A Bigger City is a Better City

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.

The RER Paris Needs

Since the 1960s, Paris has gradually built itself to have a 5-line regional rail network connecting the city and its suburbs, with more than a billion riders a year. Unfortunately, investment has been slow in the last 20 years; the fifth line, the RER E, is being extended to the west, but other problems are not being fixed through more investment. Some regional rail lines remain disconnected from the system, including one of the city’s six intercity rail terminals, Gare Montparnasse. While east-west capacity is being augmented through the RER E extension, north-south traffic is jammed and yet is not slated to receive any relief, despite past studies.

Taking everything together, this is what Paris needs to do to complete the conversion of all commuter rail in Ile-de-France to RER standards:

Full-size image can be seen here; warning: 71 MB.

Dashed lines are new tunnels to be built. Most of the dashed green line is the under-construction RER E extension from Saint-Lazare to La Défense and points west. The remainder, between Les Halles and Auber/Saint-Lazare, is a new tunnel that should be built, giving away the extension to the RER D instead. With a full line extended, the RER D could take over the entire SNCF-run part of the RER A while also continuing west to Mantes-la-Jolie as is planned for the RER E extension, so the RER A can gain the Transilien L branches to the southwest with a short curve from La Défense to Puteaux.

In addition, what is now the shared RER B and D tunnel between Gare du Nord and Les Halles should be four-tracked; the stations at both ends thankfully already have separate platform tracks for the RER B and D, and in 2003 a somewhat disruptive plan to four-track the tunnel was estimated to cost 700 million. Since the RER D tracks are to continue west, the new dual track tunnel should continue south across the river and connect to Montparnasse, creating the RER F; the RER F should take over the current northern branches of the RER B to form a southwest-northeast line, while the current southern branches of the RER B should be connected to what are now the northern branch of the RER D and the branches of Transilien H.

The RER C and E should be broken and recombined using a short four-track tunnel across the river, creating northeast-southwest and northwest-southeast trunk lines. Today, the RER C misses the Paris CBD and has an awkward connection to the RER A; with this recombination, the connections would still require a lot of walking at transfer stations but they’d exist and passengers would get solid two-seat rides.

Finally, a handful of outer-urban and suburban fixes would be useful: a few infill stations, depicted with gray filling; using all four tracks on the RER F trunk line to Aulnay (currently the RER B) to make it easier to run express trains to Charles-de-Gaulle; building a short suburban tunnel through Chaville to connect the RER F and A branch; continuing T3 to form a full circle using the Petite Ceinture in lieu of the awkward RER C branch today; constructing an infill station at the RER E/F junction in Meudon.

Excluding the ongoing RER E extension, the total length of new tunnel in city center is 8 km of two-track tunnel and about 1.5 km of four-track tunnel. This would set non-Anglosphere world records in construction costs per kilometer, just as the RER A did; costs in the 400-500 million per km can be expected given the complexity of tunneling under so many older Métro lines, so the system would cost around 5 billion, perhaps reaching 6-7 billion with the extra suburban tunnels and infill stations.

The map doesn’t go to the edge of Ile-de-France, or else it would be even bigger, but the plan should be to connect every Transilien line to this system, even ones in faraway exurbs. Frequency to the exurbs need not be very high – today they get hourly service off-peak, and half-hourly service in the future should be plenty to small towns on the edge of Ile-de-France; of course, closer-in suburbs as well as major secondary centers like Meaux and Evry should get much higher frequency, and the trunks should get a train every 3-4 minutes even off-peak.

The point of this exercise is that Paris has already done the hardest parts. The RER A and B exist, and Châtelet-Les Halles was dug at enormous expense in the 1970s. Even at the high per-km costs of connections underneath the center of Paris, the tunnels Paris needs to build in the next 10-15 years are low-hanging fruits for completing the project of connecting the entire region through a unified RER network.

Who is Being Empowered?

Practically any change has some beneficiaries (why else would it happen?), but a separate question, often with a separate answer is, who does it empower? For examples, expansion of education benefits students but empowers teachers and school administrators, and expansion of health care benefits patients but empowers medical care providers, especially ones below the prestige level of doctors. In both cases, the groups that were empowered back expansion, and at least in the case of teachers, the other side assumes that there are no beneficiaries, hence for example Humphrey’s comment in Yes, Minister that comprehensive education was adopted only because of the teachers’ unions.

The relevance of this distinction is that improvements in public transport mostly have the same set of beneficiaries – current and potential transit riders – but empower different groups of people depending on what the proposed improvement is. This matters, because it’s easier for change to happen if it empowers people who are already important. This is not restricted to politics – a change in how a business is run is easier to accept if it empowers senior management than if it empowers grunt workers, even if the ultimate beneficiary, that is the shareholders, is the same. The upshot is that there are changes in how to run public transportation that empower the already-powerful, and those changes are not necessarily best for the riders.

Politicians and civil servants

Politicians, especially high-level ones, are more powerful than civil servants. It is therefore easier to pass changes that empower them than ones that empower the civil service.

I think the Anglosphere’s fascination with design-build comes from this, at least partially. Traditional design-bid-build procurement means that an in-house team reviews bids and selects separate contractors for design and construction. In contrast, design-build removes power from the civil service. The consultants who get to draw design specs get empowered, but I don’t think this is why governments adopt design-build. Rather, design-build means that high-level politicians get to make big decisions, first since they often have casual ties to the consultants through a revolving door, and second since each bid is bigger (one firm might do everything) and therefore it is evaluated at a higher level.

Consulting in business is a good analogy, since there are some analogies between how the state is run and how big businesses are. The relevant one is the tyranny of the org chart; see some examples here and here by Aaron Renn, and here and here by other consultants. Senior management in the private sector has serious problems with listening to people who the org chart asserts are subordinates, from middle management all the way down. Management consultants often succeed by talking to lower-level workers, getting good ideas from them, and then packaging them to senior management in glossy presentations that look like they came from the consultants, who have nebulous job titles so as to convince senior management that the consultants are their peers. In effect, consultants are a workaround to the fact that senior management is unlikely to adopt ideas that empower subordinates.

The greatest irony here is that the sort of political operatives who are most educated in public choice theory are the ones who most consistently act according to its precepts. They dislike public-sector unions, so they institute public-sector hiring freezes and instead outsource work to consultants. In effect, they empower themselves, as senior political operatives who get to make more important decisions when the decisions are about higher-level things (that is, who gets the work among design-build bidders).

National vs. international comparisons

The issue of outside comparisons depends heavily on what the agency is to be compared to. The difference is that in the United States, managers are well-traveled domestically but not internationally, so domestic comparisons empower them and international ones do the opposite. In Europe, managers are more internationally traveled but largely within Europe, so comparisons to Asia are as problematic for them as comparisons to non-English-speaking European countries are to American managers.

