Politics of light rail in North America

Politics of light rail in North America

The distinct circumstances under which light rail systems have been introduced to North America (particularly the United States) have caused differences in the development and implementation of those systems as well as spur political controversy over the effectiveness of light rail.

Criticisms of light rail in the U.S.

In many cases there has been considerable opposition to new light rail systems, particularly in the United States. Many of these arguments reflect the particular U.S. political conditions, including uses of government funding, considerations of development goals in urbanizing areas, and positions and power of various advocacy and lobbying groups, as well as physical issues, including the relatively low density (as compared to much of Europe and Asia) of many U.S. conurbations, and the extent and use of highway systems. ["Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) Report 102: Transit-Oriented Development in the United States--Experiences, Challenges, and Prospects",Transportation Research Board, http://trb.org/news/blurb_detail.asp?id=4060 ] Arguments by opponents are often framed in terms of "how much automobile traffic can light rail replace," above all other considerations.

Arguments are generally along three lines:
* modern spatial arrangements are unsuited for fixed-line transit systems such as light rail
* light rail is too slow to compete with the automobile
* light rail does not generate a sufficient return on capital investment to make its construction worthwhile"Driving Forces" (1998) ISBN 0815719647, by American political scientist and rail transit critic James Dunn, provides a good summary of these arguments.

patial mismatch

The low-density dispersal of residences and employment in modern American metropolitan areas prevents mass transit displacing a significant percentage of automobiles. In the United States, only in metropolitan New York City is transit's share of vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) higher than five percent, and in most metropolitan areas, transit carries less than one percent of travel. These percentages are considerably higher for suburb-to-central business district (CBD) commutes, but these trips have dramatically declined as a percentage of VMT since the 1970s.Verify source|date=July 2007

While the spatial mismatch argument is largely correct for the Midwest (except Chicago), the South, and Southwest, it never was relevant to San Francisco, the nation's second-densest city after New York, and is increasingly not the case in places such as Los Angeles and San Diego. As West Coast cities, in particular, run into their coastal mountain ranges, many have developed polycentric spatial arrangements with a relatively small number of nodes. For most of its history, transit has best served commuters from suburbs to a single CBD. However, this is no longer necessarily the case; in Sacramento and San Diego, particularly, construction of light rail networks that incorporate both circumferential (suburb-to-suburb) and radial (suburb-to-CBD) lines have produced surprisingly high increases in passenger-miles (Thompson and Matoff, 2003).

Nevertheless, with such a small market share, even a doubling of transit ridership would have virtually no impact on traffic congestion.Verify source|date=July 2007 Smart growth advocates and New Urbanists acknowledge this and call for areas near proposed light rail stations to be developed as relatively high-density "transit villages," minimizing the need for automobile usage while increasing the housing stock. In many areas, NIMBYism is an obstacle to such development.

Travel time

Though modern light rail systems have higher average speeds than their older counterparts, LRT is, on average, about half as fast as automobile transit. [ [http://www.lightrailnow.org/myths/m_lrt012.htm Light Rail Schedule Speed – Faster Than Bus, Competitive With Car ] ] When taking into account the additional time required to reach the rail system, this is even slower. These averaged figures do not account for the degree of congestion, however; light rail on its own right-of-way is considerably less vulnerable to gridlock than automobiles or buses operating in mixed traffic. For example, Los Angeles' heavily-used Blue Line (the United States' second busiest light rail line) which is slower than automobiles at off-peak times but during rush hour, is very competitive with automobiles traveling along the extremely congested Long Beach Freeway (I-710) it parallels. The Harbor Transitway busway nearby is faster than either mode, due to fewer stops, but construction of its dedicated right-of-way was expensive given its very low ridership. Light rail makes sense in areas that suffer from sufficient congestion to make it competitive with cars, and along routes that are too heavily-traveled for even bus rapid transit systems.

Return on investment and cost-competitiveness for LRT vs. highway

:"Cost-effectiveness and comparative capacity are covered in the main light rail article. This section will attempt to provide context to argumentation in the United States political climate based on those facts."

