After the midterm election 2.5 weeks ago, there began calls for an infrastructure deal. The details, as always, were always vague, but the idea is that congressional Democrats and President Trump will agree on a bill to spend about a trillion dollars on infrastructure. What infrastructure is at stake is not specified, except that some New York-based commentators (and Senator Schumer) are calling for federal funding of the Gateway project; whether to pay for the program with deficit spending, tax hikes, or cutting other spending is not specified either. The good news is that such a deal isn’t likely to happen, for roughly the same reasons such a deal would be a bad idea in the first place. However, just in case some people reading this blog might like the idea of such a grand bargain, I’d like to spell the reasons why such a deal would be a waste of money.
What is the purpose of an infrastructure deal, anyway?
Given around a year of something approaching full-time work, I could identify a trillion dollars’ worth of useful public transportation investment in the United States. Given that I’d also look for ways to cut construction costs (which I’m almost certain Congress has not seriously tried), and given that there are other infrastructure priorities than transit, it should not be hard to come up with a long-term 13-figure program.
However, I’m fairly certain there hasn’t been any serious attempt to list infrastructure projects that should be covered under this plan. The main clue is that if there were any, the people trying to sell the public on such a deal would mention them as concrete benefits. This has happened with Gateway: people around the New York area are desperate for federal funding to cover the project’s extreme cost, and do not shy from mentioning it as a beneficiary of a grand bargain. But with anything else, there’s nothing.
For example, nobody in California has said anything about federal funds for the state’s flagging high-speed rail project, even though it would be a natural candidate for a bipartisan deal between Trump and congressional Democrats (the state’s Republican delegation opposed the project, but much of it was wiped out in the midterm). Elsewhere, there are both road and transit projects in red state cities that are hungry for funding, some of which were on the Trump administration’s list of projects to fund last year, in one of the interminable Infrastructure Week pushes that went nowhere. Nothing comparable has surfaced this month.
The lack of detail about the plan suggests it’s not really serious policy. It’s a trial balloon – one that’s failing because of the political situation. But in the event anything comes out of it, it will be a half-thought plan, created for the purpose of spending money and doing something that gives the appearance of bipartisan consensus.
The US economy is not in a recession
The point of a Keynesian stimulus is to prop up the economy during recessions. The American economy right now has 3.7% unemployment, which is more or less full employment, and 2.5% inflation, which is a hair above target. Additional spending would be great for me – it would strengthen the dollar, personally helping me as someone who earns dollars and spends euros. But for the putative target of the bill – the American people – the only effect would be fiscal constraints. The country needs to think about reducing the deficit, not about increasing it in a show of bipartisan unity.
Worse, the stimulus effect of new government spending comes from the net change in annual spending, whereas the deficit effect comes from overall annual spending. A big infrastructure bill would only act as economic stimulus in the earliest phases, when the spending rate would ramp up. Subsequently, it would have no effect on growth or on employment. David Dayen made this point regarding the 2009 stimulus: it had a big effect on American economic growth in 2009, but as the spending rate reached its maximum in 2010, the net effect of federal spending on growth turned negative in the third quarter of 2010, even before the Republican victory in the midterm, long before most stimulus funds were actually spent.
This does not mean that infrastructure funding is out of the question. A serious bill that is crafted to be deficit-neutral in the short as well as long term could do good; it is also close to impossible. Some Democratic pundits have trolled the conversation by proposing pairing it with repealing Trump’s tax cuts, but the probability of a grand bargain that raises taxes to pay for extra spending is approximately zero. Cutting other spending is extremely unlikely as well – unlike state and local governments, domestic federal spending doesn’t have enough waste to fund a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, and what waste does exist is locked up in Medicare, which is politically untouchable.
The state of the American economy is such that it’s a great idea to design an infrastructure bill, to be deployed at the next recession. There could be a list of priority projects for public transportation (or other forms of infrastructure) chosen for a combination of cost-effectiveness and nationwide spread. While designing this plan, the federal government would make the process open, to let local and state governments know what is happening and offer them the opportunity to submit their choice projects for consideration. The federal government should also insist that they not defer maintenance now hoping to score state of good repair money later – for example, I would propose to credibly commit to only funding expansion but not maintenance, and to defund projects run by agencies that defer maintenance (such as Boardman-era Amtrak). The plan would be funded, with deficit spending, at the next recession, which analysts expect to start in the next few years.
The federal government is unusually corrupt
If the above plan of coming up with a measured infrastructure plan, with incentives to encourage good behavior among state and local governments, sounds like science fiction, it’s because the federal government today doesn’t have the capability of carrying out such a program. Part of it is generic public-sector weakness within the United States, making it hard to make long-term plans; the civil service is weak, and politicians make capricious decisions, so nothing like the TGV, Grand Paris Express, High Speed 2, and Crossrail – all bipartisan projects within their respective countries – can happen.
But there’s a bigger problem now: Trump. Trump himself is corrupt in ways that go far beyond the affairs of scandal-ridden past presidents like Clinton and George W. Bush, and this affects how people think of infrastructure. The US has a public transportation cost premium of nearly a full order of magnitude over comparable countries. Such a premium must have multiple causes, but one cause is corruption: we’ve already seen how political interference by Schumer helped double the cost of Amtrak’s rolling stock procurement. Trump’s scandals easily surpass Schumer’s.
This goes beyond partisanship. Atrios has been a partisan Democrat since his blog’s early days, and yet he’s called for SUPERTRAINS (always in caps) since mid-2008, when the idea of stimulus became part of the American public conversation. At the time Obama was ahead in the polls, but he was not guaranteed to win, and years of Bush had gotten the Democratic base used to opposing anything a Republican president did; and yet, center-left writers like Atrios and Matt Yglesias (at the time transitioning from the Republican bloggers’ favorite Democrat to a conventional partisan liberal Democrat) were fine endorsing an infrastructure program in an uncertain partisan climate.
In theory, the extent of Trump’s corruption is small compared with the magnitude of the program. It’s billions of dollars at worst versus a trillion. In practice, the presence of the current president at the helm of any program screams at contractors, “make an effort to stay at Trump hotels and Mar-a-Lago, not to make a cheap and technically sound bid.” The extra cost coming from contractors slouching in the bidding and construction phases can easily soak up hundreds of billions of dollars out of the trillion: in Brian Rosenthal’s article about high New York costs, contractors quoted a premium of about 25% just from MTA red tape, and Trump’s personal corruption is probably on the same order of magnitude.
Ultimately, it’s fine to wait
In late 2008 and early 2009, the American economy was spiraling into the deepest recession since 1946; in that climate, rushing the stimulus was desirable. The situation today is not like that at all. There’s time to develop an infrastructure plan based on one’s combination of political preference and belief about the future (e.g. will Trump be reelected?, and who will control Congress after 2020?). There’s no point in passing a plan that exists purely to spend money and to show that Congress can enact big policies.
Since there’s no rush, and no need to deficit-spend right now, there’s grounds for demanding better of the government. Any infrastructure plan should be based on clear needs: that is, a national blueprint (such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or spreading infrastructure funding to poor states, or a similar political goal), a list of items designed to maximize cost-effectiveness within the blueprint’s parameters, and a federal civil service that can implement the construction of these items with maximum efficiency.
The incompetent and the corrupt should have no role to play in this program, and this begins with the current president. If it’s not possible to remove deadwood from the federal government, it’s fine to indefinitely postpone any big federal infrastructure plan. Nothing there would be indispensable; if Congress wants to deficit-spend money to create jobs, it can choose policies that are less sensitive to public-sector competence, such as tax cuts, unemployment benefits (not a big factor today but by definition a big one in a recession), and aid to states. With infrastructure that most of the developed world laughs at the US still manages to be one of the richest countries in the world; filling in the gap in public transportation is desirable, but the country won’t collapse if the gap persists.
Six and a half years ago, the Federal Railroad Administration announced that it was going to revise its passenger train regulations. The old regulations required trains to be unusually heavy, wrecking the performance of nearly every piece of passenger rolling stock running in the United States. Even Canada was affected, as Transport Canada’s regulations mirrored those south of the border. The revision process came about for two reasons: first, the attempt to apply the old rules to the Acela trains created trains widely acknowledged to be lemons and hangar queens (only 16 out of 20 can operate at any given time; on the TGV the maximum uptime is 98%), and second, Caltrain commissioned studies that got it an FRA waiver, which showed that FRA regulations had practically no justification in terms of safety.
The new rules were supposed to be out in 2015, then 2016, then 2017. Then they got stuck in presidential administration turnover, in which, according to multiple second-hand sources, the incoming Republican administration did not know what to do with a new set of regulations that was judged to have negative cost to the industry as it would allow more and lower-cost equipment to run on US tracks. After this limbo, the new rules have finally been published.
What’s in the new regulations?
The document spells out the main point on pp. 13-20. The new rules are similar to the relevant Euronorm. There are still small changes to the seats, glazing, and emergency lighting, but not to the structure of the equipment. This means that unmodified European products will remain illegal on American tracks, unlike the situation in Canada, where the O-Train runs unmodified German trains using strict time separation from freight. However, trains manufactured for the needs of the American market using the same construction techniques already employed at the factories in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden should not be a problem.
