I was recently asked about the issue of incrementalism in infrastructure, with specific reference to Strong Towns and its position against big projects (e.g. here). It’s useful to discuss this right now in context of calls for a big infrastructure-based federal jobs program in the United States. The fundamental question to answer is, what is the point of incremental projects?
The issue is that the legitimate reason to prefer less ambitious projects is money. If a new subway tunnel costs $5 billion, but you only have the ability to secure $1.5 billion, then you should build what you can for $1.5 billion, which may be a tram rather than a subway, or surface improvements to regional rail instead of a new regional rail tunnel, etc.
A secondary legitimate reason is that even if there is more money, sometimes you get better results out of building something less flashy. This is the electronics-before-concrete approach – in a developed country it’s almost always cheaper to invest in signaling, electrification, and platform upgrades than to build new tunnels. This can look incremental if it’s part of a broader program: for example, if there’s already investment in electrification in the region then extending wires is incremental, so that completing electrification on the commuter rail lines in New York, reopening closed suburban branches in Philadelphia with new wires, and even completing electrification in a mostly-wired country like Belgium and the Netherlands would count.
But the example of electrification in a mostly already electrified place showcases the differences between cost-effectiveness and incrementalism. The same investment – electrification – has a certain cost-effectiveness depending on how much train traffic there is. There’s a second-order effect in that the first line to be electrified incurs the extra cost of two train fleets and the last line has a negative cost in no longer needing two fleets, but this isn’t relevant to first order. Nonetheless, electrifying a system where electrification is already familiar is considered incremental, to the point that there were extensions of electrification in suburban New York in the 1980s and there remain semi-active projects to build more, whereas electrifying one that is currently entirely diesel, like Boston, is locally considered like a once-in-a-generation project.
And that is the real problem. American cities are hardly hotbeds of giant flashy construction. They barely are in highways – big highway construction plans are still done but in suburbs and not anywhere where public transit is even remotely relevant. And transit construction plans are always watered down with a lot of reconstruction and maintenance money; most of the money in the Los Angeles sales tax measures that are sold to the urbanist public as transit measures is not about rail construction, which is why with money programmed through 2060 the region is going to only have one full subway line; an extension of the Red Line on South Vermont is scheduled to open in 2067, partly because construction costs are high but mostly because there are maintenance projects ahead in line.
So in reality, there are two real reasons why incrementalism is so popular in the United States when it comes to transportation, neither of which is legitimate. Both are types of incompetence, but they focus on different aspects of it.
The first reason is incompetence through timidity. Building something new, e.g. rail electrification in Boston or in California, requires picking up new knowledge. The political appointees in charge of transit agencies and the sort of people who state legislators listen to do not care to learn new things, especially when the knowledge base for these things is outside their usual social networks. Can Massachusetts as a state electrify its rail network? Yes. Can it do so cheaply? Also yes. But can the governor’s political appointees do so? Absolutely not, they are incurious and even political people who are not beholden to the governor make excuses for why Massachusetts can’t do what Israel and Norway and New Zealand and Austria and Germany do.
In that sense, incrementalism does not mean prudence. It means doing what has been done before, because the political people are familiar with it. It may not work, but it empowers people who already have political clout rather than sidelining them in favor of politically independent technocrats from foreign countries who might be too successful.
The second reason is incompetence through lack of accountability. This is specific to an approach that a lot of American urbanists have backed, wrongly: fix-it-first, or in its more formal name state of good repair (SOGR). The urbanist emphasis on SOGR has three causes: first, in the 1980s New York had a critical maintenance backlog and neglected expansion in order to fix it, which led to positive outcomes in the 1990s and 2000s; second, in highways, fix-it-first is a good way to argue against future expansion while hiding one’s anti-car ideology behind a veneer of technical prudence; and third, Strong Towns’ specific use case is very small towns with serious issues of infrastructure maintenance costs and not enough residential or commercial demand to pay for them, which it then generalizes to places where there’s more market demand for growth.
In reality, the situation of 1980s’ New York was atypical. Subsequently, the SOGR program turned into a giant money pit, because here was an opportunity to spend enormous sums of capital construction money without ever being accountable to the public in the form of visible expansion. Ask for a new rail line and people will ask why it’s not open – California got egg on its collective face for not being able to build high-speed rail. Ask for SOGR and you’ll be able to brush away criticism by talking about hidden benefits to reliability. Many passengers may notice that trains are getting slower and less reliable but it’s easier in that case to intimidate the public with officious rhetoric that sounds moderate and reasonable.
Incrementalism is fundamentally a method of improving a legitimate institution. The EU needs incremental reform; China needs a democratic revolution. By the same token, in infrastructure, incrementalism should be pushed when, and only when, the status quo with tweaks is superior to the alternatives. (Note that this is not the same as electronics-before-concrete – what Switzerland did with its rail investment in the 1990s was very far-reaching, and had tangible benefits expressed in trip times, timed connections, and train frequency, unlike various American bus redesigns.) Strong Towns does not believe that there’s anything good about the American urban status quo, and yet it, and many urbanists, are so intimidated by things that happened in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s that they keep pushing status quo and wondering why there is no public transportation outside about eight cities.
Normally, the best interstation distance between subway or bus stops does not depend on population density. To resurrect past models, higher overall density means that there are more people near a potential transit stop, but also that there are more people on the train going through it, so overall it doesn’t influence the decision of whether the stop should be included or deleted. Relative density matters, i.e. there should be more stops in areas that along a line have higher density, for example city centers with high commercial density, but absolute density does not. However, there is one exception to the rule that absolute density does not matter, coming from line spacing and transfer placement. This can potentially help explain why Paris has such tight stop spacing on the Métro and why New York has such tight stop spacing on the local subway lines.
Stop spacing and line spacing
The spacing between transit stops interacts with that between transit lines. The reason is that public transportation works as a combined network, which requires every intersection between two lines to have a transfer. This isn’t always achieved in practice, though Paris has just one missed connection on the Métro (not the RER), M5/M14 near Bastille; New York has dozens, possibly as many as all other cities combined, but the lines built before 1930 only have one or two, the 3/L in East New York and maybe the 1/4-5 around South Ferry.
The upshot is that the optimal stop spacing depends on the line spacing. If the line spacing is tight – say this is Midtown Manhattan and there is a subway line underneath Lex/Park, Broadway, 6th, 7th, and 8th – then crossing lines have to have tight stop spacing in order to connect to all of these parallel lines. In the other direction, there were important streetcars on so many important cross-streets that it was desirable to intersect most or ideally all of them with transfers. With so many streetcar lines extending well past Midtown, it is not too surprising that there had to be frequent subway stops.
So why would denser cities have tighter line spacing?
Line spacing and density
The intuitive relationship between line spacing and density is that denser cities need more capacity, which requires them to build more rail lines.
To see this a bit more formally, think of an idealized city on a grid. Let’s say blocks are 100*100 meters, and the planners can figure out the target density in advance when designing the subway network. If the city is very compact, then the subway could even be a grid, at least locally. But now if we expect a low-density city, say 16 houses per block, then the subway grid spacing should be wide, since there isn’t going to be much traffic justifying many lines. As the city densifies, more subway is justifiable: go up to missing middle, which is around 30-40 apartments per block; then to the Old North of Tel Aviv, which would be around 80; then to a mid-rise euroblock, which is maybe 30-40 per floor and 150-200 per block; then finally a high-rise with maybe 500-1,000 apartments.
Each time we go up the density scale, we justify more subway. This isn’t linear – an area that fills 500 apartments per block, which is maybe 100,000 people per km^2, does not get 20 times the investment of an area on the dense side of single-family with 16 houses per block and 5,000 people per km^2. Higher density justifies intensification of service, with bigger and more frequent trains, as well as more crowding. With more subway lines, there are more opportunities for lines to intersect, leading to more frequent stop spacing.
Even if the first subway lines are not planned with big systems in mind, which New York’s wasn’t, the idea of connections to streetcar lines was historically important. A stop every 10 blocks, or 800 meters, was not considered on the local lines in New York early on; however, stops could be every 5 blocks or every 7, depending on the spacing of the major crosstown streets.
Dense blobs and linear density
Line spacing is important to stop spacing not on parallel lines, but crossing lines. If a bunch of lines go north-south close to one another, this by itself says little about the optimal spacing on north-south lines, but enforces tight spacing on east-west lines.
This means that high density encourages tight stop spacing when it is continuous in a two-dimensional area and not just a line. If large tracts of the city are very dense, then this provides justification for building a grid of subway, since the crosstown direction is likely to fill as well; in New York, 125th Street is a good candidate for continuing Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 as a crosstown line for this reason.
