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"CBD workers" - At first read I thought maybe the Rogan visit had rubbed off on Matt. Then I realized it stands for Central Business District.

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Matt's next post will be about Vitamin D and elk meat

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Speaking as a former transit industry person, I feel as though more than a few opportunities are being blown by transit agencies, even in areas that have little/nothing to do with Congress.

- Some agencies should take the lead in doing a State of Good Repair (SGR) audit. A *HUGE* part of capital and operating budget plans for big agencies are driven by formulaic SGR maintenance backlog estimates. I personally think SGR as a measure is problematic: it is overly conservative to an extent that the foretold breakdowns do not come to match reality and as such creates a 'Boy Who Cried Wolf' situation, especially in the minds of legislators. Using the slowdown to actually inspect rolling stock and facilities and match expert estimates of further useful life against prevailing SGR standards would be a great use of time and energy, especialyl if it could de-wed planning from a tired and counter-productive metric.

- Another use of the slowdown would/would have been route consolidation in the name of increasing service frequency and reliability on key routes. It's always a political thornbush to talk about decreasing service, consolidating stops, etc., even on little-used routes, and those capital assets and operating dollars that could enhance core routes end up constrained as a result. This pandemic would be the perfect time to re-balance levels of service between routes, in ways that would optimize city bus networks going forward.

- As Yglesias notes, it's a great time to borrow. I don't know how it is in other cities, but in Chicago the commuter rail system (Metra) literally has never tapped any of its borrowing authority, while it sits on tons of under-developed land near its suburban stations. Again, this would be the perfect time to move ahead on some development plans for those lots, in a cost-effective way that would lock in future ridership while also minimally disrupting operations or daily use.

None of these really involve any asks of Mitch McConnell, but I don't see many/any of them being moved ahead. It's not as though transit and planning agencies lack smart and energetic people; there is a severe dearth of folks willing to accept the risk of charging ahead with new things at the margins of their covered authority.

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You seem to argue transit is safe based on the marketurbanism.com article.

But that article doesn't make that argument at all. It argues the reason the subway wasn't responsible for the spread of the virus was because people stopped using it because they perceived it as risky. Not that riding the subway was safe.

> There are two reasonable explanations for the likely fact that coronavirus spreads more along roads than rails. First, subway-dependent people may have cut their travel more than car-dependent people. Since travel brings us in contact with others at our destinations (stores, jobs, restaurants), the excess drop in travel may have made subway people safer precisely because the subway seems so dangerous.

> Second, and less obviously, subway-dependent people likely have more geographically-determined circles of contact. Car owners can move freely well beyond their immediate neighborhood. In the language of networks, non-car owners are more likely to approximate “neighbor flooding”; car owners to approximate “uniform gossip” (hat tip to Wesley Chow for this conceptual framework). That is, if a grocery store in a low-car-ownership neighborhood becomes an infectious spot, it is likely to infect a bunch of people who will all “reinfect” each other at the drug store and the park. In a car-oriented context, by contrast, infected grocery customers would drive off to different pharmacies and parks and infect other people.

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I can't help but feel that the pandemic was more of a lost opportunity for busses and walkability in general. Cities like DC were able to take traffic lanes away from cars and hand them over to restaurants, eliminate cars from some streets with lots of businesses, and generally improve the walkability of the cities. Far more could have been done to create more bus- and bike-only lanes and close off commercial areas to cars. When fewer people were on the road, there would be less cost (congestion and political blowback).

I have no evidence, but my intuition is that crowding out cars would boost incentives for walking during the pandemic and then boost incentives for mass transit during non-pandemic times.

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While we're on the topic of crowding out cars and boosting incentives for mass transit, NYC was supposed to start implementing congestion pricing this year but the Trump administration blocked it: https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2020/11/19/congestion-pricing-can-still-happen-in-2021-but-there-are-a-lot-of-ifs-including-president-biden/

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Hi Matt!! (Say hi back!! Attempt #7)

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Hi!

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Grand compromise - the YGLESIAS ACT of 2021: more money for local police departments (refund the police!) and more money for mass transit.

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MTA efficiencies have always been the no brainer that ny politicians would never dare touch. Bailout as entry point for this is certainly the best hope. *fingers crossed*

But what the heck do you do about MTA’s insane capex? Bloat on bloat.

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The Capex situation is crazy (see our event on Wednesday!) but not directly relevant to the immediate situation.

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"But what the heck do you do about MTA’s insane capex?"

Maybe start awarding construction contracts to the lowest qualified bidder, not the lowest qualified bidder using union labor?

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The lowest costs in the world for transit construction are found in the Nordic countries and certain Mediterranean countries where transit projects are typically built by unionized workforces. Our cost disease is about much more than organized labor. A lot of evidence is coming out that indicates it's actually much more about outsourcing state capacity to consultants.

