Category: Transportation

I Gave Two Talks About Construction Costs Yesterday

We gave two talks about construction costs yesterday, as I said in my invite earlier this week. There are no slides to upload, so I’ll just give brief overviews.

The 11 am talk had with Aaron Gordon as moderator and comprised me, Eric, Elif, and Marco, in front of an audience of about 40, including a few people in official capacity from the MTA or the more reform-oriented sections of politics. It was recorded, and the video has been uploaded via the Marron channel. The four of us went over our backgrounds and what brought us to this issue, and then we talked about what we’d done – we tallied around 200 personal interviews and correspondences and countless academic and gray studies reviewed – and what the conclusions are (see above link for some of them).

Audience questions were markedly friendly, and so were followup conversations Eric had with people at the MTA about this; Eric and I had spent the previous day catastrophizing about what if we’d encounter a hostile audience with questions insisting that no, New York can’t possibly be an order of magnitude more expensive to build subways in than our comparison cases, but none of that happened there.

The political response is also interesting. I’m not going to name names but I’ve found it striking that there’s interest in this from both politicians who ideologically identify with the radical left and the Democratic Socialists of America and ones who ideologically identify with the neoliberal movement (currently rebranding itself as New Liberals, in parallel with the New Democrat Coalition).

In a way, it’s not too surprising. Both groups are motivated by ideology and not by the petty concerns that lead to NIMBYism and to the politics of delay for its own sake. More subtly, while the term neoliberalism evokes a retreat from state methods and toward privatization, in practice the people who use the label today talk about state capacity all the time, they just have a vision of the state that centers efficiency. The sight of a New York that can, on its present capital budget, build 200 km of rail tunnel in 10 years while also completing investments in accessibility and high-capacity signaling is uplifting to such movements, even if those movements may disagree about driverless trains.

This does not mean everyone is on board, unfortunately. I can’t tell what exactly goes on at the MTA; clearly, there are some people there who are unhappy, although I can’t tell who except in the broadest, least certain outline. In politics, I will say that the people I’ve talked to are not nearly as well-known or powerful as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the staff of Pete Buttigieg.

The 8 pm talk was much less formal and was just me in front of a crowd of about 25 that was more advocacy-oriented. It was from the start the secondary event, designed for people who would like to come but couldn’t make it during business hours. I expected 12 people and got 25, with an awkward signup process at the lobby of the building, for which I am grateful to security for being understanding. I managed to possess the AV system in the room with the help of an audience member and share my screen to showcase some more examples and talk more about our report, but there was no recording.

Audience questions covered a variety of topics: the applicability of our work to California High-Speed Rail (I went on a long rant about the problems of early commitment), how the different factors mentioned in the link at the start of this post interact, what the role of utilities is, etc.

A more interesting question, which I didn’t immediately have an answer to, was what advocates can do about it. People don’t vote based on subway construction costs, or at least not directly. I did bring up the political popularity of mani pulite and the anti-corruption reforms in Italy that have helped bring down costs, and, echoing more experienced activists who I’d asked, recommended that people raise the issue with their state legislator, member of City Council, or mayor if they’re in an inner suburb and not the city. In an American context, there is no criminal corruption that we’ve found, unlike in Italy in the 1970s and 80s, but instead of mani pulite, a popular process for making government more efficient is viable. Even people whose entire political career is built on wrecking the ability of the state to do anything talk about how It’s Time to Build or about Getting to Yes.

I want to say I’m optimistic based on what we saw, but not everything has gone as smoothly, and there are people in powerful positions who should not have them – they just didn’t show up this time. So we’ll see; I’ll know much more at the end of the year.

I Gave a Talk About Through-Running

The ReThink NYC online panel earlier today was strange in a lot of ways: in delivery, in tone, in emphasis. Perhaps the full slide deck will be uploaded and I will be able to more easily point this out. For now, look at my slides; they’re a very condensed version of this post, criticizing the Empire State Development report saying that through-running at Penn Station is impossible.

The technical issue is that as you can see, my slides are a Beamer PDF. The version that I delivered was line-by-line, as is the norm for math presentations; you can click through to see what it means and why every presentation I upload on this blog is modified to be slide-by-slide and therefore has “2” in the file name. Everyone else was on PowerPoint or Google Slides, with centralized control; I took control for my portion, which was not designed around having an assistant who I tell “next slide please” periodically, and the system wasn’t as responsive to my clicks as I’d hoped.

The tone issue is that somehow I was the least offensive person on the panel. Moderator Sam Turvey was complaining that the MTA called the panel a private event as a reason not to send anyone to attend; I just stuck to some technical critiques, even with my background of calling for people to be fired here and on Twitter. I’m not sure how that came to be. But I somehow was the most polite person to the decision makers, I think, and that’s always jarring, when within the Transit Costs Project team I’m the least polite and least charitable (why should I be charitable to $2 billion/km subway builders?).

And then there’s the emphasis issue. I was trying to give a 10-minute technical primer about the value of through-running and suggest one way of doing so (in practice, more like 15 minutes – everyone ran over). There are some differences between my concept and ReThink’s that I think are worth going over:

  • On the level of crayon, I think through-running at Penn Station should connect to Grand Central (similar to the old Alternative G from the early 2000s). ReThink prefers pure East River through-running, I can’t tell whether via the existing tunnels or via a new two-track tunnel (called Alternative S in the 2000s, S standing for Sunnyside), which you can see one version of on Tri-State’s generally excellent report on the subject.
  • My conception of commuter rail is a predominantly urban service, using infrastructure that can then also be used for secondarily important suburban service. I wrote the linked blog post after seeing some discussion on Twitter, without realizing what ReThink was planning; next day, they told me about their conception of commuter rail as a system for decentralizing employment to suburban centers.
  • I think much more about non-crayon issues like junctions, high platforms, electrification of tails than do other advocacy organizations. That’s what I mean by electronics before concrete: fix the surface issues before or during construction of tunneled megaprojects.
  • I’m pretty rigidly against expansion of the footprint of Penn Station. It’s unnecessary (see for example this post), and so expensive it should only be done if absolutely critical; it’s fine to make compromises on platform amenities to avoid such expense. ReThink is against the full demolition of the block south of Penn Station but is open to moderate expansion of the footprint, as is Tri-State.
  • I’m openly YIMBY. I think Penn Station is the best place in the United States to put new commercial skyscrapers – the area is very well-served by mass transit, and the commuter trains are underfull by the crowding standards used to determine subway service. I see fully recovered rail ridership where I live and where I last lived and slower but noticeable corona recovery in New York. ReThink… all I’ll say is that they’re not YIMBY.

And none of this was really discussed. I can’t tell if it’s because everyone ran over, or because audience questions had a different focus, or because some of the other panelists were more critical of the plans to redevelop the area around Penn Station than of the technical merits of different paradigms of rail service. In a way, that kind of advocacy space is the wrong space to decide technical matters like Grand Central vs. no Grand Central through-running, but it might be useful to introduce the options and go over some pros and cons.

The Transit Costs Project Conclusion is Out!

Here it is. This is the result of many months and years of work, and a lot of editing, and it should not be viewed as my work but rather as joint work of mine with Eric Goldwyn, Elif Ensari, and Marco Chitti. People should read the report, which talks about how to build in-house capacity and institutional support that does not involve American-style micromanagement and politiciziation.

We’re going to present on this in person at NYU in a day and a half, on Wednesday 10/26, at 11 am (moderated by Aaron Gordon) and again at 8 pm for people who can’t make it during work hours; this is at Marron’s office at 370 Jay Street on the 12th floor, room 1201. (I’m also separately on this panel about through-running, online, 10/25 at 6 pm New York time.)

We’ve managed to decompose much of the cost premium of New York over low-to-medium-cost comparison cases, in the following manner:

Labor

Labor costs are a total of 20-30% in our comparison cases (Turkey, Italy, Sweden). Sweden is the most relevant, as the highest-wage example; Citybanan’s costs were 23% labor. In the Northeastern United States, labor is 40-60% of the cost. Picking 25% vs. 50% as the respective averages, this means that labor costs in the Northeast are three times what they should be, and the difference contributes to a factor of 1.5 cost difference. This includes both blue- and white-collar labor – this isn’t just overstaffing of unionized workers (although that exists too) but also different agencies such as utilities demanding that their own supervisors be in the tunnel during construction. In Boston, the overhead ratio was 40-65% higher on the Green Line Extension than the norm for Bostonian construction.

Soft costs and design

In New York, and as far as we can tell across the Anglosphere, design and management add a hefty additional share. Of note, what counts as soft costs differs by country. For example, insurance is a soft cost in Italy, but in New York it’s bundled into the regular contracts. British cost breakdowns list contingency separately, but American ones do not. Taking just the project management and design contracts – what counts as soft costs for New York contracting – they add 21% on top of the other contracts. The norm in France and Italy is 5-10%. However, 21% is on top of an inflated base: while extra physical construction means a roughly proportionate increase in oversight costs, the extra labor costs do not, and so, relative to a right-size labor cost (that is, overall project cost falling by a factor of 1.5), this is 31%. This contributes a factor of about 1.2.

Procurement

Procurement problems, including lack of competition, poor management of the contractors (called “the [name of agency] factor” where this can be any American transit agency), change order litigation, risk compensation, and contingency, overall double New York’s overall construction costs. Some of this is recent enough to only have been instituted when Andrew Cuomo was governor, like debarment, a heavyhanded attempt to blacklist contractors who run over the estimated cost that leads to higher initial bids for risk compensation. But the privatization of risk goes back earlier and the closedness to working like in the rest of the world goes back much earlier. Moreover, the tendency to privatize risk and alternate between micromanaging contractors and not knowing how to supervise them at all appears pan-US.

As a note of caution, it’s perhaps best to think of procurement and soft costs together as contributing a factor of about 2.5: under different definitions from New York’s, for example those of Britain, some procurement problems like contingency and excessive contractor profit (due to risk compensation – this isn’t a freeroll for the contractors) are folded into the soft cost account.

Overbuilding

Subway stations should be built cut-and-cover, in a box barely longer than the longest train that is expected to run through them. Italian and French examples are maybe 5-10% longer than the train, and Odenplan on Citybanan is 17% (250 m box, 214 m trains). American stations are often oversize: Second Avenue Subway’s two mined stations are on average about 100% longer, and cut-and-cover 96th Street is almost 200% longer. Moreover, designs must be standardized across each project, whereas in the US they are not, to the point that there were two distinct escalator vendors for the three stations of Second Avenue Subway.

This is not seen as nicer passenger spaces – those stations still look pretty crummy compared with the standardized stations of the Nordic countries or Italy or Turkey. It goes without saying that non-standardized escalator placement does not make stations more pleasant. Moreover, the extra space is just used for back offices with full segregation between different functions and work teams that no legacy station has anywhere, or unnecessary crossovers; Odenplan looks much nicer without much superfluous digging. Political insistence on signature stations in the United States leads to waste without any improvement in user experience resulting from it.

This factor also absorbs conflict with utilities, which is seen in decisions to dig too deep and build mined stations, avoiding cut-and-cover even when the costs are more favorable. (Utility relocation costs should be reduced too, but those are second-order in New York.)

In New York, stations are 77% of the hard costs; systems and tunnels are 23%. Cutting station costs by a factor of 3 (or slightly more, counting utility conflict) means cutting overall costs by a factor of a little more than 2. In fact the overall cut should be bigger because there’s some overdesign in the systems as well. The paused, restarted, and budget-overrunning Paris Metro Line 1 extension budget is split as 30% stations, 55% tunnels and systems, but that’s for trains half the size of New York’s, and Länsimetro Phase 1, with trains three quarters the size of New York’s split about evenly between the two. With systems and tunneling made cheaper as well through scale and standardization, the overall cost difference is a factor of 2.5-3.

What does this mean?

It means you should read the report, linked at the very start of this post. But mostly it means the causes of high American (especially New York) costs are institutional, and fixable, without a revolutionary upending of the legal or social system. We can’t tell you how New York can build for the costs of Nuremberg or Turkey, both around $100 million per km, but $200 million per km, slightly higher than Italy and slightly lower than Sweden, is achievable. Moreover, because institutional problems with procurement and soft costs occur throughout (and also conflict with utilities, a bigger issue for smaller projects than subway expansion), the same reforms that should bring down tunneling costs should also bring down the costs of non-tunneling improvements like elevator accessibility and platform edge doors.

S-Bahn Frequency and Job Centralization

Commuter rail systems with high bidirectional frequency succeed in monocentric cities. This can look weird from the perspective of rail advocacy: American rail advocates who call for better off- and reverse-peak frequency argue that it is necessary for reverse-commuters. The present-day American commuter rail model, which centers suburban commuters who work in city center between 9 am and 5 pm, doesn’t work for other workers and for non-work trips, and so advocates for modernization bring up these other trips. And yet, the best examples of modern commuter rail networks with high frequency are in cities with much job centralization within the inner areas and relatively little suburbanization of jobs. What gives?

The ultimate issue here is that S-Bahn-style operations are not exactly about the suburbs or about reverse-commutes. They’re about the following kinds of trips, in roughly descending order of importance:

  • Urban commuter trips to city center
  • Commuter trips to a near-center destination, which may not be right at the one train station of traditional operations
  • Urban non-work trips, of the same kind as subway ridership
  • Middle-class suburban commutes to city center at traditional midcentury work hours, the only market the American commuter rail model serves today
  • Working-class reverse-commutes, not to any visible office site (which would tilt middle-class) but to diffuse retail, care, and service work
  • Suburban work and non-work trips to city center that are not at traditional midcentury hours
  • Middle-class reverse-commutes and cross-city commutes

The best example of a frequent S-Bahn in a monocentric city is Munich. The suburbs of Munich have a strong anti-city political identity, rooted in the pattern in which the suburbs vote CSU and the city votes SPD and Green and, increasingly, in white flight from the diverse city. But the jobs are in the city, so the suburbanites ride the commuter trains there, just as their counterparts in American cities like New York do. The difference is that the same trains are also useful for urban trips.