In contrast, if dense development follows a linear corridor, then there isn’t much justification for intense crosstown service. If there’s just one radial line, then the issue of line spacing is moot. Even if there are two closely parallel radial lines in the same area, a relatively linear development pattern means there’s no need for crosstown subways, since the two lines are within walking distance of each other. The radial urban and suburban rail networks of Tokyo and Seoul do not have narrow interstations, nor do they have much crosstown suburb-to-suburb service: density is high but follows linear corridors along rapid transit. Dense development in a finger plan does not justify much crosstown service, because there are big low-density gaps, and suburb-to-suburb traffic is usually served efficiently by trips on radial lines with a transfer in city center.
It’s been a while since I last wrote this series, where I covered the American, Soviet, and British traditions of building urban rail. I’d like to return by focusing attention on the French tradition, which has been influential not just within France itself but also to some extent former French colonies, especially Quebec.
An issue I hope to return to soon is the extent to which France has not truly decolonized; former French colonies in Africa, especially the Maghreb, rely on French technical expertise for construction, and often outsource their monetary policy (as with the CFA franc, but Morocco too has a peg to a dollar and euro mix). This matters, because this means the French way of building urban transit is influential in former French colonies in Africa, whereas the British tradition’s impact on India, Nigeria, and so on is limited.
The history of Paris
Like Britain, the USSR, and the US, France has a dominant financial center that its smaller cities aim to imitate. This imitation has been much more extensive than in the US and UK – to the extent that secondary French cities diverge in design principles from the capital, they do things that were fashionable in Paris at the time they built out their rail networks rather than things that were fashionable in Paris when Paris built the Métro. Thus, it is especially valuable to look at the history of urban rail in Paris.
The Paris Métro opened in 1900, as the world’s fifth metro system. Already then, it had a critical feature that the previous four (London, Budapest, Chicago, Glasgow) lacked: it was a centrally planned multi-line system. The city planned a coordinated system of what would become Lines 1-6, in the shape of a # in a circle: Lines 1 and 3 would run east-west, Lines 4 and 5 would run north-south, and Line 2, eventually split into Lines 2 and 6, would run the trace of the wall that delineated the city’s pre-1860 boundary.
The Métro was a municipal effort run by the municipal CMP, designed around the city’s needs, which included not just good transportation but also separation from the working-class suburbs. Whereas the London Underground was mostly technologically compatible with the mainline system, the Métro was deliberately designed not to be, to protect the urban middle class from transport integration with the suburban poor. This led to the following features:
- The trains are extremely narrow, 2.4-2.44 meters wide, compared with about 2.9 m on the mainline; the deep Tube trains in London, held to have the narrowest loading gauge on a standard-gauge railway, are 2.68 m wide.
- The interstation distance is very short, 562 meters on average. Paris is compact and dense and the short interstations are only a real problem in the suburbs.
- The trains run on the right, like French road traffic, whereas French trains run on the left.
- No legacy lines were incorporated into the system, unlike in New York and London, and thus the shape of the network looks much more like how one would design a metro network from scratch and less like how old West London branches or Brooklyn excursion lines looked.
Like New York and Berlin and unlike London, Paris built the Métro cut-and-cover. The lines built before the 1990s all closely follow streets except when they cross the river – and in the 1900s the Line 4 river crossing was the hardest part of the system to build, opening in 1908 whereas the rest of the network had opened by 1906. This was done entirely by hand, forcing the lines to curve where the streets did, which led to two notable warts. First, while most of the system had a design standard of 60 meter curve radii, Line 1 goes down to 40 at Bastille. And second, Line 5, which crosses the Seine on a bridge, cannot serve Gare de Lyon; the engineers could not get it to curve that way while still running through to Gare d’Austerlitz and the Left Bank, so instead the transfer point between Lines 1 and 5 is Bastille, and more recently the RER A and Line 14 both cross Line 5 without a transfer as they run express from Gare de Lyon to Châtelet.
That said, the missed connection between Lines 5 and 14 is the only one in the system, though two more are under construction on Line 14 extensions. Only one among the major metro systems of the world runs entirely without missed connections, the Mexico City Metro, which has unusually low line density in the core and unusually many tangential lines.
The suburbs and the RER
The Métro’s deliberate exclusion of the suburbs made sense from the point of view of a middle-class Parisian in 1900 who was mortally afraid of the working class. But by the 1930s, it was leading to serious design constraints. Further Métro extensions both densified the network and extended it outward, and in the 1930s, lines began to extend past city limits, to such suburbs as Lilas, Issy, Neuilly, and Montreuil. The short interstations made longer extensions infeasible, and some solution involving regional rail was needed.
In 1938, CMP bought and electrified the Ligne de Sceaux, which alone among the Paris commuter lines had reached close to city center, terminating at Jardin du Luxembourg rather than at the farther away rail stations, which are located at or just inside the M2/M6 ring. Then after the war, as suburbanization intensified and commuter traffic at Gare Saint-Lazare grew increasingly congested, CMP’s successor RATP collaborated with SNCF on connecting regional rail branches to form an express system, that is the RER; the Ligne de Sceaux became the southern half of the RER B, while a similar branch going east paired with one of the Saint-Lazare lines to form the RER A. Through-service opened in 1977, roughly at the same time as the German S-Bahn through-tunnels, but the system grew much larger as Paris was and remains far larger than any German city.
But it is not exactly correct to view the RER as identical to a German S-Bahn, or to one of the RER’s inspirations, the Tokyo through-running system. A number of features characterize it, some shared with other urban regional rail systems, some not:
- There are multiple trunk lines through the city, which form something like a coherent network among themselves, and do not share rolling stock. The biggest warts are that the RER B and D share tracks (but no platforms) on one interstation, and that the RER C mostly stays on the Left Bank, legacy of when planning in Paris conceived of the area around Saint-Michel as a central area to be served, where in reality it is decidedly secondary to the CBD stretching from Les Halles to Champs-Elysées.
- It runs largely, though not entirely, on separate tracks from non-RER lines.
- It is locally viewed as deficient to Métro service – researchers who use the RER B to get to IHES think of it as lower-quality, lower-class service than the Métro in the city and its immediate suburbs. I suspect that this is why Grand Paris Express is designed around Métro standards rather than as intensification of RER service, while RER expansion has fallen to the wayside.
- RER-Métro integration is imperfect: the fares are integrated but there are still barriers between RER and Métro platforms, and there are many missed RER-Métro connections, whereas in Berlin the S-Bahn and U-Bahn have only one missed connection between them.
- The interstation is around 2-3 km, but it’s actually slightly longer on the new urban tunnels build for the RER A, B, D, and E than on the legacy lines in the inner suburbs; this feature also exists in a much more extreme form in the United States, but in Berlin and Tokyo it is completely absent.
Exporting Parisian ideas
Parisian metro planning influenced Montreal, Mexico City, and the smaller French cities, in chronological order. We see any of the following features in those cities:
- Rubber-tired metros. This technology was in vogue in postwar Paris, which converted Lines 1, 4, and 11 to it figuring this was just better than steel wheels, and also Line 6, figuring that an elevated line would benefit from a quieter propulsion system.
- Non-radial network design. London and the systems inspired by it, including all Eastern bloc systems, have radial design, with nearly all lines entering a relatively small city center. Paris expanded its #-in-a-circle system to a combination of a radial network and a grid, with a large number of pairs of parallel lines. Mexico City, the largest system inspired by Paris, is rich in tangential lines but has only three lines serving city center, which are by far the three busiest.
- Short interstations, though this is truer domestically than in Montreal and Mexico City.
- Driverless operations. This technology became popular in the 1980s, starting with the Lille Metro, and France has used it on new lines in Paris (M14) and elsewhere (Lyon Line D, both lines in Toulouse), also innovating in converting manual lines to automatic on Paris M1 and now M4. While the Parisian lines are full-size metro lines, the other ones are light metro running shorter vehicles, often with extensive elevated service.
- Separation between regional rail and metro service. Montreal is sufficiently North American to have given up on regional rail entirely, but Lyon and Marseille are investing in better regional rail, run separately from the local urban transit system but with some degree of integration.
