Category: Transportation

Why Costs Matter

Stockholm is currently expanding its transit system, with about 19 kilometers of subway extension, and another 6 kilometers of a commuter rail tunnel taking regional traffic off the at-capacity mainline. The subway extension, excluding rolling stock acquisition, costs about $2.1 billion, and the commuter rail extension $1.8 billion.

The US is currently building five subways: Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 (2.8 km, $4.6 billion), East Side Access (2.2 km, $10 billion), the first phase of the Wilshire subway (6.3 km, $2.8 billion), the Regional Connector (3.1 km, $1.4 billion), U-Link (5 km, $1.8 billion). Two more projects are partially underground: the Crenshaw/LAX Line, a total of 13.7 km of which 4.7 are underground, at a total cost of $2.1 billion, and the Warm Springs BART extension, a total of 8.6 km of which 1.6 are underground, at a total cost of $900 million. (Update 2/1: the Central Subway is $1.6 billion for 2.8 km. Thanks to Joel for pointing out that I forgot about it.)

The first observation is that Sweden has just 700 meters 3.5 km of subway under construction less than the US under construction, despite a vast gap in not only population but also current transit usage. Stockholm may have twice the per capita rail ridership of New York, but it’s still a small city, the size of Indianapolis, Baltimore, Portland, or Charlotte; 450 million annual rail trips is impressive for a city of its size, but the US combined has more than 3 billion. This relates to differences in costs: the amount of money Sweden is putting into heavy rail infrastructure is $3.9 billion, vs. $23.6 billion $25.2 billion among the seven eight US projects, which approaches the ratio of national subway and commuter rail ridership levels.

The second observation is that the US spending is not really proportional to current rail ridership. Two thirds of the spending is in New York, as is two thirds of US rail ridership, but nearly everything else is in Los Angeles, which takes in a majority of current subway construction route-length. Los Angeles is a progressive city and wants better public transit, but the same is true in many of the six major US transit cities – New York, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia. And yet, of those six, only New York and San Francisco are building urban subways (BART’s one mile of tunnel is in a suburb, under a park).

The difference is that Los Angeles builds subways at $400-450 million per km in the city core (less in future phases of the Wilshire subway), whereas in most of the US, lines are either more expensive or more peripheral. Boston, the Bay Area, and Washington are expanding their rapid transit networks, but largely above-ground or in a trench, and only outside the core. Boston’s Green Line Extension is in a trench, but has had major budget overruns and is currently on the high side for a full subway ($3 billion for 6.9 km), and the MBTA is even putting canceling the project on the table due to the cost. Washington’s Silver Line Phase 2 is 18.5 km and $2.7 billion, in a highway median through the Northern Virginia suburbs. BART’s Warm Springs extension is about $100 million per km, which is not outrageously high, but the next extension of the line south, to Berryessa, is $2.3 billion for 16 km, all above ground.

Let us now stay on the North American West Coast, but go north, to Vancouver. Vancouver’s construction costs are reasonable: the cost projections for the Broadway subway (C$2.7 billion ex-vehicles, PDF-p. 95) are acceptable relative to route-length (12.4 km, PDF-p. 62) and very good relative to projected ridership (320,000 per weekday, PDF-p. 168). Judging by the costs of the Evergreen and Canada Lines, and the ridership evolution of the Canada Line, these projections seem realistic. And yet, in a May 2015 referendum about funding half the line as well as many other transit projects, 62% of the region’s voters, including a bare majority in Vancouver proper, voted no.

The referendum’s result was not a shock. In the few months before the vote, the polls predicted a large, growing no vote. Already in February, the Tyee was already comparing Vancouver negatively with Stockholm, and noting that TransLink’s regional governance structure was unusual, saying the referendum was designed to fail. This is not 100% accurate: in 2014, polls were giving the yes side a majority. The deterioration began around the end of 2014 or beginning of 2015: from 52-39 in December to 46-42 in January, to 27-61 in March. The top reason cited by no voters was that they didn’t trust TransLink to spend the money well.

This cannot be divorced from Vancouver’s Compass Card debacle: plans to replace paper tickets and SkyTrain’s proof-of-payment system with a regionwide smartcard, called Compass, and faregates on SkyTrain, were delayed and run over budget. The faregates aren’t even saving money, since TransLink has to pay an operating fee to vendor Cubic that’s higher than the estimated savings from reduced fare evasion. The height of the scandal was in 2014, but it exploded in early 2015, when TransLink replaced its manager amidst growing criticism. The referendum would probably have been a success a year earlier; it was scheduled in what turned out to be a bad period for TransLink.

The importance of the Vancouver example is that construction costs are not everything. Transit agencies need to get a lot of things right, and in some cases, the effects are quite random. (Los Angeles, too, had a difficult rollout of a Cubic-run faregate system.) The three key principles here are, then:

1. Absolute costs matter. They may not directly affect people’s perceptions of whether construction is too expensive. But when legislators have to find money for a new public transit project, they have some intuitive idea of its benefits, give or take a factor of perhaps 2. Gateway is being funded, even though with the latest cost overrun (to $23.9 billion) the benefit-cost ratio in my estimation is about 1/3, but this involved extensive lobbying by Amtrak, lying both to Congress and to itself that it is a necessary component of high-speed rail. Ordinary subways do not have the luxury of benefiting from agency imperialism the way the Gateway project did; if they’re too expensive, they’re at risk of cancellation.

2. Averaged across cities and a number of years of construction, cities and countries with lower construction costs will build more public transit. We see this in the US vs. Sweden. Of course, there are periods of more construction, such as now, and periods of less, such as around 2000, but this affects both countries right now.

3. Variations from the average are often about other issues of competence – in Vancouver’s case, the failure of the faregates and the delayed Compass rollout. Political causes are less important: Vancouver’s business community opposed the transit referendum and organized against it, but it’s telling that it did so and succeeded, whereas business communities in cities with more popular transit authorities support additional construction.

In a post from 2011, Yonah Freemark argued that California HSR’s projected cost’s upper end was just 0.18% of the projected GDP of California over a 20-year construction period. The implication: the cost of high-speed rail (and public transit in general) is small relative to the ability of the economy to pay. This must be paired with the sobering observation that the benefits of public transit are similarly small, or at most of the same order of magnitude.

New York’s survived decades without Second Avenue Subway. It’s a good project to have, provided the costs are commensurate with the benefits, but without cost containment, phase 2 is probably too expensive, and phases 3 and 4 almost certainly. What’s more, the people funding such projects – the politicians, the voters, even the community organizations – consider them nice-to-haves. The US has no formal mechanism of estimating benefit-cost ratios, and a lot of local political dysfunction, and this can distort the funding, to the point that Gateway is being funded even though at this cost it shouldn’t. But, first, even a factor of 3 distortion is unusual, and second, on average, these distortions cancel out. Democrats and Republicans shouldn’t plan on controlling either Congress or the White House more than about half the time, in the long run, and transit activists shouldn’t plan on political dysfunction persistently working in their favor.

The only route forward is to improve the benefit-cost ratio. On the benefit side, this means aggressive upzoning around subway stations, probably the biggest lacuna in Los Angeles’s transit construction program. But in New York, and even in the next five transit cities in the US, this is not the main problem: population density on many corridors is sufficient by the standards of such European transit cities as Stockholm, Berlin, London, and Munich, none of which is extraordinarily dense like Paris.

No: the main problem in most big US cities is costs, and almost only costs. Operating costs, to some extent, but mainly capital construction costs. Congress and the affected states apparently have enough political will to build a 5-km tunnel for $20 billion going on $24 billion; if this system could be built for $15 billion, they’d jump at the opportunity to take credit. The US already has the will to spend reasonable amounts of money on public transit. The difference is that its $24 billion $25 billion of spending on subways buys 26 km 28.5 km of subway and 16 km of a mix of light rail and el, where it could be buying 120 km 125 km of subway. Work out where you’d build the extra 94 km 96.5 km and ask yourself if ignoring costs is such a good idea for transit activists.

Modeling Anchoring

Jarrett Walker has repeatedly called transit agencies and city zoning commissions to engage in anchoring: this means designing the city so that transit routes connect two dense centers, with less intense activity between them. For example, he gives Vancouver’s core east-west buses, which connect UBC with dense transit-oriented development on the Expo Line, with some extra activity at the Canada Line and less intense development in between; Vancouver has adopted his ideas, as seen on PDF-page 15 of a network design primer by Translink. In 2013, I criticized this in two posts, making an empirical argument comparing Vancouver’s east-west buses with its north-south buses, which are not so anchored. Jarrett considers the idea that anchoring is more efficient to be a geometric fact, and compared my empirical argument to trying to empirically compute the decimal expansion pi to be something other than 3.1415629… I promised that I would explain my criticism in more formal mathematical terms. Somewhat belatedly, I would like to explain.

First, as a general note, mathematics proves theorems about mathematics, and not about the world. My papers, and those of the other people in the field, have proven results about mathematical structures. For example, we can prove that an equation has solutions, or does not have any solutions. As soon as we try to talk about the real world, we stop doing pure math, and begin doing modeling. In some cases, the models use advanced math, and not just experiments: for example, superstring theory involves research-level math, with theorems of similar complexity to those of pure math. In other cases, the models use simpler math, and the chief difficulty is in empirical calibration: for example, transit ridership models involve relatively simple formulas (for example, the transfer penalty is a pair of numbers, as I explain here), but figuring out the numbers takes a lot of work.

With that in mind, let us model anchoring. Let us also be completely explicit about all the assumptions in our model. The city we will build will be much simpler than a real city, but it will still contain residences, jobs, and commuters. We will not deal with transfers; neither does the mental model Jarrett and TransLink use in arguing for anchoring (see PDF-p. 15 in the primer above again to see the thinking). For us, the city consists of a single line, going from west to east. The west is labeled 0, the east is labeled 1, and everything in between is labeled by numbers between 0 and 1. The city’s total population density is 1: this means that when we graph population density on the y-axis in terms of location on the x-axis, the total area under the curve is 1. Don’t worry too much about scaling – the units are all relative anyway.

Let us now graph three possible distributions of population density: uniform (A), center-dominant (B), and anchored (C).

cityA cityBcityC

Let us make one further assumption, for now: the distributions of residences and jobs are the same, and independent. In city (A), this means that jobs are uniformly distributed from 0 to 1, like residences, and a person who lives at any point x is equally likely to work at any point from 0 to 1, and is no more likely to work near x than anyone else. In city (B), this means that people are most likely to work at point 0.5, both if they live there and if they live near 0 or 1; in city (C), this means that people are most likely to work at 0 or 1, and that people who live at 0 are equally likely to work near 0 and near 1.

Finally, let us assume that there is no modal splitting and no induced demand: every employed person in the city rides the bus, exactly once a day in each direction, once going to work and once going back home, regardless of where they live and work. Nor do people shift their choice of when to work based on the network: everyone goes to work in the morning peak and comes back in the afternoon peak.

