Category: Politics and Society

What’s Going on with Hudson Tunnel Cost Overruns?

Twenty-five billion dollars. The New York region’s political heavyweights – Andrew Cuomo, Chris Christie, Chuck Schumer, Cory Booker, Bill de Blasio – all want new Hudson tunnels, without any state funding for them; Schumer is proposing federal funding and a new interstate agency, parallel to the existing Port Authority, and a total budget of $25 billion. This is the highest figure I have seen so far; Amtrak still says $16 billion and Cuomo says $14 billion, and it’s likely the Gateway tunnels are indeed about $16 billion, while the remainder is for associated projects, such as fully four-tracking the line from Newark to the tunnel portal, a distance of about 11 kilometers. It is not my intention to criticize the cost; I’ve done that before.

Instead, I would like to point out that each time Gateway is the news, there usually seems to be a fresh cost escalation. Is it a $10 billion project? A $14 billion project? A $16 billion project? Or a $25 billion project? And what is included exactly? Amtrak does not make it clear what the various items are and how much they cost; I have not seen a single cost estimate that attempts to establish a baseline for new Hudson tunnels without the Penn Station South component, which would provide a moderate short-term boost to capacity but is not necessary for the project. The articles I’ve seen do not explain the origin of the $25 billion figure, either; it may include the tunnel and full four-tracking of Newark-New York, or it may include additional scope, for example Amtrak’s planned vertical circulation for a future (unnecessary) deep cavern for high-speed rail (see picture here).

The main issue here, the way I see it, is the interaction between public trust and political self-aggrandizement. It is common in all aspects of Israeli governance for new ministers to announce sweeping changes and reorganizations, just to remind the country that they exist and are doing something; this generally makes it harder to implement gradual reforms, and makes it completely impossible to do anything by consensus. Implementing a plan that was developed by consensus over many years makes one a bureaucrat; leaders change everything. In the US, this is the case not everywhere in government, but at least within public transportation infrastructure.

As we see in the case of Schumer’s call for a new interstate authority, the changes a heavyweight politician makes in order to appear as a leader have nothing to do with real problems that the project may have. Solving those problems requires detailed knowledge of the project at hand, which is the domain of bureaucrats and technocrats, and not of heavyweight politicians. Even a heavyweight who understands that there is a problem may not know or care about how to fix it: for example, Christie used the expression “tunnel to Macy’s basement,” invoking the deep cavern, to explain why ARC was wasteful, but chose to cancel the project rather than to remove the cavern and restore a track connection from the tunnel to Penn Station, which was in the official ARC Alt P plan until it was cut to limit the cost overruns. Managing a project is hard, and is, again, the domain of technocrats. The heavyweight will grandstand instead, regardless of whether it means canceling the project, or proposing an entirely new layer of government to build it.

As for trust, let us look at the benefits of new Hudson tunnels. The traditional, and least objectionable, is added capacity: the existing tunnels are currently at capacity during rush hour, and there’s much more demand for rail travel from New Jersey to Manhattan than they can accommodate. We can measure this benefit in terms of the combination of increased ridership from more service from more suburban areas, reduced crowding, and possibly slightly higher speeds. As a crude estimate of this benefit, current New Jersey Transit ridership at Penn Station is 87,000 per weekday in each direction. Doubling capacity means roughly doubling ridership, which would come from a combination of induced demand and diversion of traffic from cars, Port Authority buses, and commuter rail-PATH connections. This means the new tunnel can expect about 175,000 new commuter rail trips per weekday. At $10,000 per weekday trip, which is about average for very large non-US cities’ subway extensions, this justifies $1.75 billion. At $20,000, about the same as the projection for Grand Paris Express, Crossrail, and Second Avenue Subway Phase 1, all of which are justified on grounds of ridership and capacity on parallel lines, this is $3.5 billion. At $40,000, about the same as old projections for Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, which I used to analyze de Blasio’s Utica subway proposal, this is $7 billion. A $25 billion budget corresponds to a cost per rider well into the range of airport connectors.

Now, I’d like to think that informed citizens can look at these costs and benefits. At least, the fact that public transit projects only cost as much per rider as Gateway if they’re airport connectors (thus, of especial interest to the elites) or if something very wrong happened with the ridership projections, suggests that there is, normally, a ceiling to what the political system will fund. Even at $14-16 billion, the two states involved and the federal government groaned at funding Gateway, speaking to the fact that it’s not, in fact, worth this much money. In contrast, a bigger project, with bigger benefits, would be funded enthusiastically if it cost this much – for example, California already has almost this much money for high-speed rail, counting Prop 1A funds that are yet inaccessible due to the requirement of a 50/50 match from other sources.

Against this background, we see scare stories that Gateway must be built for reasons other than capacity and ridership. The old tunnels are falling apart, and Amtrak would like to shut them down one track at the time for long-term repairs. The more mundane reality is that the tunnels have higher maintenance costs than Amtrak would like since each track can only be shut down for short periods, on weekends and at night. This is buried in technical documents that don’t give the full picture, and don’t give differential costs for continuing the present regime of weekend single-tracking versus the recommended long-term closures. The given cost for Sandy-related North River Tunnel repairs is $350 million, assuming long-term closures, and it’s unlikely the present regime is billions of dollars more expensive.

I am reminded of the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement: the existing bridge has high maintenance costs due to its age and poor state, but the net present value of the maintenance cost is $2.5 billion and that of the excess maintenance cost is less, both figures well below the replacement cost. The bridge itself is structurally sound, but in popular media it is portrayed as structurally deficient. This relates to the problem of heavyweight politicians, for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement is Cuomo’s pet project.

More fundamentally, who can trust any claim Amtrak makes about the structural soundness of tunnels? It says a lot that, when I asked on Twitter why transportation authorities do not immediately shut down unsafe pieces of infrastructure, various commenters answered “politics,” and on one (I believe James Sinclair) suggested that Amtrak order an emergency closure of one of the Hudson tunnel tracks just to drive home the point that new tunnels are necessary. I would like to stress that this is not Amtrak or a heavyweight proposing that, but the mere fact that commenters can seriously talk about it is telling. Most of the writers and commenters on the US transit blogosphere are very progressive and hate the Republicans; I have not seen a single comment recommending that the Democrats steal elections, fudge official statistics to make the party look more successful, or arrest Republican politicians on trumped-up charges, because in the US (and other first-world democracies), this is simply not done, and everyone except conspiracy theorists recognizes it. But politicizing the process of deciding which infrastructure projects are necessary for safety purposes and which are simply service expansions is normal enough that people can propose it half-seriously.

This brings me back to the issue of what I want the politicians to do, and what I expect them to do. What I want them to do is to be honest about costs and benefits, mediate between opposing interests (including different agencies that fight turf battles), and make decisions based on the best available information. This would necessarily limit costs, since, from the point of view of a member of Congress, if they get $25 billion for a piece of infrastructure than they cannot get $25 billion for another priority of theirs. They don’t do that, not in the US, and I’ve learned not to expect any better, as have the voters. Instead of working to make $25 billion go a longer way (to put things in perspective, I expect my regional rail tunnel proposal to cost $15-20 billion, at Crossrail 2 costs), Schumer is working to make $25 billion to sound like it’s going to a bigger deal than the new Hudson tunnels actually are.

None of this is a secret. American voters have learned to expect some kind of machine-greasing and politicking, to the point of losing the ability to trust either the politicians or the agencies, even in those cases when they are right. The result is that it’s possible to stretch the truth about how necessary a piece of infrastructure is, since people would believe or disbelieve it based on prior political beliefs anyway, and there is no expectation that the politicians or public authorities making those claims will have to justify them to the public in any detail. Lying to the public becomes trivially easy in this circumstance, and thus, costs can rise indefinitely, since everyone involved can pretend the benefits will rise to match them.

Quick Note: MBTA Electrification

I’ve been thinking about MBTA modernization recently, and realized that although the principles underlying modernization are similar throughout North America, the concrete benefits and the resulting political alliances that could push for it are very different. In New York and Chicago, commuter rail is already quite good if you’re a suburban middle-class commuter working in the CBD at regular business hours. Penn Station may not be ideally located for Midtown commuters, but the LIRR is building East Side Access to fix that; this leads to arguments such as this one, about which group of riders (or potential) riders to prioritize.

The MBTA is completely different. It does not provide adequate service even for peak-hour commuters, because the speed leaves a lot to be desired; where the LIRR runs decent if not good rolling stock, the MBTA rolling stock loses 70 seconds accelerating just to 60 mph (FLIRTs lost 24 seconds accelerating to 160 km/h). As Purple City notes in comments, electrification would be a Pareto-improvement, allowing large increases in speed even with infill stops. The discussion of whether to prioritize short-distance or long-distance service is still important, but any choice would substantially improve service to everyone over the current offering.