- Light rail. France’s modern light rail systems do not originate in Paris – Nantes opened its system in 1985, suburban Paris only in 1992 – but Paris has a notable feature that isn’t common elsewhere in Western Europe: it is a mixed system with some Métro lines and some tram lines filling in the gaps. This mixed system is also present in Lyon, Marseille, and Toulouse, whereas Bordeaux, Strasbourg, and Nice have entirely tram-centric systems. But in no case is there any subway-surface running as in the United States or Germany: lines are either clearly trams or clearly metros, rather than mixtures, and it is the system that is mixed, not the individual line.
Has France decolonized?
Like Britain, France did not take its geopolitical disempowerment at the end of World War Two easily. Both countries have maintained superpower pretensions, decolonizing but trying to treat their former colonies as their spheres of influence as much as possible. In Britain, this relationship broke down – the ex-colonies were being too loud in the Commonwealth, leading the country to seek to join the EU instead. In France, this relationship remains in Africa, and notable not in Southeast Asia, where Vietnam is buildings its urban rail networks with Chinese and Japanese financing.
But France is not just providing financing to infrastructure projects in its former (or current?) African colonies. It has a permanent presence. In researching Arab rail infrastructure, Anan Maalouf has noted that Alstom has had a subsidiary operating in Algeria since 2002, which does not exist elsewhere in the Arab world. This way, French firms maintain close knowledge of the situation in the Maghreb, where incomes and productivity levels are much lower than in France, so that different methods are optimal from those common in rich countries.
Nonetheless, what they build remains noticeably French. For example, the Sfax tramway does not look too different from what Bordeaux or Nice has. The Tunis Métro looks rather like a French tramway system too, despite the name; of note, even though the Tunis Métro branches, and has some underground segments, those segments are not on line trunks and thus the system does not form a subway-surface or Stadtbahn network.
I haven’t gone too much into intercity rail, but it is worth mentioning that Morocco has a high-speed rail system, built with French technical assistance and running TGV equipment.
Does this work?
Yes and no.
The Paris system works. It is not perfect, and in particular the integration between the Métro and the RER could be better; at least one tram line should be a full metro line (a completed T3 ring), and suburban extensions should generally use the RER, with more investment in RER capacity within the city as well. That said, public transport usage is higher in Paris than in its closest comparison, that is London; Paris’s system is also superior in both overall usage and future prospects to that of another megacity in Europe, Moscow. Only Istanbul could potentially do better in the future, in the context of extremely low construction costs.
That said, Paris is a giant that casts a long shadow, which doesn’t always work well for secondary cities. Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, and the other secondary French cities aren’t too different in modal split from similar-size British cities, and are behind Vancouver, a North American city with extensive postwar growth. German cities in the Lyon size class do a lot better. See for example data here and here.
The weird features of France, like the love for rubber tires, are not that relevant overall, but do point out that France is relatively insular, and mostly adopts domestic ideas developed in Paris rather than ideas from elsewhere in Europe, let alone Asia. (Yes, I know about Japanese influence on the initial RER; however, there have been 50 years of divergence since, same as with German tram-trains and American light rail.) This has been especially problematic with regional rail. France does not have frequent takts anywhere – even Paris only has takt timetables off-peak, running a separate schedule at rush hour, whereas the German takt plan is repeated throughout the day and the peak can only have supplemental service.
The issue is that Paris does not need to think in terms of repeating schedules, because it is so big that the RER trunks run every 5 minutes off-peak. It thinks of the RER as mostly separate trunk lines with dedicated fleets, because the primary problem is train capacity through city center. In Lyon, let alone smaller cities, this is not the main issue. There do exist a handful of individual lines running an off-peak takt elsewhere in France, but integration with urban rail remains imperfect and a comparison with Vienna, Copenhagen, Zurich, Stuttgart, and Hamburg would not be favorable. It matters that, like Britain, France has such a dominant capital that it doesn’t know how to scale down to provide rail service in a metropolitan area where if the transfers aren’t perfectly timed, people won’t ride.
I’m sometimes asked about the private sector’s role in infrastructure. I’ll cover this more broadly in the future, but for now, let me pour some cold water on the idea that a private actor could build an urban rail system for profit. This is a political and not technical problem: it is possible to build a few (but not many) urban rail lines that, at good but not unheard of construction and operating costs, would generate decent financial returns. However, such lines are extremely vulnerable to confiscation of profits by government at all levels, especially the local level. Moreover, it is not possible for a local government to give any credible guarantee of security of property for a private rail line.
Lines and extensions
There is a great many rail lines in the world where new construction can be profitable. For example, Tokyo subway lines turn a profit, and the government is not building more because it demands a minimum of 3% rate of financial return – and Tokyo has high construction costs. Seoul has low costs, and it’s plausible that if Tokyo could build subways at the cost of Seoul, it would go over the 3% threshold. London is roughly breaking even on the Underground, and I think Berlin is on the U-Bahn, so some of the stronger extensions might be profitable too.
However, in such cases, the profitable additions are mostly extensions of existing lines. These can be profitable, but not to a private operator, only to the agency that controls the existing line. Even new lines often come as part of a broader system designed around transfers; for example, a short line under consideration in Tokyo is designed to connect existing rail lines in Central Tokyo with the growing waterfront area. Usually, these lines work best with free transfers, so an independent operator can’t easily build them – it’s possible Tokyo will build the line as an independent one with extra fares for transfers rather than as a Toei subway, but if so this will be unusual by global standards.
That said, there do exist places where an independent actor could build an entirely new line and not have to worry too much about connections. The example I keep going back to is Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, where a line could connect Downtown San Francisco, say around Transbay Terminal (or even Union Square to save money and avoid tunneling under Market Street), with the Outer Richmond. The bus along this route has 57,000 riders per weekday, and the total including closely parallel routes is 110,000. Bus connections are useful, but a subway on Geary could succeed without them. The same is true of connections to the BART and Muni subways at Market Street – free transfers would be really useful, but the San Francisco central business district is strong enough that a private investor might well take the hit on ridership to avoid being too entangled with public governance.
A few more plausible independent lines include the Downtown Relief Line planned for Toronto, an east-west line between Queens and New Jersey via Midtown Manhattan, and and maybe even the dormant U10 for Berlin; U10 is unlikely to work at all without fare integration, but fortunately the Verkehrsverbund Berlin-Brandenburg provides a local mechanism for revenue sharing without getting too entangled in public governance, though even then I don’t think the returns would be high enough to interest a private investor.
Some technically plausible returns
Let’s focus on Geary in San Francisco. Total ridership on or parallel to the route is 110,000 per weekday, but that’s on slow buses. A rapid transit line would get much more than that – 250,000 is plausible on a very frequent driverless train averaging 35 km/h end-to-end. High frequency would also encourage off-peak ridership, but let’s keep the annual-to-weekday ridership ratio at 300, typical of New York, and not the higher figures seen in London, since passengers would have to pay a separate fare to connect to non-CBD destinations. So this is 75 million riders a year.
What’s the plausible average fare? The Richmond is a middle-class neighborhood, but even there, fares significantly above the current Muni rate are likely to discourage ridership. Muni currently charges $2.50 one-way or $81 for a monthly ($98 with BART, but we’re assuming no free transfers). Assuming New York behavior again, a pass holder averages 46 trips a month; averaging with occasional riders, let’s say this is $2/trip, or $150 million a year.
Against this, what’s the operating cost? If 75 million trips a year average 5 km (half the route length), and there are 30 passengers per car (the New York subway average, and 20% more than the commuter-oriented BART average), this is 12.5 million car-km per year. This is equivalent to 19 5-car trains per hour in each direction 18 hours a day every day. The non-New York first-world range of operating costs is $4-7.5 per car-km as of 2014, but none of the systems studied in the report is all or even mostly driverless, and entirely driverless operations as in Vancouver would reduce costs to the low end of this range. So make it around $50 million a year in operating costs, plus maybe $8 million in depreciation on rolling stock – and let’s even bump it up a bit to $70 million because the maintenance workers are local, even if everything else can be offshored, and San Francisco wages are high. So, $80 million in operating profits per year.
Finally, the construction costs. This is a 10 km line, so at the global median of construction costs this is $2.5 billion. But Scandinavia, Southern Europe, and Korea are all capable of substantially below-median construction – and Nordic working-class wages aren’t necessarily lower than Californian ones. $1.5 billion is plausible, and even $1 billion is ambitious but not outside the realm of possibility if the line only runs to Union Square, not Transbay Terminal.
Profiting $80 million a year on $1.5 billion in investment is thus plausible, giving somewhat better returns than 5%. There’s risk inherent in the figure – costs may escalate, ridership may disappoint, operating costs may be higher than expected. All three happened almost from the dawn of rail technology – they all were rampant in the Railway Mania. The good news is that there is also some upside – office growth in the center of San Francisco could generate more demand, and mass upzoning in the Richmond could happen and was recently a near-miss in the state legislature.
