Category: Incompetence

Adversarial Legalism and Accessibility

New York State just announced that per the result of a legal settlement, it is committing to make 95% of the subway accessible… by 2055. Every decade, 80-90 stations will be made accessible, out of 472. Area advocates for disability rights are elated; in addition to those cited in the press release or in the New York Times article covering the news, Effective Transit Alliance colleague Jessica Murray speaks of it as a great win and notes that, “The courts are the only true enforcement mechanism of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” But to me, it’s an example not of the success of the use of the courts for civil rights purposes, in what is called adversarial legalism, but rather its failure. The timeline is a travesty and the system of setting the government against itself with the courts as the ultimate arbiter must be viewed as a dead-end and replaced with stronger administration.

The starting point for what is wrong is that 2055 is, frankly, a disgrace. By the standards of most other old urban metro systems, it is a generation behind. In Berlin, where the U-Bahn opened in 1902, two years before the New York City Subway did, there has been media criticism of BVG for missing its 2022 deadline for full accessibility; 80% of the system is accessible, and BVG says that it will reach 100% in 2024. Madrid is slower, planning only for 82% by 2028, with full accessibility possible in the 2030s. Barcelona is 93% accessible and is in the process of retrofitting its remaining stations. Milan has onerous restrictions such that only one wheelchair user may board each train, but the majority of stations have elevators, and 76% have elevators or stairlifts. In Tokyo, Toei is entirely accessible, and so is nearly the entirety of Tokyo Metro. Even London is 40% accessible, somewhat ahead of New York. Only Paris stands as a less accessible major world metro system.

The primary reason for this is costs. The current program to make 81 stations accessible by 2025 is $5.2 billion. This is $64 million per station, and nearly all are single-line stations requiring three elevators, one between the street and the outside of fare control and one from just inside fare control to each of two side platforms. Berlin usually only requires one elevator as it has island platforms and no fare barriers, but sometimes it needs two at stations with side platforms, and the costs look like 1.5-2 million € per elevator. Madrid the cost per elevator is slightly higher, 3.2 million €. New York, in contrast, spends $20 million, so that a single station in New York is comparable in scope to the entirety of the remainder of the Berlin U-Bahn.

And this is what adversarial legalism can’t fix. The courts can compel the MTA to install elevators, but have no way of ensuring the MTA do so efficiently. They can look at capital plans and decree that a certain proportion be spent on accessibility; seeing $50 billion five-year capital plans, they can say, okay, you need to spend 5-10% of that on subway accessibility. But if the MTA says that a station costs $64 million to retrofit and therefore there is no room in the budget to do it by 2030, the courts have to defer.

This, in turn, is a severe misjudgment of what the purpose of civil rights legislation is. Civil rights laws giving individuals and classes the right to sue the government already presuppose that the government may be racist, sexist, or ableist. This is why they confer individual and group rights to sue under Title VI (racial equality in transportation and other facilities), Title IX (gender equality in education), and the ADA. If the intention was to defer to the judgment of government agencies, no such laws would be necessary.

And yet, the nature of adversarial legalism is that on factual details, courts are forced to defer to government agencies. If the MTA says it costs $64 million to retrofit a station, the courts do not have the power to dismiss managers and hire people who can do it for $10 million. If the MTA says it has friction with utilities, the courts cannot compel the utilities to stop being secretive and share the map of underground infrastructure in the city or to stop being obstructive and start cooperating with the MTA’s contractors when they need to do street work to root an elevator. Judges are competent in legal analysis and incompetent in planning or engineering, and this is the result.

Worse, the adversarial process encourages obstructive behavior. The response to any request from the public or the media soon becomes “make me”; former Capital Construction head and current MTA head Janno Lieber said “file a Freedom of Information request” to a journalist who asked what 400 questions federal regulators asked regarding congestion pricing. Nothing goes forward this way, unless accessibility in 33 years counts, and it shouldn’t.

No New Washington Union Station, Please

A new presentation dropped for Amtrak’s plans to rebuild Union Station. It is mostly pictorial, but even the pictures suggest that this is a very low-value project, one with little to no transportation value and limited development value. The price tag is now $10 billion (it was $7 billion 10 years ago; the increase is somewhat more than cumulative inflation), but even if two zeros are cut from the budget it’s not necessarily worth it.

What are the features of good train stations?

A train station is interface between passengers and trains. Everything about their construction must serve this purpose. This includes the following features:

  • Platforms that can effectively connect to the trains (Union Station has a mix of high and low platforms; all platforms used by Northeast Corridor trains must be raised).
  • Minimum distance from platform to street or to urban transit.
  • Some concessions and seats for travelers, all in an open area.
  • Ticketing machines.
  • An information booth with maps of the area and station facilities.
  • Nothing more.

In particular, lavish waiting halls not only waste of money but also often have negative transport value, as they either force passenger to walk longer between street and platform or steer them to take an option that involves a longer walk; the new Moynihan Train Hall in New York is an example of the latter failure. Berlin Hauptbahnhof, a rare example of a major urban station built recently in a rich country, has extensive shopping, but it’s all designed around fast street-platform and S-Bahn-intercity connections.

What are the features of Washington Union Station expansion?

The presentation highlights the following features:

  • A new concourse beneath the platforms.
  • A new concourse on H Street with a prominent headhouse, with bus and streetcar connections.
  • An enclosed bus facility.
  • Underground parking.
  • Future air rights development.

All of the above are wasteful. Connections to H Street can be handled through direct egress points from the platforms to the street, and passengers can get between H Street and the main historic station via those egress points and the platforms themselves. The platforms are key circulation spaces at a train station and using them for passenger movements is normal; I can see an argument against that if the platforms are unusually narrow or crowded, as is the case in New York, but in Washington there is no such excuse.