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Yes, tons to be done around bidding, but I should have phrased that better. At an execution level, there are tons of things you can do. Aforementioned alon levy has written about it extensively. A lot of it just boils down to, "look at best practices from abroad and do that".

Politically I don't know how you even begin to incentivizing a transition that big. Something like this bailout for labor reform could be an entry point to the reformer mindset, but big hill to climb.

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While Matt is correct about the risk of a pandemic-induced death spiral, he is conflating American public transit’s issues with capital costs (which absolutely are a barrier to improving both the quantity and quality of service) and its issues with operating costs. No doubt there are specific cases like NY still requiring subway conductors where the potential reform is obvious. But the basic issue in transit operations is one of Baumol’s cost disease – we still require one trained operator per bus and per train. Maintaining vehicle reliability also requires trained mechanics. This is not to say that transit agencies have no bloat, but the core labor costs cannot be reformed away. Driverless trains are an obvious long-term solution (and perhaps driverless buses too, eventually), but those are not going to happen as part of a pandemic bailout package.

Also note that Matt positions ATO in Washington DC alongside the MTA conductor issue, but reinstituting ATO would do little for overall operating costs – a train operator is still required when ATO is on. ATO improves the smoothness of the ride and allows more precise station stopping. The fact that ATO is still not in operation a decade after the Red Line crash maybe be evidence of WMATA’s dysfunction, but it’s not causing their current red ink.

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I'm not saying it's "causing their current red ink," I'm saying it's evidence of a poorly managed organization.

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More generally, all transit providers face the same first-tier Baumol cost disease problem, but the second-tier managerial/bloat issues are agency-specific. So in order to access the bailout funds, every agency is going to hire an outside consulting firm to produce a reform plan, which is then going to have its credibility evaluated by Elaine Chao and whatever consulting firm she’s hired (probably McKinsey)? Color me skeptical that this will produce genuine reform…

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The sentence immediately preceding the introduction of the WMATA ATO issue is “What’s more, critics will say with evidence behind them that these agencies have plenty of bloat in them.” ATO is a problem but it's not bloat.

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I feel like transit systems are an albatross around the neck of US cities after COVID. I moved to Austin after living in NYC, and we just approved some 9 figure transit system that no one will use. Americans love cars and are starting to love working from home!

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I think it's wrong to think of remote work or even corporate relocations away from NYC as an alternative to having a well-functioning mass transit system. The key thing about New York is that the real estate there is very expensive. If demand for office space falls, that will make Midtown Manhattan cheaper and someone will lease the space. If demand for living in Brownstone Brooklyn falls, it will get cheaper and someone will rent the units. Either way, New York will have residents and people wanting to get to the Central Business District and having a well-functioning transit system will be important.

It's the *cheaper* cities (and even more to the point the random suburban office parks) where a fall in demand would lead to actual vacancy.

NYC is likely looking at a future as a lower-income, more affordable city but not as an empty one or one where there's no subway demand.

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Sure, I agree, but it might be best to get around in ubers or other more flexible transit systems. Everyone loves rail, but it seems like rail is the circuit switched network that was left behind by modern packet switched networks, which are more like uber.

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I think this ignores the core constraint of physical space. You can make a pretty simple model of sq ft/traveler in an uber vs a bus or train and divide it by the square footage of the rights of way of the city (before even getting into constraints around dead ends, one-ways, etc.) and in the uber model you run out of space very quickly.

To make the math work you'd have to reduce the number of trips needed by a huge number (offhand I'd estimate a factor several hundred). I'd be very surprised if that level of traffic were actual sustainable or desirable on a prolonged basis

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So said the circuit switchers! haha. There are very few cities in America where enough people agree on a start and end destination that makes rail attractive. Especially light rail / subways. I will conceded that to go from some concentration point to a city center-- like a surburban train station to downtown, might make sense for a lot more cities, though. Even in that case, I wonder if buses are better. It's just a lot cheaper and more flexible to build roads that can be used for many things than to build single purpose rail.

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This is just flat out wrong! Plenty of places are dense enough with jobs and/or housing to make rail attractive. To take Austin, where you just moved, we have one of the densest concentrations of jobs in our downtown core of any metro, and a pretty substantial number of people living there as well. Then we've got large stretches of apartments going straight up the major arteries from downtown. It's not allowed to be as dense as I'd like, but the rail line just authorized will be fine in terms of ridership.

Just to name a proof of concept: Houston finished a similar line in the last 10 years or so, and its packed. And of course, with rail, there's enough of a commitment to those spaces in terms of capital that they tend to attract even more development, and public officials are more willing to allow more dense development near stations.