This means that the politics of modernization is different. In New York, Long Island commuters are the primary obstacle: modernization would replace their peak express trains with reverse-peak trains on the one-way Main Line, and crowd their trains in the outbound direction. In Boston, there aren’t enough urban riders to result in so much crowding, the speed would go up substantially, and, with the North-South Rail Link, North Side commuters would have service to the CBD and not just North Station.

The cost of such modernization consists of four main projects: the North-South Rail Link itself, complete electrification of all lines, full-length high platforms at all stations, and new rolling stock. The latter is perhaps $1.5 billion initially, corresponding to 600 cars, but in reality displaces equivalent or higher cost that has to be spent on new diesel locomotives and cars under the current operating pattern. The NSRL was pegged at $3-4 billion, but since it’s in easy geology (the ground was already cleared during the Big Dig), costs do not have to be higher than in the rest of the world, which would be closer to $2 billion for two large-diameter bores. Complete electrification is perhaps another $1.5 billion. It’s a fraction of what the state spent on the Big Dig, and not a large multiple of what it’s spending on a few thousand daily riders for South Coast Rail.

The political alliance in this case would be the exact one that would oppose modernization in New York and Chicago. This list of projects does little for the inner city, with exceptions around possible infill station sites like Allston. However, it provides much higher speeds for the suburbs. This is what’s so interesting about it. It’s not even easy to unbundle the parts that are useful to the suburbs from the parts that improve service in general, since the North-South Rail Link, which is crucial for service from the north to Boston, requires electrification, and once that’s in place, high platforms and infill stations are cheap. Whereas elsewhere, political inertia makes modernization hard, in the Boston area, once someone proposes it, I believe large chunks of the mainstream will jump on the idea.

Homeowner’s Bill of Rights to Preempt State and Local Zoning Laws

After weeks of fraught negotiation, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced that both houses of Congress had reached agreement on passing the Homeowner’s Bill of Rights (HOBOR), which uses the preemption doctrine to abolish most local planning restrictions. President Obama announced that he would sign the bill, which includes several provisions pushed by urban environmentalists. While the majority of Republicans announced their intention to vote yes and the majority of Democrats announced they would vote no, HOBOR relies on cross-bench support, as several prominent Republican lawmakers identified with the Tea Party, including presidential hopefuls Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), announced they would oppose the bill on the grounds of federal overreach.

Despite early environmentalist hopes that the bill would be narrowly targeted at suburban single-family zoning, HOBOR casts a wide net. It preempts any separation of residential, commercial, and industrial uses; maximum heights and floor area ratios; open space requirements; environmental restrictions including noise limits and endangered species protections; urban growth boundaries; parking minimums and maximums; single-family mandates; form-based codes; anti-McMansion ordinances and minimum lot sizes; affordable housing mandates; and setback requirements. It also requires the federal government to study privatizing federal land adjacent to urban areas and to consider the effects of growth controls on the housing market, a move that is expected to liberalize construction in the West. It does not preempt private deed restriction, despite an attempt by urban Democrats to ban it, but does ban cities from giving public incentives for it.

Boehner’s office released a statement, “The Homeowner’s Bill of Rights will prevent power grabs by special interests and by the federal government, and reduce the level of regulation in America’s cities.” Governor Greg Abbott (R-Texas), who recently proposed a similar law in Texas before Congress federalized the issue, credited Texas’s strong economy to loose zoning, and specifically praised Houston’s lack of zoning as an engine of economic growth.

On the Democratic side, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offered tepid support for the bill, saying that he expected the increased pace of construction to create jobs and affordable housing in the city, but added that the city would maintain its rent stabilization program. New York housing advocates were involved in obtaining necessary bipartisan support for the bill, and the city’s all-Democratic Congressional delegation is planning to vote for it, with the exceptions of Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Joseph Crowley. Crowley said in a statement that “the city’s planning laws are a cornerstone of neighborhood protection, and it’s hypocritical that the Republican Party, which claims it supports states’ rights, uses the federal government’s power so blatantly when it suits its needs.”

In San Francisco, opponents took to the street, protesting in front of the office of Senator Dianne Feinstein, the most prominent Senate Democrat to support HOBOR, with signs saying “gentrification = violence” and “the developer’s bill of rights.” A group of protesters attacked a shuttle bus ready to leave for Silicon Valley; the leaders of the main group of the protesters disclaimed the attack, and blamed agents provocateurs, but added that destruction of property is different from violent crime and that to compare the two is itself a form of violence.

On the ideological right, reactions are mixed. National Review has written in favor of the bill, while Reason continues to reject it. Joel Kotkin has editorialized that the bill “paves the way toward high-rises that Americans continue to reject.” Tea Party support is split, but largely negative; several groups have vowed to sue, connecting Democratic support with Agenda 21, the UN position paper encouraging more urbanization and restrictions on suburban sprawl. Senator Ted Cruz threatened to filibuster the bill, and openly called for a constitutional challenge. In contrast, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) plans to vote for the bill. In his statement, Rubio pointed to redevelopment in Miami as “affordable housing provided by the free market without government subsidies paid by tax money” and welcomed Democratic support.

All around the nation, municipalities, business groups, homeowners, landlords, and tenants are preparing for the entry of the bill into force, which is scheduled for this September 1st. New York, San Francisco, Houston, and Chicago have all already written draft planning laws designed to comply with HOBOR restrictions, but city planners are still debating how to adapt to a situation without zoning rules to shape urban growth.

Several real estate companies are planning new skyscrapers in central business districts of multiple cities. In Washington, The Related Companies is planning a 1,330 foot tall, 4.3 million square foot tower in Farragut. In New York, Harry Macklowe, Forest City Enterprises, and Durst Organization are all expected to race to develop the tallest skyscraper in the city, in the East Midtown area; real estate analysts speaking on background expect towers exceeding 2,000 feet in pinnacle height, to overtake One World Trade Center, but closer to 1,500 feet in roof height.

Outside city centers, development is slower, but analysts expect it to accelerate in the coming years. Facebook has already announced an expansion of its campus as well as the construction of apartment buildings in its home city of Menlo Park, California, as well as Atherton and Palo Alto, to house its growing workforce. However, when asked if this trend means less demand in San Francisco and less demand for tech shuttles, a senior Facebook human resources manager speaking on condition of anonymity said, “Most of our new hires still prefer to live in San Francisco, so we may end up seeing more commuters from the city, at the expense of the East Bay.”

Ultimately, analysts agree, it is difficult to gauge the long-term effect of HOBOR this early. However, as an early indication that there would be a move to established business districts, stocks of publicly-traded companies involved in purpose-made redevelopment districts, such as the Boston Seaport and New York’s Hudson Yards, are down by an average of 3% since Boehner announced that he had secured support for the bill, whereas those of other major developers have been sharply rising, by 2-15%. But when asked whether they will scale back their plans, officials in Boston have replied negatively, and have even suggested a $2 billion Silver Line expansion to serve the Seaport.

The Ultimate Authoritarian Anti-Urbanism

Cairo is a dense megacity, without the infrastructure such cities require for high living standards. The city proper, according to Wikipedia, has 10 million people, living at a density approaching 20,000 per km^2, and the metro area has 20 million. With a subway system fit for a city a tenth its size, Cairo is heavily motorized for its income level, congested, and polluted. Despite high construction costs, urgent investment in public transportation is required. Ignoring this need, the current military government has just announced plans to build a new capital outside the city, eventually to house 7 million people, with all the public monuments of a planned city, at a cost of $300 billion (exchange rate dollars, not PPP), about the same as Egypt’s annual GDP. The first phase alone will be $45 billion.

Cairo itself is already suffering from neglect and disinvestment. There are 2 million cars in the city. This is enough to cause so much traffic congestion it costs Egypt 4% of its GDP. Cairo’s air pollution is legendary: pollution levels are akin to smoking a pack of cigarettes per day. At least as of 1997, lead pollution caused by cars using leaded gasoline reduced Cairene children’s IQ by 4 points. The poor transportation options have led to a housing crunch, forcing half a million people to live in a historic necropolis as squatters.

The Cairo Metro would be a solution to these problems to a large extent, but is very small relative to Cairo’s size: it has 3 lines, totaling 78 route-km. Other cities of comparable size have many hundreds of route-km of urban rail, with a handful of exceptions infamous for their sprawl (such as Los Angeles) or pollution (such as Sao Paulo). Despite its small size, the Cairo Metro gets about 1.6 billion passengers per year, by far the highest number of passengers per route-km in the world, nearly twice as high as on the legendarily overcrowded Tokyo subway. Cairo has high construction costs, but in exchange rate dollars they only amount to about $130 million per km; a fully underground expansion of the subway to 400 km, somewhat more than the length of New York’s subway lines and less than that of Beijing and Shanghai’s, would cost about $40 billion, less than the cost of the new capital’s first phase alone. This is on top of all other possible infrastructure investments Egypt should consider: sanitation, sewage, water treatment, electrification, hospitals, schools, the Suez Canal. I bring up the Metro since so many of Cairo’s pressing problems would be substantially reduced if it had the capacity to transport a large share of the city’s population.

