Schedule Planners as a Resource

The Effective Transit Alliance published its statement on Riders Alliance’s Six-Minute Service campaign, which proposes to run every subway line in New York and the top 100 bus routes every (at worst) six minutes every day from morning to evening. We’re positive on it, even more than Riders Alliance is. We go over how frequency benefits riders, as I wrote here and here, but also over how it makes planning easier. It is the latter benefit I want to go over right now: schedule planning staff is a resource, just as drivers and outside capital are, and it’s important for transit agencies to institute systems that conserve this resource and avoid creating unnecessary work for planners.

The current situation in New York

Uday Schultz writes about how schedule planning is done in New York. There’s an operations planning department, with 350 budgeted positions as of 2021 of which 284 are filled, down from 400 and 377 respectively in 2016. The department is responsible for all aspects of schedule planning: base schedules but also schedules for every service change (“General Order” or GO in short).

Each numbered or lettered route is timetabled on it own. The frequency is set by a guideline coming from peak crowding: at any off-peak period, at the most crowded point of a route, passenger crowding is supposed to be 25% higher than the seated capacity of the train; at rush hour, higher standee crowding levels are tolerated, and in practice vary widely by route. This way, two subway routes that share tracks for a long stretch will typically have different frequencies, and in practice, as perceived by passengers, off-peak crowding levels vary and are usually worse than the 25% standee factor.

Moreover, because planning is done by route, two trains that share tracks will have separate schedule plans, with little regard for integration. Occasionally, as Uday points out, this leads to literally impossible schedules. More commonly, this leads to irregular gaps: for example, the E and F trains run at the same frequency, every 4 minutes peak and every 12 minutes on weekends, but on weekends they are offset by just 2 minutes from each other, so on the long stretch of the Queens Boulevard Line where they share the express tracks, passengers have a 2-minute wait followed by a 10-minute wait.

Why?

The current situation creates more work for schedule planners, in all of the following ways:

  • Each route is run on its own set of frequencies.
  • Routes that share tracks can have different frequencies, requiring special attention to ensure that trains do not conflict.
  • Each period of day (morning peak, midday, afternoon peak, evening) is planned separately, with transitions between peak and off-peak; there are separate schedules for the weekend.
  • There are extensive GOs, each requiring not just its own bespoke timetable but also a plan for ramping down service before the start of the GO and ramping it up after it ends.

This way, a department of 284 operations planners is understaffed and cuts corners, leading to irregular and often excessively long gaps between trains. In effect, managerial rules for how to plan trains have created makework for the planners, so that an objectively enormous department still has too much work to do and cannot write coherent schedules.

Creating less work for planners

Operations planners, like any other group of employees, are a resource. It’s possible to get more of this resource by spending more money, but office staff is not cheap and American public-sector hiring has problems with uncompetitive salaries. Moreover, the makework effect doesn’t dissipate if more people are hire – it’s always possible to create more work for more planners, for example by micromanaging frequency at ever more granular levels.

To conserve this resource, multiple strategies should be used:

Regular frequencies

If all trains run on the same frequency all day, there’s less work to do, freeing up staff resources toward making sure that the timetables work without any conflict. If a distinction between peak and base is required, as on the absolute busiest routes like the E and F, then the base should be the same during all off-peak periods, so that only two schedules (peak and off-peak) are required with a ramp-up and ramp-down at the transition. This is what the six-minute service program does, but it could equally be done with a more austere and worse-for-passengers schedule, such as running trains every eight minutes off-peak.

Deinterlining

Reducing the extent of reverse-branching would enable planning more parts of the system separately from one another without so much conflict. Note that deinterlining for the purposes of good passenger service has somewhat different priorities from deinterlining for the purposes of coherent planning. I wrote about the former here and here. For the latter, it’s most important to reduce the number of connected components in the track-sharing graph, which means breaking apart the system inherited from the BMT from that inherited from the IND.

The two goals share a priority in fixing DeKalb Avenue, so that in both Manhattan and Brooklyn, the B and D share tracks as do the N and Q (today, in Brooklyn, the B shares track with the Q whereas the D shares track with the N): DeKalb Junction is a timetabling mess and trains have to wait two minutes there for a slot. Conversely, the main benefit of reverse-branching, one-seat rides to more places, is reduced since the two Manhattan trunks so fed, on Sixth Avenue and Broadway, are close to each other.

However, to enable more convenient planning, the next goal for deinterlining must be to stop using 11th Street Connection in regular service, which today transitions the R from the BMT Broadway Line and 60th Street Tunnel to the IND Queens Boulevard local tracks. Instead, the R should go where Broadway local trains go, that is Astoria, while the Broadway express N should go to Second Avenue Subway to increase service there. The vacated local service on Queens Boulevard should go to IND trunks in Manhattan, to Eighth or Sixth Avenue depending on what’s available based on changes to the rest of the system; currently, Eighth Avenue is where there is space. Optionally, no new route should be added, and instead local service on Queens Boulevard could run as a single service (currently the M) every 4 minutes all day, to match peak E and F frequencies.

GO reform

New York uses too many GOs, messing up weekend service. This is ostensibly for maintenance and worker safety, but maintenance work gets done elsewhere with fewer changes (as in Paris or Berlin) or almost none (as in Tokyo) – and Berlin and Tokyo barely have nighttime windows for maintenance, Tokyo’s nighttime outages lasting at most 3-4 hours and Berlin’s available only five nights a week. The system should push back against ever more creative service disruptions for work and demand higher maintenance productivity.

Midwestern Urban Geography and High-Speed Rail

I’ve been uploading videos about high-speed rail lately, of which the most recent, from a week ago, is a return to my attempt at producing a high-speed rail map proposal for the eastern half of the United States. I streamed and then blogged a map here with followup here, but having looked at the model more, I’d like to do a refinement – both to introduce a slightly bigger map and explain why it is so, and talk about the issue of connecting low-speed lines. Along the way, I feel like I must talk about an issue mentioned in comments occasionally about the politics of only connecting major metropolitan areas, especially since this map still has fewer lines than various state wishlists stapled by Amtrak; this is especially important because one of the motivations for this post is a criticism of current plans by Matt Yglesias.

The map

In this map, like some old maps but unlike in last year’s map, red denotes high-speed lines and blue denotes low-speed ones, some running through to the high-speed network and some not

A full-size (6 MB) version of the map can be found here. This is not intended as a comprehensive map of all desirable low-speed connections – I made no effort to include the Northeastern ones, which I wrote about in the context of New England and Upstate New York, and which Ben She has done good work on in the context of eastern Pennsylvania and the mid-Atlantic. Rather, I want to focus on the Midwest.

But first, to explain a little more about why this map includes more red (high-speed) lines than previously, the reason has to do with my spreadsheet for computing ridership density based on Metcalfe’s law. The original posts computed everything by hand, which meant that some low-ridership city pairs I just rounded to zero; the spreadsheet does include them, making every line look much stronger. This, in particular, makes St. Louis-Kansas City and Atlanta-Birmingham, omitted last year, and Nashville-Memphis, suggested last year as a maybe, solid propositions.

A note of caution is still advised. Those weak city pairs that aggregate to sufficient ridership for significant return on investment are often at long distance, such as Kansas City-New York. The ridership model is trained on Shinkansen data out of Tokyo and sanity-checked with some French, German, and Spanish data, but the same model overpredicts Shinkansen ridership on inter-island trips for which planes are a convenient alternative, like Tokyo-Fukuoka or Tokyo-Hakodate. This makes me reluctant to add a Kansas City-Dallas connection, which the spreadsheet thinks generates a bit more than $1 million in annual operating profit per km of new construction: the extra ridership out of Kansas City-Dallas includes some very long-distance trips like Dallas-Detroit, for which the model is likely an overprediction.

The truth is likely between the spreadsheet and the handmade version of the model; while the Shinkansen is not competitive with planes when trains take five hours, European high-speed trains are, for example Paris-Nice. This leads to the inclusion of the new sections, but the exclusion of Kansas City-Dallas. Note also that I did look at Birmingham-New Orleans and Memphis-Little Rock, and both were weak even in the spreadsheet (though I did not attempt Birmingham-New Orleans-Houston) – the Deep South is too low-density and rural to support as expansive a system.

But the topic of this post is not the South, but the Midwest.

Midwestern urban geography

The United States is usually a country of fewer, bigger metropolitan areas, like rich Asia and unlike Europe; unlike both Europe and Asia, American cities are very decentralized, and the exceptions are in the Northeast and West, not the Midwest. In particular, naive comparisons of Midwestern to French high-speed rail corridors are unwarranted: while Chicago is of the same approximate size as Paris, and secondary Midwestern metropolitan areas like Detroit and St. Louis are substantially larger than French ones like Lyon and Marseille, Lyon and Marseille are ringed by many small metropolitan areas with their own TGV service, whereas at the same radius, St. Louis has only its suburbs.

However, this phenomenon of fewer, bigger metro areas has exceptions. Michigan, in particular, has a slightly more European geography. Using the smaller numbers produced by the metropolitan statistical area (MSA) calculation rather than the broader combined statistical area (CSA), Metro Detroit has 43% of Michigan’s population as of the 2020 census. The median Michigander lives in the Grand Rapids MSA, with 1.1 million people, fewer than the US-wide median of 1.6-1.7 million. Michigan is a fairly urban state, and below Grand Rapids is a succession of six-figure metropolitan areas: Ann Arbor, Lansing, Flint, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Saginaw.

Ohio is similar to Michigan. Its three main metro areas, excluding Cincinnati’s out-of-state suburbs, have just a hair less than half the state’s population; the median Buckeye therefore lives in Dayton, MSA population 800,000. Moreover, the southern half of Michigan has fairly high population density, as does Ohio – nothing as dense as the Northeast or Germany, but they’re comparable to France.

This geography lends itself to an expansive intercity rail network: the cities are relatively close to one another, and there are many of them meriting a connection. In Ohio, this happens to take the form of an entirely high-speed network, since Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati all lie on one line, and then the most natural east-west route between the Northeast and the Midwest passes through Cleveland and Toledo. Ohio, in this case, is a state with fairly good geography for low-speed intercity rail that just happens to also have good geography for high-speed rail due to its location. Michigan, in contrast, is not on the way between much, and thus should get a low-speed rail network, including both connections to Chicago (such as to Grand Rapids) and an intra-state network.

Wisconsin has many, smaller cities as well: the median resident is in an MSA of around 200,000 people, currently Racine. Fortunately, many of those cities lie on just one line between Chicago and Minneapolis, plus a low-speed branch up to Green Bay. Unfortunately, coverage is lacking by the standards of Ohio, Michigan, or much more big city-dominated Illinois and Minnesota.

Getting low-speed rail right

I am happy to report that in Michigan and Ohio at least, good projects for low-speed rail are pursued. When I streamed my video, I was told in Twitch chat that Michigan is looking into funding a Detroit-Lansing-Grand Rapids intercity train. Ohio likewise has long had ideas for a statewide network, beginning with the Cleveland-Cincinnati spine.

It is unfortunate that these projects are not planned well. In a future post, I should write more about the concept of the wrong project versus the right project done poorly; I obliquely pointed this out when writing about leakage in the context of urban transit, where some American cities have poor project prioritization (such as Los Angeles) whereas others choose more or less the right projects but execute them poorly (such as New York and San Francisco). In this schema, the current plans for low-speed rail are often the right project, done wrong.

What I mean by this is that there’s a set of best industry practices for getting low-speed (that is, legacy) rail right, emanating out of Germany and surrounding countries, especially Switzerland. These include,

  • Integration of timetable planning and infrastructure, to minimize construction costs – if higher costs are acceptable, just build high-speed rail.
  • A clockface all-day schedule with a minimum of one train every two hours, and ideally a train every hour if the distances are shorter or the cities are bigger.
  • Timed connections at major nodes to both other intercity trains within the same network and regional mass transit (such as regional trains or connecting buses).
  • Reliability-centric planning, in which sources of delays are to be proactively eliminated – on a system this tightly coordinated, delays on one line propagate across the entire system.
  • An average speed of around 100-130 km/h – the higher numbers are more appropriate in flat terrain.

Marco Chitti has an excellent post that I must revisit in the future giving more detailed guidelines, mostly at regional level but also with an eye toward national intercity rail planning.

The upshot is that trying to incrementally build up ridership for a few trains per day does not work. The US has a few trains per day on a few corridors now, such as Chicago-Detroit, and daily trains on most others, and this hasn’t built up ridership. The low-speed, low-frequency intercity trains Europe had before the introduction of the TGV in France and the high-frequency, tightly-linked InterCity network in Germany were rapidly losing market share to cars and planes. To build such a network now would be like to build infrastructures wired telephones in a developing country rather than just skipping straight to cellphones as developing countries have.

Politics and Matt Yglesias’s post

Matt likes pointing out that current transportation plans in the United States are deficient, and to link to my posts as a better alternative. There was a lot of dunking on Matt’s post about this (as there is on anything that Matt writes) by left-identified people who, in effect, think daily or twice-daily trains between small cities are a great investment. This dunking usually takes the form of “how dare Matt, a lifelong East Coaster, tell people in [insert Midwestern town] that they don’t deserve trains?”. In a less abrasive form, some people in comments here, like Pharisee, have made the point that these expansive maps proposing daily trains to many places have good geographic coverage whereas what I propose does not. Let me explain why this line of thinking is wrong.

The issue is that the United States is, again, a country that for the most part has fewer, larger metropolitan areas than Europe. The map I made above hits MSAs with a large majority of the country’s population. Of the top 50 as of the 2020 census, the only misses are Denver, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, and New Orleans. Denver and Salt Lake City are far from everything else, and the other two are in theory on routes from Texas to the rest of the country but there’s too little population on the way for a connection in the geography of 2022.

Moreover, within the Midwest, coverage is ample. The Midwest is a highly (sub-)urbanized region, much of which has fairly high population density, and the biggest exception to the high density, Minnesota, has a large enough city to justify a line to Chicago by itself (and Milwaukee is on the way, too). The areas that are usually most moralized as Real America – Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania – are on the way. This shouldn’t be too surprising: the Real America moralization centers areas with a past industrial history, evoking feelings of nostalgia for midcentury American industrial dominance, and those areas remain major cities today, just relatively poorer than they were in the 1960s. This way, in the Midwest, every state has a large majority of its population in an MSA with a high- or low-speed train station on my map, except Iowa, which is unusually rural.

