalization from buses and other trains.
But taking $40,000/rider as a given, it follows that a bus stop should be provided with shelter if it has at least ($15,000/$40,000)/0.15 = 2.5 weekday boardings. If the shelter installation includes real-time info then the denominator grows to 0.3 and the result falls to 1.25 weekday boardings.
In New York, there are 13,000 bus stops, so on average there are around 180 boardings per stop. Even in Rhode Island, where apparently the standard is that a bus stop gets shelter at 50 boardings (and thus there is very little shelter because apparently it’s more important to brand a downtown trunk as a frequent bus), there are 45,000 weekday riders and 3,000 stops, so at 15 riders per stop it should be fine too put up shelter everywhere.
The only type of stop where I can see an exception to this rule is alighting-only stops. If a route is only used in a peak direction, for example toward city center or away from city center, then the outbound stops may be consistently less used to the point of not justifying shelter. But even that notion is suspicious, as American cities with low transit usage tend to have weak centers and a lot of job and retail sprawl. It’s likely that a large majority of bus stops in Rhode Island and all stops within Providence proper pass the 2.5 boardings rule, and it’s almost guaranteed that all pass the 1.25 boardings rule. And that’s even before consolidating stops, which should be done to improve bus speed either way.
At least based on the estimates I’ve found, installing bus shelter everywhere is a low-hanging fruit in cities where this is not already done. In the situation of New York, this is equivalent to spending around $550 per new weekday rider on transit – maybe somewhat more if the busier stops already have shelter, but not too much more (and actually less if there’s stop consolidation, which there should be). Even in that of Providence, the spending is equivalent to about $6,600 per rider without stop consolidation, or maybe $3,000 with, which is much better than anything the state will be able to come up with through the usual channels of capital expansion.
If it’s not done, the only reason for it is that transit agencies just don’t care. They think of buses as a mode of transportation of last resort, with a punishing user experience. Cities, states, and transit agencies can to a large extent decide what they have money for, and letting people sit and not get drenched is just not a high priority, hence the “we don’t have money” excuse. The bosses don’t use the buses they’re managing and think of shelter as a luxury they can’t afford, never mind what published transportation research on this question says.
The phrase security theater refers to the elaborate selling of airport security to the public through humiliating spectacle, like making people take off their shoes, with no safety value whatsoever. By the same token, prudence theater is the same kind of ritual of humiliating people, often workers, in the name of not wasting money. Managers who engage in prudence theater will refuse pay hikes and lose the best employees in the process, institute hiring freezes at understaffed departments and wonder why things aren’t working, and refuse long-term investments that look big even if they have limited risk and high returns. This approach is endemic to authoritarian managers who do not understand the business they are running – such as a number of do-nothing political leaders who make decisions regarding public transit.
I’ve talked a bunch about this issue in the context of capital investment, for example Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker, California’s Gavin Newsom, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, and New York‘s Andrew Cuomo, using phrases such as “Chainsaw Al” and “do-nothing.” But here I want to talk specifically about operations, because there is an insidious kind of prudence theater there: the hiring freeze. The MBTA and MTA both have hiring freezes, though thankfully New York is a little more flexible about it.
Both New York and Boston have very high operating costs, for both subways and buses. They have extensive overstaffing in general, but that does not extend to overstaffing at every department. On the contrary, some departments are understaffed. Adam Rahbee told me a year and a half ago that subway operations planning in New York was short on workers, in contrast to the overstaffed department he saw in London. Of course London on average has much lower costs than New York, but individual departments can still be short on manpower even in otherwise-overstaffed cities. If anything, leaving one department understaffed can cause inefficiencies at adjacent departments, making them in effect overstaffed relative to the amount of service they can offer.
Buses require active supervision by a centralized control center that helps drivers stay on schedule. New York currently has 20 dispatchers but is planning an increase to 59, in tandem with using new technology. Boston has 5 at any given time, and needs to staff up to 15, which involves increasing hiring to about 40 full-time workers and doing minor rearrangement of office space to give them a place to work. With too few dispatchers, drivers end up going off-schedule, leading to familiar bunching, wasting hundreds of bus drivers’ work in order to save money on a few tens of supervisors.
I went over the issue of bus bunching in a post from last summer, but for the benefit of non-technical readers, here is a diagram that explains in essence what the problem of chaos is:
The marble on top of the curve is unlikely to stay where it is for a long time, because any small disturbance will send it sliding down one side or the other. Moreover, it’s impossible to predict in advance which direction the marble will land in, because a disturbance too small to see will compound to a big one over time.
Chaotic systems like this are ubiquitous: weather is a chaotic system, which is why it’s not possible to predict it for more than about two weeks in advance – small changes compound in unexpected directions. Unfortunately, bus service is a chaotic system too. For the bus to be on schedule is an unstable equilibrium. If the bus runs just a little behind, then it will have to pick up more passengers on its way, as passengers who would have just missed the bus will instead just make it. Those extra passengers will take some extra time to board, putting the bus even further behind, until the bus behind it finally catches it and the two buses leapfrog each other in a platoon.
There are ways to mitigate this problem, including dedicated bus lanes and off-board fare collection. But they do not eliminate it – they merely slow it down, increasing the time it takes for a bus to bunch.
The connection between dispatching and chaotic bus schedules may not be apparent, but it is real. The transportation engineering academic community has had to deal with the question of how to keep buses on schedule; here, here, and here are three recent examples. The only real way to keep buses on schedule is through active control – that is, dispatching. A dispatcher can tell a driver that the bus is too far ahead and needs to slow down, or that it is behind and the driver should attempt to speed up. If the traffic light system is designed for it, the dispatcher can also make sure a delayed bus will get more green lights to get back on track, a technology called conditional signal priority, or CSP. This contrasts with unconditional transit signal priority, or TSP, which speeds up buses but does not preferentially keep them evenly spaced to prevent bunching.
Moreover, some of the people who have done academic work on this topic have gone on to work in the transit industry, whether for the MBTA (such as David Maltzan and Joshua Fabian) or for thinktanks or private companies (such as Chris Pangilinan). Specific strategies to keep the buses on track include CSP giving delayed buses more green lights, holding buses at the terminal so that they leave evenly spaced, and in some cases even holding at mid-route control points. Left to their own devices, buses will bunch, requiring constant correction by a competent dispatching department with all the tools of better data for detection of where bunching may occur as well as control over the city’s streetlights.
Managers’ point view vs. passengers’ point of view
When I talk to transit riders about their experiences, I universally hear complaints. The question is just a matter of what they complain about. In suburban Paris people complain plenty about the RER, talking about crowding and about how the system isn’t as frequent or reliable as the Metro. These are real issues and indicate what Ile-de-France Mobilités should be focusing its attention on.
Americans in cities with public transit talk about bunching. In New York I’ve routinely sighted platoons of two buses even on very short routes, where such problems should never occur, like the 3 kilometer long M86. A regular rail user who talked to me a few months ago mentioned three-bus platoons in Brooklyn on a route that has a nominal frequency of about 10 minutes.
From the perspective of the transit operator or the taxpayer, if buses are scheduled to arrive every ten minutes, that’s an expenditure of six buses per hour. From that of the rider, if the buses in fact come in platoons of two due to bunching, then the effective frequency is 20 minutes, and most likely the bus they ride on will be the more crowded one as well. What looks like a service improvement to managers who never take the system they’re running may offer no relief to the customers on the ground.
I wish my mockery of transit managers who don’t use their own system were facetious, but it’s not. In New York, some of the more senior managers look at NYCT chief Andy Byford askance for not owning a car and instead using the subway to get to places. Planner job postings at North American transit agencies routinely require a driver’s license and say that driving around the city is part of the job. Ignorant of both the science of chaos and the situation on the ground, the managers and politicians miss low-hanging fruits while waxing poetic about the need to save money.
Is anything being done?
In New York there are some positive signs, such as the increase in the number of dispatchers. The warm reception Eric Goldwyn and I got from some specific people at the MTA is a good sign as well. The problem remains political obstruction by a governor and mayor who don’t know or care to know about good practices. Cuomo’s constant sidelining of Byford has turned into a spectacle among New York transit journalists.
