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The United States needs to learn how to learn (pedestrianobservations.com)
143 points by ruddct 16 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 124 comments



I’m not convinced that bringing in European managers will solve the distances between cities, the fact that the rails and right-of-ways are almost entirely privately owned, and the fact that Americans are generally comfortable with an auto and airplane model of transportation.

I use rail when I visit multiple European cities. It’s great. I also don’t see a reasonable path that is “we need better managers” but instead “we either need to pour gigantic piles of money into buying railroads, which is either an eminent domain taking or a massive giveaway to freight companies who own the rails now, only to find that no one wants to spend every bit of a whole damn day getting from Boston to Las Vegas and so will fly anyway.”


> I’m not convinced that bringing in European managers will solve the distances between cities,

Except that the US isn't all that less dense than Europe. There's a great belt of land that approximately no one lives in, between the west coast and the Mississippi River. High-speed rail will never be cost-effective connecting anything across that region, and no one is seriously proposing such a thing. Take it out, and concentrate on the rest of the country, in regions where there are cities close each other and the numbers make more sense.

The Midwest, for example. Chicago-Minneapolis is 350 mi, Chicago-Cleveland 300 mi, and Chicago-St Louis and Chicago-Detroit each 250 mi. Paris-Lyon is 250 mi, Paris-Bordeaux 300 mi, and Paris-Marseille 400mi. As for population, all of these cities are larger than their French counterparts (the smallest, Cleveland is only a ~2m MSA, whereas the largest non-Paris French city is about a ~2.3m MSA). If HSR is tenable in France, then why would the distances in the Midwest make it untenable?


Yep, with proper high-speed rail one could travel from Minneapolis to Chicago in under two hours.

Without the airport security theater, with proper in-car restaurants and remote working facilities. Who wouldn't take that offer?


Andy Byford by most accounts did a great job in NYC....until Cuomo got jealous and forced him out.

This was a nice anecdote that hiring actually-knowledgeable outsiders (not private sector dilettantes) can help.


It's funny how here in NYC he was literally nicknamed "train daddy" and radically improved the subway on-time rates and track speeds... so yep, he had to go. Everyone loved him, NY and London are not all that different culturally. He picked up on the subtleties and worked through them, and goddamn I wish we could have him back.


The Northeast is dense. Bay Area should have German levels of S-Bahn style service on the UP tracks.


Is there anywhere else that is dense enough to connect besides the bay, la, andnthe dc to boston strip? Thats probably getting close to a quarter of the population so even that would be a good deal. A lot of smaller cities could use better bus systems, but they take hours to get anyi with all the stops amd switchovers.


The Midwest region (centered on Chicago) is very much within viable HSR range--as I point out in a nearby comment, it actually contains larger cities within the same general distance as the French TGV network.

Texas triangle would also be a viable region.

As my sibling comment points out, southeast US is marginally viable.

The Pacific Northwest (Portland-Vancouver) is also on the margin of viability.

The other parts of the northeast--Boston-Toronto and NYC-Montreal--are very definitely viable HSR routes. You might find some more strap-on routes to the main Northeast Corridor that I haven't included (Scranton, maybe?), simply because the NEC is such a phenomenally powerful generator of traffic.

Connecting the Midwest to the Northeast and the Southeast may also be viable, but again it's somewhat more marginal because the big city in the Midwest is on the wrong side of the region.


Having done a lot of driving through the Texas triangle, I can tell you that the biggest detriment to HSR would be the fact that you still need a car after you get off your train.

I've taken the greyhound/megabus between cities, and it's pretty decent, but then I either need someone to drive 30 mins one way to pick me up or shell out $30+ for an Uber to get to where I need to go, and then more Ubers if I need to get around afterwards.

To make the intercity transport really compelling, the cities themselves need good public transport coverage, and the triangle cities are too damn big for that to happen in the foreseeable future. They have some, but it takes forever and the reach isn't that high.

I'd rather have a mostly self driving car that can take me 80% of the way on the interstate highway between the cities.


Right, it's important that cities getting HSR stations are compelled to do some sort of metropolitan public transit and upzoning.

We should be very cleareyed that the sunbelt cities are built all wrong, but also underestanding that they can be fixed.


How do you fix them? That seems really hard!


As long as they are still growing, it's mainly a matter of redirecting the growth. Only a stagnant city is "too poor to change"; everything else is just cowardly politics looking for excuses.

Per https://pedestrianobservations.com/2019/09/18/cars-and-train... we have a lot of bullshit compromise, when the ugly truth is both cars and non-cars are positive feedback loops for which there is no reconciliation.

But this is also an opportunity, provided the government has guts. Do what Barcelona did, and overnight "guerilla urbanism" block roads. Bikeshare, including some cargo wagons to signal a commitment to more people other than single yuppies is also good, and is so much cheaper than subways it might as well be considered tactical urbanism. Do congestion pricing. Tax parking lots.

When property values adjust as everyone tries to get at the high foot traffic, high job density hot area, you are winning.

Finally, we need a national carbon tax / quotas. And as opposed to trying to ration gas to people we should just give them a carbon dividend. That will also suck people out of the suburbs like turning on the electromagnets!


