National Security & Defense

The Billion-Dollar Dumpling

MTR station in Hong Kong (Saiko3p/Dreamstime)
A lesson for conservatives on mass transit

In the Hong Kong subway system, you can have a meal at a dim-sum restaurant boasting of a Michelin star. In New York, you’re lucky if you can buy a bottle of water and one of those disintegrating Nature Valley bars. Why would you want a fancy, expensive restaurant in your train station? Because you want the trains to work.

Mussolini doesn’t make the trains run on time: Dumplings do.

Free-market conservatives love Hong Kong — or at least they used to. But as with Singapore and some other examples of Asian city-state capitalism, there’s a lot more state capitalism at work here than you’d expect. For the libertarian-minded, it is ideologically unsatisfactory, but it does work.

Here’s how:

The Mass Transit Railway Corporation of Hong Kong is a formally private company traded on the stock exchange, but its biggest shareholder is the Hong Kong government. The government gave MTR land upon which to build railway stations, and very intelligently gave the corporation wide latitude in developing that land, something of keen interest to an island enterprise such as Hong Kong. (Or Manhattan. Or Brooklyn. Or Staten Island. Are you listening, Bill de Blasio?) MTR built all manner of commercial enterprises above their stations, including office towers and a dozen shopping malls.

The rents on that commercial real estate are not cheap, which is one of the reasons that MTR last year turned a profit of about $2 billion while keeping fares low (as low as 50 cents for some segments, topping out around $3) and running the whole very complex system on time just over 99 percent of the time.

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By way of comparison, the New York subways, which charge higher average fares, lose money hand over fist. The New York system will spend more on debt service than the impressive $2 billion its Hong Kong counterpart earned in profit. New York’s goal is to have its trains run on time 75 percent of the time, and it falls short of that goal. If Hong Kong’s subways were late 25 percent of the time, their managers would throw themselves on the tracks.

Culture matters, too. Hong Kong is, by necessity, a very entrepreneurial, competitive, and outcome-oriented place. In Tokyo, officials from the Metropolitan Bureau of Transportation offer profuse, formal apologies when there are significant delays. Tell a New York MTA official that you missed the first act of Hamilton because the train took an hour to get from downtown to the theater district and he will look at you like you are trying to explain quantum mechanics to him in Esperanto.

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What’s particularly terrifying about that is that New York’s is one of our better systems: Philadelphia’s subway map looks like a damaged plus sign (there are only two lines) meaning that it doesn’t go where you want it to, which doesn’t matter, because you might not get there, anyway. Boston vs. Chicago vs. Los Angeles? In terms of urban excellence, that’s like comparing the worst part of Port-au-Prince to the second- and third-worst parts.

This isn’t a matter of spending, or of government subsidies. There are few transit systems in the world as heavily subsidized as the Long Island Railroad, which in 2010 was spending – this is not a typo – $85.91 per passenger trip on its Greenport Branch service. That’s only $12 shy of a round-trip flight between San Francisco and Los Angeles on United, as of Thursday afternoon. Cities in European countries not famous for their thrift, such as Spain, spend far less on these services than their U.S. counterparts do.

#share#Again, culture matters. Americans sneer at bureaucracy with good reason: because we mainly are familiar with American bureaucracies, which are dysfunctional, inefficient, corrupt, hateful, abusive, ugly, forlorn, and despair-inducing. In cultures that have a stronger respect for institutional competence – and stronger expectations regarding institutional accountability – the experience of taking a train, going through airport security, or clearing a passport-control checkpoint is very different. I recently had occasion to travel through Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, where (despite the threat of a pending strike) clearing immigration took seven minutes. At Fiumicino airport in Rome, I barely had to break stride. On the reverse trip, clearing security in Italy took less than ten minutes on a weekend morning – but it took slightly more than an hour to be admitted to the country in which I live when I arrived in Houston, filling out forms that no one looks at, repeating the process at an electronic kiosk that produces another form that no one looks at, etc.

That isn’t money talking – that’s culture talking.

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There is much cause for skepticism in public–private partnerships, in the entrepreneurship of corporations in which government is the largest shareholder. But it is difficult to see how American cities are obviously better off with transit infrastructure in which the only commercial activity of any significance is stalls selling Mountain Dew and Smooth. We aren’t going to get a purely free-market mass-transit system, but we can get better ones than we have now.

Conservatives should care about that, if they care about appealing to people to live in cities. Or young people, old people, disabled people, immigrants, those poor people who grow up in New York and never learn how to drive, and a few other constituencies that might be more interested in improving public services than in eliminating them. Or the taxpayers underwriting the goat rodeos that pass for mass transit in most U.S. cities.

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