Noah Smith is skeptical about high-speed rail in the United States. He makes a bunch of different arguments against it, but I want to zoom in on the first, the issue of connecting transit, which Noah is far from the first person to bring up. It’s a genuine drawback of rail planning in the United States, but it’s very easy to overrate its importance. Connecting transit is useful, as is the related issue of city centralization, but its effect, serious as it is, is only on already marginal high-speed routes, like Atlanta-Memphis or Dallas-Kansas City. Los Angeles suffers from lacking connecting transit, but it’s also so big that nothing it connects to is marginal. Finally, high-speed rail and urban centralization are not in competition, but rather are complements, as in the history of the TGV.
Connections and centralization
Modal choice is about door-to-door trip times. This is why a large majority of people take a train that takes three hours over a plane that takes one: hardly anyone lives near the airport or has an airport as their ultimate destination. In practice, people are much likelier to be living near and traveling to a destination near a city center station.
The importance of connections then is that connecting urban transit extends the range of the train station. I didn’t live at Gare de Lyon or Gare de l’Est, but I could take the Métro there and it was a short trip, much shorter and more reliable than taking the RER to the airport, which made it easier for me to ride the TGV. With reliable connections, I showed up at Gare de l’Est four minutes before a train to Saarbrücken was due to depart, printed my ticket on-site, and walked leisurely to the platform, boarding still with two minutes to spare.
Regional rail has the same effect, at longer range. It’s not as convenient as urban rail, but it feeds the main intercity rail station and is timetabled, so if the system is punctual, passengers can time themselves to the main train station. In Switzerland the connections are even timed, enabling people who travel from smaller cities like St. Gallen to points west to transfer at Zurich Hauptbahnhof within a short window. However, this is completely absent from France: the regional trains are unreliable, and Paris has through-running on the RER but no single central station that can collect connections from secondary centers like Meaux or Versailles.
Finally, centralization is important because the reach of an urban transportation system is measured in units of time and not distance. Even racists who are afraid of taking the trains in Paris and rely exclusively on cars can take a cab from a train station to their ultimate destination and be there shortly. The average speed of the Métro is low, around 25 km/h, but Paris’s density and centralization mean that it’s enough to connect from the main TGV stations to where one lives or works.
But the US doesn’t have that, right?
What Noah gets wrong is that the US has connecting transit as in Paris in a number of big cities, and nearly every even semi-plausible high-speed line connects to at least one such city. Here’s Noah on New York:
The best thing about using the Shinkansen in Japan is that you can get to and from the high-speed rail station using a dense, convenient network of local trains. In America there is no such network. Thus, when I imagine taking the train from SF to L.A., I imagine taking a scooter or an Uber to and from the train station. In L.A., which is so spread out that I probably won’t stay in a small area, I imagine I’d rent a car. That’s a very different experience from using the Shinkansen in Japan. And in NYC, it would mean dealing with the nightmare that is Penn Station — a thoroughly stressful and inconvenient experience.
Let’s discuss New York now; Los Angeles deserves a separate section in this post. Noah lived on Long Island for years; he could connect to any intercity train by taking the LIRR to Penn Station and changing there. It’s this connection that he describes as a nightmare. But the question is, a nightmare compared to what? It’s clearly far less convenient than the timed Swiss connections, or even untimed connections between the Berlin S-Bahn and intercity trains. But the LIRR is a timetabled train, and while delays happen, they’re measured in minutes, not tens of minutes. Passengers can time themselves to arrive 10 minutes before the intercity train departs, even today.
All of this gets easier if a minimally competent agency is in charge and track numbers are scheduled in advance and printed on the ticket as they are here or in Japan. Penn Station is crowded, but it’s not a stampede crush and people who know their commuter train arrives on track 19 and the intercity train leaves on track 14, as written in the ticket, can make the connection in 3 minutes.
The secondary transit cities of the US are dicier. Their modal splits are all in the teens; San Francisco (excluding Silicon Valley) is the highest, with 17.5%. In that way, they’re comparable to Lyon, Marseille, Nice, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Strasbourg, and Lille. However, the way non-New York transit systems work in the US is, the system is usually semi-decent at ferrying people to and from city center, it’s just not strong for other destinations. In Boston, for example, people could transfer to the subway at South Station or Back Bay and cover a decent chunk of urban destinations. It’s nowhere nearly as good as the options for Paris or Berlin, but it’s not the same as not having any connecting transit.
The connecting transit critique of high-speed rail in the American discourse goes back at least to the Obama era; Richard Mlynarik used it to argue against what he views as inflated California HSR ridership expectations, and everyone who commented on transit blogs in 2008-9 had to address the critique in one way or another. In 2012, I posted about the issue of destination centralization, that is, that destinations are more centralized than origins, especially at long distance. For example, at the time Manhattan had 22% of New York metro jobs, but 36% of jobs involving out-of-county commuting – and the longer the trip, the likelier one’s destination is to be in Manhattan.
The data I looked at was the distribution of five-star hotels, which are incredibly centralized. Depending on data sources, 50 out of 56 such hotels in metro New York were in Manhattan, or perhaps 36 in 37. In Boston, either all are in Downtown or Back Bay, or all but one are and the one is in Cambridge, a few Red Line stops from South Station. In Philadelphia, they’re in Center City.
In New York, there are clusters of lower-priced hotels outside Manhattan. The biggest such clusters are in strategic locations in Queens, Brooklyn, or North Jersey with maximally convenient access to Manhattan, where tourists and business travelers cluster. Some hotels serve suburban office parks, such as the various Central Jersey hotels I would go to gaming conventions at, but they’re smaller and lower-end.
In the Bay Area, Richard argued in favor of the primacy of San Francisco over San Jose by citing broader data on interregional travel. San Francisco, per his dataset, absolutely dominated. More recent data can be seen here, measuring tourism revenue rather than visitor numbers, but San Francisco with 900,000 people is about comparable to Santa Clara, Alameda, and San Mateo Counties combined with their 4.4 million people. There is also a comparison of international arrivals to San Jose and San Francisco – there are several times as many of the latter; I cannot find domestic arrival numbers for San Jose that might compare with San Francisco’s 26 million visitors in 2019.
The upshot is that high-speed rail does not need to connect two strongly-centered cities to be comparable in ridership to existing lines in Europe and East Asia. It only needs to connect one. People may need to drive to a park-and-ride or take a taxi to the train station, but if their destination is New York or any of the secondary transit cities of the US, it is likely to be fairly close to the train station, even if most employment isn’t.
The Los Angeles exception
Noah is on stronger grounds when he criticizes Los Angeles. Even Los Angeles has 1.5 subway lines connecting to Union Station, soon to be augmented with the Regional Connector, but the city is weakly-centered, and a car or taxi connection to one’s ultimate destination is likely. Moreover, the destinations within Los Angeles are not centered on Downtown; for example, high-end hotels are the most likely to be found on the Westside.
However, there are two saving graces for trains to Los Angeles. The first is that Los Angeles’s transit ridership is so low because the city’s job geography is so decentralized that the network is bad at connecting local origins with local destinations. If it is guaranteed that one of the two points connected is Union Station, the city’s network is still bad for its size, but becomes usable. The under-construction Westside subway will open later this decade, providing decent (if not good) connectivity from the train station to high-end destinations in that part of the region.
The second and more important saving grace is that Los Angeles is huge. The absence of connecting transit is a serious malus for intercity rail, but people can still take a taxi, and that may add half an hour to the trip and a cab fare, but we know what adding half an hour to a three-hour train trip does and it’s a 1.5th-order effect. A 1.5th-order effect can turn a line that is projected to get a marginal 2.5% return on investment into one with a below-cost-of-capital 1.5% return. It cannot do this to lines serving Los Angeles, none of which are economically marginal, thanks to Los Angeles’s size. On my map, the only line connecting to Los Angeles that a straight gravity model doesn’t love at first sight is Los Angeles-Las Vegas, and this is a connection we know overperforms the model because of the unique tourism draw of Las Vegas.
On the same map, the other connection that everyone (including myself until I ran the number) is skeptical of, Atlanta-Florida, has the same issue as Los Angeles-Las Vegas: it connects to a very strong tourism region, and the train station would serve the biggest tourist attractions. (This is also true in the case of Los Angeles, where Anaheim is still supposed to get a station within a short shuttle distance to Disneyland.) So my model thinks it’s only 2.5% ROI, but the strong tourism volume is such that I am confident the model remains correct even with the malus for weak job centralization in both Atlanta and the cities of Florida.
High-Speed Rail and Connecting Transit
Noah makes a broader point portraying intercity and regional public transport in opposition:
Building high-speed rail without having a usable network of local trains instinctively feels like putting the cart before the horse. If I had a choice between being able to train around San Francisco conveniently, or quickly get between SF and San Jose, I’d choose either of those over being able to take a Shinkansen-style train to L.A. or Seattle. The lack of local trains and fast commuter rail simply limits my travel options much more than the lack of high-speed rail. A local train network without HSR is great; HSR lines without local trains seem like something that’s at best slightly better than what we have now.
And yes, I realize that money earmarked for “high-speed rail” sometimes goes to create faster commuter rail, and that’s good. But that doesn’t answer the question of what these maps are for.
Noah is pooh-poohing the connection between intercity and regional transit as “the money sometimes goes to create faster commuter rail,” but he’s underestimating what this means, in two ways.