The last 80 years of growth in those cities has been strictly seaparated residential zones actively designed to discourage foot traffic. Twisty confusing roads with one entrance to a neighborhood, and no sidewalks. Unless the growth includes tearing out old houses how can it fix those problems?


The last 80 years of residential growth. But what about officespace? If it's all decentralized office parks, yeah that's going to be harder. But if there is a strong "central business district" (America's tend to be denser than Eeurope's for some reason) that can be a foundation to go outword from.

Basically infill that with some residential and work outwards from there, redeveloping the burbs only once the core is saturated and there's some momentum.


A mostly self-driving car could work and I can't speak for the Texas Triangle, but most of the south has horrible public transit.

An interesting example, perhaps, is Raleigh, NC to DC. Raleigh has awful public transit options. The public transit in DC is pretty great actually. Driving (in the best case) is six hours, and Amtrak is about 7.5 hours.

Still, who in their right mind would ever willingly want to drive in DC traffic? If you are going to DC for the weekend, the Amtrak wins every single time in my opinion; even with a mostly self-driving car.


The southeast US is not as dense as the northeast, but TN, NC, SC, GA, AL, and FL have 55 million or so people in them, the majority living in or near major metro areas. Connecting those major metros using the existing interstate corridors as the general path, you'd get most of the remaining population within a short distance of this intercity railway. If the metros themselves invested in better intrametro (I'd say intracity, but it would be a misnomer) transit systems that connected to the intercity system it could be effective for the region.


I'd gladly sit in a nice train compartment for a day over driving or flying, especially if it had a nice view.


Trains are better than driving since you can work and read.

But after I've done the whole day on the train thing a few times I'll typically pick flying, also because it's much cheaper.

Overnight trains are great though.


I certainly wouldn’t, and I’m willing to bet people like me are in the majority.

Why waste a day in a train when I can drive for way less cost and stop wherever I please or fly and get there much faster?

Not to mention that if I drive some place Im not worried about transportation locally which would, in most places in the US, require renting a car or paying for ride shares.


So you'll rather drive and do nothing else vs sitting in a train with a full restaurant with a bar, comfy chairs, wi-fi and a quiet spot for working[1][2]?

I've done multiple 3 hour train trips this way, I'll NEVER choose driving over it.

I can sit down and order food from downstairs, it'll be brought to my seat. I've got a quiet spot to work in with an 230V outlet and working Wifi. I can do billable work every minute I'm in the train. I can even close my eyes and take a nap.

Compare this to driving, which would take an hour longer, I'd need to be 100% focused on the road all the time, I can't bill my hours, I can't relax.

[1] https://www.vr.fi/en/facilities-and-services/working-on-the-... [2] https://www.vr.fi/en/facilities-and-services/upstairs-of-the...


I have never been on a train in the US that is faster than driving and certainly not on a train with food I’d actually want to eat. Perhaps west coast trains are total crap compared to elsewhere in the US but your description doesn’t fit my experience at all.

Chronically late trains, bad old seats (albeit better than planes), bad food, no WiFi or spotty at best, slower than a car, more expensive than a car.

Plus the most important thing of all is that if you don’t drive you will need to rent a car (which is even more money) or ride share (which can be extremely slow outside of cities or even non-existent)

I love public transit within a city but outside of dense cities it doesn’t seem to realistically make sense. My experiences with Amtrak don’t give me confidence in them.

I also don’t realistically see building out more rail in the US for any reasonable price so we are stuck with prioritizing freight rail over passenger rail on existing rail.


My case was based in Finland. The Inter-city trains are on time every time unless there's an accident of some sort. The food isn't 5-star chef level, but still pretty good for train-food. They even have their own beer brand =)

And yes, in most cases trains are faster than cars (Average speed between 100-200km/h depending on the route and train). They could be even faster but that'd require modifying the track so that fast trains don't fall of the tracks when cornering...

Amtrak just sucks and needs a complete overhaul, the technology is there, but people refuse to accept it. It's like trying to sell cars to people used to horses, they just want faster horses because they can't fathom the alternative =)


Trains shouldn't have bars or restaurants. They waste space that could have more passangers. Instead it should be easy to get off, grab a sandwich and get on the next one. Or bring your meal with you.


Depends on the train of course.

If it's a commuter train where people spend 30 minutes max and the trains go every 15 minutes on the same route, then no - it shouldn't have a restaurant in it.

But when it's a 2-10 hour trip, of course there should be a place to sit down and buy something to eat or drink.


Right, the train station. If there isn't another train on 30 minutes or less you don't have enough riders to pay for trains in the first place

There is a difference between trains and trains. I think the english language could use a different word for both =)

A long-haul passenger train is perfectly capable of paying for itself even if the route isn't going on a 30 minute interval. This is the kind which has all kinds of on-board amenities.

Not so much for a local commuter train, with mostly plain seating and maybe a toilet in every other car. This is basically a bus on rails.


If you're not billing your transit time you're making a mistake. I've heard of people double billing plane or train transit: one customer put you on the train, and the other customer pays for the work you do on the train.


Yep, this was the exact case.

I can't bill transit from all clients, but I can still do billable work on the train for other clients. No way to do that while driving.


