I recently heard of state-level American standards for climate resilience that made it clear that, as a concept, it makes climate change worse. The idea of resilience is that catastrophic climate change is inevitable, so might as well make the world’s top per capita emitter among large economies resilient to it through slow retreat from the waterfront. The theory is bad enough – Desmond Tutu calls it climate apartheid – but the practice is even worse. The biggest, densest, and most desirable American cities are close to the coast. Transit-oriented development in and around those cities is the surest way of bringing green prosperity, enabling emissions to go down without compromising living standards. And yet, on a number of occasions I have seen Americans argue against various measures for TOD and transit improvements on resilience grounds.
The worst exhibit is Secaucus Junction. The station is a few kilometers outside Manhattan, on New Jersey Transit’s commuter rail trunk, with excellent service. So close to city center, it doesn’t even matter that the trains are full – the seats are all occupied but there’s standing room, which may not appeal to people living 45 minutes out of Midtown but is fine at a station that is around 10 minutes away today and should be 6 minutes away with better scheduling and equipment.
The land use around Secaucus is also very conducive to TOD. Most of the area around the station is railyards and warehouses, which can pretty easily be cleaned up and replaced with high-density housing, retail, and office development. A small section of the walkshed is wetlands, but the large majority is not and can be built up to be less ecologically disturbing than the truck traffic the current storage development generates.
Politically, this is also far from existing NIMBY suburbia. In North America, the single-family house is held to be sacrosanct, and even very YIMBY regions like Vancouver only redevelop brownfields, not single-family neighborhoods; occasionally there are accessory dwelling units, but never anything that has even medium density or visibly looks like an apartment building. Well, Secaucus Junction is far from the residential areas of Secaucus, so the most common form of NIMBYism would be attenuated.
And yet, there is no concerted effort at TOD. This is not even just a matter of unimaginative politicians. Area advocacy orgs don’t really push for it, and I’m forgetting whether it was ReThinkNYC or the RPA that told me explicitly that their regional rail proposal omits Secaucus TOD on climate adaptation grounds. The area is 2 meters above sea level, and building there is too risky, supposedly, because a 2 meter sea level rise would only flood tens of millions of South Asians, Southeast Asians, and Africans, and those don’t count.
This goes beyond just wasting money on needless infrastructure projects like flood walls, or leaving money on the table that could come from TOD. In the 2000s, New York City was emitting 7 metric tons of CO2 per capita, which was better than Germany and a fraction of the US average. This must have gotten better since – New York had an abnormally high ratio of building emissions (i.e. energy) to transportation emissions (i.e. cars), and in every developed country I’m aware of, only energy emissions have fallen, not car emissions.
A bigger New York, counting very close-in suburbs as New York, is an important part of the American green transition. To have the emissions of the inner parts of the city within the city is a luxury people pay $3,000 a month in rent for; to have it in exurbia means having a smaller car than everyone else in an environment in which accumulating lots of stuff is the only way one can show off status. Breaking the various interests that prevent New York (and Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and Boston, and Washington) from growing denser is a valuable political fight. But here, no such breaking is even needed, because the anti-growth interests think locally, and the only locals around Secaucus Junction live in one high-rise development and would if anything welcome more such buildings in lieu of the warehouses.
And yet, Americans argue from the position of climate resilience against such densification. Normally it’s just a waste of money, but this would not just waste money (through leaving money on the table) but also lead to higher emissions since housing would be built in other metropolitan regions of the US, where there is no public transportation. Once adaptation and resilience became buzzwords, they took over the thinking on this matter so thoroughly that they are now directly counterproductive.
Somehow, the goal of avoiding catastrophic climate change has fallen by the wayside, and the usual American praxis of more layers of red tape before every decisions can be made (about climate resilience, design for equity, etc.) takes over. The means justify the ends: if the plan has the word climate then it must be environmentally progressive and sensitive, because what matters is not outcome (it’s too long-term for populists, and all US discourse is populist) but process: more lawsuits, more red tape, more accretion of special rules that everyone must abide by.
Question. In what ways can a recession be useful for forcing inefficient public-sector agencies to lay off redundant workers and reduce bloat?
Every recession, going at least back to the Great Depression, you get economists and others who are certain that high unemployment can discipline firms into greater productivity. Back in the 1930s, this was Joseph Schumpeter saying that there was no need to fear a depression because it was good, like “a cold douche.” Liquidating unproductive firms and forcing the rest to get leaner was supposed to improve economy-wide efficiency. Today, you can find people arguing the same for inefficient public-sector agencies strapped by budget cuts.
It doesn’t happen. Productivity decreases in bad economic times; labor-saving productivity improvements happen when wages are high, not when sales are low. Cash-strapped firms do not have the ability to invest for the long run – they just sell portions of themselves and shrink to be easier to manage, to limit the loss.
In public-sector public transportation, this really is the same. The best time for converting a metro line to driverless operation is when unemployment is 3%, not when it’s 15%. When unemployment is 3%, it’s possible to place workers in the private sector, which means they’ll work well through the transition. This goes doubly so when the productivity improvement lets one person do a job that previously took three rather than eliminating the job entirely: workers can go on strike if they’re unhappy, and transit as an industry is very amenable to unionization, to the point that unions have succeeded in organizing the tech shuttles in Silicon Valley in an otherwise union-hostile setting. (Of note, American public-sector anti-union successes have mostly been about screwing young workers, who are already the least empowered within the union, rather than doing anything to 20-year veterans who are about to retire with a full pension.)
The issue here is that very, very few workers are redundant on a next-day basis, even in severely overstaffed agencies. New York can eliminate subway conductors but requires some planning in advance to do so, for example to move mirrors around and place CCTV cameras to enable drivers to see the platform and close the doors. American commuter rail agencies can eliminate rail conductors, in what is as close to next-day redundancy as I can think of, but even that requires hiring fare inspectors for proof of payment checks and often also buying ticketing machines at outlying stations where previously passengers bought tickets directly on the train.
More often, eliminating a large amount of waste requires spending a bit more money in the short run. It can be on capital, like more ticketing machines. It can be on labor, like more dispatchers to make the buses run more regularly to reduce delays and bus driver overtime. But it’s usually not something that can be done by the Chainsaw Al school of management. It takes time, and in a lot of cases, the cooperation of the workforce is necessary.
Time and time again, we see transit managers who think in terms of just cutting avoid making long-term investments to improve efficiency. We see hiring freezes, wage freezes, reticence to engage in any long-term hiring and planning even in temporary recessions, and hostility to electrification even among American governors who propose to spend billions of dollars on parking more trains in city center between the morning and afternoon peaks. Even below the top political level, managers who develop a siege mentality never think in terms of long-term improvement. That’s not what will get them ahead; avoiding short-term controversy will, and they adapt to bad practices readily.
