Lean Urbanism Needs Lean Rail Transit

July 30, 2014 by · 1 Comment
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  FRA’s outdated buffer strength requirements have greatly increased the cost of rail transit equipment, with no benefit.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

What do we make of APTA’s Ridership Numbers: Fundamental Shift or Much Ado about Nothing?

June 11, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: The Right Answer 

“It’s funny how day by day, nothing changes. But when you look back everything is different.” –Calvin & Hobbes

With great fanfare, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) announced on March 10, 2014 that overall transit ridership in 2013 was the highest since 1956. Naturally, the anti-transit crowd (plus a few neutral observers) threw torrents of cold water on this statistic, finding fault with APTA President Michael Melaniphy’s statement that “there is a fundamental shift going on in the way we move about our communities.” In Newgeography.com, Wendell Cox opined that not only was there “no fundamental shift to transit: [but] not even a shift.” Three professors from Columbia University, Cornell University and Rutgers University respectively stated in a Washington Post op ed that “the association’s numbers are deceptive, and this [APTA’s] interpretation…wrong.” Strong words, to be sure.

Some facts are in order to put APTA’s announcement in the proper perspective. Since 1920, government highway spending has undermined tax-paying, payroll meeting transit companies, contributing mightily to their demise. Other factors of course came into play, including inability to raise fares to recapitalize the streetcar infrastructure, onerous requirements to maintain streets with streetcar tracks, the Public Utility Company Holding Act of 1935, predatory strategies by General Motors and fellow travelers, cheap government-guaranteed mortgages (after WW II), and the Interstate highway system as it increasingly penetrated our nation’s downtowns (much to Eisenhower’s consternation). It should be no surprise that, by 1963, transit finally became unprofitable in the aggregate. This signified another milestone in the plummeting (at the time) prospects for transit. Transit could ultimately have become completely marginalized in the U.S., relegated to vestigial or legacy services, as private transit company after private transit company threw in the towel.

That this did not happen can be attributed to the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 and the formation of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The UMT Act of 1964 provided funds to localities to purchase the assets of private transit companies across the country and preserve transit services that would have otherwise disappeared or been further curtailed. These acquired assets served as the foundation for preserving and expanding transit operations in many of our nation’s metropolitan areas. Transit ridership reached its nadir in 1972, before the trickle of federal monies initiated in the previous decade could begin to have any impact and help address the hemorrhage of transit riders (caused in large part by the federal government’s own policies).

Critically, research has found that even today fully 50% of Americans do not have access to transit. In order to take transit, it must exist. A recent vote to provide funds to expand transit in the Atlanta metropolitan region foundered on this very fact. Vast swaths of suburban Atlanta are bereft of transit, rendering the question moot for thousands of ‘no” voters who saw no reason to give transit additional resources when they detected no transit service at all where they lived. Never mind that those “no” voters were inextricably tied to their automobiles for even basic mobility (and they certainly did not fare well in the snow and ice catastrophe of this past winter).

While the anti-transit crowd puts much weight on the great recession as temporarily depressing auto travel while transit ridership essentially plateaued, there is growing evidence that a fundamental shift in basic attitudes and behavior toward mobility is occurring, exclusive of the economy. Much has been made about Millennials and their willingness to forego a driver’s license or even owing a car, but these may be symptoms of a larger, more momentous cross generational catharsis. The long term trend of reduced or tiny increases in vehicle miles of travel (VMT) likely points to fundamental shifts on how (and whether) people travel. One can certainly see manifestations of the concern the automobile industry has for the younger set. No auto (or light truck) commercial I’ve seen lately has a gray hair (or wrinkle) in sight. It appears that auto (and truck) commercials are exclusively targeting the 18-33 year old age group. The automobile industry knows that the grayer we get, the less we drive and the fewer autos we acquire.