In Boston, the answer is entirely negative. Last week’s draft of the Focus40 plan, released by the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board (FMCB), unfortunately entirely omits dispatching and operational supervision from its scope. It includes a variety of investments for the future, some of which are welcome, such as the Red-Blue Connector. But it reduces the issue of bus timetable keeping to a brief note in the customer experience section that mentions “Computer Aided Dispatch / Automatic Vehicle Location technology.” Good data is not a bad thing, but it is not everything. Warm bodies are required to act on this data.
Thus prudence theater continues. Massachusetts will talk about reform before revenue and about spending money wisely, but it is run by people with little knowledge of public transportation and no interest in acquiring said knowledge. Its approach to very real issues of high costs is to cut, even when there are parts of the system that are underfunded and undermanned. Staffing up to 15 dispatchers at a time, raising the headcount to about 40 full-time workers, would have the same effect on ridership as literally hundreds of bus drivers through better control. Will the administration listen? As usual, I hope for the best but have learned to expect the worst.
My post about the boundary zone between the transit-oriented city and its auto-oriented suburbs led to a lot of interesting discussions in comments, including my favorite thing to hear: “what you said describes my city too.” The city in question is Philadelphia, and the commenter, Charles Krueger, asked specifically about park-and-ride commuter rail stations. My post had mentioned Southeast on the Harlem Line as an interface between commuter rail and the Westchester motorway network, and the natural followup question is whether this is true in general.
The answer is that it’s complicated, because like the general concept of the cars/transit boundary zone, park-and-rides have to be rare enough. If they’re too common, the entire rail system is oriented around them and is not really a boundary but just an extension of the road network. This is the situation on every American commuter rail system today – even lines that mostly serve traditional town centers, like the New Haven Line, focus more on having a lot of parking at the station and less on transit-oriented development. Even some suburban rapid transit lines, such as the Washington Metro, BART, and the recent Boston subway extensions, overuse park-and-rides.
However, that American suburban rail systems overuse such stations does not mean that such stations must never be built. There are appropriate locations for them, provided they are used in moderation. Those locations should be near major highways, in suburbs where there is a wide swath of low-density housing located too far from the rail line for biking, and ideally close to a major urban station for maximum efficiency. The point is to use suburban rail to extend the transit city outward rather than the auto-oriented suburban zone inward, so the bulk of the system should not be car-oriented, but at specific points park-and-rides are acceptable, to catch drivers in suburbs that can’t otherwise be served or redeveloped.
Peakiness and park-and-rides
I’ve harped on the importance of off-peak service. The expensive part of rail service is fixed costs, including the infrastructure and rolling stock; even crew labor has higher marginal costs at the peak than off-peak, since a high peak-to-base ratio requires split shifts. This means that it’s best to design rail services that can get ridership at all times of day and in both directions.
The need for design that stimulates off-peak service involves supportive service, development, and infrastructure. Of these, service is the easiest: there should be bidirectional clockface schedule, ideally with as little variation between peak and off-peak as is practical. Development is politically harder, but thankfully in the main example case, the Northeastern United States, commuter rail agencies already have zoning preemption powers and can therefore redevelop parking lots as high-intensity residential and commercial buildings with walkable retail.
Infrastructure is the most subtle aspect of design for all-day service. Park-and-ride infrastructure tends to be peaky. Whereas the (peakier, more suburban) SNCF-run RER and Transilien lines have about 46% of their suburban boardings at rush hour, the LIRR has 67%, Metro-North 69%, and the MBTA 79%. My linked post explains this difference as coming from a combination of better off-peak service on the RER and more walkable development, but we can compare these two situations with the Washington Metro, where development is mostly low-density suburban but off-peak frequency is not terrible for regional rail. Per data from October 2014, this proportion is 56%, about midway between Transilien and the LIRR.
This goes beyond parking. For one, railyards should be sited at suburban ends of lines, where land is cheap, rather than in city center, where land is expensive and there is no need to park trains midday if they keep circulating. But this is mostly about what to put next to the train stations: walkable development generating a habit of riding transit all day, and not parking lots.
Where parking is nonetheless useful
In response to Charles’ comment, I named a few cases of park-and-rides that I think work well around New York, focusing on North White Plains and Jersey Avenue. There, the parking-oriented layout is defensible, on the following grounds:
- They are located in suburban sections where the reach of the highway network is considerable, as there is a large blob of low density, without much of the structure created by a single commuter line.
- They are near freeways, rather than arterials where timed connecting buses are plausible.
- They are immediately behind major stations in town centers with bidirectional service, namely White Plains and New Brunswick, respectively.
The importance of proximity is partly about TOD potential and partly about train operating efficiency. If the park-and-rides are well beyond the outer end of bidirectional demand, then the trains serving them will be inefficient, as they will get relatively few off-peak riders. A situation like that of Ronkonkoma, which is located just beyond low-ridership, low-intensity suburbs and tens of kilometers beyond Hicksville, encourages inefficient development. Thus, they should ideally be just beyond the outer end, or anywhere between the city and the outer end.
However, if they are far from the outer end, then they become attractive TOD locations. For example, every station between New York and White Plains is a potential TOD site. It’s only near White Plains that the desirability of TOD diminishes, as White Plains itself makes for a better site.
On rapid transit in American suburbia, one example of this principle is the Quincy Adams garage on the Red Line just outside Boston. While the station itself can and should be made pedestrian-friendlier, for one by reopening a gate from the station to a nearby residential neighborhood, there’s no denying the main access to the station will remain by car. Any TOD efforts in the area are better spent on Quincy Center and Braintree, which also have commuter rail service.
Where parking should urgently be replaced by TOD
American suburban rail lines overuse park-and-rides, but there are specific sites where this type of development is especially bad. Often these are very large park-and-ride structures built in the postwar era for the explicit purpose of encouraging suburban drivers to use mainline rail for commuter and intercity trips. With our modern knowledge of the importance of all-day demand, we can see that this thinking is wrong for regional trips – it encourages people to take rail where it is the most expensive to provide and discourages ridership where it is free revenue.
The most important mistake is Metropark. The station looks well-developed from the train, but this is parking structures, not TOD. Worse, the area is located in the biggest edge city in the Northeast, possibly in the United States, possibly in the world. Middlesex County has 393,000 jobs and 367,000 employed residents, and moreover these jobs are often high-end, so that what the Bureau of Economic Analysis calls adjustment for residence, that is total money earned by county residents minus total money earned in the county, is negative (Manhattan has by far the largest negative adjustment in the US, while the outer boroughs have the largest positive one). The immediate area around Metropark and Woodbridge has 46,000 jobs, including some frustratingly close to the station and yet not oriented toward it; it’s a huge missed opportunity for commercial TOD.
In general, edge cities and edgeless cities should be prime locations for sprawl repair and TOD whenever a suburban rail line passes nearby. Tysons, Virginia is currently undertaking this process, using the Silver Line extension of the Metro. However, preexisting lines do not do so: Newton is not making an effort at TOD on the existing Green Line infrastructure, it’s only considering doing so in a part of town to be served by a potential branch toward Needham; and the less said about commuter rail, the better. Mineola and Garden City on Long Island, Tarrytown in Westchester, and every MBTA station intersecting Route 128 are prime locations for redevelopment.
Commuter rail for whomst?
I believe it’s Ant6n who first came up with the distinction between commuter rail extending the transit city into the suburbs and commuter rail extending the suburbs into the city. If the trains are frequent and the stations well-developed, then people from the city can use them for trips into suburbia without a car, and their world becomes larger. If they are not, then they merely exist to ferry suburban drivers into city center at rush hour, the one use case that cars are absolutely infeasible for, and they hem car-less city residents while extending the world of motorists.
Park-and-rides do have a role to play, in moderation. Small parking lots at many stations are acceptable, provided the station itself faces retail, housing, and offices. Larger parking structures are acceptable in a handful of specific circumstances where there is genuinely no alternative to driving, even if the rest of the rail service interfaces with walkable town centers. What is not acceptable is having little development except parking at the majority of suburban train stations.
I’ve spoken my piece about why American infrastructure construction is so expensive. This is very much a work-in-progress, but it represents about the extent of my current knowledge on the subject. I want to follow up on this by talking about stereotypes and how they affect what people believe is possible when it comes to construction costs. I wrote about this to some extent here, 4.5 years ago, noting that my impression is that people on the Internet are far more willing to believe that there is efficient construction in Northern Europe than in Southern Europe even though the latter actually has lower construction costs.
Here I want to delve somewhat deeper into what stereotypes I’ve seen and how they lead people astray when it comes to infrastructure. It’s a lot more than just Southern and Northern Europe. Each of the following sections describes an aspect of infrastructure planning that doesn’t conform to American stereotypes.
The US has weak property rights
Americans are taught from a young age that America is about freedom. They’re taught about the American struggle against British tyranny, about the life-liberty-property triad, and about all manners of national origin stories that get extended to a ridiculous extent. The result is that Americans and even some immigrants who made it big in America and absorbed American ideas readily believe that they are the freest nation in the world in all ways. Faced with the reality that (for example) Germany has far stronger privacy protections, the reaction is either indifference (among most people in the US) or an attempt to castigate privacy as actually a weird imposition (among some tech boosters).
The same issue occurs with property rights. Objectively speaking, American law does not have strong protections for property rights. Japan has stronger individual protections in property rights. In addition to strong legal protections, there are strong extralegal protections in countries that have some tolerance of street protests; France is famously such a country, at least if the protesters are white, but Japan had airport riots delaying the construction of Narita and earlier riots blocking the expansion of an American military base.
In contrast to these cases, in the US, when the state wants your property, it will get it. Lawsuits can cause delays but not stop a project the state is committed to. Moreover, the state is allowed to time the market. The only thing the government is not allowed to do is excess takings – that is, taking more property than needed to build infrastructure in order to sell it at a profit later. If your property has low value due to past government activity, the government does not need to pay you extra. As mentioned in The Big Roads, the United States built the Interstates through redlined black inner-city neighborhoods because land there was cheaper; after the race riots of the 1960s Washington-area road builders even wanted to build a new round of roads since land would be especially cheap, and they were stopped only by political opposition to such optics rather than by any legal or extralegal challenge.
NIMBYism in the US in the context of infrastructure has to be understood as not a reaction to a state that is too weak but to one that is too strong. The denizens of rich suburbs like the sundown town Darien, Connecticut rely on the state to prop up their property values through exclusion, and any change that threatens such exclusion may cause losses that they have no way to recover. Lacking any way to legally prevent the state from slicing through the town to build faster roads and trains, they have to use political influence to prevent infrastructure from being built.
The US does not have safe railway operations
I made a post eight years ago scrubbing lists of rail accidents from Wikipedia and comparing the US, the EU, Japan, China, and India. I don’t believe the numbers are true for India or China as not everything may be reported in English sources, although I do believe they’re true for Chinese high-speed rail; but for Japan, the EU, and the US, the numbers are solid. American trains are several times less safe for passengers than European ones, and more than a full order of magnitude less safe than Japanese ones.
The US in theory has a culture of safety-first, but in reality it’s more safety theater than safety. Rail signaling is primitive, and automatic train protection (“positive train control,” or PTC) is not required in terminal zones with restricted speed, leading to fatal crashes. The favorite way to deal with danger is to slap an arbitrary speed limit – for example, to permit trains to use a bridge that has just been burned down but at restricted speed, with exactly the result you’d expect.
This is difficult for Americans to believe, especially with respect to Asia. I’ve repeatedly seen people insist that Japan does not prioritize safety, and the idea that China does not seems universal in the developed world. Richard Mlynarik’s report of a Caltrain official who, when told Japan turns trains faster than the official thought was possible, responded “Asians don’t value life the way we do,” seems par for the course when it comes to Western attitudes. Westerners are certain that Asians are not fully human but are part machine, with no individuality, perhaps thinking that since Westerners can’t tell East Asians apart East Asians can’t tell one another apart either.
China is not particularly efficient
The epitome of the American stereotype of dangerous tyrannical efficiency today is China. Ray Lahood, Obama’s first-term secretary of transportation, even mentioned that in connection with high-speed rail. In reality, Chinese infrastructure construction costs do not seem especially low. Not much information makes it to English-language media, and unlike in French or German I don’t know how to look up construction costs in Chinese, but the lines for which I can find data seem to be in line with the global average. Metro Report has an article mentioning two Shanghai Metro extensions: the all-underground Line 9 extension at $225 million per km, and the 46% underground Line 17 at $123 million per km, with very wide stop spacing.
Moreover, high-speed rail in China is on the expensive side. There are studies asserting that it isn’t, but they do not control for PPP. The Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line cost 218 million yuan, or about $55 billion adjusted for PPP, making it about $42 million per km, a high figure for a line with almost no tunnels (only 1.2% of the line’s length).
The other famously efficient East Asian dictatorship, Singapore, has high infrastructure costs as well, judging by what’s going on with the Thomson MRT Line.
Americans fixate on China because it’s so big and because they consider it a rival. But there is no reason to expect the best results to come from a large country. Most countries are small, so we should expect both the most successful and the least successful ones to be small. The actually cheap places to build infrastructure in, like Spain and South Korea, don’t really pattern-match to any American or European self-perception, so it’s much easier to ignore them than to look at Chinese or German efficiency.
Corruption does not work the same way everywhere
The United States has a fair amount of political corruption, but it’s not exceptional for this in the developed world. There’s widespread American belief that the public sector is incompetent, and Americans who have compared American and generic first-world public projects correctly think this is especially true of the American public sector, but this is not exactly about corruption. My quip on the subject is that Italy has low construction costs – and Italy’s high corruption levels are no mere stereotype, but are mirrored in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Moreover, low costs and high corruption perceptions seem endemic to Southern Europe and South Korea.
I’m not familiar with the precise nature of corruption everywhere. But what I’ve read from Italy and Greece suggests that it’s different from what happens in the United States. In diagnosing Italy’s stagnation over the last generation, Bruno Pellegrino and Luigi Zingales note that Italy has a widespread problem of tax avoidance, leading private companies to mostly hire within extended clans rather than by merit; the reason for the recent stagnation, they posit, is that the computer revolution has made hiring by merit especially important. In Greece the same problem of tax avoidance is endemic – see some links through Wikipedia – and Stathis Kalyvas’s paper about clientelism and political populism notes that Greece does not really have large prestigious private businesses with workers vs. bosses politics the way the US, Japan, South Korea, and the European core do.
In Southern Europe, or at least in Greece and Italy, it looks like corruption is endemic to the private sector. The public sector is affected by clientelism, but perhaps infrastructure construction is so removed from politics that there is no unusual corruption there, and thus engineers can innovate their way into lower costs, as postwar Milan did. If the public sector in Italy is as efficient in Germany, it will have lower costs than Germany simply because market wages in Italy are lower thanks to the private sector’s low productivity. This is not a complete story, since it specifically predicts that Italy should have a growing construction cost gap with Germany as their wages diverge, whereas at least based on the smattering of projects I’ve seen Italy was cheaper even in the 1990s and early 2000s, when wages were similar in both countries. Moreover, Scandinavia has low corruption, high wages, and low construction costs. But this is suggestive of how come countries with wages on the margin of the first world tend to consistently have lower construction costs.
The nature of American corruption is different. The private sector has little of it. Tax avoidance exists in the US, but not to the same extent as in Italy or Greece. Managerial fraud at big business exists, but is nowhere near the levels of Mediterranean small businesses. Instead, the public sector is inefficient, due to different problems – not quite clientelism, which describes party loyalty as a condition of hiring, but hiring based on personal loyalty to the governor or mayor. What’s more, since the problem goes all the way to the top, expecting the same authoritarian state and municipal officials to successfully privatize infrastructure to unleash private-sector productivity is fruitless.
The bureaucratic state can guarantee fairer outcomes than litigation
When writing my post about the causes of high American construction costs, I read different takes on the American tradition of adversarial legalism. A paper by Shep Melnick, which I linked in my post, asserts that adversarial legalism is good for various oppressed minorities, focusing on lawsuits forcing better accessibility for people with disabilities, looking at special education as an example.
And yet, if we look at the usual liberal standard of fair outcomes rather than fair processes, the outcomes in the United States do not seem especially fair. Workplace discrimination levels against nonwhites range widely between countries as well as between different studies in the same country, but the US seems to be roughly within the European median; there is a large set of references in the OECD’s International Migration Outlook of 2013, PDF-pp. 11-12, as well as a smaller list in the OECD’s The Price of Prejudice, p. 16. The latter source also compares international gender gaps, and the US seems fairly average as well. Only in the employment gap between second-generation immigrants and children of natives does the US do especially well, and that’s in the context of an unusually high-skill mix of immigrants, like similar high performers Canada and Switzerland, neither of which has an especially low discrimination level in equal resume studies.
When it comes to Melnick’s question of disability rights, the US is increasingly falling behind thanks to high construction costs. Berlin is about to complete installing elevators at all U-Bahn stations, aided by a process that allows it to make a station accessible for €2 million. Madrid, where this cost is about €5 million per line served by each station, has a large majority of accessible stations already and is looking at full installation next decade. Compare this with the tardiness of New York, where layers of consent decrees and grandfather clauses have created a subway system that is about as old as Berlin’s and only 25% accessible.
Incuriosity affects all American groups
I literally just saw a comment on Reddit that tried to slot the idea that the US should learn from the rest of the world into political liberalism or Democratic partisanship (“blue tribe”). This is not an idiosyncratic connection. In 2006, at Yearly Kos, a performer used the expression “French-loving” as a self-description for American liberals, and the entire audience said “preach on” in agreement; this and similar epithets hurled by conservatives in the same era may have been a unique artifact of France’s opposition to the Iraq War, but years later Republicans would keep complaining that Democrats want the US to imitate European welfare states.
The reality is very different. American indifference to rest-of-world practice is national. So is English Canadian indifference to rest-of-world practice excluding the US and occasionally Britain. If anything, New York is even more solipsistic than the rest of the US. I’ve recurrently seen New Yorkers use the same dismissive language that Americans use for the world outside their country for anything outside the city. In contrast, Bostonians do try to look at how things work in the rest of the US and the same is true of people in Sunbelt cities that build light rail.
The upshot of this is that there is not much to look for in intra-American politics. The institutions of American partisanship are not useful for this. Some good ideas can come from people who happen to identify with a party, but the distance between the legal scholars criticizing adversarial legalism and the practice of tort reform, like that between the recommendations of academic environmentalists and the practice of green jobs programs, is vast.
Moreover, the elite centrist politics that claims to be above partisanship has to be seen as yet another partisan institution, working hard to limit the scope of debate to what the same elites that have failed to provide good government services will find comfortable. The same can be said for populism. There is nothing to look for on the populist left and right, because as movements they are not concerned with governing, and tend to boost voices that are long on rhetoric and short on knowledge. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does not need to be correct for leftists to admire her, for one since the veto points on implementation details are members of Congress well to her right; why should she make an effort to educate herself about fuel taxes or about the white supremacy of the Gilets Jaunes? And the less said about ideological experiments like Walker-era Wisconsin or Brownback-era Kansas, the better.
Ultimately, not everyone has the same stereotypes
I focus on American stereotypes, and to some extent pan-Western ones, because stereotypes differ by culture. Americans self-perceive as risk-taking and entrepreneurial. Israelis perceive Americans as hopelessly square and rulebound, even in comparison with Europeans. Westerners perceive all East Asians as rulebound and machine-like. Chinese and Malay people self-perceive as dog-eat-dog societies, at least in Southeast Asia, to the point that when I learned Mahatir Mohamed’s criticism of human rights in Asia in university, I learned his take as “we Asians don’t naturally cooperate and require an authoritarian government” rather than as the more typically Western belief that Asians are naturally obedient.
The incredulity I’ve encountered when trying to tell Americans how Israelis and Singaporeans perceive things is not just a matter of American solipsism. I’ve seen similar incredulity on this side of the Pond, for example when I told Spanish mathematicians, who are not railfans, that Spain has really low construction costs; they found it hard to believe, due to the widely-shared stereotype of Southern European corruption. By their nature, stereotypes appeal to base instincts, working through unexamined prejudices. Not for nothing, the people most invested in stereotypes, the racists, tend to be the most closed, to the point that openness to experience as a personality trait is almost a proxy for antiracist politics.
Neither widely-shared stereotypes (Japanese order, Southern European corruption, etc.) nor more internationally variable ones are enlightening when it comes to actual differences in infrastructure construction costs. The importance of international variability is that Westerners who are closed to the fact that how Asians perceive themselves is different from how Westerners perceive them are likely to be equally closed to a thousand details of governance, business, and engineering between successful and failed infrastructure programs.
The most importance difference in stereotypes when it comes to infrastructure is how Americans perceive the difference between Europe and the US and how Europeans perceive it. The US is certain it’s at the top of the world, so if there’s an aspect on which it isn’t, like life expectancy or public transit, then this aspect probably doesn’t matter much and the American entrepreneurial spirit will soon fix it anyway. Few people in the core European countries share this attitude. Americans need to choose between a sense of national pride and improving their infrastructure; for all the glory infrastructure can give, the methods with which they need to build it require letting go of their prejudices against the rest of the world.
I am embarking on a long-term project to investigate why US construction costs are high using case studies, so everything I’m going to say so far is tentative. In particular, one of my favorite theories for most of this decade seems to be false based on the addition of just two or three new data points. That said, having spent the last nine years looking at topline costs and a few itemized breakdowns does let me reach some initial conclusions, ones that I believe are robust to new data. The context is that some mainstream American pundits are asking why, and I realized that I’ve written more posts criticizing incorrect explanations than posts focusing on more plausible reasons.
1. Engineering part 1: station construction methods
The most important itemized fact concerning American construction costs is that New York’s premium over Paris is overwhelmingly about stations. I have itemized data for a single line in New York (Second Avenue Subway Phase 1) and a single line in Paris (Metro Line 1 extension), from which I have the following costs:
Tunneling: about $150 million per km vs. $90 million, a factor of 1.7
Stations: about $750 million per station vs. $110 million, a factor of 6.5
Systems: about $110 million per km vs. $35 million, a factor of 3.2
Overheads and design: 27% of total cost vs. 15%, which works out to a factor of about 11 per km or a factor of 7 per station
These costs have some reinforcement with other projects in both cities. When New York built the 7 extension, there were calls for an intermediate stop in addition to the single stop built, and at the time the city definitively canceled the extra station, its cost was given as $800 million. Moreover, in Paris, another extension for which I have per-station cost data, that of Metro Line 12, costs €175 million for 2 stations and no tunnels, about $110 million per station, including overheads; the same is true of two more stations not on M12 given in a French report about the costs of Grand Paris Express (PDF-p. 10).
The difference concerns construction methods. In Paris, as well as Athens, Madrid, Mexico City, Caracas, Santiago, Copenhagen, Budapest, and I imagine other cities for which I can’t find this information, metro stations are built cut-and-cover. While the tunnels between stations are bored, at higher cost than opening up the entire street, the stations themselves are dug top-down. This allows transporting construction materials from the top of the dig, right where they are needed, as well as easier access by the workers and removal of dirt and rock. There is extensive street disruption, for about 18 months in the case of Paris, but the merchants and residents get a subway station at the end of the works.
In contrast, in New York, to prevent street disruption, Second Avenue Subway did not use any cut-and-cover. The tunnels between stations were bored, as in nearly all other cities in the world that build subways, and the stations were mined from within the bore, with just small vertical shafts for access. The result was a disaster: the costs exploded, as can be seen in the above comparison, and instead of 18 months of station box-size disruption, there were 5 years of city block-size disruption, narrowing sidewalks to just 2 meters (7′ to be exact).
In London, the Crossrail project was forced to mine stations as well, as it passes underneath and around many older Underground lines. Only one station could be built cut-and-cover, Canary Wharf, built underwater at very deep level. These stations have comparable construction costs to those of Second Avenue Subway. One way around this problem is to build large-diameter bores, as in Barcelona on Line 9/10, which used a bore so big it could fit two tracks with platforms. However, L9/10 has high costs by Spanish standards, and moreover the vertical access to the stations is exclusively by elevator, with lower capacity than escalators and stairs. A technique for slant bores for escalators exists in St. Petersburg, but I do not know its cost.