The workers adapt, too. If they expect sudden layoffs, their morale will tank and so will their productivity doing anything but the most routinized work. Maintenance workers will skip things – nobody will notice until it’s too late. Cleaners will slack, and if the message sent from the top is that it’s time to retrench, it will be hard to argue for aggressive standards for cleanliness. Even absent unionization, productivity will flounder, and there will not be much room to replace truly lazy workers if there is a hiring slowdown.
So what works for increasing efficiency? The answer is growth. Kopicki-Thompson’s report on best practices for rail privatization has a chapter about the history of the breakup of Japan National Railways in the 1980s, which makes the connection between growth and efficiency clear. Between 1980 and the breakup of JNR into seven constituent JRs in 1987, the company laid off two-thirds of its workforce, after complex negotiations with the unions, some of which were militant socialists. Japanese work culture is that a man is expected to work for the same firm for his entire working life, from age 22 for a university graduate to retirement at 65; JNR had to place these workers in the private sector for a mid-career layoff. This could happen because Japan’s economic growth in that era was famously high, to the point that Americans soon bought business books about how to think like a Japanese manager.
It is best to instead use weak periods to plan for the long term. If there’s stimulus spending, take it and go build things. Even if there isn’t, remember that the recession won’t last forever and plan in advance. Part of the plan should be knowing which workers are supernumerary and making a plan to place them at private-sector jobs as soon as they become available. But don’t expect to be able to send masses of pink slips in a recession; that must be saved for when jobs elsewhere in the economy are plentiful.
I was recently asked about the issue of incrementalism in infrastructure, with specific reference to Strong Towns and its position against big projects (e.g. here). It’s useful to discuss this right now in context of calls for a big infrastructure-based federal jobs program in the United States. The fundamental question to answer is, what is the point of incremental projects?
The issue is that the legitimate reason to prefer less ambitious projects is money. If a new subway tunnel costs $5 billion, but you only have the ability to secure $1.5 billion, then you should build what you can for $1.5 billion, which may be a tram rather than a subway, or surface improvements to regional rail instead of a new regional rail tunnel, etc.
A secondary legitimate reason is that even if there is more money, sometimes you get better results out of building something less flashy. This is the electronics-before-concrete approach – in a developed country it’s almost always cheaper to invest in signaling, electrification, and platform upgrades than to build new tunnels. This can look incremental if it’s part of a broader program: for example, if there’s already investment in electrification in the region then extending wires is incremental, so that completing electrification on the commuter rail lines in New York, reopening closed suburban branches in Philadelphia with new wires, and even completing electrification in a mostly-wired country like Belgium and the Netherlands would count.
But the example of electrification in a mostly already electrified place showcases the differences between cost-effectiveness and incrementalism. The same investment – electrification – has a certain cost-effectiveness depending on how much train traffic there is. There’s a second-order effect in that the first line to be electrified incurs the extra cost of two train fleets and the last line has a negative cost in no longer needing two fleets, but this isn’t relevant to first order. Nonetheless, electrifying a system where electrification is already familiar is considered incremental, to the point that there were extensions of electrification in suburban New York in the 1980s and there remain semi-active projects to build more, whereas electrifying one that is currently entirely diesel, like Boston, is locally considered like a once-in-a-generation project.
And that is the real problem. American cities are hardly hotbeds of giant flashy construction. They barely are in highways – big highway construction plans are still done but in suburbs and not anywhere where public transit is even remotely relevant. And transit construction plans are always watered down with a lot of reconstruction and maintenance money; most of the money in the Los Angeles sales tax measures that are sold to the urbanist public as transit measures is not about rail construction, which is why with money programmed through 2060 the region is going to only have one full subway line; an extension of the Red Line on South Vermont is scheduled to open in 2067, partly because construction costs are high but mostly because there are maintenance projects ahead in line.
So in reality, there are two real reasons why incrementalism is so popular in the United States when it comes to transportation, neither of which is legitimate. Both are types of incompetence, but they focus on different aspects of it.
The first reason is incompetence through timidity. Building something new, e.g. rail electrification in Boston or in California, requires picking up new knowledge. The political appointees in charge of transit agencies and the sort of people who state legislators listen to do not care to learn new things, especially when the knowledge base for these things is outside their usual social networks. Can Massachusetts as a state electrify its rail network? Yes. Can it do so cheaply? Also yes. But can the governor’s political appointees do so? Absolutely not, they are incurious and even political people who are not beholden to the governor make excuses for why Massachusetts can’t do what Israel and Norway and New Zealand and Austria and Germany do.
In that sense, incrementalism does not mean prudence. It means doing what has been done before, because the political people are familiar with it. It may not work, but it empowers people who already have political clout rather than sidelining them in favor of politically independent technocrats from foreign countries who might be too successful.
The second reason is incompetence through lack of accountability. This is specific to an approach that a lot of American urbanists have backed, wrongly: fix-it-first, or in its more formal name state of good repair (SOGR). The urbanist emphasis on SOGR has three causes: first, in the 1980s New York had a critical maintenance backlog and neglected expansion in order to fix it, which led to positive outcomes in the 1990s and 2000s; second, in highways, fix-it-first is a good way to argue against future expansion while hiding one’s anti-car ideology behind a veneer of technical prudence; and third, Strong Towns’ specific use case is very small towns with serious issues of infrastructure maintenance costs and not enough residential or commercial demand to pay for them, which it then generalizes to places where there’s more market demand for growth.
In reality, the situation of 1980s’ New York was atypical. Subsequently, the SOGR program turned into a giant money pit, because here was an opportunity to spend enormous sums of capital construction money without ever being accountable to the public in the form of visible expansion. Ask for a new rail line and people will ask why it’s not open – California got egg on its collective face for not being able to build high-speed rail. Ask for SOGR and you’ll be able to brush away criticism by talking about hidden benefits to reliability. Many passengers may notice that trains are getting slower and less reliable but it’s easier in that case to intimidate the public with officious rhetoric that sounds moderate and reasonable.
Incrementalism is fundamentally a method of improving a legitimate institution. The EU needs incremental reform; China needs a democratic revolution. By the same token, in infrastructure, incrementalism should be pushed when, and only when, the status quo with tweaks is superior to the alternatives. (Note that this is not the same as electronics-before-concrete – what Switzerland did with its rail investment in the 1990s was very far-reaching, and had tangible benefits expressed in trip times, timed connections, and train frequency, unlike various American bus redesigns.) Strong Towns does not believe that there’s anything good about the American urban status quo, and yet it, and many urbanists, are so intimidated by things that happened in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s that they keep pushing status quo and wondering why there is no public transportation outside about eight cities.
