I wrote a post about American moral panics about fare evasion two months ago, which was mirrored on Streetsblog. I made a mistake in that post that I’d like to correct – and yet the correction itself showcases something interesting about why there are armed police on trains. In talking about BART’s unique belts-and-suspenders system combining faregates with proof-of-payment fare inspections, I complained that BART uses armed police to conduct inspections, where the German-speaking world happily uses unarmed civilians. BART wrote me back to correct me – the inspections are done by unarmed civilians, called ambassadors. The armed cops on the trains are unrelated.
I’d have talked about my error earlier, but I got the correction at the end of November. The American Christmas season begins around Thanksgiving and ends after Sylvester, and in this period both labor productivity and news readership plummet; leave it to Americans to have five weeks a year of low productivity without giving workers those five weeks in vacation time. With that error out of the way – again, BART conducts inspections with unarmed ambassadors, not armed cops – it’s worth talking about why, then, there are armed cops on trains at all, and what it means for fare enforcement.
The answer to the “why armed cops on the train?” question is that among the broad American public, the police is popular. There are hefty differences by party identification, and in the Bay Area, the opinions of Republicans are mostly irrelevant, but even among Democrats; there are also hefty differences by race, but blacks are at their most anti-police divided on the issue. A Pew poll about trust in institutions asks a variety of questions about the police, none of which is “would you like to see more cops patrol the subway?”, but the crosstabs really don’t scream “no.” Vox cites a poll by Civis Analytics that directly asks about hiring more police officers, and even among black people the results are 60-18 in favor. In New York, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill had positive net approval among all racial groups shortly before leaving office, the lowest rate being 43-28 among Hispanics.
The crosstabs only go so far, and it’s likely that among certain subgroups the police is much less popular, for example black millennials. It’s normal for a popular institution to still generate intense opposition from specific demographic, class-based, or ideological groups, and it’s even normal for a popular institution to be bad; I should know, Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker is one of America’s most popular governors and yet his do-nothing approach to infrastructure planning makes him unpopular at TransitMatters. But this doesn’t change the fact that, as a positive rather than normative statement, the police enjoys consensus support from the urban American public.
What this means is that there are cops on the subway in New York and on BART not because of an inherent necessity of the fare collection system, but because in the eyes of the people who run these systems, crime is a serious concern and having more cops around is the solution. Evidently, BART layers cops on top of two distinct fare enforcement mechanisms – fare barriers and the ambassadors. In New York, too, NYPD’s justification for arresting people for jumping the turnstiles is that a significant fraction of them have outstanding warrants (many of which are about low-level offenses like being behind on court payments).
I bring this up because there’s a growing argument on the American left that public transportation should be free because that way people won’t be arrested for fare-dodging. This argument slides in an assumption, all too common to socialists who are to the left of the mainline liberal or social democratic party, that there is a leftist majority among the public that is just waiting to be activated by a charismatic leader rejecting neoliberal or otherwise moderate political assumptions.
But in the real world, there is no such leftist majority. The median voter even in a very left-wing area like New York or San Francisco may not support the more violent aspects of tough-on-crime politics, but is mostly okay with more police presence. The average self-identified leftist may be more worried that having police patrols will lead to more brutality than that not having them will lead to more crime, but the average self-identified leftist is not the average voter even in the Bay Area.
In this reality, there are cops on the subway because a lot of people worry about crime on the subway and want to see more police presence. The cops themselves, who are well to the right of the average voter pretty much anywhere, may justify this in terms of fare beating, but what matters is what voters near the median think, and they worry about ordinary property and violent crime. Those worries may well be unfounded – for one, New York is very safe nowadays and has been getting steadily safer, so the recent binge of hiring more cops to patrol the subway is a waste of money – but so long as voters have them, there will be police patrols.
The upshot is twofold. First, fare enforcement and the politics of criminal justice have very little to do with each other. Cops patrol crowded public spaces that require payment to enter, like the subway, as they do crowded public spaces that do not, like city squares. If public transportation fares are abolished, cops will likely keep patrolling subway stations, just as they patrol pieces of transportation infrastructure that are fare-free, like the concourses of major train stations.
If the left succeeds in persuading more people that the police is hostile to their interests and the city is better off with less public police presence, then cops will not patrol either the subway or most city squares. In the future, this is not outside the realm of possibility – in fifteen years the popularity of same-sex marriage in the US went from about 2-to-1 against to 2-to-1 in favor, and the trend in other democracies is broadly similar. But in New York and San Francisco in 2020, this is not the situation.
And second, fare enforcement can be conducted with unarmed inspectors regardless of the political environment. Multiple Americans who express fear of crime have told me that inspections have to be done with armed police, because fare beaters are so dangerous they would never submit to an unarmed inspector. And yet, even in San Francisco, where a large fraction of the middle class is worried about being robbed, inspections are done without weapons.
I’ve recurrently told American cities to tear down the faregates. BART’s belts-and-suspenders fare enforcement is unnecessary, borne of a panic rather than of any calculation of costs and benefits to the system. But what BART should get rid of is not the ambassadors, but the faregates. The most successful transit city the rough size of San Francisco – Berlin – has no faregates and leaves most stations unstaffed to reduce costs. Berlin encourages compliance by making it easier to follow the law, for example by offering cheap monthly passes, rather than by hitting passengers in the face with head-level fare barriers.
If cops patrol the subway because most voters and most riders would prefer it this way, then there is no need to connect the politics of policing with the technical question of what the most efficient way to collect fares is. There is a clear best practice for the latter, and it does not involve faregates in a rapid transit system with fewer than multiple billions of annual riders. What the police does is a separate question, one that there is no reason to connect with how to raise money for good public transportation.
Earlier this year, I slowly stumbled across something that I don’t think is well-known in comparative public transportation: European cities have much higher public transport ridership than someone experienced with American patterns would guess from their modal splits. From another direction, Europe has much lower mode share than one would guess from ridership. The key here is that the mode share I’m comparing is for work trips, and overall ridership includes all trip purposes. This strongly suggests that non-work public transportation usage is much higher in European than in American cities even when the usage level for work trips is comparable. Moreover, the reason ought to be better off-peak service in Europe, rather than other factors like land use or culture, since the comparison holds for New York and not only for truly auto-oriented American cities.
Modal shares and ridership levels
My previous post brings up statistics for work trip mode share in England and France. For the purposes of this post, I am going to ignore England and focus on France and wherever I can find data out of Germany and Austria; the reason is that in the secondary cities of England, public transport is dominated by buses, which are hard to find any ridership data for, let alone data that doesn’t have severe double-counting artifacts for transfer passengers. For the same reason, I am not going to look at Canada – too many transfer artifacts.
In contrast, French and German-speaking metro areas with rail-dominated public transport make it relatively convenient to count rail trips per capita, as do the more rail-oriented American metro areas, namely Boston, New York, and Washington. A secondary check involving both bus and rail can be obtained from The Transport Politic, comparing the US with France.
|Boston||4,900,000||Subway, commuter rail||204,000,000||42||12%|
|New York||20,000,000||Subway, PATH, LIRR, MN, NJT Rail||2,050,000,000||103||31%|
|Washington||6,200,000||Metro, MARC (daily*280), VRE (daily*250)||245,000,000||40||12%|
|Vienna||3,700,000||U-Bahn, trams, S-Bahn (PDF-p. 44)||822,000,000||222||40%|
|Berlin||5,000,000||U-Bahn, trams, S-Bahn||1,238,000,000||248||35%|
|Stuttgart||2,400,000||Stadtbahn, S-Bahn, Regionalbahn||223,000,000||93||26%|
|Lyon||2,300,000||Métro, trams, funiculars, 0.5*TER||325,000,000||141||20%|
|Marseille||1,800,000||Métro, trams (daily*280), 0.5*TER||139,000,000||77||16%|
Note that New York, with a 31% mode share, has not much more rail ridership per capita than French metro areas with mode shares in the teens, and is a quarter below Lyon, whose mode share is only 20%. This is not an artifact of transfers: just as the subway dominates ridership in New York, so does the metro dominate Lyon, Toulouse, and Lille, and so does the tram dominate Bordeaux. If anything, it’s Stuttgart, the only European city on this list with comparable ridership per unit of mode share to the US, that should have the most overcounting due to transfers.