;Pro-LRT arguments made regarding cost and return on investment

*Seemingly high construction costs for LRT systems are not taken in proper context as costs of purchasing and maintaining vehicles necessary for a highway system are hidden since private owners pay these expenses.Or|date=September 2007

*Light rail provides savings to the consumer. The Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) has shown that those who take mass transit in place of owning cars spend a far smaller fraction of their total income on transit costs [http://www.transact.org/library/reports_pdfs/driven_to_spend/Driven_to_Spend_Report.pdf] . Additionally, the money spent stays local, which is not true of gasoline costs nor automotive insurance payments to nonlocal companies. Approximately 18% of household expenditures are spent on vehicles and transit fares. Residents of cities with well developed rail systems spend an average of $2,808 on vehicles and transit, compared with $3,332 in bus only cities. [cite web
last = BLS
year = 2003
url = http://www.bls.gov
title = Consumer Expenditure Survey
publisher = Bureau of Labor Statistics
accessdate = 2006-10-13

*Light rail offers many indirect benefits:
**It is low impact to nearby areas in terms of air and noise pollutionFact|date=September 2007Or|date=September 2007
**Rail-triggered transit-oriented development tends to increase local property values, and often result in neighborhood improvements such as urban redevelopment, historic preservation, and improved pedestrian conditions [cite book
last = Eppli
first = Mark
coauthors = Charles C. Tu,
year = 2000
title = Valuing the New Urbanism: The Impact of New Urbanism on Prices of Single-Family Homes
publisher = Urban Land Institute
url = http://www.uli.org
id =
] while highways can negatively affect community cohesion
**Rail-based transit can lead to higher land density and clustering in rail-oriented cities providing agglomeration benefits in reducing the costs of providing public services and increasing productivity due to improved accessibility and network effects. [cite web
last = Litman
first = Todd
year = 2003
url = http://www.vtpi.org
title = Evaluating Criticism of Smart Growth
publisher = Victoria Transport Policy Institute
accessdate = 2006-10-13

*Light rail offers benefits over bus alternatives:
**Compared with diesel buses, rail can carry more passengers in less land and do so with less noise and air pollution compared with diesel busesFact|date=February 2007. As a result, rail is more suitable for high-density areas.Fact|date=September 2007Or|date=September 2007
**Since rail travel is usually more comfortable, faster (particularly if grade separated) and better integrated into the urban landscape than travel by bus, more people are willing to ride. A survey in Vancouver, Canada found that 42% of Skytrain (rail) riders would otherwise drive, compared with 25-35% of bus riders. However, this preference for rail over bus is disputedcite web|url=http://www.publicpurpose.com/nz-uslrt000131.pdf|author=Wendell Cox|page=39|title=Light Rail in the United States: Promise and Reality] [cite web
last = Litman
first = Todd
year = 2004
url = http://www.apta.com/research/info/online/rail_transit.cfm
title = Rail Transit In America -- A Comprehensive Evaluation of Benefits
publisher = American Public Transport Association
accessdate = 2006-10-13

*Future rail systems may have higher utility than present ones due to the network effect, wherein the addition of one node to a network increases the utility of other nodes. The experiences of Sacramento, California and Portland, Oregon have demonstrated this phenomenon: in those places, light rail became more competitive with highways as more of the network was put in place. To quote Calgary Transit: "Since the inception of LRT service, each new LRT line or LRT extension has produced a 15 to 20 percent increase in corridor ridership, resulting from the diversion of previous auto drivers to transit."Fact|date=September 2007

*Arguments against effectiveness of LRT based on spatial mismatch fail to taken into account that automobiles supplement the reach of a mass transit system, particularly to suburbs, reducing the population density required for a viable system.Fact|date=September 2007Or|date=September 2007

*Light rail, like all mass transit, improves the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of existing highways by lowering traffic congestion, particularly during rush hour. At peak capacity, even small reductions in volumes can significantly reduce delays.Fact|date=September 2007