What this means is, a study delivered to Boston or Los Angeles or Chicago that does a domestic comparison will bring up things that top managers and politicians are at least somewhat familiar with. A manager in Boston may have happened to work only in New England, but this is not common, and the manager’s social circle will include people with experience from other parts of the United States. This manager can read a report employing domestic comparison and will have heard about some of the success cases in the report, and if anything is unclear, the manager can call up friends and former coworkers and get clarifications. The manager is thus empowered to implement the report’s recommendations.

An international comparison has the opposite effect. The American manager might be facing a report that brings up case studies from European and East Asian countries, where few Americans have ever lived. The report might mention things that all American transit managers have convinced themselves are impossible, because those managers only ever talk to other Americans. It devalues most of the expertise of the American insider. If anyone within the agency is empowered, it is often a junior planner who has delved into foreign cases out of interest, or perhaps an immigrant whose knowledge is foreign and not just American. It completely upends the hierarchy: the senior manager has no way to contribute to the process and is at the mercy of outsiders and subordinates.

The trick that management consultants use to persuade senior managers to accept recommendations that came from below is not useful here. The report cannot hide its foreign provenance; it screams right there, “your experience as a senior American manager is not as valuable as you think it is.”

Is there a way out?

I believe that there is. I don’t know this for a fact, but I have some circumstantial evidence pointing in a more optimistic direction.

First, not only is the idea of the tyranny of the org chart well-known to consultants, but also a brief Googling revealed a number of different consultants openly pitch their skills to management in how to avoid the problem. That people who get paid to give outside expert advice to corporate leaders believe they can tell to those leaders’ faces, “you need to listen to your subordinates better and here’s how you can do it” suggests that it is possible to get at least some managers to listen.

Second, on an abstract level, managing others is a valuable skill on top of the deep experience managers must possess in the industry they lead, and moreover, general management skills are highly valued in American business culture in the private as well as public sector. This means that even though the use of foreign advice devalues senior managers’ industry-internal skills, and maybe even some precepts that they’ve learned in other industries if they’ve jumped around from industry to industry, it still does not devalue general management skills, not should it.

Third, beneficiaries matter, rather than just the people whose skills are valued more under the changes required to improve American public transportation. This means that a politician who is seen as successfully improving infrastructure will get accolades from the public, because there’s general political consensus that infrastructure is good, and specific political consensus in the parts of the United States with the most public transit ridership that public transportation infrastructure is good. Political advisors may be sidelined by change that relies on knowledge they don’t have, but elected politicians who are seen building infrastructure cheaply become more popular.

And fourth, the situation in the United States in general and New York is particular is so bad that change is possible even while respecting at least some degree of turf. Gradual replacement is possible, if New York implements one change that reduces costs by a factor of 2 while leaving other causes of high costs unchanged, and then the people who successfully shepherded the change implement more such changes. Future changes can devalue the skills of managers who only know how to build and run bad transit and not good transit, but a manager who was responsible to a large cost reduction will get enough internal and public clout that empowering this manager further through further-reaching reforms will be easier for the hierarchy to swallow.

Is the United States Giving Up on Public Transportation?

In the last week or two, I have seen a worrying trend in multiple North American cities: transit managers and advocates who call for measures to reduce the number of people riding public transportation, all in the name of social distancing and safety from Covid-19. These ideas include limiting the number of people entering a bus, marking off seats on buses and trains to maintain a minimum distance between passengers, and using apps to limit the number of people entering a train station. Even transit activists openly say that it’s good to reduce occupancy per bus or train, they just use this as an argument for running more off-peak frequency and staggering shifts. The message from everyone is clear: public transit is dangerous, don’t ride it, especially if it is crowded.

Public transportation is not especially dangerous, but the danger that does exist is not ameliorated by any physical distancing. Trying to reduce the number of passengers on a bus or train is safety theater and non-English-speaking cities have reduced infection rates without this. Even Jarrett Walker has taken to saying that public transportation should not aim at getting high ridership, though to his credit he steers clear of saying that transit is dangerous in a pandemic.

I’ve already gone over why I don’t think the subway in New York, by a margin the dirtiest I have ridden, is the reason the city’s infection rate is so high. Instead of rehashing that, I want to focus on the converse: on cases in which people do get infected on transit. These clearly exist – my contention isn’t that trains and buses make one invulnerable to the virus, merely that they’re not any more dangerous than the places people might travel to, such as work. Does social distancing on such vehicles help?

There is an answer, in the form of a study out of China about infection on a bus. The answer is no. Here is the graphic of who was and was not infected on a bus that one infected person rode for a 100-minute roundtrip (passengers sat in the same seats on both legs of the trip):

There were 67 passengers on the bus, including the index patient; the index patient infected 23 of them. Proximity to the patient – that is, the distinction between zones 1 and 2 – is not statistically significant. The window passengers on the left side of the bus did not get infected, except the one sitting next to the index patient, but on the right side of the bus, six window seat passengers got the virus.

American and Canadian attempts to limit bus occupancy do not prevent the spread of the virus. The safe occupancy, if people do not wear masks, is 1, or maybe 2 if passengers sit at opposite ends of the vehicle. Limitations on how many passengers can ride the bus at most reduce the number of people one patient can infect, but only if the bus is so crowded that the agency would otherwise add more service. If the bus would have had 20 passengers either way, spreading them around evenly would not help.

What does work is masks. In Taipei, masks are mandatory, and Alex Garcia of Taipei Urbanism tells me that there is universal compliance. In Berlin, I just observed an U-Bahn train in the evening rush hour, noticeably less full than the usual by a factor of perhaps 2, but still far too full for the tastes of the American transit manager, with nearly all seats occupied and a few people standing; about 85% of the passengers wore masks covering their noses and mouths and maybe 5% more incorrectly wore a mask so as only to cover their mouths. There was a mixture of cloth and surgical masks.

I hesitate to mention Taipei and Berlin in the same sentence. Germany, a country of 83 million people, considers itself a success because it has 170,000 cases and 8,000 deaths. But Taiwan, a country of 24 million people, has had 440 confirmed cases since the beginning of the outbreak. As of yesterday, it had had no new cases in eight days; excluding imports, it had had no new cases in 33 days. A month ago, sailors were erroneously allowed to roam the streets and only recalled to quarantine after three had tested positive; no civilians were infected, because masks were mandatory at the time even on the street.

That said, by solipsistic Western standards, Berlin is doing fairly well. Infection rates are noticeably below the German average, and while 181 people have died citywide, this is still low enough not to be detectable in the overall death rate (“excess mortality”). It joins a list of cities that had a plague but are getting it under control: it is nowhere near as good as Seoul, where train crowding is pretty extensive, but its trends seem cautiously positive.

Despite this optimistic picture painted by the success of places with high mask usage, to a large extent even if it isn’t universal, American transit managers and even advocates seem to be giving up. If the point of public transit is to exist but not get ridership, it’s much easier to push for nice-seeming networks, untethered from any passenger demand.