First, on the Northeast Corridor specifically, any improvement to intercity transit automatically improves commuter rail. The reason is that the most cost-effective speed treatments there are shared. By far the cheapest minutes saved on the corridor come from speeding up the station throats by installing more modern turnouts and removing speed limits that exist due to agency inertia rather than the state of the physical infrastructure. Trains can save two minutes between South Station and Back Bay alone on a high seven to low eight figures budget for rebuilding the interlocking. These improvements speed up commuter rail and intercity rail equally.
Moreover, in higher speed zones, it’s necessary to invest in organization before concrete and schedule trains with timed overtakes. But this too improves the quality of regional rail. Boston-Providence trains need to be electrified and run faster to get out of intercity trains’ way more easily; even with trains holding twice for an overtake, this speeds up Providence-Boston travel by 15 minutes even while adding station stops. New York-New Haven trains had better run faster on both short- and long-distance connections – and the difference between improving intercity rail this way and in a way that is indifferent to integration with regional rail is the difference between doing it for $15 billion and doing it for $150 billion.
And second, in cities that are not traditional transit cities, high-speed rail is a really good catalyst for expanding a central business district around the station. The best example for this is Lyon. Lyon built a dedicated central business district at Part-Dieu, the Metro, and the LGV Sud-Est simultaneously. This was not sequenced as local transit first, then high-speed rail. Rather, the selection of the site for a high-speed rail station, within the city but just outside its traditional center, was simultaneous with the construction of the new business district and of an urban rail system serving it.
This is particularly useful for cities that, by virtue of size (Dallas) or location (Cleveland) could be high-speed rail hubs but do not have strong city centers. In Cleveland, demand for housing in the city is extremely weak, to the point that houses sell for well below construction costs, and demand for city center office space is likewise weak; but a train that gets to Chicago in 2 hours and to New York in about 3:15 can make the area immediately around the station more desirable. In Dallas this is more complicated because it would be the system’s primary city, but a location with convenient rail access to Houston is likely to become more desirable for office space as well. This is not in competition with local transit – it complements it, by giving existing light rail lines and potential commuter rail lines a meatier city center to connect suburban areas with.
Public Transport and Scale
Noah asks what the proposal maps are for. The answer is, they are proposals for improvement in passenger rail. There is a real issue of scale and details, which is why those maps don’t depict literally every connection. For that, there are smaller-scale maps, in the same way there is the TransitMatters proposal for Regional Rail in the Boston area, or maps I’ve made for timed connections in New England and Upstate New York between intercity and regional trains. At lower-altitude zoom there’s also the issue of local connections to buses.
A roadmap like Google Maps or a national planning map, shown at such zoom that the entirety of a continental superstate like the United States is in the field of view, will only include the highest level of the transportation hierarchy. In the case of roads, that’s the Interstates, and the map may well omit spurs and loops. At lower altitude, more roads are visible, until eventually at city scale all streets are depicted.
The same is true of public transit – and high-speed rail is ideally planned as public transit at intercity scale. A continental-scale proposal will depict high-speed rail because it depicts all cities at once and therefore what matters at this level is how to get between regions. A state map or regional map such as for New England will depict all regional connections, and a local map will depict bus connections around each train station. At no point are these in competition for resources – good integrated planning means they all work together, so that improvements in regional rail also enable better bus connections, and improvements in intercity rail enable better regional connections.
Is all of this absolutely necessary? No. France manages to make certain connections work without it, and when I try to model this as a door-to-door trip, it’s a factor of 1.5-2 question, not an order of magnitude question. But a factor of 1.5 question is still serious, and it’s one that resolves itself with good public transit planning, rather than with not building high-speed rail at all.
I streamed my thoughts about the Biden infrastructure plan, and unlike previous streams, I uploaded this to YouTube. I go into more details (and more tangents) on video, but, some key points:
- Out of the nearly $600 billion in the current proposal that is to be spent on transportation, public transportation is only $190 billion: $80 billion for intercity rail, $85 billion for (other) public transit, $25 billion for zero-emissions buses. This 2:1 split between cars and transit is a change from the typical American 4:1, but in Germany it’s 55:42 and that’s with right-wing ministers of transport.
- Some of the spending on the car bucket is about electric vehicles, including $100 billion in consumer subsidies, but that’s still car spending. People who don’t drive don’t qualify for these subsidies. It’s an attempt to create political consensus by still spending on roads and not just public transit while saying that it’s green, but encouraging people to buy more cars is not particularly green, and there’s no alternative to sticks like fuel taxes in addition to carrots.
- The $25 billion for zero-emissions buses is likely to go to battery-electric buses, which are still in growing pains and don’t function well in winter. In California, in fact, trolleybuses are funded from the fixed infrastructure bucket alongside light rail and subways and are ineligible for the bucket of funding for zero-emissions buses. It is unknown whether in-motion charging qualifies for this bucket; it should, as superior technology that functions well even in places with harsh winters.
- The $85 billion for public transit splits as $55 billion for state of good repair (SOGR) and only $30 billion for expansion (including $5 billion for accessibility). This is a terrible idea: SOGR is carte blanche for agencies that aim to avoid public embarrassment rather than provide useful service to spend money without having to promise anything to show for it, and Amtrak in particular cycles between deferring maintenance and then crying poverty when money becomes available. Federal money should go to expansion alone; a state or local agency that doesn’t set aside money for maintenance now isn’t going to do so in the future, and periodic infusions of SOGR money create moral hazard by encouraging maintenance deferral in good times.
- The Amtrak money is a total waste; in particular, Amtrak wants $39 billion for the Northeast Corridor while having very little to show for it, preferring SOGR, climate resilience, and agency turf battles over the Gateway project over noticeable improvements in trip times, reliability, or capacity.
- The expansion money is not by itself bad, and in fact should grow by $55 billion at the expense of SOGR, but I worry about cost control. I’m just not sure how to express it in Washington policy language, as opposed to agency-level language regarding in-house design, more flexible procurement, civil service independence, adoption of foreign best practice and not just domestic practices, keeping station footprints small, using cut-and-cover more, and so on.
You should go watch the whole thing, which has some on-screen links to the breakdowns above, but it’s a 1:45 video.
Queens needs a bus redesign, thankfully already in the works; it also needs better LIRR service that city residents can use as if it’s an express subway. A key part of bus redesign is having buses and trains work together, so that buses feed trains where possible rather than competing with them. The proposed Queens redesign incorporates subway transfers but not LIRR transfers since the LIRR is infrequent and charges premium fares. This raises the question – how does the optimal bus network for Queens change in the presence of better city service on the LIRR? And conversely, how can the LIRR be designed to be of better use to Queens bus riders?
It turns out that the answer to both questions is “very little.” The best Queens bus network in a city where the LIRR lines through Queens run every 5-10 minutes all day is largely the same as the best network in a city where the LIRR remains an exclusive suburb-to-Manhattan mode. Similarly, bus connections change little when it comes to infill stations on the LIRR for better city service. This is not a general fact of bus redesigns and regional rail – the reason for this pattern has to do with the importance of Flushing and Jamaica. Nor does it mean that regional rail is irrelevant to buses in Queens – it just means that the benefits of rerouting buses to serve additional LIRR stations are too small compared with the drawbacks.
Flushing and Jamaica
This is the present-day subway infrastructure:
The 7 train terminates in Flushing; the E (drawn in F-orange above) and J/Z terminate in Jamaica, while the F terminates in Jamaica as well slightly farther east. As a result, the proposed Queens redesign has many buses from farther east diverting to one of these two neighborhood centers in order to connect with the subway better.
The LIRR changes the rail network situation. The Port Washington Branch, probably the easiest to turn into frequent S-Bahn service, parallels the 7 but continues past Flushing into the suburbs, with closely-spaced stations in the city from Flushing east. The Main Line likewise runs parallel to the Queens Boulevard Line and then continues east past Jamaica with additional stations in Eastern Queens, with branches for the Montauk Line and the Atlantic Line (Far Rockaway and Long Beach Branches).
The ideal bus grid is isotropic. An extension of train service in the radial direction makes it easier to run a bus grid, because buses could just go north-south on major streets: Main, Kissena-Parsons, 149th, 162nd-164th, Utopia, 188th, Francis Lewis, Bell-Springfield. In contrast, the planned redesign diverts the 164th route to Jamaica to connect to the subway, and treats 149th as a pure Flushing feeder. Moreover, the east-west buses in Northeast Queens all divert to serve Flushing.
However, in practice, all of these kinks are necessary regardless of what happens to the LIRR. Queens destinations are not isotropic. Flushing and Jamaica are both important business districts. Jamaica also has transit connections that can’t be provided at an existing or infill LIRR Main Line station, namely the JFK AirTrain and the multi-line LIRR transfer.
I can think of one broad exception to the rule that the optimal bus redesign for Queens is insensitive to what happens to the LIRR: the radial lines going from Jamaica to the southeast. These include the Merrick Boulevard routes, today the Q4, Q5, and N4, or QT18 and QT40-42 in the redesign; and the Guy Brewer Boulevard routes, today the Q111 and Q113-4 and in the redesign the QT13, QT19, QT43, and QT45. As of 2019, each of the two avenues carries slightly fewer than 20,000 riders per weekday.
Those buses are likely to lose traffic if LIRR service on the Montauk and Atlantic Lines improves. Long-range traffic is far faster by train; I expect people to walk long distances to an LIRR station, a kilometer or even more, for a direct, subway-fare trip to Manhattan coming every 10 minutes. Even lines that require people to change at Jamaica should wipe out most bus ridership, since the transfer at Jamaica is designed to be pleasant (cross-platform, usually timed).