Nonetheless, 5% returns at this level of risk, given decent confidence in one’s cost control, are still reasonable. However…
The government will confiscate profits
Unfortunately for any prospective private investor, the city and state governments have a large toolkit with which to confiscate all profits:
- Impact fees – such a subway would have positive impact on the neighborhood, but the city can still find grounds to levy fees.
- Nuisance suits – groups can invent grounds to sue on and demand bribes (“community benefits”) in exchange for dropping the suit.
- Construction regulations demanding more expensive methods that are (or seem) less disruptive, e.g. a ban on the use of cut-and-cover even for stations.
- Requirements that all workers be unionized and that nothing be outsourced, even things that can be done remotely like the control center.
- Rules calling all new housing construction along the line a benefit to the company, for which the company has to pay a fee.
- Unfunded mandates for fare discounts for seniors, children, the poor, and other groups; the city can pay these discounts out of its own budget, but why not claw into the profits of a private rail operator?
- Hearings at the inevitable objections (someone is always unhappy) in which legislators demand personal favors (“community benefits,” again) in exchange for a yes vote.
The operating requirements, like the unfunded discount mandate, can always be imposed in the future in case the operator profits more than expected. This means that there is not much upside – if profits are higher, there will be more confiscation. The effective profit rate net of the cost of compliance with regulations approaches zero. It may well be negative – the city has every interest in driving a private operator that just spent $1.5 billion of its own money on a subway into liquidation, buy out the infrastructure, and operate service itself.
This in fact happened in New York in the 1920s and 30s. Starting under Mayor John Hylan, the city used regulatory denials to deliberately drive the private streetcar companies out of business. Simultaneously, through the construction of the IND to compete with the private IRT and BMT subways and through denial of a fare hike from 5 cents a ride to 10 cents even after post-WW1 inflation halved the value of the dollar, the city did the same to the private subway operators; the IRT went bankrupt in the Depression, and in 1940 the city bought it and the BMT out.
Obedience, emigration, or the graveyard
The state, or any actor more powerful than you, always offers you this choice. The meaning of obedience is flexible (the political opposition in a democracy is still obedient), and the meaning of the graveyard is usually not literal (“you’ll never work in this town again,” not “you will be killed”). But the choice is still this.
The main way of avoiding the graveyard, emigration, is not available here. Subways are physically fixed infrastructure. If a local government doesn’t like you, you can’t take your capital and move somewhere else. For this reason, owners of tangible property, like small business owners, have had anti-socialist politics going back to the emergence of socialism as a real political force around the Paris Commune, whereas skilled workers didn’t mind socialism as much.
Modifying the meaning of obedience is possible in a place with stronger norms of rule of law. In a capitalist country, earning a profit and paying the normal corporate tax rather than 100% is obedience – the risk is not federal confiscation but state or local confiscation, where the United States never established such norms, relying on the threat of capital flight to lower-tax, lower-regulation states to discipline governments.
I brought up the example of Berlin because I think that here the threat of local confiscation is smaller (but not zero – witness the rent control bill), but even then it’s unlikely to be a 250,000 riders/10 km line – it’s probably a breakeven line or slightly better, ideal for public but not private construction. For the most part, the subway lines that can be profitably built in the EU have already been built; there aren’t huge cities here with unique construction cost problems, except London, where I don’t think there’s an even semi-decent case for any rail line that’s not an extension of existing lines (counting Crossrail as an inward extension of suburban lines).
However, within the US and probably also Canada, even a well-capitalized corporation can’t really modify the meaning of obedience to include profitably constructing urban infrastructure. It can only emigrate, which in this case means knowing not to allocate capital to fixed infrastructure in the first place. Even if apparent returns beat the market, which I don’t think they do, the real returns will be zero so long as state and local governments remain as they are.
MTA Chair Pat Foye and Interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg, have announced that the subway will close overnight in order to improve subway cleaning. For the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, the subway will close between 1 and 5 every night for disinfection. Ben Kabak has covered this to some extent; I’m going to focus on best industry practices, which do not require a shutdown. There are some good practices in Taipei, which has regular nighttime shutdowns but sterilizes trains during the daytime as well. It appears that the real rub is not cleaning but homelessness – the city and the state are both trying to get homeless people off the subway and onto the street.
How to disinfect a subway system
Alex Garcia of Taipei Urbanism shared with me what the Taipei MRT plans on doing in response to the virus, depending on how much it affects the system. As soon as there are any domestic cases within Taiwan, the plan says,
a. Sterilize equipment in each station that passengers might frequently come into contact with. (Sterilize once every 8 hours)
b. Carriages: Cleaning and sterilization before the daily operational departure and again when the carriage returns back to the terminal each day.
c. Place hand sanitizer devices at the information counter of the station for public use.
Moreover, if an emergency is declared, then the frequency of cleaning is to increase:
a. Station :
1. Sterilize equipment that passengers might frequently come into contact with at each station. (Sterilize once every 4 hours)
2. Daily disinfection of public station facilities: After operational hours the whole station, including passenger traffic flow areas and facilities, will be disinfected.
b. Carriage :
1. Sterilize equipment that passengers might frequently come in contact with. Sterilize once every 8 hours when the carriage returns to the terminal station.
2. Daily wipe down of entire carriages with disinfectant before each day’s first departure.
3. Once notified by the health authority about any confirmed or suspected case that have traveled on the MRT, intensify the cleaning and disinfection along the route taken by the passenger within 2 hours.
Moreover, the Taipei plan calls for providing all frontline workers with protective equipment, including masks, goggles, and hand sanitizer, as soon as any domestic case of the virus is detected. Moreover, all staff are subject to temperature checks at the start of the day, to prevent sick workers from infecting healthy ones. This way, infection levels among workers can be kept to a minimum, allowing service to proceed without interruption.
It is noteworthy that the frequent cleaning regimen operates during the daytime, and not just overnight. Sterilizing trains every 8 hours means working around their service schedules, disinfecting them during off-peak periods with lower frequency. Taipei has not cut weekday service frequency, only weekend frequency, and the weekday peak-to-base ratio is low, about 1.5 on the Green Line.
With these measures in place, and similar vigilance across Taiwanese society, the country has gone 6 days without any new case of the virus. There is no lockdown and never was one, and Taipei MRT ridership only fell 15-16% on weekdays.
What New York is doing
Foye and Feinberg announced that the subway would close overnight between 1 and 5 am so that trains could be disinfected once per day. Is daily disinfection sufficient? Almost certainly not, given the spread of the virus around the city. Does it take four hours? Of course not, cleaning can be done in minutes. And must it be done at night? Again no, New York has cut so much service that there’s a large fleet of spare trains, making rotating equipment between service and cleaning easy. It’s likely that it is possible to sterilize trains every roundtrip while they wait at the terminal.
The goal here is not about cleanliness. The subway is dirty and getting worse as cleaning staff get sick and can’t come to work, but a program designed to improve the system would look profoundly different. It would equip subway workers with protective gear, especially the cleaners; it would keep running service; it would look for ways to eliminate fomites like the push turnstiles; it would disinfect trains and stations at short intervals.
The homelessness issue
There are serious concerns with homelessness in New York, as in many other cities. This is aided by sensationalist reporting that blames homeless people for any number of problems, playing to middle-class prejudices about visible poverty. As Ben notes, NYPD swept the subway with cops but not social workers. Hotels are empty all over the city, but there is no attempt at using them for either centralized quarantine or extra shelter space. There are existing shelters, but they are unsafe and people who have been unsheltered for a while know this and avoid them for a reason.
New York is a big, expensive, high-inequality city. It has visible poverty, including homelessness. It could offer homeless people housing – empty hotels would do, employing hotel workers to do work that is already done at shelters by overtaxed volunteers. The problem is that many aggrieved people want medieval displays of police power against people who it is okay to be violent toward; they do not want to solve problems. This issue is not unique to New York: in San Francisco, sanisette installations ran into the problem that one stall had people defecating on the floor, leading the city to decide to staff every sanisette 24/7, turning what was designed as a self-cleaning system for high-cost cities for €14,400 a year per unit into a $700,000/year money sink. American cities spend millions in enforcement to avoid spending pennies on social work.
Who is being empowered?
