My friend Alon Levy has done a great service for the transit blogging community by introducing us to a German planning proverb: Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton. Literally it means "organization before electronic before concrete," and the idea is that changing the organization of an enterprise is relatively cheap, installing electronics is more expensive, and large infrastructure projects are the most expensive. So if your goal is to provide a service like transportation, you should look at organizational and compact solutions first, and pour concrete only as a last resort.
This is great advice when the goal is to get commuters to their jobs quicker, more comfortably and with greater flexibility. It works well if your goal is to improve access, especially for the poor, and when you're spending your own money that could go to other worthwhile problems.
The principle is less applicable when "jobs" are a goal. This could be from the perspective of Keynesian stimulus, or simply of old-fashioned patronage. When Barack Obama and Ray LaHood want to put people back to work, they're not necessarily interested in organizational streamlining.
The Keynesian practice of ignoring deficits in a liquidity trap gives them a huge pot of money to throw at "shovel-ready" projects. This would be great if it could be spent on much-needed transit maintenance and operations, but currently politicians get the greatest reward from funding big new projects, less from fixing things that are broken, even less for incremental improvements and hardly anything from keeping things running smoothly.
This combination of Keynesian budgets and "ribbon-cutting bias" means that the government is itching to spend money on stuff, and they care more about job creation than about efficiency. The transit projects that are most likely to get funded are the ones that create the most jobs for voters and donors in the districts of influential politicians. Those of us who care about efficiency may not like to see it take a back seat to considerations like stimulus and patronage, but there are different kinds of efficiency, including cost efficiency, fuel efficiency, space efficiency and time efficiency.
If it's a choice between a five billion dollar beton transit project or a 500 million dollar elektronik project, sure, we want the cheaper one. But if the government plans to spend five billion no matter what, then it's the choice between a five billion dollar transit project and a 500 million transit project plus a 4.5 billion dollar highway project. Under these circumstances the elektronik project will not ultimately save money, and the highway project will use more energy per passenger-mile and induce more sprawl.
The highway project will also compete with parallel transit lines, so it could wind up reducing energy and spatial efficiency further. It will encourage people to drive more and reduce the constituency for future transit projects, compounding the effect.
On top of all that efficiency we have other goals like reducing pollution and carnage, and increasing health and social interaction. These goals mean that we need to get people out of their cars, and for me at least they are more important than simple cost efficiency.
So yes, Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton. But if you're getting béton anyway, then make it Schiene vor Beton.
There's another reason that I'll get into in a future post.