Nor is Union Station a major node for city buses. Washington’s surface transit network serves the station, but it’s not a major bus node – only a handful of buses terminate there and they don’t run frequently – and even if it were, a surface bus loop akin to what Ostbahnhof has in Berlin would have sufficed. Thus, the bus infrastructure should be descoped, and buses should keep using the streets.

So, none of the transit connections have any value. Parking, moreover, has negative value, as it encourages access to the area by car, displacing transit trips. Union Station already has a Metro connection as well as some surface transit. Better rail operations would also improve commuter rail access for intercity rail riders. Unfortunately, the plan does not improve those operations, nor is there any plan for much needed capital investment to go alongside better mainline rail operations, such as Virginia electrification and high platforms.

What about the air rights?

They are a poor use of money. Building towers on top of active railyards is more difficult and more expensive than building them on firma. Hudson Yards projects in New York came in at around $12,000 per square meter in hard costs, twice the cost of Manhattan skyscrapers on firma except those associated with the World Trade Center, which were unusually costly.

Nor is the location just north of the historic Union Station so desirable that developers would voluntarily pay the railyard premium to be there. The commercial center of Washington is well to the west of the site, comprising Metro Center and Farragut. More office towers around Union Station would be nice for rebalancing and for generating demand for future mainline rail improvements, but the place for them is on firma around the existing station and not on top of the approach tracks.

What should be done?

The plan should be rejected in its entirety and no further funding should be committed to it. Good transit activists should demand that spending on public transportation and intercity rail go to those purposes and not toward building unnecessary train halls. Moreover, it is unlikely the managers at Amtrak who pushed for it and who still are the client for the project understand modern rail operations, nor is it likely that they will ever learn. With neither need nor use for the project, it should be canceled and the people involved in its management and supervision laid off.

Intercity Rail Frequency and the Perils of Market Segmentation

SNCF loves market segmentation. Run by airline execs, the company loves to create different trains for different classes of people. Not only do individual trains have opaque pricing run on the basis of yield management, in which similar seats on the same train at the same time of day and day of week may have different fares, but also there are separately-branded trains for separate fare classes, the higher-fare InOui and the lower-fare OuiGo. On international trains, SNCF takes it to the limit and thus Eurostar and Thalys charge premium fares (both about twice as high as domestic TGVs per passenger-km) and don’t through-ticket with domestic TGVs. This has gotten so bad that in Belgium, some advocates have proposed a lower-priced service on the legacy Paris-Brussels line, which would have to be subsidized owing to the high cost of low-speed intercity rail service.

But why is market segmentation on rail so bad? The answer has to do with frequency and cost structures that differ from those of airlines. Both ensure that the deadweight loss from market segmentation exceed any gains that could be made from extracting consumer surplus.

The issue of frequency

A segmented market like that of domestic TGVs reduces frequency on each segment. To maintain segmentation, SNCF has to make the segments as difficult to substitute for each other as possible. OuiGo serves Marne-la-Vallée instead of Gare de Lyon and forcing passengers onto a 20-minute RER connection, or even longer if they’re arriving in Paris and the wave of 1,000 TGV riders creates long lines at the ticketing machines; on other LGVs it serves the traditional Parisian station and thus the segments are more substitutable.

The situation of Eurostar and Thalys reduces frequency as well: the high fares discourage ridership and send much of it to intercity buses or suppress travel. Fewer riders, or fewer riders per segment as in the case of domestic TGVs, lead to fewer trains. What’s the impact of this on ridership?

The literature on high-speed rail ridership elasticities has some frequency estimates. In Couto’s thesis (PDF-p. 225), it is stated that passenger rail ridership has an elasticity of 0.53 with respective to overall service provision. There are also multiple papers estimating the elasticity with respect to travel time: in Cascetta-Coppola the elasticity ranges from -1.6 to -2.2, in Börjesson it is -1.12, and in a Civity report it is stated based on other work that it is -0.8 to -2. The lowest values in Börjesson are associated with the premium-fare AVE, while the range for the original TGV, priced at the same level as the slower trains it replaced, is -1.3 to -1.6. The upshot is that halving frequency through market segmentation reduces ridership by a factor of 2^0.53 = 1.44, which is far more than the benefit yield management is claimed to have, which is a 4% increase in revenue per SNCF’s American proposals from 2009.

Why are trains different?

Planes and buses happily use yield management. High-speed trains do not, except for those run by SNCF or RENFE – and ridership in France isn’t really higher than in fixed-fare Northern Europe or East Asia while ridership in Spain is much lower. Why the difference?

The reason has to do with the ratio of waiting time to trip time. Thalys connects Paris and Brussels in 1.5 hours, every half hour at rush hour and every 2 hours midday. At rush hour, frequency is sort of noticeable; off-peak, it dominates travel time. This is nothing like planes – even short-distance trips involve hours of access, waiting, and egress time, and therefore trips are not usually spontaneous, and day trips are rare except for business travelers.

Buses, finally, are so small that a market like New York-Philadelphia supports multiple competitors each running frequently, and passenger behavior is such that different companies are substitutable, so that the effective frequency is multiple buses per hour.

Cost structure and bad incentives

It’s typical to price high-speed rail higher than legacy rail, even when otherwise there is no yield management. This is bad practice. The operating costs of high-speed rail are lower than those of slow trains. The crew is paid per hour; electricity costs are in theory higher at higher speed but in practice greenfield high-speed lines are constant 300 km/h cruises whereas legacy lines have many acceleration and deceleration cycles; high-speed trainsets cost much more than conventional ones (by a factor of about 2 in Europe) but also depreciate by the hour and not by the km and therefore are somewhat cheaper per seat-km.