The Deutschlandtakt plans are out now. They cover investment through 2040, but even beforehand, there’s a plan for something like a national integrated timetable by 2030, with trains connecting the major cities every 30 minutes rather than hourly. But there are still oddities that are worth discussing, especially in the context of what Germans think trains are capable of and what is achieved elsewhere.
The key is the new investment plans. The longer-term plans aren’t too different from what I’ve called for. But somehow the speeds are lower. Specifically, Hamburg-Hanover is planned to be a combination of legacy rail (“ABS”) and newly-built high-speed rail (“NBS”), dubbed the Alpha-E project, with trains connecting the two cities in 63 minutes.
The point of an integrated takt timetable is that trains should connect major nodes (“knots”) in just less than an integer number of half-hours for hourly service, or quarter-hours for half-hourly service. Trains connect Zurich and Basel in 53 minutes and each of these two cities with Bern in 56 minutes, so that passengers can change trains on the hour and have short connections to onward destinations like Biel, St. Gallen, and Lausanne. To that effect, Switzerland spent a lot of money on tunnels toward Bern, to cut the trip time from somewhat more than an hour to just less than an hour. So the benefits of cutting trip times from 63 minutes to just less than an hour are considerable.
What’s more, it is not hard to do Hamburg-Hanover in less than an hour. Right now the railway is 181 km long, but the planned Alpha-E route is shorter – an alignment via the A 7 Autobahn would be around 145 km long. The Tokaido Shinkansen’s Hikari and Nozomi trains run nonstop between Nagoya and Kyoto, a distance of 134 km, in 34 minutes. Kodama trains make two additional stops, with long dwell times as there are timed overtakes there, and take 51 minutes. Shinkansen trains have better performance characteristics than ICE trains, but the difference in the 270-300 km/h range is around 25 seconds per stop, and the Tokaido Shinkansen is limited to 270 km/h whereas an Alpha-E NBS would do 300. So doing Hamburg-Hanover in less than 40 minutes is eminently possible.
Of course, major cities have slow approaches sometime… but Hamburg is not a bigger city than Kyoto or Nagoya. It’s about comparable in size to Kyoto, both city proper and metro area, and much smaller than Nagoya. Hanover is a lot smaller, comparable to cities served by Hikari but not Nozomi, like Shizuoka and Hamamatsu. Hamburg-Hanover has 12 km between Hamburg and Harburg where trains would be restricted to 140 km/h, and around 6 in Hanover where trains would be restricted to 130 km/h; in between they’d go full speed, which at the performance characteristics of the next-generation Velaro would be a little more than 35 minutes without schedule padding and maybe 38 minutes with. This fits well into a 45-minute slot in the takt, permitting both Hanover and Hamburg to act as knots.
Moreover, if for some reason a full NBS is not desirable – for example, if NIMBY lawsuits keep delaying the project – then it’s possible to built a partial NBS to fit into an hourly time slot, trains taking around 53 minutes. The cost per minute saved in this context is fairly consistent, as this is a flat area and the legacy line is of similar quality throughout the route; if for some reason the cost per minute saved is too high, e.g. if nuisance lawsuits raise construction costs above what they should be on such a route, which is around 15-20 million euros per kilometer, then going down only to 53 minutes is fine as it makes the hourly takt work well.
And yet, it’s not done. The biggest cities are not planned to have regular half-hourly knots, because there’s too much traffic there. But Hanover is in fact a perfect place for a knot, with trains going east to Berlin, west to the Rhine-Ruhr, north to Hamburg, and south to Frankfurt and the cities of Bavaria. Hamburg is at the northern margin of the country, with trains going mostly south to Hanover, but having some timed connection with trains continuing north to Kiel and eventually Copenhagen is not a bad idea.
For some reason, German rail activists, including presumably the ones who pushed the Deutschlandtakt from the bottom up while the ministry of transport was run by pro-car conservatives, are just too conservative about the capabilities of trains. I’ve seen one of the D-Takt groups, I forget which one, criticize plans to build an NBS between Hanover and Bielefeld, a segment on which the existing line is fairly slow, on the grounds that it could never fit into a knot system. It is not possible to do the roughly 100 km between Hanover and Bielefeld (actually closer to 95 km) in less than half an hour to fit a knot, they say – average speeds higher than 200 km/h are only found on very long nonstop stretches of high-speed rail, as in France, they insist. Shinkansen trains achieve such speeds over such segments every day, and even with the slightly lower performance characteristics of the next-generation Velaro, Hanover-Bielefeld in 24 technical minutes and 26 minutes with 7% pad (and the Shinkansen only has 4% pad) is feasible.
I genuinely don’t know why there is such conservatism among German rail planners and advocates. It could be that Europeans don’t like learning from Asia, just as Americans don’t like learning from Europe. There are examples of faster trains than in Germany within Europe, but maybe German advocates discount French and Spanish examples because of genuine problems with French and Spanish rail operations, leading them to also make excuses like “the trains run nonstop for 500 km and that’s why they’re fast” to avoid adopting the things where France and Spain are genuinely superior to Germany.
Nothing about the integrated timed transfer schedule idea impedes high speeds. On the contrary, in some cases, like Hanover-Hamburg but also the planned Frankfurt-Stuttgart line (already in place south of Mannheim), high speeds are necessary to make the desired knots. Moreover, where distances between cities are long compared with desired frequency, as on Berlin-Hanover, it’s possible to build 300 km/h lines and cut entire half hours or even full hours from trip times. Germany could innovate in this and build such a network for an amount of money well within the limits of the corona recovery package, which includes €50 billion for climate mitigation.
But either way, Germany is about to make mistakes of underinvestment because it’s not quite willing to see where the frontier of rail transport technology is. This is not the American amateur hour, it’s not the sort of situation where I can spend a few hours with maps and come up with better timetables myself, but even so, the plans here are far too timid for Germany’s medium- and long-term transportation needs.
The D-Takt is a step forward, don’t get me wrong. None of the investments I’m seeing is bad. But it’s a small, hesitant step forward rather than a firm, bold walk toward direction of intercity rail modernization. A country that expects intercity rail ridership to double, putting Germany’s per capita intercity rail ridership in the vicinity of Japan’s, should have something similar to the Shinkansen network, with a connected network of NBS links between the major cities averaging 200-250 km/h and not 120-160 km/h.
I have a pretty concrete institutional theory for why the United States, and to some extent the rest of the Anglosphere, lags in infrastructure. It mostly fits the available evidence, but “mostly” and “available” are the operative words, and I don’t want to expound on it too much before doing more interviews to contrast American infrastructure planning with Continental European and democratic Asian examples, to see if there’s basis to what I’m saying.