In contrast, the new rules are ignoring Japan. The FRA’s excuse is that high-speed trains in Japan run on completely dedicated tracks, without sharing them with slower trains. This is not completely true – the Mini-Shinkansen trains are built to the same standards as the Shinkansen, just slightly narrower to comply with the narrower clearances on the legacy lines, and then run through to legacy lines at lower speed. Moreover, the mainline legacy network in Japan is extremely safe, more so than the Western European mainline network.
On pp. 33-35, the document describes a commenter who most likely has read either my writings on FRA regulations or those of other people who made the same points in 2011-2, who asked for rules making it possible to import off-the-shelf equipment. The FRA response – that there is no true off-the-shelf equipment because trains are always made for a specific buyer – worries me. The response is strictly speaking true: with a handful of exceptions for piggybacks, including the O-Train, orders are always tailored to the buyer. However, in reality, this tailoring involves changes within certain parameters, such as train width, that differ greatly within Europe. Changes to parts that are uniform within Europe, such as the roofing, may lead to unforeseen complications. I don’t think the cost will be significant, but I can’t rule it out either, and I think the FRA should have been warier about this possibility.
The final worry is that the FRA states the cost of a high-speed train is $50 million, in the context of modification costs; these are stated to be $300,000 for a $50 million European high-speed trainset and $4.7 million for a Japanese one. The problem: European high-speed trainsets do not cost $50 million. They cost about $40 million. Japanese sets cost around $50 million, but that’s for a 16-car 400-meter trainsets, whereas European high-speed trainsets are almost always about 200 meters long, no matter how many cars they’re divided into. If the FRA is baking in cost premiums due to protectionism or bespoke orders, this is going to swamp the benefits of Euronorm-like regulations.
But cost concerns aside, the changes in the buff strength rules are an unmitigated good. The old rules require trainsets to resist 360-945 metric tons of force without deformation (360 for trains going up to 200 km/h, 945 beyond 200 km/h), which raises their mass by several tons per cars – and lightweight frames require even more extra mass. The new ones are based on crumple zones using a system called crash energy management (CEM), in which the train is allowed to deform as long as the deformation does not compromise the driver’s cab or the passenger-occupied interior, and this should not require extra train mass.
How does it affect procurement?
So far, the new rules, though telegraphed years in advance, have not affected procurement. With the exception of Caltrain, commuter railroads all over the country have kept ordering rolling stock compliant with the old rules. Even reformers have not paid much attention. In correspondence with Boston-area North-South Rail Link advocates I’ve had to keep insisting that schedules for an electrified MBTA must be done with modern single-level EMUs in mind rather than with Metro-North’s existing fleet, which weighs about 65 metric tons per car, more than 50% more than a FLIRT per unit of train length.
It’s too late for the LIRR to redo the M9, demanding it be as lightweight as it can be. However, New Jersey Transit’s MultiLevel III is still in the early stages, and the railroad should scrap everything and require alternate compliance in order to keep train mass (and procurement cost) under control.
Moreover, the MBTA needs new trains. If electrification happens, it will be because the existing fleet is so unreliable that it becomes attractive to buy a few EMUs to cover the Providence Line so that at least the worst-performing diesels can be retired. Under no circumstance should these trains be anything like Metro-North’s behemoths. The trains must be high-performance and as close as possible to unmodified 160 km/h single-level regional rail rolling stock, such as the DBAG Class 423, the Coradia Continental, the Talent II, or, yes, the FLIRT.
Metra is already finding itself in a bind. It enjoys its antediluvian gallery cars, splitting the difference between one and two decks in a way that combines the worst of both worlds; first-world manufacturers have moved on, and now Metra reportedly has difficulty finding anyone that will make new gallery cars. Instead, it too should aim at buying lightly modified European trains. These should be single-level and not bilevel, because bilevels take longer to unload, and Chicago’s CBD-dominant system is such that nearly all passengers would get off at one station, Millennium Station at the eastern edge of the Loop, where there are seven terminating tracks and (I believe) four approach tracks.
Ultimately, on electrified lines, the new rules permit trains that are around two thirds as heavy as the existing EMUs and have about the same power output. Substantial improvements in train speed are possible just from getting new equipment, even without taking into account procurement costs, maintenance costs, and electricity consumption. Despite its flaws, the new FRA regulation is positive for the industry and it’s imperative that passenger railroads adapt and buy better rolling stock.
I’ve sporadically discussed how some countries or regions have traditions of how to build rapid transit. For example, in a City Metric article last year I made an off-hand comment about how communist bloc metros, from Europe to North Korea, have widely-spaced stops just like Moscow, while French metros and French-influenced Montreal Metro have short stop spacing just like Paris. I intend to write some posts covering different traditions, starting from one I’ve barely discussed as such: the American one. There are commonalities to how different American cities that build subways choose to do so, usually with notable New York influences, and these in turn affect how American transit activists think about trains.
For the most part, the American tradition of rapid transit should be viewed as one more set of standards, with some aspects that are worth emulating and others that are not. Most of the problems I’ve harped on are a matter of implementation more than a matter of standards. That said, that something is the local tradition does not immediately mean it works, even if on the whole the tradition is not bad. Some of the traditions discussed below definitely increase construction costs or reduce system effectiveness.
The situation in New York
A large majority of American rapid transit ridership, about two thirds, is in New York. The city’s shadow is so long that the systems built in the postwar era, like the Washington Metro and BART, were designed with New York as a reference, whether consciously or not. Only the Boston subway and Chicago L are old enough to avoid its influence – but then their elevated system design still has strong parallels in New York, whether due to direct influence or a common zeitgeist at the end of the 19th century. Thus, the first stop on the train of thought of the American rapid transit tradition must be New York practice.
New York has nine subway main lines. Five are north-south through Manhattan and four-track, three are east-west and two-track, and one avoids Manhattan entirely. Nearly all construction was done cut-and-cover between 1900 and 1940, forcing lines to hew to the street network. As New York has wide, straight streets, a trait shared with practically all American cities, this was not a problem, unlike in London, where carving right-of-way for the Underground was so difficult that every line from the third onward was built deep-bore.
With four tracks on most of the Manhattan trunks, there is local and express service. This allows trains to go around obstacles more easily, increasing redundancy. It’s in this context that New York’s 24/7 service makes sense: there is no absolute need for nighttime maintenance windows in which no train runs. This approach works less well on the two-track lines, and the L, the only one that’s two-track the entire way, has occasional work orders with very low train frequency because of single-tracking.
Outside the core of the city as it was understood during construction, lines run elevated. The standard New York el is an all-steel structure, which reduces construction costs – the First Subway’s subway : el cost ratio was 4:1, whereas today the average is about 2.5:1 even though tunneling uses the more expensive boring technique – at the cost of creating a boombox so noisy that it’s impossible to have a conversation under the tracks while a train is passing. Moreover, splitting the difference between two and four tracks, the standard el has three tracks, which allows peak-direction express service (on the 2/5, 6, and 7) or more space for trains to get around obstacles (on the 1, 4, and N/W).
Because the els are so noisy, the city stopped building them in the 1920s. The lines built in the 1930s were all underground, with the exception of one viaduct over an industrial shipping channel.
Moreover, from the 1930s onward, stations got bigger, with full-length mezzanines (the older stations had no or short mezzanines). Track standards increased, leading to an impressive and expensive array of flying junctions, contrasting with the flat junctions that characterize some older construction like the Chicago L or some foreign examples like much of the London Underground.
Finally, while New York has nine separate subway colors, its number of named lines is far greater. The system comprises several tens of segments called lines, and each route combines different lines, with complex branching and recombination. The infrastructure was never built for discrete lines with transfers between them, but rather for everywhere-to-everywhere one-seat rides, and service choices today reinforce this, with several outer lines reverse-branching to an East Side and a West Side Manhattan trunk.
The desire for 24/7 service
I know of five urban rail networks with 24/7 service. One is the Copenhagen Metro, which is driverless and built with twin bores, making it easy for service to single-track at night for maintenance. The other four are American: the New York City Subway, PATH, PATCO, and the Chicago L. Moreover, the LIRR runs 24/7, which no other commuter rail system I know of does, even ones where an individual outlying station has comparable ridership to the entire LIRR.
The other systems have somewhat of a 24/7 envy. I’ve heard lay users and activists in Washington and the Bay Area complain that the Washington and BART shut down overnight; BART itself feels it has to justify itself to the users on this question. Right now, BART’s decision to temporarily add an hour to the nighttime shutdown window to speed up maintenance is controversial. People are complaining that service is being cut despite increases in funding. In Washington, the more professional activists understand why 24/7 service is unviable, but like BART feel like they have to explain themselves.
Local and express trains
New York is full of four-track mainlines, running both local and express trains. Chicago and Philadelphia have them as well on one line each. The other rapid transit networks in the US don’t, but like 24/7 service desire it. Washington has enough complaints about it that regular reader and Patreon supporter DW Rowlands had to write an article for Greater Greater Washington explaining why it would not be all that useful.