In their stead, buses should run orthogonally to the train. Linden should get a single bus route, which in the redesign proposal is the QT7, losing the Linden-Jamaica QT40 in the process and instead running the QT7 more frequently. Farmers, running north-south crossing the Main, Montauk, and Atlantic Lines, should get higher frequency, on what is today the Q3 and in the redesign the QT68; in both cases it diverts to Jamaica rather than continuing north to Bayside and Whitestone, but as explained above, this is a necessary consequence of the job concentration in Jamaica.
Integrated design of buses and trains means not just moving the buses to serve the trains, but also choosing train station locations for the best bus transfers. One example of this is in the Bronx: Penn Station Access plans should include one more infill station, built at Pelham Parkway to connect to the Bx12. By the same token, we can ask how bus-rail connections impact LIRR planning.
The answer is that, just as they only lightly impact bus route design, they do not impact LIRR station siting. Ideally, LIRR stations should be sited at major streets in order to connect with buses better. However, this is to a large extent already the case, and places where moving a station or building infill is valuable are sporadic:
- On the Port Washington Branch, there is no station at Francis Lewis. It may be valuable to build one, or alternatively to close Auburndale and replace it with two stations, one right at Francis Lewis and one at Utopia.
- On the Main Line, Queens Village is already at Springfield, Hollis is already at 188th/Farmers, and an infill station at Merrick is valuable regardless of what happens with the buses. A Francis Lewis station is plausible, but is so close to both Hollis and Queens Village that I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea.
- The Montauk Line is not penetrated by many crossing arterials. Linden already has a station, St. Albans. Then to the south there is an awkward succession of three intersections within 850 meters: Farmers, Merrick, Springfield. The least bad option is probably to build an infill stop in the middle at Merrick, with the shopping center as an anchor, and with ramps leading to Farmers and Springfield.
- The Atlantic Line has the Locus Manor stop at Farmers, and Rosedale at Francis Lewis. Laurelton may be moved a bit west to hit Springfield better, and in addition, 1-2 infill stations are valuable, one at Linden and possibly also one at Baisley. But the Linden infill, like the Merrick infill, is fully justified regardless of bus transfers
In Queens, the importance of Flushing and Jamaica works to permit mostly separate planning of bus and regional rail service, except to some extent in Southeast Queens. This is not true in most other places, especially not elsewhere in New York. It follows from the fact that without city-usable LIRR service, buses have to divert to Flushing and Jamaica to feed the subway, whereas with city-usable LIRR service, buses still have to divert to Flushing and Jamaica because they are important business and cultural centers.
This is useful, because transit is a complex system, so anytime it’s possible to break it into mostly independently-planned components, it gets more tractable. If the bus redesign doesn’t require dealing with Long Island NIMBYs and traditional railroaders, and if turning the LIRR into a useful S-Bahn doesn’t require simultaneously redrawing the Queens bus map, then both processes become easier. A redesigned Queens bus map already comes pre-optimized for future LIRR improvements with mostly cosmetic changes, and this is good for the process of transit modernization.
I’ve written before about how planning public transport differs from planning cars, and how the macroeconomics of producing good public transport differ from that of exporting cars. Another difference between the two modes is marketing. I don’t usually like talking about marketing – I prefer making things to selling them – but it’s relevant, because private-sector marketing is a huge industry, and sometimes marketers end up making decisions about public transportation, and some of those lead to counterproductive planning.
The main difference is that public transportation does not have competition the way private industry does. In many travel markets, for example rush hour travel to city center, it is a monopoly. In others, it isn’t, but it remains fundamentally different from the competition, whereas private-sector marketing generally involves competition between fairly similar products, such as different brands of cars or computers or supermarkets. This also means that trying to turn public transit into a competition between similar providers is overrated: it is bad from the perspective of good planning, but it turns the industry into something private-sector marketers are more familiar with, and is therefore at risk of being adopted (for example, with EU competition mandates) despite being counterproductive.
Companies that make products that are very similar to their competition engage in extensive marketing. Coke vs. Pepsi is the most cliché example, but different brands of cookies, fast food, cars, computers, and smartphones do the same. The differences between these brands are never zero: I can generally tell different brands of bottled water by taste, Samsung- and Sony-made Androids have some differences (let alone iPhones), and so on. But it’s not large either.
Objectively, the cost of switching firms is small, so marketers first of all spend enormous amounts of money on advertising, and second of all aim to create identity markers to impose an emotional cost on customers who switch: “I am a Mac.” If the small differences involve differences in price point, then this can include a marker of class identity; even if they don’t, there’s no shortage of ways to tell people what brand of alcohol or food or video game best fits their microidentity. Establishing brand identity also involves loyalty programs, like airline miles and hotel points: why compete when you can lock passengers into your airline alliance?
This can even bleed into product development to some extent. Microsoft’s embrace, extend, exterminate strategy was designed around getting people to switch to Microsoft products from competitors. This was not a marketing gimmick – the people who developed Excel made sure everything that Lotus 1-2-3 users were used to would also feature in Excel in order to reduce the cost of switching to Microsoft, before using Windows’ power to lock people into Office.
Mass transit is not like this
Public transportation competes with cars as a system. It has a monopoly in certain travel markets, namely rush hour travel to city center, but the existence of those markets itself comes from real estate competition, in which it is necessary to entice companies to choose to locate in city center rather than in a suburban office park. Of note, the following features, all unusual for private-sector competition, apply:
- Competition is for the most part binary: public transportation versus cars. (Bikes complement transit.)
- The public transit side of the competition has economies of scale because of the importance of frequency of arrival, and thus is harmed by any internal competition, whereas the car industry has different automakers and works just fine that way.
- The service has very little customization – everyone rides the same trains. Attempts to introduce product differentiation are harmful because of the frequency effect.
- The product is completely different from the competition – useful at different times of day, in different neighborhoods, for different destinations. Switching incurs costs of similar magnitude to those of migration.
- Much of the competition is not for customers, but for development – city center development is good for public transit, sprawl is good for cars.
- There is competition over public resources, which cannot be divorced from the mode even in an environment of privatization – someone still has to build roads and finance subways.
The consequences of mass transit Fordism
Public transportation is and remains a Fordist product – no product differentiation, highly regimented worker timetables, one-size-fits-all construction, vertical integration. The vertical integration aspects go even farther than early-20th century industry, covering infrastructure, timetables, the equipment, and development. User choice is extensive regarding where to go within the system – I have access to far more variety of products as a consumer and jobs as a worker in Berlin (and had even more in Paris) than I would have driving in a sprawl environment, but I can’t choose what brand of train to use.
This is particularly important when preferences are heterogeneous. Different users have different walking speeds, transfer penalties, idiosyncrasies about access to wifi on board, etc. Planning has to use averages, and for the most part this works without too many seams, but it means that the standard way private businesses use product differentiation doesn’t work.
Of note, this Fordism also exists for the road network, if not for the cars themselves. It’s just far less visible. Drivers may have different preferences that translate to different costs and benefits for a cloverleaf versus a four-level interchange, but engineers can’t have two sets of interchanges, they just build one based on criteria of traffic density. However, the experience of driving on the interchange is not visible as part of the system to the drivers, who occasionally grumble about traffic at a particular intersection but don’t see it as clearly as transit riders see specific transfer stations or modal questions like streetcar vs. subway.
How private-sector marketing can harm transit
Because mass transit is a single system for everyone, standard private-sector marketing schemes involve changes to service that harm the overall system.
Creating brand identification with a specific subgroup of users, such as when some private buses market themselves to tech workers with wifi and USB chargers and charge higher fares, and still can’t make money. Public transportation has to work on an any vehicle, any place, any time principle. Only a handful of hyper-frequent routes can take multiple brands without losing passengers due to the lower frequency of each brand, but on those routes the only reliable way to timetable service is to run on headway management in which case any vehicle can substitute for any vehicle, which means you can’t brand.
This is especially bad when the brands are different modes: bus, bike, streetcar, subway, commuter train. When some modes are marketed to the rich and others are to the poor, capacity is wasted and frequency within each class is lower. Moreover, infrastructure planning is weaker with such differentiation, because often a region or subclass will be close to the wrong mode, forcing expensive additional construction. The United States fails by running commuter rail just for the rich while subways are for the rest, while India fails by doing the exact opposite; both countries build unnecessary infrastructure and underinvest in intermodal integration as a result.
Less harmful but still likely to suck oxygen out of the planning room are various gimmicks, especially at the political level. For example, a program in the mold of cash-for-clunkers to pay people to sell their car and ride public transportation is a waste of money – the main cost of switching from cars to transit or vice versa is that in either case the set of destinations one can easily travel to changes.
Finally, because public transportation is a complex system, trading the need for inter-organization and interdepartmental organization for much lower overall provision costs, people who come into it from consumer product markets may miss some of the required connections. This is especially true of development – people who sell consumer products, including cars, don’t need to think how urban design has to look for their product to succeed. Even people who have heard of transit-oriented development may get it wrong; in the United States, it is common to build some apartment buildings next to a train station but neglect retail and local services, and YIMBY as a movement is at best indifferent to city center office towers.
