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Must New Urbanism Be Tied to Fixed-Rail Transit?

A Tampa Editor is skeptical.

Fixed-rail transit is not going to solve the transportation needs of Tampa/Hillsborough--or anywhere else in Florida, says Weekly Planet Senior Editor John Sugg. Already two out of three trips originate in one low-density suburb and end up in another, Sugg says. Only developers and real estate speculators benefit from fixed-rail transit in sprawling Florida, but the general public pays.

By Weekly Planet Senior Editor, John F. Sugg

Here's how I first heard of New Urbanism. In the 1980s, train companies and real estate outfits were vying to get the state's approval (and your cash) to build a high-speed rail from Miami to Orlando to Tampa. A light bulb flickered over my head one day, and I realized that this was not a $2-billion train project, but was, in fact, a $50-billion real estate deal.

That scheme, which failed but is now struggling to resurrect itself, would have turned over to a private company the planning control of more than 10 percent of the state's projected development for 30 years. "Whoa," I thought. "Just what sort of Florida are we going to have?"

So, I searched out one of the rail project's main advocates, a no-holds-barred land baron whose company controls vast swaths of Florida real estate. He gave me the whole New Urbanism catechism, without using the name: Urban centers, high-density development along the train route, commuter rails connecting bullet train hubs to other dense projects. He talked about town centers where people lived and worked, and he eloquently orated about freeing Floridians from a horrible, horrible automobile-dominated future.

The train from Hotter than Hell Acres.

So, if you're a working schlub, you board the train at Hotter Than Hell Acres, ride it (together with a bus connection or two plus a healthy stroll through sun or rain) to your 7-Eleven job in Boca Raton, and then head back home before you annoy any of the aristocracy.

I asked: "Do you think the country club community residents will give up their Jags and Beemers?" Everyone smiled politely at that absurdity. (To illustrate that isn't pure fancy on my part, consider this: The governing board members of New York's transit system all ride around the Big Apple in chauffeured limousines, a perk the HARTline honchos haven't given themselves, yet.)

Tampa's commuter rail.

I'm not saying what I discovered about the bullet train is precisely the mentality behind what's happening in Hillsborough County. But it's close. What's clear is that New Urbanism has ridden into Tampa aboard plans for a commuter rail. The philosophy has taken hold of the county's planners, and that vision--for your future and your children's--is rapidly becoming unalterable governmental policy. Not only do rail plans codify New Urbanism thinking, but also a wholesale revision of Hillsborough's master plan follows the party line.

Tampa is too small to support rail.

Logic has no place in this discussion. For example, county planners have long been plagued by the fact that downtown Tampa is really not a very large urban center, maybe one-third the size most experts consider absolutely essential for rail. Solution? Just redraw the boundaries of downtown to include miles of surrounding neighborhoods - and never mind that most new "downtown" areas lack the essential characteristics of a packed urban office enclave.

There's some merit to New Urbanism.

The accompanying columns have explanations of New Urbanism and some pretty glowing predictions of what such an approach will mean to Hillsborough County. I don't discount that there's a lot of merit in what the New Urbanists describe. But I don't buy all of it, either. What appalls me is that we're all being herded in a direction in which we may not want to go. Government planners, who in the past were entrusted with regulating land uses, are now our social engineers, prophets proclaiming a brave new world.

Let's look at some of the fallacies in New Urbanism.

First, how good are the planners? In the last decade they projected a dire need for immediate construction of a sewer system that cost Hillsborough taxpayers a bundle. Then it turned out we wouldn't need that capacity for decades. Planners said the Florida Aquarium would be a success. They touted the Tampa Convention Center. Transportation planners gave us Malfunction Junction - now they want to blame us because we use it. Those sorts of mistakes are the rule, not the exception.

Posted 04 July 1998

Planners poop out.

On a broader scale, planners were thoroughly discredited four and five decades ago when they devastated cities with controversial and destructive "urban renewal" boondoggles. That's why so many huge vacant lots have for years bedeviled Ybor City. And, although they now claim to have a solution to "sprawl" via New Urbanism, it was the planners themselves whose land-use regulation gave us the landscape of today.

A reality check.

The same sort of thinking is emerging with the plan for the rail project, the force behind the local New Urbanism missionaries. On rail, they claim that total bus and train ridership will increase in the next 17 years by as much as 342 percent over current mass transit use. That's a figure unprecedented and unsupported by experience in other cities--but, heck, who cares about reality? As a matter of fact, no other city has achieved more than a 50 percent increase in total transit ridership once rail is built, according to Peter Gordon, a University of Southern California professor, who just completed the Reason Foundation study A Transit Plan for Hillsborough County: A Reality Check.

The county planners' prognostications are just, well, to be polite, they're just hot air. But that shouldn't be surprising. The main characteristics of government urban planning are that projects cost more than anticipated, they produce far lower benefits than forecasted and there are often serious, unintended negative consequences.

Political interference dictates planning.

Basically, planners can't predict the future any better than you can. Often--as is so painfully clear in Hillsborough's rail effort--political interference dictates and distorts the rational analysis necessary for the planning effort. Rail will make a few people very wealthy, and that is what's driving this train.

