Regulations, ADA burden public transit

William Lind is director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation in Washington, D.C. This column originally appeared on the center’s website.

A recent story in Bacon’s Rebellion discussed a speech by Andres Duany, the founder of New Urbanism, calling for 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 in June (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 expensive and time-consuming — 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 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. The 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 the 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 uselessly.

The ADA is only the beginning of expensive and generally useless over-regulation of transit. One environmental review of a proposed project makes sense, but often multiple such reviews are required. The Federal Railroad Administration’s outdated buffer strength requirements have greatly increased the cost of rail transit equipment, with no benefit.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.

To succeed, new urbanism requires rail transit. Streetcars are essential to cities. It is not coincidental that America’s cities began to decline about the time 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 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?