2. Engineering part 2: mezzanines
The other big problem with American metro construction methods is the oversized stations. This problem also occurs in Canada, where Toronto uses cut-and-cover stations like most of the world and yet has very high costs, as these cut-and-cover stations are palatial. But I do want to caution that this is a smaller problem than station mining, especially in New York. The total amount of excavation in Paris is barely lower than in New York.
But whatever the dig size issue is, one problem persists: American subway stations have mezzanines, usually full-length. This problem goes back to the 1930s. According to a historical review published in JRTR, costs in New York per kilometer rose to $140 million in the 1930s; in the 1910s and 20s costs were only $45 million per kilometer but there was extensive elevated construction, so per underground kilometer they were perhaps $80 million. This contrasts with $30-35 million per km on lines built in London and Paris from the 1900s to the 1930s.
A big cost driver in the 1930s was the higher construction standards. The subway built wider curves, even wider than those used in London and Paris. There were underground flying junctions allowing a complex system of branching on local and express trains to serve many different origin-destination pairs. And stations had full-length mezzanines.
The mezzanines have since turned into an American standard, featuring on all subsequent subways that I know of. BART has them under Market Street. Boston has them at some of the newer stations, alongside high ceilings at parts of stations the mezzanines don’t reach.
Outside the US, cities with such large station digs have high costs as well Toronto has had palatial construction at some of its newer stations, such as Vaughan Metro Center, leading to high costs even with cut-and-cover stations: while the Vaughan extension cost only C$320 million per kilometer, further projects in Toronto are slated to cost far more, including the single-stop Scarborough subway for C$520 million per km (only 18% less than Second Avenue Subway adjusted for station spacing) and the Downtown Relief Line at C$800 million per km.
Moreover, my recollection of riding the MRT in Singapore, another high-cost country, is that its stations are palatial as well, more so than recent American ones, let alone French ones. Singapore has high construction costs: the under-construction Thomson Line is to cost S$600 million per km according to information from 2012, and since then there has been a schedule slip, though I can’t find more recent cost estimates, and I do know of rail infrastructure projects with schedule overruns that stay within budget. Individual stations in Singapore are fairly expensive, with the central one (Orchard) approaching American costs at S$500 million, and in a speech full of excuses for construction costs, Singaporean transport minister Khaw Boon Wan mentioned that the new line has more exits per station, signaling larger station footprints.
3. Management part 1: procurement
The best industry practice, outlined by Madrid Metro’s Manuel Melis Maynar, is to award contracts by a combination of cost, construction speed, and a technical score judged by an in-house oversight team. Moreover, in Madrid there is separation between design and construction, in order to permit construction teams to make small changes as they go along without being wedded to their own plans. With this system, Melis built a wave of metros for an underground construction cost of, in today’s terms, $80 million per kilometer (almost all but not 100% underground), including rolling stock, which I have attempted to exclude from other lines whenever possible.
The American practice is to award contracts by cost alone. This leads to one of two problems, depending on the coast.
In California, the problem is, in two words, Tutor-Perini. This contractor underbids and then does shoddy work requiring change orders, litigated to the maximum. Ron Tutor’s dishonesty is well-known and goes back decades: in 1992 Los Angeles’s then-mayor Tom Bradley called him the change order king. And yet, he keeps getting contracts, all of which have large cost overruns, going over the amount the state or city would have paid had it awarded the contract to the second lowest bidder. In San Francisco, cost overrun battles involving Tutor-Perini led to a 40% cost overrun. This process repeated for high-speed rail: Tutor submitted lowest but technically worst bid, got the contract as price was weighted too high, and then demanded expensive changes. It speaks to California’s poor oversight of contractors that Tutor remains a contractor in good standing and has not been prosecuted for fraud.
In New York, this is not a problem, as the state makes sure to avoid shoddy work through overexacting specs, down to specifying the materials to be used. Unfortunately, this kind of micromanagement reduces flexibility, increasing construction costs in two ways. First, the direct effect raises the hard costs of construction, by about 15-25% plus overheads and contingency according to many contractors interviewed for Brian Rosenthal’s New York Times article on the subject. And second, since many contractors are turned off by the red tape, there is less competition – the 7 extension had just a single bidder – and thus contractors can demand an extra profit on top.
Some American cities try to get around this problem by using design-build contracts. However, these merely move the locus of micromanagement from the public to private sector. Madrid eschews them and prefers using public oversight to macromanage contractors.
While this may well by the single most important institutional factor in New York, it is not universal in the United States. In Boston, a manager at the MBTA, Jaime Garmendia, reassured me that the agency would “would cease to do business with that contractor in a heartbeat” if anyone acted like Tutor.
4. Management part 2: conflict resolution
In Madrid, Melis Maynar insisted on itemizing construction contracts. Thus, every contract would have a pre-agreed cost per extra item if changes were needed. Since changes are inevitable, this provides fast conflict resolution without expensive courtroom battles and without too much risk on the contractor.
I know of one additional example of itemization: in a paper studying electricity generation contracts in India, Nicholas Ryan compares cases in which there was a pre-agreed system for price escalation in case of changes in input prices and cases in which there were one-off negotiations whenever the situation suddenly changed. Pre-agreed escalation based on input prices leads to lower costs, first because there is less risk to the contractor, second because the negotiation happens in a situation in which if the contractor walks away the state can find another without incurring too much of a sunk cost, and third because the process attracts more honest contractors than Tutor.
In the United States, itemizing does not happen. Contracts are by lump sum, and every time a change is needed, there is a new negotiation, which involves lawyers and potentially courtroom litigation. Robert Kagan calls this tradition adversarial legalism, and contrasts it with European bureaucratic legalism, in which regulators and judges have more power than individual lawyers. Kagan gives an example of litigation about the Oakland Harbor dredging project. Tellingly, a civil rights-centered critique of the concept, arguing that adversarial legalism produces more liberal outcomes for minorities and the disabled (in the context of special education) – but when it comes to transit, the United States lags in wheelchair accessibility.
This is not intended as a broad attack on American legalism, although I do think such legalism also leads to worse infrastructure decisions in general. This is a specific attack on the tradition of using lawsuits to resolve conflicts between contractors and the state, rather than agreeing on itemized costs in advance, a technique that is legal in the US and that international firms, which have successfully bid on many American projects at American costs, are already familiar with.
5. Management part 3: project management
Some problems are not about procurement or the law, but purely about managerial competence. In Boston, consensus concerning the Green Line Extension seems to be that its high costs are the result of poor project management. The Green Line Extension’s costs were at one point estimated at $3 billion for 6.4 km of light rail in preexisting mainline rail rights-of-way; it’s so expensive that it was misclassified as a subway in one Spanish analysis, which still found it was a premium over European subways.
The current estimate is down to $2.3 billion, of which $1.1 billion was wasted in the initial project, and only the remaining half is actual construction costs of the restarted project. Several Boston-area insiders, including the aforementioned Jaime Garmendia, explain that the MBTA had no prior experience in managing a large project, and did not hire an experienced manager for it, leading to a pileup of errors. When it finally hired a new manager and a new team and restarted the project, costs fell, but not before a billion dollars were wasted.
The remaining cost of the extension, $190 million per km, is still very high for a light rail line. However, in conjunction with the other problems detailed here, this is not so surprising.
6. Management part 4: agency turf battles
There is little cooperation between different public transit providers in the US in the same region. Usually, the effect is only on operations. Whereas in Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland the fare within a metro area depends on the start and end point and perhaps on whether one rides in first or second class but not on whether one uses a bus, a tram, a subway, or a commuter rail line, in the United States fares are mode-dependent and transfers between separate agencies are not free. Nor do American agencies coordinate schedules between different modes of transit even within the same agency: the MBTA is forbidden to coordinate suburban bus and commuter rail schedules.
While this by itself does not impact construction costs, it can lead to overbuilding when construction for one agency impinges on another agency’s turf. This problem is particularly acute when mainline rail is involved, as there is an institutional tradition of treating it as a separate fief from the rest of public transit: “commuter rail is commuter rail, it’s not public transit,” said MBTA then-general manager Frank DePaola in 2016. Extensive turf battles may also occur between different commuter rail operators run as separate units, for example in New York. The same tradition occurs in Canada, where Toronto regional rail modernization plans came from an overarching planning agency, which had to force the commuter rail engineers and managers to go along.