Also note that French rail ridership nosedives in the summer, when people go on their 5-week vacations, and I presume that this equally happens in Germany and Austria. The ratio of annual to weekday ridership in France where it is available is fairly low, not because weekend ridership is weak, but because the weekday chosen to represent daily ridership is never in the summer vacation season.
Off-peak public transportation in the United States is quite bad. In New York, 10-minute frequency on most lettered routes is the norm. In Washington, the off-peak frequency is 12 minutes. In Boston, it varies by line; on the Red Line each branch is supposed to come every 12-13 minutes off-peak, but in practice trains don’t run reliably and often leave the terminal bunched, alternating between 3- and 10-minute gaps.
Moreover, commuter trains are so useless except for peak-hour commutes to city center that they might as well not exist. Hourly gaps and even worse are routine, and even the busiest New York commuter lines have at best half-hourly off-peak frequency. These lines are only about 15% of rail ridership in New York and Boston and 6% of rail ridership in Washington, but they contribute a decent volume of commuters who drive for all non-work purposes.
In Berlin, the off-peak frequency on the U-Bahn is a train every 5 minutes most of the day on weekdays. On Sundays it drops to a train every 8 minutes, and in the evening it drops to a train every 10 minutes far too early, leading to overcrowding on the first train after the cut in frequency around 9 pm. The S-Bahn trunks run frequently all day, but the branches in the suburbs only get 10-minute frequency, and the Ring has a 2-hour midday period with 10-minute gaps. The suburban areas with only S-Bahn service get comparable service to neighborhoods on New York subway branches, while closer-in areas get better service. No wonder people use it for more than just work – the train is useful for shopping and socializing at all hours of the day.
The people who manage public transportation in the United States do not have the same profile as most riders. They work traditional hours, that is 9 to 5 on weekdays only, at an office located in city center. Many senior managers do not use their own system. That NYCT President Andy Byford does not own a car or know how to drive and takes the subway and buses to events is unusual for such a senior person, and early media reports noted that some managers looked askance at his not driving.
Growing segments of the American middle class commute by public transportation. In Boston and Washington, transit commuters slightly outearn solo drivers, and in New York they do not but it is close. But those segments have different travel behavior from public-sector planners. For example, lawyers work long hours and depend on the subway at 8 or 9 pm, and programmers work shifted hours and both show up to and leave work hours after the traditional times. But public transportation agencies still work 9 to 5, and thus the middle-class transit-using behavior they are most familiar with is that of the denizen of the segregated suburb, who drives to all destinations but city center.
In such an environment, off-peak service is treated as a luxury. When there is a deficit, agencies cut there first, leading to frequency-ridership spirals in which lower frequency deters riders, justifying further cuts in service until little is left. In New York, there are guidelines for frequency that explicitly state it is to be adjusted based on ridership at the most crowded point of the route, without regard for whether cuts depress ridership further. There is a minimum acceptable frequency in New York, but it is set at 10 minutes on weekdays and 12 on weekends. For a similar reason, the planners tend to split buses between local and limited routes if each can support 10-12 minute headways, at which point the buses are not useful for short trips.
In contrast, in Germany and France, there is a mixture of drivers and public transportation users among managers. German planning stresses consistent schedules throughout the day, so the midday off-peak often gets the same frequency as the peak. French planning does vary frequency, but maintains a higher base frequency even late into the night. The Paris Métro runs every 5 to 7 minutes at 11 pm. The idea of running a big city metro line every 12 minutes is unthinkable.
In England and Wales, 15.9% of workers get to work on public transport, and in France, 14.9% do. In Canada, the figure is close: 12.4%, and this is without a London or Paris to run up the score in. Vancouver is a metro region of 2.5 million people and 1.2 million workers, comparable in size to the metropolitan counties in England and to the metro area of Lyon; at 20.4%, it has a higher public transport modal share than all of them, though it is barely higher than Lyon with its 19.9% share. Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton, and Winnipeg are likewise collectively respectable by the standards of similar-size French regions, such as the departments of Bouches-du-Rhône (Marseille), Alpes-Maritimes (Nice), Gironde (Bordeaux), Haute-Garonne (Toulouse), and Bas-Rhin (Strasbourg).
As a result, Jarrett Walker likes telling American cities and transit agencies to stop envying Europe and start envying Canada instead. Canada is nearby, speaks the same language, and has similar street layout, all of which contribute to its familiarity to Americans. If Europe has the exotic mystique of the foreign, let alone East Asia, Canada is familiar enough to Americans that the noticeable differences are a cultural uncanny valley.
And yet, I am of two minds on this. The most consistent transit revival in Canada has been in Vancouver, whose modal share went from 14.3% in 1996 to 20.4% in 2016 – and the 2016 census was taken before the Evergreen extension of the Millennium Line opened. TransLink has certainly been doing a lot of good things to get to this point. And yet, there’s a serious risk to Canadian public transport in the future: construction costs have exploded, going from Continental European 15 years ago to American today.
The five legs of good transit
I was asked earlier today what a good political agenda for public transportation would be. I gave four answers, like the four legs of a chair, and later realized that I missed a fifth point.
- Fuel taxes and other traffic suppression measures (such as Singapore and Israel’s car taxes). Petrol costs about €1.40/liter in Germany and France; diesel is cheaper but being phased out because of its outsize impact on pollution.
- Investment in new urban and intercity lines, such as the Madrid Metro expansion program since the 1990s or Grand Paris Express. This is measured in kilometers and not euros, so lower construction costs generally translate to more investment, hence Madrid’s huge metro network.
- Interagency cooperation within metropolitan regions and on intercity rail lines where appropriate. This includes fare integration, schedule integration, and timetable-infrastructure integration.
- Urban upzoning, including both residential densification in urban neighborhoods and commercialization in and around city center.
- Street space reallocation from cars toward pedestrians, bikes, and buses.
We can rate how Canada (by which I really mean Vancouver) does on this rubric:
- The fuel tax in Canada is much lower than in Europe, contributing to high driving rates. In Toronto, gasoline currently costs $1.19/liter, which is about €0.85/l. But Vancouver fuel taxes are higher, raising the price to about $1.53/l, around €1.06/l.
- Canadian construction costs are so high that investment in new lines is limited. Vancouver has been procrastinating building the Broadway subway to UBC until costs rose to the point that the budget is only enough to build the line halfway there.
- Vancouver and Toronto both have good bus-rapid transit integration, but there is no integration with commuter rail; Montreal even severed a key commuter line to build a private driverless rapid transit line. In Vancouver, bus and SkyTrain fares have decoupled due to political fallout from the botched smartcard implementation.
- Vancouver is arguably the YIMBYest Western city, building around 10 housing units per 1,000 people every year in the last few years. Toronto’s housing construction rate is lower but still respectable by European standards, let alone American ones.
- There are bike lanes but not on the major streets. If there are bus lanes, I didn’t see any of them when I lived in Vancouver, and I traveled a lot in the city as well as the suburbs.
Vancouver’s transit past and future
Looking at the above legs of what makes for good public transport, there is only one thing about Canada that truly shines: urban redevelopment. Toronto, a metro area of 6 million people, has two subway mainlines, and Montreal, with 4 million people, has 2.5. Vancouver has 1.5 lines – its three SkyTrain mainlines are one-tailed. By the same calculation, Berlin has 6.5 U- and 3 S-Bahn mainlines, and Madrid has 2 Cercanías lines and 7 metro lines. Moreover, high construction costs and political resistance from various GO Transit interests make it difficult for Canadian cities to add more rapid transit.