This is not even out of any consciously political desire to serve these areas. I draw maps out of a ridership model. It just so happens that metropolitan areas of 4 million people situated in dense geographies scream “build high-speed trains to me,” and those include Detroit.

The problem – the reason Matt is so negative on current plans – is that current plans are bad. They are low- and not high-speed rail, which by itself is not horrible, but they’re also bad low-speed rail. Daily trains are just not good. But this does not mean the Midwest can’t or shouldn’t get a good intercity rail network: it should, combining high- and low-speed trains as appropriate.

TransitCenter’s Commuter Rail Proposal

Last week, TransitCenter released a proposal for how to use commuter rail more effectively within New York. The centerpiece of the proposal is to modify service so that the LIRR and Metro-North can run more frequently to stations within the city, where today they serve the suburbs almost exclusively; at the few places near the outer end of the city where they run near the subway, they have far less ridership, often by a full order of magnitude, which pattern repeats itself around North America. There is much to like about what the proposal centers; unfortunately, it falls short by proposing half-hourly frequencies, which, while better than current off-peak service, are far short of what is needed within the city.

Commuter rail and urban ridership

TransitCenter’s proposal centers urban riders. This is a welcome addition to city discourse on commuter rail improvement. The highest-ridership, highest-traffic form of mainline rail is the fundamentally urban S-Bahn or RER concept. Truly regional trains, connecting distinct centers, coexist with them but always get a fraction of the traffic, because public transit ridership is driven by riders in dense urban and inner-suburban neighborhoods.

A lot of transit and environmental activists are uncomfortable with the idea of urban service. I can’t tell why, but too many proposals by people who should know better keep centering the suburbs. But in reality, any improvement in commuter rail service that does not explicitly forgo good practices in order to discourage urban ridership creates new urban ridership more than anything else. There just aren’t enough people in the suburbs who work in the city (even in the entire city, not just city center) for it to be any other way.

TransitCenter gets it. The proposal doesn’t even talk about inner-suburban anchors of local lines just outside the city, like Yonkers, New Rochelle, and Hempstead (and a future update of this program perhaps should). No: it focuses on the people near LIRR and Metro-North stations within the city, highlighting how they face the choice between paying extra for infrequent but fast trains to Midtown and riding very slow buses to the edge of the subway system. As these neighborhoods are for the most part on the spectrum from poor to lower middle-class, nearly everyone chooses the slow option, and ridership at the city stations is weak, except in higher-income Northeast Queens near the Port Washington Branch (see 2012-4 data here, PDF-pp. 183-207), and even there, Flushing has very little ridership since the subway is available as an alternative.

To that effect, TransitCenter proposes gradually integrating the fares between commuter rail and urban transit. This includes fare equalization and free transfers: if a bus-subway-bus trip between the Bronx and Southern Brooklyn is covered by the $127 monthly pass then so should a shorter bus-commuter rail trip between Eastern Queens or the North Bronx and Manhattan.

Interestingly, the report also shows that regionwide, poorer people have better job access by transit than richer people, even when a fare budget is imposed that excludes commuter rail. The reason is that in New York, suburbanization is a largely middle-class phenomenon, and in the suburbs, the only jobs accessible by mass transit within an hour are in Midtown Manhattan, whereas city residents have access to a greater variety of jobs by the bus and subway system. But this does not mean that the present system is equitable – rich suburbanites have cars and can use them to get to edge city jobs such as those of White Plains and Stamford, and can access the entire transit network without the fare budget whereas poorer people do have a fare budget.

The issue of frequency

Unfortunately, TransitCenter’s proposal on frequency leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps it’s out of incrementalism, of the same kind that shows up in its intermediate steps toward fare integration. The report suggests to increase frequency to the urban stations to a train every half an hour, which it phrases in the traditional commuter rail way of trains per day: 12 roundtrips in a six-hour midday period.

And this is where the otherwise great study loses me. Forest Hills, Kew Gardens, and Flushing are all right next to subway stations. The LIRR charges higher fares there, but these are fairly middle-class areas – richer than Rosedale in Southeast Queens on the Far Rockaway Branch, which still gets more ridership than all three. No: the problem in these inner areas is frequency, and a train every half hour just doesn’t cut it when the subway is right there and comes every 2-3 minutes at rush hour and every 4-6 off-peak.

In this case, incremental increases from hourly to half-hourly frequency don’t cut it. The in-vehicle trip is so short that a train every half hour might as well not exist, just as nobody runs subway trains every half hour (even late at night, New York runs the subway every 20 minutes). At outer-urban locations like Bayside, Wakefield, and Rosedale, the absolute worst that should be considered is a train every 15 minutes, and even that is suspect and 10 minutes is more secure. Next to the subway, the absolute minimum is a train every 10 minutes.

All three mainlines currently radiating out of Manhattan in regular service – the Harlem Line, the LIRR Main Line, and the Port Washington Branch – closely parallel very busy subway trunk lines. One of the purposes of commuter rail modernization in New York must be decongestion of the subway, moving passengers from overcrowded 4, 5, 7, E, and F trains to underfull commuter trains. The LIRR and Metro-North are considered at capacity when passengers start having to use the middle seats, corresponding to 80% of seated capacity; the subway is considered at capacity when there are so many standees they don’t meet the standard of 3 square feet per person (3.59 people/m^2).

To do this, it’s necessary to not just compete with buses, but also directly compete with the subway. This is fine: Metro-North and the LIRR can act as additional express capacity, filling trains every 5 minutes using a combination of urban ridership and additional ridership at inner suburbs. TransitCenter has an excellent proposal for how to improve service quality at the urban stations but then inexplicably doesn’t go all the way and proposes a frequency that’s too low.

The Official Brooklyn Bus Redesign is Out

The MTA just released a draft of the Brooklyn bus redesign it and its consultant had been working on. It is not good. I’m not completely sure why this is – the Queens redesign was a good deal better, and our take on it at the Effective Transit Alliance was decidedly positive. But in the case of Brooklyn, the things that worked in Queens are absent. Overall, the theme of this is stasis – the changes to the network are minor, and the frequencies are to remain insufficiently low for good service. The only good thing about this is stop consolidation, which does not require spending any money on consultants and is a straightforward fix.

This is especially frustrating to me because my first project for Marron, before the Transit Costs Project, was a redesign proposal. The proposal can be read here, with discussion in blog posts here, here, and here. The official reaction we got was chilly, but the redesign doesn’t look anything like a more politic version, just one produced at much higher consultant cost while doing very little.

The four-color scheme

The Brooklyn project retains the Queens redesign’s four-color scheme of buses, to be divided into local (green), limited (red), Select Bus Service (blue), and rush (purple). The local buses are supposed to stop every 300-400 meters, which is not the best (the optimum for Brooklyn is about 400-500) but is a good deal better than the current spacing of about 200-250. The other three kinds of buses are more express, some running on the same routes as local buses as express overlays and some running on streets without local service.

