Making Streetcars Real

October 28, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

The return of streetcars to a growing number of American (and European) cities is a good thing.  New streetcar liners have brought development, increased use of public transport by the middle and upper-middle classes and new attention to the rise of inner cities.

If those of us who welcome streetcar and want to see their presence spread and  move forward, we must do more than cheerlead.  We must also look at what still needs to be done to return streetcars to the central role they once played in cities.

An article by Eric Jaffe, “Overall, U. S. Streetcars Just Aren’t Meeting the Standards of Good Transit,” published by Citylab on September 3, 2014, addresses some of the actions that need to be taken to make streetcars real transit.  Mr. Jaffe identifies three shortcomings:  the short length of streetcar lines, their slow speed – a function of the fact that most run in mixed traffic – and insufficiently frequent service.  I think he is right on all counts.

As Jaffe notes, frequent service could help mitigate the problems of slow speeds or short lines.  Both of those problems require long-term, expensive fixes.  Running frequent service is not all that expensive.  New Orleans’ St. Charles Avenue line can afford to do it:  it offers a car every 9 minutes during morning peak, every 8 minutes at midday and every 10 minutes at night, according to Jaffe’s article.  I have ridden that line a number of times and it almost exemplifies the old slogan of many streetcar systems, “Always a car in sight.” That slogan sets the standard modern streetcar lines should aim for.

But as Jaffe notes, looking at streetcar systems opened since 2000,

“few U.S. streetcars run every 15 minutes, or four times an hour, which is generally considered the minimum standard for true show-up-and-go service that eliminates the need to check a schedule.  Three systems (Little Rock, Salt Lake City and Tampa) never hit that mark.  Two others (Dallas and Portland, Oregon) only hit it at one of three travel periods.  The one (Seattle) that does meet the every-fifteen-minutes threshold at each period never exceeds it.

And again, that’s the minimum standard.  Good public transportation requires trains or buses to run every 10 0r 12 minutes, five or six times an hour.  Only two streetcars (Tacoma and Tucson) hit this mark.”

In all fairness, Little Rock and Tampa are clearly tourist-oriented services, Salt Lake City’s Sugar House streetcar has been up and running for less than a year and Dallas was originally an all-volunteer operation that has just recently grown into a significant downtown circulator.  Portland and Seattle should increase frequencies as those systems continue to expand and ridership grows.

For the reintroduction of streetcars to be a long-term success, they must once again perform the large role they had in our cities 100 years ago.  That role is central to bringing the cities themselves back.  If we content ourselves with lines a mile or so long, running infrequent service and running no faster than urban street traffic, streetcars will be nice to have but not all that important.  So here’s what we need to do in order of priority (and difficulty):

  • Running streetcars at 10 minute intervals, at most; the goal should be “always a car in sight.”  That may require buying more streetcars, which are not all that expensive, and adding more passing loops, which cost a good deal more.  But streetcars will not play the role in restoring our cites we want them to play if people can walk the line faster (including wait time) than they can ride it.
  • Give streetcars traffic light pre-emption.  This too does not cost much, but it significantly raises line speed. Ideally streetcars should get more right-of-way where they do not have to compete with cars; making downtown streets with streetcars in conjunction with pedestrianization can also spur retail sales and spur development.
  • Once a successful starter line has shown the community what streetcars bring, start to build a system.  A system has many lines, service all the important parts of the city.  That costs a lot of money, but if FTA were to get serious about reducing construction costs if could cost less that it does now.  If streetcars are to be more than a “ride,” we need streetcars systems, not just streetcar lines.

I can and do endlessly lament the wonderful streetcar systems our cities had and threw away.  We did not know it at the time, but we were also throwing away our cities.  Their return must also be in tandem, because cities need streetcars.  Cars are inimical to the city, and no one wants to ride a bus. For those of us who know what streetcars can do and once did, it’s time to think big.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

Lean Urbanism Needs Lean Rail Transit

July 30, 2014 by · 6 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.