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so, we're going to ignore the fact that every single one of those Ubers requires a driver, takes up space on the road, requires individual maintenance, and (for now) burns fossil fuels? I could easily be sold on a network of publicly owned, electric, self-driving.... midi-buses that one could catch a ride on via an app or something but like, the idea that there's parity between the efficiency of electrons along copper or photons on fibre and automobiles on roads kindof reminds me of physicists modelling things as spheres.

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Two thoughts:

1. Uber is not a viable daily option for working class people who clean those offices in the city center

2. For commuters, Uber IS a viable option from a train station to the office for white collar commuters.

#2 This is how I went to the airport in the before times - take an Uber to the train station, then the train to the airport. The Uber cost $5-7 and the train $15. That's a cheaper option than airport parking.

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Totally agree with you here. I think there's a fetishization of rail when it comes to transit for a number of reasons, but most readily because it is the most appreciated and experienced form of transit for elites.

Really in almost every other scenario arterial bus service is superior and a more judicious use of resources but the mode is really starved of prestige and imagination share

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I mean - "Public transportation" might not have prestige and imagination share, but are we going to ignore the Silicon Valley "tech shuttles" which are just buses for tech people that don't let on the unwashed masses. It pretty conclusively shows elite demand for and interest in what amounts to appropriate-frequency mass transit into dense areas.

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What I think you're missing is that cities of a certain size can't actually make cars work. No matter how many disgusting 16 lane megahighways you build, you're going to face the problem of too many people trying to drive in to too few locations.

Transit can bring millions upon millions to Lower Manhattan without batting an eye. But if you tried to replace all of that with a bunch of Ubers - even if you carved out large swaths of NYC with highways and parking lots - you'd have bumper-to-bumper traffic for miles.

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The only truly dense area in America is the NY metro area. Cities like Austin are not doing themselves any favors with light rail.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_cities_by_population_density

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But could you have replaced it with lots of buses? And not spent $2 billion dollars per mile of subway system.

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Forty years ago, wasn't there a bunch of vacant real estate in NYC? Who's to say it won't happen again?

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The Reichmans founded their very impressive fortune, lost in Canary Wharf, by buying seriously undervalued commercial properties in New York that very soon dramatically increased in value. Kind of anti-Trumps.

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What do you think a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court could mean for this dynamic? Especially as it comes to pertain to things like reproductive rights, etc. I could see the location premium of States becoming salient in a way that to this point has really only applied to metros, regardless of state (e.g., a firm with socially liberal political interests would much more readily locate in Nashville, TN right now than it would Peoria, IL).

Not sure how that would trickle down but could be a benefit for second tier markets (mid-sized cities, suburbs) in Blue States for certain types of office and manufacturing use. Almost like a "Cultural Right-to-Work" division

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Americans definitely do not love cars. If you believe that prices reflect preferences (and you should), the most expensive cities in America are those where public transit usage is the highest and commuting by car is the lowest, meaning that Americans choose to pay a premium to be able to get rid of their car: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._cities_with_high_transit_ridership

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Prices reflect supply and demand.

Preferences factor into demand, but preferences for modes of transportation are only one factor.

San Francisco is one of the most expensive places to live in the U.S. but this has to do with limited supply, and a large demand to live next to places that pay high salaries. And probably very little to do with love of mass transit.

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I think many people put a really high premium on walkability, which is also scarce in the US, and is tied to transit density because there's an inexorable trade off between serving the needs of cars or those of pedestrians.

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San Francisco is just one of the 4 cities where car commuting is clearly below 50%, the others being NYC, DC, and Boston. Those are all incredibly expensive places to live. I know that in NYC, the city with the lowest car ownership, doctors actually make *less* money than elsewhere because it's such a desirable place to live, so it's not expensive just because of high wages and limited supply. People, even doctors who can get a job anywhere they want, are choosing to live in NYC because they like the car-free lifestyle.

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You might be right. But they sure love what cars do. Like carrying stuff. And dropping kids off at at after school events, and then shopping for stuff or picking up the dry cleaning. And then picking the kids up. And visiting people without consuming an entire weekend getting somewhere. Also doing their jobs, a huge number of which require a dedicated vehicle. And let's not forget Joe Biden and his hot wheels. Who is exactly like millions of others who like cars. Have you ever owned a car?

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All of the things you listed are easier to do without a car if the built environment is designed for car-free living. I've lived car-free in places in America that are built for cars, and it was terrible. This is why most Americans get a car, because they have no alternative. I've owned a car in a place that's built for cars, and it was still pretty bad. The built environment was incredibly ugly and spread far apart so you had to drive everywhere. Lots of traffic and stress and bad drivers. One summer, I commuted by car 30 minutes each way and told myself "never again". Then I moved to the one place in America where living without a car is better than having a car - Manhattan - and it was a much better life. And the desirability and high cost of living in Manhattan shows that many more people want to live car-free, but just can't afford it because places designed for car-free living are so scarce in America.