The problem is that the Egyptian government’s first priority is not to serve the needs of the Egyptian population. It is an authoritarian military government; it is not accountable to the broad public. I bring this up, because it’s a necessary check on things I have said in the past, attacking local American governance as authoritarian. Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie have the power to overrule useful spending bills and cause traffic jams in cities run by political opponents. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has the power to jail political opponents without trial, and execute them by the hundreds after show trials.

Autocrats love planned cities, for two reasons. First, planned cities are monuments to their greatness, lasting long into the future. The people the autocrats trample will be forgotten. Tourists visit the Taj Mahal, and not museums commemorating the churches and temples Shah Jahan destroyed. They visit the Great Wall of China, and not any commemoration of the million-odd people who died in its construction. They visit the Old City of Jerusalem, while nobody commemorates any of the locals Herod taxed to build its monuments – even Judaism only commemorates the destruction of the Temple and the beginning of the Diaspora, generations later. Autocrats know this. Even in antiquity, they knew monuments would make them more famous. And even in modern democratic regimes, politicians like signature initiatives that have their names on them; going back to Andrew Cuomo, his proposed Queens convention center is a typical example. But Cuomo still faces some democratic checks and balances. Sisi does not.

And second, planned cities can be built in ways that enhance social control. City Metric compares the new planned capital with Naypyidaw, Burma’s capital, built in the era of military rule to replace Yangon. Purpose-built capitals can be (and are) built around the needs of the national elite, keeping the poor out of sight. They have street and building design plans that make it easy to bring in the military to quell riots: wide streets, buildings that do not touch, no central square where protests could happen. They also disallow squatters, without going through the difficult and controversial move of evicting squatters from the preexisting city. One rhetorical question I have seen on Twitter is, where will this city’s Tahrir be? An article on Cairobserver doesn’t make this exact argument, but does note that this plan disinvests in what will still remain Egypt’s largest city, and could only come about as a result of Egypt’s complete lack of democracy.

One of the bigger influences on my views of democracy is Brad DeLong and Andrei Shleifer’s paper from 1993, Princes and Merchants. I do not fully agree with the point they make, but one of the key components of it, on the spending priorities of an absolute ruler, is crucial to understanding the benefits of democracy. Per DeLong and Shleifer, absolutism chokes economic growth, since the absolute ruler will overtax the economy to maximize revenue. One may ask if actually, hereditary rulers would want to stimulate more economic growth in order to bequeath a stronger kingdom to their heirs. DeLong and Shleifer answer that no: even with clear rules of inheritance, succession wars are so common that kings have to constantly be on the guard against rebellion to make sure their heirs get to inherit anything.

For Sisi, it is perfectly rational to spend so much money building a capital city that would make an uprising against him less likely. The money is not going to come from his pocket, but from the pockets of people he need not care about too much – the Egyptian people. The personal benefits to Sisi are invaluable: Sisi’s two predecessors, Mohamed Morsi and Hosni Mubarak, were both overthrown and immediately charged with crimes, for which they were guilty (under Sisi’s influence, Mubarak was exonerated from most). Why not remove himself and the apparatus of the Egyptian state from the city where they were overthrown?

When I talk of infrastructure democracy in democratic first-world countries, I complain about (much) smaller versions of this exercise. One could reason with a democratic Egyptian government that there are better uses of the money in Cairo itself. One cannot reason this way with a military government. The same is true of the soft authoritarianism found in governments with a democratic deficit, from the European Commission to local American governments. Their power is ultimately limited by other layers of government, which are more transparent, and they are incapable of killing off political opponents, but they still do not have to listen to the people they impact, leading to decisions that are at times obviously ridiculous. Egypt’s new capital is this autocracy, taken to its logical end. A dictator, of the kind who the infrastructurists might praise as someone who can cut through the red tape and gets things done, is spending the country’s annual GDP on a plan to disinvest in the capital and build a monument to himself and his regime from scratch.

Ferries

Last week, Bill de Blasio proposed a citywide ferry system in his otherwise perfectly boilerplate State of the City speech. Ferries, as Ben Kabak notes, are a tried and failed solution in New York, with a $30 per passenger subsidy on the ferry to the Rockaways, one of the neighborhoods mentioned in de Blasio’s speech. At the same time, some ferry routes do attract large numbers of passengers, including the Staten Island Ferry and SeaBus; in addition, MBTA Boat attracts fewer passengers than SeaBus, but achieves better cost recovery than the MBTA’s land transportation services. The purpose of this post is to explain which urban geographies could be well-served by ferries, and why New York could not.

Until the invention of the railroad, the fastest, cheapest, and most reliable form of transportation was the boat. Inland transportation of goods was by canal whenever possible. Overland transportation was so expensive that, as noted by Andrew Odlyzko, the cost of coal would double twelve miles away from the mine (see p. 14). As a result, cities were founded on shorelines and in river estuaries, and shrank if their rivers silted.

Railroads inverted this equation. Even in the 1830s, trains achieved higher speeds than ferries do today: the London and Birmingham averaged 31 km/h at opening, whereas SeaBus, which uses fast catamarans, averages at most 20 km/h. They could climb grades without resorting to locks and derailed much less often than boats sank; and, with the world still in the tail end of the Little Ice Age, the railroads did not freeze in winter. In this situation, a seaside location is no longer an advantage. At coastal locations, railroads have to cross more rivers, as did roads before; the current route of the Northeast Corridor in Connecticut was not the first but the third rail connection to be built between New York and Boston, after the Long Island Railroad (with ferry connections at both ends) and the inland Hartford and New Haven Railroad route.

The 19th century was a period of fast population growth in the industrialized world, especially the US, and fast urbanization. The industrial cities were then sited based on the optimal locations of a railroad network and not that of a shipping network. Birmingham and Manchester were already the largest cities in the UK outside of London, but the first railroad was, not coincidentally, built precisely to give Manchester port access without relying on the Manchester Ship Canal. In the US, we can see this in action, especially in New England: Boston has always been New England’s largest city, but many other early-settled cities – Salem, Newport, Plymouth, Provincetown, Portsmouth – declined, and now New England’s second cities include not just coastal New Haven and Providence but also inland Hartford, Worcester, and Nashua-Manchester.

In some areas of Long Island and New England, we can see towns with dual centers: an older coastal center, and a newer inland center, near the train station or a highway interchange. As Long Island had extensive suburban growth in the postwar era, the inland centers there are usually the larger ones, whereas in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the coastal centers are usually larger.

Boston’s ferries serve these coastal centers. The Greenbush Line is locally infamous for its low ridership, about 3,000 per weekday in each direction. And yet, the ferries serving Hingham are fairly well-patronized: about 3,500 weekday passengers in both directions. (Both figures are from the 2014 Blue Book.) Now, the trains still carry nearly twice as many passengers as the ferries, but, relatively speaking, the ferries are doing quite well, since that part of the South Shore was settled before the railroad came, so the ferry serves passengers better than the trains do.

The other issue is which mode of transportation offers the most direct route. On the South Shore, the ferries go in a straighter line than the trains, which have to detour to remain on land. The Staten Island Ferry goes in a straight line, whereas roads and trains take big detours, especially for passengers leaving from St. George and not from near the bridges to Brooklyn and New Jersey. SeaBus, likewise, takes a direct route.

The significant fact for the Staten Island Ferry and SeaBus is that there economic centers of Staten Island and North Vancouver are right next to the ferry docks, coming from the fact that those areas were settled as suburban regions connected to the center by ferry. Because constructing a road or rail link across the New York Harbor or Burrard Inlet is difficult, those ferries were never replaced by fixed links; this is in contrast with Jersey City, which was also connected to New York by multiple ferry lines, but had enough demand a hundred years ago to fill the Hudson Tubes and later the Holland Tunnel with commuters.

None of these histories and geographies applies to the routes proposed by de Blasio and other ferry supporters. A Rockaway ferry has to detour around all of Brooklyn to reach Manhattan. The various waterfront ferries between Manhattan and Queens don’t really serve neighborhood centers, which are located around subway stations. Subway stations, like railroads, dislike coastal locations, not because of construction difficulties but because half their walk sheds would be underwater. Even Red Hook, which is cut off from the rest of the city by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and has no subway service, is not centered around the waterfront: the projects are several blocks inland, and Ikea Dock is facing the wrong way, south instead of west.