New Urbanists are merely the latest wave of social programmers who want to do your thinking. A previous generation, in the 1920s and 1930s, dictated that all transportation focus on downtown areas. They didn't foresee the impact of the automobile - an event that in many ways made downtowns obsolete.

Downtowns are no longer essential.

Now, our local planners want us to believe that our working habits are going to remain essentially the same for the next century--that "work" will be at a distant point from "home." To support New Urbanism, you actually must believe we're going to return to those golden days of yesteryear when downtowns were essential for business.

I don't think so. Right now, today, circa this moment, I could do all my work from home - or from my sailboat, or from Timbuktu, assuming my laptop's battery isn't low. True, the face-to-face stuff with colleagues would be missing, as would the three-hour, billable-to-the-company lunches with "sources." But 20 years ago, how many people could imagine laptops and the Internet. A decade hence, any inconveniences of telecommuting will undoubtedly be resolved.

"In the information age, the suburbanization of jobs and housing is ever accelerating, strongly suggesting that there are no prospects for a return to 19th century conditions," Gordon states in his Hillsborough study.

The issue is choice.

Already, two out of every three trips are from one low-density suburban area to another low-density suburban area. That's the nature of people, they want to go where they want to go. So, then, why are our New Urbanism-inspired transportation plans inextricably built around linking downtown with two "edge" cities, West Shore and the University of South Florida area? What the planners are telling you is that they want you to go where they want you to go.

And, that's at the heart of what's wrong with the rail plan. Your choice is at stake. Even in high-density areas along train routes in cities such as Portland, Oregon, 95 percent or more of commuters choose to use cars. Often, the addition of rail decreases overall mass transit use because trains are less flexible - offer less choice to a community - than buses, multipassenger lanes on expressways, jitneys or, especially, your own freedom-bestowing car.

Car commutes are faster than traffic.

The New Urbanists hereabouts are telling you that roads are going to get so crowded, high-density developments tied to rail are absolutely necessary for a quality community. Wrong on a few counts. First, despite anything you read about congestion, commuting times have remained the same for decades - about 22 minutes on average. Second, New Urbanists are way off track to suggest that trains will get you wherever faster - the average car commute is 20 minutes, the average bus or train trip is 35 minutes. Even with congestion, the typical commuter in a car travels along at 30 miles per hour--for mass transit, the speed is a turtle-like 13 miles per hour.

Developers get off the hook.

In Tampa, if we build a train and force feed high-density development, who benefits? Here's one thought. Under the state's "concurrency" rules, when roads get crowded, new development is restricted unless developers pay big bucks to upgrade the infrastructure. If a transit system is built, land within a quarter mile of the corridor would have its concurrency obligations greatly reduced or exempted. The assumption would be the train would alleviate traffic.

Taxpayers subsidize development.

But, if no one rides the train, the developers are still off the hook. One county executive, who asked for anonymity, gave me a document showing that as much as 100 million square feet of new office space (or its equivalent in residential or industrial development) could be built along the 70.7 miles of the planned rail line--and owners would be freed of the concurrency burden. You, generous soul that you are, would be paying the money for the developers by subsidizing the rail. In this case, New Urbanism is just a new way to fleece the taxpayers.

What is your cost for paying for the New Urbanists' daydreaming? To begin with, the rail would cost well over $1 billion--probably $1.5 billion or more if the normal cost overrun scenario takes place as it has in almost every other city. The cost of each roundtrip on rail--if you believe our planners' crystal ball--would be $32.24, with taxpayers subsidizing 91 percent. Under more realistic estimates, the roundtrip cost could easily soar to almost $147, the public's cost being all but $3.

Enclaves for the affluent.

Moreover, while the models of New Urbanism are quaint little planned communities, such as Disney's Celebration, they can't and won't exist except as walled redoubts for the affluent. And people living in these enclaves aren't likely to be the ones using trains. No, rather than Disney, the "transit-oriented developments" (TODs) are more likely to resemble Moscow's dismally giant apartment complexes.

New Urbanism is more than mass transit worship. The planners want you to live in compact TODs, where zoning and design features (such as narrow streets and garages inconveniently placed in back of homes) deter cars. They want to force commerce and homes to coexist in the same buildings. They want to dictate the size of your yards, the space between houses. They don't want cul-de-sacs (sinfully auto friendly). They prefer people stacked on top of each other in multi-family warrens.

Cars gave us freedom.

There's a problem with this. Lifestyles changed because of the automobile--cars gave us the freedom to spread out. It wasn't the reverse. We didn't spread out and then invent the car.

But the New Urbanists proclaim (although quietly so you don't hear) that if you use heavy-handed government to change lifestyles, then some sort of alchemy will happen that results in people willingly giving up their cars and the freedom to go where they want when they want.

Forward to the 18th century.

Nonsense, of course. If cars exist, why do people want to live in pre-auto-styled communities? There's little more logic in conceiving cities around the 19th century technology of trains than there is in utilizing 18th century thinking and building horse stables in every neighborhood.

As national architecture critic Herbert Muschamp has written in the New York Times, the New Urbanist doctrine "inflates the ecological advantages" and "oversells the capacity of its designs to foster a strong sense of community."

"The New Urbanists," according to Muschamp, "may be producing architecture for the Prozac age: Potemkin villages for dysfunctional families."

John F. Sugg, Weekly Planet Senior Editor