BART is the more interesting case. In any discussion of BART extensions, people bring up the fact that BART can’t skip stops – never mind that its stop spacing is extremely wide owing to its function as suburban rail. The average speed on BART is 57 km/h per the National Transit Database; the RER A, which is the express service here, averages around 50. At BART’s speed, the single longest express segment in New York not crossing water, the A/D between 125th and 59th Streets, would take 7 minutes; in fact it takes about 9. If anything, BART errs in having too few stations in Oakland and San Francisco.
On new-build systems, four tracks are understandable and desirable, provided the construction method is cut-and-cover, as it was in early-20th century America. The earliest subway lines built in New York had little cost premium over London and Paris even though the tunnels were twice as wide for twice as many tracks. However, cut-and-cover is no longer used in developed countries owing to its heavy impact on merchants and residents along the way; already during WW2, Chicago dug the tunnels for the Red and Blue Lines of the L using deep boring. A city that bores tunnels will find that four-track tunnels cost twice as much as two-track tunnels, so it might as well built two separate lines for better coverage.
The shadow of steel els
New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago all built all-steel els. While cheaper, these structures are so noisy that by the 1930s they became untenable even in far-out neighborhoods, like on the Queens Boulevard Line. New lines in New York were underground; existing els were removed, quickly in New York and more slowly in Boston.
The newer systems built in the US avoided els entirely. BART planned to build one in Berkeley, but community opposition led to a change to an underground alignment; unlike subsequent examples of NIMBYism, Berkeley was willing to pay the cost difference. When tunnels are infeasible due to cost, American rail networks prefer at-grade rights-of-way, especially freeway medians. Rail rights-of-way are popular where available, such as on the realigned Orange Line in Boston, but freeway medians are common where rail alignments don’t exist.
The next generation of American urban rail systems, unable to tunnel in city center, turned to light rail in order to keep things at-grade. Across the border, in Canada, Vancouver built els to cover gaps in the right-of-way that turned into the Expo Line, and then built concrete els on the Millennium Line and outer Canada Line to reinforce the system. These brutalist structures are imposing, but I’ve had conversations under the viaducts in Richmond, just as I have in Paris under the mixed concrete and steel structures or in Sunnyside next to New York’s one concrete el.
New York did not invent reverse-branching. London has had it since the 1860s, when most South London railways ran separate trains to the City (at Cannon Street, London Bridge, or Blackfriars) or the West End (at Victoria or Charing Cross), and multiple North London railways ran trains to their traditional terminals or to the North London Railway for service to Broad Street. Paris has had it since even earlier: the railways operating out of Gare Saint-Lazare and Gare Montparnasse merged in 1851 and treated the two stations as reverse-branches allowing cities farther west to access both the Right Bank and the Left Bank. In both cities, this situation makes it harder to run coherent regional rail – in London the railways are spending considerable resources on disentangling the lines to increase frequency to South London’s many branches, and in Paris the fact that Montparnasse and Saint-Lazare serve similar destinations frustrated plans to connect the two stations with an RER tunnel.
Where New York innovated is in copying this practice on rapid transit, starting with the Dual Contracts era. In Brooklyn, existing as well as new outlying lines could be routed to any number of new crossings to Manhattan; in the Bronx and Eastern Brooklyn, a desire to give branches service to both the West Side and East Side led to reverse-branching even on the numbered lines, which were built from scratch and did not involve older suburban railroads.
Reverse-branching spread across the United States. Boston had it until it removed the Atlantic Avenue El, and even today, railfans occasionally talk about reverse-branching the Red Line along Massachusetts Avenue to Back Bay and Roxbury. Chicago occasionally has it depending on the arrangement of trains on the North Side; today, the Purple and Brown Lines share tracks at rush hour but then go in opposite directions on the Loop. The Broad Street Line in Philadelphia reverse-branches to Chinatown. The Washington Metro has reverse-branches in Virginia, limiting train frequency due to asymmetry at the merge points. BART designed itself to force a three-way wye in Oakland pointing toward San Francisco, Berkeley and Downtown Oakland, and East Oakland on which every pair of destinations has a direct train, or else East Oakland residents would have to change trains to access their own city center – and current plans for a second trans-Bay tube add further reverse-branches instead of using the extra capacity as an opportunity to fix the Oakland junction.
Outside the United States, I know of four reverse-branches on rapid transit that is not historically regional rail: the Delhi Green Line, the Namboku and Mita Lines in Tokyo, the Yurakucho and Fukutoshin Lines also in Tokyo, and the Northern line’s two trunks in London. Of those, the last one is slowly being disentangled: its southern end will be two separate lines once the Battersea extension opens, and its northern end will, severing the line in two, once upgrades to pedestrian circulation are completed at the branch point. Historically Toronto had a three-way wye on the subway, like BART, but it caused so many problems it was discontinued in favor of running two separate lines.
The most prominent feature of American rail networks is not what they do, but what they lack. American (and Canadian, and Chinese) regional rail networks remain unmodernized, run for the exclusive benefit of upper middle-class suburban office workers at the primary CBD. Details differ between cities, but even when management is theoretically part of the same agency as the rapid transit network, as in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, in practice the commuter railroads are autonomous. There is no hint of fare integration or schedule integration.
This fact influences network design more than anything else, even the low quality of steel els. Service to any destination beyond the dense urban core, which is small outside a handful of relatively dense cities, requires building new rail from scratch. This favors low-cost, low-capacity light rail, often in freeway medians. Smaller cities, unable to afford enough light rail to convince entire counties to tax themselves to build transit, downgrade service one step further and build bus rapid transit, typically treated as a weird hybrid of Latin American busways and European bus lanes.
Does any of this work?
In one word, no. The American tradition of rapid transit clearly doesn’t work – just look at the weak ridership even in old cities like Boston and Philadelphia, whose mode shares compare with medium-size urban regions in the French sunbelt like the Riviera or Toulouse.
Or, more precisely, it doesn’t work in early-21st century America. In the rare occasion an American city manages to round up funding to build a new subway line, I would recommend looking abroad for models of both construction methods and network design. For example, as BART keeps working on designing the second tube, I would strongly advise against new branches on the East Bay – instead, one of the two tubes (old and new) should permanently serve East Oakland, with a new Downtown Oakland transfer station, and the other should serve Berkeley and Concord.
Moreover, the United States owes it to itself to aggressively modernize its mainline passenger rail network. It’s too important to let Amtrak, the LIRR, Metro-North, Metra, and other dinosaurs do what they’ve always done. Toronto’s modernization of GO Transit, named the Toronto RER after the Western world’s premier regional rail network, had wide support among transit planners, but the engineers at GO itself were against it, and Metrolinx had to drag them into the 21st century.
Where the American tradition does work is in contexts that the United States has long left behind. Booming third-world cities direly need rapid transit, and while American construction costs are not to be emulated, the concept of opening up major throughfares, laying four tracks, and covering the system is sound. The mix of underground construction in city center and elevated construction farther out (using concrete structure, not louder steel ones) is sound as well, and is already seeing use in China and India. This is especially useful in cities that have little to no legacy regional rail, in which category India and China do not qualify, but most of the rest of the third world does.
Globalization makes for grand shuffles like this one. Experts in the United States should go to Nigeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Colombia, Kenya, Tanzania, Angola, and the Philippines and advise people in these countries’ major cities about how to emulate rapid transit designs from early-20th century America. But in their home country these same experts should instead step aside and let people with experience in the traditions of Japan, South Korea, and the various distinct countries of Western and Central Europe make decisions.
To the transportation user, holidays are nothing but pain. Synchronized travel leads to traffic jams and very high rail and air fares, and synchronized shopping by car leads to parking pain. American commercial parking minimums are designed around the few busiest days of the year (source, endnote #8), timed for the Christmas rush. In France, synchronized travel at the beginning and end of school holidays is so bad that each region begins and ends its winter and spring breaks on different dates. There’s so much travel pain, and associated waste in designing transportation around it, that it’s worth asking why even bother.
The travel pain is even worse than mere congestion. When I visited London in early July, Eurostar broke in both directions. This was not a pair of random delays. French holiday travel is synchronized even though there are two months of summer break and only about one month of paid vacation net of the other holidays: traditionally people from all over the country and the world visit Paris in July, and then Parisians visit other places in August.
With slow boarding at the stations courtesy of security theater and manual ticket checks with just two access points per train, it takes longer than usual to board the trains when they are full. With full trains throughout the day, the delays cascaded, so by afternoon the trains were hours off schedule. Eurostar let passengers on trains on practically a first-come, first-served basis: people with tickets on a train got to ride the next available train. I had a ticket on an 11:39 train, and got to ride the train that was nominally the 11:13 (there were a few available seats) but departed at 12:58, and my nominally-11:39 train departed even later.
