Thinking about trains*

Photo of subway passengers

* Did I struggle not to make “train of thought” puns? Maybe.

(Update: We’re back in the Bay Area!)

Mass transit has been on my mind recently. In a piece for The New York Times, Jonathan Mahler examines the (in)famous New York subway’s deterioration and makes the case for the system’s repair and maintenance, if not its expansion. It’s an absorbing read.

Mahler frames the subway, foremost among public transit projects, as the backbone that allows cities like New York to sustain the densities — of population, of ideas, of connections —that engender further growth.

Agglomeration sits at the heart of his defense: taken from economics, this term refers to the productivity benefits that arise when people, goods, services, and ideas cluster together. Mass transit systems like the subway make it easier for a city to juggle those moving parts.

Anybody who suffers through Philippine traffic can tell you why that matters. It usually takes me 4 hours to get to Quezon City from Cavite, a province south of the metro. That’s typical for a city commute. No wonder our transport situation costs us around Php 2.4 B per day.

In high-density areas like today’s cities, inefficient transport systems and inadequate infrastructure gum up the works. They trigger literal slowdowns — tipping the density scales away from “asset” and deep into “liability” instead.

I’m reminded a bit of mathematics’ square-cube law. According to this principle, volume increases faster than surface area as a shape grows. In engineering, for example, bigger planes like the A380 need larger wings, rudders, and so on, to generate the lift needed to support the aircraft’s total weight.

Applied sideways to cities, the denser a city is, the more support infrastructure you’d need in proportion to the population. Otherwise, the whole — in this case, the city — collapses under its own weight.

Who’s most likely to get crushed? Everyone who can’t afford to drive themselves everywhere.

“The questions we are facing today are not so different from the ones our predecessors faced 100 years ago. Can the gap between rich and poor be closed, or is it destined to continue to widen? Can we put the future needs of a city and a nation above the narrow, present-day interests of a few? Can we use a portion of the monumental sums of wealth that we are generating to invest in an inclusive and competitive future? The answer to all of these questions is still rumbling beneath New York City.”

Here, Mahler positions the subway as a key answer to persistent questions of inequality and inclusive progress. I’m not surprised; public transport looms large in any look at class and city life.

In the Philippines, for example, a private vehicle is a status symbol in large part because it’s a get-out-of-jail-free card. In places where commuting is hell, nothing says heaven like being rich enough to, as Mahler puts it, “consistently avoid mass transit.”

I like Mahler’s use of the word avoid. As it turns out, private vehicle ownership doesn’t just mean an exemption from the indignities of daily commutes on decrepit subways. It also implies a degree of immunity from the broader economic and socio-political impact of deficient public transit systems, too.

But only up to a point. Not even the fastest car models can outrun the density issue completely. (Unless we’re talking private jets and helicopters. That’s a different matter altogether.)

Consider the immediate chain of potential effects: Pair the increased productivity typical of high-density areas with the aspirational air pinned to car ownership, and the consequences of neglecting mass transit spill into the streets — literally. If those streets are as narrow and underfunded as the mass transit systems, the creeping effects of bad subways will swallow even the non-commuters, sooner rather than later.

That’s not taking into account any increases in city density that will further strain the system. As Mahler points out, time adds more thorny dimensions to public transport problems. Unlike an A380, which has a weight ceiling that’s set pretty much in stone, urban transport planners have to account for an ever-changing density variable.

I got a cute little computer game from the recent Steam winter sale that hammered this point home for me.

Mini Metro, as the name suggests, has you building trains to connect stations throughout the world’s biggest metropolises.

Sounds easy, right? Here’s the four-part catch:

  • More destinations pop up as the game goes on
  • Commuter “demand” for some stations also changes over time
  • You get limited resources (tracks, interchanges, etc.) doled out over the course of the game
  • The total commuter population keeps increasing until the game ends

When does it end? When your transit system can’t shuttle people around fast enough to keep one of your stations from overcrowding.

It’s an absorbing little game that got me thinking more about what makes for effective mass transport. One of the first and most lasting impressions: there is no one-and-done solution. As Mahler tries to show, a mass transit system needs to keep adapting if it’s to sustain the same growth that it helps kindle.

And that leads to trickier problems of who takes charge of that adaptation, how it’s to be carried out, where the funds will come from, and so on.

(Cue the inevitable intrusion of politicking. In the Philippines, for example, politicians hurl the perpetually broken-down MRT at each other like toxic sludge. The MRT’s operations and anomalous attempts at “improvement” have even been the subject of Senate inquiry.)

Of course, Mini Metro simplifies the transportation knot immensely. In a way, so does Mahler for NYC’s particular variant. As the public transit consultant Jarrett Walker points out, effective mass transit systems depend on many factors, not just capacity. For cases like the NYC subway, there’s a host of locale-specific circumstances that affect a system’s development — or decline.

Where does that leave us?

Well, I agree with Mahler’s placement of the subway (and mass transit in general) within the larger framework of the city’s growth. It enriches the context of maintenance and development issues for systems like the NYC subway.

Other comments about the piece on the NYT site have pointed out shortcomings, such as Mahler’s alleged failure to hold public officials/institutions accountable for what’s happening to the New York subway. That may be the case; I don’t know enough about the NYC public transit situation to tell. Still, I can appreciate how Mahler forges clear and urgent links between transport and economy, society, growth.

Nipping back to Jarrett Walker’s Mini Metro review, he highlights the accuracy of the game’s “message”:

“Politicians demand that transit systems spread out but not that they provide enough intensity — whether that means frequency, speed, or … capacity. Transit agencies are always being told to spread themselves thin.”

I think it’s safe to extend that comment beyond the politicians. In his NYT article, at least, Mahler presents a good case for why we should change that.

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