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  FRA’s outdated buffer strength requirements have greatly increased the cost of rail transit equipment, with no benefit.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

Addressing the Cost Problem

February 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Car Stop 

As regular visitors to this website know, one of our Center’s main themes is the need to bring down the cost of building rail transit lines, especially Light Rail and streetcar (heavy rail is beyond help).  Curiously, as costs continue to rise and increasingly threaten the future of rail transit, little is written on the subject.

An important exception is a recent piece on www.railmagazine.org by Rich Sampson, entitled “Passenger Rail’s Economic Duality: Why Rail Projects Are Expensive or You Get What you Pay For.”   I am not sure all projects do get what they pay for, but beyond the title this is a thoughtful and timely article.

I do not intend to repeat it here; rather I recommend you find it and it read it in its entirety.  But a few points are worth noting:

  • The increase in costs is real.  Sampson writes that construction of the original IRT subway line in New York City in 1902 ad 1903, a line 9.1 miles long, cost $1.4 billion in today’s dollars.  Now, the Second Avenue Subway, 8.5 miles long, is expected to cost $17 billion.  That is roughly a ten-fold increase.  I do not have the figures, but I know streetcar and interurban lines built in the late 19th century and early 20th century were usually undercapitalized.  That meant they were lightly built, but they worked.  As with subways, I suspect the construction cost of those lines was a small fraction of what we pay now to build streetcar or Light Rail.
  • A sizable fraction of the cost difference between then and now is the proliferation of governmental requirements, and with them endless studies (paralysis by analysis, some say).  The streetcar or interurban company then had essentially one government requirement to meet:  obtaining a franchise.  Now, the hoops to be jumped through before construction can begin seem endless.  Obtaining a franchise usually took weeks or months.  Today’s process requires years.  I remember Congressman Oberstar telling me it now takes 14 years to bring a rail transit project from conception to conclusion.  Then it was less than 14 months.  One fact does not change.  Time is money.
  • This phenomenon, everything getting more complicated, is not limited to rail transit.  We see it everywhere across our society.  It is a classic symptom of decay and decline.  If we look at the rise and fall of other countries, we almost always find increasing complexity marking the downward path.  It can reach a point where nobody can do anything: welcome to 17th century Spain.
  • Costs appear to vary enormously, often for little or no visible reason, i.e., tunneling.  For Salt Lake City’s UTA Frontlines effort, the total Light Rail share of the program came in at $57.8 million per mile.  An extension of Charlotte’s Blue Line LYNX Light Rail is estimated to cost $123.4 million per mile.  What gives?
  • What gives is that nowhere in the process of building rail transit is there any player who has an interest in keeping costs down.  There are, however, many players who have no interest in keeping costs down; indeed, they may have an incentive to drive costs up, because they make more money.

Sampson’s article is strong on diagnosis but weak on prescriptions.  Our prescription is to create a player, and a powerful one, whose job is to keep costs down.  The obvious candidate is FTA, which seems to be asleep at the switch on the cost problem.  Why isn’t FTA questioning the cost differences between Salt Lake and Charlotte?  You would think someone there would at least want to know.

Beyond knowing, FTA needs to do something.  As we have proposed before, FTA should set “should cost” figures for streetcar and Light Rail projects.  “Should cost” is a common cost control measure in business.  It reflects a best professional estimate of how inexpensively a job can be done.  If a city wants to build a rail transit line at a price higher than the “should cost” figure (after taking account of tunneling or elevating required by terrain, not NIMBYs), it is welcome to do so – – at its own expense.  FTA will only provide funds based on the ”should cost” number.

We have asked this before, but I will ask it again:  Are there any suggestions for what the “should cost” figures should be?  This is the crucial question.

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

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