With these assumptions in mind, let us compute how crowded the buses will be. Because all three cities are symmetric, I am only going to show morning peak buses, and only in the eastbound direction. I will derive an exact formula in city (A), and simply state what the formulas are in the other two cities.

In city (A), at point x, the number of people who ride the eastbound morning buses equals the number of people who live to the west of x and work to the right of x. Because the population and job distributions are uniform, the proportion of people who live west of x is x, and the proportion of people who work east of x is 1-x. The population and job distributions are assumed independent, so the total crowding is x(1-x). Don’t worry too much about scaling again – it’s in relative units, where 1 means every single person in the city is riding the bus in that direction at that time. The formula y = x(1-x) has a peak when x = 0.5, and then y = 0.25. In cities (B) and (C), the formulas are:

(B): y = \begin{cases}2x^2(1 - 2x^2) & \mbox{ if } x \leq 1/2\\ 2(1-x)^2(1 - 2(1-x)^2) & \mbox{ if } x > 1/2\end{cases}

(C): y = \begin{cases}(2x-2x^2)(1 - 2x + 2x^2) & \mbox{ if } x \leq 1/2\\ (2(1-x)-2(1-x)^2)(1 - 2(1-x) + 2(1-x)^2) & \mbox{ if } x > 1/2\end{cases}

Here are their graphs:

cityAcrowd cityBcrowd cityCcrowd

Now, city B’s buses are almost completely empty when x < 0.25 or x > 0.75, and city C’s buses fill up faster than city A’s, so in that sense, the anchored city has more uniform bus crowding. But the point is that at equal total population and equal total transit usage, all three cities produce the exact same peak crowding: at the midpoint of the population distribution, which in our three cases is always x = 0.5, exactly a quarter of the employed population lives to the west and works to the east, and will pass through this point on public transit. Anchoring just makes the peak last longer, since people work farther from where they live and travel longer to get there. In a limiting case, in which the population density at 0 and 1 is infinite, with half the population living at 0 and half at 1, we will still get the exact same peak crowding, but it will last the entire way from 0 to 1, rather than just in the middle.

Note that there is no way to play with the population distribution to produce any different peak. As soon as we assume that jobs and residences are distributed identically, and the mode share is 100%, we will get a quarter of the population taking transit through the midpoint of the distribution.

If anything, the most efficient of the three distributions is B. This is because there’s so little ridership at the ends that it’s possible to run transit at lower frequency at the ends, overlaying a route that runs the entire way from 0 to 1 to a short-turn route from 0.25 to 0.75. Of course, cutting frequency makes service worse, but at the peak, the base frequency is sufficient. Imagine a 10-minute bus going all the way, with short-turning overlays beefing frequency to 5 minutes in the middle half. Since the same resources can more easily be distributed to providing more service in the center, city B can provide more service through the peak crowding point at the same cost, so it will actually be less crowded. This is the exact opposite of what TransLink claims, which is that city B would be overcrowded in the middle whereas city C would have full but not overcrowded buses the entire way (again, PDF-p. 15 of the primer).

In my empirical critique of anchoring, I noted that the unanchored routes actually perform better than the anchored ones in Vancouver, in the sense that they cost less per rider but also are less crowded at the peak, thanks to higher turnover. This is not an observation of the model. I will note that the differences in cost per rider are not large. The concept of turnover is not really within the model’s scope – the empirical claim is that the land use on the unanchored routes lends itself to short trips throughout the day, whereas on the anchored ones it lends itself to peak-only work trips, which produce more crowding for the same total number of riders. In my model, I’m explicitly ignoring the effect of land use on trips: there are no induced trips, just work trips at set times, with 100% mode share.

Let us now drop the assumption that jobs and residences are identically distributed. Realistically, cities have residential and commercial areas, and the model should be able to account for this. As one might expect, separation of residential and commercial uses makes the system more crowded, because travel is no longer symmetric. In fact, whereas under the assumption the peak crowding is always exactly a quarter of the population, if we drop the assumption the peak crowding is at a minimum a quarter, but can grow up to the entire population.

Consider the following cities, (D), (E), and (F). I am going to choose units so that the total residential density is 1/2 and so is the total job density, so combined they equal 1. City (D) has a CBD on one side and residences on the other, city (E) has a CBD in the center and residences on both sides, and city (F) is partially mixed-use, with a CBD in the center and residences both in the center and outside of it. Residences are in white, jobs are in dark gray, and the overlap between residences and jobs in city (F) is in light gray.

cityD cityE cityF

We again measure crowding on eastbound morning transit. We need to do some rescaling here, again letting 1 represent all workers in the city passing through the same point in the same direction. Without computing, we can tell that in city (D), at the point where the residential area meets the commercial area, which in this case is x = 0.75, the crowding level is 1: everyone lives to the west of this point and works to its east and must commute past it. Westbound morning traffic, in contrast, is zero. City (E) is symmetric, with peak crowding at 0.5, at the entry to the CBD from the west, in this case x = 0.375. City (F) has crowding linearly growing to 0.375 at the entry to the CBD, and then decreasing as passengers start to get off. The formula for eastbound crowding is,

(F): y = \begin{cases}x & \mbox{ if } x < 3/8\\ x(5/2 - 4x) & \mbox{ if } 3/8 \leq x \leq 5/8\\ 0 & \mbox{ if } x > 5/8\end{cases}

cityDcrowd cityEcrowd cityFcrowd

In city (F), the quarter of the population that lives in the CBD simply does not count for transit crowding. The reason is that, with the CBD occupying the central quarter of the city, at any point from x = 0.375 east, there are more people who live to the west of the CBD getting off than people living within the CBD getting on. This observation remains true down to when (for a symmetric city) a third of the population lives inside the CBD.

In city (B), it’s possible to use the fact that transit runs empty near the edges to run less service near the edges than in the center. Unfortunately, it is not possible to use the same trick in cities (E) and (F), not with conventional urban transit. The eastbound morning service is empty east of the CBD, but the westbound morning service fills up; east of the CBD, the westbound service is empty and the eastbound service fills up. If service has to be symmetric, for example if buses and trains run back and forth and make many trips during a single peak period, then it is not possible to short-turn eastbound service at the eastern edge of the CBD. In contrast, if it is possible to park service in the center, then it is possible to short-turn service and economize: examples include highway capacity for cars, since bridges can have peak-direction lanes, but also some peaky commuter buses and trains, which make a single trip into the CBD per vehicle in the morning, park there, and then make a single trip back in the afternoon. Transit cities relies on services that go back and forth rather than parking in the CBD, so such economies do not work well for them.

A corollary of the last observation is that mixed uses are better for transit than for cars. Cars can park in the CBD, so for them, it’s fine if the travel demand graph looks like that of city (E). Roads and bridges are designed to be narrower in the outskirts of the region and wider near the CBD, and peak-direction lanes can ensure efficient utilization of capacity. In contrast, buses and rapid transit trains have to circulate; to achieve comparable peak crowding, city (E) requires twice as much service as perfect mixed-use cities.

The upshot of this model is that the land use that best supports efficient use of public transit is mixed use. Since all rich cities have CBDs, they should work on encouraging more residential land uses in the center and more commercial uses outside the center, and not worry about the underlying distribution of combined residential and job density. Since CBDs are usually almost exclusively commercial, any additional people living in the center will not add to transit crowding, even as they ride transit to work and pay fares. In contrast, anchoring does not have any effect on peak crowding, and on the margins makes it worse in the sense that the maximum crowding level lasts longer. This implies that the current planning strategy in Vancouver should be changed from encouraging anchoring to fill trains and buses for longer to encouraging more residential growth Downtown and in other commercial centers and more commercial growth at suitable nodes outside the center.

Transfer Penalties and the Community Process

In Seattle, there is an ongoing controversy over a plan to redesign the bus network along the principles proposed by Jarrett Walker: fewer one-seat rides to the CBD, more frequent lines designed around transfers to Link, the city’s light rail system. For some background about the plans, see Capitol Hill Seattle, Seattle Transit Blog, and the transit agency on a restructure specific to an upcoming Link extension to the university (U-Link), and Seattle Transit Blog on general restructure, called RapidRide+. The U-Link restructure was controversial in the affected neighborhood, with many opposing changes to their particular bus route.

Since the core of the plan, as with many restructure plans in North America, is to get people to transfer between frequent core routes more and take infrequent one-seat rides less, this has led to discussion about the concept of transfers in general, and specifically the transfer penalty. I bring this up because of a new post by Jason Shindler  on Seattle Transit Blog, which misunderstands this concept. I would like to both correct the mistake and propose why transfers lead to so much controversy.

The transfer penalty is an empirical observation that passengers prefer trips with fewer transfers, even when the travel time is the same. Usually, the transfer penalty is expressed in terms of time: how much longer the one-seat ride has to be for passengers to be indifferent between the longer one-seat trip and the shorter trip with transfers. For some literature review on the subject, see Reinhard Clever’s thesis and a study by the Institute for Transportation Studies for the California Department of Transportation.

Briefly, when passengers take a transit trip with a transfer, making the transfer takes some time, which consists of walking between platforms or stops, and waiting for the connecting service. Passengers weight this time more heavily than they do in-vehicle travel time. According to New York’s MTA’s ridership model, passengers weight transfer time 1.75 times as much as they do in-vehicle time. In other words, per the MTA, passengers are on average indifferent between a one-seat ride that takes 37 minutes, and a two-seat ride that takes 34 minutes of which 4 are spent transferring. Observe that by the MTA’s model, timed cross-platform transfers are zero-penalty. Other models disagree – for example, the MBTA finds an 11-minute penalty on top of a 2.25 factor for transfer time.

The transfer penalty can be reduced with better scheduling. Timed transfers reduce the waiting penalty, first because there is less waiting on average, and second because the (short) waiting time is predictable. When transfers cannot be timed, I believe countdown clocks reduce the waiting penalty. Walking between platforms or bus stops can be made more pleasant, and bus stops can be moved closer to train station entrances.

However, regardless of what the transit agency does, the transfer penalty is an average. Even for the same origin and destination, different people may perceive transfers differently. Any of the following situations can result in a higher transfer penalty:

  1. Heavy luggage. This also leads to bias against staircases, and often against transit in general and for cars and taxis. The waiting penalty does not grow, but there may be a significant penalty even for cross-platform transfers.
  2. Travel in large groups, especially with children. As an example, in comments here and on Itinerant Urbanist, Shlomo notes that ultra-Orthodox Jews, who travel with their large families, prefer one-seat bus rides over much faster and more frequent train rides. Families of 3-5 are also much likelier to drive in a family car than to take an intercity train or bus.
  3. Disability, including old age. This has similar effect to heavy luggage.
  4. Lack of familiarity with the system. This is common for tourists but also for people who are used to taking a particular bus route who are facing significant route restructuring. This can also create a large bias in favor of trams or trolleybuses, since their routes are marked with overhead wires and (for trams) rails, whereas bus routes are not so obvious.
  5. Reading, or getting other work done in transit. For longer intercity trips, sleeping is in this category, too. This tends to bias passengers against mid-trip transfers especially, more so than against start-of-trip and end-of-trip transfers.
  6. Seat availability. Passengers who get on a bus or train when it still has seats available may prefer to keep their seat even if it means a longer trip, and this shows up as a transfer penalty. This does not usually affect start-of-trip transfers (buses and trains probably still have seats), but affects mid- and end-of-trip transfers.

