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Job Sprawl as Deurbanization

A few years ago, Aaron Renn was writing, I think about the General Electric headquarters’ move from suburban New York to Downtown Boston in 2016, that in the future, city center jobs would go to high-value industries like corporate HQs and professional services, and then lower-end stuff like call centers would go in suburban office parks. At the time I didn’t understand the full meaning of this – I was still thinking of employment in a narrow city center of a few blocks rather than a broader region, like the 100 km^2 zone I use to compare the US with Canada and France because that’s the most granular data I have in the latter two countries. But in retrospect, Aaron was getting at a dangerous trend in which job markets deurbanize. This is not a new trend – office park sprawl goes back to the 1970s, and industrial sprawl even earlier – and to some extent it’s less about deurbanization and more about the urban job market reaching maximum size. But whatever the history of it, it’s a serious threat to economic performance – and the solution to it requires better public transportation.

Cities as job markets

I’ve written before about production theory. The only thing I have to add on the theory side is that since I wrote that post, I was at a talk that Alain Bertaud gave at Marron, about urbanization. The main topic of the talk was about urban growth and sprawl in the developing world, but at the beginning of the presentation, he gave some remarks about cities and corona. Zoom meetings like the one we had, he warned, were fine, but cities are fundamentally job markets that succeed through spontaneous interaction, and this spontaneity does not exist with remote work. This is to a large extent the new urban geography thesis of Paul Krugman or the work of Ed Glaeser – cities exist as places of production first, and this production requires close proximity.

Now, close proximity depends on technology. In a city with the transport technology of London circa 1800, close proximity means the scope of the City of London, and even 5 km is uncomfortably far. In a city with cars and highways, the distance is much greater – but it is not the same as commute distance. A half-hour drive is not spontaneous. When I asked American friends and coworkers about their productivity through the spring corona lockdowns, a Boston lawyer told me that lawyers wouldn’t even travel midday for clients for 20-30 minutes, since their time was too valuable – they’d schedule conference calls.

This does not mean that the entire work market has to be within such a short distance. It certainly helps, but different industries can cluster in different parts of the city. But there is a maximum distance within which the city is recognizably a single job market.

Aaron Renn’s bifurcation

Aaron talks about bifurcation a lot, between winners and losers. He relates the move of large corporate HQs to city centers to this bifurcation: city centers win by having higher-value added, higher-paying jobs, everyone else gets saddled with lower-end jobs. Moreover, these lower-end jobs are commodities – a call center can be anywhere – and therefore they compete on price and not quality, frustrating the attempt of any region on the margins of the US to climb up the value chain.

That said, even the sort of job sprawl of the 1970s, spearheaded by big companies’ move out of city centers to rich suburbs like GE to Fairfield and IBM to Armonk, represents the same threat to urban productivity. That was driven by snobbishness – the elite suburbanized, and then dragged jobs outside the city with it, for example GE did partly on spurious grounds of resilience in face of nuclear war destroying city centers. Today, the city gains higher-end jobs at the expense of the suburbs, the opposite of the situation in the 1970s. But the same situation of jobs outside one major core persists.

Is this polycentricity?

No. It’s become fashionable to speak of polycentric cities as the next evolution, to decongest old cores. But doing so requires the urban geography to have centers. I pointed out previously that Los Angeles may claim to be polycentric but is just weak-centered – the secondary centers have a few tens of thousands of jobs each at most. This is not like the big city centers one finds in Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe, or even in the Rhine-Ruhr or Randstad.

Keihanshin, the Rhine-Ruhr, and Randstad are all agglomerations of historic cities. It is possible to also form polycentric regions out of new development – for example, Yokohama was founded as a 19th-century treaty port and then grew as a Tokyo suburb. Both New York and Paris have moved their central business districts by a few kilometers gradually, New York from Lower Manhattan to Midtown and Paris from Les Halles to around the Opera; both also have near-center business centers, like Long Island City or La Défense. Even then there’s likely to be some efficiency loss in decentralizing city center jobs this way, but it’s still easier to shuttle between Times Square and World Trade Center than between either and New Brunswick.

The public transit solution

In the 1970s, the abandonment of city centers was motivated by a desire to escape their poverty and a belief that the suburbs were the future. Urban poverty still exists but inner-urban wealth is considerable and increasing, and the belief that the suburbs were the future turned out to be incorrect – one cannot be a suburb of nowhere.

The model of suburbanization that can be sustained is one built from the late 19th century to about the 1950s and early 60s: jobs stay in the city, people go wherever.

Doing so requires three things: offices, dwellings, and a way of getting between them.

Offices mean commercial upzoning – some American cities are good about it, but the ones with the most demand, like New York, aren’t. In general there’s little appetite for commercializing near-center neighborhoods in the US, whereas Europe is looser about it and therefore new firms can sprout a few subway stops outside the primary center, for example Spotify two stops outside T-Centralen. Residences likewise require upzoning, especially for mid- and high-rise apartment buildings near subway stations where they exist and have capacity.

But in many cases, it’s required to also build up public transportation. Big central business districts feature hundreds of thousands of people converging on a small area at the peak, and the biggest go up into the millions. The highest-capacity form of transportation is required, which is rapid transit, never cars or surface transit.

Rapid transit and city centers are symbiotic, now as in 1910. An expansive rapid transit system, with high service quality, is required to serve city centers from multiple directions; and city centers are required to give people something to take the trains to, or else they’ll just drive everywhere and only take the train to the sports stadium or the airport.

And ultimately, city centers are required for economic efficiency, because of the importance of proximity for spontaneous economic and social interactions. Rapid transit also benefits from high efficiency – it’s very cheap to operate compared with the cost of car ownership. The alternative is a kind of deurbanization, in which people may live at high density relative to travel speeds but don’t form large clusters enabling the highest productivity.

Cities With Underbuilt Public Transportation

There’s a number of very big cities in middle-income countries that don’t really have strong public transport, and I’d like to go over some of their features. The archetype for this urban form is Bangkok, but I think this is pretty common in much of Latin America too, it’s ubiquitous in Southeast Asia except in Singapore, and Cairo has it too and I suspect most of the rest of Africa will as it moves into the middle income category. I’m fairly certain in what I am saying as far as Southeast Asia is concerned, following Paul Barter’s thesis; in Turkey I am less certain, and in Latin America and Egypt I am speculating. Of note, while those regions have some shared features, one feature that is not shared is cost: while Southeast Asian construction costs are very high, Latin American ones are not, and Turkish ones are very low. Of course low costs enable Turkey to build more subways, but it’s only doing so right now as it’s converging to the high income category.

Density with cars

Bangkok is a dense city. It is not to be confused with Hong Kong, but it is not to be confused with Atlanta either. That said, the density has not much structure, similar to the situation of Los Angeles – there is no single central business district, just a big central area with sub-districts with high-rise office and residential towers. Private vehicle ownership is high, and as of 2014, the modal split (source, PDF-p. 44) was 58% car and motorcycle (trending up), 37% bus (falling rapidly), 5% metro (trending up).

My understanding is that this pattern is also how cities like Manila, Lahore, Karachi, and Jakarta look, and even São Paulo, which has a decent-size metro system with pretty high ridership but it’s still undersized for how big the region is. Dhaka (which is low- rather than middle-income) and Cairo have especially high residential densities.

Slow metro expansion

All of these cities are building urban rail, but not particularly quickly (except Istanbul, where costs are unusually low). Bangkok is adding a few lines, but even under current plans will keep having an underbuilt system. The same is true for plans in Manila, Jakarta, Lahore, Cairo, and low-income Dhaka. In most of Latin America, too, expansion is pretty slow – the only city where I’ve seen really fast expansion recently relative to size is Santiago, which is both approximately the richest in the region and also has below-average construction costs.

The slow construction is an important feature. Some cities build quickly and can transition toward reliance on public transport. For example, Taipei only began building its MRT network in the 1990s, long after the most similar capital city to it in overall development history, Seoul, had had a multi-line network. It was a city of motorcycles in the 1990s and so were the other Taiwanese cities, but through fast (albeit expensive) construction has become a transit city, developing higher-intensity central business districts at key MRT junctions and turning its older unstructured density into a structured one.

I am also excluding India from this analysis for the same reason. Indian cities are making enormous mistakes in metro construction, chief of which are poor integration with suburban rail and high construction costs, but they are building, and even keep a lid on costs by building mostly elevated systems. The Delhi Metro ridership is flagging, but it’s a big system, about the same size as New York or London, and it’s expanding quickly; the rest of India is still only catching up, but the plan for Mumbai in 10 years is extensive. Tehran is in the same basket as Indian megacities, judging at least by its healthy pace of metro expansion.

Car domination

Even when most people do not own cars or even motorcycles, as was the case in Thailand until recently, the government prefers cars to public transport. This comes from the fact that unless the public transport is excellent, or only serves where the middle class works, richer people will use cars more than poorer people, and tilt government policy to their preferences. Lagos, for example, was seriously considering banning its jitneys in 2017, called danfos, even as car ownership was 150 per 1,000 people, and has periodically considered such a ban a few times since.

This domination exists even in very poor cities. Years ago, a cousin who was visiting Kampala described its traffic to me as a brutal pecking order in which cars fear trucks and pedestrians fear cars. If 5% of the population owns cars, that’s still the richest 5%, and they get to dictate the rules.

Is it governance?

Something most of those cities I’m describing have in common is a form of government called anocracy. It’s defined as an intermediate form between democracy and autocracy, but really should mean a system in which there is unclear authority – perhaps there are elections but they are not truly free, perhaps there is a deep state, perhaps there is a dictator but the dictator’s power is circumscribed by powerful magnates and norms that do permit some political criticism. Anocracies tend not to have very strong states – a strong state under a dictator rapidly becomes a stable autocracy, for example Russia’s transition to autocracy in the last 20 years under Putin, whereas a strong democratic state evolves enduring norms and institutions of civil liberties and pluralism, like Taiwan and South Korea starting in the 1990s.