The general population is hearing the message loud and clear: public transit is dangerous, avoid it if at all possible. The New York Stock Exchange is therefore reopening its famously crowded indoor floor, where a superspreader event is likely if just one infected person comes in, but banning traders from getting there by public transportation. The MTA is already splurging on a McKinsey study saying it will need to spend $700-800 million to attract people back to the subway; so far, low-cost, high-impact measures like photo-ops in which the governor or the mayor wears a mask and rides the subway at rush hour surrounded by other masked riders, are not implemented, sending the same message, important people avoid public transit and so should you.

This ends in a national effort in the United States, and perhaps also Canada, to collectively give up on having any public transit. The advocates aren’t pushing back, the managers are happy with high-tech restrictions on usage, even Streetsblog talks about bike lanes instead of about getting more people on trains, and nobody stops to think, maybe there is a way to preserve transit ridership?

Take the fall in economic activity due to the demand-side recession induced by the virus. Now add the fall coming from the required mass abandonment of New York and to some extent San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, all of which have centers with too many jobs to be served by cars, taxis, or bikes. Maybe it’s possible to get people to work from home, but it’s unclear if they can maintain productivity; I have heard many more people telling me they can’t than people telling me they can, especially among parents. I still don’t think it’s likely, but the US may well fall below Taiwanese GDP per capita, and in a true crisis coming from such mass abandonment it could even drop below Germany and Sweden, which are projecting something like a 7% contraction this year due to the virus’s effects.

This is not something Americans are ready for. They’re used to being on top of the world. Even when they describe social problems that they know other countries have solved, they do this in a kind of self-deprecating way that screams to the outsider, “Yeah, it’s a problem, but we’re so great we’re not that bothered about fixing it.” They’re used to a world whose economic and cultural capital is New York and not Shanghai or Tokyo; they’re used to not needing to learn a foreign language and acquire fluency in foreign cultures to be viewed literate. This solipsism is to some extent pan-Western and is why the West is hurting, but the geopolitical center of the West, the monolingual country that thinks it invented freedom, looks like it’s hurting the most.

Resist the Urge to Start Small

Remember the Ohio Hub? Back in 2009-10, Ohio was planning on running five low-speed trains per day between Cleveland and Cincinnati and branded this exercise as high-speed rail called the Ohio Hub. The Republican victory in the gubernatorial election put it out of its misery (as unfortunately happened to the far better Florida project), but the idea of little facts-on-the-ground kinds of rail investment persists among American advocates who don’t understand how rail operations work. Now that there’s serious talk of infrastructure funding in the United States as part of a stimulus package, I’d like to explain, to prevent the debacles of the late 2000s from happening again.

The central conceit is that public transportation is not cars. It’s a different, more complex system. The road network has fewer moving parts – one just builds roads based on traffic projections. Public transportation has schedules, transfers, and equipment, all of which must be planned in coordination. “This junction gets congested, let’s build a bypass” works for road advocacy, but fails for rail, because maybe speeding up the trains by a few minutes doesn’t really help get to any timed connections and is therefore of limited value to the system.

Rail works when everything is planned together. This makes little additions not too valuable: a small speedup may not be useful if connecting lines stay the same, infrastructure investment may have limited effect on trip times if the rolling stock doesn’t change, etc.

The upshot is that it’s very easy to find 80/20 problems: 80% of the money gets you 20% of the benefits. In addition to examples of lack of coordination between infrastructure, the timetable, and rolling stock, there are issues with insufficient frequency. When frequency is low relative to trip time, the long-term elasticity of ridership with respect to service is more than 1 – that is, running more service makes the trains and buses fuller, as better service encourages more ridership. Thus, service with insufficient frequency will fail, trains and buses getting too little ridership to justify additional investment, whereas if initial frequency were higher from the start then it would succeed.

The Ohio Hub was one such example: five roundtrips a day, starter service. It makes sense to someone who thinks like a manager or a general-purpose activist: start small and build from there. But to someone who thinks like a public transportation planner, it’s a disaster. Already 10 years ago, Max Wyss in comments was warning that such service would fail – the original Intercity brand in Germany succeeded by running trains every two hours, with hourly service on stronger city pairs, often with timed transfers at junctions.

Regional rail projects suffer from a similar urge to start small. Peak-only service will invariably fail – the operating costs will be too high for ridership even if almost all seats fill. This covers just about every American effort at starting up new commuter rail service.

More fundamentally, the issue is that nobody likes failure. Insufficient, poorly-optimized service creates facts on the ground, but these facts don’t lead to any effort toward better service if people perceive what has been built to be a failure. If a handful of trains per day that average 70 km/h are called high-speed rail, then it doesn’t lead passengers to want high-speed rail; it leads them to avoid the train and conclude that high-speed rail is slower than driving on the freeway.

The passengers on such service may not be a great constituency for better service, either. If the train is very slow, then the riders will be the sort of people who are okay with slow trains. Older American railfans are filled with nostalgia for traditional railroading and openly say that slower is better. Such people are not going to advocate for modern high-speed rail, nor for learning from successful Asian and European examples.

Another group of people who ride trains and often advocate against better service is peak commuters on trains serving high-income suburbs. They are used to an adversarial relationship with the state; to them, the state taxes them to give money to poorer people, and they instead prefer hyper-local forms of government providing segregated schools and policing. Representatives of such riders engage in agency turf warfare, such as when state senators from Long Island opposed Metro-North’s Penn Station Access because it would use train slots into Penn Station that the LIRR believes are its property. On social media, people sporadically yell at me when I propose fare integration, on grounds that boil down to viewing any urban riders who would be attracted to lower fares as interlopers.

There’s an ultimate proof-of-pudding issue here. Americans have to a good approximation never seen a working public transportation system. At best, they’ve seen a megacity where people use the trains even though they are dirty and expensive to run because there is no alternative and construction was done 100 years ago when costs were lower. There is no coordinated planning; Americans do not demand it because only a handful of people know what it is, who are often young and have often lived abroad for an extended period of time, both of which make one less likely to be listened to in politics.

The result is that the sort of bottom-up activism people are used to is not useful in this context. In Germany it’s different – enough people have seen what works in Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands and know what to call for. But in the United States, it won’t work – the knowledge base of how to build reliable, interconnected public transportation exists but is too thinly spread and is the domain of people who do not have much political prestige.

It’s critical to then get things right from the start. Do not assume future activism will fix things. Half-measures are much more likely to lead to disillusionment than to any serious efforts to improve things to turn them into full measures. If the choice is between a high chance of bad service and low chance of good service, don’t settle for bad service and make a gamble for good service; bad public transportation is a waste of money and the general public will correctly perceive it as such.

