Cities that wish to improve their public transportation access and usage are in a bind. Unless they’re already very transit-oriented, they have not only an entrenched economic elite that drives (for example, small business owners almost universally drive), but also have a physical layout that isn’t easy to retrofit even if there is political consensus for modal shift. Thus, to shift travel away from cars, new interventions are needed. Here, there is a distinction between old and new cities. Old cities usually have cores that can be made transit-oriented relatively easily; new cities have demand for new growth, which can be channeled into transit-oriented development. Thus, usually, in both kinds of cities, a considerably degree of modal shift is in fact possible.
However, it’s perhaps best to treat the features of old and new cities separately. The features of old cities that make transit revival possible, that is the presence of a historic core, and those of new cities, that is demand for future growth, are not in perfect negative correlation. In fact, I’m not sure they consistently have negative correlation at all. So this is really a two-by-two diagram, producing four quadrants of potential transit cities.
The history of public transportation is one of decline in the second half of the 20th century in places that were already rich then; newly-industrialized countries often have different histories. The upshot is that an old auto-oriented place must have been a sizable city before the decline of mass transit, giving it a large core to work from. This core is typically fairly walkable and dense, so transit revival would start from there.
The most successful examples I know of involve the restoration of historic railroads as modern regional lines. Germany is full of small towns that have done so; Hans-Joachim Zierke has some examples of low-cost restoration of regional lines. Overall, Germany writ large must be viewed as such an example: while German economic growth is healthy, population growth is anemic, and the gradual increase in the modal split for public transportation here must be viewed as more intensive reuse of a historic national rail network, anchored by tens of small city cores.
At the level of a metropolitan area, the best candidates for such a revival are similarly old places; in North America, the best I can think of for this are Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. Americans don’t perceive any of the three as especially auto-oriented, but their modal splits are comparable to those of small French cities. But in a way, they show one way forward. If there’s a walkable, transit-oriented core, then it may be attractive for people to live near city center; in those three cities it’s also possible to live farther away and commute by subway, but in smaller ones (say, smaller New England cities), the subway is not available but conversely it’s usually affordable to live within walking distance of the historic city center. This creates a New Left-flavored transit revival in that it begins with the dense city center as a locus of consumption, and only then, as a critical mass of people lives there, as a place that it’s worth building new urban rail to.
Usually, if a city has a lot of recent growth from the era in which it has become taken for granted that mobility is by car, then it should have demand for further growth in the future. This demand can be planned around growth zones with a combination of higher residential density and higher job density near rail corridors. The best time to do transit-oriented development is before auto-oriented development patterns even set in.
There are multiple North American examples of how this works. The best is Vancouver, a metropolitan area that has gone from 560,000 people in the 1951 census to 2.6 million in the 2021 census. Ordinarily, one should expect such a region to be entirely auto-oriented, as most American cities with almost entirely postwar growth are; but in 2016, the last census before corona, it had a 20% work trip modal split, and that was before the Evergreen extension opened.
Vancouver has achieved this by using its strong demand for growth to build a high-rise city center, with office towers in the very center and residential ones ringing it, as well as high-density residential neighborhoods next to the Expo Line stations. The biggest suburbs of Vancouver have followed the same plan: Burnaby built an entirely new city center at Metrotown in conjunction with the Expo Line, and even more auto-oriented Surrey has built up Whalley, at the current outer terminal of the line, as one of its main city centers. Housing growth in the region is rapid; YIMBY advocacy calls for more, but the main focus isn’t on broad development (since this already happens) but on permitting more housing in recalcitrant rich areas, led by the West Side, which will soon have its Broadway extension of the Millennium Line.
Less certain but still interesting examples of the same principle are Calgary, Seattle, and Washington. Calgary, a low-density city, planned its growth around the C-Train, and built a high-rise city center, limiting job sprawl even as residential sprawl is extensive; Seattle and the Virginia-side suburbs of Washington have permitted extensive infill housing and this has helped their urban rail systems achieve high ridership by American standards, Seattle even overtaking Philadelphia’s modal split.
The four quadrants
The above contrast of old and new cities misses cities that have positive features of both – or neither. The cities with both positive features have the easiest time improving their public transportation systems, and many have never been truly auto-oriented, such as New York or Berlin, to the point that they’re not the best examples to use for how a more auto-oriented city can redevelop as a transit city.
In North America, the best example of both is San Francisco, which simultaneously is an old city with a high-density core and a place with immense demand for growth fueled by the tech industry. The third-generation tech firms – those founded from the mid-2000s onward (Facebook is in a way the last second-generation firm, which generation began with Apple and Microsoft) – have generally headquartered in the city and not in Silicon Valley. Twitter, Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Dropbox, and Slack are all in the city, and the traditional central business district has expanded to South of Market to accommodate. This is really a combination of the consumption-oriented old-city model, as growing numbers of employees of older second-generation firms chose to live in the city and reverse-commute to Silicon Valley, and the growth-oriented new-city model. Not for nothing, the narrower metropolitan statistical area of San Francisco (without Silicon Valley) reached a modal split of 17% just before corona, the second highest in the United States, with healthy projections for growth.
But then there is the other quadrant, comprising cities that have neither the positive features of old cities nor those of new cities. To be in this quadrant, a city must not be so old as to have a large historic core or an extensive legacy rail network that can be revived, but also be too poor and stagnant to generate new growth demand. Such a city therefore must have grown in a fairly narrow period of time in the early- to mid-20th century. The best example I can think of is Detroit. The consumption-centric model of old city growth can work even there, but it can’t scale well, since there’s not enough of a core compared with the current extent of the population to build out of.
I was asked by an area advocate about SkyTrain, and this turned into a long email with various models to compare Vancouver with. In my schema contrasting suburban metro systems and S-Bahns, Vancouver is firmly in the first category: SkyTrain is not commuter rail, and Vancouver’s commuter rail system, the West Coast Express, is so weak it might as well not exist. The suburban metro model forces the region to engage in extensive transit-oriented development, which Vancouver has done. Has it been successful? To some extent, yes – Vancouver’s modal split is steadily rising, and in the 2016 census, just before the Evergreen Line opened, was 20%; supposedly it is 24% now. But it could have done better. How so?