I don’t know the ridership by segment in Munich, but I do know it in Berlin, as of 2016 (source, p. 6):

Daily ridership on the Berlin U- and S-Bahn by interstation, in thousands; the Ring encircles city center, meeting the radials at Ostkreuz, Gesundbrunnen (north), Westkreuz, Schöneberg (south), and Südkreuz (also south, one stop east of Schöneberg)

Between Ostkreuz and Hauptbahnhof, just west of the meeting point with the North-South Tunnel, the east-west Stadtbahn has 160,000 daily riders. The proper suburbs are mostly less than 10,000 each, and even the more suburban neighborhoods of the city, like Wannsee, don’t contribute much. Overall, the majority of S-Bahn traffic is urban, consisting of trips taken either within the Ring or in the more urban outside-the-Ring areas, like Pankow, Steglitz, and especially Lichtenberg.

The high-frequency model of the S-Bahn works not because there is a mass of people who work in these outer areas. I don’t know the proportion of jobs in the Berlin region that are within the Ring, but I doubt it’s low. For reference, about 35% of Ile-de-France jobs are in a 100 km^2 blob (about the same area enclosed by the Ring) consisting of Paris, La Défense, and the suburbs in between. New York likewise has about 35% of metro area jobs in a 100 km^2 blob chosen to include Manhattan and the major non-Manhattan job centers like Downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City, and the Jersey City waterfront. I imagine Berlin should be the same or even somewhat higher (this proportion is inversely correlated with city population all else being equal) – Berlin is polycentric but all of its centers are on or within the Ring.

Rather, the reason the high-frequency model works is that there is a lot more ridership in urban areas than in low-density suburbs generating strictly unidirectional trips. The main users of the S-Bahn are city residents, or maybe residents of dense inner suburbs in regions with unusually tightly drawn city limits like Paris. If the highest demand is by people whose trip is 20 minutes and not 90 minutes, then the trains must run very frequently, or else they won’t ride. And if the highest demand is by people who are traveling all over the urban core, even if they travel to the central business district more than to other inner neighborhoods, then the trains must have good connections to the subway and buses and many urban stops.

In this schema, the suburbs still get good service because the S-Bahn model, unlike the traditional metro model (but like the newer but more expensive suburban metro), is designed to be fast enough that suburb-to-city trips are still viable. This way, middle-class suburbanites benefit from service whose core constituency is urban, and can enjoy relatively fast, frequent trips to the city and other suburbs all day.

I emphasize middle-class because lower-income jobs are noticeably less centralized. I don’t have any European data on this, but I do have American data. In New York, as of 2015, 57% of $40,000-a-year-and-up workers worked in Manhattan south of 60th Street, but only 37% of under-$40,000-a-year workers did. Moreover, income is probably a better way of conceptualizing this than the sociological concept of class – the better-off blue-collar workers tend to be centralized at industrial sites or they’re owner-operators with their own vans and tools and in either case they have very low mass transit ridership. The sort of non-middle-class workers who high-frequency suburban transit appeals to are more often pink-collar workers cleaning the houses of the middle class, or sometimes blue-collar workers with unpredictable work assignments, who might need cross-city transit.

In contrast, the sort of middle-class ridership that is sociologically the same as the remnants of the midcentury 9-to-5 suburban commuters but reverse-commutes to the suburbs is small. American commuter rail does take it into account: Metro-North has some reverse-peak trains for city-to-White Plains and city-to-Stamford commuters, and Caltrain runs symmetric peak service for the benefit of city-to-Silicon Valley commuters. And yet, even on Caltrain ridership is much more traditional- than reverse-peak; on Metro-North, the traditional peak remains dominant. There just isn’t enough transit-serviceable ridership in a place like Stamford the way it looks today.

So the upshot of commuter rail modernization is that it completely decenters the suburban middle class with its midcentury aspirations of living apart from the city. It does serve this class, because the S-Bahn model is good at serving many kinds of trips at once. But the primary users are urban and inner-suburban. I would even venture and presume that if, on the LIRR, the only options were business-as-usual and ceasing all service to Long Island while providing modern S-Bahn service within city limits, Long Island should be cut off and ridership would increase while operating expenses would plummet. The S-Bahn model does not force such a choice – it can serve the suburbs too, on local trains making some additional city stops at frequencies and fares that are relevant to city residents – but the primacy of city ridership means that the system must be planned from the inside out and not from the outside in.

Annoying Announcements

My last two New York trips suddenly made me aware of how obtrusive and loud subway announcements can be. I visited the US many times in the years between when I left (summer 2012) and the start of the pandemic in early 2020, so even while living first in Canada and then in a succession of European capitals known to Americans chiefly as vacation spots, I found New York reassuringly familiar. The two-year gap between when corona started and when I first came back this March should not have been that big, and yet it was. And the constant annoyance of those messages hit me.

I know a lot of people writing about their experiences in New York talk about how it changed dramatically during corona. I get some of this – I see some differences, even if not in as much detail as people who have been here in the city throughout and survived the spring of 2020. But this is not, as far as I remember, a difference. The New York City Subway was always like this – always this hectic and stressful, not so much because of the passengers as because of the system itself. I’ve just, over the years, gotten used to the much more focused and less noisy European systems.

I focus on the announcements because, having talked to some other immigrants who don’t speak the language very well or used not to – a task that’s easier for me in Berlin than in New York – I’ve gotten more sensitive to the issue of tuning out announcements.

The issue here is that passengers learn to tune out unnecessary announcements. “This is 57th Street, Brooklyn-bound F, next stop is 50th Street-Rockefeller Center, stand clear of the closing doors” is a fine announcement. Passengers learn to tune out the ending, but that’s fine – the rest of the message stands and helps anchor where the train is and how long it is until my station.

The problem is announcements like “This is an important message from the New York City Police Department.” These are, at best, an irrelevant annoyance. Experienced riders tune them out and just learn to live with the random noise and distraction that they provide. Less experienced ones may wait for something useful and be disappointed it’s another useless public service announcement.

But one should not assume the best. Annoying announcements are worse than useless, for two reasons. First, any announcement telling people to be afraid of crime is counterproductive. Scared passengers react to such announcements or signs by feeling up their wallets to make sure they’re still there, alerting every thief as to their wallets’ locations on their persons.

And second, the effect on system legibility for riders who speak poor English is large and negative. Such riders strain to get the meaning until they realize it was for nothing, and they might well assume any announcement other than the stops is like this and miss real information. Announcements other than regular stops may be irrelevant PSAs, but they may also be important information about the trip, such as service changes down the line, and the more riders who tune them out, the more they are going to miss connections and attempt to get on a train that isn’t running.

This is really a matter of universal design. Even experienced riders who (like most New Yorkers) speak the language fluently sometimes tune out real announcements and make mistakes. But this effect is larger for new riders, especially immigrants who struggle with the language.

The right way to structure announcements is not to say anything that isn’t directly relevant to the trip. Stations and connections should be announced, and so should service changes on the line itself or on connecting lines. PSAs should not exist; they make the user experience worse and improve nothing except the self-satisfaction of managers who do not use their own system.

One- and Two-Seat Rides

All large urban rail networks rely on transfers – there are too many lines for direct service between any pair of stations. However, transfers are still usually undesirable; there is a transfer penalty, which can be mitigated but not eliminated. This forces the planners who design urban and suburban rail systems to optimize: too many transfers and the trips are too inconvenient, too few and the compromises required to avoid transfers are also too inconvenient. How do they do it? And why?