How Climate Change is Like War

The military historian Danny Orbach writes about the popular analogy of the Covid-19 crisis to war, and what kinds of lessons from military history policymakers can learn. He of course understands the big differences – he doesn’t talk about tactics or operations, but rather about common issues regarding public support and the price of war. It’s not my intention to talk about the virus in the post, but rather, of an even bigger long-term global crisis: catastrophic climate change. Danny’s insights form a good guideline to why climate action is so difficult.

Popular willpower in crisis

The core of Danny’s post is that the public’s willingness to bear personal costs is limited, and can change during the crisis, usually for the worse. He gives a number of examples from historic wars, and concludes (bold in original),

Thus, the main moral is as follows: if you’re a leader facing a crisis like a war or a pandemic, the public trust must always be on your mind. Remember that it is always limited, and tends to run out much faster than you imagine. Most of the American public, for example, was willing to sacrifice a lot to save South Vietnam and Southeast Asia from communism, but not to pay an unlimited economic and human cost as General Westmoreland demanded. The Viet Cong and North Vietnam did not manage to defeat the United States, only to stall for time and exhaust it until the public trust of the American public ran out.

When fighting a pandemic, like the corona crisis, it’s equally necessary to think about the consequences of each move not just for the fight against the plague but also for the public trust for facing it. The main factor here is time. The more time passes, and the economic damage grows, the more the public trust runs out at an ever increasing rate. For this reason, policymakers must understand that they have limited time, and they must take every step to shorten it: for example, massive and fast increase in testing (even at research labs, which the Ministry of Health harassed for weeks), shortening red tape in obtaining results, handing out masks even at an early stage, and fast contact tracing to replace the general lockdown with targeted lockdowns. In Israel, the Ministry of Health understood this too late, in my estimation because of the public pressure to end the lockdown after Passover. It’s also important to understand that every further tightening wastes the public trust even faster, especially if it looks petty and redundant (the 100-meter limit on out-of-home trips, harassment of beach surfers, cutting the quota of permitted workers per business from 30% of normal to 15%). Finally, so that the public trust will last longer, personal example of the leaders is also important. When the Israeli public saw [PM Bibi] Netanyahu, [President Rubi] Rivlin, [Immigration and Absorption Minister Yoav] Galant, [Health Minister] Litzman, and other policymakers flout their own guidelines, the public’s willingness to sacrifice for a length period of time naturally decreased.

The details are naturally tailored to the situation of Israel, whose infection rates are low by Western standards (but high by democratic Asian ones), but the broad outline isn’t. Capricious rules lead to widespread derision even among people who support the overall program, even in relatively high-trust societies like Germany.

The implications for climate change

If public trust is a limited resource, then climate action has to involve a plan for conserving it. It’s related to plans by political operatives to conserve political capital, but is not the same – political capital refers to the support of political elites, especially elected officials, whereas public trust is broader. Disempowering some local group costs political capital but may increase public trust if it gives the appearance of faster and more decisive action; authoritarian leaders habitually surround themselves with corrupt sycophants who they can publicly remove to popular acclaim.

So how can governments fight climate change while maintaining public support for such measures? Visible green infrastructure helps, which nearly everyone understands, but what people don’t understand so easily is that the program itself cannot have too high a cost. The sort of leftists who propose Green New Deal programs don’t think trillions of dollars in deficit spending is ever bad, but the general public differs; when unemployment is not too high, it’s important to limit the costs. Shortening lead time from when a project is announced to when it opens is important as well.

Good interim measures are helpful, too, but they have a limit. Paris is one of the most polluted cities in Europe, but it is not Delhi; reducing pollution there is helpful but evidently did not get unanimous support. So reducing pollution and car accidents buys some public trust, but not to infinite extent. Building more housing to reduce rents in expensive cities is the same – it helps alleviate the stereotype that dense cities are expensive, but this doesn’t equal universal public patience for programs that abolish mobility by car.

The good news is that the highest carbon tax regime in the world, Sweden, has also had one of the stronger economic growth rates in the first world. So the economic cost of what’s been done so far does not exist. It’s a matter of the cost of further action, which includes limiting flights and cars, directing development to dense transit-oriented cities, etc.

The issue of personal example

Danny brings up the personal example issue among top leaders. I would add that personal example among a broader segment of the population is even more important – the EU plans for a Green Deal call for fairly high (though not Swedish, let alone fully damage-mitigating) taxes on aviation fuel within the EU, a policy that would help with public trust because of perceptions that domestic carbon taxes do not levy the tax on the rich because they do not cover international flights.

Among the literal leaders, the situation is more delicate. The threat model of a national leader, who is a personal target for state-level actors and major terrorist groups, is not the same as that of the ordinary person, who to the terrorist is just a statistic. To the ordinary person, a train has lower terrorism risk than a plane, since a bomb can’t kill the people on an entire train. To the national leader, a train has higher risk, because attacks on the fixed infrastructure (such as bridges) are easier to the group that wants to kill a particular person. When François Hollande traveled France by TGV rather than by plane to lead by example, soldiers had to guard every bridge. In this situation, it is not hypocritical for leaders to fly even when a train is available.

All of this is much easier when national leadership is more distributed and there is no executive president who provides a juicy target to hostile actors. Switzerland’s plural executive does not have the massive security of an ordinary head of government, and its members do take the tram around Bern, which would be unthinkable for a French president.

But even that has a real limit. Populists make up stories of hypocrisy all the time. Emmanuel Macron does not supply any proper scandals, and may be the first leader in the history of France who is faithful to his wife, so rumormongers and fake news sites step in with fake quotes and stories. The point of personal example isn’t to get unanimous consent; repression is not an avoidable aspect of climate action, or for that matter of having a state to begin with. The point is to shrink the opposition to the most risible elements, who the general public won’t mind seeing ignored or repressed if need be.

Climate change as forever war

A more interesting case study of war, not in the original post, is the modern forever war. The US has been in Afghanistan since 2001, in a conflict that has no end in sight; France is likewise in a forever war in its former Sahelian colonies. There’s a lot of mockery about this, but the general public is broadly okay with this situation, because the cost to the public in the US and France is so low. (Afghans, Malians, and Nigeriens naturally do not get a vote.) Even the limited extent of sacrifice the French and American voting publics endured trying to hold on to Vietnam would not be acceptable over such a long time, let alone that of a total war like World War Two. Thus, a forever war cannot be a total war.

The rhetoric about climate change is that of a total war, but that means little – leaders routinely engage in apocalyptic rhetoric in limited wars, like Israel’s cold war with Iran (“the year is 1938 and Iran is Germany” per Netanyahu), the American war on Iraq in 2003 (“we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud” per Condoleeza Rice). Everything else about climate change points to a forever war. The time horizon is far, with discussions of reducing emissions sharply by 2030 and eliminating them by 2050.

So if it’s a forever war, public trust is especially limited. It makes it especially important to make climate action feel like not much of a sacrifice, but an opportunity to live in rich, dynamic transit cities while paying affordable rents. This is not going to be a universal positive feeling, but the point, again, is not to get universal support, just to conserve public trust enough to implement the requires programs successfully.