But one piece of the theory is worth talking about early: the concept of managerialism. The relevance to infrastructure is roughly the following set of propositions that constitute this theory as applied to public policy:
- Big outfits should be run by professional managers, who should be trained primarily in management and not in a specific industry; it is acceptable and even desirable for a CEO to bounce between different industries. A successful founder or manager in one field should be presumed capable of quickly acquiring expertise in another field if they move to a new industry.
- Domain knowledge is suspect, because the people who hold it are self-interested – in public policy this relates to public choice theory. At best, domain knowledge means you get to work for a manager.
- Managers should set up the right incentives to force underlings with domain knowledge to innovate, and do not need to acquire detailed domain knowledge themselves. For example, they should set up objective metrics to evaluate employees by rather than have close enough relationships with the employees to know intuitively who to promote.
- The recruitment pipeline for the managers should combine a set of institutions producing a single elite (Oxbridge, Ivy League) with a proof-of-pudding system measuring success by earned wealth.
The upshot is that if you don’t trust any of your workers (public choice theory, again) and do trust the managerial elite to be able to run all industries equally, then you can just do whatever you want and blame the inevitable failure on the workers being too stupid or incompetent.
Note that even though this is often an anti-government theory of how to run public-sector agencies, it is as written politically neutral, and even used by leaders on the left. Politicians of all stripes appoint people with the wrong skillset to run public agencies, preferring political appointees (who in both the US and UK come from the same institutions as the private-sector managerial elite) to career professionals. Career professionals may be too politically independent and have long-term plans that are not compatible with self-aggrandizing schemes to build visible infrastructure that a politician can claim full credit for.
Note also that even though the full set of propositions I associate with managerialism comes from the English-speaking world, segments of it can be found elsewhere. France, for example, has a Grande Ecole-educated elite that views itself as omnicompetent. It differs from the Anglo-American model somewhat in that the institution that produces engineering executives (Polytéchnique) are not the same as the one that produces politicians (ENA), and a a lot in that bouncing between industries is narrower, so that SNCF is run by airline executives without experience in railways rather than by industrialists and financiers without experience in transportation.
I make no claim about whether managerialism works in other spheres, like general business. That said, in the fastest-growing high-end segment of the American economy, tech, the business culture is very different: everyone, including management, is expected to know how to code; managers are recruited from among experienced programmers; the culture regards external managers much less than it does coder-founders like Larry Page, Sergey Brin, or Mark Zuckerberg, to the point that most people in tech and tech media regard Microsoft’s stagnation in the 2000s as the fault of the transition from founder Bill Gates to the more managerial Steve Ballmer.
But in the public sector, at least in infrastructure, managerialism has not succeeded. Any of the following reasons may be relevant to the failure of turnaround experts, political appointees, private-sector CEOs, and other non-industry professionals to improve American public transportation.
- American business culture assumes that the same methods work regardless of scale. Public transit is scale-dependent, which fries a lot of common private-sector assumptions. Most importantly, starting small is not always possible, especially in trains. Managers who are used to starting small end up deemphasizing the most productive parts of public transportation, like rail operations, in favor of things that can be done incrementally, like bus lanes.
- American culture is generally closed to foreign knowledge. It is also pragmatic and anti-theoretical, viewing foreign knowledge as a kind of theory that must be tested at very small scale before being applied widely; one American big-city transit manager denigrated international cost comparisons as “Paris or something.” The difference between managers and industry professionals is that some of the latter understand that public transportation works better in Europe and East Asia and try to learn, whereas managers see nothing to learn in countries with living standards that are (on average) comparable to the US’s or (for senior managers) much lower.
- Public transportation has a lot of moving parts that have to be planned together – timetable, infrastructure, equipment, and more broadly also development. Even within operations, there are different departments that affect one another closely, like dispatching and actual operations. This makes typical responses to bad news, like a hiring freeze, atrocious, because an overstaffed agency may have one understaffed department creating too much work for everyone else; only an experienced transportation professional would know to fix the problem department by hiring more people even in a bad economy in order to increase productivity elsewhere.
- Infrastructure has very long time horizons. Agency heads have to think on the scale of decades, not quarterly earnings calls with the shareholders.
- Competition is destructive. The real competition is cars, and not other modes of public transportation. Competitive private businesses generally understand coordination (“synergy” was a much-mocked buzzword in the 1990s and 2000s), but less deeply than researchers with familiarity with the situation of multimodal public transportation.
What this means is that the penchant of so many American politicians to hire outsiders to the field is not part of the solution to the problem of failing transit agencies, but rather part of the problem. Success comes from hiring people who are experienced in the field, and if the agency bureaucracy seems too inflexible, then hiring from other countries. There’s a reason Andy Byford, a career transportation planner with experience in London and Toronto, was such a hit success in New York – and there’s a reason this success involved developing much greater levels of mutual trust between management and the workers. In contrast, a string of people whose background is in a culture that treats everything as an American business to be turned around with tough management does not produce good results – rather, such leaders create problems that justify their own continued existence, blaming their own failures on the people below them.
Practically any change has some beneficiaries (why else would it happen?), but a separate question, often with a separate answer is, who does it empower? For examples, expansion of education benefits students but empowers teachers and school administrators, and expansion of health care benefits patients but empowers medical care providers, especially ones below the prestige level of doctors. In both cases, the groups that were empowered back expansion, and at least in the case of teachers, the other side assumes that there are no beneficiaries, hence for example Humphrey’s comment in Yes, Minister that comprehensive education was adopted only because of the teachers’ unions.
The relevance of this distinction is that improvements in public transport mostly have the same set of beneficiaries – current and potential transit riders – but empower different groups of people depending on what the proposed improvement is. This matters, because it’s easier for change to happen if it empowers people who are already important. This is not restricted to politics – a change in how a business is run is easier to accept if it empowers senior management than if it empowers grunt workers, even if the ultimate beneficiary, that is the shareholders, is the same. The upshot is that there are changes in how to run public transportation that empower the already-powerful, and those changes are not necessarily best for the riders.
Politicians and civil servants
Politicians, especially high-level ones, are more powerful than civil servants. It is therefore easier to pass changes that empower them than ones that empower the civil service.
I think the Anglosphere’s fascination with design-build comes from this, at least partially. Traditional design-bid-build procurement means that an in-house team reviews bids and selects separate contractors for design and construction. In contrast, design-build removes power from the civil service. The consultants who get to draw design specs get empowered, but I don’t think this is why governments adopt design-build. Rather, design-build means that high-level politicians get to make big decisions, first since they often have casual ties to the consultants through a revolving door, and second since each bid is bigger (one firm might do everything) and therefore it is evaluated at a higher level.