*Rail transit cities have significantly lower per capita traffic death rates. Cities with large rail transit systems average 7.5 traffic fatalities per 100,000 population, ones with small rail systems average 9.9, and bus only cities average 11.7. If cities with large rail systems had the same fatality rate as bus only cities, the United States would have 251 more annual traffic deaths.cite book
last = Kenworthy
first = Jeffrey
coauthors = Felix Laube
year = 2000
title = Millennium Cities Database For Sustainable Transport
publisher = Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy
url = http://www.uitp.com/Project/index32.htm
id =
] However, it is not certain that such safety benefits would accrue from light rail in particular. Prominent light rail critic Wendell Cox argues that light rail is less safe than bus, subway, and even automobile-based transit.cite web|url=http://www.publicpurpose.com/nz-uslrt000131.pdf|author=Wendell Cox|page=41|title=Light Rail in the United States: Promise and Reality]

*Costs of running a light rail can be expected to be fairly consistent, whereas the cost of using a highway/road system is heavily dependent on world cost of oil, which is vulnerable to abrupt increases.Fact|date=September 2007Or|date=September 2007

*Light rail systems, like all mass transit, provide increased mobility for non-drivers such as those too young to drive, the elderly, and disabled.Fact|date=September 2007Or|date=September 2007

*Light rail is more environmentally friendly than highway/road alternatives since rail travel consumes about a fifth as much energy per passenger-mile as automobile travel, due to higher mechanical efficiency and load factors.cite book
last = Kenworthy
first = Jeffrey
coauthors = Felix Laube
year = 2000
title = Millennium Cities Database For Sustainable Transport
publisher = Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy
url = http://www.uitp.com/Project/index32.htm
id =
] It should be noted that this assumes full capcity, whereas in practical use, since light rail vehicles run far from capacity, that light rail actually consumes 14 percent more energy per passenger kilometer than automobiles in practice.ciet web|url=http://www.publicpurpose.com/nz-uslrt000131.pdf|author=Wendell Cox|page=44|title=Light Rail in the United States: Promise and Reality]

;Anti-LRT arguments made regarding cost and return on investment

*United States light rail systems have a consistent history of low ridership [http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/002/351jldsx.asp The Search for the Holy Rail] translating to low per-person cost-effectiveness. (See: List of United States Light Rail systems by ridership for ridership information)

*While the bulk of operating costs for highway systems are paid for by its users, subsidy to public transport is more than 70 percent, representing a continuing cost to taxpayers.cite web|url=http://www.publicpurpose.com/nz-uslrt000131.pdf|author=Wendell Cox|page=43|title=Light Rail in the United States: Promise and Reality]

*Express buses can carry the capacity of light rail systems, and can do so at 1/7th the cost without the large startup investment required for light rail.cite web|url=http://www.publicpurpose.com/nz-uslrt000131.pdf|author=Wendell Cox|page=5|title=Light Rail in the United States: Promise and Reality]

*Light rail systems have high construction and maintenance costs, nearly seven times the cost per person kilometer of an urban motorway lane.

*Ridership data in the United States indicates that light rail systems seldom run near full capacity, and so demand does not require such a high capacity system. Bus systems require substantially less investment and cost with virtually identical practical carrying capacitycite web|url=http://www.publicpurpose.com/nz-uslrt000131.pdf|author=Wendell Cox|page=40|title=Light Rail in the United States: Promise and Reality]

*Light rail is a waste of transit money, producing only 3.6 percent of transit trips yet consuming 12 percent of transit capital funds, taking away needed money from other transit modes. [ [http://www.reason.org/ps336.pdf GRDupdaterppi.indd ] ]

*Since many light rail riders are merely transplanted bus riders, ridership data overstates how many cars are taken off the road by light rail. In general, half or more of light rail riders formerly rode bus services that were replaced by the rail service. [ [http://www.publicpurpose.com/charlotte.htm Breach of Faith: Light Rail and Smart Growth in Charlotte ] ]

