Lean Urbanism Needs Lean Rail Transit

July 30, 2014 by
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  FRA’s outdated buffer strength requirements have greatly increased the cost of rail transit equipment, with no benefit.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.


7 Responses to “Lean Urbanism Needs Lean Rail Transit”

  1. Richard Gadsden says:

    It’s not just capital costs that are inflated, it’s running costs. If a system can’t make an operating surplus, then it has to be subsidized just to keep running.

    The revenue is a point on the demand curve that maximises revenue (at best: many systems underprice tickets for political reasons), so increases in cost result in more systems that can’t wash their own faces in financial terms.

    If the system can pay for itself, then it’s hard for the politically-motivated to shut it down, and it can eventually pay for expansion out of the surplus. Metrolink in Manchester (England, not NH) is the best example of this that I know of; it’s building a second city-center line and an seventh suburb-to-center line largely out of revenue surplus (there is some subsidy attached, notably some EU funds, but it represents about 20% of costs).

    Metrolink partly achieves this through high ridership and revenues, but mostly through a relentless focus on cost-control, which has permeated through to their construction projects. The sixth suburb-to-center line, just completing (including a link to the airport), will be delivered more than 12 months ahead of schedule (possibly as much as 18 months) and well below budget. The surplus from the budget is another element in funding the further expansion of the network.

    A tight rein on costs isn’t always popular with riders (no, you can’t have a longer tram; you have to put up with standing in the morning and evening peaks because we don’t want to pay for the extra vehicle that will be empty the rest of the day) and ticket prices aren’t exactly cheap, but they’ve consistently made a substantial surplus.

    Design your regulations to achieve the regulatory goals at minimum cost and maximum flexibility, and lines will be much cheaper to run, as well as to build. The lower the running cost, the easier to make a surplus, and thus the more routes that can be operated.

  2. […] to rail mass transit, in effect creating a “lean transit.” Writing in the Center for Public Transportation, Lind is a rare conservative who supports mass transit. But he’s also a realist: He […]

  3. Steve Yaffe says:

    I’m surprised to see a “Conservative” take on transit that doesn’t value the need of people with disabilities to get to work.
    “Conservatives” would rather have intelligent motivated people sit at home on the dole because the transportation isn’t accessible?
    Designing new transit systems that are accessible to people with disabilities (as well as kids in strollers, luggage on wheels…) isn’t rocket science. Raised platforms, level boardings, LED signs with visual stop announcements for the deaf, audible stop announcements for the blind – none of that will break the bank. Really, Mr. Lind, is spouting off based on the observation of a friend more productive than doing a minimum amount of research?

  4. […] Bacon’s Rebellion, we find this article from William Lind at The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation. The basic argument is that Andres […]

  5. Robin says:

    I am a disabled woman. I have a M.A. degree and 20 years of professional work experience. I pay income taxes and property taxes. But sadly, my van has reached “clunker age.” It seems to be in the shop more than at my house. How exactly should I get to dialysis?

    • Glen Bottoms says:

      The short answer would be to get a new van. You would seem to have the means to acquire a new vehicle, assuming you’ve put your MA and work experience to good stead. Not knowing where you live, I would suspect that one of the health care agencies in your area would be able to suggest or provide transportation options to a dialysis center. Also, strangely, you did not mention transit options. Does that mean you do not want to take transit or is it not available (convenient) to you?

  6. Peter Kirsop says:

    I disagree, firstly because its often the less mobile who use public transport. I live near Newcastle Australia where the state government wants to closse the inner city section of the commuter railway. Most of those who attended protest meetings (one outside my office window) were elderly, many on walking frames. They correctly see that they will be less able to get to their specialists, to department stores, to the cinema- in short all those things that a medium city CBD (Downtown is I think the American equivilent) offers.

    Secondly because it need not be expensive. Instead of lifts build ramps, cheaper to install, they cost nothing to maintain and they move people faster than stair cases anyway.

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