This is comparable to the bad practice, common in the United States and in developing and newly-industrialized countries, of pricing urban rail higher than a bus. The metro is nicer for consumers than a bus, but it also has far lower operating costs and therefore a wise transit agency will avoid incentivizing passengers to take buses and instead use integrated fares. The same is true for slow and fast trains: the solution proposed by the Belgian advocates is to incentivize passengers to take a high-cost, low-price train over a low-cost, high-price one, and therefore is no solution at all.

Moreover, the cost structure of trains is different from that of planes. Planes don’t pay much for fixed infrastructure; in effect, every plane trip costs money, and then the challenge is to fill all the seats. High-speed railways instead pay a lot for infrastructure, while their above-the-rails costs are a few cents per passenger-km (€0.06/seat-km on the TGV, including trainset costs and a lot of labor inefficiency). Their challenge is how to fill the tracks with trains, not how to fill the trains with passengers. This is why the fixed clockface frequency common in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands is so powerful: the off-peak trains are less full, but that’s fine, as the marginal operating cost of an off-peak train is low.

Just lower the fares

Bear in mind that frequency is not exogenous – it is set based on demand. This means that anything that affects ridership has its impact magnified by the frequency-ridership spiral. An exogenous shock, such as improvement in trip time or fare reduction, is magnified through the spiral, by a factor of 1/(1-0.53) = 2.13. In other words, every elasticity estimated in isolation must be multiplied by a factor of about 2.

And once this is understood, suddenly the optima for service look very different from what Thalys has settled on. The optimum is to charge fares to pay infrastructure costs but not much more – especially if you’re SNCF and the railway workers’ union will extract all further profit through strikes, as it did 10 years ago. And this means making sure that except at very busy times, known in advance, Paris-Brussels tickets should be 30€, not 50-100€.

The Northeastern United States Wants to Set Tens of Billions on Fire Again

The prospect of federal funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill is getting every agency salivating with desires for outside money for both useful and useless priorities. Northeastern mainline rail, unfortunately, tilts heavily toward the useless, per a deep dive into documents by New York-area activists, for example here and here.

Amtrak is already hiring project management for Penn Station redevelopment. This is a project with no transportation value whatsoever: this is not the Gateway tunnels, which stand to double capacity across the Hudson, but rather a rebuild of Penn Station to add more tracks, which are not necessary. Amtrak’s current claim is that the cost just for renovating the existing station is $6.5 billion and that of adding tracks is $10.5 billion; the latter project has ballooned from seven tracks to 9-12 tracks, to be built on two levels.

This is complete overkill. New train stations in big cities are uncommon, but they do exist, and where tracks are tunneled, the standard is two platform tracks per approach tracks. This is how Berlin Hauptbahnhof’s deep section goes: the North-South Main Line is four tracks, and the station has eight, on four platforms. Stuttgart 21 is planned in the same way. In the best case, each of the approach track splits into two tracks and the two tracks serve the same platform. Penn Station has 21 tracks and, with the maximal post-Gateway scenario, six approach tracks on each side; therefore, extra tracks are not needed. What’s more, bundling 12 platform tracks into a project that adds just two approach tracks is pointless.

This is a combined $17 billion that Amtrak wants to spend with no benefit whatsoever; this budget by itself could build high-speed rail from Boston to Washington.

Or at least it could if any of the railroads on the Northeast Corridor were both interested and expert in high-speed rail construction. Connecticut is planning on $8-10 billion just to do track repairs aiming at cutting 25-30 minutes from the New York-New Haven trip times; as I wrote last year when these plans were first released, the reconstruction required to cut around 40 minutes and also upgrade the branches is similar in scope to ongoing renovations of Germany’s oldest and longest high-speed line, which cost 640M€ as a once in a generation project.

In addition to spending about an order of magnitude too much on a smaller project, Connecticut also thinks the New Haven Line needs a dedicated freight track. The extent of freight traffic on the line is unclear, since the consultant report‘s stated numbers are self-contradictory and look like a typo, but it looks like there are 11 trains on the line every day. With some constraints, this traffic fits in the evening off-peak without the need for nighttime operations. With no constraints, it fits on a single track at night, and because the corridor has four tracks, it’s possible to isolate one local track for freight while maintenance is done (with a track renewal machine, which US passenger railroads do not use) on the two tracks not adjacent to it. The cost of the extra freight track and the other order-of-magnitude-too-costly state of good repair elements, including about 100% extra for procurement extras (force account, contingency, etc.), is $300 million for 5.4 km.

I would counsel the federal government not to fund any of this. The costs are too high, the benefits are at best minimal and at worst worse than nothing, and the agencies in question have shown time and time again that they are incurious of best practices. There is no path forward with those agencies and their leadership staying in place; removal of senior management at the state DOTs, agencies, and Amtrak and their replacement with people with experience of executing successful mainline rail projects is necessary. Those people, moreover, are mid-level European and Asian engineers working as civil servants, and not consultants or political appointees. The role of the top political layer is to insulate those engineers from pressure by anti-modern interest groups such as petty local politicians and traditional railroaders who for whatever reasons could not just be removed.

If federal agencies are interested in building something useful with the tens of billions of BIL money, they should instead demand the same results seen in countries where the main language is not English, and staff up permanent civil service run by people with experience in those countries. Following best industry practices, $17 billion is enough to renovate the parts of the Northeast Corridor that require renovation and bypass those that require greenfield bypasses; even without Gateway, Amtrak can squeeze a 16-car train every 15 minutes, providing 4,400 seats into Penn Station in an hour, compared with around 1,700 today – and Gateway itself is doable for low single-digit billions given better planning and engineering.