I suspect there may be a connection here: anocracies do not really have the state planning ability to restrain local magnates, like these top 10-20% of the population who are drivers. They can build roads, because it takes much less state capacity to incrementally expand roads, often with local sponsorship, than to plan a multi-line metro system, let alone do the clever multimodal design integration between infrastructure and timetabling that Switzerland does.

This is not a perfect correlation. Egypt is autocratic and not anocratic, although its recent military coup suggests it may not be as stable as autocracies with full civilian control of the military like Russia and China. Vietnam appears even more stable, and showcased high state capacity through excellent management of the corona crisis (though coup-ridden Thailand has had an excellent response as well). Moreover, there is no correlation between anocracy and construction costs – even putting my finger on the scales and classifying Turkey as not-anocratic, the correlation between a dummy that takes the value 1 at what I think are non-Turkish anocracies and construction costs is 0.06.

That said, there may be something to the fact that we see rapid expansion of metro systems in a developing country with relatively strong democratic institutions, i.e. India, and saw such expansion in turn-of-the-millennium Taiwan, and likewise we also see rapid expansion in relatively stable autocracies like Iran and China, but we see much less of it in countries without strong governments. And Moscow’s fast metro growth in Russia’s anocratic phase in the 1990s and early 2000s can be excused as having some strong-state planning institutions, inherited from the USSR. Egypt in contrast never had these institutions, with its imperfect state control of the military.

MAGA Trains

American railfans are full of nostalgia for a past era when American trains were great. So much of the discussion among industry insiders, railfans, and advocates is about how to make American railroads great again, how to return to the mid-20th century era of American domination. This is not correct history: while American railroads were in fact in a pretty good position from the 1920s to the 50s, they were not competitive with mass motorization and air travel, and trying to imitate what they were like then has no chance of competing with cars or planes. The story of American railroads has to be understood not as decline but as stagnation: operations, technology, and management stagnated, and this is what led to ridership decline. Instead of indulging in a MAGA fantasy about past greatness, it is important for the United States to implement all the innovations of the last half century that it has missed out on, innovations coming from East Asia and Western Europe.

Organization

American railroads were private until Amtrak took over intercity operations and states took over commuter rail operations, which happened well after the terminal decline in ridership. There was intense competition between rival companies, at times leading to physical violence. There was no coordination of operations between different railroads, no coordination with municipal public transportation systems, no attempt at seamless passenger experience. What was the point? This system evolved in the early 20th century, when there was no competition from other modes, only from other railroads.

Over time, most of the rest of the developed world has learned to coordinate different modes of public transportation better, to compete with cars. This usually occurred under nationalized mainline rail companies, but even when companies remained separate, as with the division between municipal subways (e.g. the Berlin U-Bahn) and national railways (e.g. the S-Bahn), or with the separate BLS system around and south of Bern, there has been integration. There is fare and schedule coordination in German cities across rail and bus operators, and even better coordination in the Netherlands and Switzerland.

The US remains fixated on competition, and thus there is no fare integration, but rather relationships between different operators are adversarial. In Chicago, the mayor opposes integration between the municipal L and the regionally-owned Metra commuter rail system, since the city does not own Metra. Every time Amtrak has to share territory with a commuter railroad, one side is screwing the other out of something, whether it’s Amtrak overcharging on electricity or Metro-North arbitrarily slowing Amtrak down. In Boston, there is no integration between city-focused MBTA service, which includes commuter rail, and buses in outlying cities, called RTAs (regional transit authorities); the MBTA is simply uninterested in matching fares or schedules, and is not even integrating its own buses with its commuter trains.

Planning coordination

Switzerland has higher rail usage than every place I know of once one controls for city size. Zurich’s modal split may not be as favorable to public transportation as Paris or London’s, but is a world better than that of any French or British city of similar size. Switzerland got to this point through a stingy political process in which planners had to stretch every franc, substituting organizational capacity for money. Thus, construction in the 1990s used the following principles of value engineering:

  • Infrastructure, rolling stock, and the timetable should be planned together (the magic triangle), since decisions on each affect the other two.
  • Trains should run as fast as necessary for transfer windows, overtakes, meets on single track, etc. Infrastructure should likewise be only as expansive as necessary – if the timetable does not have trains on a given single track meeting, this segment does not need to be doubled.
  • Trains should have timed transfers at major cities, to enable everywhere-to-everywhere travel. Connecting buses should be timed with the regional trains at major suburban nodes.
  • Electronics before concrete: it’s cheaper to resignal a line to have short headways and high speeds than to add tracks and tunnels.

These principles do not exist in the United States. Worse, too many American activists, even ones who are pretty good on related issues, do not believe it’s even possible to implement them. “This isn’t Switzerland or Japan” is a common refrain. There’s growing understanding among American cycling advocates that 50 years ago the Netherlands wasn’t as bike-friendly as it is today; there sadly isn’t such understanding regarding the state of rail coordination in Switzerland until about the 1990s.

While Switzerland manages to build its Knot System at low cost, leading to sharp increases in rail usage in the 2000s and 2010s, Americans are unable to do the same. Activists propose massive spending, which the political system is unwilling to fund. Nor is the political system interested in adapting low-cost solutions for infrastructure coordination, since the sort of apparatchiks who governors like appointing to head state agencies can’t implement them; we all know what happened last time a foreigner got appointed to a major position and succeeded too much. The way forward is right there, and the entire American political system, from every governor down to most activists, either is ignorant of it or explicitly rejects it.

Technology

Amtrak runs slower than it used to on most lines. Trip times on the Northeast Corridor south of New York are if anything slightly slower than they were in the 1970s in the early days of the Metroliner. The corridor and long-distance service outside the Northeast are considerably slower. For example, the Super Chief took 39:45 between Chicago and Los Angeles, whereas its current Amtrak version, the Southwest Chief, takes 43:10. At shorter range, the Chicago-St. Louis trains take 5:20 today, compared with 4:55 in the 1930s. This has led too many Americans to assume that there has been technological regression and that the main focus should be on restoring midcentury service levels rather than on moving forward.

In reality, high speeds in the middle of the 20th century came from the facts that express passenger trains were highly profitable and used by important people and so had priority over all other traffic, and that superelevation was set high for these trains; both of these aspects collapsed as riders and high-value shippers decided driving and flying were better than taking 5-hour train rides, so the profit center shifted to low-value freight. Today, getting high passenger ridership is plausible at high-speed rail speeds, but that requires getting Chicago-St. Louis down to 2 hours, not 5 hours, and having excellent connections to local and regional public transportation at both ends.

Nor was midcentury rolling stock good by current standards. Electric locomotives in Europe weigh around 90 tons. American ones weigh a little more, still in compliance with superseded FRA regulations enacted just after WW2. But the locomotives from just before these regulations weighed far more: the Pennsylvania Railroad’s GG1 weighed 215 metric tons. Europe has achieved weight reductions over generations of innovation since, and Japan has achieved even more impressive reductions; 215 tons would get you 2/3 of the way to a 10-car EMU set in Tokyo.

Worse, even in the middle of the 20th century, the US was no longer at the technological forefront of rail service. The civil service formation following the German Revolution brought forth a new railway law and new technology, such as the tangential switch, since adopted throughout Continental Europe; the US mostly sticks with secant switches built to late-19th century specs. In the 1950s the differences between German and American rail technology weren’t huge, but they were there. Since then they’ve gradually widened – in the 1960s Germany came up with LZB signaling, while the US was at best stuck on 1930s signaling, federal regulations on the matter leading to lower top speeds than to the adoption of automatic train protection.

There seems to be general ignorance of the advances that the US has not been part of. Rail managers ask questions like “does Europe have positive train control?” (yes, ETCS is already a second-generation system, we just call this automatic train protection instead of positive train control) or say “Europe doesn’t have the ADA” (accessibility laws here are comparable to American ones and overall the public transportation networks here are on average more accessible). In technology as in organization, the MAGA mentality for trains refuses to admit that there are innovations abroad to learn from.

The way forward: imitate, don’t innovate

The United States can innovate in public transportation, but only if it imitates better countries first. It needs to learn what works in Japan, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, South Korea, Spain, Italy, Singapore, Belgium, Norway, Taiwan, Finland, Austria. It needs to learn how to plan around cooperation between different agencies and operators, how to integrate infrastructure and technology, how to use 21st-century engineering.

There are great places where such imitation could work. I work a lot on Boston-related issues at TransitMatters; New England has high population density, a wealthy and growing urban core in Boston, ample legacy rail infrastructure, and town centers that work more like Central European suburban sprawl (albeit at lower density) than like structureless Californian or Texan sprawl. But it can’t move forward without rejecting MAGA fantasies and replacing them with a program of learning from what works here and in Japan. There are so many projects under discussion of limited or no value, and some even with negative value, like anything that interacts with the hobby freight railroad Pan Am.

Instead, the tendency in the United States is to do anything to avoid learning from outside North America. Plans for intercity rail improvement outside the Northeast and California are steeped with MAGA language about restoring midcentury rail. Plans in New York spend far too much time on midcentury expansion plans and far too little on understanding cost explosion factors dating to the 1920s. Regional rail plans vaguely nod to European S-Bahns, but are generally filtered through several layers, mainly Philadelphia’s implementation. Anything that touches freight invites kludges that European planners no longer use for cost or maintenance reasons.

This tendency has to end. Meiji Japan didn’t join the first world by closing itself to foreign inventions – quite the opposite. The US needs to understand that the path to a future with better American transportation lies not in America’s past, but in Europe and East Asia’s present. The history isn’t one of American decline and renaissance through rediscovery of ancient learning, but one of American insularity and stagnation, to which the solution is to adapt technologies that work elsewhere.

Why Do Public Transportation Commuters Outearn Car Commuters in Some American Cities?

More than a year ago, I compared Los Angeles with a number of other large American cities. I brought up issues of public transportation ridership, city center job concentration, and income differences, as in the Los Angeles region people who commute by public transit average barely half the earnings of people who drive alone. One of the things noted in that post is that in the secondary transit cities of the United States – Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, Boston – people who commute by transit outearn people who do not. I didn’t delve deeply into that issue in that post, but in this post I will, because it showcases a serious problem in all four cities. New York lacks this pattern as of 2017 – solo drivers outearn transit commuters, though by a small and declining margin, so by 2020 it may join the secondary cities.