Maybe I am misunderstanding. Do you drive for free? If you have to drive somewhere that gets billed to the client.

This is totally normal, I work in a metro area adjacent to another. If I drive across state the person is paying for that hourly. If I could sit on a train instead someone would be paying to have me on the train, hourly, and if I was doing work that would also be billed hourly (I'd try to do work for the client that made me travel but not always possible).


> I use rail when I visit multiple European cities. It’s great.

I'm going to counterargument this.

Certain rail corridors are great--Naples to Rome, for example, was wonderful. But somehow when we were visiting Europe, we often found that air actually did better in both price and time.

The cheap rail fares often require quite a bit further advance purchase than air fares. This strikes me as ... odd.


I don’t necessarily disagree with the gist of this post but there was one minor comment I found odd. It might just be my ignorance (I am not a transit person and have always been bad at algebraic geometry):

> Amtrak can and should fully replace its senior management with people who know how to run a modern intercity railroads, who are not Americans. But then middle management will still think it knows better and refuse to learn what a tropical algebra is or how it is significant for rail schedule planning.

Are transit middle-managers in Europe really applying tropical algebra to rail problems? My understanding is that the mathematical field of tropical algebra didn’t really exist until the 80s, and the research application to control theory is a 2010-era development. It strikes me as very strange to expect anyone who isn’t a PhD in math or operations research to even understand the algebraic geometry required, let alone apply it to a real problem.

But I suppose 30 years ago people would have said the same thing about linear programming. So maybe I am behind the times.


Per your quote they're lamenting the (apparent) refusal to learn what it is, not master it or how to apply it. This is a perennial management problem (well, a perennial organizational problem, but exacerbated when it's the managers). I've worked in offices that were absolutely convinced source code version control meant handing off a file or document to a person who kept the diffs and everything in sync, perhaps with their exclusive use of (often) some 80s or 90s version control system that no one else was allowed to directly access. I didn't need the managers to learn git (in the sense of being able to use it) but I did need them to learn that there were much better ways than the absolutely dysfunctional approaches they were preferring (due to familiarity).


Why would a rail manager learn (about) something that has no practical utility and requires a massive investment of effort (graduate mathematical training)?


> I didn't need the managers to learn git (in the sense of being able to use it) but...

The analogy states they don't need managers to learn the thing, just to have awareness of an alternative thing to the current thing. Implicit is a criticism of managers being didactic in specifying required tools/solutions, too often favoring "our way"/"the old way".


I had never heard of "tropical algebra" so I have no idea of its utility here. I'm only commenting on the distinction between learning about something and learning something.

The former enables you to direct your learning towards learning the thing itself when you realize it's applicable (JIT for learning) if that's your role. And if you're in a leadership position it helps you to recognize the insights those you are in charge of are bringing to you and their relative applicability, or to direct them towards a line of work that may be useful. (Of course, there's a level of incompetent awareness that often happens as well, and that's how SAFe shops are born.)


Let me be more direct. Tropical algebra is no of practical relevance to rail route planning. My understanding is that there's some highly speculative work in this direction, but nothing ready to be applied, or any indication this approach is more useful than standard methods. What you are seeing is someone who previously did pure mathematics wheel out a personal obsession and then (unwisely) chastise people for not caring about it.

Therefore, we should we should not care whether rail managers learn, or learn about, tropical algebra.

(Another observation: look at all the highly efficient European and Asian railways. As far as I can tell, algebraic geometry was used in the planning of exactly zero of them. American rail isn't going to be fixed by the application of high-powered mathematics.)


>What you are seeing is someone who previously did pure mathematics wheel out a personal obsession and then (unwisely) chastise people for not caring about it.

Hanlon's Razor suggests it's more likely that tropical algebra is just one of a relatively few examples of rail planning theory that the author is familiar with, not that he has a pernicious drive to promote the study.

As I understand it, it mostly is a transformation of expressions like:

Exp(vars, max(,), plus(,))

to give expressions like

Exp(vars, plus(,), times(,))

where solutions to the latter can give solutions to the former under some conditions. It seems plausible that some specialized versions could be explained to someone with a reasonably good understanding of high school math. New math doesn't have to be abstruse.

But all I know is I ran into a tropical algebra problem once and it was intractable.


I thought it was used for the railway timetables


Does there exist any evidence tropical algebra is used in practice, and is significantly better than older approaches to the problem? As far as I know, the answer is negative.


It’s a research field in the UK at least. For the UK’s extensive rail network.

https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/railway/index.aspx

Edit:

Further symposium on this subject.

https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/mathematics/news-and-ev...


The symposium certainly sounds interesting. Looking at the talks, I am struck by the major separation between talks about tropical algebra and talks about railway optimization.

But the point of our comments is that this is a new research field, with very little proven application, and chastising railway middle managers for not following these deeply technical and somewhat esoteric developments is silly. It’s like getting on to a manger at Intel because they are unfamiliar with the architecture of photonic quantum computers.


There are financial incentives to solve scheduling issues in the UK. Trains must meet a schedule within time limits. Failure to maintain reliability at a regulatory 90.9% can mean the loss of the license to operate.