I covered turf battles in a post from the end of 2017. In short, two distinct problems may occur. First, there may be visible overbuilding: for example, plans for California High-Speed Rail included a gratuitous tunnel in Millbrae, near the airport, in order to avoid reducing BART’s territory even though BART has three tracks at a station where it needs only one or at most two; overall, area advocate Clem Tillier found $2.7 billion in high-speed rail cost savings between San Francisco and just south of San Jose. The same problem afflicts plans for extra regional rail capacity in New York: the commuter railroads do not want to share turfs, forcing the construction of additional station tracks in Midtown Manhattan at great cost.
The second problem is that without coordination of capital planning and operations, schedules for construction may be constrained. I believe that this contributes to the high cost of Boston’s Green Line Extension, which is high by American light rail standards. Without agreement on construction windows, right-of-way modifications such as moving bridge foundations to make room for extra tracks become difficult.
7. Institutions part 1: political lading with irrelevant priorities
There is a kind of overbuilding that comes not from American engineering practices that became accepted wisdom in the 1930s, but from active interference by politicians. I caution that I do not know of any case in which this has seriously impacted tunneling costs, the topic I feel more qualified to compare across the world. However, this has been a problem for other public transportation and livable streets projects, especially on the surface.
When a city announces a new public transit initiative, it comes with the expectation of an infusion of money. Usually this money comes from outside sources, such as higher-level governments, but even when it is purely local, individual stakeholders may treat it as money coming from other parts of the city. In this environment, there is an incentive to demand extra scope in order to spend other people’s money on related but unnecessary priorities. The most common example of this is the demand for street reconstruction to be bundled with light rail and even bus rapid transit.
The advocacy organization Light Rail Now claims that bundling street reconstruction has raised some American light rail costs. Moreover, I know examples of this happening for BRT. The Albuquerque project ART, which I covered in the context of electric buses, is one such example: it cost $135 million for 25 km, of which about 13 km were reconstructed to have wider sidewalks, trees, and street lighting. Moreover, in Tampa, the highway department insists that the transit agency find money for repaving roads with concrete if it wishes to run buses more frequently.
This is not just an American problem: the Nice tramway, which at €64 million per km for the first line is France’s costliest, spent 30% of its budget not on the tramway itself but on drainage, rebuilding a public plaza, and other related but unnecessary amenities.
Commuter rail exhibits this problem in droves. Either local suburbs or agencies that are captive to them insist on building large transit centers with plentiful parking, retail that is not necessary if trains arrive on time, and a sense of place. Spartan stations, equipped only with level boarding, shelter, and a convenient spot for connecting buses to drop people off on the street or at a bus bay, cost a few million dollars apiece in Boston and Philadelphia. In contrast, veritable palaces cost many tens of millions: the four stations of Penn Station Access, in the low-car-ownership Bronx, are projected to cost a total of $188 million per the 2015-9 capital plan (PDF-p. 225); in West Haven, an infill station cost $105 million including land acquisition.
8. Institutions part 2: political incentives
Politicians in the United States do not have an incentives to control costs. On the contrary, if anyone complains, their incentives are to accommodate even if costs rise as a result. While the American legal system favors the state over the individual in property takings, for example in contrast with the Japanese system, the political system favors NIMBYs and really anyone who complains. Infrastructure construction takes a long time and the politician who gets credit for it is rarely the one who started it, whereas complaints happen early. This can lead to many of the above-named problems, especially overbuilding, such as tunneling where elevated segments would be fine or letting agency turf battles and irrelevant demands dictate project scope.
Politicians have the ability to remove obstructive officials, as Governor Andrew Cuomo did when LIRR head Helena Williams opposed Penn Station Access on agency turf grounds. But they rarely have the will to do so. Coordination and good government are not their top priorities. American politicians who are ambitious enough to embark on big infrastructure projects govern their respective states and cities like comets, passing by quickly while expecting to move on to a bigger position within a few years. They can build better institutions if they want, but don’t care to.
This goes beyond individual high-profile politicians. In planning for the NEC Future project, a planner who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said that there was an unspoken assumption that there must not be impact to the richest suburbs in Fairfield County, Connecticut; such impact can be reduced, but not eliminated, and to forestall political controversy with very rich suburbs the process left that segment for later, never mind that it is the slowest portion of the Northeast Corridor today outside major city areas.
This problem can be mitigated by raising the political cost of poor infrastructure construction decisions. One way to do so is using referendums. In Switzerland, all major infrastructure construction must be approved by referendum. Thus, if cost overruns occur, the state must return to the people and explain itself in asking for more money. In contrast, California High-Speed Rail went to ballot on $9 billion (plus $950 million for connecting transit) out of a budget that at the time was estimated at $42 billion in year-of-construction dollars. The state did not need to identify funding sources for the remaining $33 billion, and thus there was no incentive to control costs, as it was not possible to complete the project for the budget on hand no matter what.
9. Institutions part 3: global incuriosity
The eight above factors all explain why American infrastructure costs are higher than in the rest of the world, and also explain high costs in some other countries, especially Canada. However, one question remains: how come Americans aren’t doing anything about it? The answer, I believe, has to do with American incuriosity.
Incuriosity is not merely ignorance. Ignorance is a universal trait, people just differ in what they are ignorant about. But Americans are unique in not caring to learn from other countries even when those countries do things better. American liberals spent the second Bush administration talking about how health care worked better in most other developed countries, but displayed no interest in how they could implement universal health care so that the US could have what everyone else had, even when some of these countries, namely France and Israel, had only enacted reforms recently and had a population of mostly privately-insured workers. In contrast, they reinvented the wheel domestically, coming up with the basic details of Obamacare relying on the work on domestic thinktanks alone. The same indifference to global best practices occurs in education, housing policy, and other matters even among wonks who believe the US to be behind.
This is not merely a problem in public policy. In the private sector, the same problem doomed the American auto industry. American automakers have refused to adopt the practices of Japanese and German competitors even after the latter produced small cars better suited for post-1973 oil prices. They instead dug in, demanded and got government protection, and have been in effect wards of the American federal government for about 40 years.
American business culture does not care much for imitation, not does American society give high prestige to people who perfect something that someone else invented. The industry that teaches how to adopt best practices, consulting, has poor reputation in American culture. Instead, Americans venerate founders and innovators, an approach that works in industries where the US is in the global frontier, like tech or retail, but not in ones where it lags, like cars and the entire public sector. To avoid learning from others, Americans end up believing in myths about what is and isn’t possible: they insist they are so much richer than Europe that they have nothing to learn from across the Pond, and hang all their hopes on any flim-flam artist who comes from within American business culture who insists there is no real need for public transit or any of the other things Europe and high-income Asia do better.
In transit, we see it in politicians and agency officials who say things that are so funny they are sad, or perhaps so sad they are funny. Richard Mlynarik tells me of an official at either Caltrain or the California High-Speed Rail Authority, I forget which, who did not know Germany had commuter trains. Another Caltrain official, confronted with the fact that in Japan trains turn faster than Caltrain thought possible, responded “Asians don’t value life the way we do” – never mind that Japan’s passenger rail safety per passenger-km is about 1.5 orders of magnitude better than the US’s. In stonewalling about its safety regulations, since positively reformed, an FRA official insisted American trucks are heavier than European ones, where in fact the opposite is the case. Boston’s sandbagged North-South Rail Link process included a best practices section but insisted on only including North American examples, since European ones would make America look bad. To advocate for transit among Americans is to constantly hear things are not possible that in fact happen in various parts of Europe on a daily basis.
Canada is not much better than the US. Americans’ world is flat, with its corners in Boston, Seattle, San Diego, and Miami. Canadians’ world includes the United States and Canada, making it flat with the northern ends of the quadrilateral stretched a few hundred kilometers to the north. A study of a long-overdue extension of Vancouver’s Millennium Line to UBC has four case studies for best practices, all from within North America. This is despite the fact that in the developed world the system most similar to Vancouver’s SkyTrain in technology and age is the Copenhagen Metro, whose construction costs are one half as high as those of Vancouver despite cost and schedule overruns.