New York’s commercial centers, likewise, are inland. Why would a Midtown office developer waste any time building a skyscraper on the East River when the easternmost subway stations in Midtown are at Lexington Avenue? Thus the high-rise towers that line First Avenue are more residential than commercial, making them poor candidates for ferry connections. Lower Manhattan is better-connected to the water, but it is served by a large number of subway lines in all directions, none of which is at capacity since Midtown is the bigger office cluster. It’s also far from the waterfront condo clusters de Blasio wants to serve with ferries.

Even service between Staten Island and Manhattan shouldn’t be a ferry. A rail tunnel would offer a large improvement in trip times: about 8 minutes or even less, compared with 25 by ferry, and one to two transfers less than today. The question is entirely whether the costs could be contained enough to be in line with a realistic demand projection. Of course this is best realized as part of a regionwide commuter rail modernization plan, but even without such a plan, a connection to the 1 train would substantially reduce Staten Island’s commute time, which, at least last decade, was the longest of all US counties.

And this is an origin-destination pair that, given current infrastructure, is actually well-served by ferry, unlike the routes that de Blasio proposed. Ben tried to propose a better way of running ferries in New York, but with no real anchors to connect to, Ben’s proposal is a polite way of what I would phrase as “just don’t.”

Unlike Cuomo, de Blasio is not inherently hostile to public transit. However, he does not particularly care about transit, either. In this view, what he says about ferries is of limited consequence; the amounts of money in question are trivial. He’s not like Bloomberg, who directed $2 billion of city money to the 7 extension ahead of more deserving subway investments. Perhaps it’s wiser to focus on his plan to deck over Sunnyside Yards, or, more specifically, his invocation of massive projects including Stuyvesant Town, Coop City, and Starrett City – precisely the models that a Sunnyside decking should avoid.

However, there’s a good reason to focus on this, unimportant as it is. Cuomo’s failings are characteristic of an autocrat who is hostile to transit. De Blasio’s are characteristic of an autocrat who is indifferent. Although there is a long-term transit plan in New York, centered around completing Second Avenue Subway, this is not what de Blasio talked about, at all. Instead, he went for projects that can be done during his first term: off-board fare collection on a few more bus routes (“Select Bus Service,” complete with the pretense that they are bus rapid transit), and ferries. He won’t just follow an agenda set by others a long time ago: he has to remind people he exists on this issue as on his signature issues, but, as he doesn’t actually care about it, he will propose distractions that would at best do little (Select Bus Service) and at worst would be complete wastes of money (the ferries).

In a democracy, good transit advocates can push themselves into key positions at the ministry of transport, or its equivalent, such as a parliamentary committee on transportation (including the Congressional one, even). The same is true for people who care about other aspects of government spending and policy: housing, health care, education, defense, social welfare, policing. In an autocracy, such as the strong mayor system, it boils down to asking the autocrat to care and to take the right position. But the autocrat is just one person, and cannot pay equal attention to everything. Hence, ferries and Select Bus Service, in lieu of real transit investment.

Authoritarian Leaders and Agenda Setting

On Tuesday, Andrew Cuomo proposed a new signature initiative: a $450 million AirTrain to LaGuardia, connecting to the Mets’ stadium on both the 7 train and the LIRR. The proposal has practically no merit even as an airport connector: Ben Kabak and Yonah Freemark both note, with helpful graphics, that the connection is so circuitous it’d be slower than the existing bus-subway options to nearly every destination, including everywhere in Manhattan. Capital New York notes that in general, transit activist reactions to the plan were cold, precisely because it’s such bad transit.

The interesting aspect of this is about the counter-criticism, and the discussion it led to. (In contrast, Cuomo’s general hostility to transit and intercity rail is not news, and it’s unlikely someone with such a history could come up with cost-effective transit plans.) The main reaction to the criticism is not “where would you spend $450 million instead?”. That question has a few answers, all of which are boring: the general MTA capital plan, or, if the money is to go to expansion, Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, the next item on the city’s transit agenda now that Phase 1 is nearing completion.

Instead, the main reaction is “how would you connect to LaGuardia instead?”. That question, too, has a definite answer, which Ben talked about in his post, and which I pointed out in my post about airport connectors last year: an extension of the N to the east, with several stops (for example, at Steinway and Hazen) to serve more of Astoria and not just airport riders. The N takes a direct route to Manhattan, passing through or next to the top areas for LaGuardia passengers, as seen in the second map here. But even that is the wrong question. There are probably more cost-effective subway extensions in New York, having nothing to do with LaGuardia; I have to say probably, since at no point has the MTA proposed large enough a slate of possible extensions that we can compare projected costs per rider and say “this is the best.” There might even be better ways to extend the N eastward than to LaGuardia: an elevated line over Ditmars, a short segment of the Grand Central Parkway, and Astoria Boulevard would serve East Elmhurst, a dense, transit-deprived section of Queens, and would probably produce higher ridership than a swerve from the GCP to the airport.

Such is the power of a governor who’s accountable to nobody: he proposes a scheme, and even the criticism is on the governor’s own terms of providing service to LaGuardia. Yonah compares travel times to various destinations on various alignments for connecting LaGuardia to the subway. Nate Silver’s response has an infographic with travel times from the airport to city hall in various American cities – an infographic that is of little use to New York, where the main destination is far north of city hall, but is well within the general topic of LaGuardia’s airport connections. Even I, cognizant of this agenda-setting power, have to at least mention an alternative LaGuardia connector, knowing readers will want a plan.

The cheeky response to this is that in a democracy, this wouldn’t happen. Now, the US is a democracy. Cuomo has to stand for election every four years. The worst infrastructure disasters tend to be in countries that are authoritarian through and through: Russia’s elevated winter Olympics costs in Sochi and Qatar’s human rights abuses in the World Cup preparations are the two biggest recent examples. But democracies with insufficient checks on political power are susceptible to this as well. This is common in the third world, where corruption is more common – hence the abuses of the World Cup last summer, in a solidly democratic country – but can also happen in developed countries with democratic deficits.

Usually, the phrase democratic deficit refers to the EU, and by analogy other supranational organizations. But in the US, it’s a useful framework for thinking of local and state governments. Rick Scott, Scott Walker, and John Kasich needed nobody’s approval to reject federal funding for intercity rail. Chris Christie did not need anyone’s approval to cancel ARC, or to cause traffic jams in retribution against a mayor who refused to endorse him; in a recent article in New York YIMBY, defending the cancellation of ARC as originally proposed, I made sure to take multiple barbs at Christie, just to avoid playing into the agenda of canceling ARC to posture about government waste while diverting rail money to the New Jersey Turnpike.

Cuomo’s power is if anything even greater: the New York state government works by a three men in a room model, in which the governor, the speaker of the State Assembly (just indicted for corruption), and the majority leader in the State Senate (currently relatively powerless and dependent on Cuomo) wield all practical power. In such a system, Cuomo does not have the power to shoot protesters, thankfully, but does have the power to propose megaprojects that glorify him, without a broad discussion with stakeholders, in which the MTA’s long-term expansion plans and cost-benefit ratios would come into play.

Last year, in writing about elite infrastructure projects that are not about meeting a service need, I noted that talking about such projects in terms of cost-effectiveness is moot, because they were never intended to be about benefiting the wider public. We could discuss where to spend money on transit in New York in the way that would benefit the largest number of riders. We could even discuss what the optimal way of connecting to LaGuardia is, before comparing the best connection with non-airport projects to see where it should lie on the list of future expansions. But it would be pointless, because Cuomo is not interested in spending money on benefiting the largest number of riders; he frankly does not care about transit riders. When the time came to support transit riders, for example in signing a lockbox bill guaranteeing that money the state government had promised the MTA would indeed go to the MTA, he vetoed the bill instead.

In such a climate, as soon as we talk about tweaks to Cuomo’s plan, Cuomo’s already won; whatever happens, he will reap the credit, and use it to buy political capital to keep building unnecessary megaprojects. Even trying to make the best of a bad situation by making the airport connector better is of little use, since Cuomo will support the plan that maximizes his political capital and not the one that maximizes transit usage even within such constraints as “must serve LaGuardia.”

This is evident in his response to criticism among transit activists. After listing the many pundits and activists who oppose the plan, Capital New York included a response from the governor’s office, which said, in so many words, “our plan is better because it doesn’t go through populated neighborhoods, where there would be NIMBYs.” What those of us who want good transit view as a feature – connecting to underserved neighborhoods and not just to the airport – Cuomo regards as a bug. A plan that included additional stops in Astoria might well attract community support, while still offering much faster trip times to Manhattan because of the direct route, but would rely on non-airport ridership, which Cuomo doesn’t care about, to keep the cost per rider reasonable.