Eurostar’s inability to deal with crowds that occur annually, at a time when revenue is highest, is pure incompetence. But even if that particular problem is resolved, the more fundamental problem of unnecessary swings in travel volumes remains. On domestic TGVs it’s seen in wild price swings. Today is the 8th. In two weeks, a one-way TGV ticket from Paris to Marseille costs €72-74 on Thursday the 22nd or Friday the 23rd (Friday is the traditional peak weekend travel date and increasingly Thursday joins it) and about €62 on Saturday the 24th. But next month, on the 23rd, I see tickets for about €150, and even the low-comfort OuiGo option, which usually has €10 tickets (from the suburbs, not Paris proper), shoots up to €100; even with these prices, most trains are sold out already.
In some cultures, common holidays serve a religious or otherwise traditional purpose of bringing the extended family together. This is the case for Chinese New Year, which causes overcrowding on the mainline rail network at the beginning and end of the holiday as urban workers visit their families back home, often in faraway interior provinces. The same tradition of extended families occurs on Passover, but Israel has little travel pain, as it is so small that Seder travel is the same as any other afternoon rush hour.
However, there is no religious or social value to synchronized school holidays, nor is there such value to Western holidays. Western Christian civilization has centered nuclear families over extended families for around a millennium. In modern-day American culture, people seem to spend far more time complaining about the racist uncle than saying anything positive about catching up with relatives.
Christmas has religious significance, but much of the way it is celebrated in rich countries today is recent. The emphasis on shopping is not traditional, for one. The travel peak is probably unavoidable, since Christmas and New Year’s are at a perfect distance from each other for a week-long voyage, but everything else is avoidable. A source working for a bookstore in Florida, located strategically on the highway between Disneyland and the coast, told me of two prominent peaks. In the summer there would be a broad peak, consisting mostly of European tourists with their long paid vacations. But then there would be a much sharper peak for the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, in which the store would fill every cashier stall and pressure employees, many of whom temps working seasonally, to work overtime and get customers through as quickly as possible.
Some holidays have political significance, such as various national days, but those do not have to create travel peaks or shopping peaks. Bastille Day doesn’t.
Finally, while it’s accepted in Western countries today that summer is the nicest season to travel, this was not always the case, and even today there are some exceptions. The Riviera’s peak season used to be winter, as the English rich fled England’s dreary winters to the beaches; Promenade des Anglais in Nice is named after 19th century winter vacationers. When I lived in Stockholm, I was more excited to visit the Riviera in the winter, fleeing 3 pm sunsets, than in the summer. Today, Japan has a peak for the cherry blossom in the spring, while in New England (and again in Japan) there is a tradition of leaf peeping in the fall.
Instead of centering synchronized holidays, it’s better for states to spread travel as well as shopping behavior throughout the year as much as possible. Different people have different preferences for seasonality, and this is fine.
For bigger shopping seasons, the best thing to do is to emphasize birthdays. Instead of trying to fix major holidays, the way Lincoln did for Thanksgiving, it’s better to encourage people to make their biggest trips and biggest shopping around birthdays, anniversaries, saint days in Catholic countries, and idiosyncratic or subculturally significant days (such as conventions for various kinds of geeks). There are already well-placed traditions of birthday and anniversary gifts. In academia it’s also normal to extend conference trips into longer vacations, when they don’t conflict with teaching schedules.
The impact on labor is reduced seasonality, and far less peak stress. With less seasonal employment, the natural rate of unemployment may also end up slightly lower. The impact on transportation is a large reduction in travel peaks, which would make it easier to run consistent scheduled service year-round, and to maintain car travel and parking capacity at its average day level rather than building parking lots that go unused 364 days out of every year.
Seven years ago, I wrote a pair of posts about Sunnyside Yards. The first recommends the construction of a transfer station through Sunnyside Yards, in order to facilitate transfers between Penn Station- and Grand Central-bound trains. The second recommends redeveloping the yards via a deck, creating high-density residential and commercial space on a deck on top of the yard. Recent news, both about an official plan to deck the yards and about leaks that Amazon is likely to move half of its second headquarters (HQ2) to Long Island City, make a Sunnyside Junction so much more urgent.
Here is how service would look:
The color scheme is inherited from my regional rail maps (see e.g. here) but for the purposes of this post, all it means is that green and blue correspond to the inner and outer tracks of the Park Avenue, purple is East Side Access, orange corresponds to LIRR trains going to the northern pair of East River Tunnels, and red corresponds to LIRR, Metro-North Penn Station Access, and Amtrak trains going to the southern pair of East River Tunnels. No track infrastructure is assumed except what’s already in service or funded (i.e. ESA and Penn Station Access), and only two infill stations are mapped: Astoria, which would be a strong location for a stop were fares integrated with the subway and frequency high, and Sunnyside Junction.
The infill stations that are not planned
An Astoria station was studied for PSA, but was dropped from consideration for two reasons. First, the location is legitimately constrained due to grades, though a station is still feasible. And second, under the operating assumptions of high fares and low off-peak frequency, few people would use it. It would be like Wakefield and Far Rockaway, two edge-of-city neighborhoods where commuter rail ridership is a footnote compared with slower but cheaper and more frequency subway service.
A Sunnyside Junction station was in contrast never considered. There are unfunded plan for an infill station to the west of the junction, served only by Penn Station-bound trains. Such a station would hit Long Island City’s job center well, but the walk from the platform to the office towers would still be on pedestrian-hostile roads, and if there’s political will to make that area more walkable, the city might as well just redevelop Sunnyside Yards (as already planned).
The reason there was never any plan for a station can be seen by zooming in on the area I drew as a station. It’s a railyard, without streets (yet). At today’s development pattern, nobody would use it as an O&D station, even if fares and schedules were integrated with the subway. The importance of the station is as a transfer point between Grand Central- and Penn Station-bound trains. The planned developments (both HQ2 and independent city plans) makes it more urgent, since the area is relatively far from the subway, but the main purpose of the station is a better transit network, rather than encouraging development.
The main benefit of the station is transfers between the LIRR and Metro-North. While nominally parts of the MTA, the two agencies are run as separate fiefs, both of which resisted an attempt at a merger. The LIRR opposed PSA on the grounds that it had a right to any empty slots in the East River Tunnels (of which there are around 8 per hour at the peak). Governor Cuomo intervened to protect PSA from Long Island’s opposition, but in such an environment, coordinated planning across the two railroads is unlikely, and the governor would not intervene to improve the details of the ESA and PSA projects.
East Side Access means that in a few years, LIRR trains will split between two Manhattan destinations. Conceptually, this is a reverse-branch: trains that run on the same route in the suburbs, such as the LIRR Main Line, would split into separate routes in the city core. In contrast, conventional branching has trains running together in the core and splitting farther out, e.g. to Oyster Bay, Port Jefferson, and Ronkonkoma. Reverse-branching is extremely common in New York on the subway, but is rare elsewhere, and leads to operational problems. London’s Northern line, one of the few examples of reverse-branching on an urban subway outside New York, is limited to 26 trains per hour through its busiest trunk at the peak, and long-term plans to segregate its two city trunks and eliminate reverse-branching would raise this to 36.
To ensure LIRR trains run with maximum efficiency, it’s necessary to prevent reverse-branching. This means that each trunk, such as the Main Line and the Hempstead Branch, should only ever go to one Manhattan terminal. Passengers who wish to go to the other Manhattan terminal should transfer cross-platform. Jamaica is very well-equipped for cross-platform transfers, but it’s at a branch point going to either Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn, without a good Penn Station/Grand Central transfer. Without a good transfer, passengers would be stuck going to a terminal they may not work near, or else be forced into a long interchange. In London the reason the Northern line is not already segregated is that the branch point in the north, Camden Town, has constrained passageways, so eliminating reverse-branching requires spending money on improving circulation.
Unlike Camden Town, Sunnyside Junction is roomy enough for cross-platform transfers. The tracks should be set up in a way that LIRR trains going to East Side Access should interchange cross-platform with PSA and Port Washington Branch trains (which should go to Penn Station, not ESA), as they do not stop at Jamaica. Penn Station-bound LIRR trains not using the Port Washington Branch, colored orange on the map, should stop at Sunnyside too, but it’s less important to give them a cross-platform transfer.
This assignment would be good not just for LIRR passengers but also for PSA passengers. Unlike on the LIRR, on the New Haven Line, reverse-branching is unavoidable. However, passengers would still benefit from being able to get on a Penn Station-bound train and connecting to Grand Central at Sunnyside. Not least, passengers on the PSA infill stations in the city would have faster access to Grand Central than they have today via long walks or bus connections to the 6 train. But even in the suburbs, the interchange would provide higher effective frequency.
The connection with development
I don’t know to what extent decking Sunnyside Yards could attract Amazon. I wrote an article last year, which died in editing back-and-forth, lamenting that New York was unlikely to be the HQ2 site because there was no regional rail access to any of the plausible sites thanks to low frequency and no through-running. Long Island City’s sole regional rail access today consists of LIRR stations on a reverse-branch that does not even go into Manhattan (or Downtown Brooklyn) and only sees a few trains per day. It has better subway access and excellent airport access, though.
