The University of Minnesota is a very good institution of higher education, featuring world class scholars and researchers in a number of disciplines. By one study measure (from the University of Florida) that examined a number of different benchmarks (NIH grants, research budget, numbers of refereed publications, patents granted, etc), it is a top 5 public research university. All this despite the fact that it bears the burden of being my alma mater (my family couldn’t afford Harvard or Dartmouth, and in fact, I was the only one of five kids who went to college) and the stigma of my lousy scholarship. Of course, I’m no worse than the football program, and I don’t demand a million bucks a year to be mediocre.
But I digress. The Twin Cities campuses of the U of Mn have more than 40,000 students, and there are two primary locations, one in Southeast Minneapolis, the other in Northwest St. Paul. They are separated by about three miles, and students and staff can travel between the two locations via shuttle bus that runs on a dedicated private road. It only takes about ten minutes to get from one to the other because the bus basically does not have to stop for traffic- there is just one point on the busway where it crosses a thoroughfare, and the drivers have transmitters to lower stop arms against cross traffic. So far, we fit the urban green ideal- buses, mass transit, poor students, discriminate against big bad private cars, and so on.
Recently, the University teamed with the city of St. Paul to establish a business start-up “incubator”, a building where new companies that are spun off through the research discoveries of the university could find floor space and biomedical “wet labs” on an affordable basis where some rent and support services can be paid for in equity shares of the company. This is similar to the way many of the Silicon Valley and Boston 128 corridor biotech firms got their starts; it is hard to manage effective anti-cancer drug discovery in the kinds of garages where Apple and Medtronic were midwifed.
Happily, the Minnesota “University Enterprise Labs” (UEL) incubator happened to find a home in a recently vacated building right smack on the private bus road between the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses. You can literally stop the bus at the one place where it needs to slow down to check for crossing traffic, jump out, and walk from a figurative fifty yard line to the end zone and be at the building. The location is so perfect that the University moved its business development support office from the campus to the incubator. Thus, now there are not only companies associated with the U in the building, companies that professors have to go visit frequently and that have license agreements with the university, but actual university employees.
Perfect, right? In our world of traffic, gasoline price hikes, pollution, and all that, we can just jump on the bus at the McNamara Alumni building, where the University’s intellectual property and legal departments are housed, ride to the UEL, and hop off! Now we can even take mass transit to work in the morning, knowing that we won’t need to have an automobile available to get to meetings at the UEL!
Not so fast, bub. I tried that once. I was smart enough to ask the driver if he knew where to stop, and he told me that he could not, and that I couldn’t ride because I would not be able to get off the bus. So I sent an e-mail to the university transportation department and asked why (which e-mail was never answered; maybe it was my sarcastic tone about air pollution?).
However, I did learn, finally, from an inside source what the problem is. Children, can we all say “government regulation”?
It seems that the trend of the court decisions regarding the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) has been to order specific and advance compliance with strict standards for bus stops. Even for private bus lines. In order to set up a bus stop at that point, they determined that they would have to construct shelters and access ramps for all possible variants of passengers, at a cost of near $250,000. This when the buses all have hydraulic lifts already to assist wheel chairs in and out. And, the need to possibly cross the (private, with no traffic other than university-operated buses) street means that they need to add full traffic light systems with pedestrian walk signs, and the like.
Now, I believe that the provision of lifts on the bus is exactly the right thing to do, and I will happily pay added taxes to ensure that it gets done. And I can’t think of a soul whom I would want to be around who would object to making sure that those with special needs are safely accommodated under such circumstances. The issue here is that the bureaucratic powers that be felt that this could only safely be done, from an ADA-compliance and/or tort liability standpoint, by looking at the extreme solution. For less than $100 I could install an alarm buzzer from the non-bus stop up to the receptionist in the building so that someone could come to assist. I am sure that there are many other ideas that would work as well. But the game today is CYA.
So, we drive to work, then drive to the UEL, burning gas, adding to traffic, polluting the air, and (worst of all) losing our regular parking spots in the ramp closest to the building. Someone put in an emergency call for Walter Olson at “Overlawyered”.
Maybe Nick Coleman could write a column about it.
UPDATE: Welcome, fellow Walter Olson fans.