Trains are not Planes

Trains and planes are both scheduled modes of intercity travel running large vehicles. Virgin runs both kinds of services, and this leads some systems to treat trains as if they are planes. France and Spain are at the forefront of trying to imitate low-cost airlines, with separately branded trains for different classes of passengers and yield management systems for pricing; France is even sending the low-cost OuiGo brand to peripheral train stations rather than the traditional Parisian terminals. This has not worked well, and unfortunately the growing belief throughout Europe is that airline-style competition on tracks is an example of private-sector innovation to be nourished. I’d like to explain why this has failed, in the context of trains not being planes.

How do trains and planes differ?

All of the following features of trains and planes are relevant to service planning:

Stations are located in city center and are extremely inconvenient to moveAirports can be located in a wider variety of areas in the metro area, never in the center
Timetables can be accurate to the minuteTimetables are plus or minus an hour
Linear infrastructureAirport infrastructure
High upfront costs, low variable costsHigh upfront costs but also brutal variable costs in fuel
Door-to-door trip times in the 1.5-5 hour rangeDoor-to-door trip times starting around 3 hours counting security and other queues
In a pinch, passengers can standStanding is never safe
Interface with thousands of local train stationsAll interface with local transport is across a strict landside/airside divide
Travel along a line, so there’s seat turnover at intermediate stopsPoint-to-point travel – multi-city hops on one plane are rare because of takeoff and landing costs

Taken together, these features lead to differences in planning and pricing. Plane and train seats are perishable – once the vehicle leaves, an unsold seat is dead revenue and cannot be packaged for later. But trains have low enough variable costs that they do not need 100% seat occupancy to turn a profit – the increase in cost from running bigger trains is small enough that it is justified on other grounds. Conversely, trains can be precisely scheduled so as to provide timed connections, whereas planes cannot. This means the loci of innovation are different for these two technologies, and not always compatible.

What are the main innovations of LCCs?

European low-cost carriers reduce cost per seat-km to around 0.05€ (source: the Spinetta report). They do so using a variety of strategies:

  • Using peripheral, low-amenity airports located farther from the city, for lower landing fees (and often local subsidies).
  • Eliminating such on-board services as free meals.
  • Using crew for multiple purposes, as both boarding agents and air crew.
  • Flying for longer hours, including early in the morning and later at night, to increase equipment utilization, charging lower fares at undesirable times.
  • Running a single class of airplane (either all 737 or all 320) to simplify maintenance.

They additionally extract revenue from passengers through hidden fees only revealed at the last moment of purchase, aggressive marketing of on-board sales for ancillary revenue, and an opaque yield management system. But these are not cost cutting, just deceptive marketing – and the yield management system is in turn a legacy carrier response to the threat of competition from LCCs, which offer simpler one-way fares.

How are LCC innovations relevant to trains?

On many of the LCC vs. legacy carrier distinctions, daytime intercity trains have always been like LCCs. Trains sell meals at on-board cafes rather than providing complimentary food and drinks; high-speed rail carriers aim at fleet uniformity as much as practical, using scale to reduce unit maintenance costs; trains have high utilization rates using their low variable operating costs.

On others, it’s not even possible to implement the LCC feature on a railroad. SNCF is trying to make peripheral stations work on some OuiGo services, sending trains from Lyon and Marseille to Marne-la-Vallée and reserving Gare de Lyon for the premium-branded InOui trains. It doesn’t work: the introduction of OuiGo led to a fall in revenue but no increase in ridership, which on the eve of corona was barely higher than on the eve of the financial crisis despite the opening of three new lines. The extra access and egress times at Marne-la-Vallée and the inconvenience imposed by the extra transfer with long lines at the ticketing machines for passengers arriving in Paris are high enough compared with the base trip time so as to frustrate ridership. This is not the same as with air travel, whose origins are often fairly diffuse because people closer to city center can more easily take trains.

What innovations does intercity rail use?

Good intercity train operating paradigms, which exist in East Asia and Northern Europe but not France or Southern Europe, are based on treating trains as trains and not as planes (East Asia treats them more like subways, Northern Europe more like regional trains). This leads to the following innovations:

  • Integration of timetable and infrastructure planning, taking advantage of the fact that the infrastructure is built by the state and the operations are either by the state or by a company that is so tightly linked it might as well be the state (such as the Shinkansen operators). Northern European planning is based on repeating hourly or two-hourly clockface timetables.
  • Timed connections and overtakes, taking advantage of precise timetabling.
  • Very fast turnaround times, measured in minutes; Germany turns trains at terminal stations in 3-4 minutes when they go onward, such as from north of Frankfurt or Leipzig to south of them with a reversal of the train direction, and Japan turns trains at the end of the line in 12 minutes when it needs to.
  • Short dwell times at intermediate stops – Shinkansen trains have 1-minute dwell times when they’re not sitting still at a local station waiting to be overtaken by an express train.
  • A knot system in which trips are sped up so as to fit into neat slots with multiway timed connections at major stations – in Switzerland, trains arrive at Zurich, Basel, and Bern just before the hour every half hour and depart just after.
  • Fare systems that reinforce spontaneous trips, with relatively simple fares such that passengers don’t need to plan trips weeks in advance. East Asia does no yield management whatsoever; Germany does it but only mildly.

All of these innovations require public planning and integration of timetable, equipment, and infrastructure. These are also the exact opposite of the creeping privatization of railways in Europe, born of a failed British ideological experiment and a French railway that was overtaken by airline executives bringing their own biases into the system. On a plane, my door-to-door time is so long that trips are never spontaneous, so there’s no need for a memorable takt or interchangeable itineraries; on a train, it’s the exact opposite.