In contrast, people who are not in any of the above situations often have very low transfer penalties. In New York, among regular users of the subway who do not expect to get a seat, zero-penalty transferring appears to be the norm, especially when it’s cross-platform between local and express trains on the same line.

Usually, people in groups 3 and 4 are the major political forces against bus service restructuring plans. They’re also less willing to walk longer distances to better service, which makes them oppose other reforms, including straightening bus routes and increasing the average interstations in order to make bus routes run faster. This is also true of people in groups 1 and 2, but usually those are not inherent to the passenger: most disabled people are always disabled, but most passengers with luggage usually travel without luggage. The one exception is airport travel, where luggage is the norm, and there we indeed see more advocacy for one-seat rides to the CBD.

The key observation here is that even a route change that is a net benefit to most people on a particular origin-destination pair is sometimes a net liability to some riders on that pair. While it’s a commonplace that reforms have winners and losers, for the most part people think of it in terms of different travel patterns. Replacing a CBD-focused system with a grid leads to some losers among CBD-bound riders and winners among riders who travel crosstown; boosting off-peak frequency creates winners among off-peak travelers; straightening one kink in a bus route leads to losers among people served by that kink and winners among people riding through. The different transfer penalties are a different matter: even on the same origin-destination pair, among people traveling at the same time, there are winners and losers.

Solutions to this issue are bound to be political. The transit agency can estimate the net benefit of a restructure, and sell it on those grounds, but it’s not completely a win-win; thus some political process of conflict resolution is required.

In this particular case, the community process is reasonable. The main flaw of the community process is that the people who come to meetings are not representative of the body of riders and potential riders, and are especially likely to be NIMBYs. For example, on Vancouver’s West Side, the community meetings for the Broadway subway were dominated by NIMBYs who didn’t want outsiders (especially students) to have an easier commute to UBC, and not by people who could use the subway, often traveling through the West Side without living or working in it.

But the conflict when it comes to transfers is between groups of people who live in the same area. Moreover, there is no clear bias in either direction. Older people, who are usually more averse to change, are especially likely to show up to meetings; but so are transit activists, who are more informed about the system and thus more willing to transfer. People with intense familiarity with their home bus line are balanced out by people with familiarity with the system writ large. There is also no opposition of a widely shared but small benefit to most against a narrow loss to the few: instead, such reforms produce a large array of changes, ranging from major gains to major losses. Finally, frequent bus grids do not generate much transit-oriented development, unlike rail, which produces NIMBY contingents who are against transit investment on the grounds that it would lead to upzoning and new development (as in the above example from Vancouver).

The result is that here, political control can lead to positive outcomes, as the transit agency is required to consider the effect of change on many subsets of riders. Frequent grids really do generate losers, who deserve to be heard. In this case, it appears that they are outnumbered by winners, but the winners have as much of a political voice as the losers; there is no large gap between good transit and what the community thinks good transit is.

New York’s Subway Frequency Guidelines are the Wrong Approach

In New York, the MTA has consistent guidelines for how frequently to run each subway route, based on crowding levels. The standards are based on crowding levels at the point of maximum crowding on each numbered or lettered route. Each line is designed to have the same maximum crowding, with different systemwide levels for peak and off-peak crowding. While this approach is fair, and on the surface reasonable, it is a poor fit for New York’s highly branched system, and in my view contributes to some of the common failings of the subway.

Today, the off-peak guidelines call for matching frequency to demand, so that at the most crowded, the average train on each route has 25% more passengers than seats. Before the 2010 service cuts, the guidelines had the average train occupied to exact seating capacity. At the peak, the peak crowding guidelines are denser: 110 passengers on cars on the numbered lines, 145 on shorter (60’/18 m) cars on the lettered lines, 175 on longer (75’/23 m) cars on the lettered lines. There’s a minimum frequency of a train every 10 minutes during the day, and a maximum frequency at the peak depending on track capacity. When the MTA says certain lines, such as the 4/5/6, are operating above capacity, what it means is that at maximum track capacity, trains are still more crowded than the guideline.

In reality, guideline loads are frequently exceeded. Before the 2010 service cuts, many off-peak trains still had standees, often many standees. Today, some off-peak trains are considerably fuller than 25% above seated capacity. In this post, I’d like to give an explanation, and tie this into a common hazard of riding the subway in New York: trains sitting in the tunnels, as the conductor plays the announcement, “we are delayed because of train traffic ahead of us.”

The key takeaway from the system is that frequency at each time of day is calculated separately for each numbered or lettered route. Even when routes spend extensive distance interlined, as the 2/3 and 4/5 do, their frequencies are calculated separately. As of December 2014, we have the following headways, in minutes:

Line AM peak Noon off-peak PM peak
1 3 6 4
2 6:30 7:30 6:45
3 6 8:30 6:45
4 4:30 7:30 4:24
5 5 8:30 5:45
6 2:30 4 3:18
7 2:30 5 2:30
A 4:45 10 4:45
B 8:45 10 9:15
C 9:15 10 10
D 6:15 10 6:45
E 4 7:30 4
F 4:45 7:30 5
G 6:30 10 10
J/Z 5 10 5
L 4:30 6 4
M 8:45 10 9:25
N 7:15 10 7:30
Q 7:15 10 7:45
R 7:30 10 7:30

Consider now the shared segments between the various lines. The 4 comes every 4.5 minutes in the morning peak, and the 5 every 5 minutes. There is no way to maintain even spacing on both lines with these headways: they share tracks for an extensive portion of their trip. Instead, the dispatchers move trains around to make sure that headways are as even as possible on both the shared trunk segments and the branches, but something has to give. In 45 minutes, there are ten 4s and nine 5s. Usually, on trunk lines with two branches, trains alternate, but here, it’s not possible to have a perfect alternation in which each 4 is followed by a 5 and each 5 is followed by a 4. There is bound to be a succession of two 4s: the second 4 is going to be less crowded than the guideline, and the following 5 is going to be more crowded.

It gets worse when we consider the extensive reverse-branching, especially on the lettered lines. For example, on its northbound journey, the Q initially does not share tracks with any line; then it shares tracks with the B, into Downtown Brooklyn; then it crosses into Manhattan sharing tracks with the N; then it again shares tracks with no other route, running express in Manhattan while the N runs local; then it shares tracks with the N and R into Queens; and then finally it shares tracks with the N in Queens. It is difficult to impossible to plan a schedule that ensures smooth operations like this, even off-peak, especially when the frequency is so variable.

Concretely, consider what happens when the Q enters Manhattan behind an N. Adequate separation between trains is usually 2 minutes – occasionally less, but the schedule is not robust to even slight changes then. To be able to go to Queens ahead of the N, the Q has to gain 4 minutes running express in Manhattan while the N runs local. Unfortunately, the Q’s express jaunt only skips 4 stations in Manhattan, and usually the off-peak stop penalty is only about 45 seconds, so the Q only gains 3 minutes on the N. Thus, the N has to be delayed at Herald Square for a minute, possibly delaying an R behind it, or the Q has to be delayed 3 minutes to stay behind the N.

In practice, it’s possible to schedule around this problem when schedules are robust. Off-peak, the N, Q, and R all come every 10 minutes, which makes it possible to schedule the northbound Q to always enter Manhattan ahead of the N rather than right behind it. Off-peak, the services they share tracks with – the B, D, and M – all come every 10 minutes as well. The extensive reverse branching still makes the schedule less robust than it can be, but it is at least possible to schedule non-conflicting moves. (That said, the M shares tracks with the much more frequent F.) At the peak, things are much harder: while the N, Q, and R have very similar headways, the D is considerably more frequent, and the B and M considerably less frequent.

I believe that this system is one of the factors contributing to uneven frequency in New York, with all of the problems it entails: crowding levels in excess of guidelines, trains held in the tunnel, unpredictable wait times at stations. Although the principle underlying the crowding guidelines is sound, and I would recommend it in cities without much subway branching, in New York it fails to maintain predictable crowding levels, and introduces unnecessary problems elsewhere.

Instead of planning schedules around consistent maximum crowding, the MTA should consider planning schedules around predictable alternation of services on shared trunk lines. This means that, as far as practical, all lettered lines except the J/Z and the L should have the same frequency, and in addition the 2/3/4/5 should also have the same frequency. The 7 and L, which do not share their track or route with anything else, would maintain the present system. The J/Z, which have limited track sharing with other lines (only the M), could do so as well. The 1 and 6 do not share tracks with other lines, but run local alongside the express 2/3 and 4/5. Potentially, they could run at exactly twice the frequency of the 2/3/4/5, with scheduled timed local/express transfers; however, while this may work for the 6, it would give the 1 too much service, as there is much more demand for express than local service on the line.

To deal with demand mismatches, for example between the E/F and the other lettered lines, there are several approaches, each with its own positives and negatives:

– When the mismatch in demand is not large, the frequencies could be made the same, without too much trouble. The N/Q/R could all run the same frequency. More controversially, so could the 2/3/4/5: there would be more peak crowding on the East Side than on the West Side, but, to be honest, at the peak the 4 and 5 are beyond capacity anyway, so they already are more crowded.

– Some services could run at exactly twice the frequency of other services. This leads to uneven headways on the trunks, but maintains even headways on branches. For example, the A’s peak frequency is very close to exactly twice that of the C, so as they share tracks through Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, they could alternate A-C-A-empty slot.

– Services that share tracks extensively could have drastic changes in frequency to each route, preserving trunk frequency. This should be investigated for the E/F on Queens Boulevard: current off-peak frequency is 8 trains per hour each, so cutting the E to 6 and beefing the F to 12 is a possibility.

– Service patterns could be changed, starting from the assumption that every lettered service runs every 10 minutes off-peak and (say) 6-7 minutes at the peak. If some corridors are underserved with just two services with such frequency, then those corridors could be beefed with a third route: for example, the Queens Boulevard express tracks could be supplanted with a service that runs the F route in Jamaica but then enters Manhattan via 53rd Street, like the E, and then continues either via 8th Avenue like the E or 6th Avenue like the M. Already, some peak E trains originate at Jamaica-179th like the F, rather than the usual terminus of Jamaica Center, which is limited to a capacity of 12 trains per hour.

– The service patterns could be drastically redrawn to remove reverse branching. I worked this out with Threestationsquare in comments on this post, leading to a more elegant local/express pattern but eliminating or complicating several important transfers. In particular, the Broadway Line’s N/Q/R trains could be made independent of the Sixth Avenue trains in both Queens and Brooklyn, allowing their frequencies to be tailored to demand without holding trains in tunnels to make frequencies even.

For the lettered lines, I have some affinity for the fourth solution, which at least in principle is based on a service plan from start to finish, rather than on first drawing a map and then figuring out frequency. But it has two glaring drawbacks: it involves more branching than is practiced today, since busy lines would get three services rather than two, making the schedule less robust to delays; and it is so intertwined with crowding levels that every major service change is likely to lead to complete overhaul of the subway map, as entire routes are added and removed based on demand. The second drawback has a silver lining; the first one does not.