The reason this is a problem is that in none of these cities is public transportation so good as to be a luxury good. Rather, the issue is that public transportation is mostly an option for people traveling to city center, where incomes are higher. Crosstown public transportation options are weak – there is rarely direct rapid transit, and transfer trips are inconvenient. There may also be a peak vs. off-peak artifact, but I have no data confirming that richer Americans are likely to commute at rush hour, when transit frequencies are higher and congestion is worse.

Income by mode of transportation to work

From the 2017 American Community Survey, we can grab data about median earnings for workers by their main mode of travel to work:

Metro area Workers PT mode share PT income Solo driver income Median income
New York 9,821,147 31% $44,978 $48,812 $45,150
Chicago 4,653,591 12.2% $46,796 $41,817 $41,232
Philadelphia 3,320,895 9% $37,213 $46,638 $43,472
Washington 2,915,178 12.8% $60,420 $53,390 $52,350
Boston 2,572,454 13.4% $50,593 $51,295 $50,201
San Francisco 2,371,803 17.4% $62,500 $54,923 $54,105
Seattle 1,997,545 10.1% $51,635 $50,183 $41,190

Other modes exist too, most notably carpooling, which has lower median incomes than both solo driving and public transport in all of the cities in the table. Also of note, public transportation user income is more polarized – even though the median is comparable to and usually even higher than the overall median, the poverty rate for transit commuters is higher than the general rate everywhere except in San Francisco, where the poverty rates are within the margin of error.

Why?

Car ownership increases with income. In Singapore, the highest-transit use city for which I have this data, the overall mode share is 58.7%, which splits as low 60s for roughly the bottom half of the income distribution and then less in higher categories, bottoming at 43% in the highest income category, covering the top 15%. It’s really weird that in American cities with public transportation we see the opposite pattern – transit usage is higher in higher income brackets.

The explanation has to be about where people work. OnTheMap doesn’t have great income data, but we can still compare the proportion of workers in the highest income category, which is $3,333/month. I’ve used different definitions of city center in different blog posts: the one about Los Angeles used a restricted one, just a few blocks by a few blocks, covering a single-digit percent of the region, whereas more recently I’ve made 100 km^2 blobs, covering one third of workers in some cities, to maintain comparability with Paris. For this post’s purposes, I’m going to use a definition around the center of a radial transit network (as in the LA post), as well as a looser definition corresponding to something like city limits; in Washington and New York the restricted definitions are somewhat looser to take into account the spread of the subway network just outside city center, but in Chicago and San Francisco the LA post’s definition is apt.

Metro area Workers $40,000+ City Workers $40,000+ CBD Workers $40,000+
New York 9,408,498 52.1% City proper 4,367,781 55.4% South of 60th 2,098,740 65.7%
Chicago 4,604,044 47.9% City proper 1,373,969 53.2% LA post 401,169 71.7%
Washington 2,830,896 55% DC, Arl. 714,075 63% Mass., 395, water 270,299 72.2%
Philadelphia 2,853,154 49.5% City proper 684,869 50.9% Center City 240,665 61.9%
Boston 2,682,278 56.3% Boston, Cam. 787,287 66% Arl., Stuart, water 228,300 72.1%
San Francisco 2,400,290 59.2% City proper 723,907 65.5% LA post 231,042 76.8%
Seattle 1,919,635 57.8% City proper 585,480 64.1% Jackson, I-5, Denny 180,482 71.2%

In all cities, the proportion of workers earning $40,000 a year or more is higher in the city than in the rest of the region, and higher yet in the CBD. Moreover, this effect is weakest in Philadelphia, which may explain why there, unlike in the other secondary transit cities, drivers still significantly outearn transit commuters.

Crosstown public transportation

In all the cities studied in this post, public transportation carries a high share of trips into city center, especially at rush hour. This props up its usage numbers among the middle class, especially the upper middle class – professional jobs cluster in city center.

The problem is that not everyone works in city center. Midtown and Downtown Manhattan are 22% of metro New York employment going by OnTheMap’s LEHD numbers, and even that is a pretty hefty area. In smaller cities, there are necessarily fewer rapid transit lines and a smaller zone of intersection in which service is good from all directions. Improving transit service to destinations outside city center, and thus for working- and lower middle-class jobs, requires more than just disjointed center-to-bedroom-communities rail lines.

One way to have vigorous crosstown public transportation is with buses. However, buses are slow, almost by definition slower than cars. Chicago has a pretty good bus grid, but it still has the pattern of transit commuters outearning solo drivers. And that’s in the city proper – in the suburbs it’s not really possible to have a bus grid, because distances are too great and street networks are usually too broken.

Instead, a better solution has to involve diagonal trips on rapid transit, with a transfer in or near city center, and trips that stay outside city center. A good recipe includes all of the following:

  • Easy downtown and near-downtown transfers, with no missed connections and a minimum of walking. San Francisco deserves especial demerits for forcing people to transfer between Muni and BART via the street, crossing two sets of faregates.
  • High frequency on commuter rail in both directions, with timed bus shuttle connections from stations to office parks too far to walk. In some cases, such buses can do double duty ferrying suburban commuters to those stations for trains to city center.
  • Complete fare integration, with free transfers and mode-neutral fares, to avoid forcing low-income commuters onto slow buses while richer ones get faster trains.
  • Through-running when feasible, since a worker in one neighborhood may end up finding a job at a suburban job site on another line, even the opposite side of the city, e.g. between Brooklyn or Queens and Newark.

Income differences and universal design

The principles for good crosstown service are largely class-neutral. They have to be: the differences between where rich and poor people work in a deindustrialized country are real but not enormous, enough to be noticeable but not enough to play to populist clichés of two Americas. Nonetheless, better public transportation service to non-CBD destinations is especially useful for the working class, because the working class is less likely to work in the CBD than the middle class.

The relevance of class here is twofold. First, every demographic pattern in transportation mode choice has a reason, and provides hints as to how different people travel. This is the case regardless of whether the socially more dominant group commutes by public transport more (the rich, the educated) or less (the native-born, men, whites in Western countries). It remains the case even when there’s no obvious social dominance hierarchy between the groups we compare, for examples professionals versus small business owners.

And second, the people who manage public transportation agencies are drawn from one social class. They are middle-class managers working in city center at traditional peak hours. They may not be aware of how other people commute, regardless of whether those other people are retail workers working two part-time jobs in two different neighborhoods or tech workers who work 12-8. They provide the service that people who are like them can use, and neglect other use cases.

Costs are Rising, US Highway Edition

There’s a preliminary paper circulating at Brookings, looking at American infrastructure construction costs. Authors Leah Brooks and Zachary Liscow have tabulated the real costs of the American Interstate program over time, from the 1950s to the 1990s, and find that they increased from $5.3 million per km ($8.5 million/mile) in 1958-63 to $21.3 million/km ($34.25 million/mile) in 1988-93.

Moreover, they have some controls for road difficulty, expressed in slope (though not, I believe, in tunnel quantity), urbanization, and river and wetland crossings, and those barely change the overall picture. They go over several different explanations for high American infrastructure costs, and find most of them either directly contradicted by their results or at best not affirmed by them.

I urge readers to read the entire paper. It is long, but very readable, and it is easy to skip the statistical model and go over the narrative, including favored and disfavored explanations, and then poke at the graphs and tables. I’m going to summarize some of their explanations, but add some important context from cross-national comparisons.

Why costs (probably) aren’t rising

The authors identify four hypotheses they rule out using their research, in pp. 19-23 (they say five but only list four):

Difficult segments postponed and built later – they have some controls for that, as mentioned above. The controls are imperfect, but the maps depicted on pp. 59-61 for the Interstate network’s buildout by decade don’t scream “the segments built after 1970 were harder than those built before.”

Time-invariant features – these include cross-national comparisons, since the United States has always been the United States. I will discuss this in a subsequent section, because two separate refinements of what I’ve seen from cross-national comparisons deal with this issue specifically.

Input prices – this is by far the longest explanation the authors deal with. Anecdotally, it’s the one I hear most often: “labor costs are rising.” What the authors show is that labor and materials costs did not rise much over the period in question. Construction worker wages actually peaked in real terms in 1973 and fell thereafter; materials costs jumped in the aftermath of the oil crisis, but came down later, and were back at pre-crisis levels by the 1990s (p. 48). Land costs did rise and have kept rising, but over the entire period, only 17.7% of total costs were preliminary engineering and land acquisition, and the rest were in construction.

Higher standards – the authors looked and did not find changes in standards leading to more extensive construction.

There are several more incorrect explanations that jump from the data. I was surprised to learn that throughout the 1970s and 80s, completion time remained mostly steady at 3-3.5 years of construction; thus, delays in construction cannot be the explanation, though delays in planning and engineering can be.

The authors themselves list additional explanations that have limited evidence but are not ruled out completely from their data, on pp. 32-35. Construction industry market concentration may be an explanation, but so far data is lacking. Government fragmentation, measured in total number of governments per capita, has no effect on the result (for example, California has high costs and not much municipal fragmentation); I’ll add that Europe’s most municipally fragmented country, France, has middle-of-the-road subway construction costs. State government quality, as measured by corruption convictions, has little explanatory power – and as with fragmentation, I’ll add that in Europe we do not see higher costs in states with well-known problems of clientelism and corruption, like Italy and Greece. Work rules requiring the addition of more workers may be relevant, but unionization and left-right politics are not explanatory variables (and this also holds for rail costs).

Economies of scale look irrelevant as well: there is negative correlation between costs and construction, but the causality could well go the other way. Finally, soft budget constraints are unlikely, as the federal government can punish states that mismanage projects and take more money; it’s possible that as the Interstate program ended states felt less constrained because there wouldn’t be money in the future either way (“end of repeated game”), but the fact that costs keep rising in subway construction suggests this is not relevant.

