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Cost Differences in Railway Infrastructure Projects Globally with Alon Levy
Episode 2810th May 2021 • Charter Cities Podcast • Kurtis Lockhart
00:00:00 01:02:25

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Our guest today is Alon Levy, a fellow with the NYU Marron Institute. Their research focuses on public transportation and how to apply best practices from cities around the world. Our conversation is about the influence of politics and culture on the cost of building rail-based infrastructure projects across the globe and Alon sketches out many different scenarios, highlighting examples of good or bad construction. Poor building practices often mean cost overrun and surplus extraction and Alon attributes them to cultural elitism, isomorphic mimicry, the ‘design-build plague’, and the hollowing out of the public sector, depending on what country he is speaking about. In the case of the US, part of the reason for the bloated cost premium is a refusal to accept and adopt better building practices from outside its borders and the continued use of outdated models. For some lower-income countries discussed, we see a tendency to adopt practices used by countries perceived to be superior, even though their practices are inherently bad or might not be relevant in a new context. Our conversation also covers recommendations for how a lower-income country like Lagos might approach subway building and the best examples they should follow. For a conversation packed with examples of how political conditions, cultural tendencies, and legal practices influence railway infrastructure building in different countries and the effects this has on cost, be sure to tune in today.


Key Points From This Episode: 

•  How Alon got interested in infrastructure while riding NYC trains.

•  Definitions of different rail-based transport types to be found in cities.

•  Cost differences of constructing different rail-based transport across the globe.

•  Cultural elitism and why there is a cost premium on American rapid transit.

•  The high cost of rail transport construction in countries whose planning logistics happen in English and are inherited from America.

•  A deterioration in building practices leading to higher construction costs in America.

•  The spread of a design-build plague in America and from America outward.

•  The role of perceived externality and NIMBYism in producing cost overrun and surplus extraction.

•  Hollowing out of the public sector and the overabundance of informal pressures in the private sector.

•  The issue of environmental protection laws being enforced by lawsuits rather than internal bureaucracy.

•  The evolution of high-cost building techniques in New York.

•  Perspectives on effective bureaucracy and the politics of railway building practices in Italy, France, Germany, and Spain.

•  How the cost of mega infrastructure projects will evolve considering China and America’s influences.

•  The role of isomorphic mimicry and cultural abnegation in inheriting poor building practices.

•  Different cultural practices around how close to the city to put that stop’s station.

•  Why optimizing for security instead of transportation effectiveness is paranoid.

•  Problems with Biden’s infrastructure plan including the budget for State of Good Repair.

•  The hallucination that the Anglosphere is the best; American tendencies to point out imagined problems in other cultures as an argument against adopting cheaper methods.

•  How Lagos or low-income countries should approach building a subway.

•  Perspectives on the internet and outside voices influencing on-the-ground challenges.


Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:

Charter Cities Institute

Charter Cities Institute on Facebook

Charter Cities Institute on Twitter

Charter Cities Institute on LinkedIn

Alon Levy

Alon Levy on Twitter