Because of this disconnect between what would work for transit users and what would work for Cuomo, the only reasonable answer to the plan is a simple no, which should be said as sharply as possible. No working with the proposal: it’s terrible, a true stone soup. No tweaks: Cuomo wouldn’t want any ingredients that would improve the soup, and would insist on keeping the stone in anyway. (He doesn’t have to eat it, he doesn’t use transit either way.) And, within the parameters of a transit conversation in which people are desperate to see expansions, no discussion that validates Cuomo’s original plan.

Update 7/28: in a joint announcement with Joe Biden, Cuomo has just announced $4 billion in airport improvements at LaGuardia, bundling the rail connector into the larger projects. I have nothing to add that I didn’t already cover in this post and in my older post about elite infrastructure investments.

Who Rides Commuter Rail?

I’ve had an argument in comments with the author of Purple City about who commuter rail should serve. He’s argued before that cities should make sure outer suburbanites can get to the center via express commuter rail, and I will add that American cities do do that, and orient commuter rail too much around the needs of peak-hour outer suburbanites. Insofar as I think cities should have commuter rail there’s no disagreement, but what I think they do wrong is focusing too much on the peak. The two practices in contention are the low off-peak frequency (for example, Metra’s Union Pacific-North Line, which has no freight to speak of, has worse than hourly off-peak service), and the stop distribution, which has trains making few or no stops in the city proper.

The common thread of these two practices is that they optimize one variable: peak travel time for a suburban commuter to the CBD. This neglects other sources of ridership on commuter rail, which are suppressed in the US but significant in countries with more modern operating practices. I will contrast the peak-focused approach with a rapid transit approach, using examples that I believe will show that the latter is bound to get far more ridership, even in the suburbs.

First, let us imagine a contrasting system, one in which North American commuter rail looks more like an RER, an S-Bahn, or a Japanese commuter rail network. Such a system will have the following features:

1. Relatively consistent stopping pattern. The busier lines may have local and express trains, but the express trains will stop at the same major stops. Local trains will make all local stops over a fairly wide stretch.

2. Low ratio of peak to off-peak frequency, in the vicinity of 2:1 or even less. In a major city like Chicago or New York, a line that can’t support half-hourly service all day, at a bare minimum, will likely have no service at all; the only exceptions I can think of are services at range so long they’re practically intercity, like New York-Hamptons or New York-Allentown.

3. An urban stopping pattern that’s not too express. If there’s a parallel subway then it’s okay to have a somewhat wider stop spacing than in the inner suburbs beyond the subway’s range, but still closer to the 2-3 km range than the 4-5 km range of Metra.

If it’s possible to do so technologically, then the commuter line may be interlined with a subway line, even. This is usually hypothetical, since subways and commuter trains, where both exist, are almost always technologically incompatible; Tokyo and Seoul are the two major exceptions, with London a borderline case. However, it’s useful to consider such hypothetical cases, to examine what would happen to train service. I will consider two such cases: having Vancouver’s Evergreen Line take over West Coast Express (the original argument), and having Boston’s Red Line take over Old Colony Lines. Neither situation is technologically possible, even ignoring FRA and Transport Canada regulations, as both Boston and Vancouver build subway tunnels for much smaller trains than run on the mainline, but this discussion may be useful in cases where a takeover is feasible, such as when the commuter line is an isolated branch. I prefer to discuss the hypotheticals since the two examples in question are purer examples of priorities: outer-suburban peak service, or rapid transit-style service.

Vancouver

Vancouver’s rail service consists of the SkyTrain network, which gets about 400,000 weekday riders, and the West Coast Express, a peak-only commuter rail network running 5 trains per day per direction, with 11,000 weekday riders. SkyTrain’s under-construction Evergreen Line will intersect the West Coast Express at Port Moody and Coquitlam, and then serve more stations in Coquitlam off the mainline, while the WCE continues much farther to the east, into the Vancouver exurbs. The WCE connects Port Moody to Waterfront in 25 minutes and Coquitlam in 30 minutes; the Evergreen Line is projected to take 33 and 38 minutes respectively, with a transfer at Broadway/Commercial. Despite the slower service, the much higher frequency, all-day service, and connections to more of the Vancouver metro area win: the projected ridership for the Evergreen Line is about 23 million a year (see Table 2 on PDF-p. 4 here), which corresponds to about 75,000 per weekday.

Now, what’s in contention is whether it would be wise to have the same treatment at WCE stations farther east. The potential ridership at those stations is lower since they’re in less built-up areas, so it is likely cost-ineffective to build an Evergreen Line branch along the Canadian Pacific mainline and have it replace the WCE, but if such a line were built, it would most likely have the same effect on travel times: people would have to transfer at Broadway/Commercial, and not including the transfer time take 8 minutes more to get to Waterfront. The eastern end of the line, Mission, has 75-minute service now, and this would change to 83-minute service plus a transfer.

I claim that Mission residents would still take the train more often if it were 8 minutes lower. The reason is simple: as a proportion of overall travel time, the 8 minutes are more important to a 25-minute Port Moody commuter than to a 75-minute Mission commuter. Mission commuters live farther out, so they’re somewhat less likely to care about service to various neighborhoods along the way, but they’re even less likely to care about 8 minutes. They also are less likely to care about very high frequency, since their trips are longer, but they do care about service availability all day, even if they’d be okay with half-hourly service. Moreover, the Evergreen Line will connect to secondary nodes like Metrotown better than the WCE does, and eventually have direct service to Central Broadway and UBC, both of which draw commuters from the entire region.

In the present, the WCE works as a placeholder – it’s possible to reduce staffing and improve turnaround times to allow off-peak service, but there’s too little population east of Coquitlam to justify a SkyTrain extension, and so far population growth is fastest in inner-suburban Port Moody and Surrey (see here and here) and not east of Coquitlam. In the future, if those areas grow then it will make sense to replace the WCE with SkyTrain. WCE upgrades are unlikely – adding infill stations is practically impossible, as the line hugs an active port, with no good station sites. While SkyTrain’s driverless configuration keeps operating expenses down, it makes it impossible to extend branches to the suburbs cheaply by running them at-grade and in mixed traffic with freight.

Boston

Several of Boston’s subway branches are parallel to extant or closed commuter lines. The Orange Line runs alongside the Northeast Corridor to Forest Hills, the Blue Line took over parts of the narrow-gauge Boston, Revere Beach and Lynn Railroad, the Green Line D Branch took over a commuter rail loop used by the Boston and Albany, and the Red Line took over a New Haven Railroad branch line to Ashmont and runs alongside the Old Colony Lines to Braintree. At the time the Braintree extension opened the Old Colony Lines were closed for passenger service, but they have been since reopened, running from Braintree to South Station with just one stop in between, either JFK-UMass or Quincy Center (never both, except on trains that skip Braintree); off-peak frequency is about every two hours on each of two lines, and with some off-peak trains skipping Braintree, service to Braintree is worse than hourly. The Red Line takes 26-27 minutes to go from Braintree to South Station, the Old Colony Lines take 19-21 minutes.

As is projected in Vancouver, ridership on the Red Line is much higher: according to the 2014 Blue Book, on PDF-pp. 14 and 74, the busiest MBTA commuter rail station, Providence, gets 2,325 riders per weekday and the busiest Old Colony station, Bridgewater, gets only 1,036, while the Braintree extension’s five stops get 6,975, 4,624, 8,655 (Quincy Center), 4,785, and 5,122 (Braintree). Those five stops get 30,000 riders between them, meaning 60,000 since it’s unlikely people ride internally on the extension; this is nearly half the entire MBTA commuter rail ridership, and three times the ridership on the Old Colony Lines (counting Greenbush, which diverges at Quincy, as a third line).

As in Vancouver, I claim that a Red Line extension taking over the Old Colony Lines would have much higher ridership. Of course the frequency per line, already middling since the Braintree extension is a branch, would not be very good; but at the range of the suburbs served by these lines, half the current frequency of the Red Line, giving about 20 minutes at the peak and 30 off-peak, is enough, and is a massive improvement over multi-hour headways. The extra 5-8 minutes of travel times matter less as one moves farther out, again; travel time to South Station from the first Old Colony stations past Braintree, South Weymouth and Holbrook/Randolph, is 28 minutes, about the same as from Braintree on the Red Line, and those two stations have a bit more than 500 weekday riders each.

Moreover, the Red Line has something the commuter trains don’t: service to multiple centers within the inner Boston region. Downtown Crossing is closer to most jobs than South Station, saving people the walk. Cambridge is a major job center in its own right (it has more jobs than any New England city except Boston, ahead of Providence, Worcester, and Hartford). Back Bay is a bit more accessible via the Orange Line at Downtown Crossing or the Green Line at Park Street than via commuter rail at South Station.

Like SkyTrain, the Red Line can’t run on mainline rail tracks, and there is not enough population to justify an extension, nor enough population growth in New England for such an extension to ever pencil out. However, it’s possible to modernize commuter rail, as I have written before. This would not provide direct service to Downtown Crossing or Cambridge, but could provide cross-platform transfers to Back Bay, decent frequency all day, and, since regional EMUs can have very good performance characteristics, much higher average speeds than with today’s slow diesel locomotives even if trains make more stops.

General Remarks

The examples of Boston and Vancouver’s ridership patterns suggest that it’s okay to sacrifice speed to provide coherent service. It’s worth noting here that the bulk of present-day ridership on North American commuter rail would not benefit too much from such sacrifice. North American commuter rail provides awful service in the off-peak or to non-CBD destinations: even the Newark CBD, relatively well-served by New Jersey Transit, has a 26% mode share as a job center as of 2000, as per an Alan Voorhees Transportation Center report called Informed Intuition (PDF-p. 13). There’s a huge amount of latent ridership on North American commuter rail, which is why rapid transit gets so much more ridership than peak-focused commuter rail.

This doesn’t change much at different ranges of distance from the center. The few minutes saved by expressing through the city to the CBD matter a great deal to the suburbs right beyond city limits, but those innermost suburbs are precisely the ones that could make the most use of service to multiple city nodes. Farther out, where commuters to the city tend to be more likely to be working at the CBD, since it is more specialized than most secondary nodes, frequency and service to everywhere matter less, but the extra few minutes matter even less.

However, since present-day riders are precisely the narrow slice of potential users who are okay with the current setup, they have the potential to engage in NIMBY protests against any attempt at modernization. Why change what works for them? This is why Long Island representatives oppose such modernization attempts as letting Metro-North access Penn Station; it’s entirely a turf war. Even reforms that do not degrade trip times to the CBD are unlikely in this political situation, for example mode-neutral fares: the people paying premium fare to ride the LIRR or (to some extent) Metra are the ones who are okay with paying this fare, and who may object to increased train crowding coming from lower fares.
Judging by the ridership multiple between the Evergreen Line and WCE, there are likely to be a few million weekday rides coming out of Eastern Queens and Long Island if the LIRR is modernized, but those are not the Manhattan-bound commuters who dominate the discussion today. Instead, they are people who have gotten used to unusable commuter rail, and drive to work, or take long bus-subway commutes to avoid paying higher fares. They do not seem like a significant source of regional rail ridership because they are not current riders (or they ride local transit instead), but they are precisely what makes the difference between the low ridership of every North American commuter rail system and the higher ridership of many European systems.

Why Avoiding Stereotypes is Important (Hoisted from Comments)

In the transit-related forums I participate in, people know that the US builds subways at higher costs than all other countries, because I talk about it often. This feeds into various stereotypes Americans have of government effectiveness; Americans of many political stripes understand that there are serious problems with US governance, and compare the US negatively with certain countries that are famous for getting things done. Thomas Friedman periodically raves about China’s massive infrastructure investment; when he was secretary of transportation, Ray LaHood made the same praise, and connected this to Chinese authoritarianism, while saying that American democracy was still overall a better system. More recently, there’s been praise for Germany, or more generally Northern Europe, as a place with effective infrastructure investment (even as the actual state of German infrastructure is in decline). I was reminded of these stereotypes in the discussion of New York’s shrug-worthy reinvention report at Second Avenue Sagas: once again, the commenters praised the usual-suspect countries, and sometimes connected low construction costs with authoritarianism.

Several more examples from this month have made me notice that people overstate certain cultural differences, especially ones that are in line with stereotypes, such as Western individualism versus Asian collectivism or Northern European efficiency versus Southern European corruption. Cultures are far too diverse to be reduced to these oppositions, and this is especially true on the level of political subcultures, such as transit investment.

The reality is that the places with the lowest construction costs do not really match the stereotypes. Peruse my various posts about subway construction costs again: the main three, but also some of the side ones. Authoritarian countries like China and Egypt do not have unusually low construction costs. Countries with reputations for efficiency run the gamut: Scandinavia and Switzerland are relatively cheap, but Germany and the Netherlands are expensive, with some German projects needlessly expensive because of political influence over alignment choices. Labor costs seem to have a weak if any effect on construction costs: India, by far the poorest country on my lists, is fairly expensive to build in, and within the first world, low-income Naples has cheap construction but so do high-income Swiss cities and middle-to-high-income Milan. Culture in the sense of Samuel Huntington’s civilizations has a weak if any effect, again: there are multiple examples of subway lines built in the Western world, the Islamic world, and East Asia, and the cost differences within each bloc are far greater than the cost differences between the blocs.

I try to avoid giving explanations for these patterns of construction costs. If I knew for certain what caused them, I would not be blogging; I would be forming a consultancy and teaching New York and other high-cost cities how to build subways for less than $100 million per kilometer. I have seen two explanations by professionals. Manuel Melis Maynar, the former CEO of Madrid Metro, explained briefly how Madrid has the world’s lowest construction costs, in terms of design compromises, avoidance of outside consultants, and structuring bids based primarily on technical merit and not cost. And Paul Barter’s thesis explains Japan’s relative lack of urban freeways as a result of high land costs and a costly eminent domain process; this also explains the pattern of Japan’s high urban subway construction costs compared with relatively cheap Shinkansen tunneling (the 50% underground Shin-Aomori extension was only about $55 million per km).

The key here is that neither of these two particular explanations has anything to do with cultural stereotypes of the nations in question. When people think of Hispanic culture, many stereotypes come to mind, but none of them involves having hyper-competent local agencies designing subway systems with small in-house staffs. On the contrary, given the stereotype of Southern European corruption, an American or Northern European who was informed that Madrid Metro awarded contracts based on a combination of technical merit, speed, and cost, and did not use outside consultants, might conclude that it has a bloated in-house staff and that it uses the discretion of technical merit to favor the politically connected. Likewise, although Japan is notorious for the expense of its urban land, it does not have a reputation for strong property rights protections; Anglophone and Western supremacists take it for granted that the West has stronger property rights protections than East Asia, even if in reality English common law makes takings easier than Japanese law.

In addition to the thread on Second Avenue Sagas, in which I felt compelled to constantly defend Southern Europe’s record on building rail infrastructure efficiently, I was recently exposed to another set of stereotypes, in a four-week-old blog post by Andrew McAfee on Financial Times repeating all the usual American exceptionalist tropes of innovation. According to McAfee, the rise of the tech sector of Silicon Valley underscores how the US is going to keep winning the new global economy, giving Tesla as the prime example.

I have a simple bullshit detector for articles about innovation, especially in the tech sector: if they praise Israel’s entrepreneurial cultures, I know with a high degree of certainty that they’re familiar with too small a slice of the nation to be informed. The real Israel, even the upper middle-class slice that I grew up in, is a country at the bottom end of the first world, with Southern Italian average salaries (average household income per capita is about $14,000 a year in PPP terms, about half as high as in the US), with people who move to the US and are floored by the plenty they see at American supermarkets. It has a lot of tech workers, who function as a back office to Silicon Valley, and a handful of inventors who make exit and become rich; neither group is large enough to raise average salaries to proper first-world levels.

But McAfee’s wrongness goes well beyond the line about Israel. In a global economy with specialized regions, people tend to overvalue the sort of production that accords with their sense of identity, and this leads to either regional pride or nationalism. For a certain class of Anglo-American boosters, this is finance; New York and London are global financial centers, and this makes them worthier in this view than cities with different economic roles, such as Paris. McAfee belongs to the class that views the tech sector as the most important, and sees Silicon Valley’s wealth as superior. This is simply the modern equivalent of the 19th-century Manchester boosters’ denigration of Birmingham as a city that didn’t have Manchester’s culture of mass production of cotton, as described in The Economy of Cities; back then the boosters viewed the world as a giant factory, and today they view it as a giant smartphone app. The epitome of this is the overrating of Tesla, which is special only in that it’s made by someone with a background in online companies and not in the auto industry. Who needs the Tokyo rail system when there are luxury electric cars exciting the tech boosters?

As it happens, Europe has a lot of innovation in new fields – it’s not just Siemens making incremental industrial progress; it’s also the Human Brain Project. So do Japan and South Korea: McAfee brushes aside patent statistics, perhaps because Japan and South Korea have by far the highest numbers of patents per capita.