Subways can be built in two ways: cut-and-cover, and bored tunnel. Cut-and-cover means opening up the street top-down, building the system, and roofing it to restore surface traffic; bored tunnel means opening up one portal and digging horizontally, with less surface disturbance. In the last generation or two there has been a shift toward bored tunnel even in places that used to build cut-and-cover, despite the fact that bored tunnel is the more expensive technique in most cases. Regrettably, people don’t seem to even recognize it as a tradeoff, in which they spend more money to avoid surface disruption – some of our sources have told us that avoiding top-down cut-and-cover is an unalloyed good, a kind of modernity. Even more regrettably, this same thinking is common in much of the developing world, where subways tend to be bored.
What are cut-and-cover and bored tunnel?
Cut-and-cover refers to a family of construction techniques all of which involve top-down tunneling. In New York, one of the sources cited on NYCSubway.org refers to the subway as “a covered trench” rather than a real tunnel. The oldest cut-and-cover subways were dug by hand, but in the last 100 years there have been technological innovations to mechanize some of the work as well as to reduce surface disruption, which is considerable and lasts for a few years. These innovations include the cover-and-cut system invented in 1950s Milan (“Milan method”) and the caisson system used to build T-Centralen in Stockholm. The Milan method sinks piles into the street early and builds retaining walls to allow for truly vertical construction, whereas traditional cut-and-cover must be sloped, which requires a wider street than the tunnel, like the Manhattan avenues or Parisian boulevards but not Milan’s Renaissance streets. The caisson method builds a concrete structure and then lowers it into the ground, which facilitates multistory cut-and-cover structures at transfer stations.
Bored tunnel involves digging just one portal, or sometimes a few to speed up work, and then drilling horizontally. This used to be called a tunneling shield, but the shield has been automated to the point that a small crew, only 8-12 people, are required to supervise it nowadays, and now it is called a tunnel-boring machine, or TBM. This method was first invented in London for the construction of the Thames Tunnel, and has been used for all of the London Underground lines since the first two, as London lacks for wide streets for cut-and-cover work. Most American, European, and East Asian cities have switched to this method in the last generation; thus for example New York started to build Second Avenue Subway in the 1970s cut-and-cover, but the program since the 1990s has always been bored.
The typical method used in the world is really a mix – the tunnels are bored, the stations are cut-and-cover. This is because, while the TBM is capable of building tunnels easily, it cannot build stations. Mining or blasting a station is expensive, and many modern examples run up to $500 million or more, not just in high-cost New York but also in otherwise low-cost Rome. This mixed method involves opening up the street at station sites for 1.5-2 years in Paris, intermediate costs, and disruption only at sites that would benefit from the opening of a station.
How much do these techniques cost?
The cost of a mined station starts at $500 million and goes up. But very few cities mine stations – New York and London do, and very rarely other cities do in constrained historic centers like Rome’s. The typical cost of bored tunnel is much less; the lines for which we have seen a breakdown in costs between tunneling and stations, which are a small fraction of our database, have tunneling costs ranging from around $50 million per km to somewhat more than $100 million per km, not counting systems, overheads, or stations. With everything included, this should be viewed as about $200 million per km; the actual median for subways in our database is about $250 million/km, but it includes expensive lines with mined stations, city center tunnels that can’t easily build cut-and-cover stations, and projects that are unusually bad.
Cut-and-cover is generally cheaper. The only cut-and-cover example in our database from Paris, the Line 13 extension to Courtilles, cost 83M€/km, which is around $130 million/km in today’s money; other Paris Métro extensions from the last 15 years are 50-100% more expensive, and the next tranche is even costlier, as Parisian costs are regrettably increasing. Low-cost cities in Southern Europe bore the majority of their subways, but their suburban subway extensions are often a mix of TBMs and cut-and-cover, which is one of many reasons they have low construction costs and Paris does not.
Bear in mind that the superiority of cut-and-cover to bored tunnel depends on the presence of an at least moderately wide straight street for it to go under. London ran out of such streets after it built the Metropolitan line; the District line was, per Wikipedia, three times as expensive, about $110 million/km in today’s money, because it needed to demolish property in Kensington, already then an expensive neighborhood. New York used bored tunnel to cross under rivers and under the hills of Washington Heights, switching to cut-and-cover elsewhere; readers who have gone to the New York Subway Museum will remember the exhibits about the dangerous work of the sandhogs underwater. However, that bored tunnel was no more expensive in turn-of-the-century London than cut-and-cover was in contemporary Paris and New York does not mean these relative costs persist today. Today, on the sort of streets most cities build subways under, cut-and-cover is cheaper, by a factor that appears to be 1.5-2.
The situation in developing countries
In developing countries, I am not aware of any cut-and-cover, which does not mean there isn’t any, just that in the places I’ve looked most closely, namely India and Thailand, the tunnels seem bored. Of note, both India and Thailand build extensive elevated networks, so their subways are to some extent built where elevated construction is infeasible or undesirable. However, to some extent is doing a lot of work here. The Bangkok MRT goes under Rama IV Road, which is about 35 meters wide, and under Asok, which is 30 meters wide. This is comparable to the Sukhumvit, a 35-meter-wide road that hosts the BTS el. Deep-level construction is not necessary on the main roads of Bangkok.
What of other developing-world cities? Bangkok may be unusual, in that it’s a solidly middle-income city, the dominant capital of a middle-income country with comparable GDP per capita to China. What of genuinely poor cities? At least in the bigger ones, wide boulevards for cut-and-cover are not in shortage. Nairobi has vast roads hosting matatu routes. Lagos has such wide main roads that when I crayoned it I proposed that the main radials be elevated, as the under-construction Blue Line is, to avoid having to tunnel underwater from the mainland to Lagos Island. In most cases, short bored segments may be needed, or else short segments that involve the purchase and demolition of private property, as happened in New York when the city carved Seventh Avenue South and Sixth Avenue through the Village.
I suspect the reason this is not done is that planners believe that TBMs are more modern. The physical TBM is an engineering marvel, and looks like advanced technology, even if what it produces is comparable in quality to what cut-and-cover could do when there are wide roads to tunnel under. Planners in the United States have treated it as a given that it’s better to avoid top-down construction. This isn’t even isomorphic mimicry, in which poor countries improperly imitate rich ones; this is proper imitation of a technique whose use in rich countries too is often in error.
Cut-and-cover is underrated
Instead of tunneling wherever possible, I would urge urban subway planners to look to cut-and-cover more. In poor countries, it can be done with the same labor-intensive techniques that produced $40 million/km subways (in today’s money) in New York and Paris. In rich ones, it can be done with more advanced technology to save labor and keep costs under control. This involves more surface disruption, but this disruption can be mitigated by using the Milan method on roads that are wider than those of the center of Milan, and the ultimate benefit is that a lot more subway can be built.
Robert Jackel asked me an excellent question in comments: what is a pulse? I’ve talked about timed transfers a lot in the last almost 10 years of this blog, but I never wrote a precise definition. This is a critical tool for every public transportation operation with more than one line, making sure that trains and buses connect with as short a transfer window as possible given other constraints. Moreover, pulse-oriented thinking is to plan capital investment and operations to avoid constraints that make transfers inconvenient.
When are pulses needed?
Passengers perceive the disutility of a minute spent transferring to be more than that of a minute spent on a moving vehicle. This is called the transfer penalty and is usually expressed as a factor, which varies greatly within the literature. In a post from 2011 I quoted a since-linkrotted thesis with pointers to Boston and Houston’s numbers, and in a more recent post I found some additional literature in a larger variety of places, mostly in the US but also the Netherlands. The number 2 is somewhere in the middle, so let’s go with this.
Observe that the transfer penalty measured in minutes and not in a factor is, naturally, larger when service runs less frequently. With a factor of 2, it is on average equal to the headway, which is why it is likely the number is 2 – it represents actual time in the worst case scenario. The upshot is that the value of an untimed transfer is higher the higher the frequency is.
I used the principle of untimed transfers and frequency to explain why small subway networks do not look like small bus networks – they have fewer, more frequent lines. Subway lines that run every 3-4 minutes do not need transfer timing, because the time cost of an untimed transfer is small compared to the likely overall trip time, which is typically in the 15-30 minute range. But the lower the frequency, the more important it is to time transfers. Thus, for example, Berlin times the U6/U7 transfer at Mehringdamm in the evening, when trains run every 10 minutes, but does not do so consistently in the daytime, when they run every 5.
But note: while the value of an untimed transfer is higher at higher frequency, the value of a timed transfer is the same – it is zero-penalty or close to it no matter what. So really, the relative value of timing the transfer decreases as frequency increases. But at the same time, if frequency is higher, then more passengers are riding your service, which justifies more investment to try to time the transfer. The German-speaking planning tradition is the most concerned with transfer timing, and here, it is done commonly at 10 minutes, occasionally at 5 minutes, and never that I know of at higher frequency.
Easy mode: one central station
If all your buses and trains serve one transit center, then a pulse means that they all run at the same frequency, and all meet at the center at the same time. This doesn’t usually happen on urban rail networks – a multi-line urban rail system exists in a high-ridership, high-frequency context, in which the value of serving a mesh of city center lines is high, and the cost of bringing every subway tunnel to one location is high. Instead, this happens on buses and on legacy regional rail networks.
The pulse can be done at any frequency, but probably the most common is hourly. This is routine in small American towns with last-resort bus networks serving people too poor or disabled to drive. Two and a half years ago a few of us on Transit Twitter did a redesign-by-Twitter of the Sioux City bus network, which has ten bus routes running hourly, all pulsing in city center with timed connections. A similar network often underlies the night buses of a larger city that, in the daytime, has a more complete public transport network, such as Vancouver.