Favored explanations

Two explanations stand out to the authors. The first is that nearly the entire increase in construction costs over time can be attributed to a mix of higher real incomes and higher house prices. While the construction workers themselves did not see their wages rise in the late 1970s and 80s, a richer population may demand more highways, no matter the cost.

Higher real estate costs could have an impact disproportionate to the share of land acquisition in overall costs by forcing various mitigations that the paper does not control for, such as sound walls and tunnels, or by sending roads over higher-cost alignments.

The second explanation is what the authors call citizen voice. Regulatory changes in the 1960s and early 70s gave organized local groups greater ability to raise objections to planning and force changes, reducing community impact at the cost of higher monetary expenditures. The authors give an example from suburban Detroit, where a highway segment that disrupted a Jewish community center took 25 years to be built as a result of litigation.

The authors don’t say this explicitly, but the two explanations interact well together. The citizen voice is very locally NIMBY but is also pro-road outside a handful of rich urban neighborhoods. Higher incomes may have led to public acceptance of higher costs, but local empowerment through citizen voice is the mechanism through which people can express their preference for higher costs over construction inconvenience.

How time-invariant are national features, anyway?

The authors contrast two proposed explanations – higher incomes and property values, and stronger NIMBY empowerment – with what they call time-invariant features, which could not explain an increase in costs. But can’t they?

I spent years plugging the theory that common law correlates with high subway construction costs, and it does in the developed world, but upon looking at more data from developing countries as well as from before the last 25 years, I stopped believing in that theory. It started when I saw a datapoint for Indonesia, a civil-law country, but even then it took me a few more years to look systematically enough, not to mention to wait for more civil-law third-world countries to build subways, like Vietnam. By last year I was giving counterexamples, including Montreal, low rail electrification costs in some common law countries, and the lack of a London cost premium over Paris until the late 20th century.

In lieu of common law, what I use to explain high costs in the US relative to the rest of the world, and to some extent also in most first-world common law countries as well as third-world former colonies, is weak civil service. In the developed world, the theory behind this is called adversarial legalism, as analyzed by Robert Kagan. Adversarial legalism enforces the law through litigation, leading to a web of consent decrees. Some are naked power grabs: for example, in Los Angeles, a union sued a rolling stock vendor for environmental remediation and agreed to drop the lawsuit in exchange for a pledge that its factory be unionized, which may play a role in why the trains cost around 50% more than equivalent European products.

American litigiousness developed specifically in the 1970s – it’s exactly how what the authors of the paper call citizen voice is enforced. In contrast, on this side of the Channel, and to some extent even generally on this side of the Pond, laws are enforced by regulators, tripartite labor-business-government meetings, ombudsmen, or street protests. French riotousness is legendary, but its ability to systematically change infrastructure is limited, since rioting imposes a real cost on the activist, namely the risk of arrest and backlash; in contrast, it is impossible to retaliate against people who launch frivolous lawsuits.

I bring up the fact that I said most of this last year, and the rest at the beginning of this year, whereas I was not aware of the paper under discussion until it was released a few hours ago, to make it clear that I’m not overfitting. This is something that I’ve been talking about for around a year now, and a jump in American construction costs in the 1970s and 80s – something that also looks to be the case in subway construction – is fully compatible with this theory.

Job Centralization in the City

The table below collates job centralization not by CBD as in this post but by central city. Parisian data comes from INSEE, here and here; American data comes from Wikipedia for population and OnTheMap for job counts. In general, I tried making the central city definition about 18% of the metro area to be comparable with Paris, but there is still a lot of variation, so this table should absolutely not be read as a ranking of metro areas by job centralization.

Metro area Population Jobs Central city Central pop’n Central jobs Central job share
Ile-de-France 12,082,144 5,682,048 Paris 2,206,488 1,797,745 31.6%
New York 19,979,477 8,364,410 Manhattan, Brooklyn 4,313,498 2,905,675 34.7%
Los Angeles 13,291,486 5,372,008 Downtown LA to Santa Monica ~1,500,000 1,051,648 19.6%
Chicago 9,498,716 4,142,542 Chicago ex-O’Hare 2,705,994 1,198,562 28.9%
Dallas 7,539,711 3,146,973 Dallas 1,345,047 809,077 25.7%
Houston 6,997,384 2,791,647 Inside 610 + Uptown ~650,000 749,661 26.9%
Washington 6,249,950 2,717,790 District, Arlington, Alexandria 1,100,496 859,751 31.6%
Miami 6,198,782 2,308,048 Miami, Miami Beach 563,221 324,260 14%
Philadelphia 6,096,372 2,570,460 Philadelphia 1,584,138 628,423 24.4%
Atlanta 5,949,951 2,374,233 Fulton County 1,050,114 780,259 32.9%
Boston 4,875,390 2,381,555 Boston, Cambridge 805,234 687,237 28.9%
Bay Area 4,729,484 2,121,580 San Francisco 883,305 642,375 30.3%

The Sunbelt

There appears to be a fair amount of job centralization in the Sunbelt cities, right? In Metro Atlanta, Fulton County has a slightly higher proportion of regional jobs than Paris with a slightly lower share of residential population.

But actually, no. Absolute densities matter in addition to relative centralization of jobs versus residences. In Houston and Los Angeles the central areas are drawn to encircle the downtown and near-downtown job centers – both cities preferentially annex suburban job sites so using municipal boundaries is not useful. A hefty share of area jobs are in these centers, especially in Houston. But ultimately it’s still not a lot of jobs in a very large land area, around 300 square kilometers for both, compared with 100 for the city of Paris or for San Francisco. Fulton County is vast, and the jobs are distributed all over Atlanta and its northern suburbs within the county.

Houston is a particularly good example of monocentrism with a weak center. There are not a lot of strong suburban job centers in Houston – nothing like Silicon Valley, Downtown Newark, the Route 128 corridor, La Defense, Burbank, or Tysons Corner. The city itself has about two thirds of area jobs, thanks to selective annexations. But the share of the CBD in area jobs is low, just 150,000 jobs in the 45/69/10 beltway, or 5.3% of area jobs. Outside the CBD job density plummets, as the outlying job centers making the difference between 5.3% and 26.9% are located at haphazard locations all over 610.

Older American cities

The extent of centralization in the Northeast, Chicago, and San Francisco is greater. New York in particular is a lot like Paris, with about a third of area jobs in a high-density contiguous blob consisting of less than one fifth of regional population. It has nothing like La Defense in the suburbs, but its suburban job centers, while much smaller, include some recognizably dense ones, especially Newark and the Jersey City waterfront. One needs to go well into suburbia to see the difference between Paris, where the suburbs have a structure of density with mid- and high-rise residential development as well as offices next to train stations, and New York, where the job centers in farther-out suburbia, like Central Jersey, have no such structure and are located exclusively based on auto access.

Boston, Washington, and San Francisco all have varying degrees of centralization. I mentioned last year that Boston is increasingly an example of European-style job sprawl, in which jobs spill over from the CBD to nearby areas rather than to faraway office parks. New York has long had such spillover – Long Island City is such a job center, and may at this point have more jobs than Downtown Brooklyn; the Jersey City waterfront is another such example, as is the growth of the Meatpacking District around Google. In Boston the equivalents are Kendall Square and the Seaport; in San Francisco it’s SoMa; in Washington it’s jobs in Arlington around the Orange Line, where older TOD was residential.

Chicago and Philadelphia are the least centralized. Chicago has a well-defined supertall skyline with about 500,000 people working in or near the Loop. But outside that central area, job density craters. Chicago’s share of metro area jobs is about 1.5% higher than its share of metro population, and if we remove the airport, surrounded by suburbia, this difference drops to 0.5%. Philadelphia’s share of metro area jobs is actually lower than its share of metro area population by 1.5%. In these regions, if you’re not working in city center, you’re working at an office park in a middle-class-to-rich suburb built without regard for the area’s vast legacy mainline rail network.

Why American Costs Are So High (Work-in-Progress)

I am embarking on a long-term project to investigate why US construction costs are high using case studies, so everything I’m going to say so far is tentative. In particular, one of my favorite theories for most of this decade seems to be false based on the addition of just two or three new data points. That said, having spent the last nine years looking at topline costs and a few itemized breakdowns does let me reach some initial conclusions, ones that I believe are robust to new data. The context is that some mainstream American pundits are asking why, and I realized that I’ve written more posts criticizing incorrect explanations than posts focusing on more plausible reasons.

1. Engineering part 1: station construction methods

The most important itemized fact concerning American construction costs is that New York’s premium over Paris is overwhelmingly about stations. I have itemized data for a single line in New York (Second Avenue Subway Phase 1) and a single line in Paris (Metro Line 1 extension), from which I have the following costs:

Tunneling: about $150 million per km vs. $90 million, a factor of 1.7
Stations: about $750 million per station vs. $110 million, a factor of 6.5
Systems: about $110 million per km vs. $35 million, a factor of 3.2
Overheads and design: 27% of total cost vs. 15%, which works out to a factor of about 11 per km or a factor of 7 per station

These costs have some reinforcement with other projects in both cities. When New York built the 7 extension, there were calls for an intermediate stop in addition to the single stop built, and at the time the city definitively canceled the extra station, its cost was given as $800 million. Moreover, in Paris, another extension for which I have per-station cost data, that of Metro Line 12, costs 175 million for 2 stations and no tunnels, about $110 million per station, including overheads; the same is true of two more stations not on M12 given in a French report about the costs of Grand Paris Express (PDF-p. 10).

The difference concerns construction methods. In Paris, as well as Athens, Madrid, Mexico City, Caracas, Santiago, Copenhagen, Budapest, and I imagine other cities for which I can’t find this information, metro stations are built cut-and-cover. While the tunnels between stations are bored, at higher cost than opening up the entire street, the stations themselves are dug top-down. This allows transporting construction materials from the top of the dig, right where they are needed, as well as easier access by the workers and removal of dirt and rock. There is extensive street disruption, for about 18 months in the case of Paris, but the merchants and residents get a subway station at the end of the works.