To the extent Vancouver has a sizable SkyTrain network, it’s that it was able to build elevated and cut-and-cover lines in the past. This is no longer possible for future expansion, except possibly toward Langley. The merchant lawsuits over the Canada Line’s construction impacts have ensured that the Broadway subway will be bored. Furthermore, the region’s politics make it impossible to just build Broadway all the way to the end: Surrey has insisted on some construction within its municipal area, so the region has had to pair half the Broadway subway with a SkyTrain extension to the Langley sprawl.
Put in other words, the growth in Vancouver transit ridership is not so much about building more of a network, but about adding housing and jobs around the network that has been around since the 1980s. The ridership on the Millennium and Canada Lines is growing but remains far below that on the Expo Line. There is potential for further increase in ridership as the neighborhoods along the Canada Line have finally been rezoned, but even that will hit a limit pretty quickly – the Canada Line was built with low capacity, and the Millennium Line doesn’t enter Downtown and will only serve near-Downtown job centers.
Potemkin bus networks
When Jarrett tells American cities to envy Canada, he generally talks about the urban bus networks. Toronto and Vancouver have strong bus grids, with buses coming at worst every 8 minutes during the daytime off-peak. Both cities have grids of major streets, as is normal for so many North American cities, and copying the apparent features of these grids is attractive to American transit managers.
And yet, trying to just set up a bus grid in your average American city yields Potemkin buses. Vancouver and Toronto have bus grids that rely on connections to rapid transit lines. In both cities, transit usage is disproportionately about commutes either to or from a city core defined by a 5 kilometer radius from city hall. Moreover, the growth in public transport commuting in both cities since 1996 has been almost exclusively about such commutes, and not about everywhere-to-everywhere commutes from outside this radius. Within this radius, public transportation is dominated by rail, not buses.
The buses in Toronto and Vancouver have several key roles to play. First, as noted above, they connect to rapid transit nodes or to SeaBus in North Vancouver. Second, they connect to job centers that exist because of rapid transit, for example Metrotown at the eastern end of Vancouver’s 49. And third, there is the sui generis case of UBC. All of these roles create strong ridership, supporting high enough frequency that people make untimed transfers.
But even then, there are problems common to all North American buses. The stop spacing is too tight – 200 meters rather than 400-500, with frequency-splitting rapid buses on a handful of very strong routes like 4th Avenue and Broadway. There is no all-door boarding except on a handful of specially-branded B-line buses. There are no bus lanes.
One American city has similar characteristics to Toronto and Vancouver when it comes to buses: Chicago. Elsewhere, just copying the bus grid of Vancouver will yield nothing, because ultimately nobody is going to connect between two mixed-traffic buses that run every 15 minutes, untimed, if they can afford any better. In Chicago, the situation is different, but what the city most needs is integration between Metra and CTA services, which requires looking at European rather than Canadian models.
Is Canada hopeless?
I don’t know. The meteoric rise in Canadian subway construction costs in the last 15 years has ensured expansion will soon grind to a halt. Much of this rise comes from reforms that the Anglosphere has convinced itself improve outcomes, like design-build and reliance on outside consultants; in that sense, the US hasn’t been copying Canada, but instead Canada has been copying the US and getting American results.
That said, two positive aspects are notable. The first is very high housing and commercial growth in the most desirable cities, if not in their most exclusive neighborhoods. Vancouver probably has another 10-20 years before its developable housing reserves near existing SkyTrain run out and it is forced to figure out how to affordably expand the network. Nowhere in Europe is housing growth as fast as in Metro Vancouver; among the cities for which I have data, only Stockholm comes close, growing at 7-8 net units per 1,000 people annually.
Moreover, with Downtown Vancouver increasingly built out, Vancouver seems to be successfully expanding the CBD outward: Central Broadway already has many jobs and will most likely have further commercial growth as the Millennium Line is extended there. Thus, employers that don’t fit into the Downtown Vancouver peninsula should find a home close enough for SkyTrain, rather than hopping to suburban office parks as in the US. Right now, the central blob of 100 km^2 – a metric I use purely because of limitations on French and Canadian data granularity – has a little more than 30% of area jobs in Vancouver, comparable to Paris, Lyon, New York, Boston, and San Francisco, and ahead of other American cities.
The second aspect is that Canadians are collectively a somewhat more internationally curious nation than Americans. They are more American than European, but the experience of living in a different country from the United States makes it easier for them to absorb foreign knowledge. The reaction to my and Jonathan English’s August article about Canadian costs has been sympathetic, with serious people with some power in Toronto contacting Jonathan to figure out how Canada can improve. The reaction I have received within the United States runs the gamut – some agencies are genuinely helpful and realize that they’ll be better off if we can come up with a recipe for reducing costs, others prefer to obstruct and stonewall.
My perception of Canadian politics is that even right-populists like Doug Ford are more serious about this than most American electeds. In that sense, Ford is much like Boris Johnson, who could move to Massachusetts to be viceroy and far improve governance in both Britain and Massachusetts. My suspicion is that this is linked to Canada’s relatively transit-oriented past and present: broad swaths of the Ontarian middle class ride trains, as is the case in Outer London and the suburbs of Paris. A large bloc of present-day swing voters who use public transport is a good political guarantee of positive attention to public transport in the future. American cities don’t have that – there are no competitive partisan elections anywhere with some semblance of public transportation.
These two points of hope are solid but still run against powerful currents. Toronto really is botching the RER project because of insider obstruction and timidity, and without a strong RER project there is no way to extend public transportation to the suburbs. Vancouver is incapable of concentrating resources where they do the most good. And all Canadian cities have seen an explosion in costs. Canadians increasingly understand the cost problem, but it remains to be seen whether they can fix it.
On social media and various forums, I have an expression for a variety of cities: “it has no public transportation.” This concerns just about the entire United States excluding a handful of cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago; Los Angeles notably is not among these handful, but has no public transportation, and neither do any cities in the South or the Midwest except Chicago. I want to talk a bit more about what I mean by this. I obviously don’t mean that literally there is no scheduled public transportation in these cities; I’ve taken these non-existent transit systems, in Los Angeles on a visit and in Providence when I lived there. But I mean that there’s something about such places distinguishing them from the bad-but-existing transit category of Boston, Chicago, Nice, etc.
Whatever you’re doing isn’t working
Let’s use an 8% cutoff for trips to work. This number is fully motivated reasoning: the metro area (MSA, not CSA) of Philadelphia is just above this cutoff, and I would not say it has no public transportation, at least not in the current state of the system. Bad, yes, but it exists. I may be missing some areas, but I don’t think I am: the list of American metro areas that meet that cutoff is New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Fairfield County, Seattle, Kitsap County, Philadelphia, Honolulu. 70% of American transit commuters live in one of these MSAs. Go down to 6% and you also get Portland and Baltimore, adding about 2.5% of US transit commuters.
Nor are things improving. Some parts of the US are seeing rising mode shares. The most notable is Seattle, which is serious about permitting urban housing, and has tunneling construction costs that would only get Europeans fired rather than simply not existing in democratic Continental Europe. But other cities that occasionally win accolades from American urbanists for investing in public transportation just aren’t cutting it. In the 2006-17 period, chosen because that’s what the ACS makes available, Denver went from 4.6% to 4.4%, Los Angeles from 6.1% to 4.8%, and Portland from 6.4% to 6.3%; in the praised-by-urbanists set, only Minneapolis went up, from 4% to 4.8%.
Let’s unpack what this means: whatever Los Angeles has been doing in the last 10+ years has gotten its mode share down – and that’s without counting the fact that the Inland Empire, officially a separate metro area, is growing much faster and has an even lower mode share, as people drive further and further from jobs to qualify for a mortgage. Portland and Denver have done a lot of supposedly good things with their light rail networks, but are standing still. Portland’s stagnation goes back at least to 1980, while Vancouver has built SkyTrain, a high-rise downtown, and Metrotown, and at 20% has a higher (and rising) mode share than any American metro area save New York.