In Queens, this four-way distinction emerges from the pattern in which in neighborhoods beyond the subway’s reach, bus usage is extremely peaky toward the subway. The purpose of the rush route is to get people to the subway terminal, such as Flushing or Jamaica, with not just longer stop spacing but also long nonstop sections close to the terminal where local service exists as an overlay, imitating the local and express patterns of peaky commuter rail operations in New York. I still think it’s not a good idea and buses should run at a more uniform interstation at higher frequency. But over the long stretches of Eastern Queens, the decision is fairly close and while rush routes are not optimal, they’re not much worse than the optimum. In contrast, Brooklyn is nothing like Queens: people travel shorter distances, and long routes are often used as circumferential subway connectors with ample turnover.

Ironically, this is something the MTA and its consultants understood: the Brooklyn map is largely green, whereas that in Queens has a more even mix of all four colors. Nonetheless, some rush routes are retained and so are some limited-only routes, in a way that subtracts value: if nearly all buses in Brooklyn offer me something, I should expect it on the other buses as well, whereas the rush-only B26 on Halsey Street is different in a way that isn’t clear.

In general, the notable feature of our redesign, unlike the more common American ones, is that there is no distinction among the different routes. Some are more frequent than others, but all have very high base frequency. This is because Brooklyn has unusually isotropic travel: density decreases from the East River south- and eastward, but the subway network also thins out and these effects mostly cancel out, especially with the high density of some housing projects in Coney Island; the busiest buses include some running only within Southern Brooklyn, like the B6 and B82 circumferentials.

In contrast, small-city redesigns tend to occur in a context with a strong core network and a weak peripheral network (“coverage routes,” which exist to reassure loud communities with no transit ridership that they can get buses too), and the redesign process tends to center this distinction and invest in the stronger core network. Queens has elements that look like this, if you squint your eyes sufficiently. Brooklyn has none: the isotropic density of most of the borough ensures that splitting buses into separate classes is counterproductive.

Frequency

The frequency in the proposed system is, frankly, bad. The MTA seems to believe that the appropriate frequency for urban mass transit is a train or bus every 10 minutes. This is acceptable in the suburban neighborhoods of Berlin or the outermost parts of New York, like the Rockaways and the eastern margin of Queens. In denser areas, including all of Brooklyn, it is not acceptable. People travel short distances: citywide, the average trip distance before corona was 3.4 km, which works out to 18 minutes at average New York bus speed (source: NTD 2019). In Brooklyn, the dense mesh of buses going between subway lines rather than to them makes the average even slightly lower. This means that very high frequency is a high priority.

So bad is the MTA’s thinking about frequency that core routes in the borough are split into local and limited variants, each running every 10 minutes off-peak, including some of the busiest corridors in the borough, like the outer circumferential B6 and B82 and the more inner-circumferential B35 on Church (split in the plan into a local B35 and an SBS B55). This is not changed from the current design, even though it’s easy to do so in the context of general consolidation of stops.

To make this even worse, there does not appear to be any increase in service-km, judging by the plan’s lack of net increase in frequency. This is bad planning: bus operating costs come from time (driver’s wage, mainly) and not distance, and the speedup provided by the stop consolidation should fuel an increase in frequency.

The Battery Tunnel

The most annoying aspect, at least to me, is the lack of a bus in the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, connecting Manhattan with Red Hook. Red Hook is isolated from the subway and from the rest of Brooklyn thanks to the freeway, and has bus connections only internally to Brooklyn where in fact a short bus route through the tunnel would beat bus-subway connections to Lower Manhattan.

We got the idea for the inclusion of such a bus service from planners that we spoke to when we wrote our own redesign. The service is cheap to provide because of the short length of the route, and would complement the rest of the network. It was also popular in the neighborhood meetings that tee consultants ran, we are told. And yet, it was deleted on a whim.

Stop Imitating the High Line

I streamed a longer version of this on Twitch on Tuesday, but the recording cut out, so instead of uploading to YouTube as a vlog, I’m summarizing it here

Manhattan has an attractive, amply-used park in the Meatpacking District, called the High Line. Here it is, just west of 10th Avenue:

It was originally a freight rail branch of the New York Central, running down the West Side of Manhattan to complement the railroad’s main line to Grand Central, currently the Harlem Line of Metro-North. As such, it was a narrow el with little direct interface with the neighborhood, unlike the rapid transit els like that on Ninth Avenue. The freight line was not useful for long: the twin inventions of trucking and electrification led to the deurbanization of manufacturing to land-intensive, single-story big box-style structures. Thus, for decades, it lay unused. As late as 2007, railfans were dreaming about reactivating it for passenger rail use, but it was already being converted to a park, opening in 2009. The High Line park is a successful addition to the neighborhood, and has spawned poor attempt at imitation, like the Low Line (an underground rapid transit terminal since bypassed by the subway), the Queensway (a similar disused line in Central Queens), and some plans in Jersey City. So what makes the High Line so good?

  1. The neighborhood, as can be seen above in the picture, has little park space. The tower-in-a-park housing visible to the east of the High Line, Chelsea-Elliott Houses, has some greenery but it’s not useful as a neighborhood park. The little greenery to the west is on the wrong side of 12th Avenue, a remnant of the West Side Highway that is not safe for pedestrians to cross, car traffic is so fast and heavy. Thus, it provides a service that the neighborhood previously did not have.
  2. The area has very high density, both residential and commercial. Chelsea is a dense residential neighborhood, but at both ends of the line there is extensive commercial development. Off-screen just to the south, bounded by Eighth, Ninth, 15th, and 16th, is Google’s building in New York, with more floor area than the Empire State Building and almost as much as One World Trade Center. Off-screen just to the north is the Hudson Yards development, which was conceived simultaneously with the High Line. This guarantees extensive foot traffic through the park.
  3. The linear park is embedded in a transit-rich street grid. Getting on at one end and off at the other is not much of a detour to the pedestrian tourist, or to anyone with access to the subway near both ends, making it a convenient urban trail.

These three conditions are not common, and trying to replicate the same linear park in their absence is unlikely to produce good results. For example, consider the Rockaway Cutoff, or Rockaway Beach Branch:

The Cutoff has two competing proposals for what to do with this disused LIRR branch: the Queenslink, aiming to convert it to a rapid transit branch (connecting to the subway, not the LIRR), and the Queensway, aiming to convert it to a linear park. The Queenslink proposal is somewhat awkward (which doesn’t mean it’s bad), but the Queensway one is completely drunk. Look at the satellite photo above and compare to that of the High Line:

  1. The area is full of greenery and recreation already, easily accessible from adjoining areas. Moreover, many residents live in houses with backyards.
  2. The density is moderate at the ends (Forest Hills and Woodhaven) and fairly low in between, with all these parks, cemeteries, and neighborhoods of single-family houses and missing middle density. Thus, local usage is unlikely to be high. Nor is this area anyone’s destination – there are some jobs at the northern margin of the area along Queens Boulevard (the wide road signed as Route 25 just north of the LIRR) but even then the main job concentrations in Queens are elsewhere.
  3. There is no real reason someone should use this as a hiking trail unless they want to hike it twice, one way and then back. The nearest viable parallel transit route, Woodhaven, is a bus rather than a subway.