I have a lot of readers who come from a rationalist or Effective Altruism background, and some more who come from an economics background, and both communities put a lot of stock in the idea of correct predictions about current events. The idea is that scientists have to make testable predictions about the results of their experiments, and therefore social scientists must equally make predictions about the state of the world. It’s become relevant in the corona crisis and is also relevant to my and Eric Goldwyn’s construction cost project in a specific way, so I’d like to talk about the complexities of what it exactly means to get things right.


Consider the following prediction: the economy is overheated and a recession will come soon. It’s a vague prediction. One can fill in details to make it strictly testable – “the German economy will have >6% unemployment in 2 years” – but what exactly is the point of one detail or another?

The real answer is that different classes of people have different uses for the prediction of recession, and therefore depend on different details. The investor wants to sell stocks near the peak. The Nasdaq went from 2,200 at the beginning of 1999 to a peak of 5,100. To the investor, knowing that there was a bubble at the beginning of 1999 would not have been useful – cashing out then would have meant missing on a stock market doubling over the year. It would take until about the onset of the 2001 recession for the Nasdaq to fall below January 1999 levels. To the successful investor, it is critical to know the exact timing of the peak to maximize income, and in pursuit of that goal it’s fine to miss some recessions, let alone to miss other important details like the length of the recession and the unemployment rate.

In contrast with the investor, the skilled worker has different concerns, like unemployment. In that environment, knowing that there’s going to be a recession is useful even if the timing is vague – such a worker can save more money, delay major purchases, avoid quitting a stable salaried job to start a small business, and maybe shift to a more recession-proof job even if it means taking a pay cut. Knowing how deep the recession will be is important as well, and remains important knowledge even as the recession takes place – the worker needs to know how stressed to be about savings running out if there is prolonged unemployment. All of this is equally valuable to the prospective immigrant who needs to make a decision on whether to emigrate.

The investor-worker duality is especially important for economists, and to some extent to rationalists who try to follow popular economists. They have money to invest, and often work as advisors to finance firms that pay them for investor-relevant information. But they are also researchers, who can respond to an impending recession by acquiring recession-relevant skills, like studying the history of depressions and conducting empirical research about unemployment and anti-poverty interventions. These are such big research programs that the exact timing of the recession doesn’t really matter, whereas its depth and length matter. An economist who can answer questions like “what is the impact of unemployment programs on long-term welfare?” is useful in a general period of economic weakness even if the papers appear a year into the beginning of the recession.

Predictions and construction costs

Before we started our current project, I had been writing about construction costs here, in comments, and on social media going back to 2009-10. I had some theories over the years, of which some would be confirmed by additional data and others wouldn’t:

  • The theory that common law leads to higher costs, based on high costs across the US, Singapore, the UK, Australia, Canada, India, and Bangladesh. I no longer believe this theory holds up; in the developed world, important edge cases disagree with the theory, including Quebec (expensive) and Israel (about average), and moreover Canadian and Singaporean costs only exploded in the last 15 years.
  • The theory that costs are consistent across projects in the same country, especially the same city; I’m pretty sure I brought it up even in the early 2010s, when I was saying Chinese costs seemed pretty average to me, but the starkest formulation is from 2019. This has subsequently been confirmed when thanks to Yinan Yao our knowledge of Chinese costs grew from two lines in Shanghai to more than 5,000 kilometers’ worth of lines across all major Chinese cities.
  • The theory that costs in developing countries are higher in ex-colonies than in never-colonized countries (like China and Iran) and distantly-colonized ones (like all of Latin America). As stated, there are counterexamples: I will report on our ongoing research into Arab construction costs, thanks to Anan Maalouf, but so far this is indicating that costs in never-colonized Saudi Arabia are pretty high. Call it half a correct prediction because Saudi Arabia is atypical enough I would not lump it a priori with China, Turkey, Mexico, or Iran.

With all that said, I am not too worried if my theories aren’t all confirmed by finding additional data. The reason is that this is not an experimental science but an observational one with a small, finite amount of data, so it’s much more important to have coherent mechanisms that can lead to actionable changes than to be able to predict every country’s construction costs from partial data.

In this case, the mechanisms posited in the 1.5 theories that do not stand up to additional data seem useful. The colonial theory is that high cultural cringe levels and weak state capacity lead ex-colonies to privatize planning to first-world (or Chinese) consultants, who use methods that are not appropriate for local conditions. On account of that explanation, I kept saying ex ante that I refused to make a prediction regarding Thailand, because it was never colonized but also has much more cultural cringe than China and uses first-world consultants; Thai costs are higher than Chinese ones but lower than ex-colonial ones. Saudi Arabia is similar – for all its bluster about rejecting Western governance norms, it craves first-world acceptance and the trappings of modernity, and extensively uses contractors from more developed countries. So the upshot regarding the importance of domestic state capacity and methods tailored for local urban geography and wages remains useful.

Likewise, the high costs across the Anglosphere remain a useful fact. Even more useful is the history of Singapore and Canada, which only aligned with British and American costs starting in the 2000s. The cost explosion in Singapore, Montreal, Toronto, and to some extent Calgary and Vancouver is a recent event, in accessible English-speaking cities; Stephen Wickens just wrote a long report about the Canadian cost explosion, which is of value in teasing out what happened. Even better, the persistent low costs in Scandinavia, Southern Europe, and South Korea provide ready-made sanity checks in knowing what to look for.

Timing issues

In one sense, I made a critical error that poses a serious threat to the project: I got the timing of the recession wrong. When applying for this grant throughout 2019, my assumption was that the American economy was overheated and would soon experience a demand-side recession, leading to stimulus – but that the contraction would be slow enough that the stimulus would come in 2021. With a jobs program announced in 2021, preliminary versions of our report would already be out, the full report with detailed case studies would be out later that year in time for agencies to request funding, and there would be enough time for agencies to implement our recommendations by the time of actual construction.

This may still happen, but the timeline is much less certain. People are talking about stimulus with infrastructure money now. I can promise a report with some actionable recommendations in 2021, but I can’t promise what costs I can promise, nor can I promise what investment to focus on. Our report centers on metro tunnels, but if there’s another push for high-speed rail then we’ll need to be able to adapt metro-based recommendations to a somewhat different context, in which high American costs may have different roots.

What’s more, based on what everyone knows in the United States, costs are so high there’s no point in planning for more. Maybe New York thinks it can finagle $40 billion in stimulus money; this can do a lot at Nordic costs, but unless New York thinks right now that this is possible, it won’t even try to plan more than a few lines like Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 and Gateway, each costing more than a full order of magnitude more than it would in Scandinavia or Southern Europe.

I am not that worried in the long run. There is ongoing investment in enough of the US for whatever we come up with to be relevant to at least some extent. And here too, a cost comparison with the cheaper parts of Europe would be instructive to many a German rail advocate or civil servant. I don’t expect to be in the situation of an investor who bet everything on a company that went bankrupt, just perhaps in that of one who missed a big stock market rally. Ultimately, don’t worry about me, worry about the virus this year and the unemployment rate of potentially the entire world in the next few years.