In contrast, in New York, to prevent street disruption, Second Avenue Subway did not use any cut-and-cover. The tunnels between stations were bored, as in nearly all other cities in the world that build subways, and the stations were mined from within the bore, with just small vertical shafts for access. The result was a disaster: the costs exploded, as can be seen in the above comparison, and instead of 18 months of station box-size disruption, there were 5 years of city block-size disruption, narrowing sidewalks to just 2 meters (7′ to be exact).

In London, the Crossrail project was forced to mine stations as well, as it passes underneath and around many older Underground lines. Only one station could be built cut-and-cover, Canary Wharf, built underwater at very deep level. These stations have comparable construction costs to those of Second Avenue Subway. One way around this problem is to build large-diameter bores, as in Barcelona on Line 9/10, which used a bore so big it could fit two tracks with platforms. However, L9/10 has high costs by Spanish standards, and moreover the vertical access to the stations is exclusively by elevator, with lower capacity than escalators and stairs. A technique for slant bores for escalators exists in St. Petersburg, but I do not know its cost.

2. Engineering part 2: mezzanines

The other big problem with American metro construction methods is the oversized stations. This problem also occurs in Canada, where Toronto uses cut-and-cover stations like most of the world and yet has very high costs, as these cut-and-cover stations are palatial. But I do want to caution that this is a smaller problem than station mining, especially in New York. The total amount of excavation in Paris is barely lower than in New York.

But whatever the dig size issue is, one problem persists: American subway stations have mezzanines, usually full-length. This problem goes back to the 1930s. According to a historical review published in JRTR, costs in New York per kilometer rose to $140 million in the 1930s; in the 1910s and 20s costs were only $45 million per kilometer but there was extensive elevated construction, so per underground kilometer they were perhaps $80 million. This contrasts with $30-35 million per km on lines built in London and Paris from the 1900s to the 1930s.

A big cost driver in the 1930s was the higher construction standards. The subway built wider curves, even wider than those used in London and Paris. There were underground flying junctions allowing a complex system of branching on local and express trains to serve many different origin-destination pairs. And stations had full-length mezzanines.

The mezzanines have since turned into an American standard, featuring on all subsequent subways that I know of. BART has them under Market Street. Boston has them at some of the newer stations, alongside high ceilings at parts of stations the mezzanines don’t reach.

Outside the US, cities with such large station digs have high costs as well Toronto has had palatial construction at some of its newer stations, such as Vaughan Metro Center, leading to high costs even with cut-and-cover stations: while the Vaughan extension cost only C$320 million per kilometer, further projects in Toronto are slated to cost far more, including the single-stop Scarborough subway for C$520 million per km (only 18% less than Second Avenue Subway adjusted for station spacing) and the Downtown Relief Line at C$800 million per km.

Moreover, my recollection of riding the MRT in Singapore, another high-cost country, is that its stations are palatial as well, more so than recent American ones, let alone French ones. Singapore has high construction costs: the under-construction Thomson Line is to cost S$600 million per km according to information from 2012, and since then there has been a schedule slip, though I can’t find more recent cost estimates, and I do know of rail infrastructure projects with schedule overruns that stay within budget. Individual stations in Singapore are fairly expensive, with the central one (Orchard) approaching American costs at S$500 million, and in a speech full of excuses for construction costs, Singaporean transport minister Khaw Boon Wan mentioned that the new line has more exits per station, signaling larger station footprints.

3. Management part 1: procurement

The best industry practice, outlined by Madrid Metro’s Manuel Melis Maynar, is to award contracts by a combination of cost, construction speed, and a technical score judged by an in-house oversight team. Moreover, in Madrid there is separation between design and construction, in order to permit construction teams to make small changes as they go along without being wedded to their own plans. With this system, Melis built a wave of metros for an underground construction cost of, in today’s terms, $80 million per kilometer (almost all but not 100% underground), including rolling stock, which I have attempted to exclude from other lines whenever possible.

The American practice is to award contracts by cost alone. This leads to one of two problems, depending on the coast.

In California, the problem is, in two words, Tutor-Perini. This contractor underbids and then does shoddy work requiring change orders, litigated to the maximum. Ron Tutor’s dishonesty is well-known and goes back decades: in 1992 Los Angeles’s then-mayor Tom Bradley called him the change order king. And yet, he keeps getting contracts, all of which have large cost overruns, going over the amount the state or city would have paid had it awarded the contract to the second lowest bidder. In San Francisco, cost overrun battles involving Tutor-Perini led to a 40% cost overrun. This process repeated for high-speed rail: Tutor submitted lowest but technically worst bid, got the contract as price was weighted too high, and then demanded expensive changes. It speaks to California’s poor oversight of contractors that Tutor remains a contractor in good standing and has not been prosecuted for fraud.

In New York, this is not a problem, as the state makes sure to avoid shoddy work through overexacting specs, down to specifying the materials to be used. Unfortunately, this kind of micromanagement reduces flexibility, increasing construction costs in two ways. First, the direct effect raises the hard costs of construction, by about 15-25% plus overheads and contingency according to many contractors interviewed for Brian Rosenthal’s New York Times article on the subject. And second, since many contractors are turned off by the red tape, there is less competition – the 7 extension had just a single bidder – and thus contractors can demand an extra profit on top.

Some American cities try to get around this problem by using design-build contracts. However, these merely move the locus of micromanagement from the public to private sector. Madrid eschews them and prefers using public oversight to macromanage contractors.

While this may well by the single most important institutional factor in New York, it is not universal in the United States. In Boston, a manager at the MBTA, Jaime Garmendia, reassured me that the agency would “would cease to do business with that contractor in a heartbeat” if anyone acted like Tutor.

4. Management part 2: conflict resolution

In Madrid, Melis Maynar insisted on itemizing construction contracts. Thus, every contract would have a pre-agreed cost per extra item if changes were needed. Since changes are inevitable, this provides fast conflict resolution without expensive courtroom battles and without too much risk on the contractor.

I know of one additional example of itemization: in a paper studying electricity generation contracts in India, Nicholas Ryan compares cases in which there was a pre-agreed system for price escalation in case of changes in input prices and cases in which there were one-off negotiations whenever the situation suddenly changed. Pre-agreed escalation based on input prices leads to lower costs, first because there is less risk to the contractor, second because the negotiation happens in a situation in which if the contractor walks away the state can find another without incurring too much of a sunk cost, and third because the process attracts more honest contractors than Tutor.

In the United States, itemizing does not happen. Contracts are by lump sum, and every time a change is needed, there is a new negotiation, which involves lawyers and potentially courtroom litigation. Robert Kagan calls this tradition adversarial legalism, and contrasts it with European bureaucratic legalism, in which regulators and judges have more power than individual lawyers. Kagan gives an example of litigation about the Oakland Harbor dredging project. Tellingly, a civil rights-centered critique of the concept, arguing that adversarial legalism produces more liberal outcomes for minorities and the disabled (in the context of special education) – but when it comes to transit, the United States lags in wheelchair accessibility.

This is not intended as a broad attack on American legalism, although I do think such legalism also leads to worse infrastructure decisions in general. This is a specific attack on the tradition of using lawsuits to resolve conflicts between contractors and the state, rather than agreeing on itemized costs in advance, a technique that is legal in the US and that international firms, which have successfully bid on many American projects at American costs, are already familiar with.

5. Management part 3: project management

Some problems are not about procurement or the law, but purely about managerial competence. In Boston, consensus concerning the Green Line Extension seems to be that its high costs are the result of poor project management. The Green Line Extension’s costs were at one point estimated at $3 billion for 6.4 km of light rail in preexisting mainline rail rights-of-way; it’s so expensive that it was misclassified as a subway in one Spanish analysis, which still found it was a premium over European subways.

The current estimate is down to $2.3 billion, of which $1.1 billion was wasted in the initial project, and only the remaining half is actual construction costs of the restarted project. Several Boston-area insiders, including the aforementioned Jaime Garmendia, explain that the MBTA had no prior experience in managing a large project, and did not hire an experienced manager for it, leading to a pileup of errors. When it finally hired a new manager and a new team and restarted the project, costs fell, but not before a billion dollars were wasted.

The remaining cost of the extension, $190 million per km, is still very high for a light rail line. However, in conjunction with the other problems detailed here, this is not so surprising.

6. Management part 4: agency turf battles

There is little cooperation between different public transit providers in the US in the same region. Usually, the effect is only on operations. Whereas in Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland the fare within a metro area depends on the start and end point and perhaps on whether one rides in first or second class but not on whether one uses a bus, a tram, a subway, or a commuter rail line, in the United States fares are mode-dependent and transfers between separate agencies are not free. Nor do American agencies coordinate schedules between different modes of transit even within the same agency: the MBTA is forbidden to coordinate suburban bus and commuter rail schedules.

While this by itself does not impact construction costs, it can lead to overbuilding when construction for one agency impinges on another agency’s turf. This problem is particularly acute when mainline rail is involved, as there is an institutional tradition of treating it as a separate fief from the rest of public transit: “commuter rail is commuter rail, it’s not public transit,” said MBTA then-general manager Frank DePaola in 2016. Extensive turf battles may also occur between different commuter rail operators run as separate units, for example in New York. The same tradition occurs in Canada, where Toronto regional rail modernization plans came from an overarching planning agency, which had to force the commuter rail engineers and managers to go along.

I covered turf battles in a post from the end of 2017. In short, two distinct problems may occur. First, there may be visible overbuilding: for example, plans for California High-Speed Rail included a gratuitous tunnel in Millbrae, near the airport, in order to avoid reducing BART’s territory even though BART has three tracks at a station where it needs only one or at most two; overall, area advocate Clem Tillier found $2.7 billion in high-speed rail cost savings between San Francisco and just south of San Jose. The same problem afflicts plans for extra regional rail capacity in New York: the commuter railroads do not want to share turfs, forcing the construction of additional station tracks in Midtown Manhattan at great cost.

The second problem is that without coordination of capital planning and operations, schedules for construction may be constrained. I believe that this contributes to the high cost of Boston’s Green Line Extension, which is high by American light rail standards. Without agreement on construction windows, right-of-way modifications such as moving bridge foundations to make room for extra tracks become difficult.