The idea of a park is always enticing to local neighborhood NIMBYs. It’s land use that only they get to have, designed to be useless to outsiders; it is also at most marginally useful to neighborhood residents, but neighborhood politics is petty and centers exclusion of others rather than the actual benefits to residents, most of whom either don’t know their self-appointed neighborhood advocates or quietly loathe them and think of them as Karens and Beckies. Moreover, the neighborhood residents don’t pay for this – it’s a city project, a great opportunity to hog at the trough of other people’s money. Not for nothing, the Queensway website talks about how this is a community-supported solution, a good indication that it is a total waste of money.

But in reality, this is not going to be a useful park. The first park in a neighborhood is nice. The second can be, too. The fifth is just fallow land that should be used for something more productive, which can be housing, retail, or in this case a transportation artery for other people (since there aren’t enough people within walking distance of a trail to justify purely local use). The city should push back against neighborhood boosters who think that what worked in the Manhattan core will work in their explicitly anti-Manhattan areas, and preserve the right-of-way for future subway or commuter rail expansion.

Quick Note on Los Angeles and Chicago Density and Modal Split

A long-running conundrum in American urbanism is that the urban area with the highest population density is Los Angeles, rather than New York. Los Angeles is extremely auto-oriented, with a commute modal split that’s only 5% public transit, same as the US average, and doesn’t feel dense the way New York or even Washington or Chicago or Boston is. In the last 15 years there have been some attempts to get around this, chiefly the notion of weighted or perceived density, which divides the region into small cells (such as census tracts) and averaged their density weighted by population and not area. However, even then, Los Angeles near-ties San Francisco for second densest in the US, New York being by far the densest; curiously, already in 2008, Chris Bradford pointed out that for American metro areas, the transit modal split was more strongly correlated with the ratio of weighted to standard density than with absolute weighted density.

DW Rowlands at Brookings steps into this debate by talking more explicitly about where the density is. She uses slightly different definitions of density, so that by the standard measure Los Angeles is second to New York, but this doesn’t change the independent variable enough to matter: Los Angeles’s non-car commute modal split still underperforms any measure of density. Instead of looking at population density, she looks at the question of activity centers. Those centers are a way to formalize what I tried to do informally by trying to define central business districts, or perhaps my attempts to draw 100 km^2 city centers and count the job share there (100 km^2 is because my French data is so coarse it’s the most convenient for comparisons to Paris and La Défense).

By Rowlands’ more formal definition, Los Angeles is notably weaker-centered than comparanda like Boston and Washington. Conversely, while I think of Los Angeles as not having any mass transit because I compare it with other large cities, even just large American cities, Brookings compares the region with all American metropolitan areas, and there, Los Angeles overperforms the median – the US-wide 5% modal split includes New York in the average so right off the bat the non-New York average is around 3%, and this falls further when one throws away secondary transit cities like Washington as well. So Los Angeles performs fairly close to what one would expect from activity center density.

But curiously, Chicago registers as weaker-centered than Los Angeles. I suspect this is an issue of different definitions of activity centers. Chicago’s urban layout is such that a majority of Loop-bound commutes are done by rail and a supermajority of all other commutes are done by car; the overall activity center density matters less than the raw share of jobs that are in a narrow city center. Normally, the two measures – activity center density and central business district share of jobs – correlate: Los Angeles has by all accounts a weak center – the central 100 km^2, which include decidedly residential Westside areas, have around 700,000 jobs, and this weakness exists at all levels. Chicago is different: its 100 km^2 blob is uninspiring, but at the scale of the Loop, the job density is very high – it’s just that outside the Loop, there’s very little centralization.

What Does It Mean to Run the State Like a Business?

There’s a common expression, run it like a business, connoting a set of organizational reforms that intend to evoke private-sector efficiency. Unfortunately, the actual implementation as far as I’ve seen in public transportation agencies has always fallen short. This is not because the private sector is inherently different from the public sector – it is, but not in ways that are relevant here (for example, in marketing). Rather, it’s because the examples I’ve seen always involve bringing in an outside manager with experience in private-sector management but not in the industry, which tends to be a bad practice in the private sector too. Many of the practices bundled with this approach, like the hiring freeze, are harmful to the organization and well-run private firms do not engage in them.

So, instead, what would it mean to run public transportation like a business?

Internal workings

A public transit agency that wants to access the high productivity of frontier private-sector industries in the United States had better imitate common features to large corporations. These include all of the following:

1. Smoother HR. Jobs need to fill quickly, with a hiring process that takes weeks rather than months or years. HR should follow private-sector norms and not civil service exams, which represent the best reform ideas of the 1910s and are absent from the strongest bureaucratic public sector norms out there. Moreover, the pay needs to be competitive and largely in cash, not benefits. Some European countries (like Sweden) get away with having a fully laden cost of employment that’s about twice the gross salary because their tax structures have such high employer-side payroll taxes that this is more or less also the case for the private sector; but in the US, the private-sector norm is a multiplier of about 1.3 and not 2 and the public sector needs to do the same. Benefit cuts should go one-to-one to higher base pay, which should be competitive with high-productivity industries – public transit agencies should want to hire the best engineers, not the engineers who couldn’t get work in the private sector.

2. Promotion by merit and not seniority. Seniority systems in private businesses are a feature of relatively low-productivity countries like Japan, whereas the more productive American and Northern European private sectors promote by merit and have paths for someone to have decisionmaking power in their early 30s if they’re good. In contrast, American public transportation providers are bound by rigid notions of seniority at all levels – including even how bus and train drivers are scheduled (in the German-speaking world, schedulers set everyone’s work schedules on the principle of spreading out the painful shifts equally) – turning one’s 20s into a grueling apprenticeship, and even at my age people are always subordinate to a deadwood manager who last had an idea 20 years ago.

3. Hiring successful leadership, from within the industry if not through internal promotion. In some cases I can see hiring from adjacent industries, but so far this has meant national railroads like Amtrak and SNCF hiring airline executives, who do not understand some critical ways trains differ from planes and therefore produce poor outcomes. The practice of hiring people whose sole expertise is in turnarounds must cease; in Massachusetts, Charlie Baker’s foisting of Luis Ramirez on the MBTA was not a success. In the United States, the best example of a successful outside hire for leadership is Andy Byford, who Andrew Cuomo then proceeded to treat with about the same level of respect that he has for the consent of women in the room with him and for the lives of residents of New York nursing homes. This is really an extension of point #2: people with a track record of success in public transit should run public transit, and not hacks, washouts, and personal friends and allies of the governor.

4. Professional development. A planner earning $60,000 a year, who should probably be earning $90,000 a year, gets to regularly fly to a conference abroad for $2,500 including hotel fees to learn how other countries do things. The core of a high-value-added firm is its employees; the biggest risk when one invests in them is that they then take their skills and go elsewhere, but public transit is a local monopoly and if a New York planner takes their skills and moves to Philadelphia, on net New York has lost nothing, since SEPTA is complementary to its services rather than a competitor.