Could Vancouver have used the S-Bahn model?
There is a common line of advocacy; glimpses of it can be found on the blog Rail for the Valley, by a writer using the name Zweisystem who commented on transit blogs like Yonah and Jarrett‘s in the 2000s. Using the name of Karlsruhe’s tram-train as inspiration, Zwei has proposed that Vancouver use existing commuter rail corridors in suburban and exurban areas and streetcars in the urban core.
The problem with this is that Vancouver has very little legacy mainline rail infrastructure to work with. There are two mainlines serving city center: the Canadian Pacific, and Canadian National. The CP line hugs the coast, full of industrial customers; the CN line is farther inland and has somewhat more fixable land use, but the Millennium Line partly parallels it and even after 20 years its ridership is not the strongest in the system. Most of the urban core is nowhere near a rail mainline.
This is completely unlike the Central European S-Bahn-and-streetcars systems, all of which have legacy commuter lines radiating in all directions, and use legacy streetcars rather than newly-built light rail lines. In the last generation they’ve expanded their systems, building connections and feeding rapid transit, but none of these is a case of completely getting rid of the streetcars and then restoring them later; the busiest system that’s entirely new, that of Paris, is largely orbitals and feeders for the Métro and RER.
Vancouver did in fact reuse old infrastructure for the suburban metro concept. The Expo Line involved very little greenfield right-of-way use. Most of the core route between the historic core of Vancouver and New Westminster is in the private right-of-way of a historic BC Electric interurban; this is why it parallels Kingsway but does not run elevated over it. The tunnel in Downtown Vancouver is a disused CP tunnel; this is why the tracks are stacked one over the other rather than running side by side – the tunnel was single-track but tall enough to be cut into two levels. This limited the construction cost of the Expo Line, which the largely-elevated Millennium Line and the partly underground, partly elevated Canada Line could not match.
The Stockholm example
In my post about S-Bahns and suburban metros, I characterized Stockholm as an archetypal suburban metro. Stockholm does have an S-Bahn tunnel nowadays, but it only opened 2017, and ridership so far, while rising, is still a fraction of that of the T-bana.
Stockholm’s choice of a full metro system in the 1940s, when it had about a million people in its metro area, had its critics at the time. But there wasn’t much of a choice. The trams were fighting growing traffic congestion, to the point that some lines had to be put in a tunnel, which would later be converted for the use of the Green Line as it goes through Södermalm. Working-class housing was overcrowded and there was demand for more housing in Stockholm, which would eventually be satisfied by the Million Program.
And there were too few commuter lines for an S-Bahn system. Swedes were perfectly aware of the existence of the S-Bahn model; Berlin and Hamburg both had S-Bahns running on dedicated tracks, and Copenhagen had built its own system, called S-Tog in imitation of the German name. But they didn’t build that. None of this was the integrated Takt timetable that Munich would perfect in the 1970s, in which branches could be left single-track or shared with intercity trains provided the regular 20-minute headways could be scheduled to avoid conflicts; the track sharing required in the 1940s would have been too disruptive. Not to mention, Stockholm had too few lines, if not so few as Vancouver – only two branches on each of two sides of city center, with most of the urban core far from the train.
So Stockholm built the T-bana, with three highly branched lines all meeting at T-Centralen, the oldest two of the three having a cross-platform transfer there and at the two stations farther south. The roughly 104 km system (57 km underground) cost, in 2022 US dollars, $3.6 billion. Stockholm removed all the regular streetcars; a handful running all or mostly in private rights-of-way were retained with forced transfers at outlying T-bana stations like Ropsten, as was the narrow-gauge Roslagsbana (with a forced transfer at KTH, where I worked for two years).
At the same time the T-bana was under construction, the state built the Million Program, and in the Stockholm region, the housing projects were designed to be thoroughly oriented around the system. The pre-Million Program TOD suburb of Vällingby was envisioned as part of a so-called string of pearls, in which towns would radiate from each T-bana station, with local retail and jobs near the station surrounded by housing. In 2019, the T-bana had 1,265,900 riders per workday, Citybanan had 410,300, and the remaining lines 216,100; Sweden reports modal split for all trips and not just work trips, but the commute modal split appears to be 40% or a little higher, a figure that matches Paris, a metro area of 13 million that opened its first metro line in 1900.
So why is Stockholm better?
There are parallels between Stockholm and Vancouver – both are postwar cities with 2.5 million people in their metropolitan areas with rapid growth due to immigration. Their physical geographies are similar, with water barriers inhibiting the contiguous sprawl of many peers. Both extensively employed TOD to shape urban geography around the train: Stockholm has Vällingby and other, less famous examples of TOD; Vancouver has Metrotown and smaller examples of residential TOD along the Expo Line, alongside a famously high-rise downtown. But the T-bana has more than twice the annual ridership of SkyTrain, and Stockholm has around twice the modal split of Vancouver – this is not a matter of Canadians riding buses more than Europeans do. So what gives?
Part of it is about TOD models. Stockholm is an exceptionally monocentric city, and this has created a lot of demand for urban rail to Central Stockholm. But Vancouver’s high-rise city center has a lot of jobs, and overall, around 30% of Metro Vancouver jobs are in the city or the University Endowment Lands (that is, UBC), and the proportion of Stockholm County jobs within an equivalent area is similar. Vancouver has never built anything as massive as the Million Program, but its housing growth rate is one of the highest in the world (around 11 gross units/1,000 people per year in the 2010s), and much of that growth clusters near the Expo Line and increasingly also near the worse-developed Millennium and Canada Lines.
I suspect that the largest reason is simply the extent of the systems. SkyTrain misses the entire West Side of Vancouver west of Cambie, has poor coverage in Surrey and none in Langley, and does not cross the Burrard Inlet. The T-bana has no comparable lacunae: Roslag is served by Roslagsbanan, and the areas to be served by the under-construction extensions are all target TOD areas with much less present-day density than North Vancouver, the cores of Fairview and Kitsilano, or the town centers in Surrey other than Whalley.