*Most people in the United States live in places where cars are owned out of necessity. As such, automotive ownership expenses are already sunk costs, to be incurred even if primarily taking mass transit.Or|date=September 2007Fact|date=September 2007

*Light rail systems are not being built for cost-effective reasons. Prominent critic Wendell Cox argues that worry over traffic congestion, boosts in civic pride, and the availability of federal funding impel light rail construction, while the first has not been shown to be remedied by light rail, the second isn't pragmatic, and the benefits of the third are irrespective of what the funds are spent on.cite web|url=http://www.publicpurpose.com/nz-uslrt000131.pdf|author=Wendell Cox|page=43-44|title=Light Rail in the United States: Promise and Reality]

ee also

*Light rail in North America
*Light rail
*List of United States light rail systems by ridership

Links to U.S. sites supporting light rail

* [http://www.lightrailnow.org/ 'Light Rail Now!']
* [http://thetransitcoalition.us/index.htm 'The Tranisit Coalition']
* [http://www.theoverheadwire.blogspot.com/ "The Overhead Wire']
* [http://www.lrta.info/news/newsindex07.html 'The Light Rail Transit Association']

Links to U.S. sites opposing light rail

* [http://www.publicpurpose.com/charlotte.htm 'Breech of Faith: Light Rail and Smart Growth' highlighting alleged wastefulness and ineffectiveness of light rail projects] An argument against utilization of a light rail system in Charlotte, NC
* [http://www.reason.org/lightrail/index.shtml 'Reason Foundation Policy Studies on Light Rail'] The Reason Foundation presents a series of reports documenting the poor ridership and financial performance of light rail systems in the U.S.
* [http://www.publicpurpose.com/utx-usr.htm 'Rapid Transit, Light Rail & Monorail Index'] The Public Purpose has a catalog of articles showing the problems of light rail.
* [http://the-tech.mit.edu/~richmond/professional/professional.html 'Jonathan Richmond's Professional Section'] Jonathan Richmond has written many papers on the shortcomings of light rail.
* [http://www.lightrailpow.org/ LightRail POW!] - A website documenting the safety hazards of light rail
* [http://www.monorails.org/ The Monorail Society] - A pro-monorail web site that promotes grade-separate rather than street-based transit.


Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Light rail in North America — The term light rail was coined in 1972 by the U.S. Urban Mass Transit Association (UMTA) to describe new streetcar transformations which were taking place in Europe and the United States. The Germans used the term stadtbahn to describe the… …   Wikipedia

  • Light rail in the United States — The use of light rail in the United States is low by European standards. According to the American Public Transportation Authority, of the 20 odd light rail systems in the United States only five (Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and …   Wikipedia

  • Tide Light Rail — The Tide Tide Light Rail Train during a Test Run Overview Type Light rail System Hampton Ro …   Wikipedia

  • North Carolina — (Details) …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • North Hudson, New Jersey — North Hudson Park North Hudson is the collective name of the municipalities of Weehawken (2000 Census population of 13,501), Union City (67,088), West New York (45,768), Guttenberg (10,807) and North Bergen (58,092) in Hudson County, New Jersey.… …   Wikipedia

  • North Korea — Democratic People s Republic of Korea 조선민주주의인민공화국 朝鮮民主主義人民共和國 Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk[1] …   Wikipedia

  • Rail transport in Canada — Infobox rail network name = Canada color = caption = A Canadian Pacific Railway freight eastbound over the Stoney Creek Bridge nationalrailway = infrastructure = majoroperators = Canadian National Railway Canadian Pacific Railway VIA Rail… …   Wikipedia

  • Rail transport — Railroad and Railway both redirect here. For other uses, see Railroad (disambiguation). Rail transport is the conveyance of passengers and goods by means of wheeled vehicles specially designed to run along railways or railroads. Rail transport is …   Wikipedia

  • North American XB-70 Valkyrie — XB 70 Valkyrie X …   Wikipedia

  • Charlotte, North Carolina — Charlotte redirects here. For other uses, see Charlotte (disambiguation). Charlotte   City   City of Charlotte …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.