7. Institutions part 1: political lading with irrelevant priorities

There is a kind of overbuilding that comes not from American engineering practices that became accepted wisdom in the 1930s, but from active interference by politicians. I caution that I do not know of any case in which this has seriously impacted tunneling costs, the topic I feel more qualified to compare across the world. However, this has been a problem for other public transportation and livable streets projects, especially on the surface.

When a city announces a new public transit initiative, it comes with the expectation of an infusion of money. Usually this money comes from outside sources, such as higher-level governments, but even when it is purely local, individual stakeholders may treat it as money coming from other parts of the city. In this environment, there is an incentive to demand extra scope in order to spend other people’s money on related but unnecessary priorities. The most common example of this is the demand for street reconstruction to be bundled with light rail and even bus rapid transit.

The advocacy organization Light Rail Now claims that bundling street reconstruction has raised some American light rail costs. Moreover, I know examples of this happening for BRT. The Albuquerque project ART, which I covered in the context of electric buses, is one such example: it cost $135 million for 25 km, of which about 13 km were reconstructed to have wider sidewalks, trees, and street lighting. Moreover, in Tampa, the highway department insists that the transit agency find money for repaving roads with concrete if it wishes to run buses more frequently.

This is not just an American problem: the Nice tramway, which at €64 million per km for the first line is France’s costliest, spent 30% of its budget not on the tramway itself but on drainage, rebuilding a public plaza, and other related but unnecessary amenities.

Commuter rail exhibits this problem in droves. Either local suburbs or agencies that are captive to them insist on building large transit centers with plentiful parking, retail that is not necessary if trains arrive on time, and a sense of place. Spartan stations, equipped only with level boarding, shelter, and a convenient spot for connecting buses to drop people off on the street or at a bus bay, cost a few million dollars apiece in Boston and Philadelphia. In contrast, veritable palaces cost many tens of millions: the four stations of Penn Station Access, in the low-car-ownership Bronx, are projected to cost a total of $188 million per the 2015-9 capital plan (PDF-p. 225); in West Haven, an infill station cost $105 million including land acquisition.

8. Institutions part 2: political incentives

Politicians in the United States do not have an incentives to control costs. On the contrary, if anyone complains, their incentives are to accommodate even if costs rise as a result. While the American legal system favors the state over the individual in property takings, for example in contrast with the Japanese system, the political system favors NIMBYs and really anyone who complains. Infrastructure construction takes a long time and the politician who gets credit for it is rarely the one who started it, whereas complaints happen early. This can lead to many of the above-named problems, especially overbuilding, such as tunneling where elevated segments would be fine or letting agency turf battles and irrelevant demands dictate project scope.

Politicians have the ability to remove obstructive officials, as Governor Andrew Cuomo did when LIRR head Helena Williams opposed Penn Station Access on agency turf grounds. But they rarely have the will to do so. Coordination and good government are not their top priorities. American politicians who are ambitious enough to embark on big infrastructure projects govern their respective states and cities like comets, passing by quickly while expecting to move on to a bigger position within a few years. They can build better institutions if they want, but don’t care to.

This goes beyond individual high-profile politicians. In planning for the NEC Future project, a planner who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said that there was an unspoken assumption that there must not be impact to the richest suburbs in Fairfield County, Connecticut; such impact can be reduced, but not eliminated, and to forestall political controversy with very rich suburbs the process left that segment for later, never mind that it is the slowest portion of the Northeast Corridor today outside major city areas.

This problem can be mitigated by raising the political cost of poor infrastructure construction decisions. One way to do so is using referendums. In Switzerland, all major infrastructure construction must be approved by referendum. Thus, if cost overruns occur, the state must return to the people and explain itself in asking for more money. In contrast, California High-Speed Rail went to ballot on $9 billion (plus $950 million for connecting transit) out of a budget that at the time was estimated at $42 billion in year-of-construction dollars. The state did not need to identify funding sources for the remaining $33 billion, and thus there was no incentive to control costs, as it was not possible to complete the project for the budget on hand no matter what.

9. Institutions part 3: global incuriosity

The eight above factors all explain why American infrastructure costs are higher than in the rest of the world, and also explain high costs in some other countries, especially Canada. However, one question remains: how come Americans aren’t doing anything about it? The answer, I believe, has to do with American incuriosity.

Incuriosity is not merely ignorance. Ignorance is a universal trait, people just differ in what they are ignorant about. But Americans are unique in not caring to learn from other countries even when those countries do things better. American liberals spent the second Bush administration talking about how health care worked better in most other developed countries, but displayed no interest in how they could implement universal health care so that the US could have what everyone else had, even when some of these countries, namely France and Israel, had only enacted reforms recently and had a population of mostly privately-insured workers. In contrast, they reinvented the wheel domestically, coming up with the basic details of Obamacare relying on the work on domestic thinktanks alone. The same indifference to global best practices occurs in education, housing policy, and other matters even among wonks who believe the US to be behind.

This is not merely a problem in public policy. In the private sector, the same problem doomed the American auto industry. American automakers have refused to adopt the practices of Japanese and German competitors even after the latter produced small cars better suited for post-1973 oil prices. They instead dug in, demanded and got government protection, and have been in effect wards of the American federal government for about 40 years.

American business culture does not care much for imitation, not does American society give high prestige to people who perfect something that someone else invented. The industry that teaches how to adopt best practices, consulting, has poor reputation in American culture. Instead, Americans venerate founders and innovators, an approach that works in industries where the US is in the global frontier, like tech or retail, but not in ones where it lags, like cars and the entire public sector. To avoid learning from others, Americans end up believing in myths about what is and isn’t possible: they insist they are so much richer than Europe that they have nothing to learn from across the Pond, and hang all their hopes on any flim-flam artist who comes from within American business culture who insists there is no real need for public transit or any of the other things Europe and high-income Asia do better.

In transit, we see it in politicians and agency officials who say things that are so funny they are sad, or perhaps so sad they are funny. Richard Mlynarik tells me of an official at either Caltrain or the California High-Speed Rail Authority, I forget which, who did not know Germany had commuter trains. Another Caltrain official, confronted with the fact that in Japan trains turn faster than Caltrain thought possible, responded “Asians don’t value life the way we do” – never mind that Japan’s passenger rail safety per passenger-km is about 1.5 orders of magnitude better than the US’s. In stonewalling about its safety regulations, since positively reformed, an FRA official insisted American trucks are heavier than European ones, where in fact the opposite is the case. Boston’s sandbagged North-South Rail Link process included a best practices section but insisted on only including North American examples, since European ones would make America look bad. To advocate for transit among Americans is to constantly hear things are not possible that in fact happen in various parts of Europe on a daily basis.

Canada is not much better than the US. Americans’ world is flat, with its corners in Boston, Seattle, San Diego, and Miami. Canadians’ world includes the United States and Canada, making it flat with the northern ends of the quadrilateral stretched a few hundred kilometers to the north. A study of a long-overdue extension of Vancouver’s Millennium Line to UBC has four case studies for best practices, all from within North America. This is despite the fact that in the developed world the system most similar to Vancouver’s SkyTrain in technology and age is the Copenhagen Metro, whose construction costs are one half as high as those of Vancouver despite cost and schedule overruns.

Meiji Japan sent students to the West to assimilate Western knowledge and catch up, avoiding the humiliations inflicted upon China in the same era and instead becoming a great power itself. The historian Danny Orbach, who wrote his dissertation on the historical arc leading from the Meiji Restoration to Japan’s World War Two atrocities, argues that Japan was able to modernize because it understood early that it was not at the center of the world, whereas China and the Ottoman Empire did not and thus only realized they were technologically inferior to the West too late, at the signing of the unequal treaties or at dismemberment. The United States at best thinks it’s the center of the world and at worst thinks it’s the only thing in the world, and this has to change.

Can this be reformed?

The answer is absolutely. There are no examples of good transit under construction in the United States, but there are many partial successes. The California State Rail Plan is moving toward coordinated planning, and Massachusetts has some inklings of reform as well. Boston’s ability to restart the Green Line Extension is to be commended, and the large gap in cost between the original project and the current one should encourage other American transit agencies to hire good project managers with a track record and pay them competitively; paying high six figures to a manager or even more can easily justify itself in ten-figure savings.

The legal problems can be reformed as well without turning the United States into something it is not. Politicians would have to be more courageous in telling constituents no, but so many of them have no chance of losing reelection that they can afford to piss off a small proportion of the population. Contracts could include itemized costs to control change orders. California already awards contracts based on a mix of cost and a technical score, it just needs to adjust the weights and figure out how to avoid doing business with Ron Tutor, and if possible prosecute him.

However, all of this depends on solving the last of the above nine problems. Americans have to understand that they are behind and need to imitate. They can try to innovate but only carefully, from a deep understanding of why things are the way they are in such global transit innovation centers as Spain, South Korean, Japan, Switzerland, and Sweden. They have to let go of the mythology of the American entrepreneur who does not listen to the experts. They can solve the problem of high construction costs if they want, but they need to first recognize that it exists, and that internal politics and business culture are part of the problem rather than the solution.

The Fish Rots from the Head

All reform agendas run into the same problem: someone needs to implement the reform, and this someone needs to be more politically powerful than the entrenched interests that need reform. The big political incentive for a leader is to swoop in to fix an organization that is broken and get accolades for finally making government work. But whether this work depends on what exactly is broken. If the fish rots from the tail, and better management can fix things, then reformist politicians have an easy time. The problem is that if the fish rots from the head – that is, if the problem is the political leaders themselves – then there is no higher manager that can remove underperforming workers. My contention is that when it comes to poor American public transit practices, the fish usually rots from the head.

Whither fixing construction costs?

I wrote my first comment documenting high New York construction costs at the end of 2009. By 2011 this turned into my first post in my series here with some extra numbers. By the time I jumped from commenting to blogging, the MTA had already made a reference to its high costs in a 2010 report called Making Every Dollar Count (p. 11): “tunneling for the expansion projects has cost between three and six times as much as similar projects in Germany, France and Italy.” New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has been plagiarizing my 2011 post since 2013.