Even here, planners should keep two delicate points in mind. First, on buses in mixed traffic, there is an upper limit to the frequency that can be timetabled reliably. The limit depends on details of the street network – Jarrett Walker is skeptical that timetabling buses that run every 15 minutes is feasible in a typical American city, but Vancouver, with no freeways within a city and a rich arterial grid, manages to do so every 12 minutes on 4th Avenue. A half-hourly pulse is definitely possible, and even Jarrett writes those into his bus redesigns sometimes; a 20-minute pulse is probably feasible as well even in a typical American city. The current practice of hourly service is not good, and, as I point out in the Sioux City post, involves slow, meandering bus routes.
The second point is that once the takt is chosen, say half an hour, the length of each roundtrip had better be an integer multiple of the takt, including a minimal turnaround time. If a train needs 5 minutes to turn, and runs half-hourly, then good times for a one-way trip from city center are 10, 25, 40, 55 minutes; if there is no turnaround at city center, for example if there is through-running, then half as many turnarounds are needed. This means that short- and long-term planning should emphasize creating routes with good trip times. On a bus, this means straightening meanders as needed, and either extending the outer end or cutting it short. On a train, this means speedup treatments to run as fast as necessary, or, if the train has a lot of spare time, opening additional infill stops.
The issue of branching
Branches and pulses don’t mix well. The ideal way to run a system with a trunk and branches is to space the branches evenly. The Berlin S-Bahn runs every 3-4 minute on the Stadtbahn trunk and on the North-South Tunnel, mixing services that run every 10 and 20 minutes at roughly even intervals. In such an environment, timed transfers in city center are impossible. This is of course not a problem given Stadtbahn headways, but becomes serious if frequency is sparser. A one-trunk, two-branch regional rail system’s planners may be tempted to run each branch every half hour and interpolate the schedules to create a 15-minute headway on the trunk, but if there’s a half-hourly pulse, then only one branch can participate in it.
This is visible when one compares S-Bahn and RegionalBahn systems. High-frequency S-Bahn systems don’t use timed transfers in city center, because there is no need. I can get from Jannowitzbrücke to Ostkreuz without consulting a schedule, and I would get to the Ring without consulting a schedule either, so there is no need to time the crossing at Ostkreuz. There may be sporadic transfer timing for individual branches, such as between the S9 branch of the Stadtbahn, which diverts southeast without serving Ostkreuz, and the Ring, but S9 runs every 20 minutes, and this is not a pulse, only a single-direction timed connection.
In contrast, RegionalBahn systems, running at longer ranges and lower frequencies, often tend toward timed transfers throughout. The tradeoff is that they don’t overlie to create high-frequency trunks. In some cases, trains on a shared trunk may even platoon, so that all can make the same timed transfer, if high trunk frequency is not desired; this is how intercity trains are run on the Olten-Bern line, with four trains to a platoon every 30 minutes.
Medium mode: dendritic networks
A harder case than the single pulse is the dendritic network. This means that there is a central pulse point, and also secondary pulse points each acting as a local center. All cases I am aware of involve a mainline rail network, which could be S-Bahn rather than RegionalBahn, and then bus connections at suburban stations.
Already, this involves more complex planning. The reason is that the bus pulse at a suburban station must be timed with trains in both directions. Even if planners only care about connections between the suburban buses and trains toward city center, the pulse has to time with inbound trains for passengers riding from the suburban buses to the city and with outbound trains for passengers riding from the city to the buses. This, in turn, means that the trains in both directions must arrive at the station at approximately the same time. A few minutes of leeway are acceptable, since the buses turn at city center so the connection always has a few minutes of slack, but only a few minutes out of what is often a half-hourly takt.
Trains that run on a takt only meet every interval equal to half the takt. Thus, if trains run half-hourly, they can only have suburban pulses every 15 minutes of travel. This requires planners to set up suburban pulses at the correct interval, and speed up or sometimes slow down the trains if the time between suburban nodes. Here is an example I’ve worked on for a Boston-Worcester commuter train, with pulses in both Framingham and Worcester.
Hard mode: meshes
The next step beyond the dendritic network is the multi-node network whose graph is not simply connected. In such a network, every node must have a timed transfer, which imposes considerable planning constraints. Optimizing such a network is an active topic of research in operations and transportation in European academia.
Positive examples for such networks come from Switzerland. Large capital investments are unavoidable, because there’s always going to be some line that’s slower than it needs to be. The key here is that, as with dendritic networks, nodes must be located at consistent intervals, equal to multiples of half the headway, and usually the entire headway. To make multiple timed transfers, trains must usually be sped up. This is why pulse-based integrated timed transfer networks require considerable planning resources: planning for rolling stock, infrastructure, and the timetable must be integrated (“the magic triangle”) to provide maximum convenience for passengers connecting from anywhere to anywhere.
I’ve talked a lot recently about bad management as a root cause of poor infrastructure, especially on Twitter. The idea, channeled through Richard Mlynarik, is that the main barrier to good US infrastructure construction, or at least one of the main barriers, is personal incompetence on behalf of decisionmakers. Those decisionmakers can be elected officials, with levels of authority ranging from governors down to individual city council members; political appointees of said officials; quasi-elected power brokers who sit on boards and are seen as representative of some local interest group; public-sector planners; or consultants, usually ones who are viewed as an extension of the public sector and may be run by retired civil servants who get a private-sector salary and a public-sector pension. In this post I’d like to zoom in on the managers more than on the politicians, not because the politicians are not culpable, but because in some cases the managers are too. Moreover, I believe removal of managers with a track record of failure is a must for progress.
The issue of solipsism
Spending any time around people who manage poorly-run agencies is frustrating. I interview people who are involved in successful infrastructure projects, and then I interview ones who are involved in failed ones, and then people in the latter group are divided into two parts. Some speak of the failure interestingly; this can involve a blame game, typically against senior management or politics, but doesn’t have to, for example when Eric and I spoke to cost estimators about unit costs and labor-capital ratios. But some do not – and at least in my experience, the worst cases involve people who don’t acknowledge that something is wrong at all.
I connect this with solipsism, because this failure to acknowledge is paired with severe incuriosity about the rest of the world. A Boston-area official who I otherwise respect told me that it is not possible to electrify the commuter rail system cheaply, because it is 120 years old and requires other investments, as if the German, Austrian, etc. lines that we use as comparison cases aren’t equally old. The same person then said that it is not possible to do maintenance in 4-hour overnight windows, again something that happens all the time in Europe, and therefore there must be periodic weekend service changes.
A year and a half ago I covered a meeting that was videotaped, in which New Haven-area activists pressed $200,000/year managers at Metro-North and Connecticut Department of Transportation about their commuter rail investments. Those managers spoke with perfect confidence about things they had no clue about, saying it’s not possible that European railroads buy multiple-units for $2.5 million per car, which they do; one asserted the US was unique in having wheelchair accessibility laws (!), and had no idea that FRA reform as of a year before the meeting permitted lightly-modified European trains to run on US track.
The worst phrase I keep hearing: apples to apples. The idea is that projects can’t really be compared, because such comparisons are apples to oranges, not apples to apples; if some American project is more expensive, it must be that the comparison is improper and the European or Asian project undercounted something. The idea that, to the contrary, sometimes it’s the American project that is easier, seems beyond nearly everyone who I’ve talked to. For example, most recent and under-construction American subways are under wide, straight streets with plenty of space for the construction of cut-and-cover station boxes, and therefore they should be cheaper than subways built in the constrained center of Barcelona or Stockholm or Milan, not more expensive.
What people are used to
In Massachusetts, to the extent there is any curiosity about rest-of-world practice, it comes because TransitMatters keeps pushing the issue. Even then, there is reticence to electrify, which is why the state budget for regional rail upgrades in the next few years only includes money for completing the electrification of sidings and platform tracks on the already-electrified Providence Line and for short segments including the Fairmount Line, Stoughton Branch, and inner part of the Newburyport and Rockport Lines. In contrast, high platforms, which are an ongoing project in Boston, are easier to accept, and thus the budget includes more widespread money for it, even if it falls short of full high-level platforms at every station in the system.
In contrast, where high platform projects are not so common, railroaders find excuses to avoid them. New Jersey Transit seems uninterested in replacing all the low platforms on its system with high platforms, even though the budget for such an operation is a fraction of that of the Gateway tunnel, which the state committed $2.5 billion to in addition to New York money and requested federal funding. The railroad even went as far as buying new EMUs that are compatible not with the newest FRA regulations, which are similar to UIC ones used in Europe, but with the old ones; like Metro-North’s management, it’s likely NJ Transit’s had no idea that the regulations even changed.
The issue of what people are used to is critical. When you give someone authority over other people and pay them $200,000 a year, you’re signaling to them, “never change.” Such a position can reward ambition, but not the ambition of the curious grinder, but that of the manager who makes other people do their work. People in such a position who do not know what “electronics before concrete” means now never will learn, not will they even value the insights of people who have learned. The org chart is clear: the zoomer who’s read papers about Swiss railroad planning works for the boomer who hasn’t, and if the boomer is uncomfortable with change, the zoomer can either suck it up or learn to code and quit for the private sector.