Now, to clarify, it’s possible to relate the US strength in online companies like Facebook to its business culture of superstars, which relates to individualism. In traditional manufacturing sectors, big businesses are built slowly, and require immense amounts of capital; in the tech sector, Mark Zuckerberg could start with a relatively low amount of capital, supplied by an angel investor like Peter Thiel on the strength of an already successful demonstration, and obtain a very large market share via network effects. However, this explanation still requires mediation via business culture. Quoting Marc Andreessen, McAfee lists four explanations, two of which do indeed involve business culture, but two of which play well into the European stereotype of American ignorance: great research universities, and rule of law and respect for contracts and property. Paris has some amazing research universities, judging by the intellectual achievements of their faculty, and as noted above, in some respects the Anglosphere actually has weaker property rights than Japan. But American tech boosters have learned that great universities lead to software and tech businesses, so if the Grandes Ecoles don’t have that then they can’t be that great, right? The national stereotype is stronger than the reality, just as with the insistence of many people in the transit infrastructure debate to talk about China and Northern Europe.

I’m reminded by a point that I made three months ago, in response to a proposal to move Silicon Valley to a growth-friendlier metro area like Houston. Facebook, Uber, and other hot Silicon Valley firms have a culture that works for their industry and that has led to useful inventions. This does not mean that the entire world has to operate like a Silicon Valley firm, nor does this mean that everything in the US operates like one. The same is true of other national stereotypes. The Spanish economy is weak, but happens to have a small segment, corresponding to infrastructure engineering and management, that works very well; other countries would be wise to copy this culture in the realm of infrastructure, and in nothing else, until it can be verified that the same principles work in other settings.

This sort of imitation, focusing on specific aspects of business culture in a particular industry, is harder than general handwaving about how to think like a German or Japanese business manager (a common trope in the 1980s and early 90s) or how to think like a Silicon Valley manager. It requires much more detailed knowledge of several different countries to make comparisons, and this is uncommon, since usually the sort of knowledge that leads to comparative analysis is broader and less specific. I certainly don’t have it – I only know the construction cost output, not the inputs that go into it. Even small mistakes are hazardous: it’s likely that the best performers’ cultures have many distinct features, of which some are crucial to their success but others are irrelevant, and it requires specialized knowledge to sort out which is which.

To add to my previous post about the MTA reinvention report, this is why I’m so disappointed in official efforts to improve American transit governance. The MTA and similar bodies have enough institutional clout and money to hire people who do understand the intricacies of various success stories abroad, and could make specific recommendations, which could appear small but could also be revolutionary. Commentators have to default to first-order information about costs, or to national stereotypes, but the MTA could have detailed knowledge about what’s needed. Instead, the MTA did nothing of the sort, and left the sweeping changes to mongers of stereotypes.

Height Limits: Still a Bad Idea

In a pair of recent articles on Strong Towns, Charles Marohn, best known in the urbanist community for introducing the term stroad (street+road) for a pedestrian-hostile arterial street, argues for height limits as a positive force for urbanism. He does not make the usual aesthetic argument that tall buildings are inherently unpleasant (“out of scale”), or the usual urbanist one that tall buildings lead to neighborhood decline; instead, he makes an economic argument that allowing tall buildings greatly raises land costs, and makes redevelopment of vacant lots less likely. He uses the following example:

Let’s say the local code allows [a] vacant lot to be developed as a one story strip mall, but nothing higher. If the strip mall is worth $500,000, then the vacant lot is going to be somewhere around $75,000.

Okay, but what if the development code allows that vacant lot to be developed as a sixteen story tower? If the tower is worth $20,000,000, then that vacant lot is going to fetch a much higher price, maybe as much $2.5 million.

You own that vacant lot. I come to you with an offer to buy it for $75,000. What are the odds you are going to sell it at that price when you look to the other side and see the same piece of property going for millions? Not very good.

In most cities, as Charles notes, there is not enough demand to redevelop every vacant lot as a high-rise, and therefore, if high-rises are permitted, a few vacant lots will be redeveloped as high-rises, while the rest remain vacant. This is not the case in large cities, which Charles specifically exempts in his article (see also Daniel Kay Hertz’s response), but part of the problem with the argument, as we will see, is that the boundary between large cities and small ones is fuzzy.

Let me now explain why this argument fails, like all the other arguments for zoning restrictions: it makes implicit assumptions on future uncertainty. The reason the vacant lot owners are not willing to sell for $75,000 is that they hope to get $2.5 million. In a stable market, with low enough population that most lots cannot fetch such a high price, the lot owners know that holding off on $75,000 offers is a gamble and that they are unlikely to ever get a higher offer. People have optimism bias and might overrate the probability that they’ll get the $2.5 million offer, but also have risk aversion; in most cases in economics, risk aversion dominates, so that safer assets cost more and have lower returns.

So when do we see holdouts? Risk aversion predicts that the probability of obtaining a $2.5 million offer should be higher than the total demand for new towers divided by the number of vacant lots. If we explicitly assume that the cost figures in Charles’ example, including land costs, are unchangeable, then this means vacant lot owners expect there to be more high-rise towers in the future, which comes out of growth regions. Charles’ example is based on Sarasota, which like most of Florida has high population growth.

The other possibility is regulatory uncertainty. In a competitive market, land costs are already as low as they can be while letting lot owners cash out on past investments. Developer profits are also as low as possible, and represent the developer’s wage for managerial work. However, zoning restrictions will greatly raise both figures, and a lot owner who expects future developments to brush up against the present zoning code can hold out until prices rise.

This is the danger of a system that is based on arbitrary rules (Charles proposes up to two floors or 1.5 times the average present height, whichever is higher), and arbitrary distinctions between small cities in which height restrictions are desirable and large cities in which they are not: these introduce political discretion in the details, which introduces additional uncertainty among lot owners. True windfalls usually involve the boundary between regulatory regimes, and this creates political incentive to game the system in order to be one of the few owners whose lots can be developed as high-rises. In contrast, once a ground rule is established that there is no zoning, such as in Houston, introducing zoning is difficult, even when there are rules that are zoning in all but name, such as parking minimums.

Once we get into the realm of cities with a large proportion of their lots developed, as Charles proposes, future development can only replace old development, and this introduces a key difference between new development and redevelopment: redevelopment requires buying out the preexisting property. If a two-floor building is replaced by a three-floor building, then the developer has to not only pay construction costs for three floors, but also buy out two floors, effectively paying for five floors. But the revenue is still only that of a three-floor building, which bids up effective costs by a factor of five thirds. The formula is that if it’s possible to multiply the total built-up area by a factor of x then the buy-out factor will raise the cost of each housing unit by a factor of 1 + 1/x.

This effect is why, in major cities, we usually see buildings replaced by much larger buildings: for example, a three- or four-floor Manhattan building may be replaced by a fifteen- or twenty-story tower on a base. Charles laments that this is not small-scale or incremental, but even his example of good incremental development is similar: in Houston, single-family houses are replaced by low-rise apartment buildings, generating similarly high ratios of the floor areas of redevelopments with the buildings they replaced. Incrementalism in these cases consists of replacing small buildings by much larger ones, gradually, until a few decades later the entire neighborhood is tall.

One way around redevelopment’s need to buy out preexisting buildings is to mandate that future buildings be built to allow adding floors on top of them. Chicago’s Blue Cross Blue Shield Tower is an example. This is a regulation that increases the average cost of construction but reduces the marginal cost and thus the price. It’s also a regulation that only really matters in situations when it is difficult to have a high ratio of new to old floor area, such as in areas that are already high-rise, especially major city CBDs. (It is easy to quintuple floor area ratio when the preexisting buildings have three floors, but not so much when they have twelve.) The current styles of construction of most small buildings, for example sloping roofs common in American and European urban and suburban houses, tend to make adding floors impossible. Of course, the implication that such a regulation should only apply for buildings above a certain height introduces political discretion and hence uncertainty, but at least this is uncertainty that would apply equally to all buildings in an area, which is not always the case for zoning.

What Charles proposes, to develop all vacant lots first and only then start going taller, is then a recipe for high marginal costs, because of the buyout factor. In a small city uniformly developed up to one or two floors, it is difficult to spread the new development across many buildings up to three floors, precisely because there is no way to build single-family houses that are recognizable as such to Americans or Europeans from countries I’ve been to (It’s different in Canada, but this is considered a feature of the low quality of Vancouver’s housing) and that can have floors added to them. In such an environment, building tall is the only way to avoid high housing costs.