Note that this list avoids any of the usual tropes of hiring freezes, rank-and-yank systems, or the imposition of a separate class of managerial overlords who get to tell the experienced insiders what to do. These are not features of successful, high-productivity businesses. Some are features of failing companies, like the hiring freeze. Others are a feature of long dead industrial traditions, superseded by more modern ones: the class system in which the recently-hired MBA is always superior to the experienced worker, faithfully reproduced in most militaries with their officer-enlisted distinction, is inferior to the classless system in which people are hired and among them the most successful and most interested in a leadership role are more rapidly promoted.

Outside funding

The above points are about how a public transit agency should restructure itself. But the private sector has some insights about how external funding, such as federal funding in the US, should work.

Central to this is the venture capital insight that the quality of the team of founders matters at least as much as the proposal they bring in front of the VC team. If public transit agencies are to be run as frontier businesses (such as biotech or software-tech), then it stands to reason that federal funding should look at how the VC system funds them. In addition to following the above agency norms for their own hires, grantors like the FTA and FRA should then look at who exactly they’re funding. This means at least three things:

1. YIMBYer regions get more money than NIMBYer ones. New York can still get some money if it has exceptionally strong proposals, but overall, regions with stronger transit-oriented development, which in the US mainly means Seattle, should be getting more funding than regions without. This is on top of the purely public-sector negotiation process, common in the Nordic countries, in which an area that wants rail access to city center jobs is required to plan for more housing, even over local NIMBY objections. The Nordic process is a negotiation, whereas what I’m proposing here is a process in which the FTA and FRA get discretion to invest more money in regions that have pro-growth, pro-TOD politics without rezoning-by-rezoning negotiation.

2. Regions with recurrent corruption problems get defunded. If there’s a history of poor project management (for example, at California High-Speed Rail), or of actual corruption (as in Florida with Rick Scott), or of leakage of federal funds to unrelated goals such as creation of local jobs or overpriced betterments, then outside funding should not be forthcoming. There are other places that need the money and don’t abuse federal funds.

3. Regions with healthy ecosystems of transit advocacy get more money than regions without. NGOs are part of the local governance structure, and this means the FTA and FRA should be interested in the quality of advocacy. The presence of curious, technically literate, forward-looking groups like TransitMatters in Boston and 5th Square in Philadelphia should be a positive mark; that of populist ones like the Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union with its preposterous claims that trains are racist should be a negative mark. This also extends to the local nonprofit grantors – if they are interested in good governance then it’s a sign the region’s overall governance is healthy and it will not only spend federal money prudently but also find new innovative ways to run better service that can then lead to a nationwide learning process. But if they are ignorant and incurious, as Boston’s Barr Foundation is (see incriminating article here by Barr board member Lisa Jacobson, falsely claiming Britain has no interest in equitable investment and the Netherlands has no interest in pedestrians), this suggests the opposite, and regions with such people in positions of power are likely to waste money that they are given.

Giving the state discretion

A lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea that the public sector should ever have the discretion to make its own decisions. In practice discretion is unavoidable; the American solution to the conundrum has been to bury everyone in self-contradictory paperwork and then any decision can be justified and litigated using some subset of the paperwork. So the same discretion exists but with far too high overheads and with a culture that treats clear language as somewhere between evil and unthinkable.

Because the idea of running the government like a business is disproportionately common among people who don’t like the public sector, programs that aim to do just that are bundled with programs that leash the state. The leash then means politicization, in which personal acquaintances of the mayor, governor, or other such heavyweight run agencies they are not qualified to work at, let alone manage; the professionals are then browbeaten into justifying whatever decision the political appointees come to, which is a common feature of dysfunctional businesses and a rare one at successful ones.

But successful businesses are not leashed. To run the government like a business means to imitate successful business ecosystems, and those are not leashed or politicized, nor are their core office workers subjected to a class system in which their own promotions are based on seniority and not merit whereas their overlords are a separate group of generalists who move from agency to agency. What it does mean is to hire the best people and promote the best among them, pay them accordingly, and give them the explicit discretion to make long-term planning and funding decisions.

It’s Easy to Waste Money

As we’re finalizing edits on our New York and synthesis reports, I’m rereading about Second Avenue Subway. In context, I’m stricken by how easy it is to waste money – to turn what should be a $600 million project into a $6 billion one or what should be a $3 billion project into a $30 billion one. Fortunately, it is also not too hard to keep costs under control if everyone involved with the project is in on the program and interested in value engineering. Unfortunately, once promises are made that require a higher budget figure, getting back in line looks difficult, because one then needs to say “no” to a lot of people.

This combination – it’s easy to stay on track, it’s easy to fall aside, it’s hard to get back on track once one falls aside – also helps explain some standard results in the literature about costs. There’s much deeper academic literature about cost overruns than absolute costs; the best-known reference is the body of work of Bent Flyvbjerg about cost overruns (which in his view are not overruns but underestimations – i.e. the real cost was high all along and the planners just lied to get the approval), but the work of Bert van Wee and Chantal Cantarelli on early commitment as a cause of overruns is critical to this as well. In van Wee and Cantarelli, once an extravagant promise is made, such a 300 km/h top speed on Dutch high-speed rail, it’s hard to walk it back even if it turns out to be of limited value compared with its cost. But equally, there are examples of promises made that have no value at all, or sometimes even negative value to the system, and are retained because of their values to specific non-state actors, such as community advocacy, which are incorrectly treated as stakeholders rather than obstacles to be removed.

In our New York report, we include a flashy example of $20 million in waste on the project: the waste rock storage chamber. The issue is that tunnel-boring machines (TBMs) in principle work 24/7; in practice they constantly break down (40% uptime is considered good) and require additional maintenance, but this can’t be predicted in advance or turned into a regular cycle of overnight shutdowns, and therefore, work must be done around the clock either way. This means that the waste rock has to be hauled out around the clock. The agency made a decision to be a good neighbor and not truck out the muck overnight – but because the TBM had to keep operating overnight, the contractor was required to build an overnight storage chamber and haul it all away with a platoon of trucks in the morning rush hour. The extra cost of the chamber and of rush hour trucking was $20 million.

Another $11 million is surplus extraction at a single park, the Marx Brothers Playground. As is common for subway projects around the world, the New York MTA used neighborhood parks to stage station entrances where appropriate. Normally, this is free. However, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation viewed this as a great opportunity to get other people’s money; the MTA had to pay NYC Parks $11 million to use one section of the playground, which the latter agency viewed as a great success in getting money. Neither agency viewed the process as contentious; it just cost money.

But both of these examples are eclipsed by the choice of construction method for the stations. Again in order to be a good neighbor, the MTA decided to mine two of the project’s three stations, instead of opening up Second Avenue to build cut-and-cover digs. Mined stations cost extra, according to people we’ve spoken to at a number of agencies; in New York, the best benchmark is that these two stations cost the same as cut-and-cover 96th Street, a nearly 50% longer dig.

Moreover, the stations were built oversize, for reasons that largely come from planner laziness. The operating side of the subway, New York City Transit, demanded extravagant back-of-the-house function spaces, with each team having its own rooms, rather than the shared rooms typical of older stations or of subway digs in more frugal countries. The spaces were then placed to the front and back of the platform, enlarging the digs; the more conventional place for such spaces is above the platform, where there is room between the deep construction level and the street. Finally, the larger of the two station, 72nd Street, also has crossovers on both sides, enlarging the dig even further; these crossovers were included based on older operating plans, but subsequent updates made them no longer useful, and yet they were not descoped. Each station cost around $700 million, which could have been shrunk by a factor of three, keeping everything else constant.