The UK interconnects with European networks via Eurostar, and the major hubs feed it. The tube runs trains every minute or two so connecting between these hubs, for example Waterloo to Kings Cross isn’t usually an issue. But arriving late at a hub can be very disruptive.

Middle managers, in europe generally, focused on targets don’t need to understand the math, but are in a competitive market that can require mathematicians to model and solve scheduling issues.

https://golem.ph.utexas.edu/category/2018/05/tropical_mathem...

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/late-network...


I feel like we are speaking past each other and I will try one last time. I am not disagreeing that there is difficult mathematics involved in railways, and I agree that tropical algebra will likely one day prove useful for ordinary railway officials and managers. But I doubt that will happen before 2030.

For railway folks, an analogy to tropical algebra is linear programming, which attempts to solve similar-looking problems with very different tools. Linear programming is much older and much better understood than tropical algebra, and is widely used in all sorts of areas, including railways. I believe it’s even taught in modern MBA programs. I would expect a middle-manager in railway scheduling to have familiarity with linear programming: being able to formulate a linearizable optimization problem as a formal linear program and at least having an idea of how to solve it (“put the parameters in Python, there’s this package” is a good answer).

The fact that linear programming is widely used and well-established is important: it is so widely used that Excel can solve certain linear programs. I am not aware of a single software package for computational tropical algebra, and if there are any they are certainly experimental. Unlike linear programming and convex optimization, tropical algebra is almost exclusively the realm of PhD mathematicians (along with handful of operations specialists).

So the question is: should we really expect middle-managers at railway companies to be familiar with tropical algebra for any reasons other than possible extracurricular interest? It seems to me the answer is no. It is like demanding that software architects be familiar with homotopy type theory - because see, look, this incredibly talented math PhD showed how you could use some topological theorems to prove interesting invariants about pointers in circle buffers. It’s very silly to insist your software architect waste so much of her time and precious neural resources on something so difficult and outside of her domain, and, at best, only conditionally useful.


My reading of the single mention of tropical algebra in the article wasn't that its use is another example of established European rail superiority -- though I think the text is ambiguous.

> Worse, this is a nationwide problem. Amtrak can and should fully replace its senior management with people who know how to run a modern intercity railroads, who are not Americans. But then middle management will still think it knows better and refuse to learn what a tropical algebra is or how it is significant for rail schedule planning. They do not know how to learn, and they do not recognize that it’s a problem. This percolates down to planners and line workers, and I don’t think Americans are ready for a conversation about full workforce replacement at underperforming agencies.

Rather the thesis is more like like:

- upper management don't know how to learn the major established lessons from Europe (one might call this strategy)

- middle management don't know how to learn about new (not yet standard anywhere) refinements that augment the existing system (one might call this tactics)

You may be right that it's just an unsupported and false claim, not a hypothetical, and probably if the wind changes direction and I read it again, I'd agree with you on the author's meaning. Nevertheless, I find the "need to learn to learn strategy and tactics" argument plausible.


The author isn’t suggesting that middle managers learn tropical algebra. Just that it exists, and what sort of benefits it can bring.

It’s like saying that middle managers need not know how to use git or Docker, but they should know that they exist and what they can be used for.


Learning mustn't require mastery. Learning begins when you open the door.


I'm hoping we can replace all middle management with AI, that just reports green/yellow/red, relays messages, whatever.

I'm tired of being called the expert yet somehow reporting to someone that is many levels below me in knowledge. Why exactly do you need to know this if you're not going to be able to influence the direction? Why are leaders not required to be better than who they lead in whatever it is they do (in order to have foresight)? I don't know but here's to hoping it will be automated in some future.


You're right. There are a lot of good complaints about the American rail system, but the fact that tropical geometry isn't being used to plan routes isn't one of them.


The managers building railways and deciding on schedules hire firms to build these models.

I shared a co-working space with a guy who did this for a few years.


I am really sorry to be so pedantic about this and if you don’t know that’s completely understandable: are you sure those firms are actually using tropical algebra for this? I am sure that there are many firms that handle the mathematical/computational headaches that come about in transit planning, I am just skeptical that any of these headaches involve questions of tropical varieties.

My point was that the specific field is very cutting edge, and my understanding is that any 2021 application of tropical algebra to a real transit network would be a high-risk speculative research project, not a well-tested optimization methodology.


Do you have any recommendations to learn about how tropical geometry is used for control theory?


I haven’t read it but I would guess this is a good place to start: https://arxiv.org/abs/1408.0313

My familiarity with tropical geometry is mostly conversational :) and entirely on the pure math side. The basic definitions use obviously lend themselves to optimization problems (and I think the field is in many ways an algebraic generalization of classical variational calculus) but I don’t really know of anything specific.


There is no doubt that America needs to get much better at rail and other mass transit and that there is a lot to be learned from the rest of the world. The challenge is that America is not Europe in many ways, but particularly in geography. And yet there is a certain condescension that America has to do it like Europe. That is a message that will never be well received delivered in that way.


> There is no doubt that America needs to get much better at rail and other mass transit and that there is a lot to be learned from the rest of the world.

No doubt? I have doubts.

Does America need to have better rails? I highly doubt it. If we can speed up existing rails without building new rails, that would be nice. Building new rails? Why don't we just improve air travel?