However, since Sunnyside Junction is so useful without any reference to new development, the plans for decking make it so much more urgent. Sunnyside Yards are in the open air today, and there is space for moving tracks and constructing the necessary platforms. The cost is likely to be in the nine figures because New York’s construction costs are high and American mainline rail construction costs are even higher, but it’s still a fraction of what it would take to do all of this under a deck.
Moreover, the yards are not easy to deck. Let’s Go LA discussed the problem of decking in 2014: columns for high-rise construction are optimally placed at intervals that don’t jive well with railyard clearances, and as a result, construction costs are a multiple of what they are on firma. Hudson Yards towers cost around $12,000/square meter to build, whereas non-WTC commercial skyscrapers in the city are $3,000-6,000 on firma. The connection with Sunnyside Junction is that preparing the site for the deck requires extensive reconfiguration of tracks and periodic shutdowns, so it’s most efficient to kill two birds with one stone and bundle the reconfiguration required for the station with that required for the deck.
In the other direction, the station would make the deck more economically feasible. The high construction costs of buildings on top of railyards makes decking unprofitable except in the most desirable areas. Even Hudson Yards, adjacent to Midtown Manhattan on top of a new subway station, is only treading water: the city had to give developers tax breaks to get them to build there. In Downtown Brooklyn, Atlantic Yards lost the developer money. Sunnyside Yards today are surrounded by auto shops, big box retail, and missing middle residential density, none of which screams “market rents are high enough to justify high construction costs.” A train station would at least offer very fast rail access to Midtown.
If the decking goes through despite unfavorable economics, making sure it’s bundled with a train station becomes urgent, then. Such a bundling would reduce the incremental cost of the station, which has substantial benefits for riders even independently of any development it might stimulate in Sunnyside.
After I criticized Cuomo’s Genius Challenge earlier this year, I saw some comment, I think on the Manhattan Contrarian, to the effect that even if the winning proposals suck the idea of the contest is still good because the MTA needs fresh advice. The argument is that a sclerotic organization like just about every state or local government agency in the US needs to be shaken up using outside ideas. The American private sector, which is very productive, is a good source of ideas, according to this line.
This notion is unfortunately wrong. Outside advice is useful, but leveraging the success of American business is not possible in transportation. Outsiders need a lot of grounding within the field to be able to contribute (and this includes myself). In some cases the best single source of fresh advice is not even from the outside, but from internal planners who the political appointees ignore.
The tyranny of the org chart
Aaron Renn tells a story from when he worked in management consulting: after years of leading projects advising other firms, he was tasked with improving the managerial efficiency of the firm where he worked. His ideas were ignored, because the organization chart said that he was middle management, and so senior management didn’t have to do what he said. When he consulted for other firms it was not like this, because consultants have titles that deliberately obfuscate the fact that in their own firm they are middle management, and thus senior management considers them peers outside their firm’s org chart and listens.
What’s more, many of the consultants’ ideas come from conversations with lower-level employees. The low- and mid-level workers pitch ideas that their managers ignore because of the tyranny of the org chart, and the consultants then take the better ideas, rebrand them as outside advice, and sell them to the people at the top. Employee resentment toward consultants often hinges on the fact that consultants take credit for ideas they heard from grunt workers.
A lot of transit reforms in the United States have this flavor. TransitCenter relies on best industry practices for its recommendations, but in some cases it learns what these practices are from passed-over planners. When I talked to Zak Accuardi last year about measuring punctuality on urban transit, he explained the concept of excess journey time to me, but then added that he learned from conversations with NYCT planners that this metric exists and is used in London and Singapore.
The bus redesign Eric and I have been working on has some of that, too. We have a lot of our own ideas, coming from independent research, but we’ve talked regularly to some of the mid-level planners for sanity checks. In particular, while we got the idea for a Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel bus route between Red Hook and Lower Manhattan from a railfan, I talked to one of the bus planners at NYCT about the idea and was told that the planners were already thinking in the same direction.
When consultant advice is not based on laundering internal ideas to avoid getting stuck in the tyranny of the org chart, it comes instead from best industry practices. What a consultant needs to know is how the successful players in the relevant industry work. This is more than a simple laundry list of practices: there is a range of different options that work (Swiss and Japanese rail practices are not the same), and a dazzling array of local circumstances that can make some options a better fit for a specific client than others.
As it happens, NYCT is led by someone who is familiar with some better practices: Andy Byford, who has experience working in London, Sydney, and Toronto. He can be assumed to be familiar with the best English-speaking practices; Transport for London would not be my first choice for best practices worldwide or even Europe-wide, but it’s better than anything else that speaks English and is far better than anything in the United States.
It’s worth noting that it’s important to understand not just the best practices themselves but how to implement them. I’ve noticed this with various reform ideas that rely on European rail successes: there’s a reasonably deep bench of Americans who understand how some features work in London, but practically none who understand how they work in Paris, Madrid, Stockholm, Munich, Zurich, or Prague.
This is a clear-cut case of where outside advice would be valuable to American transit agencies. However, the snag is that there is no reason to expect the American private sector to be able to dispense any such advice. The bench of multilingual Americans is shallow, and a disproportionate share of those are second-generation immigrants who are heritage speakers of a language but often can’t read technical materials in it. What I know and what I’ve learned about best practices has involved talking to railfans from other countries who speak English who tell me about how Switzerland, Japan, Czechia, etc. work.
One of the themes I’ve been harping on since this blog’s early days is that public transit is 19th-century technology, and as such its corporate culture is one of incremental tweaks and not revolutionary changes. In this situation, it’s very difficult to come up with good ideas without very solid grounding in the domain. It’s nothing like tech, where people could invent their own platforms and succeed by first-mover advantage (did Amazon really need to know the bookselling business in the 1990s?).
This does not mean there is no room for new ideas. On the contrary. Old industries like public transit, cars, household appliances, and agriculture are full of innovation. But they are less likely to involve the personal brilliance of a Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos and more likely to involve copying something that works elsewhere, optimizing an existing platform, or tweaking something to be incrementally better.
In particular, the way Cuomo set up the genius challenge set it up for the failure that it turned out to be. The judges had no domain knowledge. They were mostly drawn from the tech world, and could not judge a proposal on its actual merits, only on its perceived merits. The winning ideas have the same relationship to innovation that truthiness has to truth.
How to get the outside advice the MTA needs
The MTA’s sclerosis is not universal within the agency. It most acutely afflicts the top brass, especially the political appointees, who are there to shield the governor from criticism rather than to run public transit properly. The lower-level planners are often much more up to the task. The remaining gaps in MTA effectiveness come from ignorance of best practices elsewhere, in particular in places that don’t speak English.
Were the MTA to ask me how it can adopt outside advice better, I would tell it to ignore gimmicks and definitely not try to look to American business-class saviors. Instead, I’d recommend the following action items:
- Invest in better HR infrastructure to hire better people faster (today the process takes months and discourages people who can obtain private-sector work), and make sure to regularly promote people who have good ideas rather than leaving them to stew in a middle position for 10 years. If it’s impossible to get senior management to listen to underlings better organically, then restore the employee suggestion box, which at least levels mid-level planners’ and line workers’ status.
- Hire a small team to investigate and implement best practices. The team should report to the head of NYCT directly and should preferentially comprise people with extensive rest-of-country and rest-of-world experience, with an aim for a broad coverage of languages spoken, ideally including Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Russian, Korean, and Chinese, most of which are fortunately represented by substantial immigrant communities in the region. The people on this team should interface with transit planners around the world in order to develop new ideas.
- Interface regularly with academics and researchers, such as Bent Flyvbjerg and his work on cost overruns, Carlos Daganzo and his work on modeling optimal transit networks, and David Levinson and his work on travel behavior. Answers to empirical questions like “what is the transfer penalty?” may change over time, and it’s easy for an organization to unwittingly use data that’s a generation out of date.
- Take more planning in-house, in order to develop institutional knowledge. In effect, this would give the MTA an acute problem of having to assimilate a vast quantity of knowledge today, instead of a slightly less acute problem of assimilating knowledge every 10 or 20 years when it discovers it’s fallen another step behind.
Building the institutional infrastructure for good transit is not easy. It’s tempting for Americans to rely on the private sector, through design-build bids, outsourcing design to consultants, and flashy tech challenges, but for all its prowess, the American private sector cannot solve transportation challenges. Higher productivity in transportation can only come from a better public sector. Outside advice that helps the MTA be more efficient is useful insofar as it helps the agency assimilate best practices and generate new ideas, and implement them. But if it aims to supplant public planning, it’s unlikely to succeed; Cuomo’s genius challenge hasn’t.
Usually, integrated transit planning means designing bus networks to feed rail trunks better. Buses are mobile: their routes can move based on long-term changes in the city’s physical and economic layout. Railroads in contrast have high installation costs. Between the relative ease of moving buses and the fact that there’s a hierarchy in which trains are more central than buses, buses normally should be feeding the trains. However, there are some cases in which the opposite happens: that is, cases in which it’s valuable to design rail infrastructure based on expected bus corridors. Moreover, in developed and middle-income countries these situations are getting more rather than less frequent, due to the increasing use of deep tunneling and large station complexes.
In nearly every circumstance, the hierarchy of bus and rail remains as it is; the exceptions (like Ottawa, at least until the light rail subway opens) are so rare as to be notable. What I posit is that in some situations, rail infrastructure should be designed better to allow buses to feed the trains more efficiently. This mostly affects station infrastructure, but there are also reasons to choose routes based on bus feeding.
Major bus corridors
Surface transit likes following major streets. Years ago, I blogged about this here and here. Major streets have two relevant features: they are wide, permitting buses (or streetcars) to run in generous dedicated lanes without having to deal with too much traffic; and they have continuous linear development, suitable for frequent bus stops (about every half kilometer).
These two features are likely to remain important for surface transit for the foreseeable future. The guidelines for good surface transit service depend on empirical parameters like the transfer penalty (in particular, grids are not the universal optimum for bus networks), but major corridors are relatively insensitive to them. The walk penalty can change the optimal bus stop spacing, but not in a way that changes the basic picture of corridor-based planning. Which streets have the most development is subject to change as city economic and social geography evolves, but which streets are the widest doesn’t. What’s more, a train station at a street intersection is likely to cement the cross-street’s value, making adverse future change less likely.
Note that we don’t have to be certain which major streets will host the most important buses in the future. We just need to know that major buses will follow major streets.
The conclusion is that good locations for rail infrastructure are major intersecting streets. On a commuter line, this means stations should ideally be placed at intersections with roads that can carry connecting buses. On a subway line, this means the same at a more local scale.
Stations and accessibility
When possible, train stations should locate at intersections with through-streets, to permit efficient transfers. This also carries over to station exits, an important consideration given the complexity of many recently-built stations in major rich and middle-income cities.
It goes without saying that a Manhattan subway line should have stations with exits at 72nd, 79th, 86th, 96th, etc. streets. Here, Second Avenue Subway does better than the Lexington Avenue Line, whose stations are chosen based on a 9-block stop spacing and miss the intersecting buses.
However, it’s equally important to make sure that the accessible exits are located at major streets as well. One bad example in New York is the Prospect Park B/Q station: it has two exits, one inaccessible on Flatbush Avenue and one accessible on Empire Boulevard. In theory both are major corridors, but Flatbush is far and away the more important ones, one of the busiest surface transit corridors in the city, while Empire competes for east-west buses with Kings County Hospital, the borough’s biggest job center outside Downtown Brooklyn. Eric Goldwyn’s and my Brooklyn bus redesign breaks the B41 bus on Flatbush and loops it and the Washington Avenue routes around the station complex to reach the accessible exit.
The Prospect Park case is one example of an almost-right decision. The full-time, accessible exit is close to Flatbush, but not quite there. Another example is Fields Corner: the eastern end of the platform is 80 meters from Dorchester Avenue, a major throughfare, and 180 meters from Adams Avenue, another major street, which unlike Dot Ave diverges from the direction the Red Line takes on its way south and is a useful feeder bus route.
Commuter rail and feeder buses
The station placement problem appears especially acute on mainline rail. This is not just an American problem: suburban RER stations are built without regard for major crossing roads (see, for example, the RER B airport branch and the RER A Marne-la-Vallee branch, both built in the 1970s). Railroads historically didn’t think much in terms of systemwide integration, but even when they were turned into modern rapid transit, questionable stop locations persisted; the Ashmont branch of the Red Line in Boston was taken over from mainline rail in the 1920s, but Fields Corner was not realigned to have exits at Dot and Adams.
Today, the importance of feeder buses is better-understood, at least by competent metropolitan transportation planners. This means that some stations need to be realigned, and in some places infill stops at major roads are desirable.
This is good for integration not just with buses but also with cars, the preferred station access mode for American commuter rail. The LIRR’s stations are poorly located within the Long Island road network; Patrick O’Hara argues that Hicksville is the second busiest suburban station (after Ronkonkoma) not because it preferentially gets express service on the Main Line, but because it has by far the best north-south access by road, as it has one arterial heading north and two heading south, while most stations miss the north-south arterials entirely.
Instead of through-access by bus (or by car), some stations have bus bays for terminating buses. This is acceptable, provided the headways are such that the entire local bus network can be configured to pulse at the train station. If trains arrive every half hour (or even every 20 minutes), then timed transfers are extremely valuable. In that case, allowing buses to stop at a bay with fast access to the platforms greatly extends the train station’s effective radius. However, this is of far less value on a dense network with multiple parallel lines, or on a railroad so busy that trains arrive every 10 minutes or less, such as the RER A branches or the trunks of the other RER lines.
Within New York, we see this mistake of ignoring local transit in commuter rail planning with Penn Station Access. The project is supposed to add four stations in the Bronx, but there will not be a station at Pelham Parkway, the eastern extension of Fordham Road carrying the city’s busiest bus, the Bx12. This is bad planning: the MTA should be encouraging people to connect between the bus and the future commuter train and site stations accordingly.
Street networks and route choice
On a grid, this principle is on the surface easy: rapid transit routes should follow the most important routes, with stops at cross streets. This is well understood in New York (where proposals for subway extensions generally follow busy bus routes, like Second Avenue, Nostrand, and Utica) and in Vancouver (where the next SkyTrain extension will follow Broadway).
However, there remains one subtlety: sometimes, the grid makes travel in one direction easier than in another. In Manhattan, north-south travel is easier than east-west travel, so in isolation, east-west subways connecting to north-south buses would work better. (In reality, Manhattan’s north-south orientation means north-south subways are indispensable, and once the subways exist, crossing subways should aim to connect to them first and to surface transit second.) In West Los Angeles, there is a multitude of east-west arterials and a paucity of north-south ones, which means that a north-south subway is of great value, connecting not just to the Expo Line and upcoming Wilshire subway but also other east-west arterials carrying major bus routes like Olympic.
Moreover, some cities don’t have intact grids at all. They have haphazard street networks, with some routes suitable for arterial buses and some not. This is less of an issue in mature cities, which may have such street networks but also have older subway lines for newer route to connect to, and more in newer cities, typically in the third world.
The tension is that very wide arterials are easier to build on, using elevated construction or cut-and-cover. If such a technique is feasible, then constructibility should trump connections to buses (especially since such cities are fast-changing, so there is less certainty over what the major future bus routes are). However, if deep boring is required, for examples because the arterials aren’t that wide, or the subway must cross underwater, or merchant opposition to cut-and-cover is too entrenched, then it’s useful to select routes that hit the arterials orthogonally, for the best surface transit connections.
In a working transit city, rail should be the primary mode of travel and buses should be designed to optimally feed the trains. However, this does not mean rail should be planned without regard to the buses. Train stations should be sited based not just on walk sheds and major destinations but also planned bus connections; on an urban rapid transit system, including S-Bahn trunks, this means crossing arterial streets, where buses typically run. Moreover, these stations’ exits should facilitate easy transfers between buses and trains, including for people with disabilities, who face more constrained mobility choices if they require elevator access. In some edge cases, it may even be prudent to select entire route construction priorities based on bus connections.
While choosing rail routes based on bus connections seems to only be a real issue in rare circumstances (such as the West LA street network), bus-dependent station siting is common. Commuter train services in general are bad at placing stations for optimal suburban bus connections, and may require extensive realignment and infill. On urban subways, station placement is important for both accessibility retrofits and new projects. Outside city centers, where dense subway networks can entirely replace surface transit, it’s critical to select station sites based on maximum connectivity to orthogonal surface lines.
The public transit conversation is full of statements like “passengers don’t like to transfer,” or, in quantified terms, “passengers perceive a minute transferring to be equivalent to 1.75 minutes on a moving vehicle.” But what does this exactly mean? It’s not a statement that literally every passenger has a transfer penalty factor of 1.75. Different passengers behave differently. At best, it’s a statement that the average passenger on the current system has a transfer penalty factor of 1.75, or alternatively that the aggregate behavior of current passengers can be approximated by a model in which everyone has a transfer penalty factor of 1.75. Understanding that different people have different preferences is critical to both the technical and political aspects of transportation planning.
I talked about the heterogeneity of transfer penalties three years ago, and don’t want to rewrite that post. Instead, I want to talk more broadly about this issue, and how it affects various transit reforms. In many cases, bad American transit practices are the result not of agency incompetence (although that happens in droves) but of preferential treatment for specific groups that have markedly different preferences from the average.
The universal symbol of disability is the wheelchair. Based on this standard, every discussion of accessible to people with disabilities centers people in wheelchairs, or alternatively retirees in walkers (who tend to make sure of the same infrastructure for step-free access).
However, disabilities are far broader, and different conditions lead to dramatically different travel preferences. One paper by the CDC estimates that 20% of US adults have chronic pain, and 8% have high-impact chronic pain, limiting their life in some way. People with chronic pain are disproportionately poor, uneducated, and unemployed, which should not be a surprise as chronic pain makes it hard to work or go to school (in contrast, the one unambiguously inborn socioeconomic factor in the study, race, actually goes the other way – whites have somewhat higher chronic pain rates than blacks and Hispanics). Another paper published by BMJ is a meta-analysis, finding that depending on the study 35-51% of the UK population has chronic pain and 10-14% has moderately to severely disabling chronic pain.