Why are they like this?

They do not care. If someone says, “Give me an extra,” they do not say, “no.” It’s so easy not to care when it’s a project whose value is so obvious to the public; even with all this cost, the cost per rider for Second Avenue Subway is pretty reasonable. But soon enough, norms emerge in which the appearance of neighborhood impact must always be avoided (but the mined digs still cause comparable disruption at the major streets), the stations must be very large (but passengers still don’t get any roomy spaces), etc. Projects that have less value lose cost-effectiveness, and yet there is no way within the agency to improve them.

Who Through-Running is For

Shaul Picker is working on an FAQ for the benefit of people in the New York area about the concept of commuter rail through-running and what it’s good for. So in addition to contributing on some specific points, I’d like to step back for a moment and go over who the expected users are. This post needs to be thought of as a followup from what I wrote a month ago in which I listed the various travel markets used by modern commuter rail in general, making the point that this is a predominantly urban and inner-suburban mode, in which suburban rush hour commuters to city center are an important but secondary group, even where politically commuter rail is conceived of as For the Suburbs in opposition to the city, as in Munich. My post was about all-day frequency, but the same point can be made about the physical infrastructure for through-running, with some modifications.

The overall travel markets for regional rail

The assumption throughout is that the city region has with a strong center. This can come from a few square kilometers of city center skyscrapers, as is the norm in the United States (for example, in New York, Chicago, or Boston, but not weaker-centered Los Angeles), or from a somewhat wider region with office mid-rises, as is the norm in European cities like Paris, Stockholm, Munich, Zurich, and Berlin. Berlin is polycentric in the sense of having different job centers, including Mitte, City-West at the Zoo, and increasingly Friedrichshain at Warschauer Strasse, but these are all within the Ring, and overall this inner zone dominates citywide destinations. In cities like this, the main travel markets for commuter rail are, in roughly descending order of importance,

  • Urban commuter trips to city center
  • Commuter trips to a near-center destination, which may not be right at the one train station of traditional operations
  • Urban non-work trips, of the same kind as subway ridership
  • Middle-class suburban commutes to city center at traditional mid-20th century work hours, the only market the American commuter rail model serves today
  • Working-class reverse-commutes, not to any visible office site (which would tilt middle-class) but to diffuse retail, care, and service work
  • Suburban work and non-work trips to city center that are not at traditional mid-20th century hours
  • Middle-class reverse-commutes and cross-city commutes

I center urban commuter trips because even in places with extensive suburbanization, commutes are more urban than suburban. Long Island, an unusually job-poor, commuter-oriented suburb, has 2.9 million people as of the 2020 census and, per OnTheMap, 191,202 Manhattan-bound commuters and 193,536 outer borough-bound commuters. Queens has 2.4 million people, 871,253 in-city commuters, 384,223 Manhattan-bound commuters, and 178,062 commuters to boroughs other than itself and Manhattan. The Metro-North suburbs – Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, and Fairfield Counties (New Haven omitted as it’s not really a suburb) – have 2.35 million people and 143,862 Manhattan-bound commuters and 79,821 outer borough-bound commuters. To work regionwide, commuter rail needs to be usable by the largest commute market; it’s urban rail that’s capable of also serving the suburbs without building suburban metro tunnels, rather than predominantly suburban rail.

Through-running

Through-running means that trains run from one side of the region to the other through city center, rather than terminating at a traditional city terminal. Rarely, this means running trains through a city center station that already has through-tracks, like Penn Station or Stockholm Central; usually, this requires building new tunnels to connect different terminals, as it would to get to Grand Central and as it did in the other European comparison cases.

This rearranges the travel markets for commuter rail, but only somewhat. The largest group, urban commuters to city center, shrinks somewhat: terminating trains to some extent already serve it. The qualifiers come from the fact that city center is rarely entirely within walking distance of the terminal; it is in Stockholm, but it’s small and I suspect the reason Stockholm’s monocentric CBD is walking distance from the intercity station is that it opened as a through-station in 1871 already. In Boston, most of the CBD is close to South Station, but much of it isn’t, and little is within walking distance of North Station. In New York, the CBD is large enough that service to multiple destinations is desirable when feasible, for example both East Side and West Side destinations in Midtown and even Lower Manhattan, requiring additional through-running commuter rail tunnels.

What really shines with through-running is urban trips that are not commutes, or are commutes to a near-center destination on the wrong side of the CBD (for example, south of it for commuters from Uptown Manhattan or the Bronx). New York is unusually asymmetric in that there’s much more city east of Manhattan than west of it, where there’s just the urban parts of Hudson County and Newark. But even there, New Jersey-Brooklyn and New Jersey-Queens commutes matter, as do Bronx-Brooklyn commutes.

This image was made for a 2017 article and is as of 2015; numbers as of the eve of corona are different and somewhat higher.

Even then, the urban commutes are significant: there are 55,000 commuters from the Bronx to Manhattan south of 23rd Street. These in-city travel markets are viable by subway today, but are for the most part slow even on the express trains – the A train’s run from Inwood to Jay Street and the 4’s run from Woodlawn to Brooklyn Bridge are both scheduled to take 45 minutes for 22.5 km, an average speed of 30 km/h. And then the New Jersey-to-outer borough commutes are largely unviable by public transportation – they cost double because there’s no fare integration between PATH and the subway and the transfers are onerous and slow, and besides, PATH’s coverage of the urban parts of North Jersey leaves a lot to be desired.

Adapting the city

Berlin is in a way the most S-Bahn-oriented city I know of. It’s polycentric but all centers are within the Ring and close to either the Stadtbahn or (for Potsdamer Platz) the North-South Tunnel. This shouldn’t be surprising – the Stadtbahn has been running since the 1880s, giving the city time to adapt to it, through multiple regime changes, division, and reunification. Even Paris doesn’t quite compare – the RER’s center, Les Halles, is a retail but not job center, and the five-line system only has two CBD stops, the RER A’s Auber and the RER E’s Haussmann-Saint-Lazare.

Can New York become more like Berlin if it builds through-running? The answer is yes. Midtown would remain dominant, and overall the region would become less rather than more polycentric as better commuter rail service encouraged job growth in the Manhattan core. But it’s likely any of the following changes would grow the market for commuter rail to take advantage of through-running over time:

  • Job growth in Lower Manhattan, which has struggled with office vacancy for decades
  • Job growth in non-CBD parts of Manhattan that would become accessible, like Union Square, or even Midtown South around Penn Station, which is lower-rise than the 40s and 50s
  • Job growth in near-center job centers – Downtown Brooklyn may see a revival, and Long Island City is likely to see a larger upswing than it is already seeing if it becomes more accessible from New Jersey and not just the city
  • Residential location adjustment – Brooklyn workers may choose to depend on the system and live in the Bronx or parts of New Jersey with good service instead of moving farther out within Brooklyn or suburbanizing and driving to work
  • Residential transit-oriented development near outlying stations, in urban as well as suburban areas

Berlin Greens Know the Price of Everything and Value of Nothing

While trying to hunt down some numbers on the costs of the three new U5 stations, I found media discourse in Berlin about the U-Bahn expansion plan that was, in effect, greenwashing austerity. This is related to the general hostility of German urbanists and much of the Green Party (including the Berlin branch) to infrastructure at any scale larger than that of a bike lane. But the specific mechanism they use – trying to estimate the carbon budget – is a generally interesting case of knowing the costs more certainly than the benefits, which leads to austerity. The underlying issue is that mode shift is hard to estimate accurately at the level of the single piece of infrastructure, and therefore benefit-cost analyses that downplay ridership as a benefit and only look at mode shift lead to underbuilding of public transport infrastructure.