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Sure. Commuting on packed trains is so pleasant that thousands of people still somehow drove into NYC every day despite being disincentivized to do so, with a built up mass transit system.

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I have a small child, no car, and I would hate to have one. I pick him up and drop him off with the subway. It's great!

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founding

If they actually manage to build that rail tunnel under downtown, that new rail line will actually be hugely significant. It reaches the university, the capitol, downtown, Rainey St and SoCo, as well as connecting to some areas along Riverside Dr that are going through major redevelopment in the next few years, on the way to the airport. It won't affect the people who commute from the western hill neighborhoods to downtown, but their drive will just keep getting worse and worse no matter what happens. Enabling the new growth of density in the central neighborhoods to come in with transit will be huge.

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I think it’s really underestimated how impactful the “BRT light” routes will be to both the overall service and to redevelopment. The initial scope is for about a half dozen or so lines and a few good cross-town routes that will really benefit riders in East and South Austin in particular. Judging by the ridership and impact on redevelopment along the 801 and 803 routes my hope is that we can see some really good and fairly speedy improvements to transit access and reliability.

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A lot of the towns on the Schuylkill River were really hopeful about getting rail service to Philadelphia from Reading in the next few year, but I think Covid has killed that possibility. It's a bummer.

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Great post! It’s obviously hard to predict what the post-covid CBD will look like and it will likely look different in different places, but I think for cities still looking to make additional investments in transit it may appear better to make those investments in less fixed modes, such as buses.

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I think this proposal cedes too much too early. I don't think the examples of administrative bloat cited here are the main problem with transit costs. (I mean, maybe I'm wrong, and depending how much work I get done today I will hopefully have time to attend the webinar with Levy et al. tomorrow, in which case I guess I'll find out.) I suspect most of the problem is outside the hands of the transit agencies themselves – basically political issues. All kinds of other considerations get tossed in such as labor negotiations and serving specific regional constituencies; big flashy new stuff is prioritized over maintenance costs. There are some key reforms the transit agencies should themselves adopt, like building a ton of housing around train stations while providing zero (0) parking, or making a point of learning from countries where the trains actually work instead of insisting that anything that happens outside of the US is some other planet not relevant to us. The contract bidding process is probably a major component of the cost problem, and at least some of that is down to the transit agencies themselves, though I think there are at least a few bad legislative constraints in place? But if the argument here is that it's politically unfeasible to just hand the transit agencies a hundred billion dollars, then the limiting factor is Republicans, who hate both trains and cities and also the concept of learning from foreigners. (At no point in my almost 30 years of life have Republicans been a 'free market' party; quite the contrary, they've always seemed like they would like to ban us from doing business with foreigners. Why would we trust that any reforms overseen by them would tend towards efficiency rather than rent-seeking, or cultural grievance?) I think it would be better to just give the transit agencies a bunch of money and then also give a bunch of money to stuff Republicans want. Why wouldn't 'ice cream party' logic hold here too?

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I wonder whether demand for mass transit will normalize. Now that so many employers have seen that teleworking can be done successfully, I would expect a reduction in the steady stream of commuters traveling to CBDs even after wide spread vaccinations.

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There are a two main issues with Matt's point. First, borrowing is only free as long as interest rates stay near zero. Since we continue to run budget deficits, the debt we incur now will still be around when rates rise. It's not free forever. Sure, the economy--and with it, tax revenue--may be higher in the future. That's plausible, but (second) if the returns are so high, cities can borrow the revenue, backed by future revenues as collateral. It's not just the federal government that can borrow at historically low rates. Every level of credit borrower is seeing historically low rates. Cities could sell more muni-bonds to take care of this. States and cities with balanced-budget mandates could repeal those mandates. It is an emergency after all. If cities and state legislatures don't think it is worth deficit spending, then that's there prerogative.

Life is all about opportunity costs. Rich cities--the engines of our economic growth--have the fiscal capacity to rectify their mass transit problems (higher taxes). Taking money that could go to poor black families in rural Mississippi to spend a disproportionate amount of money subsidizing better-off mass transit riders seems wrong.

Thanks Matt for another thought-provoking piece. Best of luck...and I look forward to continue reading.

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I really enjoyed his other Substack piece recommendations, considering it would be overly cost prohibitive to regularly follow a large group of Substack newsletters, I hope he regularly provides similar recommendations every now and then.

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A bit late to the thread, but there’s a fantastic 99% Invisible episode about how making buses more functional/enjoyable could do a lot to save public transit - https://castbox.fm/vd/227493439

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