Of note, the strategies detailed below are valid for both urban rail and suburban commuter rail systems. Multi-line commuter rail networks like the RER and the Berlin S-Bahn tend to resemble urban rail in their core and work in conjunction with the rest of the urban rail network, and therefore strategies for reducing the onerousness of transferring work in much the same way for both kinds of systems. Suburban strategies such as timing half-hourly trains to meet connecting buses are distinct and outside the scope of this post.

Transfer penalties

Passengers universally prefer to avoid transfers between vehicles, keeping everything else constant. The transportation studies literature has enough studies on this pattern that it has a name: transfer penalty. The transfer penalty consists of three elements:

  • Walking time between platforms or bus curbs
  • Waiting time for the connecting train or bus
  • An independent inconvenience factor in addition to the extra time

One meta-study of this topic is by Iseki-Taylor-Miller of the Institute for Transportation Studies. There’s a bewildering array of different assumptions and even in the same city the estimates may differ. The usual way this is planned in elasticity estimates is to bundle the inconvenience factor into walking and waiting times; passengers perceive these to be more onerous than in-vehicle time, by a factor that depends on the study. Iseki-Taylor-Miller quote a factor as low as 1.4-1.7 and Lago-Mayworm-McEnroe’s classic paper, sourced to a Swedish study, go up to 3; Teulings-Ossokina-de Groot suggest it is 2, which is the figure I usually use, because of the convenience of assuming worst-case scenario for waiting time (on average, the wait is half the headway).

The penalty differs based on the quality of station facilities, and Fan-Guthrie-Levinson investigate this for bus shelter. However, urban rail estimates including those in the above meta-studies are less dependent on station facilities, which are good in all cases.

Mitigating the transfer penalty

Reducing the transfer penalty for riders can be done in three ways, if one believes the model with a constant penalty factor (say 2):

  • Reducing the number of transfers
  • Reducing walking time between platforms
  • Reducing waiting time for trains

All three are useful strategies for good urban rail network planning, and yet all three are useful only up to a point, beyond which they create more problems than they solve.

Reducing transfers

The most coherent network planning principle for reducing passengers’ need to transfer is to build radial rail networks. Such networks ideally ensure each pair of lines intersects once in or near city center, with a transfer, and thus there is at most one transfer between any pair of stations. A circumferential line may be added, creating some situations in which a three-legged trip is superior in case it saves a lot of time compared with the two-legged option; in Moscow, the explicit purpose of the Circle Line is to take pressure off the congested passageway of the central transfer connecting the first three lines.

In general, the most coherent radial networks are those inherited from the Soviet tradition of metro building; the London Underground, which influenced this tradition in the 1920s, is fairly radial itself, but has some seams. It’s important in all cases to plan forward and ensure that every pair of lines that meets has a transfer. New York has tens of missed connections on the subway, and Tokyo has many as well, some due to haphazard planning, some due to an explicit desire to build the newer lines as express relief lines to the oversubscribed older lines.

On a regional rail network, the planning is more constrained by the need to build short tunnels connecting existing lines. In that case, it’s best to produce something as close to a coherent radial network with transfers at all junctions as possible. Through-running is valuable here, even if most pairs of origins and destinations on a branched commuter line trunk still require a transfer, for two reasons. First, if there is through-running, then passengers can transfer at multiple points along the line, and not just at the congested city center terminus. And second, while through-running doesn’t always cut the transfer for suburb-to-suburb trips, it does reliably cut the transfer for neighborhood-to-suburb trips involving a connection to the metro: a diameter can be guaranteed to connect with all radial metro lines, whereas a radius (terminating at city center) will necessarily miss some of them, forcing an extra transfer on many riders.

Reducing walking time

The ideal transfer is cross-platform, without any walking time save that necessary to cross a platform no more than 10-15 meters wide. Some metro building traditions aim for this from the outset: London has spent considerable effort on ensuring the key Victoria line transfers are cross-platform and this has influenced Singapore and Hong Kong, and Berlin has accreted several such transfers, including between the U- and S-Bahn at Wuhletal.

However, this is not always viable. The place where transfers are most valuable – city center – is also where construction is the most constrained. If two lines running under wide streets cross, it’s usually too costly to tilt them in such a way that the platforms are parallel and a cross-platform transfer is possible. But even in that case, it’s best to make the passageways between the platforms as short as possible. A cruciform configuration with stairs and an elevator in the middle is the optimum; the labyrinthine passageways of Parisian Métro stations are to be avoided.

Reducing waiting time

The simplest way to reduce waiting time is to run frequently. Passengers’ willingness to make untimed transfers is the highest when frequency is the highest, because the 2-minute wait found on such systems barely lengthens one’s trip even in the worst case, when one has frustratingly just missed the train.

Radial metro networks based on two- rather than one-seat rides pair well with high frequency. Blog supporter and frequent commenter Threestationsquare went viral last month when he visited Kyiv, a Soviet-style three-line radial system, and noted that due to wartime cuts the trains only run every 6-7 minutes off-peak; Americans amplified this and laughed at the idea that base frequency could be so high that a train every 7 minutes takes the appellation “only.”

When frequency is lower, for example on a branch or at night, cross-platform transfers can be timed, as is the case in Berlin. But these are usually accidental transfers, since the core city center transfers are on frequent trunks, and thus the system is only valuable at night. Moreover, timed transfers almost never work outside cross-platform transfers, which as noted above are not always possible; the only example I’m aware of is in Vienna, where a four-way transfer with stacked parallel platforms is timed.

This is naturally harder on a branched commuter rail system. In that case, it’s possible to set up the timetable to make the likeliest origin-destination pairs have short transfer windows, or even one-seat rides. However, in general transfers may require a wait as long as the system’s base clockface intervals, which is unlikely to be better than 20 minutes except on the busiest trunks in the largest cities; even Paris mixes 10-, 15-, and occasionally 20- and 30-minute intervals on RER branches.

Who Learns from Who?

My interactions with Americans in the transit industry, especially mainline rail, repeatedly involve their telling me personally or in their reports that certain solutions are impossible when they in fact happen every day abroad, usually in countries that don’t speak English. When they do reference foreign examples, it’s often shallow or even wrong; the number of times I’ve heard American leftists attribute cost differences to universal health care abroad (in most of these countries, employers still have to pay health benefits) is too high to count. Within the US, New York stands head and shoulders above the rest in its incuriosity. This is part of a general pattern of who learns from who, in which the US’s central location in the global economy and culture makes it collectively stupid.

Symmetric learning

Some learning is symmetric. The Nordic countries learn from one another extensively. The Transit Costs Project’s Sweden case study has various references in the literature to such comparisons:

This goes beyond transportation. People in the four mainland Nordic states constantly benchmark their own national performance to that of the other three on matters like immigration, education, energy, corona, and labor. This appears in the academic literature to some extent and is unavoidable in popular culture, including media and even casual interactions that I had in two years of living in Sweden. Swedes who criticize their country’s poor handling of the corona crisis don’t compare it with Taiwan or South Korea but with Norway. Likewise, Swedes who think of a country with open hostility to immigration think of Denmark rather than, say, the United States, Italy, or Lithuania.