I’ve only talked to a handful of people with chronic pain – all of working age – and the best generalization that I can make is that it is impossible to generalize. The conditions vary too much. Some find it more painful to drive than to take transit, some are the opposite. Some have conditions that make it hard for them to walk, some are fine with walking but can’t stand for very long. To the extent the people I’ve talked to have common features, they a) have a strong preference for rail over bus, and b) require a seat and can’t stand on a moving vehicle for very long.
The best use case for rapid transit is getting people to work in a congested city center at a busy time of day, ideally rush hour. Off-peak ridership is generally cheaper to serve than peak ridership, but this is true for all modes of transportation, and public transit tends to be relatively better at the peak than cars. Per table 2 of the Hub Bound report, as of 2016, 19% of public transit riders entering the Manhattan core do so between 8 and 9 am and 43% do so between 7 and 10 am, whereas the corresponding proportions for drivers are 6% and 18% respectively.
The upshot is that people are more likely to ride public transit if they work a salaried job. This is especially true in the middle class, which can afford to drive, and whose alternative is to work at some suburban office park where car ownership is mandatory. In the working class, the distribution of jobs is less CBD-centric, but the ability to afford a car is more constrained.
The social groups most likely to drive are then neither the working class (which doesn’t own cars anywhere with even semi-reasonable public transit) nor the professional working class, but other social classes. The petite bourgeoisie is the biggest one: small business owners tend to drive, since they earn enough for it, tend to have jobs that either virtually require driving (e.g. plumbers) or involve storefronts that are rarely located at optimal locations for transit, and need to go in and out at various times of day.
Another group that’s disproportionately likely to drive is retirees. They don’t work, so they don’t use transit for its most important role. They take trips to the hospital (which is bundled with issues of disability), which can be served by buses given that hospitals are major job centers and non-work travel destinations, but their other trips tend to be based on decades of socialization that have evolved haphazardly. The urban transit network isn’t likely to be set up for their particular social use cases.
Consensus for whomst?
I bring up small business owners and retirees because these two groups are especially empowered in local politics. When I lived in Sweden, I could vote in the local and regional elections, where I had no idea what the main issues were and who the candidates were; I voted Green based on the party’s national platform, but for all I know it’s not great on Stockholm-specific issues. Figuring out the national politics is not hard even for a newcomer who doesn’t speak the language – there are enough English-language news sources, there’s social media, there are friends and coworkers. But local politics is a mystery, full of insider information that’s never spelled out explicitly.
What this means is that the groups most empowered in local politics – that is, with the highest turnouts, the most ability to influence others in the same constituency, and the greatest ability to make consistent decisions – are ones that have local social networks and have lived in one place for a long time. This privileges older voters over younger voters, and if anything underprivileges people with disabilities, whose ability to form social and political connections is constrained by where they can go. This also privileges people with less mobile jobs – that is, shopkeepers rather than either the professional middle class or the working class.
With their greater local influence, the most empowered groups ensure the transportation that exists is what is good for them: cars. Public transit is an afterthought, so of course there is no systemwide reorganization – that would require politicians to care about it, which interferes with their ability to satisfy the politically strongest classes. But even individual decisions of how to run transit suffer from the same problem when there is no higher political force (such as a strong civil service or a national political force): bus stops are very close together, transfers are discouraged (“we oppose the principle of interchange” said one left-wing group opposed to Jarrett Walker’s bus redesign in Dublin), rail service is viewed more as a construction nuisance than a critical mobility service, etc.
Models for transportation usage take into account the behavior of the average user – at least the average current user, excluding ones discouraged by poor service. However, the political system takes into account the behavior of the average empowered voter. In the case of local politics, this average voter rarely rides public transit. When city political machines run themselves, the result is exactly what you’d think.
India’s economic development lags China’s by about 15 years, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s beginning to construct a high-speed rail network. The first line, connecting Mumbai and Ahmedabad via Surat, began construction at the end of last year, with completion targeted within four years; the two states served, Maharashtra and Gujarat, are more or less India’s two richest large states, and are also both deeply right-wing, with nearly every constituency backing Modi. There are some severe problems with the system, stemming from its use of turnkey Japanese technology. But more broadly, India’s geography is just difficult for high-speed rail, especially by comparison with other high-population density countries at similar level of development, like Pakistan and Indonesia.
The Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor is to use imported Shinkansen technology, with Japanese financing. India has a vast railway network using broad gauge, with extensive regional rail (the Mumbai Suburban Railway has 2.6 billion riders per year) as well as legacy intercity rail.
However, to maintain Shinkansen compatibility, India has chosen to use standard gauge. This is based on a misunderstanding of why HSR uses standard gauge. Spain uses near-Indian gauge on its legacy network but standard gauge on HSR to maintain compatibility with the French TGV network, and Japan has narrow gauge on the legacy network and standard gauge on Shinkansen because narrow-gauge trains can’t run as fast. Neither of these justifications applies to India, and evidently, in another country where they don’t apply, Russia, HSR is to use broad gauge. With standard gauge, India will not be able to run HSR through to the legacy network, connecting to cities beyond the initial line, such as Delhi, nor will it be able to stage future construction to build lines in phases, the way France did, with through-service to lower-speed territory.
Even worse, alone in the world, India is using the Shinkansen’s loading gauge on HSR: trains are 3.35 meters wide, enough for 5-abreast seating. Indian Railways has a loading gauge allowing 3.66 meter trains, enough for 6-abreast seating with the same compromises on comfort familiar to every airline economy passenger. I don’t know what the standards for track centers are to be on India’s HSR: Indian Railways’ manual says 5.3 meters, which is wide enough for everything, but Shinkansen standards specify 4.3 meters, which is tight enough that a future widening of the track and loading gauges may pose difficulties for passing at high speed (at low speed it’s easy, India’s legacy track centers are 4.265 meters, and standard-gauge America’s are 3.7 meters on the slower parts of the Northeast Corridor).
During construction, the decision to use the wrong-size trains is fixable. Even after service opens, if the track centers are not too narrow, it’s possible to add a third rail to permit a transition to broad gauge. If the track centers are as narrow as the Shinkansen then might still be possible, if the third rails are on the outside (it would widen the track centers by the difference between the gauges, or 23.3 cm), but then the platforms would need to be shaved for wider trains. In the medium and long runs, such gauge widening is critical as India builds out its network.
But today, so complete is India’s reliance on Japanese technology that the training for drivers will be conducted in Japan, in Japanese; train drivers will be required to speak Japanese, as the Shinkansen trainers will not all speak English. It goes without saying that without a large body of Japanese speakers, India will be forced to pay first-world or near-first-world wages, forgoing its advantage in having low labor costs.
The projected construction cost of the 508-kilometer line is 1.1 trillion (“lakh crore”) rupees, which is $15 billion in exchange rate terms and about $55 billion in PPP terms. Per Wikipedia, the route includes only one tunnel, a 21-km approach to Mumbai with suburban and underwater tunneling (even if the gauges were compatible, using existing tracks like TGVs is impossible due to the use of every approach track by overcrowded Suburban Railway trains). The rest of the route is predominantly elevated, but the decision to runs the trains elevated rather than at-grade is only responsible for about 10% of its cost.
Despite the complexity of such a tunnel, there is no excuse for the high construction cost. In exchange rate terms it’s reasonable. Japan’s domestic Shin-Aomori extension of the Shinkansen cost about $55 million per kilometer, including a 26 km tunnel consisting of a third of the route and additional tunnels totaling a majority of the route. More recently, Japan’s new bout of Shinkansen construction costs about $30 billion for 389 km, but tunneling is extensive, with the Hokkaido route planned to be 76% in tunnel.
With India’s complete reliance on Japanese technology, paying the same as Japan in exchange rate terms is not surprising. It’s a disaster for India, which has to pay in depreciated rupees instead of leveraging its low-cost labor, but as far as Japan is concerned, it’s a perfect copy of the domestic Shinkansen system. Similar high costs can be observed for some Asian metro projects using Japanese financing, namely Dhaka (the world’s highest-cost elevated metro, even worse than in the US) and Jakarta.
In contrast, where India improves its rail network by tapping into Indian Railways’ own expertise, costs are low. Nearly half of India’s rail network is electrified, and to save money on expensive fuel, the country is rapidly electrifying the system, targeting 100% electrification. A plan to electrify 13,675 route-km in the next four years is to cost 12,134 crore rupees, about $123,000/km in exchange rate terms or $450,000/km in PPP terms. In the developed world, $1-1.5 million/km for electrification is reasonable, and the unreasonably expensive UK, US, and Canada go up to $5-10 million/km. Left to its own devices, Indian Railways can build things cheaply.