The broader question is whether the subway is dirty because of homeless people or because of inadequate cleaning, poor training for cleaners, lack of protective equipment, etc. The vast majority of dirt one sees on trains has pretty obvious origins in ordinary if antisocial riders: spilled drinks, gum stuck to the floor, overflowing trash cans, wrappers thrown on the tracks. However, it is convenient to blame homeless people for this – they can’t politically fight back, and many law-and-order voters and political operatives relish the sight of a cop dragging someone off the train.
This leads to the question, who is being empowered by blame? Any explanation of why things don’t work empowers someone, and explanations are easier to accept if they empower local political forces that the mainstream pays attention to. For example, if I say costs are high because of union pensions, then this automatically empowers the Manhattan Institute and other anti-union forces in the city; and if I say costs are high because managers micromanage and humiliate workers too much, then this empowers the unions.
The upshot is that blaming flagging subway ridership on homeless people making riders uncomfortable empowers law-and-order voters and middle-class people who dislike seeing visible poverty, both of which are groups that even relatively liberal political operatives pay attention to. In contrast, blaming flagging ridership on technical issues with speed and frequency empowers technocrats, who are usually politically invisible, and when they’re not, this can lead to a clash of authority, as seen in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s sidelining of Byford, leading to the latter’s resignation.
This cascades to cleaning. Taipei shows how one can clean trains and stations during service. New York should learn, but that means listening to people who are familiar with Taiwanese practices, and maybe synthesize with other clean Asian systems. Shutdowns that force essential workers onto slow buses and taxis are a terrible policy, but they’re a policy the current leadership does not need to talk to people in a foreign country to implement.
The MTA has weekly data on ridership by train station, which it divides into fare data, i.e. data by what kind of fare it is (single-use, monthly, etc.), and turnstile data, i.e. data by what bank of turnstiles was used to enter the station. MTA chief communications officer Abbey Collins talked to me briefly when I was writing this New York Daily News op-ed, and told me that the turnstile data is less accurate, so I am using the fare data.
Here is the table I’m using, comparing ridership in mid-January and the fourth week of March. It’s not fully sanitized, so some stations appear twice, which reflects multiple major entrances, e.g. the Times Square and the Port Authority sides of a single complex with in-system transfers. The relevant column is column E, labeled ratio. The highest-ratio station is Alabama Avenue on the J/Z, which has kept 53.5% of its January ridership; the next proper subway station, Bay Parkway on the F, is just at 38.6%, and it goes down from there. Overall, the ratio is 14.1%.
The general pattern is that the Manhattan CBD stations got pummeled. Grand Central has kept 7.5% of its pre-crisis ridership, and the Times Square side of the Times Square-Port Authority complex has kept 7.2%. A couple of Midtown and Lower Manhattan stations, like Rockefeller Center, are at the 5% mark. Practically no non-CBD station is this low, but one notable exception is Bedford Avenue on the L, in the center of Williamsburg. A few additional notable areas are in the 8-10% area, including more stations in Williamsburg, stations in Downtown Brooklyn and South Brooklyn, most stations on Central Park West, and Columbia. It’s notable that Columbia is low even though it has a major hospital, but it’s even more of a university.
Despite the stereotype, much of the Upper West and East Sides are not in the single digits. The key express stations, like 86th on the 4/5/6 and 72nd and 96th on the 1/2/3, are around 13-14%. Harlem is much higher, especially the busiest Harlem stations, 125th Street on the A/B/C/D and on the 4/5/6, both express stops, which have maintained 19.5% and 27.2% of ridership, respectively. 168th Street on the 1/A/C in Washington Heights is at 23.8%.
In general, working-class and lower middle-class stations seem to have maintained the most ridership. Jamaica Center, a key bus connection point to much of Eastern Queens, is by far the busiest among the >30% stations, at 35.3%. Utica Avenue on the 3/4 in Crown Heights is at 28.7%, and 149th Street on the 4/5/6 in the South Bronx is at 29.2%. Bedford-Stuyvesant is all over the map – Nostrand Avenue on the A/C is at 17.5%, Utica Avenue on the A/C is at 21.7%, the two Flushing Avenue stations are at about 27%, the Broadway stations on the J/Z past Flushing are in the teens.
I give those descriptive statistics because it relates to the question of subway ridership and the Covid-19 crisis. The crisis has hit outer neighborhoods harder than inner ones and working-class neighborhoods harder than middle-class ones, but beyond that pattern there is not much correlation at the level of detail. Bed-Stuy and Central Harlem have low infection rates and have maintained much more of their subway ridership than the city average.
The patterns probably concern essential workers. There are essential workers in all social classes, but more in the working class – cleaners, transit workers, sanitation workers, nursing assistants. The middle class supplies doctors and registered nurses, but there are fewer of these on the list of essential workers than lower-income, lower-education workers. Thus, middle-class neighborhoods, like the Upper East and West Sides, Astoria, Williamsburg, Sunnyside, Forest Hills, and Bay Ridge have below-average ratios, that is they’ve kept less of their ridership than the rest of the city.
One final pattern, or rather non-pattern, is that I can’t really see the hospitals on the table. The stations on the 2/5 closest to the Kings County Hospital, Winthrop Street and Church Avenue, are at 22.4% and 22.8% respectively, not too different from the rest of the Nostrand Avenue Line. The two Flushing Avenue stations have similar ratios, even though one is on top of Woodnull Medical Center and the other isn’t. 96th and 103rd Streets on the 6, the closest to Mount Sinai, have similar ratios to 110th and 116th farther up in East Harlem.
New York is the capital of the coronavirus pandemic, with around 110,000 confirmed cases and 10,000 confirmed deaths citywide, and perhaps the same number across its suburbs. There must be many reasons why this is so; one possibility that people have raised is infection from crowded subways, so far without much evidence. Two days ago, MIT economist Jeffrey Harris wrote a paper claiming that the subways did in fact seed the Covid-19 epidemic in New York, but the paper cites no evidence. Sadly, some people have been citing the paper as a serious argument, which it isn’t; the purpose of this post is to explain what is wrong with the paper.
New York and other subways
In multiple other countries, one cannot see the transit cities in the virus infection rates. In Germany the rates in the largest cities are collectively the same as in the rest of the country. In South Korea, the infection is centered on Daegu; Seoul’s density and high transit usage are compatible with an infection rate of about 700 in a city of 9.5 million, about 1.5 orders of magnitude less per capita than in most Western countries and 2.5 orders of magnitude less than in New York. In Taipei, the MRT remains crowded, with weekday ridership in February and March down by 15-16%. In Italy, car usage is high outside a handful of very large cities like Milan, and Milan’s infection rate isn’t high by the standards of the rest of Lombardy.
However, rest-of-world evidence does not mean that the New York City Subway is safe. The Taipei MRT has mandatory mask usage and very frequent cleaning. German U- and S-Bahn networks are a lot dirtier than anything I’ve seen in Asia, but much cleaner than anything I’ve seen in New York, and also have much less peak crowding than New York. New York uniquely has turnstiles requiring pushing with one’s hands or bodies, and the only other city I know of with such fare barriers is Paris, whose infection rates are far below New York’s but still high by French standards.
So the question is not whether rapid transit systems are inherently unsafe for riders, which they are not. It’s whether New York, with all of its repeated failings killing tens of workers from exposure to the virus, has an unsafe rapid transit system. Nonetheless, the answer appears to be negative: no evidence exists that the subway is leading to higher infection rates, and the paper does not introduce any.
What’s in the paper?
A lot of rhetoric and a lot of lampshade hanging about the lack of natural experiments.
But when it comes to hard evidence, the paper makes two quantitative claims. The first is in figure 3: Manhattan had both the least increase in infections in the 3/13-4/7 period, equivalent to a doubling period of 20 days whereas the other boroughs ranged between 9.5 and 14, and also the largest decrease in subway entries in the 3/2-16 period, 65% whereas the other boroughs ranged between 33% and 56%.
The second is a series of maps showing per capita infection levels by zip code, similar to the one here. The paper also overlays a partial subway map and asserts that the map shows that there is correlation of infection rates along specific subway routes, for example the 7, as people spread the disease along the line.
I will address the second claim first, regarding line-level analysis, and then the first, regarding the borough-level difference-in-differences analysis; neither is even remotely correct.
Can you see the subway on an infection map?
Here is a static version of the infection map by zip code:
This is cases for 1,000 people – note that my post about Germany looks at rates per 10,000 people, so the range in New York is consistently about an order of magnitude worse than in Germany. The map shows high rates in Eastern Queens, the North Bronx, and Staten Island, hardly places with high public transportation ridership. The rates in Manhattan and the inner parts of Brooklyn are on the low side.