Consulting in business is a good analogy, since there are some analogies between how the state is run and how big businesses are. The relevant one is the tyranny of the org chart; see some examples here and here by Aaron Renn, and here and here by other consultants. Senior management in the private sector has serious problems with listening to people who the org chart asserts are subordinates, from middle management all the way down. Management consultants often succeed by talking to lower-level workers, getting good ideas from them, and then packaging them to senior management in glossy presentations that look like they came from the consultants, who have nebulous job titles so as to convince senior management that the consultants are their peers. In effect, consultants are a workaround to the fact that senior management is unlikely to adopt ideas that empower subordinates.
The greatest irony here is that the sort of political operatives who are most educated in public choice theory are the ones who most consistently act according to its precepts. They dislike public-sector unions, so they institute public-sector hiring freezes and instead outsource work to consultants. In effect, they empower themselves, as senior political operatives who get to make more important decisions when the decisions are about higher-level things (that is, who gets the work among design-build bidders).
National vs. international comparisons
The issue of outside comparisons depends heavily on what the agency is to be compared to. The difference is that in the United States, managers are well-traveled domestically but not internationally, so domestic comparisons empower them and international ones do the opposite. In Europe, managers are more internationally traveled but largely within Europe, so comparisons to Asia are as problematic for them as comparisons to non-English-speaking European countries are to American managers.
What this means is, a study delivered to Boston or Los Angeles or Chicago that does a domestic comparison will bring up things that top managers and politicians are at least somewhat familiar with. A manager in Boston may have happened to work only in New England, but this is not common, and the manager’s social circle will include people with experience from other parts of the United States. This manager can read a report employing domestic comparison and will have heard about some of the success cases in the report, and if anything is unclear, the manager can call up friends and former coworkers and get clarifications. The manager is thus empowered to implement the report’s recommendations.
An international comparison has the opposite effect. The American manager might be facing a report that brings up case studies from European and East Asian countries, where few Americans have ever lived. The report might mention things that all American transit managers have convinced themselves are impossible, because those managers only ever talk to other Americans. It devalues most of the expertise of the American insider. If anyone within the agency is empowered, it is often a junior planner who has delved into foreign cases out of interest, or perhaps an immigrant whose knowledge is foreign and not just American. It completely upends the hierarchy: the senior manager has no way to contribute to the process and is at the mercy of outsiders and subordinates.
The trick that management consultants use to persuade senior managers to accept recommendations that came from below is not useful here. The report cannot hide its foreign provenance; it screams right there, “your experience as a senior American manager is not as valuable as you think it is.”
Is there a way out?
I believe that there is. I don’t know this for a fact, but I have some circumstantial evidence pointing in a more optimistic direction.
First, not only is the idea of the tyranny of the org chart well-known to consultants, but also a brief Googling revealed a number of different consultants openly pitch their skills to management in how to avoid the problem. That people who get paid to give outside expert advice to corporate leaders believe they can tell to those leaders’ faces, “you need to listen to your subordinates better and here’s how you can do it” suggests that it is possible to get at least some managers to listen.
Second, on an abstract level, managing others is a valuable skill on top of the deep experience managers must possess in the industry they lead, and moreover, general management skills are highly valued in American business culture in the private as well as public sector. This means that even though the use of foreign advice devalues senior managers’ industry-internal skills, and maybe even some precepts that they’ve learned in other industries if they’ve jumped around from industry to industry, it still does not devalue general management skills, not should it.
Third, beneficiaries matter, rather than just the people whose skills are valued more under the changes required to improve American public transportation. This means that a politician who is seen as successfully improving infrastructure will get accolades from the public, because there’s general political consensus that infrastructure is good, and specific political consensus in the parts of the United States with the most public transit ridership that public transportation infrastructure is good. Political advisors may be sidelined by change that relies on knowledge they don’t have, but elected politicians who are seen building infrastructure cheaply become more popular.
And fourth, the situation in the United States in general and New York is particular is so bad that change is possible even while respecting at least some degree of turf. Gradual replacement is possible, if New York implements one change that reduces costs by a factor of 2 while leaving other causes of high costs unchanged, and then the people who successfully shepherded the change implement more such changes. Future changes can devalue the skills of managers who only know how to build and run bad transit and not good transit, but a manager who was responsible to a large cost reduction will get enough internal and public clout that empowering this manager further through further-reaching reforms will be easier for the hierarchy to swallow.
In the last week or two, I have seen a worrying trend in multiple North American cities: transit managers and advocates who call for measures to reduce the number of people riding public transportation, all in the name of social distancing and safety from Covid-19. These ideas include limiting the number of people entering a bus, marking off seats on buses and trains to maintain a minimum distance between passengers, and using apps to limit the number of people entering a train station. Even transit activists openly say that it’s good to reduce occupancy per bus or train, they just use this as an argument for running more off-peak frequency and staggering shifts. The message from everyone is clear: public transit is dangerous, don’t ride it, especially if it is crowded.
Public transportation is not especially dangerous, but the danger that does exist is not ameliorated by any physical distancing. Trying to reduce the number of passengers on a bus or train is safety theater and non-English-speaking cities have reduced infection rates without this. Even Jarrett Walker has taken to saying that public transportation should not aim at getting high ridership, though to his credit he steers clear of saying that transit is dangerous in a pandemic.
I’ve already gone over why I don’t think the subway in New York, by a margin the dirtiest I have ridden, is the reason the city’s infection rate is so high. Instead of rehashing that, I want to focus on the converse: on cases in which people do get infected on transit. These clearly exist – my contention isn’t that trains and buses make one invulnerable to the virus, merely that they’re not any more dangerous than the places people might travel to, such as work. Does social distancing on such vehicles help?
There is an answer, in the form of a study out of China about infection on a bus. The answer is no. Here is the graphic of who was and was not infected on a bus that one infected person rode for a 100-minute roundtrip (passengers sat in the same seats on both legs of the trip):
There were 67 passengers on the bus, including the index patient; the index patient infected 23 of them. Proximity to the patient – that is, the distinction between zones 1 and 2 – is not statistically significant. The window passengers on the left side of the bus did not get infected, except the one sitting next to the index patient, but on the right side of the bus, six window seat passengers got the virus.
American and Canadian attempts to limit bus occupancy do not prevent the spread of the virus. The safe occupancy, if people do not wear masks, is 1, or maybe 2 if passengers sit at opposite ends of the vehicle. Limitations on how many passengers can ride the bus at most reduce the number of people one patient can infect, but only if the bus is so crowded that the agency would otherwise add more service. If the bus would have had 20 passengers either way, spreading them around evenly would not help.
What does work is masks. In Taipei, masks are mandatory, and Alex Garcia of Taipei Urbanism tells me that there is universal compliance. In Berlin, I just observed an U-Bahn train in the evening rush hour, noticeably less full than the usual by a factor of perhaps 2, but still far too full for the tastes of the American transit manager, with nearly all seats occupied and a few people standing; about 85% of the passengers wore masks covering their noses and mouths and maybe 5% more incorrectly wore a mask so as only to cover their mouths. There was a mixture of cloth and surgical masks.