Other macro regions exist, too, with similar levels of symmetric learning. The German-speaking world features some of this as well: the advocacy group ProBahn has long championed learning from Switzerland and Austria, and the current Deutschlandtakt plan for intercity rail is heavily based on both Swiss practice and the advocacy of ProBahn and other technically adept activists. Switzerland, in turn, developed its intercity rail planning tradition in the 1980s and 1990s by adopting and refining German techniques, taking the two-hour clockface developed in 1970s Germany under the brand InterCity and turning it into a national investment strategy integrating infrastructure construction with the hourly timetable.

This, as in the Nordic countries, goes beyond transport. Where Swedes’ prototype for hostility to immigrants is Denmark, Germans’ is Austria with its much more socially acceptable extreme right.

Asymmetric learning

Most of the learning from others that we see is not symmetric but asymmetric: one place learns from another but not vice versa, in a core-periphery pattern. Countries and cities prefer to learn from countries that are bigger, wealthier, and culturally more dominant than they are. In our Istanbul case, we detail how the Turks built up internal expertise by bringing in consultants from Italy, Germany, and France and using those experiences to shape new internal practices.

In Europe, the biggest asymmetry is between Southern and Northern Europe. Few Spaniards, Italians, and Turks believe that their respective countries build higher-quality infrastructure than Germans – some readily believe that the costs are lower but assume it must be lower quality rather than higher efficiency. The experts know costs are low, but anything better from Northern Europe or France penetrates into Southern European planning with relative ease. It didn’t make it to the infrastructure-focused Italian case, but Marco Chitti documents how the German clockface schedule is now influencing Italian operations planning, for example here and here on Twitter. Spain’s high-speed rail infrastructure provides another example: it was deeply influenced by France in the 1990s, including the idea of building it, the technical standards and the (unfortunate) operating practices, but the signaling system is more influenced by Germany.

In contrast, in the other direction, there is little willingness to learn. Nordic capital planners and procurement experts cite other Northern European examples (in and out of Scandinavia) as cases to learn from but never Southern European or French ones. The same technically literate German rail activists who speak favorably of Swiss planning look down on French high-speed rail, and one American ESG investor even assumed Italy is falsifying its data. In the European core-periphery model, the North is the core and the South and East are the periphery, and the core will not learn from the periphery even where the periphery produces measurably better results.

Domestically, it’s often the case that smaller cities learn from larger ones in the same country. Former Istanbul Metropolitan staff members were hired by the state, and many staff and contractors went on to build urban rail projects in Bursa, İzmir, and Mersin. In France, RATP acts as consultant to smaller cities, which do not have in-house capacity for metro construction, and overall there is obvious Parisian influence on how such cities build their urban rail. In Italy, Metropolitana Milano has acted as consultant to other cities. This is the primary mechanism that makes construction costs so uniform within countries and within macro regions like Scandinavia.

In this core-periphery model, the Anglosphere is the global core, the United States views itself as its core (Britain disagrees but only to some extent), and New York is the core of the core. New Yorkers respond to any invocation of another city or country with “we are not [that country],” and expect that their audience will believe that New York is superior; occasionally they engage in negative exceptionalism, but as with positive exceptionalism, it exists to deflect from the possibility of learning.

This asymmetry may not be apparent in transportation – after all, Europe and Asia (correctly) feel like they have little to learn from the United States. But on matters where the United States is ahead, Europeans and Asians notice. For example, the US military is far stronger than European militaries, even taking different levels of spending into account – and Europeans backing an EU army constantly reference how the US is more successful due to scale (for examples, here, here, and here). Likewise, in rich Asia, corporations at least in theory are trying to make their salaryman systems more flexible on the Western model, while so little learning happens in the other direction that at no point did Europe or the US seriously attempt to imitate Taiwan’s corona fortress success or the partial successes of South Korea and Japan.

In this schema, it is not surprising that New York (and the United States more generally) has the highest construction costs in the world, and that London has among the highest outside the United States. Were New York and London more institutionally efficient than Italian cities, Italian elites would notice and adapt their practices, just as they have begun to adapt German practices for timetabling and intermodal integration.

Superficial learning

On the surface, Americans do learn from the periphery. There are immigrant planners at American transit agencies. There’s some peer learning, even in New York – for example, New York City Transit used RATP consultants to help develop the countdown clocks, which required some changes to how train control works. And yet, most of this is too shallow to matter.

What I mean by “shallow” is that the learning is more often at the level of a quip comment, with no followup: “[the solution we want] is being used in [a foreign case],” with little investigation into whether it worked or is viewed positively where it is used. Often, it’s part of a junket trip by executives who hoard (the appearance of) knowledge an refuse to let their underlings work. Two notable examples are ongoing in Boston and the Bay Area.

In Boston, the state is making a collective decision not to wire the commuter rail network. Instead, there are plans to electrify the network in small patches, using battery trains with partial wiring; see here and follow links for more background. Battery-electric trains (BEMUs) exist and are procured in European examples that the entire Boston region agrees are models for rail modernization, so in that sense, this represents learning. But it’s purely superficial, because nowhere with the urban area size of Boston or the intensity of its peak commuter rail traffic are BEMUs used. BEMUs trade off higher equipment cost and lower performance for lower infrastructure costs; they’re used in Germany on lines that run an hourly three-car train or so, whereas Massachusetts wants to foist this solution on lines where peak traffic is an eight-car train every 15 minutes.

And in San Jose, the plan for the subway is to use a large-diameter bore, wide enough for two tracks side-by-side as well as a platform in between, to avoid having to either mine station cavern or build cut-and-cover stations. This is an import from Barcelona Metro Lines 9 and 10, and agency planners and consultants did visit Barcelona to see how the method works. Unfortunately, what was missing in that idea is that L9 is by a large margin Spain’s most expensive subway per kilometer, and locally it is viewed as a failure. In Rome, the same method was studied and rejected as too risky to millennia-old monuments, so the most sensitive parts of Metro Line C use mined stations at very high costs by Italian standards. Barcelona’s use case – a subway built beneath a complex underground layer of older metro lines – does not apply to San Jose, which is building its first line and should build its stations cut-and-cover as is more usual.

No such superficiality is apparent in the core examples of both symmetric and asymmetric learning. Swedes, Danes, Finns, and Norwegians are acutely aware of the social problems of one another, and will not propose to adopt a system that is locally viewed as a failure. At most, they will propose an import that is locally controversial, with the same ideological load as at its home. In other words, if a Swede (or more generally a Western European) proposes to import a solution from another European country that is in its home strongly identified with a political party or movement, it’s because the Swede supports the movement at home. This can include privatization, cancellation of privatization, changes to environmental policy, changes to immigration policy, or tax shifts.

This includes more delicate cases. In general the US and UK are viewed as inegalitarian Thatcherite states in Sweden, so in most cases it’s the right that wants to Anglicize government practice. But when it comes to monetary policy, it was Stefan Löfven who tried to shift Riksbank policy toward a US-style dual mandate from the current single mandate for price stability, which the left views as too austerian and harsh toward workers; globally the dual mandate is viewed as more left-wing and so it was the Swedish left that tried to adopt it.