Smart Growth for Conservatives

April 18, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

Smart Growth for Conservatives, a new initiative undertaken by James A. Bacon, distinguished conservative author and publisher of the popular Bacon’s Rebellion (http://www.baconsrebellion.com/), is something we welcome. For conservatives, smart growth means recapturing good things from the past that our country has partially lost, namely traditional towns and neighborhoods as alternatives to sprawl suburbs.

There are three main reasons why we favor bringing back those older ways of living. First, as conservatives, we know old ways, ways that evolved over many generations of man’s experience, generally work better than new ways. Conservatives are not ideologues. Rather we favor what has grown bottom-up, over time, and is embodied in customs, traditions, and habits. Until the post-war building codes were enacted, people were not so rigidly segregated where they lived from where they shopped or from where they worked, by distances too great to walk. It was a mistake to do so, as most departures from long-standing practices are mistakes.

Second, as conservatives, we prefer what is beautiful to what is ugly. Much sprawl development is ugly, especially automobile-driven “strip” development. When we compare what our country looks like today with what it looked like a hundred years ago, when the neo-classical City Beautiful was in full swing, it is obvious we have taken the wrong road instead of the right streetcar.

Third, conservatives place a high value on community, and traditional towns and neighborhoods foster community better than does suburban sprawl. Why do we desire community? Because traditional morals are better enforced by community pressure than by the clumsy and intrusive instrument of the law. But community pressure only works where there is community. If you do not know your neighbors, what do you care what they think? We want people to care what their neighbors think.

Smart growth for conservatives ties in closely with what this website advocates, namely better public transportation in the form of streetcars, interurbans (light rail) and passenger trains. Like towns and livable cities, these are good things from the past whose loss we lament. We want to bring them back.

How does conservative smart growth differ from liberal smart growth? It differs in two major ways. First, conservatives reject the Left’s love of “diversity,” mixing races, ethnic groups, income levels, and cultures in ways where everyone must live cheek-by-jowl. Why do we reject it? Because diversity undermines community. Communities form more easily where people are most similar. Community, for us, is far more important than any putative benefits from “diversity,” benefits that seem entirely ideological in nature.

Second, while liberals strive for smart growth through more and more detailed government regulation (think Portland), conservatives want a free market on a level playing field.

The present near-universal sprawl codes radically tilt the playing field, because anyone who wants to build according to traditional neighborhood designs (TND), which we see as central to smart growth, must get a slew of variances to do so. One developer told me that to build one small TND project he had to obtain 150 variances. Each cost him time and money. This is not a free market situation.

The solution is simple: dual codes. A developer should be free to choose to what code he wishes to follow, a sprawl code or a TND code. He will decide on the basis of his estimation of the market. We are confident that many will choose the TND code, yielding smart growth. Why? Because most TND housing projects sell at a substantial premium over the same floor space in nearby sprawl developments. People like the old ways, and when they see them in the form of towns and neighborhoods, they want to be a part of them. They want to live there.

A few years ago, Paul Weyrich, Andres Duany (founder of the New Urbanism) and I co-authored a study titled, “Conservatives and the New Urbanism: Do We Have Some Things in Common?” Our answer was yes. I have been involved with New Urbanism from CNU III, because its essence is conservative: bringing back old ways. New Urbanism, in turn, is central to smart growth, which without New Urbanist influence can produce some ugly stuff. We don’t want any “Khrushchyovkys” [Soviet-style, five-story apartment blocks], thank you.

Our study was published by Free Congress Foundation which may still have copies available, as may CNU. Meanwhile, here at The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, we will return to the theme of conservative smart growth from time to time. The physical setting in which we live is a factor in influencing our culture, values and morals. We wish our friends at Smart Growth for Conservatives
(http://www.smartgrowthforconservatives.com) well as they make their mark in this fertile area.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

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