The phrase,'Unsound Transit', was coined by the Wall Street Journal to describe Seattle where,"Light Rail Madness eats billions that could otherwise be devoted to truly efficient transportation technologies." The Puget Sound's traffic congestion is a growing cancer on the region's prosperity. This website, captures news and expert opinion about ways to address the crisis. This is not a blog, but a knowledge base, which collects the best articles and presents them in a searchable format. My goal is to arm residents with knowledge so they can champion fact-based, rather than emotional, solutions.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Criticism of Light Rail in the United States

Criticisms of light rail in the U.S. 1/2/08

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.[1] 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.

Spatial 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.[verification needed]

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.[verification needed] 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.[2] 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.[original research?]

* 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[1]. 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.[3]

* Light rail offers many indirect benefits:

o 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[4] while highways can negatively affect community cohesion
o 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.[5]

* Light rail offers benefits over bus alternatives:

o 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 disputed[6][7]

* 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.

* 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.[8] 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.[9]

* 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.[8] 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.[10]

Anti-LRT arguments made regarding cost and return on investment

* United States light rail systems have a consistent history of low ridership[11] translating to low per-person cost-effectiveness.

* 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.[12]

* 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.[12]

* Light rail systems have high construction and maintenance costs, nearly seven times the cost per person kilometer of an urban motorway lane.[12]

* 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.[13]

* 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.[14]

* 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.[original research?][citation needed]

* 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.References

1. ^ Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) Report 102: Transit-Oriented Development in the United States--Experiences, Challenges, and Prospects,Transportation Research Board,
2. ^ Light Rail Schedule Speed – Faster Than Bus, Competitive With Car
3. ^ BLS (2003). Consumer Expenditure Survey. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved on 2006-10-13.
4. ^ Eppli, Mark; Charles C. Tu, (2000). Valuing the New Urbanism: The Impact of New Urbanism on Prices of Single-Family Homes. Urban Land Institute.
5. ^ Litman, Todd (2003). Evaluating Criticism of Smart Growth. Victoria Transport Policy Institute. Retrieved on 2006-10-13.
6. ^ Wendell Cox. Light Rail in the United States: Promise and Reality.
7. ^ Litman, Todd (2004). Rail Transit In America -- A Comprehensive Evaluation of Benefits. American Public Transport Association. Retrieved on 2006-10-13.
8. ^ a b { {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 = id = }}
9. ^ Wendell Cox. Light Rail in the United States: Promise and Reality.
10. ^ Template:Ciet web
11. ^ The Search for the Holy Rail
12. ^ a b c Wendell Cox. Light Rail in the United States: Promise and Reality.
13. ^ GRDupdaterppi.indd
14. ^ Breach of Faith: Light Rail and Smart Growth in Charlotte
15. ^ Wendell Cox. Light Rail in the United States: Promise and Reality

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