Meiji Japan sent students to the West to assimilate Western knowledge and catch up, avoiding the humiliations inflicted upon China in the same era and instead becoming a great power itself. The historian Danny Orbach, who wrote his dissertation on the historical arc leading from the Meiji Restoration to Japan’s World War Two atrocities, argues that Japan was able to modernize because it understood early that it was not at the center of the world, whereas China and the Ottoman Empire did not and thus only realized they were technologically inferior to the West too late, at the signing of the unequal treaties or at dismemberment. The United States at best thinks it’s the center of the world and at worst thinks it’s the only thing in the world, and this has to change.
Can this be reformed?
The answer is absolutely. There are no examples of good transit under construction in the United States, but there are many partial successes. The California State Rail Plan is moving toward coordinated planning, and Massachusetts has some inklings of reform as well. Boston’s ability to restart the Green Line Extension is to be commended, and the large gap in cost between the original project and the current one should encourage other American transit agencies to hire good project managers with a track record and pay them competitively; paying high six figures to a manager or even more can easily justify itself in ten-figure savings.
The legal problems can be reformed as well without turning the United States into something it is not. Politicians would have to be more courageous in telling constituents no, but so many of them have no chance of losing reelection that they can afford to piss off a small proportion of the population. Contracts could include itemized costs to control change orders. California already awards contracts based on a mix of cost and a technical score, it just needs to adjust the weights and figure out how to avoid doing business with Ron Tutor, and if possible prosecute him.
However, all of this depends on solving the last of the above nine problems. Americans have to understand that they are behind and need to imitate. They can try to innovate but only carefully, from a deep understanding of why things are the way they are in such global transit innovation centers as Spain, South Korean, Japan, Switzerland, and Sweden. They have to let go of the mythology of the American entrepreneur who does not listen to the experts. They can solve the problem of high construction costs if they want, but they need to first recognize that it exists, and that internal politics and business culture are part of the problem rather than the solution.
I was reticent to post about this topic; I polled it on Patreon in December and it got just under 50% while the two topics I did blog, difficult urban geography and cross-platform transfers, got 64% and 50% respectively. However, between how close the vote was and the conversation about the current state of the subway in New York, I felt obligated to explain what’s been going on. The short version is that practically the entire change in subway ridership in New York over the last generation or two has come from the off-peak, and the way American cities set their frequency guidelines off-peak amplify small changes in demand, so that a minor setback can lead to collapse and a minor boost can lead to boom.
The good news is that by setting frequency to be high even if it does not look like ridership justifies it, cities can generate a virtuous cycle on the upswing and avoid a vicious one on the downswing. However, it requires the discipline to run good service even in bad times, when bean counters and budget cutters insist on retrenchment. The Chainsaw Al school of management looks appealing in recessions or when ridership is falling, and this is precisely when people who run transit agencies must resist the urge to cut frequency to levels that lead to a positive feedback loop wrecking the system.
The key to the frequency-ridership spiral is that cutting frequency on transit makes it less useful to passengers, since door-to-door trip times are longer and less reliable. The size of this effect can be measured as the elasticity of ridership with respect to service: if increasing service provision by 1% is demonstrated to raise ridership by e%, we say that the elasticity is e.
Fortunately, this question is fundamental enough to transit that there is extensive published literature on the subject:
- In a classical TRB paper, Armando Lago, Patrick Mayworm, and Matthew McEnroe look at data from several American cities as well as one British one, disaggregating elasticity by frequency, mode (bus or commuter rail), and period (peak or off-peak). The aggregate average value is e = 0.44 for buses and e = 0.5 for commuter rail, but when frequency is better than every 10 minutes, e = 0.22 on average.
- Todd Litman of the advocacy organization VTPI has a summary mostly about fare elasticity but also service elasticity, suggesting e is in the 0.5-0.7 range in the short term and in the 0.7-1.1 range in the long term.
- A paper by Joe Totten and David Levinson includes its own lit review of several studies, including the two above, finding a range of 0.3 to 1.1 across a number of papers, with the lower figures associated with urban service and the higher ones with low-frequency suburban service. The paper’s own research, focusing on transit in Minneapolis, finds that on weekdays, e = 0.39.
One factor that I have unfortunately not seen in the papers I have read is trip length. Frequency is more important for short trips than long ones. This is significant, since when the headway is shorter relative to in-vehicle trip time we should expect lower elasticity with respect to the headway. Waiting 10 minutes rather than 5 minutes for an hour-long trip is not much of an imposition; waiting 30 minutes rather than 15 for the same trip is a greater imposition, as is waiting 10 minutes rather than 5 for a 20-minute trip.
In New York, the average unlinked subway trip is 13.5 minutes long, so the difference between 10 and 5 minutes is very large. Lago-Mayworm-McEnroe cite research saying passengers’ disutility for out-of-vehicle time is 2-3 times as large as for in-vehicle time; the MTA’s own ridership screen states that this penalty is 1.75, the MBTA’s states that it is 2.25, and a study by Coen Teulings, Ioulina Ossokina, and Henri de Groot says that it is 2 in the Netherlands. Figuring that this penalty is 2, the worst-case scenario for off-peak weekday wait time in New York, 10 minutes, has passengers spending more perceived time waiting for the train than riding it, and even in the average case, 10/2 = 5 minutes, it is close. In that case, higher values of e are defensible. Lago-Mayworm-McEnroe have less data about in-vehicle time elasticity and do not attempt to aggregate in- and out-of-vehicle time. But adding everything together is consistent with e = 0.8 relative to speed averaged over the total wait and in-vehicle time, and then e is maybe 0.4 relative to frequency.
The impact of service cuts
If the elasticity of ridership relative to frequency is 0.4, then cutting service by 1% means cutting ridership by 0.4%. If half the operating costs are covered by fares, then revenue drops by 0.2% of total operating expenses, so the 1% cut only saves 0.8% of the total subsidy. Achieving a 1% cut in operating costs net of fare revenue thus requires a 1.25% cut in service, which reduces ridership by 0.5%.
This may not sound too bad, but that’s because the above analysis does not incorporate fixed costs. Rail comes equipped with fixed costs for maintenance, station staffing, rolling stock, and administration, regardless of how much service the agency runs. Lisa Schweitzer uses this fact to defend Los Angeles’s MTA from my charge of high operating costs: she notes that Los Angeles runs much less service than my comparison cases in the US and Europe and thus average cost per train-km is higher even without undue inefficiency. In contrast, bus costs are dominated by driver wages, which are not fixed.
New York does not keep a headcount of transit employees in a searchable format – the Manhattan Institute’s See Through New York applet helps somewhat but is designed around shaming workers who make a lot of money through overtime rather than around figuring out how many people work (say) maintenance. But Chicago does, and we can use its numbers to estimate the fixed and variable costs of running the L.
The CTA has somewhat more than 10,000 workers, split fairly evenly between bus and rail. The rail workers include about 800 working for the director of maintenance, working on the rolling stock, which needs regular servicing and inspections regardless of how often it’s run; 550 working for facilities maintenance; (say) 400 out of 800 workers in administrative capacity like communications, general counsel, purchasing, and the chief engineer’s office; 600 workers in power and way maintenance; nearly 1,000 customer service agents; and 450 workers in flagging, switching, and the control towers. Only 500 workers drive trains, called rapid transit operators or extra board, and there may charitably be another 200 clerks, managers, and work train operators whose jobs can be cut if there is a service cut. A service cut would only affect 15% of the workers, maybe 20% if some rolling stock maintenance work can be cut.
In New York the corresponding percentage is somewhat higher than 15% since trains have conductors. Train operators and conductors together are about 13% of the NYCT headcount, so maybe 20% of subway employees, or 25% with some extra avoidable maintenance work.
What this means is that achieving a 2% cut in subsidy through reducing service requires a service cut of much more than 2%. If only 25% of workers are affected then, even without any frequency-ridership elasticity, the agency needs to cut service by 8% to cut operating costs by 2%.
The Uber effect
The combination of elasticity and fixed costs means that rail ridership responds wildly to small shocks to ridership. For a start, if the agency cuts service by 1%, then operating costs fall by 0.25%. Ridership falls by 0.4%, and thus revenue also falls by 0.4%, which is 0.2% of total operating costs. Thus operating costs net of revenue only fall by 0.05%. The only saving grace is that this is 0.05% of total operating costs; since by assumption fare revenue covers half of operating costs, this saves a full 0.1% of the public subsidy.