When a metro area has 2-3% mode share, it’s best to treat it as tabula rasa. Yes, there are people who ride the buses and trains today, but so few that the advantages of from-scratch design are usually greater than the disadvantage coming from the risk to current ridership. The 2-3% figure really depends on the situation – I don’t want to give it as an ironclad figure.
Suburbs of very large cities (read: New York) approaching 10% may still be best treated the same way: commuter rail systems like the LIRR are really shuttles that extend auto-oriented suburbia into the city rather than the reverse. Sadly, where I say such suburbs have no transit as a positive statement, an MBTA general manager said “commuter rail is not public transit” as a normative statement.
The situations of extremely low-mode share metro areas and low-mode share suburbs are not exactly the same. For one, existing ridership is higher on Long Island than in Cleveland or St. Louis so there’s more risk if (for example) supernumerary workers go on strike to fight efficiency improvements, but the reward is much greater. We know how to squeeze high ridership out of regional rail in the suburbs, even low-density ones, since the city has so many jobs in the center. Moreover, we know which ready sources of ridership are suppressed by current operating patterns: working-class reverse-commuters, people who work non-traditional hours regardless of class, and peak-direction commuters getting off short of city center.
The tabula rasa concept notably does not mean the infrastructure doesn’t exist. Los Angeles has the physical infrastructure of a rail network. Long Island and Westchester have many rail lines pointing toward Manhattan. However, the operating patterns and development are deficient and little to no accommodation should be made for them. In the suburbs of New York and a handful of other American cities this concerns premium fares, low off-peak frequency, and lack of integration with local buses. In American metro areas with low overall ridership this concerns weak city centers, lack of TOD even when it could succeed (for example in Los Angeles and San Diego), local political systems that view transit as an excuse to get federal funds for other things such as road repaving, and, as in suburbia, low off-peak frequency. The problems vary, but the fact that there are severe problems remains.
The other element of tabula rasa is social. There is almost never any knowledge base in those areas about how good transit works, because people who’ve only lived there have by definition not regularly used even bad-but-existing public transport. Whatever local activists of all stripes have been doing in Los Angeles is not working. Understanding why from them can be valuable, for the same reason I talk to planners at poorly-run agencies like the MTA and the MBTA to understand what’s wrong, but all local practices should be considered suspect unless corroborated in an area with at least decent public transportation.
On giving offense
The people who complain about my use of “no transit” to refer to the vast majority of the United States are not making a semantic nitpick or asking for clarification. They specifically complain I give offense by erasing 2-3% of the population of Cleveland and St. Louis, or 1% of the population of Kansas City. (I name these cities and not 6% Portland because that’s what people have complained about to me.)
So let’s unpack what this means. I point out that in the vast majority of the United States, excepting a handful of regions all of which are politically stereotyped as Not Real America partly because they have public transit, has buses and trains that are so useless they might as well not exist. I point out that this remains the case despite extensive construction in many cities – Dallas has 150 km of light rail, which is respectable for a city of its size, Denver keeps expanding its network and has something resembling frequent regional rail, and so on. The problem is that I do not conveniently blame this on a political faction of others, be it Republicans, unions, moderates, drivers, or whoever. I genuinely think it’s the fault of everyone who’s had any amount of power, and this includes community organizations that keep identifying as always losing even when they repeatedly succeed in blocking changes they dislike.
This is American culture. Even the denigration of New York and other cities where there is public transportation is part of that culture; there are certain aspects of San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia that are useful for other parts of the US to emulate. But accepting that requires understanding that there is to a good approximation no contribution coming from no-transit cities (and this again includes Portland and Los Angeles, it’s not just Cleveland or Dallas).
Part of the problem is that the US defines itself so much around cars and car culture that the presence of public transportation is enough to make something feel not really American. The result is that any exhortation to learn from places with trains with decent ridership is bound to offend; I might as well tell Americans to move to Tokyo and learn Japanese and never come back to the West. But sadly for Americans, reality can be offensive. The culture of Real America has to change, at least when it comes to how to treat transportation and cities.
When you ride a subway train, and the train decelerates to its station, you feel your body pulled forward, and your muscles tense to adjust, but then when the train reaches a sudden stop, you are suddenly flung backward, since you are no longer decelerating, but your muscles take time to relax and stop fighting a braking that no longer exist. This effect is called jerk, and is defined to be change in acceleration, just as acceleration is change in speed and speed is change in position. Controlling jerk is crucial for a smooth railway ride. Unfortunately, American mainline rail is not good at this, leading to noticeable jolts by passengers even though speed limits on curves and acceleration rates are very conservative.
This is particularly important for speeding up mainline trains around New York and other legacy cities in the US, like Boston. Speeding up the slowest segments is more important than speeding up the fastest ones; my schedules for New York-New Haven trains, cutting trip times from 2:09 to 1:24, save 4 minutes between Grand Central and 59th Street just through avoiding slowdowns in the interlocking. The interlocking is slow because the switches have very conservative speed limits relative to curve radius (that is, lateral acceleration), which in turn is because they are not designed with good lateral jerk control. The good news is that replacing the necessary infrastructure is not so onerous, provided the railroads know what they need to do and avoid running heavy diesel locomotives on delicate infrastructure.
Spirals and jerk
In practice, the worst jerk is usually not forward or backward, except in the last fraction of a second at the end of acceleration. This is because it takes about a second for train motors to rev up, which controls jerk during acceleration. Rather, the worst is sideways, because it is possible to design curves that transition abruptly from straight track, on which there is no lateral acceleration, to curved track, on which there is, in the form of centrifugal force centripetal force.
To reduce jerk, the transition from straight track to a circular arc is done gradually. There are a number of usable transition curve (see Romain Bosquet’s thesis, PDF-p. 36), but the most common by far is called the clothoid, which has the property of having constant change in curvature per unit of arc length – that is, constant jerk. Different countries have different standards for how long the clothoid should be, that is what the maximum lateral jerk is. Per Martin Lindahl’s thesis, the limit in Sweden is 55 mm/s (PDF-p. 30) and that in Germany is 69.44 mm/s (PDF-p. 38), both measured in units of cant deficiency; in SI units, this is 0.367 m/s^3 and 0.463 m/s^3 respectively. In France, the regular limit is 50 mm/s (Bosquet’s thesis, PDF-p. 35), that is 0.333 m/s^2, but it is specifically waived in turnouts.
Track switches are somehow accepted as sites of very high jerk. A presentation about various technical limits in France notes on p. 106 that in switches (“appareils de voie” or “aiguilles” or “aiguillages,” depending on source, just like “switch” vs. “turnout” in English), the jerk can be increased to 100 and even 125 mm/s. On p. 107 it even asserts that in exceptional circumstances, abrupt change in cant deficiency of up to 50 mm on main track and 100 on the diverging direction on a switch is allowed; see also PDF-pp. 13-15 of a pan-European presentation. Abrupt changes are not good for passengers, but will not derail a train.
Turnout design in the advanced world
Second derivative control, that is acceleration and cant deficiency, can be done using calculus and trigonometry tools. Third derivative control, that is clothoids and jerk, requires numerical calculations, but fortunately they are approximated well by pretending the clothoid is half straight line, half circular arc, with the length determined by the maximum jerk. Working from first principles, it’s possible to figure out that at typical turnout needs – e.g. move a train from one track to a parallel track 4 meters away – the clothoid is far longer than the curve itself, and at 50 mm/s jerk and 150 mm cant deficiency it’s not even possible to hit a curve radius of 250 meters.