Does America need to have better mass transit? I am not sure. I know there are lots of people on NH love mass transit, but I am not a fan of it. And many Americans don't like it either, because mass transit has its disadvantages (1. do not directly bring you from point A to B, 2. difficult to travel with kids, 3. difficult to go to stations in bad weather, 4. can't bring lots of stuff with you, 5. have to check time schedule, etc. etc.). Maybe improve personal vehicle is the way to go?

Lots of people here are against Uber, but do you want to think about how to improve the taxi system, instead of blaming Uber?


> 2. difficult to travel with kids

I'm pretty sure my nephew's first ride on the subway was when he was 3. I don't recall how old I was when I first took the subway, but I think wasn't more than twice his age.

Transit is no harder than any other mode of transportation with kids. Sure, you might have to be schlepping around some duffel bags of supplies, but you'll have to do that anyways at your destination.

> 5. have to check time schedule

This is only true if your city has a bad transit system. And, yes, every city in the US (including NYC!) has bad transit. That's one of the main themes of the author--if you actually look at how transit works in other countries, you'll find that the American experience with transit is unusually bad.

> 1. do not directly bring you from point A to B

This is mostly a result of bad urban planning. When you have a transit system in place, you want to focus development around the accessibility of transit so that all of the desired origin and destination points are actually near enough to transit to you allow you to go directly from point A to B. When cities cross the hurdle and stop making every other block be a parking lot, then the nonavailability of parking means that it's driving that has the problem of not getting you directly from point A to B like transit would.


> I'm pretty sure my nephew's first ride on the subway was when he was 3.

He said "difficult" not "impossible". And if you was travelling with 3 years old, you would know it is in fact more difficult and tiring. Not impossible. You can travel by public transport with 2 years old or baby too.

But, where public transport can be more or equally comfortable then going by car, if you have small kids you have to watch all the time, it is more difficult.


For 2, I meant with multiple kids. With a baby is indeed more difficult. You apparently did have the experience of carrying the stroller up and down in subways. Especially when elevator is not working, which is not rare in NYC.

5 and 1 may be a planning issue, but the terrible situation in NYC could because the size of population and geography. It certainly can be improved, but the cost of change must have deterred the management.


Elevator not working or nonexistent (because in NYC it costs $80m (!!!) to install one that works ~80% of the time) is exactly what the US needs to get better at wrt mass transit. You just made a great case that NYC for example needs to! You’re also making wild assumptions about the relationship between the impact of change and NYC transit managers’ incentive to realize it.

Separately I’ve been traveling with my son on the subway since he was months old. I grew up taking the trains with my siblings to and from outings all the time. This “can’t do it with kids” meme is pernicious nonsense.


Imo, baby is easy. The hard is toddler you have to watch constantly else it does something stupid or get lost. Baby can be contained in carrier.


But baby cries, sometimes need sleep and sometimes need milk. So much easier to do all those in cars.


In carrier, they are able to sleep and you walking around makes them sleep. They also can wait without milk for an hour or so. They don't eat constantly.

In car, they are in the back, so if they cry, you have to stop, exit car, deal with them, enter again and so on. And driving while baby cries in the back is annoying. Public transport and carrier is not that much worst, assuming you are not carrying too many things.

More importantly, I compared difficulty of toddler and baby. Toddler in car can be noisy too.


Actually car also make them sleep. But subway has too much noise, which could wake them up.

For breast feeding, car provides a private space.

For baby crying and toddler drama, it's kind of embarrassing to have those in public transport.

I can even have the toddler pee in a bottle in my car, definitely not on public transport. Also change diaper, etc. etc.


I mean, I had both kids and car. I also used public transport. I also breasted - personally, I am woman.

Calming crying kid on carrier is easier then while driving.

Breastfeeding in car is not all that comfortable and you cant drive while breastfeeding. Typically it is not that difficult to find reasonably private place within time limit since kid cries constantly. You are going to spend time somewhere, park or friend or shopping center. That somewhere has usually good solutions, otherwise you would not be spending time there.

I never used pee bottles and such.


Does America need to have better rails? I highly doubt it. If we can speed up existing rails without building new rails, that would be nice. Building new rails? Why don't we just improve air travel?

I think people that think air travel is a replacement for rail haven't experienced good rail and transit based city planning. City center to city center travel can't be matched by air. Walk from your job to the train, then walk to the conference center in the city you're traveling to. Rail may be slower than air, but it picks you up and drops you off closer to where you want to be.

Maybe improve personal vehicle is the way to go

The problem is not the vehicle so much as the roads. I have a very nice car that I enjoy driving, but I prefer to the take train since I'm often stuck in stop-and-go traffic with the car (and the car will nearly drive itself in that traffic).


The number of buildings in walking distance to a train station is very limited. Your case can't be generalized.

Yes. Roads can also be optimized.


The number of buildings in walking distance to a train station is very limited. Your case can't be generalized.

The number of buildings within close commute distance of an airport is even more limited, airports are big and loud and no one wants one close to the city center.