However, the early recognition has not led to any concrete action. There has not been any attention even from leaders who could gain a lot of political capital from being seen as fixing the problem, such as governors in California, New York, and Massachusetts, as well as successive New York mayors. That Governor Cuomo himself has paid little attention to the subway can be explained in terms of his unique personal background from a car-oriented city neighborhood, but when it’s multiple governors and mayors, it’s most likely a more systemic issue.

What’s more, there has been plenty of time to come up with an actionable agenda, and to see it pay dividends to help catapult the career of whichever politician can take credit. The MTA report came out 9 years ago. An ambitious, forward-thinking politician could have investigated the issue and come up with ways to reduce costs in this timeframe – and in the region alone, four politicians in the relevant timeframe (Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio, Cuomo, and Governor Christie) had obvious presidential ambitions.

Evidently, there has been action whenever a political priority was threatened. The LIRR had long opposed Metro-North’s Penn Station Access project, on the grounds that by sending trains through a tunnel used by the LIRR, Metro-North would impinge on its turf. As it was a visible project and a priority for Cuomo, Cuomo had to remove the LIRR’s obstruction, and thus fired LIRR President Helena Williams in 2014.

So what’s notable is that construction costs did not become a similar political priority, even though rhetoric of government effectiveness and fighting waste is ubiquitous on the center-left, center, and center-right.

Who benefits?

That successive powerful American leaders have neglected to take on construction costs suggests that there is no benefit to them in fixing the problem. The question is, who benefits from high costs, then?

The answer cannot be that these politicians are all corrupt. The inefficiency in construction does not go to any serious politician’s pockets. Corruption might, but that requires me to believe that all relevant mayors and governors take bribes, which I wouldn’t believe of Italy, let alone the United States. One or two crooks could plausibly lead to cost explosion in one place, but it is not plausible that every serious politician in the New York area in the last decade has been both corrupt and in on the exact same grift.

Another answer I’d like to exclude is powerful interest groups. For example, if the main cause of high American construction costs were unions, then this would explain why governors all over the more liberal states don’t make an effort to build infrastructure more cheaply. However, there are enough high-cost states with right-wing politics and anti-union laws. The other entrenched interest groups are quite weak nationwide, for example planners, who politicians of all flavors love to deride as unelected bureaucrats.

The pattern of competence and incompetence

In my dealings with New York, I’ve noticed a pattern: the individual planners I talk to are curious, informed, and very sharp, and I don’t just mean the ones who leak confidential information to me. This does not stop at the lower levels: while most of my dealings with planners were with people who are my age or not much older, one of my sources speaks highly of their supervisor, and moreover my interactions with senior planners at the MTA when Eric Goldwyn and I pitched our bus redesign were positive. Eric also reports very good interactions with bus drivers and union officials.

In contrast, the communications staff is obstructive and dishonest. Moreover, the most senior layer of management is simply incompetent. Adam Rahbee describes it as “the higher up you get, the less reasonable people are” (my paraphrase, not a direct quote); he brings up work he proposed to do on reworking on the subway schedules, but the head of subway operations did not have the budget to hire an outside consultant and the higher-up managers did not even know that there was a problem with trains running slower than scheduled (“running time”).

A number of area observers have also noticed how MTA head Ronnie Hakim, a Cuomo appointee, was responsible to much of the recent spate of subway slowdowns. Hakim, with background in law rather than operations, insisted speed should not be a priority according to Dan Rivoli’s sources. The operations staff seem to hate her, judging by the number and breadth of anonymous sources naming her as one of several managers who are responsible for the problem.

The pattern is, then, that the put-upon public workers who run the trains day in, day out are fine. It’s the political appointees who are the problem. I don’t have nearly so many sources at other transit agencies, but what I have seen there, at least in Boston and San Francisco, is consistent with the same pattern.

Quite often, governors who aim to control cost institute general hiring freezes, via managers brought in from the outside, even if some crucial departments are understaffed. For example, Boston has an epidemic of bus bunching, is staffed with only 5-8 dispatchers at a given time, and can’t go up to the necessary 15 or so because of a hiring freeze. The 40 or so full-time dispatchers who are needed to make up the difference cost much less than the overtime for bus drivers coming from the bunching, to say nothing of the extra revenue the MBTA could get if, with the same resources, its buses ran more punctually. In the name of prudence and saving money, the MBTA wastes it.

The risk aversion pattern

The above section has two examples of political interference making operations worse: a hiring freeze at the MBTA (and also at the MTA), and Ronnie Hakim deemphasizing train speed out of fear of lawsuits. There is a third example, concerning capital planning: Cuomo’s interference with the L shutdown, well covered by local sources like Second Avenue Sagas, in which the governor effectively took sides in an internal dispute against majority opinion just because engineering professors in the minority had his ear. All three examples have a common thread: the negative political interference is in a more risk-averse direction – hiring fewer people, running slower trains, performing ongoing maintenance with kludges rather than a long-term shutdown.

The importance of risk-aversion is that some of the problems concerning American construction costs are about exactly that. Instead of forcing agencies that fight turf battles to make nice, political leaders build gratuitous extra infrastructure to keep them on separate turf, for example in California for high-speed rail. Only when these turf battles risk a visible project, such as the LIRR’s opposition to Penn Station Access, do the politicians act. Costs are not so visible, so politicians let them keep piling, using slush funds and raiding the rest of the budget.

In New York, the mined stations, too, are a problem of risk-aversion. Instead of opening up portions of Second Avenue for 18 months and putting it platforms, the MTA preferred to mine stations from a smaller dig, a five-year project that caused less street disruption over a longer period of time. An open dig would invite open political opposition from within the neighborhood; dragging it over five years may have caused even more disruption, but it was less obtrusive. The result: while the tunneling for Second Avenue Subway was about twice as expensive as in Paris, the stations were each seven times as expensive. The overall multiplier is a factor of seven because overheads were 11 times as expensive, and because the stop spacing on Second Avenue is a bit narrower than on the Paris Metro extension I’m comparing it with.

In contrast with the current situation in New York, what I keep proposing is politically risky. It involves expanding public hiring, not on a massive level, but on a level noticeable enough that if one worker underperforms, it could turn into a minor political scandal in which people complain about big government. It involves promoting smart insiders as well as hiring smart outsiders – and those outsiders should have industry experience, like Andy Byford at New York City Transit today, not political experience, like the MBTA’s Luis Ramirez or the FRA’s Sarah Feinberg; by itself, hiring such people is not risky, but giving them more latitude to operate is, as Cuomo discovered when Byford began proposing his own agenda for subway investment.

On the engineering level, it involves more obtrusive construction: tunnels and els, not bus lanes that are compromised to death – and the tunnels may involve cut-and-cover at stations to save money. Regional rail is obtrusive politically, as modernization probably requires removal of many long-time managers who are used to the current way of doing things (in Toronto, the engineers at GO Transit obstructed the RER program, which was imposed from Metrolinx), and in New York the elimination of Long Island and the northern suburbs’ respective feudal ownership of the LIRR and Metro-North. The end result saves money, but little kings of hills will object and even though American states have the power to overrule them, they don’t want the controversy.

The fish rots from the head

American transportation infrastructure does not work, and is getting worse. The costs of building more of it are extremely high, and seem to increase with every construction cycle. Operating costs for public transit run the gamut, but in the most important transit city, New York, they are the highest among large world cities, and moreover, the cheapest option for extending high-quality public transit to the suburbs, regional rail, is not pursued except in Silicon Valley and even there it’s a half-measure.

The problems are political. Heavyweight politicians could use their power to force positive reforms, but in a number of states where they’ve been able to do so on favorable terms, they’ve done no such thing. On the contrary, political influence has been negative, installing incompetent or dishonest managers and refusing to deal with serious long-term problems with operations and maintenance.

The reason politicians are obstructive is not that there’s no gain in improving the state of public services. On the contrary, there is a huge potential upside to getting credit for eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse and delivering government projects for much cheaper than was thought possible. But they look at minor controversies that could come from bypassing local power brokers, who as a rule have a fraction of the influence of a governor or big city mayor, or from building bigger projects than the minimum necessary to be able to put their names or something, and stop there.

One animal analogy for this is that the fish rots from the head: the worst abuses come from the top, where politicians prefer slow degradation of public services to a big change that is likely to succeed but risks embarrassment or scandal. The other animal analogy is that, through a system that rewards people who talk big and act small, American politics creates a series of chickenshit leaders.

Urban Transit Vs. Commuter Transit

The Geary corridor in San Francisco is a neat model for transit ridership. The Golden Gate Park separates the Richmond District from the Sunset District, so the four east-west buses serving the Richmond – the 38 on Geary itself and the closely parallel 1 California, 31 Balboa, and 5 Fulton – are easy to analyze, without confounding factors coming from polycentric traffic. Altogether, the four routes in all their variations have 114,000 riders per weekday. The 38 and 1 both run frequently – the 1 runs every 5-6 minutes in the weekday off-peak, and the 38 runs every 5 minutes on the rapid and every 8 on the inner local.

I was curious about the connection between development and travel demand, so I went to OnTheMap to check commute volumes. I drew a greater SF CBD outline east of Van Ness and north of the freeway onramp and creek; it has 420,000 jobs (in contrast, a smaller definition of the CBD has only 220,000). Then I looked at how many people commute to that area from due west, defined as the box bounded by Van Ness, Pacific, the parks, and Fell. The answer is 28,000. Another 3,000 commute in the opposite direction.

Put another way: the urban transit system of San Francisco carries about twice as many passengers on the lines connecting the Richmond and Japantown with city center as actually make that commute: 114,000/2*(28,000 + 3,000) is 1.84. This represents an implausible 184% mode share, in a part of the city where a good number of people own and drive cars, and where some in the innermost areas could walk to work. What’s happening is that when the transit system is usable, people take it for more than just their commute trips.

The obvious contrast is with peak-only commuter rail. In trying to estimate the potential ridership of future Boston regional rail, I’ve heavily relied on commute volumes. They’re easier to estimate than overall trip volumes, and I couldn’t fully get out of the mindset of using commuter rail to serve commuters, just in a wider variety of times of day and to a wider variety of destinations.