What’s more, Stockholm’s construction costs may be rising but those of Vancouver (and the rest of Canada) are rising even faster and from a higher base. Nya Tunnelbanan is currently budgeted at $3.6 billion in PPP terms – 19 underground km for about the same cost as the existing 104 – but Vancouver is building half of the most critical SkyTrain extension, that under Broadway, for C$2.83 billion (US$2.253 billion in PPP terms) for just 5 km, not all underground. The projected cost per rider is still favorable, but it’s less favorable for the planned extension to Langley, and there’s no active plan for anything to the North Shore.
The silver lining for Vancouver is that the West Side is big and underdeveloped. The region has the money to extend SkyTrain not just to Arbutus as is under construction but all the way to UBC, and the entire swath of land between Central Broadway and UBC screams “redevelop me.” The current land use is a mix of mid-rise, townhouses (“missing middle”), and single-family housing; Shaughnessy, whose northern end is within a kilometer of under-construction SkyTrain stations, is single-family on large lots, and can be redeveloped as high-rise housing alongside closer-in areas. Canada does not have Europe’s allergy to tall buildings, and this is a resource that can be used to turn Vancouver into a far more transit-oriented city along the few corridors where it can afford to build. The suburban metro is always like this: fewer lines, more development intensity along them.
I was excited about the idea of Interborough Express (IBX) as announced by New York Governor Kathy Hochul, and then last week her office released a preliminary report about the alternatives for it, and I got less excited. But it’s not that the study is bad, or that Hochul is bad. Rather, the study is a by the numbers alternatives analysis, shorter than the usual in a good way; its shortcomings are the shortcomings of all American planning.
The main rub is that the report looks at various options for the IBX route, broken down by mode. There’s a commuter rail option, which bakes in the usual bad assumption about commuter rail operations, including heavier trains (lighter trains are legal on US tracks as of 2018) and longer dwell times that are explained as a product of the heavier trains (dwell times have nothing to do with train mass). That’s par for the course – as we saw yesterday, everything that touches mainline rail in North America becomes stupid even in an otherwise understandable report.
But even excluding commuter rail, the study classifies the options by mode, focusing on bus rapid transit and light rail (and no subway, for some reason). It compares those two options and commuter rail on various measures like expected ridership and trip times. This is normal for American alternatives analyses for new corridors like IBX: they look at different modes as the main decision point.
This is also extraordinarily bad governance. There are some fundamental questions that are treated as afterthoughts, either not studied at all or mentioned briefly as 1-2 sentences:
- How far north should the line go? The IBX plan is to only go from Jackson Heights to the south, in contrast with older Triboro proposals going into the Bronx.
- What should the stop spacing be? The stops can be widely spaced, as in the current proposal, which stops mainly at intersection points with other lines, or more closely spaced, like an ordinary subway line.
- Under a light rail option, should the line be elevated where the trench is too narrow or at-grade?
- Should freight service be retained? What are the benefits of retaining freight rail service on the Bay Ridge Branch and what are the incremental costs of keeping it versus taking over the right-of-way?
- How large should the stations be?
- How frequent should the trains be? If freight service is retained, what frequencies are compatible with running freight on the same tracks for part or all of the line?
A better study must focus on these questions. Some of them, moreover, must be decided early: urban planning depends on whether the line goes into the Bronx or not; and industrial planning depends on what is done with freight service along the corridor.
Those questions, moreover, are more difficult than the modal question. A BRT option on a rail corridor without closely parallel arterial roads should be dismissed with the same ease that the study dismisses options not studied, and then the question of what kind of rail service to run is much less important than the scope of the project.
But American planning is obsessed with comparing public transit by mode rather than by corridor, scope, or any other aspect. Canadian planning has the same misfeature – the studies for the Broadway SkyTrain extension looked at various BRT and light rail options throughout, even though it was clear the answer was going to be SkyTrain, and omitted more fundamental questions regarding the cost-construction disruption tradeoff or even the scope of the project (the original studies from 2012 did not look at truncating to Arbutus, an option that had been talked about before and that would eventually happen due to cost overruns).
So overall, the IBX study is bad. But it is interestingly bad. Andrew Cuomo was a despicable governor who belongs in prison for his crimes. Less criminal and yet similarly loathsome people exist in American public transit. And yet, Hochul and her office are not like that, at all. This is not a sandbag, or a corrupt deal. It’s utterly ordinary in its failure; with all the unique failures of the Cuomo era stripped, what is left is standard American practice, written more clearly than is usual, and it just isn’t up to par as an analysis.
Hochul has been moving on this project very quickly, and good transit advocates should laud this. It should not take long to publish a report comparing alternatives on more fundamental questions than mode, such as scope, the role of freight, and the extent of civil infrastructure to be used. The costs and benefits of IBX heavily depend on the decisions made on such matters; they should not be brushed aside.
There was a conference I got invited to, consisting of three talks, two about state capacity by me and by Tyler Cowen, and one by a Canadian extramural Conservative politician named Ginny Roth (she’s a columnist but her talk was about how Conservatives could use the insights of state capacity to win elections, hence my appellation). It was run by entrepreneurs named Chris and Matt Spoke, doing a series of online meetings trying to introduce fresh ideas to what they hope will be the next crop of Tory leaders; there’s going to be one on housing in the future, and the YIMBY comments I made seemed popular with the crowd.
Here is a link to my slides. They shouldn’t be too surprising given my usual talk on construction costs and what I said before about the growth in Canadian costs. But I made sure to put the increase in costs in Canada all together in two slides, one about Toronto, sourced to Stephen Wickens, and one about the rest of Canada, sourced to both our database and to a comparison of Calgary’s costs through the 2000s with Calgary’s West LRT costs.
The organizers are in Toronto, so I didn’t talk too much about the situation in Vancouver. I said a few sentences about how I can see there was a real increase in costs from a difference between the half-elevated Canada Line and the 87% underground Broadway subway under construction, but I didn’t go into the history of the Canada Line’s cut-and-cover method or the cost estimates from the early 2010s, which had the Broadway subway costing C$250 million/km. I talked more about Toronto, where the increase in costs is larger; Vancouver, even with the cost increases, remains North America’s lowest-construction-cost city, since the other cities have had even bigger increases, including Toronto, Los Angeles, and Seattle.