In contrast, in superficial learning, the political load may be the opposite of what it is in its origin country, because the person or movement who purport to want to import it are ignorant of and incurious about its local context. Thus, I’ve seen left-wing Americans proposing education reforms reinvent the German Gymnasium system in which the children of the working class are sent to vocational schools, a system that within Germany relies on the support of the middle-class right and is unpopular on the left.

Individual versus collective knowledge

Finally, I want to emphasize that the issue is less about individual knowledge and learning than about collective knowledge. Individual Americans are not stupid. Many are worldly, visit other countries regularly and know how things work there, and speak other languages as heritage learners or otherwise. But their knowledge is not transmitted collectively. Their peers view it at best as a really cool hobby rather than a key skill, at worst as a kind of weirdness.

For example, an American planner who speaks Spanish because they are a first- or second-generation Hispanic immigrant is not going to get a grant to visit Madrid, or for that matter Santo Domingo, and form horizontal ties with planners and engineers there to figure out how to build at low Spanish or Dominican costs. Their peers are not going to nudge them to tell them more about Hispanic engineering traditions and encourage them to develop their interests. American culture writ large does not treat them as benefiting from bicultural ties but instead treats them as deficient Americans who must forget the Spanish language to assimilate; it’s the less educated immigrants’ children who maintain the Spanish language. In this way, it’s not too different from how Germany treats Turks as a social problem rather than as valuable bicultural ambassadors to a country with four times Germany’s housing production and one third its metro construction costs.

Nor is experience abroad valued in planning or engineering, let alone in politics. A gap year is a fun experience. Five years of work abroad are the mark of a Luftmensch rather than valued experience on a CV, whereas an immigrant who comes with foreign work experience will almost universally find this experience devalued.

Even among the native-born, the standard pipelines through which one expresses interest in foreign ideas are not designed for this kind of learning. The United States most likely has the strongest academic programs in the world for Japanese studies, outside Japan itself. Those programs are designed to critique Japanese society, and Israeli military historian of Japanese imperialism Danny Orbach has complained that from reading much of the critical theory work on the country one is left to wonder how it could have ever developed. It goes without saying such programs do not prepare anyone to adapt the successes of the big Japanese cities in transportation and housing.

This, as usual, goes beyond transportation. I saw minimal curiosity among Americans in the late 2000s about universal health care abroad, while a debate about health care raged and “every rich country except the US has public universal health care” was a common and wrong line among liberals. Individual Americans and immigrants to the US might be able to talk about the French or Japanese or Israeli or Ghanaian health care system, but nobody would be interested to hear except their close friends; political groups they were involved with would shrug that off even while going off about the superiority of those countries’ health care (well, not Ghana’s, but all of the other three for sure, in ignorance of Israel’s deep problem with nosocomial infections, responsible for 9-14% of the national death rate).

The result is that while individual Americans can be smart, diligent, and curious, collectively the United States is stupid, lazy, and ignorant on every matter that other parts of the world do better. This is bad in public transportation and lethal in those aspects of it that use mainline rail, where the US is generations behind and doesn’t even know where to start learning, let alone how to learn. It’s part of a global core-periphery model in which Europe hardly shines when it comes to learning from poorer parts of Europe or from non-Western countries, but the US adds even more to that incuriosity. Within the US, the worst is New York, where even Chicago is too suspect to learn from. No wonder New York’s institutions drifted to the point that construction costs in the city are 10 times higher than they can be, and nearly 20 times as high as absolute best practice.

More on Six-Minute Service in New York

Two years ago I wrote about how New York should aim to run every bus and subway service every six minutes off-peak. Buses would require a combination of aggressive bus redesign and speedup treatments for this to be viable. The subway already has very low variable operating costs off-peak and such a boost in frequency would naturally increase efficiency; New York City Transit gets around 550 service-hours annually per train driver, whereas the Berlin U-Bahn with its flat all-day schedule gets around 900. But now, the more mainstream New York-area transit advocacy group Riders’ Alliance has its own proposal for six-minute service, which it has aggressive marketed using the hashtag #6minuteservice.

This is a good campaign and I hope more people in the region take notice and push for it until the state implements it in full. The impact on passenger convenience is massive, not just in the form of shorter waits but also higher reliability coming from better timetabling, and hopefully also slightly more speed coming from said higher reliability. The proposal says that it would take $250 million a year in extra spending to effect this system, and it’s unknown but plausible that it would increase ridership by enough to defray this cost entirely, even without any efficiency treatments to reduce unit costs.

What’s in the Riders’ Alliance proposal?

Between 5 am and 9 pm on weekdays, and between 8 am and 10 pm on weekends, all subway routes and the top 100 bus routes in the city should run at worst every six minutes. This echoes a report by the comptroller’s office from last year, recommending this as an alternative to rush hour-focused service by bringing up corona-related ridership decreases.

It’s not stated but I think the subway routes in question are reckoned by letter or number, which means the A train runs every six minutes but each of its two branches runs every 12. This is fine – the two branches of the A are exceptionally far out, which is why a single service splits to them, where elsewhere in New York each branch gets its own number or letter.

The implications for timetabling

Timetabling a consistent all-day service is much easier than timetabling bespoke service patterns. The Riders’ Alliance proposal aims to face the general public rather than planners and therefore omits this benefit, but this benefit reaches passengers as well, in non-obvious ways.

First, if all trains and buses run every six minutes, then it’s possible to set up clockface timetables. These don’t matter very much if they run every six minutes, but they do if they run every 12, as I expect the two A branches to. The same is true of buses that branch: some outer ends may run every 12 minutes, in which case they can and should run on repeating clockface timetables that passengers can memorize. Passengers who can remember “my bus leaves at :01, :13, :25, :37, and :49” without having to consult timetables or trip planners all the time are likelier to take the trip; this was my commute for a year in Vancouver.

The A train today runs every 15 minutes on each branch but it’s not on a consistent clockface schedule, which depresses ridership. In effect, current practice is little different from what Swiss planners warn of: they say the best way to reduce ridership is to run service every 11, 13, or 17 minutes, rather than every 12 or 15 on a clockface pattern.

Second, if all trains run on the same frequency, then service planning on a complexly interlined system like New York’s becomes more tractable. Today, every train runs on a separate frequency, often different from the services it shares track with. The 2 and 3 trains share track most of the way, from Franklin Avenue to 135th Street, but the 2 is just a little more frequent, resulting in the following northbound timetable at Franklin:

10:03: 2
10:07: 3
10:12: 2
10:15: 3
10:21: 2
10:28: 3
10:32: 2
10:34: 3
10:37: 2
10:41: 3
10:43: 2
10:49: 2
10:51: 3
10:57: 3
11:01: 2
11:03: 3
11:09: 2
11:15: 3
11:17: 2
11:22: 3
11:24: 2
11:28: 3

This is irregular both on the trunk and on each individual service – the 2 on average runs every eight minutes but has a 12-minute gap, and the 3 runs on average every nine but also has a 12-minute gap. It’s an unavoidable consequence of the combination of extensive reverse-branching and subway frequency guidelines that run different services at different headways. The six-minute service proposal straightens this by aligning the trains to a single frequency, with regular alternation between successive trains on trunks.

And third, another benefit of a regular frequency to planning is that schedule planners can reliably avoid merge conflicts. This, in turn, speeds up service, which is full of planned delays and schedule padding at pain points. It’s not a full substitute for deinterlining, which would eliminate the merge conflicts at the worst junctions, but it makes it viable to no longer write impossible schedules with the planning department that New York City Transit has.

Service quality and demographics

Both Riders’ Alliance and the comptroller report it uses as its source point out demographic differences between peak and off-peak riders: rush hour subway commuters have a median income of $50,783 a year, even higher (slightly) than drivers, but off-peak subway commuters have a median income of $37,048 and bus commuters have a median income of $30,374.

In both reports this is taken to be indicative that off-peak service is mostly for poorer people, but it’s not the right analysis. The picture that emerges from the data is not that in general rush hour commuters outearn off-peak commuters; for one, most off-peak commutes are done by car, not by public transportation. Rather, what’s going on is that off-peak public transit quality is bad and this suppresses ridership among those who can afford a car.

By the same token, we can look at the incomes of commuters in regions of the United States that have no public transit to speak of – maybe some buses or even a few trains but with rounding-error ridership and low single-digit modal split. In metro New York, public transit and car commuters have about the same median income, and in some secondary transit cities like Chicago public transit commuters actually outearn drivers, since service to non-CBD destinations is so bad it suppresses ridership below median income more than above it. But in places like Los Angeles, the median income of transit commuters is not much more than half that of car commuters, because service quality is so bad that anyone who can afford to drive does.

The upshot of this is that better off-peak transit service is going to increase the average income of off-peak transit users, by attracting people who currently drive. This is also going to lead to higher-socioeconomic status shifts: higher levels of degree attainment, a larger proportion of white riders, a larger proportion of native-born riders.

I bring this up because a rise in the relative average income of users as service quality improves means the improvement is working as intended. It doesn’t mean the subway is gentrifying or turns away poorer riders, it just means it no longer repels riders who can afford to drive. This is important, because too much American transit planning is based on market segmentation in which service is supposed to be for a specific class of rider, and if the demographics are changing it means it’s being revamped for a different class. In reality, there’s just one transit system for one city and income differences are indicative of quality differences and not of inherent differences in the travel market.

How much does this cost? What is the ridership impact?

The Riders’ Alliance proposal says the additional cost of the program is $250 million a year in operating expenses. In 2019, NYCT spent $8.8 billion on operations and got $4.6 billion in fares, so this is in theory a 6% increase in subsidy, and in practice a little less as better service attracts more fare-paying riders. This is without any concurrent attempts to use the increase in service to increase efficiency (read: reduce unit staffing levels) and, I think, without bus speedups that permit much higher frequency for the same cost.

It’s unclear what the revenue impact should be; the ridership impact can be estimated from longstanding results in the literature about ridership-frequency elasticity, which in the case of NYCT should be about 0.4. The proposal increases off-peak service on the subway by around 50% in principle and a bit more in practice because of the reduced variability in frequency, say two-thirds: most lines are to go from 10- to six-minute headways and the rest, which are mostly more frequent than this, get a smaller increase that we round up to two-thirds by taking the impact of higher reliability into account. This means an increase in off-peak ridership of around 23%. The bus impact is even larger – in Brooklyn the median bus headway is right between 12 and 15 minutes, and even taking into account that the busiest buses do much better, this is close to a doubling of the effective frequency.

In turn, most ridership is off-peak. In 2019, peak (7-10 am) ridership into the Manhattan core was 923,000 per weekday, amounting to 44% of ridership entering the Manhattan core on a weekday, or around 33% of all inbound weekday ridership and 27% of all ridership. Even adding a bit to account for peak ridership that doesn’t enter Manhattan, only about a third of subway ridership in New York was at the peak before corona; the peak share has fallen since, but is slowly creeping back up as workers slowly return to the office. Raising two-thirds of ridership by 23% is massive – it’s a 15% systemwide increase for a much smaller increase in operating costs, and a somewhat larger increase in bus ridership to boot.

Unfortunately, I can’t turn this into a revenue impact estimate. While the demographics in the section above specify off-peak commuters, the studies that my ridership estimate is based on measure riders, including peak commuters who ride more often for non-work trips. Such riders already have monthly passes, so making it easier for them to ride is excellent for the city’s long-term health but doesn’t defray the added cost. Converted riders who are not already on the system as well as the odd peak rider who doesn’t already have a pass do generate more revenue, but I don’t know how many there are; these need to be a little more than a third of the overall increase in ridership to fully defray costs, which sounds plausible to me.

Subway Expansion to Kingsborough Community College

One of the perennial wishlist items for New York subway expansion is Nostrand Avenue. The 2 and 5 trains run under the avenue between Eastern Parkway and Brooklyn College, a distance of 4 km; from the start, the line was intended to be extended farther south, and in both the 1950s and 1970, there were plans for such extension as well as one shortly to the east under Utica, to be built right after Second Avenue Subway. The case for Nostrand and Utica remains strong – these two streets host Brooklyn’s two busiest buses (the B44 and B46 respectively), and another top route, the B41 on Flatbush, is closely parallel. The purpose of this post is to ask what the southern end of Nostrand should be, and whether a longer extension going to Kingsborough Community College is a good idea.

Nostrand: current plans

All plans I am aware of for extending the subway under Nostrand have it following the street to Sheepshead Bay. For example, my proposal from 2019 would terminate it right at the water, at Emmons Avenue, where the B44’s southern end is. This reflects official proposals over the last few generations: a Nostrand subway is to run just under Nostrand.

Kingsborough Community College

Right across geographic Sheepshead Bay from the neighborhood named after the bay, the eastern end of geographic Coney Island comprises the neighborhood of Manhattan Beach. It is not a dense area, and for the use of residents, there are buses to the Brighton Beach subway station. However, at the easternmost end of Manhattan Beach, Kingsborough Community College (KBCC) is a huge destination.

How huge? The bus serving it, the B1, is one of the busiest in Brooklyn, with some rush hour runs just operating back and forth as short-hop shuttles between Brighton Beach and KBCC, a distance of 2 km. Frequency at rush hour reached a bus every 3-4 minutes before corona.

This is not easily legible to commuter-oriented planning tools like OnTheMap. That area has only 1,000 jobs; KBCC itself doesn’t generate many jobs, nor does it anchor other industries around it that aim to employ graduates. Those planning tools can capture other universities if they’re more residential and higher-end – those have a higher ratio of faculty to students, have ample research labs, and anchor employers who look to locate near residential students. In contrast, a commuter college is largely invisible to them. In reality, there are 18,000 students, all of whom commute from elsewhere.

How much ridership does this generate?

KBCC has 18,000 students, and the overall area has 1,000 workers. If the modal split were 100%, this should generate 38,000 trips per weekday; commuter colleges don’t generate as many non-commute trips as do residential colleges. In reality, the modal split is not 100%, but it should be high given the low car ownership rates in the city, especially low for college students.

The bigger question is what proportion of the travel market would ride a Nostrand subway in preference to a rail-bus connection at Brighton Beach. This in turn depends on the state of the rest of the system. If the Interborough Express or some variant of it is already built, then from all points on or north of the IBX route, an all-rail route is superior to a rail-bus connection. If it isn’t, then it’s dicier, and from much of Southern Brooklyn from the Brighton Line to the west, the B1 is likely faster.

