Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Bureaucracy and Subsidy

Last fall, Steven Smith noted that European mass transit is subsidized the same amount as its American counterpart. Yet Europe has extensive mass transit offerings just about everywhere, to the point where it is difficult to find anyplace that has mediocre access relative to density or none at all, whereas in the U.S. the picture is the obverse. What gives?

Most complaints fall against ill-structured subsidization packages: roads in the U.S. have substantially higher subsidies relative to their European counterparts; driving standards here are rather more lax; exclusionary land use promotes driver culture at the expense of transit culture; etc. Part of this is of course true. Road standards are excessive and promote speeding which in turn promotes lax enforcement; land use is not planned in a way to support transit nodes; and road subsidies are hidden while transit subsidies are often paraded front and center. DOTs want to do nothing but build roads, and politicians insist on micromanaging transit while at the same time ignoring the multitude of excessive standards (and entailed ballooned costs) in the road planning arena. It's as if they have a monocle on one eye and a log in the other.

But that isn't the key problem. Smith, in his article, points out that the Bay Area receives an equivalent amount of transit funding for an equivalent population as Switzerland--but Switzerland has incontestably excellent transit while the Bay Area's, while good by U.S. standards, is, ahem, lacking. As Elizabeth Alexis notes, in Smith's quote, "The problem is more of how we spend money, not the amount of money."

How is this money spent? In the Bay Area, it is allocated to a number of transit agencies, each with its own agenda:

Amtrak California (Capitol Corridor)
AC Transit
Golden Gate Transit

Even when you take out the bus operators, that still leaves

Amtrak California
ACE, and the

By contrast, the vast majority of passenger rail in Switzerland is handled by the


this includes all national-level passenger rail, the R-Bahn networks, and the S-Bahns. Some Swiss cities also have metros (Lausanne is the smallest) which are owned and handled by independent organizations. The Swiss


handles thus all the functions of

Amtrak California, and

And therein lies the problem. The Bay Area suffers from a bad case of bureaucratic redundancy, which means that multiple overlapping bureaucracies are handling things where only a single bureaucracy is really needed. So the basic problem is that, where in Switzerland,

1 bureaucrat

is needed to perform any necessary office job, in the Bay Area,

4 bureaucrats


And you wonder where all the money goes!

That's not the worst of it, though. American transit agencies are incredibly territorial, and jealously guard their turf to the point of undermining the common need for improved transit access. How else can you defend Millbrae, which seems to have been spitefully designed to inhibit Bay Area high-speed travel via the Caltrain ROW as expensively as possible? Or spending money to reduce interlocking redundancy, which in its turn undercuts on-time performance?

Elizabeth Alexis is dead right. And in the U.S., we spend money on bloated redundant bureaucracy, on entrenching petty squabbles in concrete, and at the end of the day we find we have no money to actually run transit, let alone well.

Organization before electronics before concrete, the Germans say. But here we take concrete uber alles, and even use concrete to entrench organizational inefficiencies.


  1. This is great and I would second the notion that transit is territorial. My agency, a commuter rail outfit in Chicago, gets into turf wars on a regular basis with our "competitors", really our sister agencies about the best way to provide service. We've tended to view ourselves as the suburban rail provider, rather than a regional integrated mass transit network. This thinking in a vacuum is problematic on many levels. What I'd be interested in seeing is how effective metropolitan planning organizations (MPO) are in managing public transportation operations and/or policy. Not many do, but I think it could be an interesting case study.

  2. I think you're buying too much into turf war mentality when you treat Switzerland as a case of successful unity. You're right that most intercity and commuter rail functions are operated by SBB, but that's very far from all public transit in Switzerland. On top of it, in the Bern area, a partially privately-owned second railroad, BLS, has significant S-Bahn and intercity operations.

    The real difference is not just that there's less agency fragmentation, but also that different agencies cooperate instead of fighting turf wars. In the major cities, there's a verkehrsverbund that makes sure the fares and schedules are integrated across operators. The Bay Area has Clipper, which lets you pay a separate fare per operator on one card; Swiss (and German, and French) cities have free inter-operator transfers instead.

  3. Alon, I'm merely expanding on what Stephen Smith's post, where he noted that the Bay Area and Switzerland have equivalent mass transit spending (subsidization) per capita, yet the services provided in Switzerland are quantifiably superior to those in the Bay Area. I think the underlying reason is actually excessively overlapping bureaucracies, which in its turn fuels turf wars. Notice that I canceled out the local transit providers (except for BART, because BART is representative of an S-Bahn system) when I listed how many Bay Area service providers provide the same services that just one--SBB--does in (most of) Switzerland.

    Isn't BLT a for-profit company? I'd like to know more about Bern S-Bahn.