I want to highlight, as I brought up 1.5 years ago, that while Canada has American (i.e. bad) mainline rail, and Americanizing construction costs, it is YIMBYer than both the US and Europe. I worry it won’t last for long, because the style of Canadian redevelopment is at fairly small radius from an arterial or a subway station and those will eventually run out, forcing upzoning of large swaths of single-family land for the benefit of everyone except the handful of aggrieved homeowners who dominate municipal politics. (There was not enough time to talk about the importance of high-level decisionmaking, that is at the provincial level and not the municipal one.)
The Pacific Northwest seems like the perfect region for high-speed rail: its cities form a neat line from Vancouver to Portland and points south, grow at high rates with transit-oriented development, and have sizable employment cores around the train station. And yet, when I generated my high-speed rail maps, I could only include it as a marginal case, and even that inclusion was charitable:
(Full-size image is available here.)
There’s been a lot of criticism over why I’m including Atlanta-Jacksonville but not Vancouver-Seattle-Portland, and I’d like to explain why the model says this.
The population density in the Western United States is very low. What this means in practice is that cities are far apart – the best example is Denver, a large metropolitan area that is 537 km from the nearest million-plus metro area (Albuquerque). A high-speed line can connect two cities, maybe three, but will not form the multi-city trunk that one sees in Germany or Italy, or even Spain or France. Lines can still make sense if they serve enormous cities like Los Angeles, but otherwise there just isn’t much.
This relates to Metcalfe’s law of network effects. In a dense region, the 500-800 km radius around a city will have so many other cities that network effects are obtained as the system grows. Even Florida, which isn’t dense by European standards, has cities placed closely enough that a medium-size system can connect Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and Jacksonville, and then with a 500 km extension reach Atlanta. The I-85 corridor can likewise accrete cities along the way between Washington and Atlanta and get decent ridership.
In the Pacific Northwest, any intercity infrastructure has to live off Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland – that’s it. Spokane is small, orthogonal to the main line, and separated by mountains; Salem and Eugene are small and Salem is technically in the Portland combined statistical area; California’s cities are very far away and separated by mountains that would take a base tunnel to cross at speed. And Seattle is just not that big – the CSA has 5 million people, about the same as Berlin, which has within 530 km every German metropolitan area.
The model thinks that with Vancouver (2.6)-Seattle (5) at 220 km and Seattle-Portland (3.2) at 280, ridership is as follows, in millions of passengers per year in both directions combined:
|City S\City N||Vancouver||Seattle|
In operating profits in millions of dollars per year, this is,
|City S\City N||Vancouver||Seattle|
This is $135 million a year. It’s actually more optimistic than the official WSDOT study, which thinks the line can’t make an operating profit at all, due to an error in converting between miles and kilometers. The WSDOT study also thinks the cost of the system is $24-42 billion, which is very high. Nonetheless, a normal cost for Vancouver-Portland HSR is on the order of $15 billion, a bit higher than the norm because of the need for some tunnels and some constrained urban construction through I-5 in Seattle.
It isn’t even close. The financial ROI is 0.9%, which is below the rate of return for government debt in the very long run. Even with social benefits included, the rate is very low, maybe 2.5% – and once social benefits come into play, the value of capital rises because competing government investment priorities have social benefits too so it’s best to use the private-sector cost of capital, which is 4-5%.
This exercise showcases the value of density to intercity rail networks. You don’t need Dutch density, but Western US density is too low – the network effects are too weak except in and around California. It would be mad to build Atlanta-Jacksonville as a high-speed rail segment on its own, but once the Florida network and the I-85 network preexist, justified by their internal ridership and by the Piedmont’s connections to the Northeast, connecting Atlanta and Jacksonville becomes valuable.
The one saving grace of the Pacific Northwest is growth. That’s why it’s even included on the map. Lines in the 1.5-1.8% ROI region are not depicted at all, namely Houston-New Orleans and Dallas-Oklahoma City-Kansas City-St. Louis, both discounted because none of the cities connected has local public transportation or a strong city center. The Pacific Northwest is not discounted, and also benefits from strong growth at all ends.
The gravity model says that ridership is proportional to the 0.8th power of the population of each city connected. To get from 0.9% to 2% requires a factor of 2.2 growth, which requires each city to grow by a factor of 2.2^0.625 = 1.65.
Is such growth plausible? Yes, in the long run. In 2006-16, Metro Vancouver grew 16%; in 2010-9, the core three-county Seattle metro area (not CSA) grew 16% as well, and the core Portland metro area (again, not CSA) grew 12%. At 16% growth per decade, the populations will rise by the required factor in 34 years, so building for the 20-year horizon and then relying on ridership growth in the 2050s and 60s isn’t bad. But then that has a lot of risk embedded in it – the growth of Seattle is focused on two companies in a similar industry, and that of Vancouver is to a large extent the same industry too.
Moreover, the region’s relative YIMBYism can turn into NIMBYism fast. Metro Vancouver’s housing growth is healthy, but the region is fast running out of developable non-residential areas closer in than Surrey, which means it will need to replace single-family housing on the West Side with apartment buildings, which it hasn’t done so far. Growing construction costs are also threatening the ability of both Vancouver and Seattle to feed commuters into their central business districts by rail – Seattle may have built U-Link for costs that exist in Germany, but the Ballard/West Seattle line is $650 million/km and mostly above-ground, and the Broadway subway in Vancouver, while only C$500 million/km, is still on the expensive side by non-Anglo standards. It’s useful to plan around future growth and safeguard the line, but not to build it just on the promise of future growth, not at this stage.
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.
There’s a tendency among a number of important American YIMBYs that bothers me – they speak of development as a bad thing, a great burden that must be shared equally across neighborhoods. I’ve even seen this take regarding immigration, portraying it as such a terrible burden that Germany must undertake to redeem itself after the Holocaust. The underlying assumption is that growth is bad, and the ideal world is static and has people living in small communities.
But what if growth is good? What if more urban development is good? What if immigration is good, and immigrants are good people individually and collectively?
Growth is good
There’s a “growth for its own sake is the ideology of the cancer cell” meme out there. Well, no. Growth is not for its own sake. It’s for the sake of the things you can do in a society that produces more stuff: live longer, own refrigerators and other appliances, travel beyond walking range, communicate with people beyond travel range, get your own room, eat more interesting food than whatever scraps concentration camp prisoners fight over, wear more interesting clothes than concentration camp prisoner uniform, play interesting games, etc.