The NITBY Problem

Usually, the barrier to new development in a neighborhood is NIMBYism: connected local community members do not want the project, saying “not in my backyard.” There’s a wealth of literature about NIMBYs’ role in restrictions on development; William Fischel’s work is a good start, and the short version is that opposition to development is local, based on fear of the risk of decline in property values. Urbanists take it for granted that decisions made with regard to regional rather than local concerns will be more pro-development: Let’s Go LA has examples from Los Angeles, and Stephen Smith explains Toronto and Tokyo’s lax rules on new development based on their high-level decisionmaking (at the provincial level in Ontario and national level in Japan). In this post, I would like to discuss the opposite problem, which I call NITBYism – “not in their backyard.”

In certain circumstances, opposition comes from people living in other areas, who are aghast that an area they don’t live in is getting so much investment. This is more likely to happen when there’s heavy public involvement in development, but, since upzoning an area is a public decision (as opposed to unthinkable across-the-board zoning abolition), opposition can sprout anytime. One common thread to NITBY opposition campaigns is that NITBYs view housing as a good thing, and want it redirected to their areas. Another is that they self-perceived as ignored by the urban elites; this is common to both right-wing populists and left-wing ones. Since the process is heavily public by assumption, the price signal telling developers to build in the center of the major city is irrelevant, and this encourages the government to build more low-value peripheral projects.

The first example of this is when the process actually is public: subsidized affordable housing. As discussed by Daniel Kay Hertz, in Chicago, affordable housing regulations require developers to pay a fee to a dedicated affordable housing fund, which then uses the money to develop or buy housing and rent it out at subsidized rates for moderate-income residents. To minimize the cost per affordable unit, the fund builds the units in the cheapest neighborhoods, i.e. the poorest ones, exacerbating housing segregation. As Payton Chung explains, the low-income housing community networks in Chicago support this arrangement, because they are based in the neighborhoods where this affordable housing is built. This is not as self-serving as the examples I will include below, since the community groups want to see the most number of housing units built at a given cost; but a common feature of NITBYism, namely that the NITBYs view housing as a good rather than as a burden imposed by outsiders, is present here.

In Israel, NITBYism does not have the cost defense that it does in Chicago. Zoning in Israel is prepared by municipalities but must get approved by the state. This means that it is geared not only toward providing services to Israelis (such as cheap and orderly housing) but also toward national goals of Judaization. The worst NITBYism is not affecting Tel Aviv, but Arab cities, where the state refuses to approve zoning plans; since independence, not a single new Arab city has been built, except to house Bedouins who the state expelled from their villages after independence, and plans to build the first new Arab city are controversial on segregation grounds. This is while the state has built many new Jewish cities from scratch, often in peripheral areas in order to ensure a Jewish majority.

However, NITBYism afflicts housing in Tel Aviv, too. Although the state could if it wanted declare a housing emergency and force upzoning in Tel Aviv, it does not. There are few permits for new apartments in the Tel Aviv District (though more new housing sales): only 5% of the national total (including settlements), as per the pie chart on page 17 of the Ministry of Construction and Housing’s report and the more complete (in English) data on page 49, compared with a national population share of 16%; the Center District, consisting of Tel Aviv suburbs (though not the richest and most expensive, such as Ramat HaSharon, which are in the Tel Aviv District), has 22% of national permits, about the same as its share of the national population. This is not just NIMBYism in Tel Aviv, although that exists in abundance. Local politicians from peripheral towns demand local construction, and view Tel Aviv construction as something useful only to outsiders, such as foreign speculators or the urban elite. During the housing protests of 2011, there was widespread debate on the left about what solutions to offer, and people representing the ethnic and geographic periphery were adamant that the state build and preserve public housing in peripheral towns and not concentrate on Tel Aviv, which they identified with the secular Ashkenazi elite. A common thread in housing and infrastructure debates to both working-class Jews from the periphery and Arabs is the demand for a policy that would create jobs and housing in their hometowns, rather than build infrastructure that would put them in the Tel Aviv orbit.

Of the above examples, in Chicago the NITBYs self-identify as leftists, and in Israel, the NITBYs who want local housing rather than Tel Aviv housing either identify as leftists or identify as economic leftists and support the right on security and ethnic identity issues. However, the populist right is not immune from this. Right-wing supporters of suburbs who oppose cities for what they represent (diversity, usually left-wing politics of the kind they associate with the liberal elite) may also oppose urban upzoning. The best example of this kind is Joel Kotkin’s opposition to upzoning in Hollywood, which sounds like a criticism of government projects until one realizes that upzoning simply means developers are permitted to build more densely if they’d like. Now, Kotkin is pro-immigration, setting him apart from the main of right-wing populism, but in all other aspects, his paranoid fear of urban liberal elites imposing behavioral controls on ordinary people would be right at home at the UK Independence Party and its mainland European equivalents. Kotkin is also just one person, but his views mirror those of Tea Party activists who equate dense urbanism with an Agenda 21 conspiracy, to the point of conflating a phrase that means building new suburbs with a plan to forcibly relocate suburbanites to central cities.

I do not know Japan’s regional patterns of politics well, but I know Ontario’s. In Ontario, there is not much us-and-them politics regarding Toronto. There is such politics regarding the inner parts of Toronto – Rob Ford was elected on the heels of an outer-urban populist backlash to David Miller’s urbanism, including the perception that Miller was fighting a war on cars. But there’s none of the hatred of the central city and all that it represents that typifies politics in both Israel and the US. Hatred of the city in the US is right-wing (though within the city, hatred of the gentrified core is often tied to left-wing anti-gentrification activism), and hatred of Tel Aviv in Israel is generically populist, but in both cases, the us-and-them aspect encourages NITBYism.

In the most expensive American cities, this is not a major problem. Anti-urban populism does not have enough votes to win in New York and California, so state control of zoning in those states would not produce these problems. The Tea Party disruption of zoning meeting I brought up above happened in San Francisco suburbs, but did not have an effect on planning; I brought this example up to show that this political force exists, even if in that specific locality it is powerlessly weak. In those areas, local NIMBYism is a much bigger problem: many New York neighborhoods were actually downzoned in the Bloomberg era by local request. The primary problems that would plague state-level decisionmaking are corruption and power brokering, in which politicians hold even straightforward rule revisions hostage to their local pet projects. The us-and-them politics of Upstate and Downstate New York contributes heavily to power brokering, but Downstate’s demographic dominance precludes ideological choking of development.

Within the US, the risks of NITBYism are different. First, in the cost tier just below that of New York and California there are city regions in more moderate states, for examples Philadelphia and the Virginia suburbs of Washington, or possibly Miami (where the county-made rules have allowed aggressive new construction, mostly urban, which Stephen Smith credits to the political power of Cuban immigrants). And second, zooming in on different neighborhoods within each expensive city, the Chicago example suggests that if New York and other expensive cities begin a major program of public housing construction, the community organizations and the populists will demand to spread construction across many neighborhoods, especially poor ones, and not in the neighborhoods where there is the most demand.

As I noted two posts ago, there is a political economy problem, coming from the fact that the politically palatable amounts of construction are not transformative enough to let the working class live in market-rate city-center apartments, not in high-income major cities. Israel could semi-plausibly double the Tel Aviv housing stock; even that requires housing forms that Israelis associate with poverty, such as buildings that touch, without side setbacks. This would allow many more people to live in Tel Aviv, but they’d be drawn from the middle class, which is being priced out to middle-class suburbs or to working-class suburbs that it gentrifies. The working class in the periphery would be able to move into these closer-in suburbs, but this cascading process is not obvious. Worse, from the point of view of community leaders, it disrupts the community: it involves a churn of people moving, which means they end up in a different municipal fief, one with leadership the current suburb’s leaders may be hostile to.

For essentially the same reasons, subsidized housing in the center produces the same problems. If Israel builds a massive number of subsidized or rent-regulated apartments in Tel Aviv, there will be immense nationwide demand for them. Few would serve the residents of a given peripheral suburb, and there is no guarantee anyone would get them. On the contrary, in such a plan, priority is likely to go to downwardly-mobile children of established residents. At the 2011 protests, the people who were most supportive of plans to lower rents in Tel Aviv specifically were people from Tel Aviv or high-income suburbs who wanted to be able to keep living in the area. The community disruption effect of offering people the ability to live where they’d want would still be there. Thus, all the incentives line up behind periphery community leader support for building public housing in the periphery, where there is little demand for it, and not in the center. Even when housing is universally seen as a benefit and there’s no NIMBYism, politics dictates that housing is built in rough proportion to current population (since that’s where political power comes from) and not future demand.

Abolishing zoning is one way to cut this Gordian knot; it is also completely unpalatable to nearly everyone who is enfranchised in a given area. Allowing more private construction is the more acceptable alternative, but leads to the same problems, only on a smaller scale. It really is easier for community leaders to twist arms to demand veto rights and local resident priority than to push for sufficient citywide upzoning to alleviate the price pressure. But in an environment with weak NIMBYs and few NITBYs, fast growth in urban housing is possible.