You can remove obstructionist managers
From time to time, a powerful person who refuses to use their power except in the pettiest ways accidentally does something good. Usually this doesn’t repeat itself, despite the concrete evidence that it is possible to do things thought too politically difficult. For example, LIRR head Helena Williams channeled Long Island NIMBYism and opposed Metro-North’s Penn Station Access on agency turf grounds – it would intrude on what Long Islanders think is their space in the tunnels to Penn Station. But PSA was a priority for Governor Andrew Cuomo, so Cuomo fired Williams, and LIRR opposition vanished.
This same principle can be done at scale. Managers who refuse to learn from successful examples, which in capital construction regardless of mode and in operations of mainline rail are never American and rarely in English-speaking countries, can and should be replaced. Traditional railroaders who say things are impossible that happen all the time in countries they look down on can be fired; people from those same countries will move to New York for a New York salary.
This gets more important the more complex a project gets. It is possible, for example, to build high-speed rail between Boston and Washington for a cost in the teens of billions and not tens, let alone hundreds, but not a single person involved in any of the present effort can do that, because it’s a project with many moving parts and if you trust a railroad manager who says “you can’t have timed overtakes,” you’ll end up overbuilding unnecessary tunnels. In this case, managers with a track record of looking for excuses why things are impossible instead of learning from places that do those things are toxic to the project, and even kicking them up is toxic, because their subordinates will learn to act like that too. The squeaky wheel has to be removed and thrown into the garbage dumpster.
And thankfully, squeaky wheels that get thrown into the dumpster stop squeaking. All of this is possible, it just requires elected officials who have the ambition to take risks to effect tangible change rather than play petty office politics every day. Cuomo is the latter kind of politician, but he proved to everyone that a more competent leader could replace solipsists with curious learners and excusemongers with experts.
I sometimes see a claim in comments here or on social media that the reason American costs are so high is that scarcity makes it hard to be efficient. This can be a statement about government practice: the US government supposedly doesn’t support transit enough. Sometimes it’s about priorities, as in the common refrain that the federal government should subsidize operations and not just capital construction. Sometimes it’s about ideology – the idea that there’s a right-wing attempt to defund transit so there’s siege mentality. I treat these three distinct claims as part of the same, because all of them really say the same thing: give American transit agencies more money without strings attached, and they’ll get better. All of these claims are incorrect, and in fact high costs cannot be solved by giving more money – more money to agencies that waste money now will be wasted in the future.
The easiest way to see that theories of political precarity or underresourcing are wrong is to try to see how agencies would react if they were beset mostly by scarcity as their defenders suggest. For example, the federal government subsidizes capital expansion and not operations, and political transit advocates in the United States have long called for operating funds. So, if transit agencies invested rationally based on this restrictions, what would they do? We can look at this, and see that this differs greatly from how they actually invest.
The political theory of right-wing underresourcing is similarly amenable to evaluation using the same method. Big cities are mostly reliant not on federal money but state and local money, so it’s useful to see how different cities react to different threat levels of budget cuts. It’s also useful to look historically at what happened in response to cuts, for example in the Reagan era, and spending increases, for example in the stimulus in the early Obama era and again now.
How to respond to scarcity
A public transit agency without regular funding would use the prospects of big projects to get other people’s money (OPM) to build longstanding priorities. This is not hypothetical: the OPM effect is real, and for example people have told Eric and me that Somerville used the original Green Line Extension to push for local amenities, including signature stations and a bike lane called the Community Path. In New York, the MTA has used projects that are sold to the public as accessibility benefits to remodel stations, putting what it cares about (cleaning up stations) on the budget of something it does not (accessibility).
The question is not whether this effect is real, but rather, whether agencies are behaving rationally, using OPM to build useful things that can be justified as related to the project that is being funded. And the answer to this question is negative.
For every big federally-funded project, one can look at plausible tie-ins that can be bundled into it that enhance service, which the Somerville Community Path would not. At least the ongoing examples we’ve been looking at are not so bundled. Consider the following misses:
Green Line Extension
GLX could include improvements to the Green Line, and to some extent does – it bundles a new railyard. However, there are plenty of operational benefits on the Green Line that are somewhere on the MBTA’s wishlist that are not part of the project. Most important is level boarding: all vehicles have a step up from the platform, because the doors open outward and would strike the platform if there were wheelchair-accessible boarding. The new vehicles are different and permit level boarding, but GLX is not bundling full level boarding at all preexisting stations.
East Side Access and Gateway
East Side Access and Gateway are two enormous commuter rail projects, and are the world’s two most expensive tunnels per kilometer. They are tellingly not bundled with any capital improvements that would boost reliability and throughput: completion of electrification on the LIRR and NJ Transit, high platforms on NJ Transit, grade separations of key junctions between suburban branches.
The issue of operating expenses
More broadly, American transit agencies do not try to optimize their rail capital spending around the fact that federal funding will subsidize capital expansion but not operations. Electrification is a good deal even for an agency that has to fund everything from one source, cutting lifecycle costs of rolling stock acquisition and maintenance in half; for an agency that gets its rolling stock and wire from OPM but has to fund maintenance by itself, it’s an amazing investment with no downside. And yet, American commuter rail agencies do not prioritize it. Nor do they prioritize high platforms – they invest in them but in bits and pieces. This is especially egregious at SEPTA, which is allowed by labor agreement to remove the conductors from its trains, but to do so needs to upgrade all platforms to level boarding, as the rolling stock has manually-operated trap doors at low-platform stations.
Agencies operating urban rail do not really invest based on operating cost minimization either. An agency that could get capital funding from OPM but not operating funding could transition to driverless trains; American agencies do not do so, even in states with weak unions and anti-union governments, like Georgia and Florida. New York specifically is beset by unusually high operating expenses, due to very high maintenance levels, two-person crews, and inefficient crew scheduling. If the MTA has ever tried to ask for capital funding to make crew scheduling more efficient, I have not seen it; the biggest change is operational, namely running more off-peak service to reduce shift splitting, but it’s conceivable that some railyards may need to be expanded to position crews better.
Finally, buses. American transit agencies mostly run buses – the vast majority of US public transport service is buses, even if ridership splits fairly evenly between buses and trains. The impact of federal aid for capital but not operations is noticeable in agency decisions to upgrade a bus route to rail perhaps prematurely in some medium-size cities. It’s also visible in bus replacement schedules: buses are replaced every 12 years because that’s what the Federal Transit Administration will fund, whereas in Canada, which has the same bus market and regulations but usually no federal funding for either capital or operations, buses are made to last slightly longer, around 15 years.
It’s hard to tell if American transit agencies are being perfectly rational with bus investment, because a large majority of bus operating expenses are the driver’s wage, which is generally near market rate. That said, the next largest category is maintenance, and there, it is possible to be efficient. Some agencies do it right, like the Chicago Transit Authority, which replaces 1/12 of its fleet every year to have long-term maintenance stability, with exactly 1/12 of the fleet up for mid-life refurbishment each year. Others do it wrong – the MTA buys buses in bunches, leading to higher operating expenses, even though it has a rolling capital plan and can self-fund this system in years when federal funds are not forthcoming.
Right-wing budget cuts
Roughly the entirety of the center-right policy sphere in the United States is hostile to public transportation. The most moderate and least partisan elements of it identify as libertarian, like Cato and Reason, but mainstream American libertarianism is funded by the Koch Brothers and tends toward climate change denial and opposition to public transportation even where its natural constituency of non-left-wing urbane voters is fairly liberal on this issue. The Manhattan Institute is the biggest exception that I’m aware of – it thinks the MTA needs to cut pension payments and weaken the unions but isn’t hostile to the existence of public transportation. In that environment, there is a siege mentality among transit agencies, which associate any criticism on efficiency grounds as part of a right-wing strategy to discredit the idea of government.
Or is there?
California does not have a Republican Party to speak of. The Democrats have legislative 2/3 majorities, and Senate elections, using a two-round system, have two Democrats facing each other in the runoff rather than a Democrat and a Republican. In San Francisco, conservatism is so fringe that the few conservatives who remain back the moderate faction of city politics, whose most notable members are gay rights activist and magnet for alt-right criticism Scott Wiener, (until his death) public housing tenant organizer Ed Lee, and (currently) Mayor London Breed, who is building homeless shelters in San Francisco over NIMBY objections. The biggest organized voices in the Bay Area criticizing the government on efficiency grounds and asserting that the private sector is better come from the tech industry, and usually the people from that industry who get involved with politics are pro-immigration climate change hawks. Nobody is besieging the government in the Bay Area. Nor is anybody besieging public transit in particular – it is popular enough to routinely win the required 2/3 majority for tax hikes in referendums.
In New York, this is almost as true. The Democrats have a legislative 2/3 majority as of the election that just concluded, there does not appear to be a serious Republican candidate for either mayor or governor right now, and the Manhattan Institute recognizes its position and, on local issues of governance, essentially plays the loyal opposition. The last Republican governor, George Pataki, backed East Side Access, trading it for Second Avenue Subway Phase 1, which State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver favored.
One might expect that the broad political consensus that more public transportation is good in New York and the Bay Area would enable long-term investment. But it hasn’t. The MTA has had five-year capital plans for decades, and has known it was going to expand with Second Avenue Subway since the 1990s. BART has regularly gotten money for expansion, and Caltrain has rebuilt nearly all of its platforms in the last generation without any attempt at level boarding.
How a competent agency responds to scarcity
American transit agencies’ extravagant capital spending is not in any way a rational response to any kind of precarity, economic or political. So what is? The answer is, the sum total of investment decisions made in most low-cost countries fits the bill well.