I emphasize that this is more a problem of reverse branching than of conventional branching. The peak crowding on all lines in New York, with the exception of the non-branched 7 and 1, occurs in the Manhattan core. Thus, if routes with different colors never shared tracks, it would not be hard to designate a frequency for each trunk route at each time of day, without leading to large mismatches between service and demand. In contrast, reverse branching imposes schedule dependencies between many routes, to the point that all lettered routes except the L have to have the same frequency, up to integer multiples, to avoid conflicts between trains.

The highly branched service pattern in New York leads to a situation in which there is no perfect solution to train scheduling. But the MTA’s current approach is the wrong one, certainly on the details but probably also in its core. It comes from a good place, but it does not work for the system New York has, and the planners should at least consider alternatives, and discuss them publicly. If the right way turns out to add or remove routes in a way that makes it easier to schedule trains, then this should involve extensive public discussion of proposed service maps and plans, with costs and benefits to each community openly acknowledged. It is not good transit to maintain the current scheduling system just because it’s how things have always worked.

Hyperloop Costs

Two years ago, when Elon Musk first proposed Hyperloop as a faster, cheaper, and more entrepreneurial alternative to California High-Speed Rail, I explained in depth what was wrong with the proposal. The curve radii were too tight for passenger comfort, and any attempt to fix them would require more expensive civil infrastructure. In general, the cost estimates in the plan were laughably low. Musk has moved on, but another team has been trying to build the system. It is planning to build a test track in the next three years, a distance of 8 km, for $150 million.

Let us analyze these costs. The per-km cost of this scheme is about $19 million, which if costs don’t run over is reasonable for HSR flat terrain, if anything a bit low. California HSR’s Central Valley segments, in more urbanized areas, are about $24-27 million/km, ex-electrification and systems (which don’t add much). This, in principle, suggests the system could be built for about the same cost as conventional HSR. Of course, it’s already far more expensive than Musk’s original estimate of $6 billion for about 650 km (including tunnels), but it still sounds like a good deal – in theory.

In practice, I’d like to go back to my often-quoted sentence in my post from two years ago, that Hyperloop would be a barf ride. The plan is to run capsules at their full speed, but only when empty. Tests with passengers would be restricted to 160 mph, or about 260 km/h. If the picture in the article describing the test track is accurate, the turn looks like its radius is perhaps 800 meters. Passengers can’t ride through this at very high speed. Even at 260 km/h, it requires full canting, and will make passengers feel noticeable extra gravitational push, about 0.2 g.

The importance of this is that any attempt to build tracks at higher speed will run into problems with both horizontal and vertical curves very quickly. The picture depicts sleek viaducts in empty land; imagine much taller viaducts, to allow the track to curve more gently than the terrain. Once the terrain becomes problematic, as it does on the approaches to the mountain crossings from the Central Valley to both the Los Angeles Basin and the San Francisco Bay Area, costs go up. This is true for any mode of transportation, up to and including mountain roads with hairpin turns, but the higher the speed, the larger the cost differential. In this situation, 4 km horizontal curve radii and 20 km vertical curve radii (about absolute minimum for conventional HSR) are expensive; 20 km horizontal curves and 230 km vertical curves are far more so. And within the urban areas, the inability of the system to leverage legacy rail tracks forces expensive urban viaducts.

When There’s Nothing Left To Burn, You Have To Set Money On Fire

Two recent news items have driven home the point that American construction costs are out of control. The first is the agreement between the federal government and the states of New York and New Jersey to fund the Gateway project, at a cost of $20 billion. The second is the release of more detailed environmental impact studies for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor; I previously expressed tepidly positive sentiment toward the NEC Future concept, but now there are concrete cost projections: the only full HSR option, Alternative 3, is projected to cost $290 billion. As Stephen Smith noted on Twitter, Alternative 3 is twice as expensive per km as the mostly underground Chuo Shinkansen maglev. As such, I am going to ignore other issues in this post, such as whether to serve Hartford on the mainline or not: they are real issues, but are secondary concerns to the outrageous cost figures.

Although both Gateway and NEC Future have extreme costs – too high for me to be able to support either project – the causes of those high costs are different. Gateway includes not just a new tunnel across the Hudson but also substantial unnecessary scope in Penn Station South; however, I suspect that even if the scope is pared down to the minimum required to provide four tracks from Newark to New York, the budget would still be very high. The bare Gateway tunnel (including Penn South) is to my understanding $14-16 billion; the maximum cost that can be justified by the extra ridership, unless additional operating improvements (which can be done today) are in place, is about $7 billion. As with Second Avenue Subway, there is a real problem of high unit costs. I emphasize that there is too much scope in Gateway, but the scope alone cannot explain why 5 km of tunnel cost many billions, when expensive non-US projects such as Crossrail top at a billion dollars per km and the geologically more complex Marmaray tunnel cost (in PPP terms) about $400 million per km.

The situation with NEC Future is different, in two ways. First, if Gateway cuts a zero from the budget, I will consider it a solid project, perhaps even an inexpensive one given the wide river crossing. (For reference, in 2003 the projected cost was $3 billion). In contrast, if NEC Future cuts a zero from its budget, I will still consider it too expensive – perhaps worth it because of the benefits of HSR, but certainly too high to be built without further inquiry. $29 billion for 720 km is justified for a line with a fair amount of tunneling and entirely greenfield construction, whereas the NEC has long segments that are already nearly ready for HSR and requires very little tunneling.

But second, and more importantly, NEC Future’s unit costs are not high. Read appendix B.06, which discusses cost: on PDF-p. 28 it breaks down cost by item, and other than the tunnels, which at $400-500 million per km are several times as expensive as intercity rail tunnels usually are, the infrastructure items’ per-km costs are reasonable. And the NEC doesn’t require much tunneling in the first place: Connecticut may be hilly, but HSR can climb 3.5% grades and ride on top of the hills, and only in Bridgeport is tunneling really necessary. Make it perhaps 5 km of required tunneling, all around Bridgeport. When I said $10 billion would build full-fat HSR on the NEC, I assumed $200-250 million per km for the Bridgeport tunnel. I also assumed $750 million for new tunnels in Baltimore, whose cost has since risen to $4 billion in part due to extra scope (4 tracks rather than 2). So 2 extra billions come from more expensive tunneling, and 278 extra billions come from bloated scope. Perhaps a subset of the 278 comes from high unit costs for systems and electrification, but these are not the main cost drivers, and are also quite easy to copy from peer developed countries. In the rest of this post, I will document some of the unnecessary scope. I emphasize that while Alternative 3 is the worst, the cost projection for Alternative 1, at $50 billion, is still several times the defensible cost of improvements.

Let us turn to chapter 4, the alternatives analysis, and start on PDF-p. 54. Right away, we see the following wasteful scope in Alternative 2:

  • Full four-tracking on the Providence Line, instead of strategic overtakes as detailed here.
  • A bypass of the Canton Viaduct, which at a radius of 1,746 meters imposes only a mild speed restriction on trains with E5 and Talgo tilt capability, 237 km/h.
  • An entirely new tunnel from Penn Station to Sunnyside, adding a third East River tunnel even though the LIRR is not at capacity now, let alone after East Side Access opens.
  • A tunnel under Philadelphia, so as to serve the city at Market East rather than 30th Street Station.
  • Two new HSR-dedicated tracks in New Jersey parallel to the NEC, rather than scheduling commuter trains on existing local tracks as detailed here.
  • Two new HSR-dedicated tracks alongside much of the New Haven Line, even in areas where the existing alignment is too too curvy.
  • Extensive tunneling between New Haven and Providence (see PDF-pp. 69-70 and 75), even in Alternative 1, even though HSR trains can climb the grades on the terrain without any tunnels outside the Providence built-up area if the tracks go west.

Alternative 2 also assumes service connecting New Haven, Hartford, and Providence, which I do not think is the optimal alignment (it’s slightly more expensive and slower), but is defensible, unlike the long proposed tunnels under Philadelphia, totaling around 30 km. The overall concept is also far more defensible than the tunnel-heavy implementation.

Alternative 3 adds the following unnecessary scope (see PDF-pp. 58 and 76-83):

  • Full six-tracking between New York and Philadelphia and between Baltimore and Washington.
  • Tunnel-heavy alignment options bypassing the New Haven Line, including inland options via Danbury or a tunnel across the Long Island Sound.
  • The new Baltimore tunnels are longer and include a new Baltimore CBD station, where the existing station is at the CBD’s periphery.
  • If I understand correctly, new platforms at New York Penn Station under the existing station.
  • Tunnels under the built-up area of Boston.

According to the cost breakdown, at-grade track costs $20 million per km, embankments cost $25 million per km, elevated track costs about $80 million per km, and tunnels cost $400 million per km. When I draw my preferred alignments, I assume the same cost elements, except tunnels are cheaper, at $200 million per km. (I also add 20% for overheads on top of these base costs, whereas these documents add contingency on top of that.) This should bias the NEC Future toward above-ground options.

Instead, look at the maps in appendix A. Alternative 3 is PDF-pp. 76-81. The options for getting out of the New York urban area include an almost entirely tunneled inland alignment, and a tunnel under the Long Island Sound; making small compromises on trip time by using the New Haven Line, and making up time elsewhere by using better rolling stock, is simply not an option to the planners.

Let’s go back to Gateway now. Although the cost premium there is not as outrageous as for NEC Future, it is a good case study in what the US will fund when it thinks the project is necessary and when there is sufficient lobbying. Paris has the political will to spend about $35 billion on Grand Paris Express, and London is spending $22 billion on Crossrail and is planning to spend much more on Crossrail 2. Between Second Avenue Subway, the 7 Extension, Fulton Street Transit Center, the PATH terminal, East Side Access, and now Gateway, New York is planning to have spent $43 billion on public transit by the middle of next decade. And now people are talking about Second Avenue Subway Phase 2. The political will to build both rapid transit and HSR in the US exists; the government spends tens of billions on it. But due to poor cost effectiveness, what the US gets for its money is almost nothing.

The $20 billion that the federal government and both states are willing to set on fire for Gateway prove that, were there a plan to build HSR so that trains would go between Boston and Washington in three and a half hours on a budget of $10-15 billion, it would be funded. This is not a marginal case, where the best plan still elicits groans from anti-tax conservatives: those conservatives ride trains between New York and Washington and want them to be faster. Instead, it is purely about excessive costs. Gateway’s $20 billion could build the tunnel and also full HSR on the NEC, and the $290 billion that NEC Future wants to burn on HSR could build nearly a complete national HSR network, serving most metro areas above 1 million people. It’s no longer a question of political will; it’s purely a question of cost control. 95% cost savings are possible here, and this is the only thing advocates for better intercity rail in the US should be focusing on.