What is true is that no single element of these is in perfect correlation with wealth. You can even devise a large subset of these that aren’t, and focus on places that are exceptional relative to their income levels; Kerala is popular for its high literacy and life expectancy relative to its wealth. But usually these early investments then pay off in growth – this was the case in 1960s and 70s’ Korea, which was approaching universal literacy at the start of this period with astonishingly low incomes, and then used its advantage in relatively skilled, low-wage work to industrialize.
Urban development is good
The ability to access more stuff easily is a good thing and there’s a reason both employers and residents pay extra to have it. More and bigger buildings stimulate this kind of access. On the production side, this means thicker social networks for people who work in related industries and can come up with new innovations – this is why the tech industry sticks in San Francisco and environs, and not the bay view or the state of California’s public services. This, in turn, raises wages. On the consumption side, this means more variety in what to buy.
Moreover, this is true down to the neighborhood level. A denser neighborhood has more amenities, because more people is a good thing, because new people stimulate new social events, new consumption, and new opportunities for job access. If more people move to your neighborhood, that means first of all that employers are more likely to site jobs where convenient for you, and second of all that the city is likelier to want to build more subway lines in your direction.
A corollary of this is that private developers, as a class, are good, because they convert factors of production like labor and capital into finished, habitable apartments and offices. Yes, they can individually be terrible people. But collectively as a class their effect is good and the state needs to stop treating them as a source of loot to be doled to sympathetic neighborhood groups.
The most frustrating thing about it is that New York specifically likes to extol its own size as a reason for its supposed greatness. But then the idea that an even bigger city is a better city makes the political system there wince, and therefore the city permitted not many more than 20,000 housing units per year at the peak of the pre-virus economy, about one quarter the per capita rate of the Seoul metropolitan region or Tokyo (the city proper, but I think the suburbs have similar housing growth), and one third that of Ile-de-France.
Immigrants are good
Vancouver is a racist city, and I say this having lived in Israel. I somehow found myself in a room at a meetup where an all-white group of people were talking about black men’s penis size. Anti-Semitism, anti-black racism, Sinophobia, hate for indigenous people: you name it, I saw it there, used casually, by people who didn’t even think they were saying something controversial. The representatives of the people of that city have come across the realization that there is extensive immigration to their city and therefore it may be prudent to choke housing development because it’s all for immigrants anyway.
There’s a weird kind of defensiveness about immigration, even in societies where it’s fairly popular. Germany and Sweden both think they’re shouldering a great burden by taking in refugees, and even Germans who identify as left-wing and antiracist seem scared of diverse neighborhoods that immigrants of all social classes don’t find anything wrong with. But Germans at least have the excuse of not being used to diversity, and I think they’re slowly learning to be more tolerant. Vancouverites are used to diversity and decided they prefer racial purity to growth. Housing growth in Vancouver was healthy before the crisis but a lot of political forces in the city seem intent on making sure this doesn’t happen again, and with the transit-oriented development sites filling fast, the region will soon have to make tough decisions on upzoning single-family neighborhoods 600 meters from the train rather than 100 meters.
For the same reason a bigger city is a better city, the movement of immigrants into a country is an unalloyed good for the recipient country, unless perhaps that country is extremely dependent on primary resources, which Germany isn’t and even British Columbia isn’t.
Developers may be individually bad people but collectively good as a class; with immigrants, the good is both individual and collective. Immigrants as individuals are good, and it’s better for a country to have more of them (us, really): if anyone wants me to babble about all the statistics about employment (even for refugees in Germany), lower crime rates, cultural emphasis on skills and education, etc., I’ll be happy to do so in comments. Immigrants as a collective are likewise good, through introducing more cultural variety to a place and promoting cultural and social ties to parts of the world this place may not have thought to learn much from.
In England and Wales, 15.9% of workers get to work on public transport, and in France, 14.9% do. In Canada, the figure is close: 12.4%, and this is without a London or Paris to run up the score in. Vancouver is a metro region of 2.5 million people and 1.2 million workers, comparable in size to the metropolitan counties in England and to the metro area of Lyon; at 20.4%, it has a higher public transport modal share than all of them, though it is barely higher than Lyon with its 19.9% share. Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton, and Winnipeg are likewise collectively respectable by the standards of similar-size French regions, such as the departments of Bouches-du-Rhône (Marseille), Alpes-Maritimes (Nice), Gironde (Bordeaux), Haute-Garonne (Toulouse), and Bas-Rhin (Strasbourg).
As a result, Jarrett Walker likes telling American cities and transit agencies to stop envying Europe and start envying Canada instead. Canada is nearby, speaks the same language, and has similar street layout, all of which contribute to its familiarity to Americans. If Europe has the exotic mystique of the foreign, let alone East Asia, Canada is familiar enough to Americans that the noticeable differences are a cultural uncanny valley.
And yet, I am of two minds on this. The most consistent transit revival in Canada has been in Vancouver, whose modal share went from 14.3% in 1996 to 20.4% in 2016 – and the 2016 census was taken before the Evergreen extension of the Millennium Line opened. TransLink has certainly been doing a lot of good things to get to this point. And yet, there’s a serious risk to Canadian public transport in the future: construction costs have exploded, going from Continental European 15 years ago to American today.
The five legs of good transit
I was asked earlier today what a good political agenda for public transportation would be. I gave four answers, like the four legs of a chair, and later realized that I missed a fifth point.
- Fuel taxes and other traffic suppression measures (such as Singapore and Israel’s car taxes). Petrol costs about €1.40/liter in Germany and France; diesel is cheaper but being phased out because of its outsize impact on pollution.
- Investment in new urban and intercity lines, such as the Madrid Metro expansion program since the 1990s or Grand Paris Express. This is measured in kilometers and not euros, so lower construction costs generally translate to more investment, hence Madrid’s huge metro network.
- Interagency cooperation within metropolitan regions and on intercity rail lines where appropriate. This includes fare integration, schedule integration, and timetable-infrastructure integration.