Swiss planning maxims come out of a political environment without a left-wing majority; plans for high-speed rail in the 1980s ran into opposition on cost grounds, and the Zurich U-Bahn plans had lost two separate referendums. The kind of planning Switzerland has engaged in in the last 30 years to become Europe’s strongest rail network came precisely because it had to be efficient to retain public trust to get funds. The Canton of Zurich has to that end had to come up with a formula to divide subsidies between different municipalities with different ideas of how much public services they want, and S-Bahn investment has always been about providing the best passenger experience at the lowest cost.
Elsewhere in Europe, one sees the same emphasis on efficiency in the Nordic countries. Scandinavia as a whole has a reputation for left-wing politics, because of its midcentury social democratic dominance and strong welfare states. But as a region it also practices hardline monetary austerity, to the point that even left-led governments in Sweden and Finland wanted to slow down EU stimulus plans during the early stages of the corona crisis. There is a great deal of public trust in the state there, but it is downstream of efficiency and not upstream of it – high-cost lines get savaged in the press, which engages in pan-Nordic comparisons to assure that people get value for money.
Nor is there unanimous consensus in favor of public transportation anywhere in Europe that I know of, save Paris and London. Center-right parties support cars and oppose rail in Germany and around it. Much of the Swedish right loathes Greta Thunberg, and the center-right diverted all proceeds from Stockholm’s congestion charge to highway construction. The British right has used the expression “war on the motorist” even more than the American right has the expression “war on cars.” The Swiss People’s Party is in government as part of the grand coalition, has been the largest party for more than 20 years, and consistently opposes rail and supports roads, which is why the Lötschberg Base Tunnel’s second track is only 1/3 complete.
Most European transit agencies have responded effectively to political precarity and budget crunches. They invest to minimize future operating expenses, and make long-term plans as far as political winds permit them to. American transit agencies don’t do any of this. They’re allergic to mainline rail electrification, sluggish about high platforms, indifferent to labor-saving signaling projects, hostile to accessibility upgrades unless sued, and uncreative about long-term operating expenses. They’re not precarious – they’re just incompetent.
Three examples of public-private partnerships screwing up urban transit are on my mind. The Canada Line in Vancouver is not new to me – I was poking around a few years ago. But the other two in this post are. The Maryland Purple Line in the suburbs of Washington was supposed to be the smooth PPP offering low-risk orbital light rail connecting suburbs to other suburbs without having to go through Downtown Washington, and now it is in shambles because the contractor walked away. Milan is not a new example either, but it is new to me, as we’ve discovered it during the construction costs project comparing high American (and British) costs to low Southern European ones; even there, the PPP bug bit, leading not so much to high capital costs but to high future operating charges. In no case is such a PPP program good government; the bulk of construction and risk must always lie in the public sector, and if your public sector is too incompetent to build things itself, as in the United States, then it’s equally incompetent at overseeing a PPP, as we’re seeing in Maryland. Don’t do this.
Washington: the Purple Line
Maryland planned on building two major urban rail projects last decade, stretching into the current one: the Red Line and the Purple Line. The Red Line was to be a conventional public project to build a subway in Baltimore, mostly serving low-income West Baltimore neighborhoods. The Purple Line, a light rail project in the DC suburbs acting as an orbital for Metro, was designed as a PPP. Governor Larry Hogan canceled the Red Line, most likely for racist reasons. The physical construction costs per rider were higher on the Red Line, but the overall disbursement including very high operating charges made the Purple Line more expensive, and yet Hogan kept the more expensive system and tossed the cheaper one.
One might expect that the PPP structure of the Maryland Purple Line would allow it to at least resist cost escalation – the risk was put entirely on the private contractor. And yet, the opposite happened. Costs turned out to be higher than expected, so the contractor just quit. Once the contract is signed, no matter what it says, the risk is in practice public, and this is no exception. The contractor stopped all work and left the region with a linear swath of ripped up roads; eventually the concessionaire and the state came into a settlement in which the state would pay $250 million extra and the concessionaire would hire a new contractor. The cost overrun was $800 million and the state said that the deal was going to save taxpayers $500 million, but what it signals is that even with very high public-sector payouts over decades that intend to put the entirety of the risk on the private concession, the public sector shares a high proportion of the risk, and the private bidders know this. This is a lose-lose situation and under no circumstances should countries put themselves in it.
Vancouver provides another good example of PPPs and operating costs. SkyTrain operates driverless equipment throughout the system, which means that operating costs should be low, and, moreover, should not depend on train size much. The Expo and Millennium Lines, built and operated publicly, cost C$3.20 to run per car-km, cheaper than on any system for which I have data (mostly very large ones plus Oslo) and less than half as expensive as the major European systems. But the Canada Line, operated by a concessionaire as part of a PPP scheme, costs $17.90/car-km, which is considerably worse than any system for which I have data except PATH. Even taking into account that the Canada Line cars are somewhat bigger, this is a difference of a factor of more than 3.
This is not a matter of economies of scale. The Canada Line’s trunk runs every 3.5 minutes most of the day, which is better than the vast majority of non-driverless systems I am familiar with off-peak, so the high costs there cannot be ascribed to poor utilization. In fact, before the Evergreen extension of the Millennium Line opened in 2016, the two systems’ total operating costs were almost identical but the operating costs per car-km were about 3.5 times worse on the Canada Line – economies of scale predict that unit costs should be degressive, not almost flat.
Marco Chitti is busy collecting information and conducting interviews regarding subway construction in Italy as part of our construction costs report. Italian costs are low, which makes it feasible to build metros even in very small cities like Brescia, where per Wikipedia the cost of the metro was around €65 million per km and €15,000 per weekday rider. However, the use of PPPs has not been good in the places where it happened, due to fiscal austerity following the Great Recession.
- What is the impact on the cost of the PPP? The impact on costs of the potential transfer of risk from the Public to the Private is hard to calculate, but it appears to have an impact more on higher gross operational costs (the fee that the Municipality will pay in the 26 years of the concession for the operation and pay back a return to the private operators) than on the actual construction cost. But that is unclear yet. A bit of detail: the municipality will pay to the concessionaire a 1.09 €/passenger as a minimum granted fee up to 84 million passengers/year, 0.45€/passenger for each additional user up to a maximum determined as an increase of the IRR of 2 percentage points more than the “base IRR” of 5.93%. That means that this is basically the rate at which the private investors are de facto borrowing the money to the municipality, with most of the risk from low ridership transferred to the municipality. What makes calculations complicate is that the city is directly a majority stakeholder of the concessionaire Metro M4 S.p.A. and also, indirectly, as the owner of ATM, which will be the “private” operator. It’s very blurred compared to other PPP schemes where the concessionaire is 100% private (like M5).
- PPP emerges as a stratagem to finance the project without increasing the municipal public debt. The PPP schemes is used to compensate for the lack of local public funds matching the national ones, limited due to the debt cap imposed by the so-called “internal Stability Compact”, an austerity measure implemented after the 2011 debt crisis, which strongly limits the capacity of local governments to borrow money for infrastructure projects. It was suspended in 2016.
Note that contra the plan to build the system without public debt, the PPP does in fact include borrowing. It’s opaque, but the payment per rider is a form of borrowing. Driverless metro operating costs are lower than €1.09 per unlinked trip. The Expo and Millennium Lines cost C$1.55, which in PPP terms is about €0.90, and feature much longer trips, as the Expo Line is 36 km long and one-tailed, which means many people ride end-to-end, whereas Milan M4 is to be 15 km and two-tailed, which means few trips are longer than half the total. In effect, this is high-interest borrowing, kept off the books in an atmosphere of strict budgetary austerity
Don’t do this
PPP-built lines do not have to have high construction costs. The Canada Line was cheap to build – it was Canada’s last reasonable-cost subway, and since then costs have exploded around the country. M4 in Milan is inexpensive as well, around €110 million per kilometer at current estimates even while going underneath older subways in city center. The current annual ridership projection of M4, 87 million, means that the current projected cost per weekday trip is €6,000, which represents an enormous social surplus in a region that builds up to around €30,000-40,000 before even pro-transit activists demand cancellation.
But in those cases, the structure of the contract keeps the operating costs artificially high, privatizing what should be public-sector profit from building a very inexpensive-to-operate system. This is especially bad if it is bundled into construction costs as an up-front payment, as in Maryland. In Maryland, the extra operating costs raised the construction cost well above the maximum level that is acceptable to the public transportation community over here, and in the United States too, such lines tend to be under threat of cancellation from fiscally conservative governors if they are not portrayed as pro-market PPPs. But those PPPs then have higher costs and, through poor risk allocation, lead to the worst of both worlds: the private concessionaire increases costs in order to deal with the risk of escalation, but if the risk exceeds prior estimates, then the state remains on the hook.
Don’t do this. One can to some extent understand why Italy was forced into this position at the bottom of the financial crisis. This isn’t such a situation – all countries in Europe are engaging in large discretionary deficit spending nowadays, as the market appears to believe that not only will corona pass, but also the new vaccines developed will help prevent the common cold and the flu in the near future, increasing future health outcomes and improving productivity through less lost sick time. In the United States, a $2 trillion stimulus is sold as just the first of two steps, because there’s fiscal room. You, even as a state or local government, can find money in the budget for more spending – raise taxes or sell bonds, and do so transparently. Don’t take opaque high-interest loans just to tell the public that you haven’t borrowed on the open market. It’s not worth it.