New York Ignores Best Practices for Cleaning

MTA Chair Pat Foye and Interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg, have announced that the subway will close overnight in order to improve subway cleaning. For the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, the subway will close between 1 and 5 every night for disinfection. Ben Kabak has covered this to some extent; I’m going to focus on best industry practices, which do not require a shutdown. There are some good practices in Taipei, which has regular nighttime shutdowns but sterilizes trains during the daytime as well. It appears that the real rub is not cleaning but homelessness – the city and the state are both trying to get homeless people off the subway and onto the street.

How to disinfect a subway system

Alex Garcia of Taipei Urbanism shared with me what the Taipei MRT plans on doing in response to the virus, depending on how much it affects the system. As soon as there are any domestic cases within Taiwan, the plan says,

a. Sterilize equipment in each station that passengers might frequently come into contact with. (Sterilize once every 8 hours)
b. Carriages: Cleaning and sterilization before the daily operational departure and again when the carriage returns back to the terminal each day.
c. Place hand sanitizer devices at the information counter of the station for public use.

Moreover, if an emergency is declared, then the frequency of cleaning is to increase:

a. Station :
1. Sterilize equipment that passengers might frequently come into contact with at each station. (Sterilize once every 4 hours)
2. Daily disinfection of public station facilities: After operational hours the whole station, including passenger traffic flow areas and facilities, will be disinfected.
b. Carriage :
1. Sterilize equipment that passengers might frequently come in contact with. Sterilize once every 8 hours when the carriage returns to the terminal station.
2. Daily wipe down of entire carriages with disinfectant before each day’s first departure.
3. Once notified by the health authority about any confirmed or suspected case that have traveled on the MRT, intensify the cleaning and disinfection along the route taken by the passenger within 2 hours.

Moreover, the Taipei plan calls for providing all frontline workers with protective equipment, including masks, goggles, and hand sanitizer, as soon as any domestic case of the virus is detected. Moreover, all staff are subject to temperature checks at the start of the day, to prevent sick workers from infecting healthy ones. This way, infection levels among workers can be kept to a minimum, allowing service to proceed without interruption.

It is noteworthy that the frequent cleaning regimen operates during the daytime, and not just overnight. Sterilizing trains every 8 hours means working around their service schedules, disinfecting them during off-peak periods with lower frequency. Taipei has not cut weekday service frequency, only weekend frequency, and the weekday peak-to-base ratio is low, about 1.5 on the Green Line.

With these measures in place, and similar vigilance across Taiwanese society, the country has gone 6 days without any new case of the virus. There is no lockdown and never was one, and Taipei MRT ridership only fell 15-16% on weekdays.

What New York is doing

Foye and Feinberg announced that the subway would close overnight between 1 and 5 am so that trains could be disinfected once per day. Is daily disinfection sufficient? Almost certainly not, given the spread of the virus around the city. Does it take four hours? Of course not, cleaning can be done in minutes. And must it be done at night? Again no, New York has cut so much service that there’s a large fleet of spare trains, making rotating equipment between service and cleaning easy. It’s likely that it is possible to sterilize trains every roundtrip while they wait at the terminal.

The goal here is not about cleanliness. The subway is dirty and getting worse as cleaning staff get sick and can’t come to work, but a program designed to improve the system would look profoundly different. It would equip subway workers with protective gear, especially the cleaners; it would keep running service; it would look for ways to eliminate fomites like the push turnstiles; it would disinfect trains and stations at short intervals.

The homelessness issue

There are serious concerns with homelessness in New York, as in many other cities. This is aided by sensationalist reporting that blames homeless people for any number of problems, playing to middle-class prejudices about visible poverty. As Ben notes, NYPD swept the subway with cops but not social workers. Hotels are empty all over the city, but there is no attempt at using them for either centralized quarantine or extra shelter space. There are existing shelters, but they are unsafe and people who have been unsheltered for a while know this and avoid them for a reason.

New York is a big, expensive, high-inequality city. It has visible poverty, including homelessness. It could offer homeless people housing – empty hotels would do, employing hotel workers to do work that is already done at shelters by overtaxed volunteers. The problem is that many aggrieved people want medieval displays of police power against people who it is okay to be violent toward; they do not want to solve problems. This issue is not unique to New York: in San Francisco, sanisette installations ran into the problem that one stall had people defecating on the floor, leading the city to decide to staff every sanisette 24/7, turning what was designed as a self-cleaning system for high-cost cities for €14,400 a year per unit into a $700,000/year money sink. American cities spend millions in enforcement to avoid spending pennies on social work.

Who is being empowered?

The broader question is whether the subway is dirty because of homeless people or because of inadequate cleaning, poor training for cleaners, lack of protective equipment, etc. The vast majority of dirt one sees on trains has pretty obvious origins in ordinary if antisocial riders: spilled drinks, gum stuck to the floor, overflowing trash cans, wrappers thrown on the tracks. However, it is convenient to blame homeless people for this – they can’t politically fight back, and many law-and-order voters and political operatives relish the sight of a cop dragging someone off the train.

This leads to the question, who is being empowered by blame? Any explanation of why things don’t work empowers someone, and explanations are easier to accept if they empower local political forces that the mainstream pays attention to. For example, if I say costs are high because of union pensions, then this automatically empowers the Manhattan Institute and other anti-union forces in the city; and if I say costs are high because managers micromanage and humiliate workers too much, then this empowers the unions.

The upshot is that blaming flagging subway ridership on homeless people making riders uncomfortable empowers law-and-order voters and middle-class people who dislike seeing visible poverty, both of which are groups that even relatively liberal political operatives pay attention to. In contrast, blaming flagging ridership on technical issues with speed and frequency empowers technocrats, who are usually politically invisible, and when they’re not, this can lead to a clash of authority, as seen in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s sidelining of Byford, leading to the latter’s resignation.

This cascades to cleaning. Taipei shows how one can clean trains and stations during service. New York should learn, but that means listening to people who are familiar with Taiwanese practices, and maybe synthesize with other clean Asian systems. Shutdowns that force essential workers onto slow buses and taxis are a terrible policy, but they’re a policy the current leadership does not need to talk to people in a foreign country to implement.

Some Notes About Northeast Corridor High-Speed Rail

I want to follow up on what I wrote about speed zones a week ago. The starting point is that I have a version 0 map on Google Earth, which is far from the best CAD system out there, one that realizes the following timetable:

Boston 0:00
Providence 0:23
New Haven 1:00
New York 1:40
Newark 1:51
Philadelphia 2:24
Wilmington 2:37
Baltimore 3:03
Washington 3:19

This is inclusive of schedule contingency, set at 7% on segments with heavy track sharing with regional rail, like New York-New Haven, and 4% on segment with little to no track haring, like New Haven-Providence. The purpose of this post is to go over some delicate future-proofing that this may entail, especially given that the cost of doing so is much lower than the agency officials and thinktank planners who make glossy proposals think it should.