- Urban upzoning, including both residential densification in urban neighborhoods and commercialization in and around city center.
- Street space reallocation from cars toward pedestrians, bikes, and buses.
We can rate how Canada (by which I really mean Vancouver) does on this rubric:
- The fuel tax in Canada is much lower than in Europe, contributing to high driving rates. In Toronto, gasoline currently costs $1.19/liter, which is about €0.85/l. But Vancouver fuel taxes are higher, raising the price to about $1.53/l, around €1.06/l.
- Canadian construction costs are so high that investment in new lines is limited. Vancouver has been procrastinating building the Broadway subway to UBC until costs rose to the point that the budget is only enough to build the line halfway there.
- Vancouver and Toronto both have good bus-rapid transit integration, but there is no integration with commuter rail; Montreal even severed a key commuter line to build a private driverless rapid transit line. In Vancouver, bus and SkyTrain fares have decoupled due to political fallout from the botched smartcard implementation.
- Vancouver is arguably the YIMBYest Western city, building around 10 housing units per 1,000 people every year in the last few years. Toronto’s housing construction rate is lower but still respectable by European standards, let alone American ones.
- There are bike lanes but not on the major streets. If there are bus lanes, I didn’t see any of them when I lived in Vancouver, and I traveled a lot in the city as well as the suburbs.
Vancouver’s transit past and future
Looking at the above legs of what makes for good public transport, there is only one thing about Canada that truly shines: urban redevelopment. Toronto, a metro area of 6 million people, has two subway mainlines, and Montreal, with 4 million people, has 2.5. Vancouver has 1.5 lines – its three SkyTrain mainlines are one-tailed. By the same calculation, Berlin has 6.5 U- and 3 S-Bahn mainlines, and Madrid has 2 Cercanías lines and 7 metro lines. Moreover, high construction costs and political resistance from various GO Transit interests make it difficult for Canadian cities to add more rapid transit.
To the extent Vancouver has a sizable SkyTrain network, it’s that it was able to build elevated and cut-and-cover lines in the past. This is no longer possible for future expansion, except possibly toward Langley. The merchant lawsuits over the Canada Line’s construction impacts have ensured that the Broadway subway will be bored. Furthermore, the region’s politics make it impossible to just build Broadway all the way to the end: Surrey has insisted on some construction within its municipal area, so the region has had to pair half the Broadway subway with a SkyTrain extension to the Langley sprawl.
Put in other words, the growth in Vancouver transit ridership is not so much about building more of a network, but about adding housing and jobs around the network that has been around since the 1980s. The ridership on the Millennium and Canada Lines is growing but remains far below that on the Expo Line. There is potential for further increase in ridership as the neighborhoods along the Canada Line have finally been rezoned, but even that will hit a limit pretty quickly – the Canada Line was built with low capacity, and the Millennium Line doesn’t enter Downtown and will only serve near-Downtown job centers.
Potemkin bus networks
When Jarrett tells American cities to envy Canada, he generally talks about the urban bus networks. Toronto and Vancouver have strong bus grids, with buses coming at worst every 8 minutes during the daytime off-peak. Both cities have grids of major streets, as is normal for so many North American cities, and copying the apparent features of these grids is attractive to American transit managers.
And yet, trying to just set up a bus grid in your average American city yields Potemkin buses. Vancouver and Toronto have bus grids that rely on connections to rapid transit lines. In both cities, transit usage is disproportionately about commutes either to or from a city core defined by a 5 kilometer radius from city hall. Moreover, the growth in public transport commuting in both cities since 1996 has been almost exclusively about such commutes, and not about everywhere-to-everywhere commutes from outside this radius. Within this radius, public transportation is dominated by rail, not buses.
The buses in Toronto and Vancouver have several key roles to play. First, as noted above, they connect to rapid transit nodes or to SeaBus in North Vancouver. Second, they connect to job centers that exist because of rapid transit, for example Metrotown at the eastern end of Vancouver’s 49. And third, there is the sui generis case of UBC. All of these roles create strong ridership, supporting high enough frequency that people make untimed transfers.
But even then, there are problems common to all North American buses. The stop spacing is too tight – 200 meters rather than 400-500, with frequency-splitting rapid buses on a handful of very strong routes like 4th Avenue and Broadway. There is no all-door boarding except on a handful of specially-branded B-line buses. There are no bus lanes.
One American city has similar characteristics to Toronto and Vancouver when it comes to buses: Chicago. Elsewhere, just copying the bus grid of Vancouver will yield nothing, because ultimately nobody is going to connect between two mixed-traffic buses that run every 15 minutes, untimed, if they can afford any better. In Chicago, the situation is different, but what the city most needs is integration between Metra and CTA services, which requires looking at European rather than Canadian models.
Is Canada hopeless?
I don’t know. The meteoric rise in Canadian subway construction costs in the last 15 years has ensured expansion will soon grind to a halt. Much of this rise comes from reforms that the Anglosphere has convinced itself improve outcomes, like design-build and reliance on outside consultants; in that sense, the US hasn’t been copying Canada, but instead Canada has been copying the US and getting American results.
That said, two positive aspects are notable. The first is very high housing and commercial growth in the most desirable cities, if not in their most exclusive neighborhoods. Vancouver probably has another 10-20 years before its developable housing reserves near existing SkyTrain run out and it is forced to figure out how to affordably expand the network. Nowhere in Europe is housing growth as fast as in Metro Vancouver; among the cities for which I have data, only Stockholm comes close, growing at 7-8 net units per 1,000 people annually.
Moreover, with Downtown Vancouver increasingly built out, Vancouver seems to be successfully expanding the CBD outward: Central Broadway already has many jobs and will most likely have further commercial growth as the Millennium Line is extended there. Thus, employers that don’t fit into the Downtown Vancouver peninsula should find a home close enough for SkyTrain, rather than hopping to suburban office parks as in the US. Right now, the central blob of 100 km^2 – a metric I use purely because of limitations on French and Canadian data granularity – has a little more than 30% of area jobs in Vancouver, comparable to Paris, Lyon, New York, Boston, and San Francisco, and ahead of other American cities.