Take, for example, travel from Buckingham Palace to the Louvre, the cities are they are connected by a high speed train, but neither source or destination is within close walking distance. The total trip length by train is 3:30 including taking a train to St Pancras, Eurostar high speed rail to Gare du Nord, then a train to the Louvre.

By plane, LHR to CDG is only 1:20. Paddington station to LHR is only around 15 minutes, but it'll take you 20 minutes to get to Paddington. And once you get to the airport, allow 10 - 15 minutes from the Heathrow Express train to the terminal. So you've got 50 minutes of travel time to your get. And you need to allow time for security, and to get to your gate so get there 30 minutes early. Now you're up to 1:20 just to get to your flight.

Airports, being so large, are located far from downtown, so it'll take you 45 minutes by train to get from CDG to the Louvre, but add 15 minutes to get off the plane and walk to the train. So that's an hour.

So you've got 1:20 + 1:20 + 1:00 = 3:40 by air.

Yes. Roads can also be optimized.

LA has devoted around 30% of its land area to roads, yet they still have some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, how much can roads be optimized?


Very easily! Use congestion pricing.


When you see an "easy" solution to congestion, there are usually factors that make it not so easy - if cities rely on cars for personal transport and don't provide a transit alternative, then congestion pricing alone isn't going to help other than being a regressive tax on the people that can least afford to pay it. The $200K/year software engineer can avoid the $10 tax by working from home until 10am when the rate drops to $5. The $30K/year service worker doesn't have that option, when his workday starts at 9am, he has no choice.

And you can only stretch out the commute so far with congestion pricing before the morning commute runs into the afternoon commute, already in the bay area (pre-covid), I was seeing stop and go traffic from early afternoon through 8pm or so. COVID has been a nice reprieve from the traffic, but many companies want their employees back in the office, so within a year or so, traffic levels will be back to pre-covid levels, maybe worse because many people moved farther away when they were working from home.


You're missing that there are marginal trips that would be discouraged/eliminated if one had to pay for them.

There can be subsidies for low income individuals if one cares about the regressive aspect (I don't). Low income individuals can use carpooling to escape per-person fees, as well.


If those marginal trips aren't already dissuaded by rush hour traffic, it's going to be hard to dissuade them with congestion pricing. I intentionally avoid rush hour traffic when scheduling doctors appointments, etc, but sometimes it's not always possible. And if there's focus on personal vehicles over transit, then people will have no alternative, they either drive and join the traffic on the road or don't go.


That would depend on the price.


I'd like to see a source for this.

If you take away transit and rely on personal car transport, there's going to be a point where there's no price that will stop the congestion.

Using San Francisco as an example, the Bay Bridge carries around 250,000 cars/day, while BART's transbay tube carries around 300,000 passengers/day.

If you put those BART passengers into cars, even if you build another Bay Bridge, how are all of those cars going to fit onto city streets and where are they going to park? Even if they are magic self-driving cars, that's going to double the amount of traffic on city streets (one trip to drop someone off, one to pick them up).

Assuming that you don't count "not having a functional city" as an acceptable cost, if you don't provide any alternative to cars, I don't think there's any price that you can set that will stop congestion. At higher prices, you may as well just call it "travel rationing" since a price of, say, $500/trip would price commuting out the reach of almost everyone.

You can certainly use congestion pricing to shift some portion of traffic or drive people to other modes of transportation, but if the only choice is driving, then congestion pricing isn't really a solution.


Any basic economics textbook can explain supply and demand and the marginal substitution that occurs as prices change. "...there's no price that will stop the congestion" is simply wrong.

I already provided carpooling as an example of a behavior change that could occur in response to price increases which would reduce cars on the road while keeping the number of trips the same. There are many, many others.

I'm not sure why you think I advocate "taking away transit" - congestion pricing is one way to make transit more attractive, something it badly needs.


I'm not sure why you think I advocate "taking away transit"

Look back to where I joined this thread:

Does America need to have better mass transit? I am not sure... Maybe improve personal vehicle is the way to go?

If you're saying that mass transit coupled with congestion pricing can reduce congestion, I agree. I'm saying that if mass transit is ignored in favor of personal cars as transportation, then you can't use congestion pricing to get out of congestion, because people will have to drive, regardless of price. If you price driving so high that people literally can't afford to drive to meet basic needs, then it's no longer congestion pricing, it's rationing.


I was not part of the discussion in that part of the thread.

I agree with the statement that "mass transit coupled with congestion pricing can reduce congestion".

I disagree with the statement that "if mass transit is ignored in favor of personal cars as transportation, then you can't use congestion pricing to get out of congestion", for the reasons I've already stated.

Saying that "people will have to drive, regardless of price" is indicative of being unfamiliar with the economic way of thinking about tradeoffs.


I don't want to discourage marginal trips. I want them to happen because that marginal value is worth it. Sure you can discourage them for congestion reasons, but that means something useful can't happen.


That is true, but if the price of the road-space resource is zero, it will be overconsumed and lead to even greater value loss due to time wasted in traffic.

You don't have to check the schedule for a good transit system because it comes so often it's always there. On the other hand, you have to find parking everywhere you drive a car, which is very expensive to provision. Plus someone can break into it and steal all the stuff you're carting everywhere.


You don't have to check the schedule for a good transit system because it comes so often it's always there.