There are no ribbons of red matching any subway line – there are clumps and clusters, as in Southern Brooklyn in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, and in Central Queens around Corona and East Elmhurst. There is imperfect but noticeable correlation with income – working-class areas have higher infection rates, perhaps because they have higher rates at which people are required to still show up to work, where they can be infected. East Asian neighborhoods have lower rates, like Flushing and environs, or to some extent Sunset Park; Asians are infected at noticeably lower rates than others in New York and perhaps in the rest of the Western world, perhaps because they took news in China more seriously, began practicing social distancing earlier, and wear masks at higher rates. There are many correlates, none of which looks like it has anything to do with using the public transportation network.
What’s more, the paper is not making any quantitative argument why the graph shows correlation with subway usage. It shows the graph with some lines depicted, often misnamed, for example the Queens Boulevard Line is called Sixth Avenue Local, leading to a discussion about higher infection rates on local trains than on express trains where in fact the F runs express in Queens. But it does not engage in any analysis of rates of subway usage or changes therein, or in infection rates. The reader is supposed to eyeball the graph and immediately agree with the author’s conclusion, where there is no reason to do so.
The claim about Manhattan is the only real quantitative claim in the paper. Unlike the zip code analysis, the borough analysis does make some statistical argument: Manhattan had larger reduction in subway usage than the rest of the city and also a slower infection rate. However, this argument relies on an N of 2. Among the other boroughs, there is no such correlation. The argument is then purely about Manhattan vs. the rest of the city. This is incorrect for so many reasons:
- Manhattan is the highest-income borough, with many people who can work from home. If they’re not getting infected, it could be from not commuting as much, but just as well from not getting the virus at work as much.
- The Manhattan subway stops are often job centers, so the decline in ridership there reflects a citywide decline. A Manhattanite who stops taking the subway is seen as two fewer turnstile entries in Manhattan, whereas a New Yorker from the rest of the city who does the same is likely to be seen as one fewer Outer Borough entry and one fewer Manhattan entry.
- Many Manhattanites left the city to shelter elsewhere, as seen in trash collection data.
- Manhattan’s per capita subway usage is probably higher than that of the rest of the city counting discretionary trips, so 65% off the usual ridership in Manhattan may still be higher per capita than 56% off in Brooklyn or 47% in Queens. (But this is false on the level of commuting, where Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn all have 60% mode share.)
Does the paper have any value?
I have heard people on Twitter claim that correlation is not causation. This argument is too generous to the paper, which has not shown any correlation at all, since the only quantitative point it makes has an N of 2 and plenty of confounders.
For comparison, my analysis of metro construction costs has an effective N of about 40, since different subway projects in the same country tend to have similar costs with few exceptions (such as New York’s extreme-even-for-America costs), and I consider 40 to be low enough that Eric Goldwyn and I must use qualitative methods and delve deep into several case studies before we can confidently draw conclusions. The paper instead draws strong conclusions, even including detailed ones like the point the paper tries to make about local trains being more dangerous than express trains, from an N of 2; it’s irresponsible.
But what about the workers?
A large and growing number of New York City Transit workers have succumbed to the virus. The current count is close to the citywide death toll, but transportation workers are by definition all healthy enough to be working, whereas citywide (and worldwide) the dead are disproportionately old or have comorbidities like heart disease. Echoing the union’s demands for better protection, Andy Byford had unkind words to say about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s appointees in charge of the system, MTA chair Pat Foye and acting NYCT chair Sarah Feinberg.
However, this is not the same as infection among passengers. The dead include workers who are in close proximity to passengers on crowded vehicles, such as bus drivers, but also ones who are not, such as train operators, maintenance workers, and cleaners. Train cleaners have to remove contaminated trash from the platforms and vehicles without any protective equipment; NYCT not only didn’t supply workers with protective equipment, but also prohibited them from wearing masks on the job even if they’d procured them privately. Contamination at work is not the same as contamination during travel.
So, should people avoid public transportation in New York?
If the best attempt to provide evidence that riding the subway is a health hazard in a pandemic is this paper, then that by itself is evidence that there is no health hazard. This is true even given New York City Transit’s current level of dirt, though perhaps not given its pre-crisis peak crowding level. Social distancing is reducing overall travel and this is good, not necessarily because travel is hazardous, but mostly because the destination is often a crowded place with plenty of opportunity for person-to-person infection.
In preparation for going back to normal, the current level of cleanliness is not acceptable. The state should make sure people have access to masks, even if they’re ordinary ones rather than N95 ones, and mandate their usage in crowded places including the subway once they are available. It should invest far more in cleaning public spaces, including the subway, to the highest standards seen in the rich countries of Asia. It should certainly do much more to protect the workers, who face more serious hazards than the riders. But it should not discourage people who are traveling from doing so by train.
Well before the coronavirus struck, I noticed how trains in Asia were cleaner than in Europe, which are for the most part cleaner than in the United States. There are overlaps: the elevated BTS in Bangkok is similar to the cleaner cities in Europe, like London (but the underground MRT is similar to Singapore and Taipei), while the Berlin U-Bahn is similar to the cleaner American cities, like maybe Washington. But for the most part, this holds. The issue of cleanliness is suddenly looking more important now in a pandemic.
How much cleaning is necessary overall?
It is unclear. Singapore has 56,000 registered cleaners and Taipei has 5,000; even assuming Taipei just refers to the city proper, Singapore has five times as many per capita. When I visited Taipei in December it was visibly messier, and Taipei City Mall felt more lived-in than comparable underpasses in Singapore, but the City Mall was not dirty, and the Taipei MRT did not feel any dirtier than the Singapore MRT. The infection rates in both countries are very low – Taiwan’s are much lower per capita nowadays, though this has other explanations, such as higher mask usage and less international travel.
How much cleaning is necessary for specific tasks?
In Singapore, SBS Transit announced increased cleaning levels on January 30th. Cleaners disinfect vehicles and stations at the following rates:
- Trains: every day
- Buses: every week
- Train stations: three times a day
- Bus stations: every two hours
In Japan, JR East’s Shinkansen trains are cleaned at Tokyo Station in 7 minutes. There are many pieces on the subject, describing how a crew of 22, comprising one cleaner per second-class car and two to three per first-class car (“green car”), sweeps an entire train so fast. Many of the tasks are not required for metro service, but passenger density is higher in metro service than in intercity service.
One advantage of regular cleaning, say once per roundtrip, is that there hasn’t been so much time for the train (or bus) to become grimy. Two hours’ dirt is easier to pick up, sweep, or water and dry than a day’s dirt.
How much does all of this cost?
Cleaner wages track local working-class wages, and differ greatly; a city with the per capita income of New York, Paris, or London will have to pay more than one with that of Berlin or Tokyo. On top of what the English-speaking middle class thinks is an appropriate wage for an unskilled worker the agency will need to pay a premium to account for the fact that fast cleaning is a difficult job even if the required education level for it isn’t high.
What is more controllable and comparable is staffing needs. The sources for JR East’s cleaning crew productivity differ, but the reasonable ones say it’s 20 trains per day. This already accounts for downtime, so if trains aren’t quite frequent enough for there to always be some train to occupy a cleaning crew, an agency is probably still capable of squeezing 20 trains per daily crew shift. If a roundtrip with turnaround time is two hours, then this means about one cleaning crew is needed per 2.5 trainsets operated in regular service, rising to about one cleaning crew per 1.8 trainsets taking weekend days into account; this can be adjusted if a train runs peak-only, since part-time shifts are common in this sector.
How can equipment be made easier to clean?
Some materials are easier to clean than others. Transit agencies should use these in future procurement, and look into emergency orders to retrofit existing trains and buses. Metal poles are easier to clean than leather straps, and hard plastic and metal seats are easier to clean than padded ones. I suspect that bench seating is easier to clean than bucket seating, since it is possible to run a mop down the entire bench.
As with schedule planning, cleaning planning should integrate operating and capital expense optimization. That is, public transportation agencies should budget for cleaning whenever they buy a bus or train or build a train station, and make decisions on layout and materials that reduce the spread of disease and increase the efficiency of cleaning as well as maintenance and other operating costs.
What else can be done?
Hand sanitizer! Taipei and Singapore both distribute it at stations, and if I remember correctly, so does Bangkok. It made me feel less grimy, especially after long walks in Taipei or any exposure to the outdoor air pollution of Bangkok.
In addition, fomite removal is a good idea, which means any of the following:
- Barrier-free train stations, or if not then automatic fare barriers like those of Taipei or Singapore or London rather than ones requiring pushing by hand as in New York and Paris.