I hesitate to mention Taipei and Berlin in the same sentence. Germany, a country of 83 million people, considers itself a success because it has 170,000 cases and 8,000 deaths. But Taiwan, a country of 24 million people, has had 440 confirmed cases since the beginning of the outbreak. As of yesterday, it had had no new cases in eight days; excluding imports, it had had no new cases in 33 days. A month ago, sailors were erroneously allowed to roam the streets and only recalled to quarantine after three had tested positive; no civilians were infected, because masks were mandatory at the time even on the street.
That said, by solipsistic Western standards, Berlin is doing fairly well. Infection rates are noticeably below the German average, and while 181 people have died citywide, this is still low enough not to be detectable in the overall death rate (“excess mortality”). It joins a list of cities that had a plague but are getting it under control: it is nowhere near as good as Seoul, where train crowding is pretty extensive, but its trends seem cautiously positive.
Despite this optimistic picture painted by the success of places with high mask usage, to a large extent even if it isn’t universal, American transit managers and even advocates seem to be giving up. If the point of public transit is to exist but not get ridership, it’s much easier to push for nice-seeming networks, untethered from any passenger demand.
The general population is hearing the message loud and clear: public transit is dangerous, avoid it if at all possible. The New York Stock Exchange is therefore reopening its famously crowded indoor floor, where a superspreader event is likely if just one infected person comes in, but banning traders from getting there by public transportation. The MTA is already splurging on a McKinsey study saying it will need to spend $700-800 million to attract people back to the subway; so far, low-cost, high-impact measures like photo-ops in which the governor or the mayor wears a mask and rides the subway at rush hour surrounded by other masked riders, are not implemented, sending the same message, important people avoid public transit and so should you.
This ends in a national effort in the United States, and perhaps also Canada, to collectively give up on having any public transit. The advocates aren’t pushing back, the managers are happy with high-tech restrictions on usage, even Streetsblog talks about bike lanes instead of about getting more people on trains, and nobody stops to think, maybe there is a way to preserve transit ridership?
Take the fall in economic activity due to the demand-side recession induced by the virus. Now add the fall coming from the required mass abandonment of New York and to some extent San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, all of which have centers with too many jobs to be served by cars, taxis, or bikes. Maybe it’s possible to get people to work from home, but it’s unclear if they can maintain productivity; I have heard many more people telling me they can’t than people telling me they can, especially among parents. I still don’t think it’s likely, but the US may well fall below Taiwanese GDP per capita, and in a true crisis coming from such mass abandonment it could even drop below Germany and Sweden, which are projecting something like a 7% contraction this year due to the virus’s effects.
This is not something Americans are ready for. They’re used to being on top of the world. Even when they describe social problems that they know other countries have solved, they do this in a kind of self-deprecating way that screams to the outsider, “Yeah, it’s a problem, but we’re so great we’re not that bothered about fixing it.” They’re used to a world whose economic and cultural capital is New York and not Shanghai or Tokyo; they’re used to not needing to learn a foreign language and acquire fluency in foreign cultures to be viewed literate. This solipsism is to some extent pan-Western and is why the West is hurting, but the geopolitical center of the West, the monolingual country that thinks it invented freedom, looks like it’s hurting the most.
Remember the Ohio Hub? Back in 2009-10, Ohio was planning on running five low-speed trains per day between Cleveland and Cincinnati and branded this exercise as high-speed rail called the Ohio Hub. The Republican victory in the gubernatorial election put it out of its misery (as unfortunately happened to the far better Florida project), but the idea of little facts-on-the-ground kinds of rail investment persists among American advocates who don’t understand how rail operations work. Now that there’s serious talk of infrastructure funding in the United States as part of a stimulus package, I’d like to explain, to prevent the debacles of the late 2000s from happening again.
The central conceit is that public transportation is not cars. It’s a different, more complex system. The road network has fewer moving parts – one just builds roads based on traffic projections. Public transportation has schedules, transfers, and equipment, all of which must be planned in coordination. “This junction gets congested, let’s build a bypass” works for road advocacy, but fails for rail, because maybe speeding up the trains by a few minutes doesn’t really help get to any timed connections and is therefore of limited value to the system.
Rail works when everything is planned together. This makes little additions not too valuable: a small speedup may not be useful if connecting lines stay the same, infrastructure investment may have limited effect on trip times if the rolling stock doesn’t change, etc.
The upshot is that it’s very easy to find 80/20 problems: 80% of the money gets you 20% of the benefits. In addition to examples of lack of coordination between infrastructure, the timetable, and rolling stock, there are issues with insufficient frequency. When frequency is low relative to trip time, the long-term elasticity of ridership with respect to service is more than 1 – that is, running more service makes the trains and buses fuller, as better service encourages more ridership. Thus, service with insufficient frequency will fail, trains and buses getting too little ridership to justify additional investment, whereas if initial frequency were higher from the start then it would succeed.
The Ohio Hub was one such example: five roundtrips a day, starter service. It makes sense to someone who thinks like a manager or a general-purpose activist: start small and build from there. But to someone who thinks like a public transportation planner, it’s a disaster. Already 10 years ago, Max Wyss in comments was warning that such service would fail – the original Intercity brand in Germany succeeded by running trains every two hours, with hourly service on stronger city pairs, often with timed transfers at junctions.
Regional rail projects suffer from a similar urge to start small. Peak-only service will invariably fail – the operating costs will be too high for ridership even if almost all seats fill. This covers just about every American effort at starting up new commuter rail service.
More fundamentally, the issue is that nobody likes failure. Insufficient, poorly-optimized service creates facts on the ground, but these facts don’t lead to any effort toward better service if people perceive what has been built to be a failure. If a handful of trains per day that average 70 km/h are called high-speed rail, then it doesn’t lead passengers to want high-speed rail; it leads them to avoid the train and conclude that high-speed rail is slower than driving on the freeway.
The passengers on such service may not be a great constituency for better service, either. If the train is very slow, then the riders will be the sort of people who are okay with slow trains. Older American railfans are filled with nostalgia for traditional railroading and openly say that slower is better. Such people are not going to advocate for modern high-speed rail, nor for learning from successful Asian and European examples.
Another group of people who ride trains and often advocate against better service is peak commuters on trains serving high-income suburbs. They are used to an adversarial relationship with the state; to them, the state taxes them to give money to poorer people, and they instead prefer hyper-local forms of government providing segregated schools and policing. Representatives of such riders engage in agency turf warfare, such as when state senators from Long Island opposed Metro-North’s Penn Station Access because it would use train slots into Penn Station that the LIRR believes are its property. On social media, people sporadically yell at me when I propose fare integration, on grounds that boil down to viewing any urban riders who would be attracted to lower fares as interlopers.