Turnouts are inherently compromises. The question is just where to compromise. Here, for example, is a French turnout design, in two forms: 0.11 and 0.085. The numbers denoting the tangent of the angle at the frog, and the radius is proportional to the inverse square of the number, thus the speed is proportional to the inverse of the number. The sharper turnout, the 0.11, has a radius of 281 meters, a maximum speed of 50 km/h, and a total length of 26 meters from point to frog (“lead” in US usage), of which the clothoid curve (“point”) takes up 11, to limit jerk to 125 mm/s at a cant deficiency of 100 mm. The 0.085 turnout has a radius of 485 meters, a maximum speed of 65 km/h, a lead of about 38 meters, and a point of about 14.5 meters.
In Germany, turnouts have somewhat independent numbers and radii – some have shorter leads than others. The numbers are the inverse of those of France, so what France calls 0.11, Germany calls 1:9, but at the end of the day, the curve radius is the important part, with a cant deficiency of 100 mm. A higher cant deficiency may be desirable, but lengthening the point requires almost as much space as just increasing the curve radius, so might as well stick with the more comfortable limits.
Turnout design in the United States
American turnouts look similar to French or German ones, at first glance. I’ve seen a number of different designs; here’s one by CSX, on PDF-pp. 22 (#8) and 24 (#10), the numbers being very roughly comparable to German ones and inverses of French ones. CSX’s #10 has a curve radius of 779.39′, or 238 meters, and a lead of 24 meters, both numbers slightly tighter than the French 0.11. The radius is proportional to the square of the number, and so speed is proportional to the number.
However, the cant deficiency is just 50 mm. The point is not always curved; Amtrak’s low-number switches are not, so the change in cant deficiency is abrupt. Judging by what I experience every time I take a train between New York and New Haven, Metro-North’s switches have abrupt change in cant deficiency even on the mainline. The recommended standards by AREMA involve a curved point, but the point is still much shorter than in France (19.5′, or just under 6 meters, on a #12), so a 125 mm/s jerk only gets one up to about 62 mm cant deficiency.
The reason for this is that European turnouts are curved through the frog, whereas American ones are always straight at the frog. Extremely heavy American freight trains do not interact well with curved frogs and long points.
One might ask, why bother with such turnout design on rail segments that never see a heavy freight locomotive or 130-ton freight car? And on segments that do see the odd freight locomotive, like the approaches to Grand Central and Penn Station with the rare dual-mode locomotive, why not kick out anything that doesn’t interact well with advanced track design? Making a handful of passengers transfer would save around 4 minutes of trip time on the last mile into Grand Central alone for everyone else, not to mention time savings farther up the line.
I gave a second talk this week about transportation, this time at Hartford Station, concerning the plans for Connecticut transportation. The starting point is Governor Lamont’s $21 billion plan for investment, including both expansion and repairs (read: the State of Good Repair black hole), of which $14 billion is highways, $6.2 billion is rail, and $450 million is buses. But most of the talk concerns what Connecticut should be doing, rather than the specifics of Lamont’s plan.
Here are my slides. The talk itself took around 40-45 minutes out of a nearly 2-hour meeting, so it was designed around taking many questions, and around further explanations. Something I didn’t put in the slides but explained verbally is how easy the modern track renewal process is. Nowadays, there are machines that use no infrastructure except the tracks themselves, running on the tracks at very low speed (slower than walking) and systematically replacing the rails, ties, and ballast. They can also regrade the tracks’ superelevation angle independently of the drainage angle, changing the tracks’ cant as they go. The upshot is that increasing the cant on tracks is almost cost-free, and would enable large increases in train speed on both regional and intercity trains.
Other technology that has negative cost in the future is getting higher-performance EMUs than the current equipment. The current trains are obsolete technology, built around superseded federal regulations. There’s no point in getting more of the same. They’re okay to run until end of life, but new purchases should involve electrification and modern European EMUs. Whereas infrastructure costs are rising (see here and here), technology costs are falling in real terms. The fall in train costs is not so quick as that of computer costs, but still the rolling stock factories are designed around making products for the 2020s, not the 1990s, and retooling them for older technology costs extra.
Hence my slogan from the talk: better things are possible, on a budget.
One question I was asked at the talk that I didn’t have an answer to was, why is construction in Connecticut so expensive? Plans for infill stations are budgeted extravagantly, ranging between $50 million and $100 million without any special construction difficulties. Boston builds infill stations (counting high-platform upgrades as infill since the preexisting stations have no facilities) for $20-30 million counting various hidden costs (e.g. regular MBTA employees, like project managers, count as operating and not capital costs even if they only work on capital costs); Berlin does for €10-20 million.
After the talk, Roger Senserrich explained to me (and a planner at the MBTA confirmed to me) that in Connecticut there’s no in-house design at all. Massachusetts has a mix of in-house design review, with the team stymied by uncompetitive wages making hiring and retention difficult, and outsourcing work to consultants. CDOT exclusively outsources to consultants, and has no in-house expertise to evaluate whether the contracts are fair or whether it’s being overcharged.
There’s a moralistic discourse in the United States about fare evasion on public transport that makes it about every issue other than public transport or fares. It’s a proxy for lawlessness, for police racism, for public safety, for poverty. In lieu of treating it as a big intra-urban culture war, I am going to talk about best practices from the perspective of limiting revenue loss to a minimum.
This is an issue where my main methodology for making recommendations for Americans – looking at peer developed countries – is especially useful. The reason is that Americans practically never look at other countries on hot-button culture war issues, even less than (say) the lip service the center-left pays to foreign universal health care systems. Americans who support immigration liberalization practically never listen when I try bringing up the liberal work visa, asylum, and naturalization policies of Germany or Sweden. Knowing stuff about the rest of the world is a type of competence, and competence is not a factor in a culture war. The upshot is that successful policies regarding fare collection in (for example) Germany are obscure in the United States even more than policies regarding wonkier transportation issues like train frequency.
The current situation in New York
In the summer, Governor Cuomo announced a new initiative to hire 500 cops to patrol the subway. The justification for this scheme has varied depending on who was asking, but the primary goal appears to be to defeat fare evasion. Per Cuomo’s office, fare evasion costs $240 million a year on the subway and buses, about 5% of total revenue. The MTA has also mentioned a higher figure, $300 million; I do not know if the higher figure includes just urban transit or also commuter rail, where conductors routinely miss inspections, giving people free rides.
But New York fare evasion is mostly a bus problem: the rate on buses is 22%. On the subway the rate is only 4%, and there is somewhat more revenue loss on buses than on subways. This, in turn, is because bus fares are enforced by drivers, who for years have complained that fare disputes lead to assaults on them and proposed off-board fare collection as an alternative. On many buses, drivers just let it go and let passengers board without paying, especially if nearly all passengers are connecting from the subway and therefore have already paid, as on the B1 between the Brighton Beach subway station and Kingsborough Community College or on the buses to LaGuardia.
So realistically the subway fare evasion level is closer to $110 million a year. The total cost of the new patrol program is $56 million in the first year, escalating by 8% annually thanks to a pre-agreed pay hike scale. Whereas today the program is a net revenue generator if it halves subway fare evasion, a level that already seems strained, within ten years, assuming normal fare escalation, it will need to cut fare evasion by about 90%, which is a complete fantasy. A sizable proportion of riders who do not pay would just stop riding altogether, for one. The governor is proposing to spend more on fare enforcement than the MTA can ever hope to extract.
The American moral panic about fare evasion regrettably goes far beyond New York. Two years ago, BART announced that it would supplement its fare barriers with proof-of-payment inspections, done by armed cops, and lied to the public about the prevalence of such a belts-and-suspenders system. More recently, it trialed a new turnstile design that would hit passengers in the face, but thankfully scrapped it after public outcry. Boston, too, has its moral panic about fare evasion, in the form of campaigns like the Keolis Ring of Steel on commuter rail or Fare is Fair.
There is another way
In talking to Americans about fare evasion, I have found that they are generally receptive to the idea of minimizing revenue loss net of collection costs. However, what I’ve encountered more resistance about is the idea that people should just be able to walk onto a bus or train.