The current program in Berlin

In the last generation, Berlin has barely expanded its rapid transit network. The priority in the 1990s was to restore sections that had been cut by the Berlin Wall, such as the Ringbahn, which was finally restored with circular service in 2006. U-Bahn expansion, not including restoration of pre-Wall services, included two extensions of U8, one north to Wittenau that had begun in the 1980s and a one-stop southward extension of U8 to Hermannstrasse, which project had begun in the 1920s but been halted during the Depression. Since then, the only fully new extension have been a one-stop extension of U2 to Pankow, and the six-stop extension of U5 west from Alexanderplatz to Hauptbahnhof.

However, plans for much more expansive construction continue. Berlin was one of the world’s largest and richest cities before the war, and had big plans for further growth, which were not realized due to the war and division; in that sense, I believe it is globally only second to New York in the size of its historic unrealized expansion program. The city will never regain its relative wealth or size, not in a world of multiple hypercities, but it is growing, and as a result, it’s dusting off some of these plans.

U8 is the north-south line from Wittenau to the southern leg of the Ring – the intersection station, Hermannstrasse, is unlabeled.

Most of the lines depicted in red on the map are not at all on the city’s list of projects to be built by the 2030s. Unfortunately, the most important line measured by projected cost per rider, the two-stop extension of U8 north (due east) to Märkisches Viertel, is constantly deprioritized. The likeliest lines to be built per current politicking are the extensions of U7 in both directions, southeast ti the airport (beyond the edge of the map) and west from Spandau to Staaken, and the one-stop extension of U3 southwest to Mexikoplatz to connect with the S-Bahn. An extension to the former grounds of Tegel is also considered, most likely a U6 branch depicted as a lower-priority dashed yellow line on the map rather than the U5 extension the map depicts in red.

The carbon critique

Two days after the U5 extension opened two years ago, a report dropped that accused the proposed program of climate catastrophe. The argument: the embedded concrete emissions of subway construction are high, and the payback time on those from mode shift is more than 100 years.

The numbers in the study are, as follows: each kilometer of construction emits 98,800 tons of CO2, which is 0.5% of city emissions (that is, 5.38 t/person, cf. the German average of about 9.15 in 2021). It’s expected that through mode shift, each subway kilometer saves 714 t-CO2 in annual emissions through mode shift, which is assumed to be 20% of ridership, for a payback time of 139 years.

And this argument is, frankly, garbage. The scale of the difference in emissions between cities with and without extensive subway systems is too large for this to be possibly true. The U-Bahn is 155 km long; if the 714 t/km number holds, then in a no U-Bahn counterfactual, Berlin’s annual greenhouse gas emissions grow by 0.56%, which is just ridiculous. We know what cities with no or minimal rapid transit systems look like, and they’re not 0.56% worse than comparanda with extensive rapid transit – compare any American city to New York, for one. Or look again at the comparison of Berlin to the German average: Berlin has 327 cars per 1,000 people, whereas Germany-wide it’s 580 and that’s with extensive rapid transit systems in most major cities bringing down the average from the subway-free counterfactual of the US or even Poland.

The actual long-term effect of additional public transport ridership on mode shift and demotorization has to be much more than 20%, then. It may well be more than 100%: the population density that the transit city supports also increases the walking commute modal split as some people move near work, and even drivers drive shorter distances due to the higher density. This, again, is not hard to see at the level of sanity checks: Europeans drive considerably less than Americans not just per capita but also per car, and in the United States, people in New York State drive somewhat shorter distance per car than Americans elsewhere (I can’t find city data).

The measurement problem

It’s easy to measure the embedded concrete of infrastructure construction: there are standardized itemized numbers for each element and those can be added up. It’s much harder to measure the carbon savings from the existence of a better urban rail system. Ridership can be estimated fairly accurately, but long-term mode shift can’t. This is where rules of thumb like 20% can look truthy, even if they fail any sanity check.

But it’s not correct to take any difficult to estimate number and set it to zero. In fact, there are visible mode shift effects from a large mass transit system. The difficulty is with attributing specific shifts to specific capital investments. Much of the effect of mode shift comes from the ability of an urban rail system to contribute to the rise of a strong city center, which can be high-rise (as in New York), mid-rise (as in Munich or Paris), or a mix (as in Berlin). Once the city center anchored by the system exists, jobs are less likely to suburbanize to auto-oriented office parks, and people are likelier to work in city center and take the train. Social events will likewise tend to pick central locations to be convenient for everyone, and denser neighborhoods make it easier to walk or bike to such events, and this way, car-free travel is possible even for non-work trips.

This, again, can be readily verified by looking at car ownership rates, modal splits (for example, here is Berlin’s), transit-oriented development, and so on, but it’s difficult to causally attribute it to a specific piece of infrastructure. Nonetheless, ignoring this effect is irresponsible: it means the carbon benefit-cost analysis, and perhaps the economic case as well, knows the cost of everything and the value of little, which makes investment look worse than it is.

I suspect that this is what’s behind the low willingness to invest in urban rail here. The benefit-cost analyses can leave too much value on the table, contributing to public transport austerity. When writing the Sweden report, I was stricken by how the benefit-cost analyses for both Citybanan and Nya Tunnelbanan were negative, when the ridership projections were good relative to costs. Actual ridership growth on the Stockholm commuter trains from before the opening of Citybanan to 2019 was enough to bring cot per new daily trip down to about $29,000 in 2021 PPP dollars, and Nya Tunnelbanan’s daily ridership projection of 170,000 means around $23,000/rider. The original construction of the T-bana cost $2,700/rider in 2021 dollars, in a Sweden that was only about 40% as rich as it is today, and has a retrospective benefit-cost ratio of between 6 and 8.5, depending on whether broader agglomeration benefit are included – and these benefits are economic (for example, time savings, or economic productivity from agglomeration) scale linearly with income.

At least Sweden did agree to build both lines, recognizing the benefit-cost analysis missed some benefits. Berlin instead remains in austerity mode. The lines under discussion right now are projected between 13,160€ and 27,200€ per weekday trip (and Märkisches Viertel is, again, the cheapest). The higher end, represented by the U6 branch to Tegel, is close to the frontier of what a country as rich as Germany should build; M18 in Paris is projected to be more than this, but area public transport advocates dislike it and treat it as a giveaway to rich suburbs. And yet, the U6 branch looks unlikely to be built right now. When the cost per rider of what is left is this low, what this means is that the city needs to build more infrastructure, or else it’s leaving value on the table.