Depends very much on where you are going. I live in a European city with pretty good transit so if I'm going to or around the city center, then sure there is a bus every few minutes[1]. However If I'm going to visit my in-laws a few suburbs out, that train leaves once an hour if traveling at off peak times (like Sunday afternoon when I normally go). If I'm going to visit my parents (3.5 hour drive away) that train leave twice a day.

[1] Although with COVID being what it is I haven't been on public transport for over a year and have to admit that driving everywhere is actually quicker and easier in almost every case at the moment.


> 2. difficult to travel with kids

Umm, just because American trains suck it doesn't mean all trains do.

In Finland all long-distance trains have a separate "kids car" with a playground, toddler/diaper change-compatible toilet and more open seating.[1]

I'd never subject other people to a 2-3 year old who hates cramped planes, nor do I want a screaming kid in the backseat of my car.

They can burn off their energy in the play area in the train. When they are sufficiently drained, we can walk to the restaurant car where I can get a beer and they can get some lunch.

Everyone arrives well-rested and relaxed.

[1] https://www.vr.fi/en/facilities-and-services/travelling-with...


> Why don't we just improve air travel?

Unless you go electric, you'll never get anywhere near a carbon footprint of rail.


Do you count in all the efforts of building the rails?


You're right, in the case where rail needs to get built and not just upgraded or used where it exists you need to take that into consideration. And I don't know what that means for the carbon footprint but my gut feeling is that it'd still be better than air travel in the long run.


The a priori assumption that America must be unique in some respect such as geography that means there is nothing to learn from other countries is part of the problem.


Both of my first two sentences were dedicated to the fact that America should learn from other countries. There is lots to learn, but our geography is also quite unique relative to Europe and Japan.


I'm not sure how having different geography means there isn't still lots to learn in the area where those countries are ahead. Like a company can be using a different programming language doesn't completely detract from learning how to use version control.

Part of what Alon is saying is that for USA we are ahead in most other stuff and so we don't have this expectation to learn from other countries but we are behind in this area.


Then compare to China and Russia, both of which have better high-speed (in Russia's case, I'd say the same as the US - a single high-traffic corridor, but its faster than its American counterpart), slower intercity, regional, urban public transit. Both are bigger, with serious geographic challenges, and poorer than the US.


People must be reading a different piece than I am. Where does the author say we have to do it like Europe does?!


"Amtrak can and should fully replace its senior management with people who know how to run a modern intercity railroads, who are not Americans"

The entirety of the article is a set of comparisons to European countries with 2 references to Japan thrown in.


Which is still not the same as saying we have to do it their way, but that people who have done it successfully might be able to do it again.

I agree that sentence is too strongly worded, but hell it might be entirely correct.


I understood this point, but honestly the author's writing style is fairly combative for a piece that is responding to absolutely no one. Generally when I've said, "We should do x like y, because they do it better" I figured out that people are often off-put by this because it's been used in reductionist ways to avoid having to answer very we-centric problems.


If the reading comprehension ITT is typical of Americans, TFA may well be correct.


European and Asian public transport planning can't be imported to America without the urban zoning needed to support the necessary density to make such networks economically viable.

Its not viable to just import EU and Asian transportation planning here ... it doesn't work because we lack density.

I would be happy enough to fund the transport networks before the density exists, as long as the zoning allows density, as the density would follow as a natural course once the transportation links are established. But that can't happen if the local regulations forbid density.

So this author is completely clueless.

Uber is engaged in making transportation more efficient in an environment where we have screwed ourselves. The public planners have no choice but to figure out how to do microtransport, because we lack the density.

Anyone who doesn't understand this is completely clueless, and demonizing Uber is popular, but ultimately idiotic.

I'm a big fan of trains and I think Uber is a dead end evolution. But America needs to identify the right cause of our problems. Its not Uber.


> Uber is engaged in making transportation more efficient in an environment where we have screwed ourselves

Is it? There isn't anything efficient about an Uber. They might be easier than a taxi in some cases due to their app UX, but that's about it - they're very inefficient in ecological and congestion terms.


In Sweden there are farms with transit. (My wife was an exchange student there ). Suburbs are dense enough for a bus every 10 minutes, but it takes effort to get there for long enough for people to realize the bus is useful and prove you were right to run it.


I recall as a kid being told our European counterpart's curricula focused on teaching people how to "learn" -- critical thinking etc. from an early age, and remember thinking how that made sense, and wish I was taught that as a kid. I think the root of this problem stems from the structure of us American's educational system.


There are things that any school system excels at more than others. My Bulgarian ex-wife was really good (in comparison to myself and others we met) with trig identities. Math seemed to be strongly emphasized in her youth but that didn’t necessarily impart good overall judgement.

Critical thinking is a core skill that needs to be nurtured for sure. However, critical thinking is useless without basic facts… which means there needs to be some emphasis on wrote memorization. Sometimes those two things can feel at odds; Why memorize anything when it can just be derived?

In a country that simultaneously fights over reciting a pledge because it has “under God” while also fighting against teaching evolution, it’s pretty amazing that we function at all.


Which European counterpart? Europe is extremely multicultural.