- Automatic train doors, since implemented on newer trains in Berlin and I think in the rest of Europe as an emergency measure, without requiring button pushing.
- Disposable chopsticks for pressing buttons on elevators, as in South Korea.
Do passengers care?
Yes. I’ve taken the Berlin U-Bahn a few times in the last few weeks, to view apartments and most recently (earlier today) to buy matzos from a kosher grocery store far from my neighborhood. I don’t sit anymore, not trusting even the hard metal seats at the stations, let alone the padded cloth ones on the trains. Neither do many other riders, so there’s about the usual number of standees on the trains, trying to distribute ourselves as evenly as possible inside the train and avoid loud or space-taking passengers, even as many seats stay empty.
Would I sit if this were Singapore? Probably. As of the small hours of 2020-04-08 Europe time, Singapore has 1,500 infections and Berlin has 4,000 on two thirds the population, but a big share of Singapore’s cases are imports, and the MRT is vastly cleaner than the U- and S-Bahn here. And then there’s Taiwan, with 400 cases on a population of 24 million.
Why is this not done already?
Managers love metrics, and the costs of cleaning are much easier to quantify than the benefits. Therefore, they cut cleaning whenever there is a budget crunch. Within the English-speaking world, Singapore is a standout in cleanliness, because Lee Kuan Yew decided it was important and launched a campaign to sweep public spaces. In Japan, one of the articles about the seven-minute cleaning process talks about the history of how JR East hired a new manager who has previously been at the safety division – within the company of course, this is Japanese and not American business culture – and said manager, Teruo Yabe, improved morale by taking worker suggestions and promoting line workers to supervisory roles.
I don’t want to dunk on Anglo business culture here too much – London has cleaner trains than Berlin, and is about comparable to Paris. Nor is this quite a cultural cleave between the West and Asia, since Singaporean business culture pilfers the most authoritarian aspects of Japan (long hours, face-time culture) and the Anglosphere (at-will employment, no unions to speak of) and melds them together.
My suspicion is that low standards in the US in particular come from a sense of resignation among managers who don’t really use their own systems, and view the passengers in contempt. New York has an added sense of grit, in which people romanticize the 1970s and 80s and think enduring trash on the street, high crime rates (no longer high), delayed trains, cockroaches, rats, and drivers who play Carmageddon is part of what makes one a Real New Yorker. Consider how the New York- (and London-)suffused urban discourse treats “antiseptic” as a pejorative, viewing Singapore as a less real city because it isn’t killing thousands of its people, soon to be tens of thousands, from coronavirus.
Can Western cities get better?
Absolutely! Especially New York, which has nowhere to go but up.
Most of the positive aspects of Continental Western Europe that awe Americans, like convenient urban public transportation and six weeks of paid vacation per year, are recent, rarely going farther back than the 1970s and 80s. The Swiss planning maxims I repeat to Americans as mantras were invented in the 1980s and implemented in the 1990s and 2000s.
This is even truer of East Asia – in the 1960s Japan was middle-income and the rest of East Asia was very poor; the Shinkansen opened in 1964, but the speed and efficiency standards as we know them only go back to the 300 Series, put into service in 1992. Moreover, the state of Shinkansen cleaning was not so good 15 years ago, before JR East put Yabe in charge. The high cleanliness levels are a recent success, not some ingrained feature that goes back to the 7th century and can’t possibly be replicated elsewhere.
New York needs to look at itself in the mirror now, when it is the global center of a pandemic with death toll that will most likely surpass even the highest-end estimates of those of Wuhan. Is “antiseptic” really a bad trait for a city? If cleaning is a priority, see above for what it takes to do it right. And if it isn’t, I’m sure New York will be more than happy to have another pandemic in the future.
Israel’s incoming prime minister Benny Gantz unveiled an emergency government, to take power following an upcoming confidence vote in the Knesset. The last two MKs required to give Gantz a 61-59 majority, two members of Gantz’s own Blue and White Party who were previously resolute not to go into coalition supported by the mostly Arab Joint List, relented after Gantz’s controversial attempt to enter a Netanyahu-led emergency unity government stalled due to disagreements over both security and coronavirus policy. Moreover, following revelations of government failures discovered last week by senior B&W MK Ofer Shelah, the new government announced sharp changes in policy toward both the Covid-19 emergency and broader domestic and foreign policy questions.
Of note, a major reshuffle in the state budget is expected. Some details are forthcoming, but short- and long-term reductions in settlement subsidies are expected. Moreover, reductions in subsidies to yeshiva students have been announced, delayed by a year due to the magnitude of the crisis within the Haredi community, which has 10% of Israel’s population but about half of Covid-19 hospitalization cases. Finally, a review of military procurement will be done due to the influence of the indicted Netanyahu on the process, but analysts expect that with so many former generals in the new government, including former IDF chief of staff Gantz himself, few real cuts to the IDF are forthcoming.
In lieu of these cuts, the new government is announcing a massive infrastructure investment program, funded partly by deficit spending to limit unemployment. Incoming health minister Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List, a medical doctor by training, promised that budget increases will invest in hospital capacity and hygiene, raise the wages of staff from doctors down to cleaning staff, and buy personal protective equipment (PPE) in sufficient quantities for universal mask-wearing. Outside health, energy and transportation are both on the list of budgetary winners. In energy, the collapse of the consortium of Yitzhak Tshuva and Noble Energy managing Israel’s natural gas reserves and the falling prices of solar power mean the state will invest in thermal solar power plants in the desert. In transportation, an infrastructure plan will invest in additional urban public transit capacity.
The situation of transportation is particularly instructive, because of the political element involved. Throughout most of the past 11 years of Netanyahu’s coalitions, the transport minister was the same politician, Yisrael Katz of Netanyahu’s Likud; Katz prioritized highway investments with some rail, and was viewed as the least controversial of Likud’s heavyweight politicians, many of whom find themselves embroiled in scandal following last month’s election. Nonetheless, to signify a break with the past, the new government is giving the transportation portfolio to Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the leftist Meretz party who has called for expansion of public transportation.
While car ownership in Israel is low, this is the result of car taxes and high poverty rates. Activists at Meretz, B&W, and the right-wing secular Yisrael Beitenu party all pointed out to religious laws banning public transportation and other services from running on Saturdays, promising to repeal them within months. Meretz activists as well as independent analysts expect everyday public transportation to encourage people to give up driving and rely on buses and trains more even on weekdays, requiring additional investment to cope with capacity.
Another political element identified by sources within B&W who spoke anonymously is that residents of Tel Aviv and most of its inner suburbs have long felt stiffed by state infrastructure plans; last decade, Mayor Ron Huldai clashed with Katz, demanding a subway in dense, upper middle-class North Tel Aviv. Meretz is especially strong in North Tel Aviv. However, Horowitz said that his priority was socioeconomic equality, and while he did favor subway expansion in and around Tel Aviv and would accelerate construction of the Green Line through North Tel Aviv, the budget would boost rail construction in working-class southern and eastern suburbs.
Several MKs at the Joint List added that there would also be additional funding for connections to the centers of Arab cities. One plan calls for a tunnel through Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab-majority city, which would connect it with Tel Aviv and other larger Jewish cities while also functioning as a regional rail link for the majority-Arab Galilee region. Towns too small to justify a direct rail link would get a bus to the nearest train station on the same fare system with a timed connection. One Meretz member explained, “in unbroken countries of similar size to ours, like Switzerland and the Netherlands, bus and train planning is coordinated nationally and there is no conception that buses are for poor people and trains for rich people.” Members of both Meretz and the Joint List added that there had long been underinvestment in Arab areas, calling past policies racist and vowing to correct them.
Sources at B&W stressed that there’s short and long term. In the short term, the priority will remain the coronavirus crisis, and the state will go into a large deficit in order to invest in health care and limit the death toll. Additional spending on other infrastructure will focus on planning, so that the state can begin construction after the crisis is long over, and will be funded by reducing yeshiva funding; B&W and Yisrael Beitenu plans to also reduce child credits, as Haredi families are larger than secular ones, have stalled due to opposition by the Joint List, as Arab families are poor and larger than secular Jewish ones too.
While Gantz himself stressed the pragmatic aspects of the plan, sources close to him mentioned the spirit of the 1990s. Negotiations with the Palestinians will resume shortly, they promised, and a two-state compromise will be worked out. They further promise that the peace dividend will allow Israel to grow through closer trade ties with the Arab world and reduced ongoing security spending. But other sources within the new coalition are more skeptical, pointing out Gantz and Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman’s trenchant opposition to dismantling most settlements as a red line that may scuttle future negotiations.