There’s an ultimate proof-of-pudding issue here. Americans have to a good approximation never seen a working public transportation system. At best, they’ve seen a megacity where people use the trains even though they are dirty and expensive to run because there is no alternative and construction was done 100 years ago when costs were lower. There is no coordinated planning; Americans do not demand it because only a handful of people know what it is, who are often young and have often lived abroad for an extended period of time, both of which make one less likely to be listened to in politics.
The result is that the sort of bottom-up activism people are used to is not useful in this context. In Germany it’s different – enough people have seen what works in Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands and know what to call for. But in the United States, it won’t work – the knowledge base of how to build reliable, interconnected public transportation exists but is too thinly spread and is the domain of people who do not have much political prestige.
It’s critical to then get things right from the start. Do not assume future activism will fix things. Half-measures are much more likely to lead to disillusionment than to any serious efforts to improve things to turn them into full measures. If the choice is between a high chance of bad service and low chance of good service, don’t settle for bad service and make a gamble for good service; bad public transportation is a waste of money and the general public will correctly perceive it as such.
MTA Chair Pat Foye and Interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg, have announced that the subway will close overnight in order to improve subway cleaning. For the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, the subway will close between 1 and 5 every night for disinfection. Ben Kabak has covered this to some extent; I’m going to focus on best industry practices, which do not require a shutdown. There are some good practices in Taipei, which has regular nighttime shutdowns but sterilizes trains during the daytime as well. It appears that the real rub is not cleaning but homelessness – the city and the state are both trying to get homeless people off the subway and onto the street.
How to disinfect a subway system
Alex Garcia of Taipei Urbanism shared with me what the Taipei MRT plans on doing in response to the virus, depending on how much it affects the system. As soon as there are any domestic cases within Taiwan, the plan says,
a. Sterilize equipment in each station that passengers might frequently come into contact with. (Sterilize once every 8 hours)
b. Carriages: Cleaning and sterilization before the daily operational departure and again when the carriage returns back to the terminal each day.
c. Place hand sanitizer devices at the information counter of the station for public use.
Moreover, if an emergency is declared, then the frequency of cleaning is to increase:
a. Station :
1. Sterilize equipment that passengers might frequently come into contact with at each station. (Sterilize once every 4 hours)
2. Daily disinfection of public station facilities: After operational hours the whole station, including passenger traffic flow areas and facilities, will be disinfected.
b. Carriage :
1. Sterilize equipment that passengers might frequently come in contact with. Sterilize once every 8 hours when the carriage returns to the terminal station.
2. Daily wipe down of entire carriages with disinfectant before each day’s first departure.
3. Once notified by the health authority about any confirmed or suspected case that have traveled on the MRT, intensify the cleaning and disinfection along the route taken by the passenger within 2 hours.
Moreover, the Taipei plan calls for providing all frontline workers with protective equipment, including masks, goggles, and hand sanitizer, as soon as any domestic case of the virus is detected. Moreover, all staff are subject to temperature checks at the start of the day, to prevent sick workers from infecting healthy ones. This way, infection levels among workers can be kept to a minimum, allowing service to proceed without interruption.
It is noteworthy that the frequent cleaning regimen operates during the daytime, and not just overnight. Sterilizing trains every 8 hours means working around their service schedules, disinfecting them during off-peak periods with lower frequency. Taipei has not cut weekday service frequency, only weekend frequency, and the weekday peak-to-base ratio is low, about 1.5 on the Green Line.
With these measures in place, and similar vigilance across Taiwanese society, the country has gone 6 days without any new case of the virus. There is no lockdown and never was one, and Taipei MRT ridership only fell 15-16% on weekdays.
What New York is doing
Foye and Feinberg announced that the subway would close overnight between 1 and 5 am so that trains could be disinfected once per day. Is daily disinfection sufficient? Almost certainly not, given the spread of the virus around the city. Does it take four hours? Of course not, cleaning can be done in minutes. And must it be done at night? Again no, New York has cut so much service that there’s a large fleet of spare trains, making rotating equipment between service and cleaning easy. It’s likely that it is possible to sterilize trains every roundtrip while they wait at the terminal.
The goal here is not about cleanliness. The subway is dirty and getting worse as cleaning staff get sick and can’t come to work, but a program designed to improve the system would look profoundly different. It would equip subway workers with protective gear, especially the cleaners; it would keep running service; it would look for ways to eliminate fomites like the push turnstiles; it would disinfect trains and stations at short intervals.
The homelessness issue
There are serious concerns with homelessness in New York, as in many other cities. This is aided by sensationalist reporting that blames homeless people for any number of problems, playing to middle-class prejudices about visible poverty. As Ben notes, NYPD swept the subway with cops but not social workers. Hotels are empty all over the city, but there is no attempt at using them for either centralized quarantine or extra shelter space. There are existing shelters, but they are unsafe and people who have been unsheltered for a while know this and avoid them for a reason.
New York is a big, expensive, high-inequality city. It has visible poverty, including homelessness. It could offer homeless people housing – empty hotels would do, employing hotel workers to do work that is already done at shelters by overtaxed volunteers. The problem is that many aggrieved people want medieval displays of police power against people who it is okay to be violent toward; they do not want to solve problems. This issue is not unique to New York: in San Francisco, sanisette installations ran into the problem that one stall had people defecating on the floor, leading the city to decide to staff every sanisette 24/7, turning what was designed as a self-cleaning system for high-cost cities for €14,400 a year per unit into a $700,000/year money sink. American cities spend millions in enforcement to avoid spending pennies on social work.
Who is being empowered?
The broader question is whether the subway is dirty because of homeless people or because of inadequate cleaning, poor training for cleaners, lack of protective equipment, etc. The vast majority of dirt one sees on trains has pretty obvious origins in ordinary if antisocial riders: spilled drinks, gum stuck to the floor, overflowing trash cans, wrappers thrown on the tracks. However, it is convenient to blame homeless people for this – they can’t politically fight back, and many law-and-order voters and political operatives relish the sight of a cop dragging someone off the train.
This leads to the question, who is being empowered by blame? Any explanation of why things don’t work empowers someone, and explanations are easier to accept if they empower local political forces that the mainstream pays attention to. For example, if I say costs are high because of union pensions, then this automatically empowers the Manhattan Institute and other anti-union forces in the city; and if I say costs are high because managers micromanage and humiliate workers too much, then this empowers the unions.
The upshot is that blaming flagging subway ridership on homeless people making riders uncomfortable empowers law-and-order voters and middle-class people who dislike seeing visible poverty, both of which are groups that even relatively liberal political operatives pay attention to. In contrast, blaming flagging ridership on technical issues with speed and frequency empowers technocrats, who are usually politically invisible, and when they’re not, this can lead to a clash of authority, as seen in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s sidelining of Byford, leading to the latter’s resignation.