India’s geography for high-speed rail is not easy. Mumbai, Surat, and Ahmedabad are the only three cities in the top 20 that lie on a straight line at easy HSR range. Delhi-Mumbai, Delhi-Kolkata, and Mumbai-Chennai are all just outside the best range for HSR (and Kolkata-Chennai is well outside it), having to rely on intermediate cities like Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, and Kanpur for ridership. Within Uttar Pradesh, Kanpur and Lucknow are both large cities, but the line connecting them is almost perpendicular to that connecting Delhi and Kolkata, so that only one can be served on the main line. In the South, there is a similar situation with Mumbai-Chennai, via either Bangalore or Hyderabad (and there, both routes should be built as Bangalore and Hyderabad are both near-megacities). Mumbai itself requires extensive tunneling in all directions: north toward Gujarat and Delhi, south toward Pune, and possibly also northeast toward the interior cities of Maharashtra.
I drew a possible map for a nationwide network. The total length is 17,700 double-track-km. It’s about the same length as most American proposals, and less than half as much as what China aims to build by 2025, but India has four times the population of the US and far higher population density, and its density is also several times that of China. For a better comparison, consider Pakistan: it is slightly less dense than India and has about 15% India’s population, and yet two spines totaling about 1,800 km, Karachi-Lahore and Lahore-Islamabad-Peshawar, would connect nearly every major city. Lying on the Indus, much of Pakistan has a linear population distribution, facilitating rail connections.
With a difficult urban geography for HSR, India has to take especial care to reduce construction costs. This means, in turn, that it needs to rely on indigenous expertise and standards whenever possible. When imported technology is unavoidable, it needs to provide its own financing (with an annual budget of 29 trillion rupees, it can afford to do so) and force Japanese, Korean, and European vendors to compete. A Chinese-style tech transfer (read: theft) is not possible – the vendors got burned once and won’t agree to the same again – but domestic driver training, with the foreign role restricted to the rolling stock (built to Indian standards) and engineering, is essential and unlikely to bother the global industry.
A few days ago, Sandy Johnston linked to a diagram of the single bus route in South Sioux City, Nebraska, a suburb of Sioux City, Iowa. While South Sioux City has a traditional main street in Dakota Avenue, the bus does not follow it; it meanders, hitting destinations on and off Dakota. Many destinations are on US Route 77, an arterial bypass around the built-up area, with recent auto-oriented retail and office uses, including a Wal-Mart (in small-town America often the biggest bus trip generator). The discussion around what to do with this region’s bus network made me realize a crucial concept in planning infrequent transit: getting route-length right. To start with, here is a map of the bus, numbered Route 9 within the Sioux City area:
Here is a PDF map of the entire network. It has 10 routes, using 12 buses running hourly, with a timed meet at the center of Sioux City (just off the above map) at :30 every hour. Most routes run as loops, with highly separated inbound and outbound legs. Route 9 above runs one-way southbound on Dakota Avenue in the northern and southern legs but then meanders to run southbound on Route 77; the Dakota Avenue leg in between the two major east-west runs is one-way northbound.
I asked, why need it be so complicated? The major destinations are all on Dakota or Route 77. It should be easy to run two distinct routes, one on each, right? Without the east-west meanders, there would be the same total service-hours, right?
But no. The route runs hourly. The scale of the map is small: from the bridge over the Missouri in the north to I-129 in the south it’s 4.1 km. There is so little traffic that in the evening rush Google Maps said it would be just 10 minutes by car from Downtown Sioux City to the southern edge of Dakota Avenue near I-129. The roundtrip time would be 25-30 minutes, so the bus would sit idle half the time due to the hourly pulse.
Getting route-length right
When designing regional rail schedules, as well as my take on night buses in Boston (since reduced to a single meandering route), I’ve taken great care to deal with roundtrip route length not always being an integer multiple of the headway. A train that comes every half hour had better have a roundtrip length that’s just less than an integer or half-integer number of hours, counting turnaround times, to minimize the time the train sits at the terminal rather than driving in revenue service. The same is true of buses, except that scheduling is less precise.
In Boston, the plan at the time was for hourly buses, and has since changed to half-hourly, but the principle remains. The roundtrip length of each leg of the night bus network, should it expand beyond one (double-ended) route, should be an integer or half-integer number of hours. In practice this means a one-way trip time of about 25-26 minutes, allowing for a little recovery time and for delays for passengers getting on or off; overnight there is no traffic and little ridership, so 25 minutes of driving time correspond to just less than 30 minutes of actual time.
Thus, on each corridor, the bus should extend about 25 minutes of one-way nighttime driving time from the connection point, and the choice of which routes to serve and where to end each route should be based on this schedule. Of course on some shorter routes 12 minutes (for a half-hour roundtrip) and on some long routes 38 minutes (for a 90-minute roundtrip) are feasible with half-hourly frequencies, but in Boston’s case the strong night bus routes in practice would all be 25.
Length and frequency
In the case of Sioux City, hourly buses meeting at the center should have a one-way trip time of 25 minutes. However, the city is so lightly populated that there is little traffic, and the average traffic speed is so high that 25 minutes puts one well outside the built-up area. The driving time from city center to the edge of the built-up area, around I-129, Lakefront Shopping Center, and the various Wal-Marts ringing the city, is around 10 minutes.
Moreover, a car travel time of 10 minutes corresponds to not much longer on a bus. Frequent commenter Zmapper notes that in small American cities, taking the driving time in traffic and multiplying by 1.2, or 1.3 with recovery time, is enough. A one-way driving time of 11-12 minutes involves a roundtrip bus time of half an hour.
With such a small urban extent, then, the bus frequency should be bumped to a bus every half hour, leveraging the fact that few important destinations lie more than 11-12 minutes outside city center. The question is then how to restructure the network to allow for doubling frequency without doubling operating expenses.
The importance of straight routes
Some of Sioux City’s bus routes go beyond the 12-minute limits, such as route 6 to the airport. But most stay within that limit, they’re just incredibly circuitous. Look at the map of route 9 again. It jumps between two main corridors, has multiple loops, and enters the parking lots of the Wal-Mart and other destinations on US 77.
The reason for the meanders is understandable. US 77 is a divided highway without sidewalks or crosswalks, and none of the destinations thereon fronts the road itself. From the wrong side of the road to Wal-Mart it’s 330 meters, and a few other retail locations are more than 100 meters off. Many agencies wince at making passengers walk this long.
However, understandable does not mean justifiable. Traversing even 330 meters takes only about 4 minutes, and even with a hefty walking penalty it’s much less than the inconvenience caused by hourly headways. The other routes in the Sioux City area have the same problem: not a single one runs straight between city center and its outer destination.
With straighter routes, the savings in service-hours would permit running every half hour. A single bus could run every half hour if the one-way car travel time were at most 11-12 minutes; up to 23 minutes, two buses would provide half-hourly service. With 12 buses, there is room to replace route 9 with two routes, one on Dakota and one on US 77 (possibly entering the Wal-Mart, since the route is so short it may be able to get closer to Wal-Mart while still staying under 12 minutes). The Lakeport Commons and Southern Hills Mall area could get buses at the entrance, as it is the logical end of the line (route 1, to Southern Hills).
Some pruning would still be required. Some low-density areas far from the main corridors would have to be stranded. Some circumferential lines would be pruned as well, such as route 10 (to the Commons) on US 75 and route 2 (on Pierce Jackson) to Wal-Mart. Circumferential lines at such a low frequency are not useful unless the transfers to the spokes are timed, which is impossible without breaking the city center interchange since the lines take different amounts of time to get between city center with the plausible connection point. Ultimately, replacing the hourly routes with half-hourly routes would guarantee better service to everyone who’d still get any service, which is nearly everyone.
It’s not just Sioux City
I focus on Sioux City because it’s a good toy model, at such scale that I could redesign the buses in maybe two weeks of part-time work. But it’s not the only place where I’ve seen needlessly circuitous routes wreck what should be a decent bus network for the city’s size and density. In 2014 Sandy wrote about the bus network in New Haven, which has okay trunks (I only needed to hitchhike because of a bus delay once – the other four or five times I took the bus it was fine) but splits into indescribably complex branches near its outer ends.
More recently, I looked at the network in Ann Arbor, partly out of prurient interest, partly out of having gone to two math conferences there and had to commute from the hotel to the university on the city’s most frequent bus, route 4. Zoomed out, the Ann Arbor map looks almost reasonable (though not quite – look at routes 5 and 6), but the downtown inset shows how route 4 reverse-branches. Ann Arbor is a car-oriented city; at my last math conference, in Basel, a professor complained that despite the city’s leftist politics, people at the math department were puzzled when the professor biked to campus. The buses are designed to hit every destination someone who’s too poor to own a car might go to, with speed, frequency, and reliability not the main concerns.
The underlying structure of bus networks in small American cities – radial buses converging on city center, often with a timed transfer – is solid. The problem is that the buses run every hour when cities should make an effort to run them every half hour, and the routes themselves are circuitous. In very small cities like Sioux City, increasing the base frequency is especially urgent, since their built-up extent is so compact a direct bus would reach the limit of the serviceable area in 10-12 minutes, perfect for a half-hourly schedule, and not the 25 minutes more typical of hourly schedules. Sometimes, scaling down requires maintaining higher frequency than the bare minimum, to avoid wasting drivers’ time with low-value meanders.