Quick Note: Learning from the Past and the Present

There are two tendencies among Americans in the rail industry that, taken together, don’t really mesh. The first is to ignore knowledge produced outside North America, especially if it’s also outside the Anglosphere, on the grounds that the situations are too different and cannot be compared. The second is to dwell on the past and talk about how things could have been different and, therefore, to spend a lot of time looking at old proposals as a guideline.

The problem with this is that the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. The world of the imagined past of modern-day Western romantics, usually placed in the 1950s or early 60s, is barely recognizable, economically or politically; Mad Men hits watchers on the head in its early seasons with how alien it is. The United States was an apartheid state until around 1964; France only decolonized Algeria in 1962; Germany had a deep state until the Spiegel affair of 1962 started to dismantle it and wouldn’t truly apologize for its WW2 crimes until the Kniefall and the fallout therefrom.

So as a public service, let’s look at some economic indicators comparing the US to the three low-construction cost countries that the Transit Costs Project is doing case studies about:

IndicatorUSA 2019Sweden 2019Italy 2019Turkey 2019USA 1960
GDP per capita (2017 PPPs)62,63152,85142,70828,19719,444
Female labor force participation, 15+56.6%61.2%41.3%34.5%37.7%
Life expectancy at birth7983837870
Total fertility rate1.
Industry, % of jobs2018262532
Agriculture, % of jobs1.41.74186
Sources: World Bank, Our World in Data, or Data Commons; domestic US sources give a much lower manufacturing percent but I use the higher World Bank figure for comparability with Turkey and Italy.

The US is comparable to Sweden on net – the higher GDP per capita is mostly an artifact of shorter vacation times. It is a considerably more developed country than Italy, by most accounts (except health care, where the US is more or less the worst in the developed world). Italy is a more developed country than Turkey. And Turkey, today, is considerably more developed than the US was in the imagined postwar golden age, even if it’s urbanizing later. The one indicator where they look similar, female LFP, masks the fact that the gender gap for employed women today isn’t especially high in Turkey and that, after a fall in female LFP in the late 20th century, today working outside the home is more middle-class, whereas in early postwar America it was considered a marker of poverty for a married woman to work.

So in that supposed golden age of an America before the Interstates, or when the Interstates were still in their infancy, GDP per capita was about comparable to Mexico today (and underinvestment in public transportation was comparable too; the Mexico City Metro’s expansion ground to a halt after AMLO was elected mayor). Women were only starting to emerge from the More Work for Mother era. Black people were subjected to literal apartheid. 65 was an old age to retire at (the majority of the increase in life expectancy at birth has occurred since age age 65 – it wasn’t mostly about declining child mortality).

Deindustrialization was nowhere on the horizon in 1960, which is a cause for celebration by people today who view industry as more moral than services. But the industrial jobs that are romanticized today were held by the era’s traditionalists to be morally inferior to the rapidly depleting farm jobs, and did not pay well until generations of wage increases brought about by unions. And Sweden, Italy, and Turkey are all deindustrializing rapidly; China today has a slightly lower manufacturing job share than the US had at its postwar peak, and elsewhere in the world than East Asia, there’s a serious issue of premature deindustrialization.

What about the law? Well, in 1960 the US had the same constitution as today, in theory, but the interpretative theories were completely different. The vast majority of the American constitution is unwritten (the word “filibuster” does not appear there) and there are vast differences in practice today and in the 1950s, when, again, members of the largest minority group risked being lynched if they tried voting in the states the majority of them lived. The party system at the time was extraordinarily loose; Julia Azari speaks of strong partisanship and weak parties today, but by postwar standards, both American parties are characterized by ideological uniformity and congressional command-and-control systems, even if the distribution of power within the parties is dramatically different from the European norm. Turkey might be comparable to postwar America – it’s hard to exactly say, since the two entities’ democratic systems are flawed in completely different ways. Italy and Sweden are not.

So the only thing that’s left is the romanticism. It’s the belief of 21st-century Americans that they could have ridden trains out of the old Penn Station, and worked in any of the prestige industries at the time, and done things differently. The constitution of the US today, its politics, its society, and its economy have little to do with their counterparts of 60+ years ago, but it’s useful for a lot of people to pretend that there’s continuity. It feels more stable this way. It just happens to be dangerously incorrect. Burn the past and look at the present.

The Solution to Failed Process isn’t More Process

The US Department of Transportation has an equity action plan, and it’s not good. It suffers from the same fundamental problem of American governance, especially at the federal level: everything is about process, nothing is about visible outcomes for the people who use public services. If anything, visible change is constantly deprecated, and direct interference in that direction is Not What We Do. Everything is a nudge, everything has to be invisible. When the state does act, it must do so in the direction of ever more layers of red tape, which at this point are for their own sake.

Case in point: a 12-page PDF with many graphics and charts manages to fit in two giant red flags, both with serious implications for how USDOT views its mission. They showcase a state that exists to obstruct and delay and shrugs off social and developmental goals alike. The action plan should be dismissed and replaced with an approach that aims to dissolve anti-developmental institutions and favor action over talk.

Contractors, or users?

Most of the document does not concern itself with how to be more equitable for the users of public transportation in the United States. It doesn’t talk about racial differences in commuting patterns – it says poor people spend more of their income on transportation (as is the case for other basic staples) but ignores the issue where 61% of American public transport commuters are racial or ethnic minorities in a country that’s 62% white.

What it does talk about is the needs of contractors. The US has special programs for disadvantaged business enterprises (DBEs). In contracting, this is called MWBE in New York – minority- and women-owned business enterprise. New York requires 20% of contract value to go to MWBE, and since construction is an oligopoly owned entirely by white men and there is no interest in breaking said oligopoly, everything goes through a web of subcontractors to satisfice the law while driving up costs for the end users; one source at the MTA quotes a 20% premium to me just from the subcontracting web caused by this and other special restrictions.