A bunch of Americans who should know better tell me that nobody really cares about construction costs – what matters is getting projects built. This post is dedicated to them; if you already believe that efficiency and social return on investment matter then you may find these examples interesting but you probably are not looking for the main argument.
Exhibit 1: North America
I wrote a post focusing on some North American West Coast examples 5 years ago, but costs have since run over and this matters from the point of view of building more in the future. In the 2000s and 10s, Vancouver had the lowest construction costs in North America. The cost estimate for the Broadway subway in the 2010s was C$250 million per kilometer, which is below world median; subsequently, after I wrote the original post, an overrun by a factor of about two was announced, in line with real increases in costs throughout Canada in the same period.
Metro Vancouver has always had to contend with small, finite amounts of money, especially with obligatory political waste. The Broadway subway serves the two largest non-CBD job centers in the region, the City Hall/Central Broadway area and the UBC, but in regional politics it is viewed as a Vancouver project that must be balanced with a suburban project, namely the lower-performing Surrey light rail. Thus, the amount of money that was ever made available was about in line with the original budget, which is currently only enough to build half the line. Owing to the geography of the West Side, half a line is a lot less than half as good as the full line, so Vancouver’s inability to control costs has led to worse public transportation investment.
Like Vancouver, Toronto has gone from having pretty good cost control 20 years ago to having terrible cost control today. Toronto’s situation is in fact worse – its urban rail program today is a contender for the second most expensive per kilometer in the world, next to New York. The question of whether it beats Singapore, Hong Kong, London, Melbourne, Manila, Qatar, and Los Angeles depends on project details, essentially on scoring which of these is geologically and geographically the hardest to build in assuming competent leadership, which is in short supply in all of these cities. I am even tempted to specifically blame the most recent political interference for the rising costs, just as the adoption of design-build in the 2000s as an in-vogue reform must be blamed for the beginning of the cost blowouts.
The result is that Toronto is building less stuff. It’s been planning a U-shaped Downtown Relief Line for decades, since only the Yonge-University-Spadina (“YUS”) line serves downtown proper and is therefore overcrowded. However, it’s not really able to afford the full line, and hence it keeps downgrading it with various iterations, right now to an inverted L for the Ontario Line project.
Los Angeles’s costs, uniquely in the United States, seemed reasonable 15 years ago, and no longer are. This, as in Canada, can be seen in building less stuff. High-ranking officials at Los Angeles Metro explained to me and Eric that the money for capital expansion is bound by formulas decided by referendum; there is a schedule for how to spend the money as far as 2060, which means that anything that is not in the current plan is not planned to be built in the next 40 years. Shifting priorities is not really possible, not with how Metro has to buy off every regional interest group to ensure the tax increases win referendums by the required 2/3 supermajority. And even then, the taxes imposed are rising to become a noticeable fraction of consumer spending – even if California went to majority vote, its tax capacity would remain very finite.
The history of Second Avenue Subway screams “we would have built more had costs been lower.” People with deeper historic grounding than I do have written at length about the problems of the Independent Subway System (“IND”) built in the 1920s and 30s; in short, construction costs were in today’s terms around $140 million per km, which at the time was a lot (London and Paris were building subways for $30-35 million/km), and this doomed the Second System. But the same impact of high costs, scaled to the modern economy, is seen for the current SAS project.
The history of SAS is that it was planned as a single system from 125th Street to Hanover Square. The politician most responsible for funding it, Sheldon Silver, represented the Lower East Side. But spending capacity was limited, and in particular Silver had to trade that horse for East Side Access serving Long Island, which was Governor George Pataki’s base. The package was such that SAS could only get a few billion dollars, whereas at the time the cost estimate for the entire 13-km line was $17 billion. That’s why SAS was chopped into four phases, starting on the Upper East Side. Silver himself signed off on this in the early 2000s even though his district would only be served in phase four: he and the MTA assumed that there would be further statewide infrastructure packages and the entire line would be complete by 2020.
Exhibit 2: Israel
Israel is discussing extending the Tel Aviv Metro. It sounds weird to speak of extensions when the first line is yet to open, but that line, the Red Line, is under construction and close enough to the end that people are believing it will happen; Israelis’ faith that there would ever be a subway in Tel Aviv was until recently comparable to New Yorkers’ faith until the early 2010s that Second Avenue Subway would ever open. The Red Line is a subway-surface Stadtbahn, as is the under-construction Green Line and the planned Purple Line. But metropolitan Tel Aviv keeps growing and is at this point an economic conurbation of about 3-4 million people, with a contiguous urban core of 1.5 million. It needs more. Hence, people keep discussing additions. The Ministry of Finance, having soured on the Stadtbahn idea, bypassed the Ministry of Transport and introduced a complementary three-line underground driverless metro system.
The cost of the system is estimated at 130-150 billion shekels, which is around $39 billion. This is not a sum Israelis are used to seeing for a government project. It’s about two years’ worth of IDF spending, and Israeli is a militarized society. It’s about 10% of annual GDP, which in American or EU-wide terms would be $2 trillion. The state has many competing budget priorities, and there are so many other valid claims on the state coffers. It is therefore likely that the metro project’s construction will stretch over many years, not out of planning latency but out of real resource limits. People in Israel understand that Gush Dan has severe traffic congestion and needs better transportation – this is not a point of political controversy in a society that has many. But this means the public is willing to spend this amount of money over 15-20 years at the shortest. Were costs to double, in line with the costs in most of th Anglosphere, it would take twice as long; were they to fall in half, in line with Mediterranean Europe, it would take half as long.
Exhibit 3: Spain
As the country with the world’s lowest construction costs for infrastructure, Spain builds a lot of it, everywhere. This includes places where nobody else would think to build a metro tunnel or an airport or a high-speed rail line; Spain has the world’s second longest high-speed rail network, behind China. Many of these lines probably don’t even make sense within a Spanish context – RENFE at best operationally breaks even, and the airports were often white elephants built at the peak of the Spanish bubble before the 2008 financial crisis.
One can see this in urban rail length just as in high-speed rail. Madrid Metro is 293 km long, the third longest in Europe behind London and Moscow. This is the result of aggressive expansion in the 1990s and 2000s; new readers are invited to read Manuel Melis Maynar’s writeup of how when he was Madrid Metro’s CEO he built tunnels so cheaply. Expansion slowed down dramatically after the financial crisis, but is starting up again; the Spanish economy is not good, but when one can build subways for €100 million per kilometer, one can build subways that other cities would not. In addition to regular metros, Madrid also has regional rail tunnels – two of them in operation, going north-south, with a third under construction going east-west and a separate mainline rail tunnel for cross-city high-speed rail.
Exhibit 4: Japan
Japan practices economic austerity. It wants to privatize Tokyo Metro, and to get the best price, it needs to keep debt service low. When the Fukutoshin Line opened in 2008, Tokyo Metro said it would be the system’s last line, to limit depreciation and interest costs. The line amounted to around $280 million/km in today’s money, but Tokyo Metro warned that the next line would have to cost $500 million/km, which was too high. The rule in Japan has recently been that the state will fund a subway if it is profitable enough to pay back construction costs within 30 years.
Now, as a matter of politics, on can and should point out that a 30-year payback, or 3.3% annual interest, is ridiculously high. For one, Japan’s natural interest rate is far lower, and corporations borrow at a fraction of that interest; JR Central is expecting to be paying down Chuo Shinkansen debt until the 2090s, for a project that is slated to open in full in the 2040s. However, if the state changes its rule to something else, say 1% interest, all that will change is the frontier of what it will fund; lines will continue to be built up to a budgetary limit, so that the lower the construction costs, the more stuff can be built.
Conclusion: the frontier of construction
In a functioning state, infrastructure is built as it becomes cost-effective based on economic growth, demographic projections, public need, and advances in technology. There can be political or cultural influences on the decisionmaking process, but they don’t lead to huge swings. What this means is that as time goes by, more infrastructure becomes viable – and infrastructure is generally built shortly after it becomes economically beneficial, so that it looks right on the edge of viability.
This is why megaprojects are so controversial. Taiwan High-Speed Rail and Korea Train Express are both very strong systems nowadays. Total KTX ridership stood at 89 million in 2019 and was rising on the eve of corona, thanks to Korea’s ability to build more and more lines, for example the $69 million/km, 82% underground SRT reverse-branch. THSR, which has financial data on Wikipedia, has 67 million annual riders and is financially profitable, returning about 4% on capital after depreciation, before interest. But when KTX and THSR opened, they both came far below ridership projections, which were made in the 1990s when they had much faster economic convergence before the 1997 crisis. They were viewed as white elephants, and THSR could not pay interest and had to refinance at a lower rate. Taiwan and South Korea could have waited 15 years and only opened HSR now that they have almost fully converged to first-world Western incomes. But why would they? In the 2000s, HSR in both countries was a positive value proposition; why skip on 15 years of good infrastructure just because it was controversially good then and only uncontroversially good now?
In a functioning state, there is always a frontier of technology. The more cost-effective construction is, the further away the frontier is and the more infrastructure can be built. It’s likely that a Japan that can build subways for Korean costs is a Japan that keeps expanding the Tokyo rail network, because Japan is not incompetent, just austerian and somewhat high-cost. The way one gets more stuff built is by ensuring costs look like those of Spain and Korea and not like those of Japan and Israel, let alone those of the United States and Canada.