Public Rapid Transit and Private Taxis

Cap’n Transit is writing about how, given that the political system in the New York area is hostile to public transportation expansion, private taxi companies are filling the gap, and this is fine (update: see the Cap’n’s comment below). This is not the first time I see people in the US claim that private shared-ride services are a substitute for public transportation; on Vox, Timothy Lee wrote that a ride-share service offered by Lyft is “the beginning of the end” for public transit. The tones are different – the Cap’n is hopeful that these services would get people out of cars, Timothy Lee is denigrating public transit and its supporters – but the message is the same: ride share is a substitute. I would like to explain why not only is this not happening, but also any hope of Uber, Lyft, and similar companies making the jump to conventional public transit is unlikely.

First, let us consider costs briefly. The biggest marginal cost of bus service is the driver, leading various futurists to fantasize about driverless taxis vastly reducing costs and competing with large buses. The only problem is, it costs too much to operate a car even without taking the driver’s wage into account. In the US, households spend 19% of their income on transportation; nearly all of this is private cars rather than plane travel or public transit. This works out to around $1.5 trillion a year, or about 30 cents per vehicle-km. Taxis have to pay this, and more, due to the cost of either the driver’s wage or the technology involved in automation. This is within the range of US urban public transportation‘s cost per passenger-km; the New York subway is 21 cents, and to be accessible to the masses it is subsidized. Of course, given automation, the subway would cost substantially less to operate.

This means that the only way taxi services can be affordable is if people share rides; Uber and Lyft are indeed moving in that direction. The problem is that sharing a car with a stranger ends the entire advantage of being in a car rather than on a train or bus. Slugging is not a popular mode of transportation; Wikipedia mentions a few thousand daily users in various US cities, whose subway systems get multiple hundreds of thousands of users. To offer even somewhat reasonable fares on their shared ride services, UberPool offers $5 promotional fares, and a maximum of two unrelated riders per car; sometimes, when the Uber system can’t find a second rider, there is just one rider, paying an express bus fare for private taxi service. It is not possible to make a profit in this manner.

Now, what the private sector can do, beyond taxis, is to scale up and offer vans and buses. It happens every day in the urban parts of New York beyond subway range: these are the dollar vans of various immigrant neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, and the private services running in Hudson County. It’s possible that Uber and Lyft will eventually go that route. So far, tech startups involved in transportation have tried to reinvent the wheel, for example Leap’s failed attempt to provide premium buses within San Francisco, but it’s possible that a well-capitalized private company will instead try to offer more conventional bus service.

The problem is that the private sector has never in recent history scaled beyond that. This was not always the case: the London Underground, the New York els, and the Chicago L were built by private companies, often in competition with each other; in Japan, there are many private railroads, which built commuter lines by themselves in the prewar era. However, in recent years, rapid transit outside Japan has always been built publicly; when private companies exist, they either operate trains by contract, as in Singapore, or were initially public and only privatized after they were already running trains, as in Hong Kong. Japan belongs in the same category as Hong Kong, with one complication: the private railroads still build commuter lines in the suburbs, but, at least in Tokyo, they rely on the publicly-built subway for passenger distribution within the city core, as (due to prewar government regulations) the private lines do not enter Central Tokyo. Let us examine why it’s the case that the private sector no longer builds subway systems.

In the biggest cities of the world in 1900, the urban geography was simple: people worked in city center, or in their own neighborhood. This monocentric arrangement made it easy to build streetcars and rapid transit privately, since all a company needed was to build a line from the center to some suburb or outer-urban neighborhood. Network effects were weak, and transfers were not so important. The Manhattan els radiated north from South Ferry because there wasn’t much demand for east-west transportation; the Brooklyn els, the Chicago Ls, and the London Underground lines similarly radiated from the center in all directions.

Developing-world cities are in a similar situation. As they build their CBDs, they create situations in which people work in their home neighborhoods or in the CBD. For example, Nairobi’s matatu network is CBD-centric, with not much crosstown service, because the jobs that require commuting are concentrated in the CBD. Of course, there are many local jobs within neighborhoods, but usually people work in their own neighborhoods rather than commuting crosstown. However, construction costs in the third world are typically higher than they were in 1900 in what is now the developed world. When New York built the Dual Contracts – already at public expense – the cost was $366 million, which is (contrary the link to the cost figure) $8.6 billion today. This is around $50 million per km, about 42% underground. This cost is not unheard of today, but it is low; in China, $160 million per km is more typical of underground construction. See examples here, here, and here. Moreover, in the poorest countries considering transit expansion today, incomes are a fraction of the level of the US of 1913 ($6,500 in today’s dollars): Kenya’s GDP per capita is $3,000, Ethiopia’s is $1,500. Thus, rapid transit is less affordable. India, at $6,000, is more comparable to the US a hundred years ago, but it has high construction costs, and an urban geography that’s diverging from the monocentric layout I’m describing here.

In the developed world, construction costs, while higher than a hundred years ago, are more affordable, because the GDP per capita is not $6,000 but $30,000-$60,000. However, the cities are no longer monocentric; even relatively monocentric Stockholm has major secondary centers in the universities and in Kista, with high peak demand for subway service. In a polycentric city, a single line is no longer enough; the transit lines must work together as a network. The entire philosophy of Jarrett Walker‘s network restructures (i.e. the frequent grid) is based on this fact, taking bus networks that have not changed much from back when the cities were monocentric and updating them to reflect modern-day everywhere-to-everywhere travel reality.

With network effects so great, private startups can’t really step in and supplant the public sector. The barriers to entry are large, which is why the only companies doing so have a long history of corporate existence, either as private Japanese railroads or as recently-privatized companies, and are not startups. Of course, online social networks have large network effects as well, but they operate in a young industry, whereas transportation is a mature, conservative industry, without much opportunity to offer new service that does not yet exist. Advances come from engineering and network design and are slow and cumulative, unlike the situation in the tech sector.

Of course, the government could structure its regulations in a way that lets the private sector tap into public-sector network effects. For example, it could compel operators to cross-honor one another’s transfer tickets. But this is the exact opposite of how tech startups work, which is without such regulations. You can’t send a Facebook message to a Twitter account. It’s also not how European private ventures that run on public tracks and compete with public operators work: the Italian private high-speed rail service, NTV, does not cross-honor tickets from the public operator, Trenitalia, and vice versa. Once the government mandates free transfers between companies, and joint planning for network optimization, and schedules that are more cooperative than competitive, we’re back in the world of public planning, and the private companies just run service by contract, as they already do in such cities as Singapore and Stockholm.

Improving public transit, then, requires improving the public side of transit. Taxis are a niche; so are buses that can be run privately, to the CBD or to the public subway network. The core of transit ridership, in the cities where public transit usage is high, consists of a mesh of buses and rapid transit that cannot be grown spontaneously by the private sector. If the government can’t provide this, the city will be auto-oriented. Good transit advocates have to then work to make sure the government is more competent and can build this network, rather than hope successful private ventures will save them; there is no alternative.

Local and Global Knowledge

Adonia Lugo has a post criticizing Vision Zero, an American movement that aims at reducing the number of pedestrian and cyclist deaths from car accidents to zero. Adonia makes a lot of criticisms regarding lack of diversity within US bike advocacy, which I’m not going to discuss because I’m only tangentially familiar with it, via the general urbanist connection to Streetsblog. Instead, I’m going to zoom on one criticism, in which Adonia also invokes transit: Vision Zero activists look to a slate of European countries for guidance on making streets safer, including Sweden (which, alongside Norway and Denmark, has nearly the lowest car accident death rates in the world), and Denmark and the Netherlands (which are famous for their urban cycling facilities). Adonia’s response is,

With my inclusion filter on, it sounded like another example of white bike advocates looking to Northern Europe for solutions instead of turning to urban communities in the U.S. to find out how they’ve managed to get by walking, biking, and using transit all these years.

This is where I lost sympathy. What Adonia is asking, essentially, is for more respect for her (and her peer group’s) local knowledge, which is based on American cities in which few people who can afford cars take other modes of transportation. In the entire US, the only city where significant numbers of people who can afford cars take public transportation is New York, and there is not a single city where significant numbers of people who can afford cars ride bikes to work. This means that any discussion of improving transit access must include at least some knowledge of what happens outside the US.

Local Knowledge and Denigration

The problem is that talking about what happens outside the US shifts the locus of expertise from people with local knowledge to people with global knowledge. If an American city talks about adopting ideas from one of its neighborhoods, or even from a nearby city, there’s a lot of local knowledge, in the form of people who live or have lived in that area, or know many people who live there, and can evaluate a policy as to its success or failure. Internationally, there isn’t any, outside specialized forums; even highly educated Americans are usually monolingual, have never lived outside the US, and aren’t really plugged into the political debates in other countries, except maybe Canada.

The result is denigration. I’m not very plugged into cycling advocacy, so I’m going to use public transit for concrete examples. I have accepted that whenever I propose that comes from another country, someone is going to say “that’s there, this is America.” I definitely got this response when I started proposing modernizing regional rail in New York: “you are not a real New Yorker.” New York is the worst in the US in that it resists any ideas from other cities, even domestically.

It’s ultimately a defense mechanism against something that’s literally foreign, which the activist cannot evaluate because they and the people they trust haven’t really seen this in action. Thus, many Americans choose to believe that US public transportation is not a failure, that it’s just in bad circumstances and has little to learn from Europe. I’ve seen New Yorkers make remarks such as “there is no history of underinvestment in Europe” (yes, there is – look at Berlin during the Cold War, or at the removal of streetcars in postwar France and West Germany).

For example, I’ve found that bringing up Stockholm as an example of good transit in the US gets me accused of trolling, repeatedly, more so than bringing up London or Paris. The reason is that, to New York-based readers, London and Paris are almost peer cities, and to other Americans, London and Paris are equivalent to New York; therefore, they match the perception that public transit works in old, huge cities, but not in smaller or newer ones. In some ways, I think Stockholm is a better example of what US cities should aspire to, precisely because it is a small city. It is also not as old as London or Paris; between 1950 and 2010, Stockholm County’s population grew by a factor of 1.9, whereas metro Philadelphia’s grew by a factor of about 1.6, Boston’s by a factor of 1.4, and Chicago’s by a factor of 1.7. Boston in particular had a very good public transit network in 1950, and it systematically dismantled it and bypassed the remains, so that the metro area public transit mode share is only 11%. Expressed differently, metro Boston has 55 annual rail trips per capita, whereas New York has 95 and Stockholm 200. Of course, the cities of the US Sunbelt have had far more postwar growth than Stockholm (though many are comparable to Vancouver) and even lower transit usage than Boston and Philadelphia, and there indeed wholesale imports of European ideas are less practical. But it says a lot that in the oldest US cities, with the street layout most similar to most of Europe’s cities’, transit usage is still very low.