In anti-left American media, the black slumlord who complaints that it is racist to levy fines on him for violating building codes is somehow a sympathetic figure, in preference to the people with the misfortune of living in one of his 100 apartments. Similarly, when Americans speak about income mobility in their country, they center the origin stories of billionaires, most of whom grew up comfortably upper middle-class, rather than whether a working poor person has much hope to ascend to the middle class.

It’s the same with the focus on MWBE. MWBE are not socially relevant. There is no social or developmental purpose in creating a class of business owners shielded from competition – in this case, federal contractors – and then trying to diversify it. Most people are not business owners; most people work for someone else and to get to work they need to commute, and for women and minorities, this is disproportionately likely to be public transport. The path forward is a federal repeal of all MWBE laws and their replacement with preemption forbidding states to enact similar laws. Federal power should dissolve failed local arrangements, free from the need to kowtow to local power brokers who have limited power beyond the local level and none at the federal level.

Process for the sake of process

Community meetings in the United States are a failure. The action plan recognizes this problem, and even begins to understand why:

* Public meetings are a common public involvement strategy, but can be inconvenient or impossible to attend for some. Physical meeting locations may be inaccessible for some, including those with disabilities. Virtual public meetings are inaccessible for people without internet access or computer literacy.

* Various methods may be needed to allow people with diverse circumstances to have a voice in decisions that affect their community. Adaptive engagement strategies can be a resource-intensive but valuable endeavor that is responsive to specific community needs, including different language and cultural backgrounds.

Unfortunately, the solution wants to accrete more process for its own sake. There is no positive use for a community meeting; the defenders of the process in multiple American cities, when I challenged them on this point, could not name to me a single useful thing that came out of them. But the negatives are numerous, and not fixable through multilingual meetings:

  • The times at which meetings are held tend to privilege people who can take time off during work hours – the same class of already overprivileged business owners, comfortable housewives, and retirees, to the exclusion of people who work for someone else.
  • Community as a concept is exclusive; in Cultural Theory terms, egalitarian systems tend toward strong boundedness and this is inherently exclusive in ways that market- and state-based systems lack. Outsiders who attempt to attend community meetings report being verbally harassed for not looking like the typical attendee, for example if they are much younger.
  • Community meeting dynamics favor loudness and adversarial agitation. Social media has the same problem, with a growing body of published work about the effect of online harassment on people, disproportionately people from disadvantaged background. Yelling is believed to get results, and the idea that the state should punish it to let other voices than that of the biggest blowhard be heard is treated as so ridiculous that in popular culture it’s put in the mouth of a junta member.
  • Local community is not relevant to how most people live in metropolitan areas. In New York, only 8% of workers work in the same community board that they live in (and even same-borough commutes are only 39%); the other 92% and their dependents socialize in citywide networks rather than locally. And yet, community boards, representing those 8% with local ties, are taken as closest to the people.
  • People with limited English proficiency need not just government services in the relevant language but also relevant information. For example, Chinese immigrants receive information out of Chinese networks, which are not especially local to one specific Chinatown, but are often pan-Chinese or pan-Chinese-American. With much thinner sourcing than is available in English, they can form opinions about the issues most in the news, which tend to be national, but not about local issues. This is something every intra-European immigrant gets very quickly – it’s easier to find someone who speaks the same language with opinions about Annalena Baerbock than someone who speaks the same language with opinions about Bettina Jarasch, let alone any borough-scale politician (I do not remember a single conversation within queer Berlin spaces about borough-scale politicians).
  • Local knowledge, to the extent it even exists, is not important, but the community meeting foregrounds it. Long-timers insist on talking about the history of every parklet and mural and shop and not about jobs or rents or public services; the community meetings elevates their concerns above memorizing sports statistics or similar trivialities.

The community meeting as a source of knowledge for the state to use or as a source of informal or formal power is a social stain wherever it is tried, and the impacts disproportionately fall on women, the young, minorities, queers, and immigrants. And yet an equity action plan that understands at least some of the problems created by the process cannot bring itself to recommend its abolition in favor of top-down state action, informed by the academic research of ethnographers to create universal design standards. No: it is recommending even more process. Process cannot fail; it can only be failed. Fair outcomes are out; endless red tape with all talk and no action is in.

Quick Note: Regional Rail and the Massachusetts State Legislature

The Massachusetts state legislature is shrugging off commuter rail improvements, and in particular ignoring calls to spend some starter money on the Regional Rail plan. The state’s climate bill ignores public transportation, and an amendment proposing to include commuter rail electrification in the plan has been proposed but not yet included in the plan. Much of the dithering appears to be the fault of one politician: Will Brownsberger, who represents Watertown, Belmont, Back Bay, and parts of Brighton.

What is Regional Rail?

Regional Rail is a proposal by TransitMatters to modernize the MBTA commuter rail network to align it with the standards that have emerged in the last 50-60 years. The centerpiece of the plan is electrification of the entire network, starting from the already-wired Providence Line and the short, urban Fairmount Line and inner Eastern Line (Newburyport/Rockport Lines on timetables).

Based on comparable projects in peer countries, full electrification should cost $0.8-1.5 billion, and station upgrades to permit step-free access should cost on the order of $2 billion; rolling stock costs extra upfront but has half the lifecycle costs of diesels. An investment program on the order of high hundreds of millions or very low billions should be sufficient to wire the early-action lines as well as some more, such as the Worcester Line; one in the mid-single digit billions should be enough to wire everything, upgrade all stations, and procure modern trains.

Benefits include much faster trips (see trip planner here), lower operating and maintenance costs, higher reliability, and lower air and noise pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. For a city the size of Boston, benefits exceed costs by such a margin that in the developed world outside North America, it would have been fully wired generations ago, and today’s frontier of commuter rail electrification is sub-million metro areas like Trondheim, Aarhus, and Cardiff.