IBX should be built ahead of such a connection based on current plans, so the assumption should be the more optimistic one – and, of course, if there is long-term planning for subway extensions, then this should figure as an argument in favor of IBX. KBCC is hardly the only place that, despite being far from IBX, IBX can help riders access. In that scenario, 30,000 trips a day are not unrealistic, and 20,000 should be conservative.

How much should this cost?

I do not know. In an unusual inversion, I’m more confident of the benefits than the costs. The travel market is fairly circumscribed. In contrast, the costs have a question mark, because of the premium coming from underwater construction.

With no premium at all, New York should be able to reduce its construction costs for subways to $200 million per km on average, and less on easy sections, that is, on outer extensions of the system in the Outer Boroughs. But Nostrand has a high water table, and the underwater segment across Sheepshead Bay is not easy; figure $250-300 million per km, with a wide error margin.

This is not an onerous cost. It’s about 600-700 meters longer than the usual plan for Nostrand to Emmons, and presumably the whole route would be built at once with a tunnel boring machine, so the fixed costs are already paid. So $200 million is probably a reasonable cost.

Eno’s Project Delivery Webinar

Eno has a new report out about mass transit project delivery, which I encourage everyone to read. It compares the American situation with 10 other countries: Canada, Mexico, Chile, Norway, Germany, Italy, South Africa, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. Project head Paul Lewis just gave a webinar about this, alongside Phil Plotch. Eno looks at high-level governance issues, trying to figure out if there’s some correlation with factors like federalism, the electoral system, and the legal system; there aren’t any. Instead of those, they try teasing out project delivery questions like the role of consultants, the contracting structure, and the concept of learning from other people.

This is an insightful report, especially on the matter of contract sizing, which they’ve learned from Chile. But it has a few other gems worth noting, regarding in-house planning capacity and, at meta level, learning from other people.

How Eno differs from us

The Transit Costs Project is a deep dive into five case studies: Boston, New York, Stockholm (and to a lesser extent other Nordic examples), Istanbul (and to a lesser extent other Turkish examples), and the cities of Italy. This does not mean we know everything there is to know about these cases; for example, I can’t speak to the issues of environmental review in the Nordic countries, since they never came up in interviews or in correspondence with people discussing the issue of the cost escalation of Nya Tunnelbanan. But it does mean knowing a lot about the particular history of particular projects.

Eno instead studies more cases in less detail. This leads to insights about places that we’ve overlooked – see below about Chile and South Korea. But it also leads to some misinterpretations of the data.

The most significant is the situation in Germany. Eno notes that Germany has very high subway construction costs but fairly low light rail costs. The explanation for the latter is that German light rail is at-grade trams, the easiest form of what counts as light rail in their database to build. American light rail construction costs are much higher partly because American costs are generally very high but also partly because US light rail tends to be more metro-like, for example the Green Line Extension in Boston.

However, in the video they were asked about why German subway costs were high and couldn’t answer. This is something that I can answer: it’s an artifact of which subway projects Germany builds. Germany tunnels so little, due to a combination of austerity (money here goes to gas subsidies, not metro investments) and urbanist preference for trams over metros, that the tunnels that are built are disproportionately the most difficult ones, where the capacity issues are the worst. The subways under discussion mostly include the U5 extension in Berlin, U4 in Hamburg, the Kombilösung in Karlsruhe, and the slow expansion of the tunneled part of the Cologne Stadtbahn. These are all city center subways, and even some of the outer extensions, like the ongoing extension of U3 in Nuremberg, are relatively close-in. The cost estimates for proposed outer extensions like U7 at both ends in Berlin or the perennially delayed U8 to Märkisches Viertel are lower, and not too different per kilometer from French levels.

This sounds like a criticism, because it mostly is. But as we’ll see below, even if they missed the ongoing changes in Nordic project delivery, what they’ve found from elsewhere points to the exact same conclusions regarding the problems of what our Sweden report calls the globalized system, and it’s interesting to see it from another perspective; it deepens our understanding of what good cost-effective practices for infrastructure are.

The issue of contract sizing in the Transit Costs Project

Part of what we call the globalized system is a preference for fewer, larger contracts over more, smaller ones. Trafikverket’s procurement strategy backs this as a way of attracting international bidders, and thus the Västlänken in Gothenburg, budgeted at 20,000 kronor in 2009 prices or around $2.8 billion in 2022 prices, comprises just six contracts. A planner in Manila, which extensively uses international contractors from all over Asia to build its metro system (which has reasonable elevated and extremely high underground costs), likewise told us that the preference for larger contracts is good, and suggested that Singapore may have high costs because it uses smaller contracts.

While our work on Sweden suggests that the globalized system is not good, the worst of it appeared to us to be about risk allocation. The aspects of the globalized system that center private-sector innovation and offload the risk to the contractor are where we see defensive design and high costs, while the state reacts by making up new regulations that raise costs and achieve little. But nothing that we saw suggested contract sizing was a problem.

And in comes Eno and brings up why smaller contracts are preferable. In Chile, where Eno appears to have done the most fieldwork, metro projects are chopped into many small contracts, and no contractor is allowed to get two adjacent segments. The economic logic for this is the opposite of Sweden’s: Santiago wishes to make its procurement open to smaller domestic firms, which are not capable of handling contracts as large as those of Västlänken.

And with this system, Santiago has lower costs than any Nordic capital. Project 63, building Metro Lines 3 and 6 at the same time, cost in 2022 PPP dollars $170 million/km; Nya Tunnelbanan is $230 million/km if costs don’t run over further, and the other Nordic subways are somewhat more expensive.

Other issues of state capacity

Eno doesn’t use the broader political term state capacity, but constantly alludes to it. The report stresses that project delivery must maintain large in-house planning capacity. Even if consultants are used, there must be in-house capacity to supervise them and make reasonable requests; clients that lack the ability to do anything themselves end up mismanaging consultants and making ridiculous demands, which point comes out repeatedly and spontaneously for our sources as well as those of Eno. While Trafikverket aims to privatize the state on the British model, it tries to retain some in-house capacity, for example picking some rail segments to maintain in-house to benchmark private contractors against; at least so far, construction costs in Stockholm are around two-fifths those of the Battersea extension in London, and one tenth those of Second Avenue Subway Phase 1.

With their broader outlook, Eno constantly stresses the need to devolve planning decisions to expert civil servants; Santiago Metro is run by a career engineer, in line with the norms in the Spanish- and Portuguese-language world that engineering is a difficult and prestigious career. American- and Canadian-style politicization of planning turns infrastructure into a black hole of money – once the purpose of a project is spending money, it’s easy to waste any budget.

Finally, Eno stresses the need to learn from others. The example it gives is from Korea, which learned the Japanese way of building subways, and has perfected it; this is something that I’ve noticed for years in my long-delayed series on how various countries build, but just at the level of a diachronic metro map it’s possible to see how Tokyo influenced Seoul. They don’t say so, but Ecuador, another low-cost Latin American country, used Madrid Metro as consultant for the Quito Metro.