Adonia denigrates ideas she considers racist, but this denigration cuts across political and tribal lines in the US. I have seen considerable denigration from American urbanists that city centers could ever be family-friendly whenever I mention generations of families living in the central parts of Tel Aviv, or Vancouver, or Stockholm. There’s even a Twitter account dedicated to this denigration, The Suburbanist. Of course, what’s missing is the history of white flight and racism – not that Israel, Canada, and Sweden are less racist than the US, but their racism did not involve leaving inner cities to low-income minorities. But mentioning that cities aren’t bad places for families reminds certain people that they’re leaving the cities because they don’t like minorities, so they lash out. Nowadays, the Suburbanist engages in open racism, but this wasn’t the case a few years ago, nor is it the case with a large number of Americans who, in comments on various blogs (never here as far as I remember), yell at me for bringing up foreign cities.

Not Invented Here, Periphery Version

When planners and managers denigrate foreign ideas, this is called Not Invented Here syndrome. It is common in American transportation planning. I believe the reason Vision Zero sticks to “it works in Scandinavia” is to at least try to confront those planners with the fact that, by international standards, they have failed to promote road safety, especially for pedestrians and cyclists. Certainly this is the reason I bring up the failure of every US city except New York to maintain respectable public transit usage.

Now, the two centers of public transportation innovation in the world – Europe and Japan – brim with their own NIH problems, toward each other. Their rolling stock markets are almost entirely distinct, due to a combination of protectionism and regulations. Japan is outside the European Train Control System umbrella and keeps developing its own signal systems, while ETCS in turn is based on the features of older systems in the major European countries and not in Japan. Japan lags Europe in automation (driverless metros are less common there), track capacity in trains per hour, and small-city cost-cutting innovations such as proof of payment. Europe in turn has higher big-city operating costs, more accidents, less punctual trains, and usually heavier trains. Both of those centers would benefit from adopting each other’s ideas.

And yet, things work. There is enough indigenous transit expertise in Japan that despite missing out on European innovations, Japanese transit systems work well. There has to be; Tokyo has comfortably not only the highest rail ridership in the world, but also the highest rail ridership per capita, about 400 annual trips, versus 200-250 in the most transit-oriented European cities. Of course, Europe’s own indigenous expertise is nothing to scoff at, either.

The US is not in the center of public transportation. I am going to develop this center-periphery dynamic in a later post, tentatively called Unbroken Country: The Periphery’s Manifesto, which will also go specifically into Israel’s domestic problems with public services. But, in short, the US acts as if it is in the center, since it is one of the centers of the global economy, and is the undisputed center of global society and culture. This is what leads to NIH syndrome and denigration – Americans think they’re doing well because, in most aspects, they are. But when it comes to transportation, the US is a peripheral region (even road construction techniques lag Europe’s), and thus, its NIH problems deprive the public discourse of much-needed knowledge.

For a concrete example, let us consider rail signaling. ETCS Level 2 is designed around the needs of the biggest European countries, where the main lines are at least double-track, there is much more passenger traffic than freight traffic, freight trains are light because bulk freight goes by sea, and the population density near the main lines is high. Neither the US nor Sweden fits this. Most importantly, both countries have highly-trafficked freight lines passing through remote territory – Norrland in Sweden, the Interior West in the US. Sweden, which does not have NIH syndrome with respect to the rest of Europe, worked on developing a lower-cost version of ETCS, called ERTMS Regional; but in the US, the freight railroads as well as the commuter railroads (even in the Northeast, where ETCS Level 2 is appropriate) ignored ETCS entirely and developed their own incompatible systems, on the grounds that ETCS doesn’t meet unique American needs.

The Mystery of the Foreign

People who don’t know something often consider people who do know it to be mysterious, almost magical. It is a commonplace that, in low-literacy cultures, illiterates viewed the written word as magical; see this account of Early Modern Italy, but also a counterpoint from Ancient Greece. Of course, literacy in the first world today is universal, but two to three more modern examples persist, of relevance to US transit advocacy:

  1. Math, among people who are not mathematically- or technically-minded. I was asked recently whether my background as a mathematician influences my blogging, and explained that I use fairly basic math, but I am not afraid of numbers, which means I am not afraid of trying to compute cost figures, train speeds, and so on. I am also secure enough in my mathematical knowledge that I am not afraid of nitpicking technical points, or of being nitpicked.
  2. Foreign languages, among monolinguals. I do not know enough monolingual Hebrew speakers to confirm this in generality, but monolingual Anglophones seem to treat foreign-language information as somewhat magical. For example, the vibe I have been getting both here and on Twitter is that if I cite a foreign-language Wikipedia this gets more respect than if I cite English Wikipedia. The monolingual Anglophone can verify an English Wikipedia citation, and maybe notice small mistakes in the article, but not a foreign-language citation.
  3. This may be the same as 2, but, foreign experience. Relatively few native-born Americans have lived outside the US, so people who do are treated as having unique expertise about the country or continent they were in.

Point 3 applies even to knowledge obtained by other means than living in a country. In 2005, when progressive pundits were talking about how to implement universal health care, there was so little knowledge about how universal health care systems worked that Ezra Klein became an A-list pundit out of a few short profiles of various countries’ health care systems, The Health of Nations (see 2007 version here). I, of course, have gotten a lot of mileage out of Googling various cities’ subway construction costs and putting them together.

The problem with viewing the foreign as mysterious is that it leads to wholesale import of ideas that may not work, or may require significant tweaks before working. Bus rapid transit, an efficient mode of travel in middle-income Bogota and Curitiba, does not port to high-income cities well: paying six bus drivers rather than one train driver to avoid spending money on rail construction is a bigger problem in a country with a GDP per capita of $40,000 than in a country with a GDP per capita of $13,000. There are successful tweaks, such as open BRT (see description here), but Jaime Lerner and ITDP have pushed Curitiba-style closed BRT. Here, the lack of detailed knowledge about what exactly makes BRT work leads American cities – and no European or Japanese cities – to propose ill-thought closed BRT.

Another example of a bad import caused by this kind of magical thinking is the mixed-traffic streetcar. Here, American transit advocates don’t just think in terms of “Europe has trams” but also in terms of “the US used to have trams but we ripped them all up in the 1950s.” Here, US cities import a mode of transportation that exists as a legacy around Europe, but is uncommon on new-build lines, and is used mainly as a compromise when the streets are so narrow it’s impossible to give streetcars dedicated lanes without closing the streets to car traffic. As the US does not have cities with such narrow streets, outside a few old neighborhoods in Boston and New York with good subway service, its import of mixed-traffic streetcars is bad transit.

This relates to the point I made above, about local knowledge and bullshit. I know that many people view me as somewhat mysterious for having such a different knowledge base from Americans. It means I can comfortably bullshit about many points. I don’t bullshit, but it’s likely I’m making some mistakes, and I try to encourage my commenters to check me on them. But this requires commenters who are also very technically-minded and don’t think that just because I say something, it must be true.

Trust

In a sociopolitical environment in which the public and the activists have very little knowledge about imported ideas, whether they support them (usually viewing them as magical) or oppose them (usually denigrating them) is based on whether they identify with and trust the people proposing the import. Adonia does not trust the people who promote Vision Zero, since she views them as too white and male and too insensitive to the concerns of nonwhites, for example regarding police enforcement of speed limits. Conservatives, in turn, do not trust those people because they view them as cosmopolitan liberal urbanites, whence Tea Party opposition to various commuter and intercity rail expansions.

Consider high-speed rail, which is entirely a foreign import. The political coalitions for and against HSR in the US are based entirely on cultural identification with the proposition that Europe is better at something than the US. In particular, business-class small-government conservatives, who tend to be big fans of HSR in the countries where it exists, hate it in the US; George Will claimed it would make Americans more amenable to collectivism, and in Texas, right-wing populists have tried blocking an entirely private HSR scheme and possibly connecting it to the Democrats. In contrast, the populist left in the US (for example, Robert Cruickshank) supports public transportation infrastructure because of the environmentalist tie-in; in contrast, in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn, who Robert is otherwise a big fan of, is at best lukewarm toward HS2. In Europe, the left is more pro-rail than the right, but the populists on both sides are more anti-rail, and the overall left-right gradient is small; in the US, the left-right gradient is large, and this comes from the issue of trusting the transportation program of countries that Americans associate with welfare-state social democracy.

The result is that any dialog based on foreign transit has to involve a certain amount of mystery and trust in the planners. I have no trust in the planners, because of various wheel reinventions proposed even by reformists, but I know enough to discuss technical items and not just the people. Generally, other people with this technical background come from a similar social background: educated, geographically mobile, white, male. The result is that, as with HSR, people’s opinions on these projects track their opinions of the tribe in the US that can talk at this level of technical detail. Usually it’s not even racial, not when it comes to transit – it’s mostly suburbanites looking for ways to screw the urbanites. If anything, nonwhite neighborhoods in the US are underserved relative to best practices, and agencies sometimes sandbag the idea of more service there. Adonia just weaponizes this in a different direction from the usual.

Local and Global Knowledge

I’m not going to rule out the possibility that there is valuable local knowledge in the US about cycling, but I know that there is very little such knowledge about transit, and given where the high cycling use is, I doubt cycling is much different. This means that American knowledge alone is worth approximately nothing. Jarrett Walker is of course American and has a lot to contribute, but as a consultant, he has extensive Australian and Canadian experience and some East Asian experience. The bus grid as an idea predates Jarrett – Jarrett attributes it to (at least) 1980s-era reforms in Portland – but by itself it’s not a game changer.

The problem here is that to implement something successfully, the people who run it need both local knowledge and knowledge about places that work, i.e. global knowledge. If there aren’t enough people with both, the solutions will not work, because people who can’t contradict what the planners are saying can’t exercise democratic accountability over them. One of the reasons Europe does transit better is that there’s more foreign knowledge here; see above for the contrast between how the US and Sweden handle rail signaling.

In fact, if you look at the examples above in the Mystery of the Foreign section, they both come from failure to adapt a successful foreign system to local conditions – namely, high wages in the case of BRT, and wide streets in the case of trams. I presume that the people who build mixed-traffic streetcars and BRT lines in the US have plenty of local knowledge, but they lack the global knowledge to appreciate what exactly makes those systems successes abroad. Conversely, international consultants don’t have the local knowledge to say “no, this is not a good fit for your needs” (besides, usually that’s not what they’re paid to say). This problem is especially acute with innovations in developing countries, such as BRT, since the large gap in incomes leads to different situations requiring major changes in adaptation, much more so than the relatively minor differences within the developed world.

Now, consultants can pick up local knowledge. Their trade is not just to possess global knowledge, but also to know how to acquire local knowledge rapidly when they’re working in a city. They run surveys, look at detailed breakdowns of costs and ridership to tease out patterns, quiz the in-house planners, and travel all over the city to gain ground-level impressions. The problem is that if the consultants are the only people who have both local and global knowledge, then there is no democratic accountability, and they have an incentive to bullshit. Of course, Jarrett specifically does not bullshit, but he has occasionally made mistakes (the main one, anchoring, I’ve been meaning to write about for two years), and of course my personal trust in one consultant is no substitute to systemic, institutional trust in the ability of the technocrats to response to what is essentially peer-review practiced by the community of local advocates.