Speaking as someone who went through French school... nope, it's a brutal hellscape where they try to fit you in tidy little boxes and what they teach you is decided on the basis of how easy it is to grade, just like everywhere else.

Though multiple-choice question tests are a lot less common than in the US, I think.

I wish everyone just did Montessori or something similar.


Not only that, IIRC ( never went through it), France has a popular test format with multiple choice questions, QCM, which penalises you for mistakes ( as in points are actively deducted for every wrong answer instead of just not given), which is IMHO terrible because it encourages memorisation and zero thought.


I mean, it exists, like everywhere else, but I wouldn't call it popular. Most of the tests aren't multiple-choice.

> This percolates down to planners and line workers, and I don’t think Americans are ready for a conversation about full workforce replacement at underperforming agencies.

Why is the same logic not leveled against other institutions, like teacher's unions? Their tenure-based worker protections, unwillingness to be measured on performance, and other negative behavior is exactly what deserves a full workplace replacement. American K-12 schools are funded exorbitantly but the quality of education is absolutely terrible.


The thing that's missing is that there's no incentive to learn. Will doing a better job make for better pay? Will people actually believe in and use an improved system? Will the government adequately fund the system?

At least the other systems have a history of performance, leading to worker pride. Like just about everything else in the US, the Amtrak workers are basically corporate drones who have been stripped of their craftsman pride.


Speaking of learning from other countries, the US should learn from Europe that high speed rail tends to replace cheap rail which serves wealthy customers while locking out others. The current plan to move forward with rail should tap into experience while avoiding groupthink.


Not at all what I noticed. Everywhere I can go with a fast train (expensive) I can go with a slow train aswell, for far less money.


Americans know how to learn. They're in general great at it!

Federal US agencies OTOH, only know how to keep existing. They're also very good at that.


This is a modest proposal to replace some Americans (senior managers of Amtrack) with other better future Americans from europe. Then we have a stronger modest proposal "This percolates down to planners and line workers, and I don’t think Americans are ready for a conversation about full workforce replacement at underperforming agencies."

What is missing is the proposal to replace All Americans with better future Americans. Perhaps thats the next post.


Technology is toolmaking


It's actually worse than that: it's not that the US doesn't know how to learn (from others), it's the US increasingly takes pride in its own ignorance. I remember a friend years ago telling about the rise of anti-intellectualism in the US. I said he was wrong. Boy was I way off.

Stephen Colbert in 2005 was disturbingly prescient with this [1].

As for anything regarding public transit (intercity or intracity) in the US, sadly I think it's pretty much a lost cause. People just don't want it. They want their 1-2 acre lots within a city (which I still find crazy) and their cars.

The US is more than twice the land area of the EU. The EU has people concentrated in fewer cities (just look at how many airports and flights there are between the two). Barring some historical exceptions in the Northeast, American cities are generally much less dense. All these factors work against public transit. It's not impossible but it's harder.

As for Amtrak... it's pretty much a victim of a fairly disastrous nationalization. Amtrak shares the lines with freight that can often delay it. Just having the track and the rights-of-way doesn't mean it's easy or cheap to upgrade or replace it for high-speed rail. There's lots of opposition to this for of public infrastructure spending. And so on.

[1]: https://www.cc.com/video/63ite2/the-colbert-report-the-word-...


The US should focus on expanding existing commuter service and adding missing routes near higher density populations.

I live hundreds of miles from a prospective endpoint of a massively expanded Amtrak, in a region about the size of the Netherlands, with 1/50th the population. There's not even a reasonable comparison to be made.


Unfortunately, the money has to come from the national budget. Which means every state gets their say in how it’s spent. So yes, a commuter rail linking east coast cities makes sense. Now, get 17-19 Midwestern states to approve it as well. And that’s where you have the problem. It’s not what makes financial sense, it’s about how can I maximise this politically.


The Midwest isn't a problem as it is dense enough to support it. The west is left out.


No offense, but this post comes across as "because you don't want what I want, you must be ignorant".


Europeans just don't know how to make money. We should ship some of our best Americans to Europe, replace their senior leadership and show them how to learn, and then migrate their capital to the United States, where it rightfully belongs.


Please don't start nationalistic flamewars on HN. Last thing we need here.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


In this case I think the poster of this comment is not starting a flamewar, but instead making the kind of claim this article's author made, to show how poorly it can read when it is made in the other direction.


It probably starts the same flamewar either way.


I'm not sure if this is sarcasm, but many Scandinavian countries have apparently learned how to make enough money to provide some of the best public resources in the world, that make the USA look like a developing country


Please don't feed nationalistic flamewars on HN. Last thing we need here.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


You're right of course, good callout Dan, thanks!


Yeah by drilling oil wells and directing all the profits to the government. hahaa


That's only one of them. Sweden instead seems to be good at running clothing and furniture brands.


To be fair that was an Iraqi immigrant's idea.


Dense and incompetent writing can only fool so many people. Some will be bullied by incomprehensible prose, but others will call you out on your complete lack of form. I call bad form. Speak clearly, and stop with the bullshit.


I was really surprised when I got upvoted briefly because I knew this would be a contentious comment. Now I'm back down, and that's what I expected. I don't apologize.




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