Nonetheless, all sources agree that a clear change in foreign and domestic policy is coming. The more skeptical sources say that the end result will be a shift in domestic spending building a more expansive urban rail network and higher-quality health care. But the more idealistic ones are saying that a new Middle East is coming, one in which a thriving Israel will be at the center, with world-class public infrastructure and private entrepreneurship.
In public transportation as in many other aspects, an important fact of improvement is being able to mix-and-match things that work from different sources. It’s rare to have a situation in which exact importation of one way of doing things is the best in every circumstance (and the Covid-19 crisis appears to be one of these rare situations, Korea being the best). More commonly, different comparison cases, whether they’re companies in private-sector consulting or countries in public-sector policy research, will do different things better. Knowing how to mix-and-match is an important skill in competently learning from the best.
I put this up first, but want to emphasize that this is outside my skill set so I am less certain about the examples here than in transport; I bring them up because some of the sanity checks are cleaner here.
Secondary education: high-income Asia consistently outperforms the West in international math and science tests. However, two important caveats complicate “just be like Asia” reform ideas, like the popularity of Singapore math textbooks in some segments of the American middle class. The first is that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are a lot more monolingual than European countries like Germany and France, let alone smaller European countries like the Netherlands. And the second is that many things that are common to East Asia (and Singapore and Vietnam), like high social distance between hierarchs and subordinates or teachers and students, are completely absent from Finland, which is nearly the only Western country with math scores matching those of Asia. So the actual thing to learn from Asia is likely to be more technical and less about big cultural cleaves like making students wear uniforms and be more obsequious toward teachers.
Public health: whereas the Covid-19 crisis specifically still looks like a clean Asia vs. West cleave, overall public health outcomes do not. Japan has the world’s highest life expectancy, but then Mediterranean Europe follows it closely. The United States, which overall has poor health outcomes, near-ties Singapore and Sweden for lowest first-world smoking rate – and even though Singapore and Sweden both have good outcomes, they both have rather unhealthy diets by (for example) Levantine standards. Public health is a more complex issue than transportation, one that unfortunately low-life expectancy developed countries like Germany and Britain, let alone the US, aren’t meaningfully trying to learn in – and it’s not even clear how easy it is to import foreign ideas into such a complex mostly-working system, in contrast with the near-tabula rasa that is American public transportation.
Transportation in cities of different sizes
Alexander Rapp’s excellent list of metro areas ranked by what he calls frequent rapid transit ridership – that is, trains and buses that run every 20 minutes or better and are either grade separated or have absolute crossing priority with gates – showcases patterns that vary by population.
On the one hand, Tokyo is far and away the highest-ridership city in the world, even per capita. It has around 400 annual rail trips per capita. My recollection, for which I don’t really have a reliable source, is that 60% of work trips in the Tokyo region are done by rail (this data may be here but copy-paste for translation doesn’t work), a higher share than in major European capitals, which mostly top in the 40s.
On the other hand, this situation flips for smaller cities, in the 2-5 million metro population range. Sapporo appears to have maybe 120 annual trips per capita, and Fukuoka probably even less. In Korea, likewise, Seoul has high ridership per capita, though not as high as Paris, let alone Tokyo, but Busan has 100 trips per capita and Daegu 65. In contrast, Stockholm approaches 200 trips per capita (more including light rail), Vienna maybe 180 (growing to 220 with a much wider definition including trams), Hamburg 170, Prague 200 (more like 300 with trams), Munich maybe 230.
This doesn’t seem to be quite a West vs. Asia cleave. There is probably a shadow-of-giants effect in Japan leading smaller cities to use methods optimized for Tokyo; it’s visible in Britain and France, where Stockholm- and Munich-size cities like Birmingham, Manchester, and Lyon have far weaker transit systems. The US has this effect too – New York underperforms peer megacities somewhat, but smaller cities, imitating New York in many ways, are absolutely horrendous by the standards of similar-size European or East Asian cities. Nonetheless, the shadow of giants is not an immutable fact making it impossible for a Sapporo or Birmingham or Lyon to have the rail usage of a Stockholm – what is necessary is to recognize this effect and learn more from similar-size success stories than from the far larger national capital.
Construction costs and benefits
Construction costs are not a clean cleave across cultural regions. The distinction between the West and Asia is invisible: the worst country in the world is the United States, but the second worst appears to be Singapore. Excluding the English-speaking countries, there is a good mix on both sides: Korea, Spain, Italy, and the Nordic countries all have low costs, while Taiwan and the Netherlands have particularly high ones.
Moreover, countries that are good at construction are not always good at operations. As far as I can tell from deanonymizing CoMET data, Madrid has slightly higher metro operating costs than London, Paris, and Berlin, PPP$7/car-km vs. PPP$6, with generally high-construction cost Tokyo appearing to hit $5.
This is not even just costs, but also the ability to build lines that people ride. Tokyo is pretty good at that. Spain is not: the construction costs of the high-speed rail network are consistently lower than anywhere else in the world, but ridership is disappointing. There is no real integration between the AVE network and legacy trains, and there is a dazzling array of different trains each with separate fares, going up to seven incompatible categories, a far cry from the national integration one sees in Switzerland.
There is likely to be a clear answer to “who is best at optimizing construction costs, operating costs, and ridership?”: the Nordic countries. However, even there, we see one worrying issue: for one, Citybanan is expensive by the standards of the Eje Transversal (though not by those of the RER E or especially the second Munich S-Bahn tunnel), which may indicate difficulty in building the kind of multistory tunneling that bigger cities than Stockholm must contend with. Thus, while “be like Sweden” is a good guideline to costs, it is not a perfect one.
The world leader in high-frequency public transportation is Paris. Its driverless Métro lines, M1 and M14 and soon to be M4, run a train every 85 seconds in actual service at rush hour. This is an artifact of its large size: M1 has such high ridership, especially in comparison with its length, that it needs to squeeze every last train out of the signaling system, unlike Berlin or Milan or Madrid or Stockholm. London and Moscow run at very high frequency as well for the same reason, reaching a train every 100 seconds in London and one every 92 in Moscow.
Tokyo, sadly, is not running so frequently. Its trains are packed, but limited to at best one every 120 seconds, many lines even 150, like New York. One possible explanation is that trains in Tokyo are so crowded that peak dwell times must be long, limiting throughput; long dwell times have led to reductions in RER A frequency recently. However, trains and platforms in Tokyo have good interior design for rapid boarding and alighting. Moreover, one can compare peak crowding levels in Tokyo by line with what we know is compatible with a train every 100 seconds in London, and a bunch of Tokyo subway lines aren’t more crowded than London’s worst. More likely, the issue is that Japanese signaling underperforms European systems and is the process of catching up; another aspect of signaling, automation, is also more advanced in France than in Japan (although Seoul, Taipei, and Singapore all have driverless metros).
This way, cities that are either extremely expensive to build in, like London and Moscow, or about average, like Paris, show the way forward in ways that cities that do other things better do not. It’s important to thus simultaneously learn the insights of small cities in reducing operating and construction costs and maintaining high-ridership systems, like the Nordic capitals, and those of megacities in automation and increasing throughput.
Can mixing and matching work?
Why not? In small cities with successful systems, it can’t be due to some deeply-ingrained culture – what do Stockholm, Zurich, Prague, Munich, and Budapest even have in common, other than being European? They’re not all national capitals or even all national primate cities, a common excuse New Yorkers give for why New York cannot have what London and Paris have.
Likewise, what exactly about French culture works to equip Métro lines with signals allowing 42 trains per hour per direction that cannot be adopted without also adopting real problems France has with small-city regional rail, fare integration, or national rail scheduling?
These are, ultimately, technical details. Some are directly about engineering, like Parisian train frequency. Some involve state institutions that lead to low construction costs in Spain, Korea, and the Nordic countries – but on other metrics, it’s unclear these three places have state capacity that is lacking in high-cost Taiwan, Germany, and the Netherlands. So even things that aren’t exactly about engineering are likely to boil down to fairly technical issues with how contracts are written up, how much transit agencies invest in in-house engineering, and so on.
There’s a huge world out there. And an underperforming transit agency – say, any in the United States – had better acquire all the knowledge it can possibly lay its hands on, because so many problems have already been solved elsewhere. The role of the locals is not to innovate; it’s to figure out how to imitate different things at once and make them work together. It’s not a trivial task, but every pattern suggests to me it’s doable given reasonable effort.