It means the only way forward is for activists in US cities to pick up global knowledge and engage with such plans on the details. In the case of cycling, I could think of any number of reasons why US cities cannot emulate the success of Amsterdam and Copenhagen; but then again, it’s possible these reasons are all irrelevant, in the same manner many reasons Americans offer for why they cannot have the same per capita transit usage of Sweden are irrelevant.

I am also suspicious of the fact that, per Adonia, bike advocates look to Northern Europe as a source of examples of success. The biggest bike share systems in the world are all in China, and in Japan, bikes have largely replaced buses as the preferred mode of access to the train station in the suburbs. US bike advocates owe it to themselves and to their cities to be informed about Chinese and Japanese practices, and, if they clash with Dutch and Scandinavian practices, then to have opinions about which ones to pick and how to synthesize them in a local context. The only way forward for people in the periphery, by which I mean all of the US when it comes to any non-car transportation, is to know how the core works well enough that they can adapt its innovation without being so reliant on outside experts.

LIRR Scheduling

The Long Island Railroad’s timetable is a mess. There is too little off-peak service, especially at the urban stations. At the peak, there is more service, but the service pattern is inscrutable. The Babylon Branch runs a skip-stop pattern in which trains make three stops, skip the next three, and then make the three after them. The pattern of which branch east of Jamaica is sent to which city terminal (Penn Station, Flatbush/Atlantic, or occasionally Hunterspoint) is inconsistent; passengers generally get timed cross-platform transfers at Jamaica, but the frequent interlacing of trains introduces a lot of dependency between different branches in the schedule, reducing reliability. Worst, the Main Line runs trains one-way, so for an hour in the peak, there is no off-peak service. As expected, reverse-peak ridership is minimal, even though there’s a fair number of jobs within a comfortable walk of Mineola. In this post, I am going to discuss how to improve the schedules.

The main tool I will use is a map of LIRR line speed zones. This was made by Patrick O’Hara, of the invaluable but now taken-offline blog The LIRR Today. I emphasize that Patrick does not endorse my plan to eliminate one-way service, on the grounds that it would unacceptably add to the travel time for conventional peak trips from Hicksville and points east to Penn Station. However, using the map and some data about rolling stock performance, I am going to show that LIRR schedules are so padded that improvements to reliability via simpler scheduling can reduce trip times significantly, more than making up for additional trip times to the elimination of most express runs.

First, let us compute technical trip times. In Boston, I compute these by looking at the acceleration rate of the FLIRT, but New York has passable rolling stock already, which means that modernization does not require full replacement of the fleet. This means we should use the specs of the M7: 13.9 kilowatts per ton (FLIRT: 21.7 maximum, 16.7 continuous), and an initial acceleration rate of 0.9 m/s^2 (FLIRT: 1.2). Assuming no air resistance, this means the theoretical acceleration penalty to 130 km/h, the speed over most of the electrified LIRR main lines, is 23 seconds. Judging by the difference between theoretical and actual FLIRT acceleration performance, the actual penalty is about 26 seconds. The deceleration penalty is 19 seconds, for a total of 45. Up to a speed of 100 km/h, the acceleration penalty is 17 seconds and the deceleration penalty is 13 seconds, for a total of 30.

Let us take dwell times to be 30 seconds. With reasonably wide doors at the quarter points and level boarding, it should not be difficult for the LIRR to hold to this standard. Actual dwells appear to be about 40-50 seconds, but are in the context of considerable schedule padding, as we will see. I am going to round speeds up from mph to km/h, so 80 mph will be rounded to 130 km/h, and 60 mph to 100 km/h; the numbers are close, and when I compute curve speeds, the total equivalent cant seems very low, such that large speed increases are possible. However, I am going to stick to the speed map, only changing to km/h for ease of calculation. Including dwell time, the stop penalty in 130 km/h territory is 75 seconds, and the stop penalty in 100 km/h territory is 60 seconds.

Of note, the actual stop penalties we see on LIRR schedules are larger, on the order of 100 seconds. Part of it is the padding again, but part of it is that LIRR trains do not accelerate as fast as they can; the LIRR derated its trains, limiting their acceleration to about 0.45 m/s^2 to reduce the electric current. This can and should be reversed. If it is not, the acceleration penalty is 40 seconds to 130 km/h and 31 seconds to 100 km/h, while the deceleration penalty, unaffected by the change to maximum acceleration, remains the same; overall, this slows trains by about 15 seconds per stop.

East of Jamaica, there are almost no slow zones on either the Main Line or the Babylon Branch. Hicksville’s 65 km/h zone slows trains that stop at Hicksville by about 30 seconds (even a few hundred meters from the station, trains could go faster if the line speed were higher). The curve between Bethpage and Farmingdale is worth 15 seconds. The slowdown in the interlocking at the junction with the Hempstead Line adds 5 seconds. The slowdowns in Jamaica add 35 seconds east of Jamaica, and 55 west of Jamaica, both for stopping trains. On the Babylon Branch, there are a few restrictions in the 80-110 km/h range, worth in total about 70 seconds; Babylon itself is in 100 km/h territory, adding another 10 seconds.

It is 63.6 km from Jamaica to Ronkonkoma. An express train from Jamaica to Ronkonkoma stopping only at Hicksville would do the trip in 33 minutes. A limited-stop train that stopped at Floral Park, Mineola, Hicksville, and then all stops to Ronkonkoma would do the trip in 44.5 minutes. A train that made every LIRR stop, even ones that Ronkonkoma trains never stop at today, would do it in 53 minutes. Under the current schedule, limited-stop trains, not stopping at Floral Park (with technical travel time of 43.5 minutes), do the trip in an hour, for a pad factor of 38%. After accounting for the fact that LIRR trains don’t accelerate this quickly because of the derating, we obtain a technical travel time of around 45.5 minutes, for a pad factor of 32%, still immense.

In Zurich, schedules are padded 7%. Rerating the trains to allow faster acceleration, and reducing the pad to 7%, would cut the trip time under the current off-peak stopping pattern from an hour to 47 minutes, which can be taken as either a material speed boost or as an opportunity to make more local stops. As I will argue later, trains should make more local stops – specifically, all from Floral Park east. This is five more stops than trains currently make; taking the 7% pad into account, we get 54 minutes, still a noticeable improvement over the current situation.

It is 17.4 km from Penn Station to Jamaica. Rather than detail the slow zones, I will just give the technical travel time, for a full-acceleration M7 making no intermediate stops: 13 minutes, or 14 with a 7% pad; 1 of those 13 minutes comes from the Penn Station throat and its 25 km/h speed limit, which is one of the reasons I have emphasized the need for simpler interlockings in station reconstruction. The schedule has 19 minutes, which is a 45% pad relative to full-acceleration travel time, and around 40% relative to the derated travel time. This is even worse, which I believe comes from a combination of congestion in the Penn Station area and the timed transfer at Jamaica; these mean that delays on one branch propagate to the others, requiring more slack in the schedule to maintain reliability. However, I will note that Zurich’s 7% pad is in the context of an environment with even more branches sharing a trunk line, and a plethora of timed transfers and overtakes.

It is 44.4 km from Jamaica to Babylon. An all-stop train – counting Saint Albans but not Atlantic Branch-only Rosedale and Valley Stream – would do the trip in 41 minutes. As I’ve argued years ago, the Babylon Branch’s stations all have relatively equal ridership, unlike the Main Line, where a few stations dominate, and therefore, we shouldn’t plan around express trains. The current schedule‘s travel time on all-stop off-peak trains is 53 minutes, a pad of 29% relative to full-acceleration performance and 19% relative to the derated performance. I believe the reason there is much less padding here than on the Ronkonkoma Branch is that the service pattern is simpler: off-peak, all trains make all stops, whereas the Main Line mixes skip-stop and express trains between the Ronkonkoma and Port Jefferson Branches. If all trains make the same stops and there are no overtakes, it’s easier to recover from delays, so there is less need for padding. (A similar principle is that you need less padding on double-track lines than on single-track lines.)

As mentioned before, at Swiss 7% padding, making all Main Line trains all-local from Floral Park east allows 54-minute service from Ronkonkoma to Jamaica. It also allows 69-minute service from Ronkonkoma to Penn Station, with a minute-long dwell at Jamaica. This is two minutes less than the fastest daily train on the current schedule, a nonstop that runs once a day and arrives at Penn Station at 7:30 am, before the greatest rush. Even at the Babylon Branch’s 19% padding, we get 60-minute service from Ronkonkoma to Jamaica and 76-minute service to Penn Station, which compares with 75 minutes for two peak trains with a few intermediate stops, and 82 minutes for off-peak trains with the above-mentioned pattern.

As for the Babylon Branch, going down to 7% padding and rerating the trains at higher speed means all-stop trains, including the three current local stops between Jamaica and Penn Station, would do the trip in 62 minutes. This is competitive with most peak trains: one train stopping only at Jamaica does the trip in 53 minutes, arriving at 7:02 am, but the other morning express trains, with pads varying based on how close to the peak of peak it is, do the trip in 62-65 minutes.

I claim that the solution to the problems of the Main Line is to indeed abolish all express runs. At the peak, there is no excuse for them: current traffic between the Ronkonkoma, Port Jefferson, and Oyster Bay Branches is about 23 trains per hour at the peak, and this means that either all peak-direction trains run local, or trains run one way, with local trains on one track and express trains on the other. The LIRR chooses to sacrifice reverse-peak service, because frankly providing a coherent network is not a priority; the priority is connecting peak-hour suburban travelers to Manhattan, and saving them a few minutes at any cost. This is despite the fact that peak travelers are the most expensive to serve – the peak is what drives capital investment, to say nothing of the crew utilization problems. But in this case, the peak-focused service may be self-defeating, as the above computation of pad ratios shows.

In the morning peak, west of Hicksville, the service pattern should thus be the same for every Ronkonkoma or Port Jefferson Branch train: all stops to Floral Park (where passengers could transfer to the Hempstead Branch), then express to Jamaica and then Penn Station. All trains should be as identical as possible, which means cutting the diesels to shuttles and, in the medium term, electrifying the Port Jefferson Branch to the end, since there is high ridership the entire way, whereas the Oyster Bay Branch and the Main Line beyond Ronkonkoma have low ridership. The dispatching should emphasize headway management rather than the schedule. Since all trains are functionally identical from Hicksville west, it does not matter to passengers if their favorite train left early – the next one will show up in at most 3 minutes. For the same reason, the transfer at Jamaica should not be timed at the peak.

The highest rapid transit capacity in the world is on subway lines that use headway management rather than fixed schedules, including the Moscow Metro and many modern driverless lines, where the limit is 39 tph. I do not expect 39 tph on the LIRR, but there is no demand for that on the Main Line right now; the point is to maintain 24 tph without excessive schedule padding. Off-peak, trains should keep a schedule because the frequency is lower, but the lower frequency is precisely what makes delays not propagate so fast; similarly, off-peak, the Jamaica transfer should be timed. The greatest problem is in the afternoon off-peak, but there, the bulk of boardings are at Penn Station, where delays are less likely since it’s the start of the line.