This cascades to cleaning. Taipei shows how one can clean trains and stations during service. New York should learn, but that means listening to people who are familiar with Taiwanese practices, and maybe synthesize with other clean Asian systems. Shutdowns that force essential workers onto slow buses and taxis are a terrible policy, but they’re a policy the current leadership does not need to talk to people in a foreign country to implement.
Entrenched hierarchies do not like outside criticism, especially when it’s right. They fight off knowledge that they don’t have or can’t control. In a business setting, the main way out is to found a competing company and drive the one that won’t change out of business. But when it’s not possible, the way out involves a massive crisis – something like a total war, in which people can rapidly rise through the ranks through demonstrating success in battle.
I bring this up because the coronavirus crisis in not such a total war. Branko Milanovic compares it with World War Two, contrasting economists who view it purely as an economic crisis akin to the 2008 crisis or the Depression. That comparison is apt when it comes to looking at non-economic aspects of it, namely the need to centrally plan a public health response. But the scale of the crisis is much smaller, it seems. The rich countries of Asia are emerging only somewhat battered, and even in the West some places seem to be over the hump judging by growth rates in the last few days, especially the Nordic countries but possibly also France. This isn’t the next Spanish Flu, a crisis so big that it would force Westerners to reckon with the fact that the West needs to learn from other places. Even in the United States, where things look worse, the solipsistic population looks for internal comparisons (e.g. between blue and red states) more than international ones, let alone international ones with Asia.
A small crisis is not going to nudge the hierarchy in a more open direction. I see this often in public transportation – institutions that feel embattled respond by entrenching and refusing any reform. The standard excuse is “we’re too busy fighting fires,” often by people that fires seem to erupt around regularly. The virus seems to have the same effect so far – less openness, less sanity checking proposals by looking at what works elsewhere, more digging in around traditional social hierarchies.
American nationalists are saber-rattling with the Chinese government, as in the “Chinese virus” dysphemism and Tom Cotton’s blaming the entire death toll on the PRC. But they still do this on the usual American terms, that is without any assurance that Taiwan is a success story to learn from, or even South Korea and Japan, two American allies that unlike Taiwan the US formally recognizes. If a virus that demonstrates to starkly that Taiwan governs itself better than the PRC won’t get American nationalists to start speaking favorably of Taiwan, what will? To people like Cotton, a crisis is a perfect time to proclaim American superiority, no matter what reality is.
Domestically, too, the American response seems to be to repeat old wives’ tales – for example, traditional American hostility to big cities. Governor Andrew Cuomo went as far as saying that New York is too dense; Seoul, a bigger and denser city, has 700 infections as of 2020-3-22 out of a metro population of 26 million, maybe a factor of 20 better than New York. But he’s the governor and he keeps giving speeches and appearing on television, and a few hundred and even a few thousand dead New Yorkers is not enough to make people ask questions about his and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s squabbling. After all, when nearly 3,000 New Yorkers died on 9/11, few asked why Mayor Rudy Giuliani had put the city’s anti-terrorism response center at World Trade Center against the advice of security experts who pointed out the Twin Towers were a likely target; 9/11’s effect on Giuliani’s popularity was an unmixed blessing.
In an environment in which more national pundits say Cuomo is looking presidential than say he should resign in disgrace, it’s unlikely the crisis will lead Americans in a more open direction. The magnitude of the crisis isn’t enough to create a new crop of leaders. It’s a good thing in the sense that the death toll will not be apocalyptic, but it just underscores what I mean when I say this isn’t World War Two.
Budget-cutting administrations, demanding reform before revenue, have not produced any reform. American state building stalled in the middle of the 20th century when various white middle-class interests realized localism could protect them from too much racial and economic equality. Then around the 1980s and 90s it went into reverse, with a continued assault on state capacity through public-private partnerships, outsourcing planning to consultants, and impositions of managers whose experience was in the private sector in unrelated industries. American construction costs were already high beforehand, but in Canada and Singapore, both of which seem to have had the same trend, costs exploded in the 2000s and 2010s.
The question remains: how come the reform-before-revenue mentality never produced any reform?
I bring this up because I believe the answer is the same as what we are seeing right now with the response to the coronavirus crisis. Budget-cutting or timid politicians are not an existential crisis to the civil service. They can scare off ambitious people the way Cuomo ran Andy Byford out of New York City Transit leadership; they can create a hostile work environment; they can force managers to contend with scarcity; they can force the unions to agree to wage reductions for entering workers. But they do not have the power to close entire departments, to stop running schools or public transportation or firefighting entirely, and the managers and workers both know this.
Just as the Covid-19 crisis is not World War Two, all attempts at privatizing the state in the Anglosphere have amounted to much less than a total war of extermination. It’s a cold war. Like the original Cold War, it has the same stupefying effect as a hot war – hierarchs are all too happy to be unaccountable to the broad public and to pretend their cloak-and-dagger politics achieve any results. Unlike a hot war, it is too low-intensity for people who disagree with the hierarchy but are right to demonstrate competence – nor is the other side going to be destroyed at the end.
The construction cost crisis in the United States, particularly New York, might actually be a big enough crisis to have the same effect on the established order as a total war. It’s unclear, but before the virus came to the United States, there was a lot of genuine interest in making things better, though not in every city.
I suspect the mechanism for costs is that they are so high that there must be a significant enough reduction to make a career without screwing some politically necessary constituency. I don’t know; I don’t yet know the drivers of high New York costs in sufficient detail. But the magnitude and breadth of the problem point to many different explanations each increasing costs by a significant but not apocalyptic amount. Moreover, the fact that there must be many causes seems to be accepted in the local political ecosystem. Thus, people can afford to make reforms, perhaps focusing on the politically low-hanging fruits.
This is less cynical than it may sound. A small success story, such as if Ned Lamont had figured out a way to build 30-30-30 or if the MTA manages to noticeably reduce the cost of some project, creates a visible trail of success, creating more pressure to keep the reforms. Nothing succeeds like success.
A New York that can build subways even at $300 million per kilometer, let alone $100 million per kilometer, and builds housing at a pace befitting a rich global city with considerable immigration, is a completely different place from the failed city that it is today. That New York is a dynamic, rapidly growing city in which there is far more kvetching about how it’s sucking in jobs and people from more static places than kvetching about how it’s exporting jobs and people to cheaper places. I’m using analogy here because low costs by themselves do not protect a city from disease (Italy and Switzerland both have low costs and high coronavirus infection levels), but the same kind of public-sector resurgence can presumably be done for public health, ensuring New York will respond to the next pandemic like Seoul or Tokyo or Taipei.