In Boston, I drew a greater CBD that goes as far south as Ruggles and as far west as Kendall; it has a total of 370,000 jobs. Of those, about 190,000 come from areas served by commuter rail and not the subway or bus trunks, including the southernmost city neighborhoods like Mattapan and Hyde Park, the commuter rail-adjacent parts of Newton, and outer suburbs far from the urban transit system. But MBTA commuter rail ridership is only about 120,000 per weekday. This corresponds to a mode share of 32%.

I tried to calculate mode shares for the MBTA seven years ago, but that post only looked at the town level and excluded commuter rail-served city neighborhoods and the commuter rail-adjacent parts of Newton, which contribute a significant fraction of the total commute volume. Moreover, the post included suburban transit serving the same zones, such as ferries and some express buses; combined, the mode share of these as well as commuter rail ranged from 36% to 50% depending on which suburban wedge we are talking about (36% is the Lowell Line’s shed, 50% is the Providence Line’s shed). Overall, I believe 32% is consistent with that post.

Part of the difference between 32% and 184% is about the tightness of economic integration within a city versus a wider region. The VA Hospital in San Francisco is located in the Outer Richmond; people traveling there for their health care needs use the bus for this non-commuter trip. On a regional level, this never happens – people drive to suburban hospitals or maybe take a suburban bus if they are really poor.

That said, hospital trips alone cannot make such a large difference. There are errand trips that could occur on a wider scale if suburban transit were better. Cities are full of specialty stores that people may travel to over long distances.

For example, take gaming. In Vancouver I happened to live within walking distance of the area gaming store, but during game nights people would come over from Richmond; moreover, the gaming bar was in East Vancouver, and I’d go there for some social events. In Providence I’d go to Pawtucket to the regional gaming store. In the Bay Area, the store I know about is in Berkeley, right on top of the Downtown Berkeley BART station, and I imagine some people take BART there from the rest of the region.

None of this can happen if the region is set up in a way that transit is only useful for commute trips. If the trains only come every hour off-peak, they’re unlikely to get this ridership except in extreme cases. If the station placement is designed around car travel, as is the case for all American commuter lines and some suburban rapid transit (including the tails of BART), then people will just drive all the way unless there’s peak congestion. Only very good urban transit can get this non-work ridership.

Transit-Oriented Suburbs

I did a Patreon poll last month with three options, all about development and transit: CBDs and job concentration in middle-income cities (e.g. auto-oriented Bangkok and Istanbul don’t have transit-oriented Shanghai’s CBD formation), dense auto-oriented city neighborhoods (e.g. North Tel Aviv), and transit-oriented low-density suburbia. This is the winning option.

In every (or almost every) city region, there’s a clear pattern to land use and transportation: the neighborhoods closer to the center have higher population density and lower car use than the ones farther away. Moreover, across city regions, there is such a strong negative correlation between weighted density and auto use that exceptions like Los Angeles are notable. That said, the extent of the dropoff in transit use as one moves outward into suburbia is not the same everywhere, and in particular there are suburbs with high transit use. This post will discuss which urban and transportation policies are likely to lead such suburbs to form, in lieu of the more typical auto-oriented suburbs.

What is a suburb?

Definitions of suburbia differ across regions. Here in Paris, anything outside the city’s 1860 limits is the suburbs. The stereotypical banlieue is in history, urban form, and distance from the center a regular city neighborhood that just happens to be outside the city proper for political reasons. It is hardly more appropriate to call any part of Seine-Saint-Denis a suburb than it is to call Cambridge, Massachusetts a suburb of Boston.

So if Seine-Saint-Denis is not a suburb, what is? When I think of suburbia, my prototype is postwar American white flight suburbs, but stripped of their socioeconomic context. The relevant characteristics are,

  • Suburbs developed at a time when mass motorization was widespread. In the US, this means from around 1920 onward in the middle class and slightly later in the working class; in the rest of the developed world, the boundary ranges from the 1920s to the 1960s depending on how late they developed. Note that many stereotypical suburbs were founded earlier, going back even to the 19th century, but grew in the period in question. Brookline is famous for refusing annexation to Boston in 1873, but its fastest development happened between 1910 and 1930, straddling the 1920 limit – and indeed in other respects it’s borderline between a rich suburb and rich urban neighborhood as well.
  • Suburbs have low population density, typical of single-family housing. Aulnay-sous-Bois, at 5,100 people per km^2, is too dense, but not by a large margin. Beverly Hills, which has mansions, has 2,300, and Levittown, New York, probably the single best-known prototype of a suburb, has 2,900. The urban typology can mix in apartments, but the headline density can’t be dominated by apartments, even missing middle.
  • Suburbs are predominantly residential. They can have distinguished town centers, but as broad regions, they have to have a significant number of commuters working in the city. This rules out low-density central cities like Houston and Dallas (although their individual neighborhoods would qualify as suburbs!). It also rules out Silicon Valley as a region, which represents job sprawl more than residential sprawl.

The three criteria above make no mention of whether the area is included in the central city. Most of Staten Island qualifies as suburban despite being part of New York, but Newark fails all three criteria, and Seine-Saint-Denis and most of Hudson County fail the first two.

Where are suburbs transit-oriented?

I do not know of any place where suburban transit usage is higher than city center transit usage. In theory, this suggests that the best place to look for transit-oriented suburbia is the cities with the highest transit mode shares, such as Tokyo, Singapore, and Hong Kong (or, in Europe, Paris). But in reality, Singapore and Hong Kong don’t have areas meeting the density definition of suburb, and Tokyo has few, mostly located away from its vast commuter rail network. Paris has more true suburbs, but like Tokyo’s, they are not what drives the region’s high rail ridership. All four cities are excellent examples of high-density suburban land use – that is, places that meet my first and third definitions of suburbia but fail the second.

Instead, it’s better to look at smaller, lower-density cities. Stockholm and Zurich are both good models here. Even the central cities are not very dense, at 5,100 and 4,700 people per km^2. Moreover, both are surrounded by large expanses of low-density, mostly postwar suburbia.

Winterthur, Zurich’s largest suburb, is a mix of early 20th century and postwar urban typology, but the other major cities in the canton mostly developed after WW2. At the time, Switzerland was already a very rich country, and car ownership was affordable to the middle class. The story of the Zurich S-Bahn is not one of maintaining mode share through a habit of riding transit, but of running frequent commuter rail to suburbs that did not develop around it from the 1950s to the 70s.

In Stockholm, there is a prominent density gradient as one leaves Central Stockholm. I lived in Roslagstull, at the northern end of Central Stockholm, where the density is 30,000 people per km^2 and the built-up form is the euroblock. Most of the rest of Central Stockholm is similar in urban form and not much less dense. But once one steps outside the city’s old prewar core, density nosedives. City districts to the west and south, like Bromma and Älvsjö, go down to 3,000 people per km^2 or even a little less. A coworker who used to live in Kista described the area as American-style suburban. Beyond these city districts lie the other municipalities, which together form a sizable majority of the county’s population. Of those, a few (Solna, Sundbyberg) are somewhat above the density cutoff, but most are far below it.

In both Zurich and Stockholm, the city is much more transit-oriented than the suburbs. Stockholm’s congestion pricing was a city initiative; the suburbs banded together to oppose it, and eventually forced a compromise in which congestion pricing remained in effect but the revenue would be deeded to urban freeways rather than to public transportation.

And yet, neither city has a big transit use gradient – at least, not so big as Paris, let alone London or New York. Stockholm is expecting 170,000 daily metro trips from its expansion program, which barely touches Central Stockholm. Existing T-bana ridership on the suburban tails is pretty high as well (source, PDF-p. 13), as is ridership on commuter rail, which, too, barely touches Central Stockholm.

The structure of density

In my previous post, I complained that Los Angeles’s density has no structure, and thus public transit ridership is very low and consists predominantly of people too poor to buy a car. The situation in Stockholm and Zurich is the reverse. Density has a clear structure: within each suburb, there is a town center near the commuter rail station.

The histories of Zurich and Stockholm are profoundly different. Each arrived in its structure from a different route. In Zurich, the suburbs come from historic town centers that existed long before cars, often long before industrialization. 20th-century urban sprawl arrived in the form of making these historic villages bigger and bigger until they became proper suburbs. The geography helps rail-oriented suburbanization as well: the ridge-and-valley topography is such that urban sprawl forms ribbons served by commuter rail lines, especially in the southerly direction.

Stockholm’s topography is nothing like Zurich’s. There are water boundaries limiting suburb-to-suburb travel, but the same is true of New York, and yet Long Island, New Jersey, and Westchester are thoroughly auto-oriented. Instead, the structure of density came about because of government planning. Sweden built public housing simultaneously with the Stockholm Metro, so the housing projects were sited near the train stations.

This does not mean that the suburbs of Zurich and Stockholm are actually high-density. Far from it: the housing projects in the Stockholm suburbs are surrounded by a lot of parking and greenery, and the suburbs have extensive single-family housing tracts. However, the density is arranged to grade down from the train station, and there are small clusters of walkable apartment buildings in a small radius around each station. In Zurich the same structure came about with private construction and topography.

To the extent this structure exists elsewhere, it leads to higher low-density transit ridership too, for example in London and the Northeastern United States. Various West Coast American transit bloggers, like Jarrett Walker and Let’s Go LA, keep plugging the West Coast grid over the Northeastern hierarchy of density. But this hierarchy of suburbs that formed around commuter rail to the CBD produces transit ridership that, while awful by Continental European standards, is very good by American ones. Many of the suburbs in question, such as in Westchester, have 15-20% of their commuters choose transit to get to work.

Getting to higher numbers means reinforcing the structure of density and the transit that works in the suburbs, that is, regional rail (or a metro network that goes far out, like the T-bana, if that’s an option). Stations must be surrounded by development rather than parking, and this development should facilitate a somewhat transit-oriented lifestyle, including retail and not just housing. Jobs should be accessible from as many directions as possible, forming CBDs rather than haphazard town centers accessible only by road. Only this way can suburbia be transit-oriented.