In the urban German-speaking world, everyone with a valid fare can walk onto a bus, tram, or train without crossing fare barriers or having to pay a driver. This system has been copied to American light rail networks, but implementation on buses and subways lags (except on San Francisco buses). In New York, the SBS system uses proof of payment (POP), but passengers still have to validate fares at bus stops, even if they already have paid, for example if they have a valid monthly pass.
In the vast majority of cities, no excuse exists to have any kind of overt fare control. Tear down these faregates. They are hostile to passengers with disabilities, they cost money to maintain, they constrain passenger flow at busy times, and they don’t really save money – evidently, New York’s subway fare evasion rate is within the range of Berlin, Munich, and Zurich. Fare enforcement should be done with POP alone, by unarmed civilian inspectors, as in Berlin. Some people will learn to dodge the inspectors, as is the case in Berlin, and that’s fine; the point is not to get fare evasion to 0%, but to the minimum level net of enforcement costs.
New York itself may have an excuse to keep the faregates: its trains are very crowded, so peak-hour inspections may not be feasible. The question boils down to how New York crowding levels compare with those on the busiest urban POP line, the Munich S-Bahn trunk. But no other American city has that excuse. Tear down these faregates.
What’s more, the fare inspection should be a low-key affair. The fine in Berlin is €60. In Paris on the RER I can’t tell – I believe it’s three figures of which the first is a 1. Inspectors who can’t make a citation without using physical violence should not work as inspectors.
Make it easy to follow the law
The most important maxim when addressing a low-level crime is to make it easy to follow the law. Mistakes happen; I’ve accidentally fare-dodged in Berlin twice, only realizing the error at the end of the trip. This is much more like parking violations or routine mistakes in tax filing.
The turnstile acts as a reminder to everyone to pay their fare, since it’s not possible to fare-dodge without actively jumping it. (I did turnstile-jump in Paris once, with a valid transfer ticket that the turnstile rejected, I think because Paris’s turnstile and magnetic ticket technology is antediluvian.) However, turnstiles are not necessary for this. A better method is to ensure most passengers have prepaid already, by offering generous monthly discounts. My fare dodges in Berlin happened once before I got monthlies and once on my way to the airport on my current trip, in a month when I didn’t get a monthly since I was only in Berlin 6 days.
New York does poorly on the metric of encouraging monthlies. Passengers need to swipe 46 times in a 30-day period to justify getting a monthly pass rather than a pay-per-ride. This is bad practice, especially for passengers who prefer to refill at a ticketing machine rather than at home or on their phone with an app, since it means passengers visit the ticketing machines more often, requiring the agency to buy more to avoid long lines. In Berlin, the breakeven point is 36 trips. In Zurich, it’s 20 trips; ZVV does whatever it can to discourage people from buying single tickets. In both cities, there are further discounts for annual tickets.
Unfortunately, the problem of indifference to monthlies on urban rail is common around the Anglosphere. Singapore has no season passes at all. In Vancouver, Cubic lobbying and a New Right campaign about fare evasion forced TransLink to install faregates on SkyTrain, and when the faregate project had predictable cost overruns, the campaigners took that as evidence the agency shouldn’t get further funding. London’s fare capping system is weekly rather than monthly – there are no monthly passes, and all fares are set at very high levels. Britain generally overuses faregates, for example on the commuter trains in London. London generally gives off an impression of treating everyone who is not a Daily Mail manager as a criminal. Paris is better, but not by much. The German-speaking world, as irrational as Britain and France about urban crime rates that are far lower than they were a generation ago, still treats the train and bus rider as a law-abiding customer unless proven otherwise.
American transit agencies and activists resist calls for large monthly discounts, on a variety of excuses. The most common excuse is revenue loss, which is weird since realistically New York would transition to a large discount through holding the monthly fare constant and hiking the single-ride fare. It’s the second most common excuse that I wish to deal with here: social fares, namely the fact that many low-income riders don’t have the savings to prepay for an entire month.
On social fares, as on many other socioeconomic issues, it is useful for Americans to see how things work in countries with high income compression and low inequality under the aegis of center-left governments. In Paris, various classes of low-income riders, such as the unemployed, benefit from a solidarity fare discount of 50-75%. In both Paris and Stockholm, the monthly pass is flat regionwide, an intentional program of subsidizing regular riders in the suburbs, which are on average poorer than the city.
The flat fare is not really applicable to American cities, except possibly the Bay Area on BART. However, the large fare reductions to qualifying low-income riders are: a number of cities have used the same definition, namely Medicaid eligibility, and give steep discounts for bikeshare systems. On the same principle, cities and states can discount fares on buses and trains.
The right way to view fares
Fares are an important component of public transport revenue; the taxes required to eliminate fares are significant enough that there are probably better uses for the money. By the same token, the issue of fare evasion should be viewed from the lens of revenue loss, rather than that of crime and disorder. The transit agency is not an individual who is broken by being mugged of $100; it should think in terms of its own finances, not in terms of deterrence.
Nor is making it easier to follow the law going to encourage more crime – to the contrary. Transit agencies should aim at a fare system, including enforcement, that allows passengers to get on and off trains quickly, with minimum friction. Turnstiles do not belong in any city smaller than about 10 million people. The fare structure should then encourage long-term season passes, including annual passes, so that nearly all residents who take public transport have already paid. Random inspections with moderate fines are the layer of enforcement, but the point is to make enforcement largely unneeded.
And tear down the faregates.
This post is a cautionary note for everyone who proposes, advocates for, or plans public transportation: please avoid numerology. What I mean by numerology is, it’s easy to target round numbers for trip time, ridership, capacity, or cost, but this may not be based on good design principles. Round numbers are memorable, which makes them attractive for marketing, but quite often the roundness percolates from public communications to system design, and then it tends to lead to bad results: excessive amounts of money spent on meeting a particular trip time, useful scope cut from a project to stay under a too tight budget, and general overpromising.
I’m tagging this incompetence because it is always bad, but even people who are generally good may unwittingly engage in numerology. I’m pretty confident I’ve done this in previous posts by accident. So I’m exhorting myself and good transit advocates and not just the usual politicians and power brokers.
10x and tech
The worst numerology that I’ve seen in technology is not specifically in transportation, but in the software industry of the American West Coast, which is obsessed with the concept of 10x, that is 10 times as good as normal. The most common variation of this is the 10x engineer, that is the programmer who gets 10 times the productivity of the average programmer, but (by implication) does not demand 10 times the average salary, or even 1.5 times the average salary.
Thanks to Elon Musk, the same concept of 10x has jumped into the transportation discourse – Musk promises a 10x reduction in construction costs for tunneling. It goes without saying he cannot deliver, but the telling thing here is the origin of the number. It does not come from some deep analysis finding that California’s tunneling costs are about 10 times as high as those of some target best practice, or even as high as those of a new method. (In fact, California is around 7 times as expensive to build in as Madrid or Seoul, the world’s cheapest cities to build in, so 10 is at the limit of plausibility.) Rather, the number came first: innovation in American tech is supposed to come in orders of magnitude, not continuous improvements, so the target was 10x, just as SpaceX’s target for space launch cost reduction is 10x even though so far the reality is maybe 1.5x or 2x.
The primary problem here is overpromising. Factor-of-10 improvements are almost nonexistent. The one example I am comfortable with in transportation is the tunneling costs in New York specifically, and even that is a problem that only emerged with the latest project, Second Avenue Subway Phase 2; Phase 1 and the 7 extension are off by a factor of 6 or 7 off the rest-of-world average (and about 15-20 off the very cheapest in the world), and East Side Access is a problem of overbuilding more than anything so I can’t even give it a specific factor. Many other things in New York are too expensive, but generally by a factor ranging from 1.5 to 3. Cutting operating costs in half, cutting rolling stock procurement costs by a third, and so on are both laudable goals, but 10x rhetoric skips them entirely. Thus comes the secondary problem with 10x-oriented numerology: just as it rounds up factor-of-7 improvements and overpromises a factor of 10, it completely ignores factor-of-2 improvements as they simply cannot plausibly be stretched to an order of magnitude.