What does this entail?

The infrastructure required for this line to be operational is obtrusive, but for the most part not particularly complex. I talked years ago about the I-95 route between New Haven and southern Rhode Island, the longest stretch of new track, 120 km long. It has some challenging river crossings, especially that of the Quinnipiac in New Haven, but a freeway bridge along the same alignment opened in 2015 at a cost of $500 million, and that’s a 10-lane bridge 55 meters wide, not a 2-track rail bridge 10 meters wide. Without any tunnels on the route, New Haven-Kingston should cost no more than about $3-3.5 billion in 2020 terms.

Elsewhere, there are small curve easements, even on generally straight portions like in New Jersey and South County, Rhode Island, both of which have curves that if you zoom in close enough and play with the Google Earth circle tool you’ll see are much tighter than 4 km in radius. For the most part this just means building the required structure, and then connecting the tracks to the new rather than old curve in a night’s heavy work; more complex movements of track have been done in Japan on commuter railroads, in a more constrained environment.

There’s a fair amount of taking required. The most difficult segment is New Rochelle-New Haven, with the most takings in Darien and the only tunneling in Bridgeport; the only other new tunnel required is in Baltimore, where it should follow the old Great Circle Tunnel proposal’s scope, not the four-track double-stack mechanically ventilated bundle the project turned into. The Baltimore tunnel was estimated at $750 million in 2008, maybe $1 billion today, and that’s high for a tunnel without stations – it’s almost as high per kilometer as Second Avenue Subway without stations. Bridgeport requires about 4 km of tunnel with a short water crossing, so figure $1-1.5 billion today even taking the underwater penalty and the insane unit costs of the New York region as a given.

A few other smaller deviations from the mainline are worth doing at-grade or elevated: a cutoff in Maryland near the Delaware border in the middle of what could be prime 360 km/h territory, a cutoff in Port Chester and Greenwich bypassing the worst curve on the Northeast Corridor outside major cities, the aforementioned takings-heavy segment through Darien continuing along I-95 in Norwalk and Westport, a short bypass of curves around Fairfield Station. These should cost a few hundred million dollars each, though the Darien-Westport bypass, about 15 km long, could go over $1 billion.

Finally, the variable-tension catenary south of New York needs to be replaced with constant-tension catenary. A small portion of the line, between New Brunswick and Trenton, is being so replaced at elevated cost. I don’t know why the cost is so high – constant-tension catenary is standard around the world and costs $1.5-2.5 million per km in countries other than the US, Canada, and the UK. The Northeast Corridor is four-track and my other examples are two-track, but then my other examples also include transformers and not just wires; in New Zealand, the cost of wires alone was around $800,000 per km. Even taking inflation and four tracks into account, this should be maybe $700 million between New York and Washington, working overnight to avoid disturbing daytime traffic.

The overall cost should be around $15 billion, with rolling stock and overheads. Higher costs reflect unnecessary scope, such as extra regional rail capacity in New York, four-tracking the entire Providence Line instead of building strategic overtakes and scheduling trains intelligently, the aforementioned four-track version of the Baltimore tunnel, etc.

The implications of cheap high-speed rail

I wrote about high-speed rail ridership in the context of Metcalfe’s law, making the point that once one line exists, extensions are very high-value as a short construction segment generates longer and more profitable trips. The cost estimate I gave for the Northeast Corridor is $13 billion, the difference with $15 billion being rolling stock, which in that post I bundled into operating costs. With that estimate, the line profits $1.7 billion a year, a 13% financial return. This incentivizes building more lines to take advantage of network effects: New Haven-Springfield, Philadelphia-Pittsburgh, Washington-Virginia-North Carolina-Atlanta, New York-Upstate.

The problem: building extensions does require the infrastructure on the Northeast Corridor that I don’t think should be in the initial scope. Boston-Washington is good for around a 16-car train every 15 minutes all day, which is very intense by global standards but can still fit in the existing infrastructure where it is two-track. Even 10-minute service can sometimes fit on two tracks, for example having some high-speed trains stop at Trenton to cannibalize commuter rail traffic – but not always. Boston-Providence every 10 minutes requires extensive four-tracking, at least from Attleboro to beyond Sharon in addition to an overtake from Route 128 to Readville, the latter needed also for 15-minute service.

More fundamentally, once high-speed rail traffic grows beyond about 6 trains per hour, the value of a dedicated path through New York grows. This is not a cheap path – it means another Hudson tunnel, and a connection east to bypass the curves of the Hell Gate Bridge, which means 8 km of tunnel east and northeast of Penn Station and another 2 km above-ground around Randall’s Island, in addition to 5 km from Penn Station west across the river. The upshot is that this connection saves trains 3 minutes, and by freeing trains completely from regional rail traffic with four-tracking in the Bronx, it also permits using the lower 4% schedule pad, saving another 1 minute in the process.

If the United States is willing to spend close to $100 billion high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor – it isn’t, but something like $40-50 billion may actually pass some congressional stimulus – then it should spend $15 billion and then use the other $85 billion for other stuff. This include high-speed tie-ins as detailed above, as well as low-speed regional lines in the Northeast: new Hudson tunnels for regional traffic, the North-South Rail Link, RegionalBahn-grade links around Providence and other secondary cities, completion of electrification everywhere a Northeastern passenger train runs

Incremental investment

I hate the term “incremental” when it comes to infrastructure, not because it’s inherently bad, but because do-nothing politicians (e.g. just about every American elected official) use it as an excuse to implement quarter-measures, spending money without having to show anything for it.

So for the purpose of this post, “incremental” means “start with $15 billion to get Boston-Washington down to 3:20 and only later spend the rest.” It doesn’t mean “spend $2 billion on replacing a bridge that doesn’t really need replacement.”

With that in mind, the capacity increases required to get from bare Northeast Corridor high-speed rail to a more expansive system can all be done later. The overtakes on Baltimore-Washington would get filled in to form four continuous tracks all the way, the ones on Boston-Providence would be extended as outlined above, the bypasses on New York-New Haven would get linked to new tracks in the existing right-of-way where needed, the four-track narrows between Newark and Elizabeth would be expanded to six in an already existing right-of-way. Elizabeth Station has four tracks but the only building in the way of expanding it to six is a parking garage that needs to be removed anyway to ease the S-curve to the south of the platforms.

However, one capacity increase is difficult to retrofit: new tracks through New York. The most natural way to organize Penn Station is as a three-line system, with Line 1 carrying the existing Hudson tunnel and the southern East River tunnels, including high-speed traffic; Line 2 using new tunnels and a Grand Central link; and Line 3 using a realigned Empire Connection and the northern East River tunnels. The station is already centered on 32nd Street extending a block each way; existing tunnels going east go under 33rd and 32nd, and all plans for new tunnels continuing east to Grand Central or across the East River go under 31st.