The second aspect is that Canadians are collectively a somewhat more internationally curious nation than Americans. They are more American than European, but the experience of living in a different country from the United States makes it easier for them to absorb foreign knowledge. The reaction to my and Jonathan English’s August article about Canadian costs has been sympathetic, with serious people with some power in Toronto contacting Jonathan to figure out how Canada can improve. The reaction I have received within the United States runs the gamut – some agencies are genuinely helpful and realize that they’ll be better off if we can come up with a recipe for reducing costs, others prefer to obstruct and stonewall.
My perception of Canadian politics is that even right-populists like Doug Ford are more serious about this than most American electeds. In that sense, Ford is much like Boris Johnson, who could move to Massachusetts to be viceroy and far improve governance in both Britain and Massachusetts. My suspicion is that this is linked to Canada’s relatively transit-oriented past and present: broad swaths of the Ontarian middle class ride trains, as is the case in Outer London and the suburbs of Paris. A large bloc of present-day swing voters who use public transport is a good political guarantee of positive attention to public transport in the future. American cities don’t have that – there are no competitive partisan elections anywhere with some semblance of public transportation.
These two points of hope are solid but still run against powerful currents. Toronto really is botching the RER project because of insider obstruction and timidity, and without a strong RER project there is no way to extend public transportation to the suburbs. Vancouver is incapable of concentrating resources where they do the most good. And all Canadian cities have seen an explosion in costs. Canadians increasingly understand the cost problem, but it remains to be seen whether they can fix it.
Two of the cities I have lived in are in areas with a carbon tax regime: Vancouver and Stockholm. British Columbia implemented a carbon tax starting in 2008, at a level reaching C$30 per metric ton of CO2, under the right-wing BC Liberals, who favored the carbon tax as a market-friendlier approach than the left-wing NDP’s proposal for cap-and-trade. The tax was revenue-neutral, offsetting other taxes, and is seen as a success; the NDP has since won power and announced a hike in the tax to C$50/t by 2021.
Sweden’s carbon tax is higher and older. It was implemented by the Social Democrats in 1991, at a rate of €24/t for home use, such as fuel, and €6/t for industrial use; it has been subsequently hiked multiple times, reaching €88/t for home use by 2004, and Löfven’s coalition of Social Democrats and Greens has increased it to €114/t for both home and industrial use. Our World in Data cites it as a success too, linking it to high levels of political trust and low corruption levels in Sweden as well as in other European countries with carbon taxes, such as Switzerland.
The question of interest is, how come these carbon taxes are good not just for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also for the economy? British Columbia’s economy has grown somewhat faster than that of the rest of Canada. Sweden has had high economic growth since the 1990s as well – see for example World Bank data from 1990 to 2018, in which Sweden’s growth in GDP per capita only behind that of Norway and the Netherlands, both by very small margins. What gives? How come this is apparently good for raw economic growth, when it’s supposed to be an economic distortion that reduces living standards if one ignores long-term environmental benefits?
Negative carbon taxes
There is an array of policies that act as negative carbon taxes – that is, taxes on green activity, or subsidies to polluting activity. The construction of highways is one example – the negative effects of cars include not just climate change but also local air pollution, noise, and car accidents. There are various policies counteracting these effects, such as fuel taxes and mandatory insurance, but they are not enough. For example, in British Columbia the minimum insurance requirement is $200,000 in personal injury plus $300,000 in medical expenses and smaller sums for related torts like funeral costs, but the insurance value of human life is measured in the millions.
To the extent non-carbon taxes on cars are too low, the addition of a carbon tax should move the tax level closer to the true level of the negative externality even ignoring long-term climate change. Carbon taxes should not by themselves improve economic growth on a 30-year horizon, let alone a 10-year one, but lower levels of air pollution, fewer car crashes, and less traffic congestion would.
Another aspect is development. Various zoning laws, such as single-family residential zones in much of Vancouver and restrictions on high-rises in Central Stockholm, encourage people to live and work in lower-density areas. This is simultaneously a negative carbon tax of a sort and a drag on economic productivity. A carbon tax is no substitute for reforms making it easier to add housing – and thankfully, both Stockholm and Vancouver already have fast housing construction, unlike (say) New York – but it does help countermand the subsidies to suburbanization implicit in restrictive zoning.
Climate science vs. arbitrary rule
The economic reasoning behind why special fees on various activities are inferior to broad taxes on income, property, and consumption has to do with incentives and rule of law. Taxing a specific activity incentivizes people and corporations to find creative ways to shift apparent activity elsewhere, creating economic distortions. It also sends everyone a message, “spend more money on lobbying politicians to keep your sector’s taxes lower than those of other sectors.” Broad-based taxes don’t do that, first because the only way to avoid an income tax is to be poorer, and second because there are fewer moving parts to an income or sales tax.
However, carbon taxes are not your run-of-the-mill tax on an activity some politician does not like. Yes, there is a definitive political movement calling for restraining greenhouse gas emissions, but the reasoning behind it is telegraphed years and even decades in advance, and is based on a scientific consensus. Lobbyists can try to fight for exemptions, as they can from income taxes, but the tax itself is based on a process that is transparent to informed economic actors.
In green democracy as in social democracy, the role of the state is not to side with the interest groups that voted for the party in power, unlike in populism. Social democracy holds that the state has an expansive role to play in the economy, but this role is not based on arbitrary exceptions but rather on budgetary and regulatory priorities that have been largely stable for generations: income compression, labor unions, health care, education, child care, infrastructure, housing. It’s not a coincidence that the part of the world with the strongest social-democratic institutions, the Nordic countries, also has more or less the lowest corruption levels.
Green democracy has a different set of priorities from social democracy, but they too are well-known, especially when it comes to the transition away from greenhouse gases. There’s a lot of lobbying concerning specific spending priorities, but the point of a carbon tax is that it adjudicates how to prioritize different aspects of the transition apolitically.
Carbon taxes and good government
The World in Data’s praise of Sweden’s carbon tax regime talks about the necessity for low corruption and high trust levels for a carbon tax to work. But does the causation really run in that direction? What if the causation is different? It’s likely that a carbon tax could politically work in a wide variety of countries, but only in states with high levels of political transparency do politicians prefer it to opaque schemes that reward cronies and favored interest groups.
In other words, once British Columbia enacted its carbon tax the results were positive even without unusually low corruption for a rich country. But for the most part, governments without much transparency or rule of law such as much of the United States do not like the simplicity of a carbon tax. Politicians who call themselves green prefer schemes that either directly subsidize favored groups or at least politically empower them (“Green New Deal”), and that specifically ream difficulties on groups they do not favor (real estate developers, the nuclear industry, etc.).
But that American politicians do not like carbon taxation does not mean carbon taxation could not work in an American context. It does in a Canadian one, without any of the negative economic effects that people who take perverse joy in environmental destruction predicted. The private economy can and does adapt to changes in relative prices, as fuel becomes much more expensive and other products become cheaper to compensate – and judging by the experience of Sweden in particular, even a fairly high tax is compatible with fast economic growth for a mature economy. All it takes is someone willing to spend short-term political capital on the long-term green transition.
American cities try to aim for 24/7 rail service, imitating New York. European cities except Copenhagen do not, and instead have night bus networks. Both of these options have fascinated various transit reformers, but unfortunately sometimes the reformers propose the wrong option for the specific city. This post is intended to be a set of guidelines for night buses and the possibility of 24/7 urban rail.
The reason rail service does not run 24/7 is maintenance. Tracks require regular inspections and work, which are done in multi-hour windows. Over the last century or so, the big urban rail systems of the world have standardized on doing this maintenance at night. For example, in Paris there are about 4.5-5 hours every weeknight between the last train of the night and the first train of the morning, and one hour less every weekend night. In Berlin trains run all night on weekends and have 3.5-hour windows of closure on weeknights.
The regular windows may be supplemented by long-term closures, during which passengers are told to use alternatives. Berlin occasionally closes some S-Bahn segments for a few days, and (I believe much more rarely) U-Bahn segments. Paris does so very rarely, usually for an entire summer month during which many Parisians are away on vacation and systemwide ridership is lower, and usually when there are easy alternatives, such as the RER A and Metro Line 1 substituting for each other.
The English-speaking world tends to have extensive weekend shutdowns for maintenance. London has them quite often in addition to nighttime shutdowns. New York runs trains 24/7, using the express tracks on most of its trunk lines to provide service even when the local stations on some segment are closed for maintenance. As American cities have mostly copied New York, they do not know how to wrap up maintenance during their usual nighttime windows and seek weekend closures or shorter hours as well. Thus, for example, BART has claimed that it needs 7-hour windows during weekend nights, citing the example of Paris, whose weekend night closures actually last less than 4 hours.
I know of one city that runs its subway 24/7 without interruptions: Copenhagen. Overnight, Copenhagen single-tracks around worksites – frequency is low enough that trains can be scheduled not to conflict. As the trains are driverless, wrong-way running is quite easy. Moreover, there is ample separation between the tracks thanks to the Copenhagen Metro’s twin bore construction; thus, trains do not need to slow down next to worksites, nor must work slow down when a train runs on an adjacent track.
In New York, tracks on each line are right next to each other, with little separation between them. Thus, there are rules that are collectively called flagging under which trains must slow down to a crawl (I believe 10 miles per hour, or 16 km/h) when next to a worksite, while work must pause next to a moving train. The flagging rules apply even when there is more substantial separation between adjacent tracks, such as columns and retaining walls, provided there is any opening allowing passage between the tracks. The safety margins have been made more generous over the last 20 years, which is part of the reasons trains have slowed down, as reported separately by myself, Dan Rivoli, and Aaron Gordon. At the other end, maintenance costs in New York are very high thanks to the constant interruptions.
If it is possible to single-track at night without onerous flagging rules, then cities should go in that direction, using automated rail signaling such as CBTC, even stopping short of driverless trains. In cities with twin-bored tunnels this works provided there are regularly-spaced crossovers between tracks in opposite directions. London is generally poor in such crossovers, and installing new ones may be prohibitively expensive if blasting new connections between tunnels is required. In contrast, on Line 14 in Paris, there are almost sufficient crossovers – the longest stretch is between Bibliotheque and Madelaine, at 14 minutes one-way, and single-direction switches exist at Chatelet and Gare de Lyon, just one of which needs to upgraded to a full diamond crossover. There, 24/7 operation is plausible, though perhaps not so useful as the rest of the system is not 24/7.
Even some cut-and-cover metros can have sufficient separation between tracks for nighttime single-tracking. In Berlin the distance is adequate, at least for some stretches – the tracks are not right next to each other. Even in New York, there are segments where it is feasible to construct partitions between tracks, provided the agency changes flagging rules to permit regular operations and maintenance on adjacent tracks if a partition has been constructed. The cut-and-cover nature of these systems should facilitate this pattern since the cost of building the required crossovers is not prohibitive, just high.
Night buses are attractive for a number of reasons. The most important is that in the after hours there is so little surface traffic that buses can match the speed of rapid transit. Moreover, ridership is usually low enough that a bus has adequate capacity. Finally, surface transit can make small detours, for example to reach a common timed transfer, since transit is dependent on both scale and mode. During the day Vancouver has a bus grid, with most buses arriving every 8-10 minutes, but at night it has a half-hourly radial network with a timed transfer, and little relationship with the shape of the SkyTrain network.
Nevertheless, not every city can make appropriate use of night buses. The important factors to consider include the following:
- How much does the rapid transit network follow major streets? If it mostly runs on two-way streets, as in Berlin, then running buses that duplicate the metro is easy. But if there are major deviations, especially if there are water crossings involved, then this is harder; in New York, where there are far more crossings of the East River by subway than by road, a night bus network would be virtually useless. Shuttle buses substituting for weekend trackwork are likewise complete failures whenever the subway is more direct than the streets, e.g. the Boston Red Line between Charles-MGH and Park Street.
- What is the expected size of the network? A minimum number of lines is required for success, and unless they are very frequent, transfers have to be timed. The half-hourly night buses in Berlin do not work well if untimed, for example.
- How long are the routes? This has two aspects. First, very long routes are less competitive with taxis if there are motorways. And second, a half-hourly night bus had better take around an integer number of half-hours minus turnaround time per roundtrip, to avoid wasting service hours. A 25-minute one-way trip is excellent, a 32-minute one a disaster.