It is common in marketing to promise round numbers for schedules: 2-hour trip times, 3-hour trip times, etc. This sometimes percolates into the planning world behind the scenes, leading to planning around discrete trip times in integer numbers of hours.
In France it’s a commonplace that high-speed rail is only competitive with air travel if the trains take 3 hours or less. The reality is very different on two levels: first, mode share is a continuous function of trip time, so the difference between (say) 2:55 and 3:05 cannot be very big. And second, in 2009, rail had a 54% mode share of all Paris-Toulon trips, on which the TGV takes 4:08-4:20, compared with 12% for air; the TGV held its own as far east as Cannes (34%), 5:26 away, and Nice (30%), 5:57 away. The 3-hour rule is alluring and may be true in one specific social class, namely airline and railway managers, but the numerology here makes it easy to stick to it even if the breakeven point keeps creeping up to 3:30, 4:00, 4:30, 5:00.
A more benign example of numerology is the 30-30-30 plan in Connecticut. Governor Lamont has proposed far-reaching investments to speed up trains to take half an hour on each of three segments: New York-Stamford, Stamford-New Haven, New Haven-Hartford. This is more or less feasible: a reasonable level of investment would reduce New York-New Haven to about 1:03 on express trains, with Stamford near the exact midpoint. However, the target trip times remain numerological: there is no obvious reason why 1:00 is so much better than 1:10. So far 30-30-30 has run into resistance from incompetent traditional railroaders, but it’s easy to imagine a future in which the governor approves the plan over their objections, and then has to decide how much money to spend on the final few minutes’ worth of speedup to meet the stated goals.
In contrast with numerology based on round numbers, there is a much more solid planning paradigm based on trip times a few minutes short of a round number. In that case, the trip time is a round number including turnaround time, which makes it easy to run trains on a clockface schedule. Differences like 1:05 vs. 0:55 are not important enough to bother passengers about, but differences in frequency between hourly and every 1:10 are critical – passengers can remember 9:05, 10:05, 11:05, 12:05 much better than they can 9:05, 10:15, 11:25, 12:35. Therefore, the integrated timed transfer plan of Switzerland and the Netherlands aims at trip times that are not very memorable, but that together with connection or turnaround time enable memorable schedules.
In addition to the tech industry’s 10x concept, more traditional cost estimations can suffer from numerology as well. Here it is important to distinguish relative from absolute costs. Relative costs are relative to an already-decided budget; in that case, it is useful to force agencies to stay within their promised costs, to discourage lowballing costs in the future (“strategic misrepresentation” in Bent Flyvbjerg’s language). Absolute costs are about numbers that sound big or small, and in that case, there is no good reason to force costs to hew to a specific number.
In the case of absolute costs, politicians may fit the program to the cost in either direction. Reportedly, the size of the stimulus bill passed by the Obama administration at the beginning of 2019 was designed to be in the hundreds of billions and avoid the dreaded trillion number, even though some of the administration’s advisors argued for $1.2-1.8 trillion. In transportation, I do not know of specific examples, but there is so much political pressure among various people who think they’re fiscally conservative that there’s bound to be pressure to go underneath a round number, in other words a political equivalent of pricing a product at $99 instead of $100.
In the other direction, visionaries may think they’re being bold by making up a high number, usually a catch round figure like $1 trillion for US-wide infrastructure. The numerology here operates on a different level from the relatively small band of just under a limit vs. just over a limit: here the main problem is that the cost figure is arbitrary, and then the list of projects to be funded is chosen to match it. If there aren’t enough good projects, agencies will either bloat the budgets of projects by lading them with semi-related spending, for example bundling a light rail line with street reconstruction and tree planting, or go forward with weak proposals that would otherwise not be funded.
A few years ago, when I started writing timetables for proposed regional rail lines, I realized how much faster they were than current schedules. This goes beyond the usual issues in Boston with electrification, which can cut the Boston-Providence trip from the current 1:10 or so to around 45 minutes. In New York the trains are already electrified, but trip times are slow, due to a combination of weak rolling stock, low platforms in New Jersey, poor maintenance in Connecticut, and obscene schedule padding in Long Island. This post collects a few before-and-after comparisons of how fast regional rail in New York could be.
Due to time constraints, not all lines are included in this post; by popular demand I can complete this and make it a two-part post. In this post I am going to focus on the New Haven and Harlem Lines and the LIRR’s Ronkonkoma and Hempstead Branches.
The LIRR and Metro-North both have reasonable if conservative equipment. Thus, it is valuable to look at the trip times that current equipment could achieve, that is the M-8s on the New Haven Line and the M-7s on the other lines. Future equipment should be higher-performance, and in particular both railroads should procure modular platforms based on proven European regional rail designs, rather than stick with overweight, overpriced equipment as in the upcoming capital plan. Thus the following tables include trip times with both current equipment and a notional regional electric multiple unit (EMU) with the specs of a Talent 2, FLIRT, Coradia Continental, DBAG Class 425, or similar train.
As a note of caution, these trip times are not achievable at zero cost, only at low cost. No curve needs to be straightened, but some curves need to be superelevated, and in some areas, particularly Connecticut, additional track work is required. All of this is quite cheap based on European maintenance regimes, though perhaps not based on American ones, but it is not literally a day one timetable – figure a few months’ worth of work systemwide. Schedules would also need to be simpler, with fewer creative express patterns, to facilitate low schedule padding, 7% as in Switzerland rather than the LIRR’s current 30% pad.
Much of this work comes from this post about the LIRR and this one about the New Haven Line, but here I’m covering the Harlem
and Hudson Line s as well, and using more recent computations for acceleration.
New Haven Line
Locals to Stamford:
|Station||Current time||Future M-8 time||Future Euro time|
|Mount Vernon East||0:27||0:18||0:16|
Some of the numbers are interpolated, but the end-to-end times as well as those to New Rochelle, Port Chester, and Riverside are exact. No curve is straightened, but all non-geometric speed limits, including those on the Cos Cob Bridge, are removed; the Cos Cob Bridge is not straight enough for high-speed rail, but a regional train could squeeze 150 km/h out of it, or 160 if it is replaced.
Expresses to New Haven are faster, as detailed in my older post on the subject:
|Station||Current time||Future M-8 time||Future Euro time|
Numbers differ from my older post by a minute to allow for slightly slower approaches to the Grand Central stub-end, at 50 km/h rather than 100 km/h as with any future through-running. This is still several minutes faster than the current 10 mph speed limit out to a mile out of the station. It doesn’t matter too much; at the end of the day, this is a difference of 1:18 vs. 2:09, with one extra station. I repeat: better track maintenance, less conservative terminal approach speeds, higher superelevation on curves, modern schedule padding, and (on the margin) higher-performance equipment could reduce trip times from 2:09 to 1:18, a cut of 40% in trip time, without straightening a single curve.
The Harlem Line today runs local and express trains, but this involves a long stretch from north of Mount Vernon West to North White Plains with three and two rather than four tracks; trains just don’t run frequently enough today that it’s a problem, but in the future they will need to. Therefore, my timetable below is all-local. Nonetheless, trip times to White Plains on the local train are comparable to those of today’s express trains.
|Station||Current time (local)||Current time (express)||Future M-7 time||Future Euro time|
|Mount Vernon West||0:32||—||0:24||0:23|
|North White Plains||1:01||0:41||0:44||0:40|
Observe that the current schedule has very long trip times before the end station – 8 minutes from White Plains to North White Plains on the local, 11 from Brewster to Southeast on the express. Southbound, both segments are timetabled to take only 4 minutes each. This is additional padding used to artificially inflate on-time performance, in lieu of the better practice of spacing out the pad throughout the schedule, at 1 minute per 15 minutes.