Who is Will Brownsberger?

Brownsberger is a Massachusetts state senator, currently serving as the Senate’s president pro tempore. His district is a mix of middle-class urban and middle-class inner-suburban; the great majority of his district would benefit from commuter rail modernization.

He has strong opinions on commuter rail, which are what someone unaware of any progress in the industry since roughly 1960 might think are the future. For example, here’s a blog post he wrote in 2019, saying that diesel engines are more reliable than electric trains because what if there’s a power outage (on American commuter rail systems that operate both kinds of vehicles, electric trains are about an order of magnitude more reliable), and ending up saying rail is an outdated 20th century concept and proposing small-scale autonomous vehicles running on the right-of-way instead. More recently, he’s told constituents that rail electrification with overhead wire is impossibly difficult and the only option is battery-electric trains.

Because he’s written about the subject, and because of his position in the State Senate and the party caucus, he’s treated as an authority on the subject. Hence, the legislature’s lack of interest in rail modernization. It’s likely that what he tells constituents is also what he tells other legislators, who follow his lead while focusing on their own personal interest, such as health policy, education policy, taxes, or any other item on the liberal policy menu.

Why is he like this?

I don’t know. It’s not some kind of nefarious interest against modernization, such as the trenchant opposition of New York suburbanites to any policy that would make commuter trains useful for city residents, who they look down on. Brownsberger’s district is fairly urban, and in particular Watertown and Belmont residents would benefit greatly from a system that runs frequently all day at 2020s speeds and not 1920s speeds. Brownsberger’s politics are pretty conventionally liberal and he is interested in sustainability.

More likely, it’s not-invented-here syndrome. American mainline passenger rail is stuck in the 1950s. Every innovation in the field since then has come from outside North America, and many have not been implemented in any country that speaks English as its primary language. Brownsberger lacks this knowledge; a lifetime in politics does not lend itself well to forming a deep web of transnational relationships that one can leverage for the required learning.

Without the benefit of around 60 years of accumulated knowledge of French, German, Swiss, Swedish, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, Turkish, Italian, and Spanish commuter rail planning, any American plan would have to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes it happens to reinvent a wheel that is round and has spokes; more often, it invents a wheel with sharp corners or no place to even attach an axle.

When learning happens, it is so haphazard that it’s very easy to learn wrong or speculative things. Battery-electric trains are a good example of this. Europe is currently experimenting with battery-electric trains on low-traffic lines, where the fact that battery-electrics cost around double what conventional electric multiple units do is less important because traffic is that light. The technology is thus on the vendors’ mind and so when Americans ask, the vendors offer to sell what they’ve made. Boston is region of 8 million people running eight- and nine-car trains every 15 minutes at rush hour, where the places in Europe that experiment with battery tech run an hourly three-car train, but the without enough background in how urban commuter rail works in Europe, it’s easy for an American agency executive or politician to overlook this difference.

Is there a way forward?


Here is a proposed amendment, numbered Amendment 13, by Senator Brendan Crighton. Crighton represents some of the suburbs to the northeast of Boston, including working-class Lynn and very posh Marblehead; with only four years in the State Senate and three in the Assembly, he’s not far up the food chain. But he proposed to require full electrification of the commuter rail network as part of the climate bill, on a loose schedule in which no new diesels may be procured after 2030, and lines would be electrified by 2028 (the above-named early action lines) to 2035 (the rest of the system). There are so far four cosponsors in addition to Crighton, and good transit activists in Massachusetts should push for more sponsorship so that Amendment 13 makes it into the climate package and passes.

No Federal Aid to Transit Operations, Please

This is the third in a series of four posts about the poor state of political transit advocacy in the United States, following posts about the Green Line Extension in metro Boston and free public transport proposals, to be followed by an Urban Institute report by Yonah Freemark.

In the United States, political transit activists in the last few years have set their eyes on direct federal aid for operating subsidies for public transport. Traditionally, this has not been allowed: federal aid goes to capital planning (including long-term maintenance), and only a small amount of money goes to operations, all in peripheral bus systems. Urban transit agencies had to operate out of fares and local and state money. Demands for federal aid grew during corona, where emergency aid to operations led to demands for permanent subsidies, and have accelerated more recently as corona recovery has flagged (New York’s subway ridership is only around 60% of pre-corona levels). But said demands remain a bad idea in the short and long terms.

In the early 20th century, when public transport was expected to support itself out of fares, operating costs grew with wages, but were tempered by improvements in efficiency. New York City Transit opened with ticket-takers at every subway entrances and a conductor for every two cars; within a generation this system was replaced with automatic turnstiles and one conductor per train. Kyle Kirschling’s thesis has good data on this, finding that by the 1930s, the system grew to about 16,000 annual car-miles (=26,000 car-km) per employee.

And then it has stagnated. Further increases in labor efficiency have not happened. Most American systems have eliminated conductors, often through a multi-decade process of attrition rather than letting redundant workers go, but New York retains them. The network today actually has somewhat less service per employee than in the 1930s, 14,000 car-miles as of 2010, because fixed costs are spread across a slightly smaller system. Compare this with JICA’s report for Mumbai Metro comparing Japanese cities: Tokyo Metro has 283,871,000 car-km (PDF-p. 254) on 8,474 employees (PDF-p. 9), which is 33,500/employee, and that’s without any automation and with only partially conductor-less operations; Yokohama gets 40,000.

Moreover, the timeline in the US matches the onset of subsidies, to some extent: state and local subsidies relieved efficiency pressure. In Canada, TTC saw this and lobbied against subsidies for its own operations in the 1960s, on the grounds that without a breakeven mandate, the unions would capture all surplus; it took until the 1970s for it to finally receive any operating subsidies.