This pattern also suggests which capital investments the LIRR needs to make: it needs to construct interlockings such that there are no conflicts between Main Line trains and other trains. This means two things. First, grade-separating Queens Interlocking, between the Main Line and the Hempstead Branch, which currently has an at-grade conflict between opposing trains (eastbound Hempstead Branch, westbound Main Line). And second, reconstructing Jamaica’s access tracks from the east in a way that allows the Main Line from the east to continue on the Main Line’s express tracks to the west without interference from other lines. Right now, there’s an at-grade conflict with the Babylon Branch, but only in the same direction, which is less problematic.

This means kicking other branches off the express tracks from Jamaica to Penn Station, the most desirable track pair heading west of Jamaica. This is fine. Passengers on branches that connect to Flatbush, or to the local tracks to Penn Station, could still transfer cross-platform at Jamaica, even if at the peak the connecting train does not wait for them. Besides, as noted above, 7%-padded local trains from Babylon to Penn Station would have the same trip time as all but the single fastest express Babylon Branch train today.

Jamaica’s current track layout is 8 platform tracks, numbered 1-8, north to south. There are platforms between tracks 1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6-7, and 7-8. This platform configuration allows three-way timed transfers: when a train platforms on track 2, passengers can walk from track 1 to track 3 via the train. Right now, to the west, the Atlantic Branch connects to tracks 3-6, and the four tracks of the Main Line each connects to two Jamaica tracks. But track connections exist to persistently connect tracks 2 and 7 to the express Main Line tracks, making 1 and 8 the local tracks and 3 and 6 the tracks to Flatbush. To the east, the Far Rockaway and Long Beach Branches connect to the Atlantic Branch without conflicting with other trains. Local Main Line tracks connect to tracks 1 and 8 without conflict. The only conflict involves the Babylon Branch, which runs in the middle between the eastbound and westbound Main Line tracks before diverging, and points at tracks 2 and 7. The current service pattern is that most Babylon Branch trains run express from Jamaica to Penn Station, making this track layout desirable. However, if they are switched to the local, single-track flyovers to connect them to tracks 1 and 8 are required, or alternatively a connection to tracks 3 and 6, which can be done without flyovers. In either case, three-way timed transfers would be retained, except at the peak.

Under my through-running proposal, the Atlantic Branch would continue to Lower Manhattan, so its demand would be much greater than today, encouraging a layout in which the Babylon Branch connected to tracks 3 and 6 and went to Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. The Main Line trains would express to East Side Access and Grand Central, with an additional stop at Sunnyside Junction. The Hempstead Branch, connected to Penn Station and the Empire Connection, would have service increased, with mode-neutral fares encouraging more travel from within New York and Hempstead. I would also propose a new branch of the Hempstead Branch, using the inner Central Branch, going to the East Garden City job cluster. The Oyster Bay Branch would be electrified and its junction with the Main Line grade-separated.

However, I emphasize that none of my proposed schedule changes requires the intensive capital investment associated with connecting Flatbush with Lower Manhattan. Even East Side Access is not required. Queens Interlocking would be grade-separated, and the Oyster Bay Branch would be reduced to a shuttle with an additional track at Mineola (unless electrifying the entire line and grade-separating the junction is cheaper in the short run, which I doubt). Initially, I am not sure the at-grade conflict with the Babylon Branch on the approach to Jamaica would be deadly. The subway has a same-direction at-grade conflict at Rogers Avenue Junction, between the 2, 3, and 5 trains, whose combined peak frequency is higher than that of the Main Line and Babylon Branch’s. Rogers Avenue Junction is a key bottleneck on the numbered lines in New York, which is why the LIRR should not replicate it in the long run, but in the short run, it is fine.

To conclude, here are proposed westbound timetables for Ronkonkoma, Babylon, and Hempstead trains. These assume no new stations and only the minimally required physical infrastructure (that is, grade-separating Queens Interlocking).

Main Line:

Ronkonkoma 7:00
Central Islip 7:05
Brentwood 7:09
Deer Park 7:12
Wyandanch 7:16
Pinelawn 7:19
Farmingdale 7:23
Bethpage 7:27
Hicksville 7:31
Westbury 7:35
Carle Place 7:37
Mineola 7:40
Merillon Avenue 7:42
New Hyde Park 7:44
Floral Park 7:47
Jamaica 7:53
New York Penn 8:08

This is a total travel time of 68 minutes, and not 69 as advertised above. This is because of rounding artifacts.

Hempstead Branch:

Hempstead 7:31
Country Life Press 7:33
Garden City 7:36
Nassau Boulevard 7:38
Stewart Manor 7:40
Floral Park 7:43
Bellerose 7:34
Queens Village 7:46
Hollis 7:49
Jamaica 7:53
Kew Gardens 7:57
Forest Hills 7:59
Woodside 8:04
New York Penn 8:12

The 4-minute difference between local and express travel time between Jamaica and Penn Station comes from the fact that the intermediate stations are for the most part in slower zones than 130 – only at Forest Hills is there enough of a distance to get up to 130, and only west of the station, not east. Erratum: although it is true the stations are in slow zones, I wrote this paragraph thinking there are four intermediate stations, where of course there are only three; 4/3 = 80 seconds per stop, which comes from rounding artifacts.

The Hempstead Branch has a 1.5-km single-track segment starting west of Hempstead and ending east of Garden City. It is quite slow; the 25 km/h curve just north (west) of Country Life Press has geometry good enough for 50 km/h without any superelevation (cant deficiency would be 150 mm), and with 150 mm superelevation would be good for 70. Replacing that entire 25-50 km/h segment with 70 km/h saves about a minute of travel time.

Babylon Branch:

Babylon 7:04
Lindenhurst 7:08
Copiague 7:10
Amityville 7:12
Massapequa Park 7:15
Massapequa 7:17
Seaford 7:19
Wantagh 7:21
Bellmore 7:24
Merrick 7:26
Freeport 7:29
Baldwin 7:31
Rockville Centre 7:34
Lynbrook 7:37
St. Albans 7:43
Jamaica 7:48
Kew Gardens 7:52
Forest Hills 7:54
Woodside 7:59
New York Penn 8:07

I arbitrarily chose the Ronkonkoma departure time to be 7:00, and then chose the Hempstead Branch schedule to allow a timed transfer at Jamaica. The five-minute offset for the Babylon Branch should be suggestive of the proposed frequency: off-peak, every ten minutes on the Babylon Branch (possibly every twenty but also every twenty on the West Hempstead Branch), every ten minutes on the Hempstead Branch (possibly every twenty but also every twenty on the Central Branch to East Garden City), and every ten minutes on the Main Line, with each of the Ronkonkoma and Port Jefferson Branches getting a train every twenty minutes. The Atlantic Branch trains should run every twenty minutes per branch, with a three-way timed transfer with the Main Line and Hempstead Branch. Off-peak, the Babylon Branch doesn’t transfer to anything else, so there is no need to worry about its at-grade conflict at Jamaica.

Amtrak Pays More Than Double for High-Speed Trains

Update 9/24: as Alex Block notes in comments, sources at Amtrak deny the story, saying that Schumer spoke too soon, and there are still two bidders and Amtrak has not yet made its choice. If the cost turns out to be $1-1.25 billion rather than $2.5 billion, I will withdraw any and all criticism of the procurement process.

A press release from Senator Charles Schumer’s office is abuzz: Amtrak chose Alstom’s bid for its next order of high-speed trainsets, the Next-Generation Acelas. The press release mentions the size of the contract, $2.5 billion, and the number of jobs it would create, 750; it did not include any information relevant to passengers, such as the number of trains, the expected schedule of delivery, the expected frequency, and the expected travel time. Various media outlets have reprinted Schumer’s press release without such additional information, or indeed any analysis. Let me rectify this and provide some background as to why this order is a fleece.

The order is for 28 trainsets with 425 seats each. This can be seen here and here. Of those 28 sets, 25 should be available for maximum service, well below the 98% peak availability achieved by the TGV, but an improvement over the Acela’s current 16 trains available out of 20. There is no mention of the number of cars, which is how orders are usually priced. However, on page 30 of the technical specs, it is mentioned that the maximum length is 200 meters, equivalent to 8 cars. The capacity is equivalent to about six cars’ worth of seating at the normal seat density of economy-class HSR (including the Amtrak Regional coach), or about seven cars’ worth averaged over all occupied Acela cars. The RFP mentions half a bistro car with an option for a full car (page 21 of instructions to offerors), so eight cars per train is a reasonable assumption. I have seen references to ten cars per set, which I believe come from the option for two additional cars per train (the instructions phrase this as “an extra 33.33% capacity”). From Schumer’s press release it’s difficult to know whether the $2.5 billion figure is the base order or also the option.

Eight cars per train times 28 trains equals 224 cars. $2.5 billion divided by 224 equals $11.2 million per car; if I am wrong and these are ten-car trains, then it is $8.9 million per car. In China, a very high-speed train, capable of 350-380 km/h, costs $4 million per car; this is $900 million at the size of Amtrak’s order. In Europe, the new Eurostar order cost a total of €600-700 million for ten 16-car Velaro trainsets, about $4.7-5.5 million per car in PPP terms (see here and here); the uncertainty comes from euro:pound conversion rates and from the fact that a portion of the order is for refurbishment of the older trainsets. Siemens also sold 8-car Velaros to Deutsche Bahn for $5.2 million per car, again in PPP terms. Japanese trains are even cheaper, about $3 million per car in a recent N700 order, but only last 20 years, whereas European HSR trainsets last 40 and Amtrak specified a 30-year shelf life. The only non-US trainset order that I’ve seen that approaches the $10 million per car mark is the Velaro RUS, which is €600 million for eight 10-car trains, and this includes substantial modifications, such as winterization.

There is no excuse for such high costs. The technical specs are not particularly innovative: on page 22 of the document linked above, it is mentioned that cant deficiency should be 127 mm if the trains don’t tilt and 229 if they do, both of which figures are unimpressive by the respective standards of non-tilting and tilting trains. There is no explicit requirement for tilt. There is a requirement that trains be capable of traveling between New York and Washington in 2:21 (current trip time is 2:48) and between New Haven and Boston in 1:51 (current trip time is about 2 hours, skipping New London, which the specs require trains to stop at); there is no mention of which track upgrades are forthcoming, but given Amtrak’s heavy schedule padding, it is not difficult for a good train to meet the requirements. I do not bring these specs up to attack Amtrak for not demanding more of the trains, but to note that what Amtrak is asking is standard, so there is no reason for trains to be unusually expensive.

I will note that due to Buy America provisions, the trains will be manufactured in the US, at Alstom’s factory in Hornell. This has not caused cost blowouts for the large orders made by the New York subway, the LIRR, and Metro-North, but perhaps this order is small enough that requiring Alstom to build it at a new factory leads to major cost increases. It is also possible that due to difficulties in the bidding process, there are fewer bidders than is normal – Bombardier dropped out of the process last year, and in general, some US contracts have just one bid, with correspondingly elevated prices. But regardless of the reason, Amtrak’s order comes at a factor-of-two cost premium, and Schumer just expressed pride at the few hundred jobs that this waste would create.