LIRR Main Line
The LIRR has a highly-branched system, and I’m only going to portray the Main Line to Ronkonkoma among the long express lines. This is because in the long term, the South Side lines shouldn’t be going to Penn Station but to Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. The Port Jefferson Branch could benefit from a side-by-side comparison of trip times, but that is partly a matter of electrifying the outer part of the line, a project that is perennially on the LIRR’s wishlist.
|Station||Current time||Future M-7 time||Future Euro time|
|New Hyde Park||—||0:20||0:19|
The fastest Main Line train of the day runs between Penn Station and Ronkonkoma stopping only at Hicksville, Brentwood, and Central Islip, not even stopping at Jamaica; it does the trip in 1:08, a few minutes worse than the M7 could with less schedule padding and small speedups at terminal zones (Penn Station throat slowdowns add 1-2 minutes, it’s not the mile-long slog of Grand Central).
Finally, for local service supplementing the rapid Main Line, we can look at the Hempstead Branch, which under my regional rail maps should keep serving Penn Station along today’s alignment, continuing north along the Empire Connection to the Hudson Line. Today, only a handful of peak trains run between Penn Station and Hempstead – off-peak, Hempstead diverts to Atlantic Terminal. Here are side-by-side schedules, using the fastest peak train as a comparison:
|Station||Current time||Future M-7 time||Future Euro time|
|Country Life Press||0:47||0:34||0:32|
Across the four lines examined – New Haven, Harlem, Main, Hempstead – trains could run about 50-66% faster, i.e. taking 33-40% less time. This is despite the fact that the rolling stock today is already EMUs: the vast majority of the speedup does not come from upgrading to higher-end trains, but rather from running faster on curves as all EMUs can, avoiding unnecessary slowdowns in station throats, and reducing schedule padding through more regular timetables.
The speedup is so great that the Harlem Line could achieve the same trip times of present-day nonstop trains on locals making 14 more stops between Manhattan and North White Plains, a distance of 38 km, and the LIRR could achieve substantially faster trip times than today’s nonstops on semi-rapid trains. In fact, the LIRR could even make additional local stops on the Main Line like Forest Hills and Hollis and roughly match the fastest peak trains, but expected traffic volumes are such that it’s best to leave the locals to the Hempstead Branch and put the Main Line on the express tracks.
Good transit activists in and around New York should insist that the managers prioritize such speedups. If locals can match today’s express trip times, there is no need to run creative express stopping patterns that force trains into complex patterns of overtakes. Just run frequent local service, using the maxim that a line deserves express service if and only if it has four tracks, as the New Haven Line and shared Main Line-Hempstead Branch segment do. With the slowest speed zones sped up, curve speeds raised to the capabilities of modern EMUs (including the conservative M-7s and M-8s), and schedule padding shrunk to where it should be, the suburbs could be so much closer to Manhattan at rush hour as well as off-peak, stimulating tighter metropolitan connections.
There’s an interesting discussion on Twitter, courtesy of Adam Batlan, about federal subsidies for capital funding versus operations. It’s become a popular reform proposal among American public transport advocates, who are frustrated with the status quo of federal funding for capital but not for operations. Unfortunately, the proposed change to the status quo – federal funding of operations and maintenance – is even worse than the status quo. The hazards of outside funding sources for operations are considerable and unavoidable, whereas those of outside funding for capital expansion can be mitigated by defining expansion appropriately, to the exclusion of ongoing maintenance.
Why federal funding should only go to expansion
Public transportation has ongoing operating expenses, and capital funding. Ongoing expenses can only change gradually – rail service in particular is dominated by fixed costs, like maintenance, and service changes have little effect on operating costs. This argues in favor of steady funding for operations.
Can federal funding be this steady? The answer is no. The federal government is where politics is. People with serious differences in opinion over issues including the overall size of federal spending, spending priorities, and how sensitive spending should be to economic conditions contest elections, and if one side has a majority, that side will get its legislative way. Nor is this some artifact of two-party majoritarianism. In consensus democracies the salience of a majority is if anything higher – there are big differences in policy, including transportation policy, between the various parties of Switzerland or the Netherlands, as the parties have to deliver results to attract voters rather than relying on polarization and partisan identity.
This kind of politics is very good when it comes to debating one-time capital projects. A center-right government committed to austerity with little attention to climate change, for example Germany since 2005, will not spend much money on rail expansion, and railroads will formulate their plans accordingly. The key here is that planning around maintaining current operations without expansion is not difficult, whereas planning around sudden cuts in operating funding is.
The issue of ongoing capital expenses
Current US policy is for the federal government to fund capital expenses, but not necessarily expansion. Normal replacement of equipment and long-term maintenance both receive federal funding. This is bad policy, because the way agencies respond to changes in funding levels is to defer maintenance when the federal government is stingy and then cry poverty when the federal government is generous.
The most extreme case of this is the state of good repair (SOGR) scam. The origins of SOGR are honest: New York City Transit deferred maintenance for decades, until the system collapsed in the 1970s, leading to a shift in priorities away from expansion and toward SOGR in the 1980s and 90s. There were tangible improvements in the last era, raising the mean distance between failures on the subway from about 10,000 km in 1980 to 250,000 in the 2000s. But this process led to a trend in which agencies would deliberately defer maintenance, knowing they could ask for SOGR funding letting them spend money without having anything to show for it.
By the 21st century, New York’s SOGR program turned into such a scam. The MTA capital plans keep having line items for achieving SOGR, but there are no improvements, nor does the backlog appear to shrink. If anything, throughout the 2010s service deteriorated due to slowdowns, until Andy Byford began the Saving Precious Seconds campaign. The same scam appears elsewhere, too: Amtrak deferred maintenance in the 2000s under political pressure to look profitable for privatization, a Bush administration priority, and when Obama was elected and announced the stimulus, Bush-installed CEO Joe Boardman began to talk about SOGR on the Northeast Corridor as a way of hogging billions of dollars without having to show increases in speed.
The forward solution to this problem is to credibly commit not to fund maintenance, ever. The fix-it-first maxim is for local governments only. The maxim for outside funding should be that any request for funding for maintenance or replacement is a tacit admission the agency cannot govern itself and requires an outside takeover as well.
The issue of frequency
The problem the thread linked to at the beginning of this post sets to solve is that some cities get money to build a light rail line but then only run it every 20 minutes. This, however, is a problem of incompetence rather than one inherent to the incentives.
A long-term revenue-maximizing agency, confronted with an urban rail line that runs every 20 minutes, will increase its frequency to at worst every 10 minutes, secure in the knowledge that the long run elasticity of ridership with respect to frequency in this range is high enough that it will make more money this way. This remains true even for a dishonest agency, which has no trouble maximizing long-term revenue by deferring maintenance and then asking for SOGR money when funding is available.
This fact regarding frequency is doubly true if the trains already run frequently at rush hour and only drop to 20-minute frequency off-peak. Fleet costs are determined by the peak, and large peak-to-base service ratios require expensive split shifts for crews. Therefore, a bump in off-peak frequency, especially from such a low base as 20 minutes, will increase ridership for very little increase in operating cost.
The thread does not mention the issue of connecting bus service much – I got yelled at for proposing half-hourly local buses timed with commuter trains – but there, too, the rule of only subsidizing expansion rather than maintenance or operation leads to good enough incentives. In Seattle, light rail expansion has led to bus service changes designed to feed the trains, increasing bus ridership even as rail service replaces the most crowded corridors.
The bus cuts of (for example) San Mateo County in response to rail expansion should then be put in the same basket of pure incompetence with the light rail line that runs every 20 minutes off-peak. The incentives line up in one direction, but due to such factors as unfamiliarity with best practices and managers who do not ride the trains they run, management goes in the other direction.
The forward solution here is to stick to funding by expected ridership. If the service plan involves low frequency, this should show up in the ridership screen and penalize the project in question, while urban rail lines that run every 5 minutes get funded.