Much has also been made about the 85% increase in population since 1956 suggesting that transit should have been making much greater strides than APTA is trumpeting. This point is irrelevant when you consider the tremendous resources that have been devoted to highways since 1956 compared to the relatively miniscule transit investment made over the same period. From 1956 to 2011, highways consumed 91% of available capital, while transit collected a paltry 9%. Quite a disparity, you might conclude and reason enough to easily (and rightfully) conclude that the mode with the most resources will dominate.

The primary advocate for highway building during this period, the state highway departments, now called DOT’s, have wielded overwhelming influence in determining the direction localities take. Buttressed by a federal highway program that essentially puts state DOT’s in the driver’s seat, these state agencies have dictated the terms of the transportation future. Transit was relegated to subsist on the crumbs. The Golden Rule applies here, that is, he who has the gold, certainly rules. Localities that wished to fund transit initiatives did so largely or exclusively on their own nickel. Not so for highway improvements, which state DOT’s were (and, largely, are) quite willing to fund (and that friendly federal highway program would fund some improvements with an 80 to 90% federal share). Thus localities were faced with the choice of raising the money themselves for major transit projects (with some federal funds) or choosing highway improvements that were either fully or largely funded by the state (including using federal monies from the (now-approaching bankruptcy) Highway Trust Fund). It is odd when the anti-transit crowd disparages local rail projects as a waste of money when it is clear that localities that choose to build transit do so knowing that they will bear much higher costs for transit improvements than for highway projects (and likely take much longer to implement). That they still proceed reveals that they do so because they are finding that transit offers a better long term investment to achieve true mobility and real choice.

Transit has come a long way and the progress made is truly amazing when you realize these obstacles most localities have faced and some have overcome. Hostile state DOT’s, hostile state legislatures, and exceedingly well funded lobbies at the state and federal levels intent on maintaining their place at the transportation trough have all stood in the way of transit expanding as it should.

This hostility has not melted away with the years. For example, just recently, the Indiana legislature sought to prohibit the city of Indianapolis from even placing rail alternatives in the city’s planning process. And a U. S. congressman from a district that includes parts of Houston, TX, inserted a provision in the latest federal Omnibus funding bill to prohibit the city of Houston from building light rail in his district. The Tennessee legislature adopted legislation that would require the city of Nashville, TN to secure state approval for a local BRT scheme. The Governor of Ohio withdrew previously approved state funds for the Cincinnati Streetcar in a blatant attempt to stop that project (he failed). And finally, the state of Wisconsin is doing everything in its power to stop the city of Milwaukee from building its own streetcar line. These efforts are desperate attempts to stave off change, which threatens the current order, the status quo. Transit patronage gains across the country reflect the changes that are happening in cities, large and small, across the country, in spite of those counter-forces.

No doubt, the population of the U.S. has surged since 1956, but transit spending levels necessary to provide for and sustain real alternatives to the automobile did not happen until the late 20th century. The dearth of transit spending at all levels of government that existed for at least the previous 50 years has, until recently, severely retarded transit’s ability to compete with and also complement the automobile. Furthermore, the lack of resources resulted in deferred maintenance and deferred projects, conditions that persist to this day. For critics to point out that the population of the U.S. has increased by 85% since 1956 while serving up only self-serving homilies masquerading as serious analysis as to why transit hasn’t kept pace is, frankly, inexcusable. Superficial (or lack of) analyses, cherry-picking figures and ignoring history as the axe grinders have done only solidifies their reputations as shills for a certain point of view, regardless of the facts.

The bottom line is transit has indeed reached the ridership level last achieved 57 years ago. This IS momentous. Transit has reached that decisive point where its relevance to the economic health and vitality of our metropolitan areas is apparent and increasingly accepted. We now need to move further into the 21st Century with the goal of providing true mobility and choice to all our citizens, whether they be young, old, high, medium or low income groups, in short, all strata of our society. It won’t be easy, for nothing is more powerful than the status quo, and nothing harder to dislodge. We need look only at the difficulties currently being encountered to secure long term federal transportation legislation (and long term funding) as proof. We, however, can settle for nothing less; otherwise we’ll find ourselves mired in a bleak future, bereft of smart choices of where, how, when or whether to travel.

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

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