But if it’s a 3-line system and high-speed trains need dedicated tracks, then regional trains don’t get to use the Hell Gate Line. (They don’t today, but the state is spending very large sums of money on changing this.) Given the expansion in regional service from the kind of spending that would justify so much extra intercity rail, a 4-line system may be needed. This is feasible, but not if Penn Station is remodeled for 3 lines; finding new space for a fourth tunnel is problematic to say the least.


The point of integrated timetable planning is to figure out what timetable one want to run in the future and then building the requisite infrastructure. Thus, in the 1990s Switzerland built the tunnels and extra tracks for the connections planned in Bahn 2000, and right now it’s doing the same for the next generation. This can work incrementally, but only if one knows all the phases in advance. If timetable plans radically change, for example because the politicians make big changes overruling the civil service to remind the public that they exist, then this system does not work.

If the United States remains uninterested in high-speed rail, then it’s fine to go ahead with a bare-bones $15 billion system. It’s good, it would generate good profits for Amtrak, it would also help somewhat with regional-intercity rail connectivity. Much of the rest of the system can be grafted on top without big changes.

But then it comes to Penn Station. It’s frustrating, because anything that brings it into focus attracts architects and architecture critics who think function should follow form. But it’s really important to make decisions soon, get to work demolishing the above-ground structures starting when the Madison Square Garden lease runs out, and move the tracks in the now-exposed stations as needed based on the design timetable.

As with everything else, it’s possible not to do it – to do one design and then change to another – but it costs extra, to the tune of multiple billions in unnecessary station reconstruction. If the point is to build high-speed rail cost-effectively, spending the same budget on more infrastructure instead of on a few gold-plated items, then this is not acceptable. Prior planning of how much service is intended is critical if costs are to stay down.

Construction Costs in China: Preliminary Notes

Eric and I are in the process of building up our database of construction costs and starting to select case studies for in-depth study. Most of the world was already in my original database from late 2019, but there are big gaps, most notably China, which has built more subways in the last 20 years than in my entire database combined. For this, we work with students; I mentioned Min-Jae Park in a previous post, but we have others. A Chinese master’s student of public administration at NYU named Yinan Yao is working with us on this, and has used Chinese sources, mainly official (what I call “plan” in my dataset), to construct a dataset that so far has 5,700 km, of which around two-thirds is underground.

I’m not putting the database out yet – this is still preliminary and subject to some edits, and we’ll publish a merged database of everything when it’s done (probably in the summer of this year, but don’t yell at me if it takes longer). However, I want to point out some observations that come from the data:

Chinese costs are fairly consistent: most recent subways cluster somewhat below 1 billion yuan per kilometer, or around $250 million per kilometer in PPP terms. This is consistent across the entire PRC. Costs are slightly higher in Beijing and Shenzhen than in the rest of China, and are even higher in Shanghai, where they approach 1.5 billion yuan per km. This is in accordance with what I’ve found in the rest of the world: costs are remarkably consistent within countries, especially within cities, to the point that variations, like New York’s higher-than-US-average costs or the difference between Milan and Rome, require separate explanation.

More difficult lines cost more: this is again not surprising, but it’s useful to check this on the largest national database of costs. Yinan points out that certain lines that cost more are more central, in that sense of passing under older lines with many transfer stations. See for example the Shanghai plan for 2018-23, with a map, a list of lines, and their costs (in hundreds of millions of yuan, not billions) on the last page: the highest cost per kilometer is actually a short elevated extension of Line 1, which has to be done while keeping the line’s current Xinzhuang terminal open for service as it is a critical transfer point to Line 5. The same map also shows the cost difference between the more central Lines 19 and 20 and the more suburban Airport Line, which goes around city center as the center is already connected to Pudong Airport via Line 2.

Why is Shanghai more expensive? Shanghai has a more built-out metro system than any other city in China save Beijing. That could explain its cost premium, but then again, relatively suburban lines like the Airport Line have similar costs to rest-of-China lines, including city center tunneling. Yinan suggests that the reason is geological: Shanghai is in the alluvial plain at the mouth of the Yangtze. This theory would suggest that tunneling in other parts of the world at the mouths of big rivers is expensive as well – and this is in fact true in Europe, as construction costs in the Netherlands are high. It is worth investigating, not just because of the implications for China but also for the implications for Europe: if Dutch costs are high for geological reasons, then there is nothing to explain regarding the quality of Dutch institutions, and thus if certain institutions (such as consensus democracy) occur in low-cost countries like Switzerland and the Nordic countries but also in the Netherlands, then the retort “but the Netherlands has this too and is expensive” loses impact.

There is very little regional rail in China. The definition of regional rail in a Chinese context is dicey – China did not inherit big legacy commuter rail networks, unlike India or most developed countries. Suburban rail lines are greenfield metros, rather like the Tsukuba Express or some of the more speculative parts of Grand Paris Express. In our dataset, regional rail is broken out from other urban rail because the concept of regional rail means only tunneling the hardest parts, and doing the rest on the surface using legacy railroads, which cuts overall costs but raises the costs per km of tunneling. China doesn’t do this, so all lines have the tunnel composition of a metro.

Having a lot of quantitative data makes things easier. Chinese costs are in the context of a consistent set of national institutions, and involve a lot of different subway lines. Even income differences are not so huge as to render analysis impossible – there is a lot of geographic inequality in China, but less than between (say) China and the developed world, and for the most part the bigger cities are on the richer side. This makes it easier to formulate hypotheses, for example regarding what exactly it means for a line to be more or less central. Eric, Yinan, and I are trying to come up with a coherent definition, which we can then try to test on other countries that build a lot of subways, like France, Russia, India, South Korea, and Spain.

All data is valuable. I started looking at costs in 2009-10 in order to figure out how to affordably build more subways in New York, and thus focused on the largest and richest world cities, like London and Paris. But really, all data is valuable. Comparing various developing countries is important because of issues like cultural cringe, and likewise figuring out if Shanghai is more expensive due to geology is important because of the implications regarding Dutch institutions. It is ignorant and harmful when New Yorkers reject knowledge that comes from outside their comfort zone of the city and perhaps the few rich global cities it deigns to compare itself with. On the contrary, Chinese data should be of immense value to both richer countries like the US and poorer ones like India, and likewise data from the rest of the world (for example, some Japanese and Korean best practices) should be of immense value in China.

There is a lot of knowledge out there. The point of comparative research is to access knowledge that people in one reference group (in our case, New York) do not have. Eric and I don’t speak Chinese; our language coverage, plus some non-English Google searches, is pretty useful, but far from panglossian. Yinan is so far tremendously helpful to this project. (The other students are helpful too in what they cover – they’ll get posts too, just this one focuses on China.)