Read the above paragraph again: taking fixed costs and elasticity into account, cutting service by 1% only reduces the public subsidy to rail service by 0.1%. A 2% cut in subsidy in a recession requires a brutal 20% cut in service, cutting ridership by 8%. And this only works because New York overstaffs its trains by a factor of 2, so that it’s plausible that 25% of employees can be furloughed in a service cut; using Chicago numbers this proportion is at most 20%, in which case revenue falls one-to-one with operating costs and there is no way to reduce the public subsidy to rail operations through service cuts.
Of course, this has a positive side: a large increase in service only requires a modest increase in the public subsidy. Moreover, if trains have the operating costs of Chicago, which are near the low end in the developed world, then the combined impact of fixed costs and elasticity is such that the public subsidy to rapid transit does not depend on frequency, and thus the agency could costlessly increase service.
This is relevant to the Uber effect – namely, the research arguing that the introduction of ride-hailing apps, i.e. Uber and Lyft, reduces transit ridership. I was skeptical of Bruce Schaller’s study to that effect since it came out two years ago, since the observed reduction in transit ridership in New York in 2016 was a large multiple of the increase in total taxi and ride-hailing traffic once one concentrated on the off-peak and weekends, when the latter rose the most.
But if small shocks to ridership are magnified by the frequency-ridership spiral, then the discrepancy is accounted for. If a shock cuts ridership by 1%, which could be slower trains, service disruptions due to maintenance, or the Uber effect, then revenue falls 1% and the subsidy has to rise 1% to compensate. To cover the subsidy through service cuts requires a 10% cut in service, further cutting ridership by 4%.
Off-peak service guidelines
The above analysis is sobering enough. However, it assumes that service cuts and increases are uniformly distributed throughout the day. This is not the actual case for American transit agency practice, which is to concentrate both cuts and increases in the off-peak.
Unfortunately, cuts in off-peak service rather than at rush hour do not touch semi-fixed labor costs. The number of employees required to run service is governed by the peak, so running a lot of peak service without off-peak service leads to awkward shift scheduling and poor crew utilization. Higher ratios of peak to base frequency correlate with lower total service-hours per train driver: in addition to the examples I cite in a post from 2016, I have data for Berlin, where the U-Bahn’s peak-to-base ratio is close to 1, and there are 829 annual service-hours per driver.
I discussed the fact that the marginal cost of adding peak service is several times that of adding off-peak service in a post from last year. However, even if we take rolling stock acquisition as a given, perhaps funded by a separate capital plan, marginal crew costs are noticeably higher at the peak than off-peak.
In New York, the rule is that off-peak subway frequency is set so that at the most crowded point of each route, the average train will be filled to 125% seated capacity; before the round of service cuts in 2010 this was set at 100%, so the service cut amounted to reducing frequency by 20%. The only backstop to a vicious cycle is that the minimum frequency on weekdays is set at 10 minutes; on weekends I have heard both 10 and 12 minutes as the minimum, and late at night there is a uniform 20-minute frequency regardless of crowding.
Peak frequency is governed by peak crowding levels as well, but much higher crowding than 125% is permitted. However, the busiest lines are more crowded than the guidelines and run as frequently as there is capacity for more trains, so there is no feedback loop there between ridership and service.
The saving grace is that revenue is less sensitive to off-peak ridership, since passengers who get monthly passes for their rush hour trips ride for free off-peak. However, this factor requires there to be substantial enough season pass discounts so that even rush hour-only riders would use them. Berlin, where U-Bahn tickets cost €2.25 apiece in bundles of 4 and monthly passes cost €81, is such a city: 18 roundtrips per month are enough to justify a monthly. New York is not: with a pay-per-ride bonus a single ride costs $2.62 whereas a 30-day pass costs $121, so 23.1 roundtrips per month are required, so the breakeven point requires a roundtrip every weekday and every other weekend.
New York subway ridership evolution
The subway’s crisis in the 1970s reduced ridership to less than 1 billion, a level not seen since 1918. This was on the heels of a steady reduction in ridership over the 1950s and 60s, caused by suburbanization. In 1991, ridership was down to 930 million, but the subsequent increase in reliability and fall in crime led to a 24-year rally to a peak of 1,760 million in 2015.
Throughout this period, there was no increase in peak crowding. On the contrary. Look at the 1989 Hub Bound Report: total subway ridership entering Manhattan south of 60th Street between 7 and 10 am averaged about 1 million, down from 1.1 million in 1971 – and per the 2016 report, the 2015 peak was only 922,000. Between 1989 and 2015, NYCT actually opened a new route into Manhattan, connecting the 63rd Street Tunnel to the Queens Boulevard Line; moreover, a preexisting route, the Manhattan Bridge, had been reduced from four tracks to two in 1986 and went back to four tracks in 2004.
Nor was there much of an increase in mode share. The metropolitan statistical area’s transit mode share for work trips rose from 27% in 2000 to 30% in 2010. In the city proper it rose from 52% in 1990 to 57% in 2016. No: more than 100% of the increase in New York subway ridership between 1991 and 2015 was outside the peak commute hours, and nearly 100% of it involved non-work trips. These trips are especially affected by the frequency-ridership spiral, since frequency is lower then, and thus a mild positive shock coming from better maintenance, a lower crime rate, and perhaps other factors translated to a doubling in total ridership, and a tripling of off-peak ridership. Conversely, today, a very small negative shock is magnified to a minor crisis, even if ridership remains well above the levels of the 1990s.
The way out
Managers like peak trains. Peak trains are full, so there’s no perception of wasting service on people who don’t use it. Managers also like peak trains because they themselves are likelier to ride them: they work normal business hours, and are rich enough to afford cars. That current NYCT head Andy Byford does not own a car and uses the city’s transit network to get around scandalizes some of the longstanding senior managers, who don’t use their own system. Thus, the instinct of the typical manager is to save money by pinching pennies on off-peak service.
In contrast, the best practice is to run more service where possible. In Berlin, nearly all U-Bahn trains run every 5 minutes flat; a few lines get 4-minute peak service, and a few outer ends and branches only get half-service, a train every 10 minutes. At such high frequency, the frequency-ridership spiral is less relevant: an increase to a train every 4 minutes would require increasing service by 25%, raising costs by around 5% (Berlin’s one-person crews are comparable to Chicago’s, not New York’s), but not result in a significant increase in ridership as the shorter headway is such a minute proportion of total travel time. However, New York’s 10-minute off-peak frequency is so low that there is room to significantly increase ridership purely by running more service.
In 2015 I criticized the frequency guidelines in New York on the grounds of branching: a complexly branched system must run interlined services at the same frequency, even if one branch of a trunk line is somewhat busier than the other. However, the frequency-ridership spiral adds another reason to discard the current frequency guidelines. All branches in New York should run at worst every 6 minutes during the daytime, yielding 3-minute frequency on most trunks, and the schedules should be designed to avoid conflicts at junctions; non-branching trunk lines, that is the 1, 6, 7, and L trains, should run more frequently, ideally no more than every 4 minutes, the lower figure than in Berlin following from the fact that the 1 and 6 trains are both local and mostly serve short trips.
Moreover, the frequency should be fixed by a repeating schedule, which should be clockface at least on the A train, where the outer branches would only get 12-minute frequency. If ridership increases by a little, trains should be a little more crowded, and if it decreases by a little, they should be a little less crowded. Some revision of schedules based on demand may be warranted but only in the long run, never in the short run. Ideally the system should aim at 5-minute frequency on every route, but as the N, R, and W share tracks, this would require some deinterlining in order to move more service to Second Avenue.
This increase in frequency is not possible if politicians and senior managers respond to every problem by cutting service while dragging their feet about increasing service when ridership increases. It requires proactive leadership, interested in increasing public transit usage rather than in avoiding scandal. But the actual monetary expense required for such frequency is not large, since large increases in frequency, especially in the off-peak, mostly pay for themselves through extra ridership. The initial outlay required to turn the vicious cycle into a virtuous one is not large; all that is required is interest from the people in charge of American transit systems.