Federal subsidies make all of this worse. They are other people’s money (OPM), so local agencies are likely to maximize them at the expense of good service; this is already what they do with capital money, lading projects with local demands for betterments figuring that if everyone else hogs the trough then they should as well.

Then there is the issue of wages. Seniority systems in American unionized labor create labor shortages even when pay is high, because of how they interact with scheduling and tiered wage structures. Bus drivers in Boston earn around $80,000 a year, a pay that German bus and train drivers can only dream of, but starting drivers are in probational status and have a lower wage (they are not even given full-time work until they put in a long period of part-time work). Moreover, because drivers pick their shifts in seniority order, drivers for about the first 10 years are stuck with the worst shifts: split shifts, graveyard shifts at inconsistent intervals, different garages to report to. New York manages to find enough bus drivers to fill its ranks but only by paying around $85,000 a year; other American cities, paying somewhat less, are seeing thousands of missed runs over the year because they can’t find drivers.

And outside aid does nothing to fix that. Quite to the contrary, it helps paper over these problems and perpetuates the labor gerontocracy. New York City Transit has learned to react to every crisis by demanding a new source of income; there is not enough political appetite for transparent taxation, so the city and state find ever more opaque sources of funds, avoiding political controversy over wanton inefficiency but creating more distortion than a broad income tax would.

Instead of subsidizing current consumption, a developmental state should subsidize production. Don’t pay money to hire more bus drivers; pay for automating subway systems, for better dispatching, for better planning around intermodal integration. Current American wages, not to mention the unemployment rate, scream “invest in labor-saving technology” and not “expand labor-intensive production.”

Free Public Transport: Why Now of All Times?

This is the second in a series of four posts about the poor state of political transit advocacy in the United States, following a post about the Green Line Extension in metro Boston, to be followed by the topics of operating aid and an Urban Institute report by Yonah Freemark.

There’s a push in various left-wing places to make public transportation free. It comes from various strands of governance, advocacy, and public transport, most of which are peripheral but all together add up to something. The US has been making some pushes recently: Boston made three buses fare-free as a pilot program, and California is proposing a three-month stimulus including free transit for that period and a subsidy for car owners. Germany is likewise subsidizing transport by both car and public transit. It’s economically the wrong choice for today’s economy of low unemployment, elevated inflation, and war, and it’s especially troubling when public transport advocates seize upon it as their main issue, in lieu of long-term investments into production of transit rather than its consumption.

Who’s for free public transit?

Historically, public transit was expected to be profitable, even when it was publicly-run. State-owned railroads predate the modern welfare state, and it was normal for them to not just break even but, in the case of Prussia, return profits to the state in preference to broad-based taxes. This changed as operating costs mounted in the middle of the 20th century and competition with cars reduced patronage. The pattern differs by country, and in some places (namely, rich Asia), urban rail remained breakeven or profitable, but stiff competition bit into ridership even in Japan. The norm in most of the West has been subsidies, usually at the local or regional level.

As subsidies were normalized, some proposed to go ahead and make public transport completely free. In the American civil rights movement, this included Ted Kheel, a backer of free public transit advocates like the activist Charles Komanoff and the academic Mark Delucchi. Reasons for free transit have included social equality (since it acts as a poll tax on commuters) and environmental benefits (since it competes with cars).

Anne Hidalgo has attempted and so far failed to find the money for free public transport in Paris, and other parts of Europe have settled for deep discounts in lieu of going fully fareless: Vienna charges 365€ for an annual pass (Berlin, which breaks even on the U-Bahn as far as I can tell, does so charging 86€/month).

In the United States, free transit has recently become a rallying cry for DSA, where it crowds out any discussion of improvement in the quality of service. Building new rail lines is the domain of wonks and neoliberals; socialists call for making things free, in analogy with their call for free universal health care. Boston has gotten in on the act, with conventional progressive (as opposed to DSA) mayor Michelle Wu campaigning on free buses within the municipality and getting the state-run MBTA to pilot free buses on three routes in low-income neighborhoods.

What’s wrong with free transit?

It costs money.

More precisely, it costs money that could be spent on other things. In Ile-de-France, as of 2018, fare revenues including employer benefits amounted to 4 billion euros, out of a total budget of 10.5 billion. The region can zero out this revenue, but on the same budget it can expand the Métro network by around 20-25 km a year – and the Métro is as far as I can tell profitable, subsidies going to suburban RER tails and buses. For that matter, the heavy subsidies to the suburbs, which pay the same cheap monthly rate as the city, could be replaced with investment in more and better lines.

The experiments with actually-free transit so far are in places with very weak revenues, like Estonia. Some American cities like it in context where public transport is only used by the desperate and no attempt is made at making service attractive to anyone else. Boston is unique in trying it in a context with higher fare revenue – but the buses are rail feeders, so the early pilot piggybacks on this and spends relatively little money in lost revenue, ignoring the long-term costs of breaking the (limited) fare integration between the buses and the subway.

What’s wrong with free transit now?

Free transit as deployed in the California proposal is in effect a stimulus project: the government gives people money in various ways. Germany is doing something similar, in a package including 9€ monthly tickets, a 0.30€ fuel tax cut, and a cut in energy taxes.

In Germany, unemployment right now is 2.9% and core inflation (without food and energy) is 3%. This is a country that spent a decade thinking going over 2% was immoral, and now the party that considers itself the most budget hawkish is cutting fuel taxes, in a time of conflict with an oil and gas exporter and a rise in military spending.

In the United States, unemployment is low as well, and inflation is high, 6.4%. This is not the time for stimulus or investments in consumption. It’s time for investments in production and suppression of consumption. So what gives?