Lean Urbanism Needs Lean Rail Transit

July 30, 2014 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

A June 4 story in Bacon’s Rebellion discussed a recent speech by Andres Duany, the founder of New Urbanism, calling a “lean urbanism.”  Duany noticed that in parts of Detroit, renewal is taking place not because of government but because there is less government.  Speaking to the 22nd Congress on the New Urbanism (I have attended the CNU off and on since CNU III), Duany said, “When Detroit went bankrupt, they couldn’t maintain the regulators.”  Freed of endless, stifling regulations and red tape – all of it both expensive and time-consuming to deal with – people simply went ahead and began to rebuild.  The lesson Duany drew is that we need “to strip away all but the most essential regulations to encourage more urban re-development.”

Duany is correct.  We need “lean urbanism” that can produce and protect urban communities with less resources.  Nothing soaks up resources faster or more uselessly than over-regulation, which is endemic in cities.  But much of that over-regulation does not originate in cities themselves; it starts at the federal and state levels.

One of the regulatory burdens Duany referenced was ADA, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.  According to Bacon, “the last building he designed was so festooned with regulations, he (Duany) said he had to hire a consultant who specialized in handicap-accessibility code.  That one set of requirements contains as many rules and specifications as the entire development code when he got started!”

Here we begin to see a tie-in with transit.  ADA has proven the single most expensive, least useful mandate ever leveled on public transit.  Serving a small number of disabled people takes a large chunk of transit systems’ budgets, both capital and operating.   Many of the special facilities ADA demands of transit systems are seldom if ever used.  If something intended to serve the disabled is frequently used, including by people who are not disabled but nonetheless find it helpful, I’m all for it.  But millions have been spent entirely uselessly.

ADA is only the beginning of expensive and generally useless over-regulation of transit.  One environmental revue of a proposed project makes sense, but often multiple such reviews are required.  FRA’s outdated buffer strength requirements have greatly increased the cost of rail transit equipment, with no benefit.  A single commuter train accident in California led Congress to mandate positive transit control for all railroads, at a cost in billions and with no technology yet available to do the job.  The list is endless.

New urbanism, requires rail transit if it is to be successful.  Streetcars are essential to cities.  It is not coincidental that America’s cities began to decline about the time the streetcar lines were being abandoned.  Because no one likes riding a bus, substituting buses for streetcars made more people drive, which in turn led them to live and shop in distant suburbs rather than downtown.

In turn, lean urbanism requires lean rail transit.  We need to be able to build streetcar and light rail lines much more cheaply if cities are to afford them.  The problem is not technical; the technologies of the last 100 years ago worked fine, and were not expensive.  Successful streetcar lines such as New Orleans’ St. Charles Avenue line and San Francisco’s F Market line still use standard streetcars of yesteryear,  carrying respectively 15,000 and 20,000 people each workday.

Lean rail transit, like lean urbanism, requires deregulation, and it also requires an end to fascination with complex, expensive technology that is not needed.  The goal should be streetcar lines built for not more than $10 million per mile and light rail built for not more than $20 million per mile.   At those prices, what might be possible for Detroit and other cities trying to recover their past greatness?  Now, they struggle to fund lines only a couple of miles in length.  At affordable prices, they could rebuild the extensive streetcar systems they once had, systems to serve the whole city, some of it surface-separated and reasonably fast.

A marriage of lean urbanism and lean rail transit could do wonders.  Can we get anyone in government to think about either?

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation based in Washington, DC.

Wall Street Journal: If It’s Transit and its Expensive, It’s Bad!

July 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: The Right Answer 

The latest anti-transit article in the Wall Street Journal finds fault with a rail transit project in suburban Maryland.  Columnist Ms. Mary Anastasia O’Grady joins a long line of naysayers in trashing a transit project that has the audacity to be expensive (“Maryland’s Incredible Purple People Mover,” Wall Street Journal, June 28-29, 2014).  The 16 mile line subscribes an arc around the District of Columbia and connects two of the most populous counties (Montgomery and Prince Georges) in Maryland.  Granted the Purple Line IS expensive.  At almost $150 million/mile, the Maryland Transit Administration should be relentlessly pursuing cost cutting measures and eliminating possible waste to ensure that the final price reflects the very best efforts to achieve a cost-effective project.

But building a rail line these days in a mature urban area is not for the faint of heart.  Projects of this size, complexity and cost will almost always generate controversy.  It will also seem like everyone with a pulse will have a strong but not necessarily rational opinion on the line (and voice it).

Will some trees be cut down?  Absolutely.  Will there be construction impacts during the five year period that the Purple Line is being built?  No question.  Will the Purple Line provide unprecedented mobility and choice to users along the line?  Yes, unequivocally.  The estimate that the Purple Line will carry 74,00 weekday riders in 2040 is likely to be exceeded long before that date rolls around.   One need only look at the success of recently opened rail lines (Expo Line Phase 1 in LA, the Green Line connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the Red Line extension Houston) to understand that ridership estimates very quickly become out of date.

Connecting two major activity centers (Bethesda and Silver Spring), accessing four Metro stations and three suburban MARC commuter rail lines, and placing three stations on the campus of the University of Maryland, the Purple Line will only grow in importance as the area grows.  The rail line also affords unparalleled opportunities for accompanying economic growth, an attribute that we conservatives at the Center are especially pleased to recognize.

Ms. O’Grady relies on innuendo, hazy hints of impropriety and insufficient attention to bus rapid transit alternatives (which would have much higher operating costs) to criticize the project.  Ms. O’Grady does not argue against the project based on its merits, only on some narrow supposed failings.  In closing with the hackneyed phrase that taxpayers are yet again being taken for a ride, I pine for something a bit more original to dress up her musings.   I await Ms. O’Grady’s exposé of the Highway Route 460 fiasco in Virginia (there the former Governor of Virginia spent $275 million of taxpayer money without turning one spade of dirt) to validate her genuine outrage at expensive transportation projects.  However, I have a feeling her ire is only raised for rail transit projects (or Latin American politics, where her considerable expertise really lies).

Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation