Politics of light rail in North America
||It has been suggested that this article be merged into Light rail in North America. (Discuss) Proposed since July 2013.|
The distinct circumstances under which light rail systems have been introduced to North America have caused differences in the development and implementation of those systems, and have spurred political controversy over the effectiveness of light rail.
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. 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 by American political scientist and rail transit critic James Dunn, provides a good summary of these arguments.
The spatial mismatch hypothesis argues that the movement of jobs away from central city areas, combined with constraints on geographic mobility imposed by continued residential segregation, limits the employment prospects of inner city minorities. With urban sprawl, the low-skilled jobs have moved into the suburbs while the low-skilled labor force is left living in the urban center of the city. The goal of many transit systems is to increase the accessibility to employment and education, especially for minorities.
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 central business district (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.
Light rail is faster than non-express bus service but slower than express bus service and automobile transit. When taking into account the additional time required to reach the rail system, this is even slower.[original research?] 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 faster during rush hour, is very competitive with automobiles traveling along the extremely congested Long Beach Freeway (I-710) it parallels.[original research?] 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.[original research?] 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. alternatives
- 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 vs. highway
- 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?] Also, road use creates externalities—environmental damage and congestion—but the costs created by these externalities are imposed on the general public, not paid for by road users.
- 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 (making the heroic assumption that the existence of light rail will enable a meaningful subset of Americans to completely relinquish automobile ownership). 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.
- Light rail offers many indirect benefits:
- It is low impact to nearby areas in terms of air and noise pollution[original research?]
- 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 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.
- Rail-based transit modes (heavy rail and light rail) rank among the safest modes of transportation (Figure 2 shows Passenger Fatality Rates per 100,000,000 passenger miles) Thus some of its external costs may be lower.
- 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."
- 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.[original research?]
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.[original research?]
- Light rail systems, like all mass transit, provide increased mobility for non-drivers such as those too young to drive, the elderly, and disabled.[original research?]
- 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. It should be noted that this assumes full capacity, 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.
- Pro-LRT arguments made regarding cost and return on investment vs. buses
- Compared with diesel buses, rail can carry more passengers in less land and do so with less noise and air pollution compared with diesel buses. As a result, rail is more suitable for high-density areas.[original research?]
- 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
- Anti-LRT arguments made regarding cost and return on investment vs. highway
- United States light rail systems have a consistent history of low ridership 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. This point is disputed; other research suggests that gasoline taxes would need to rise by up to 70 cents/gallon before government taxes and fees relating to roads would fully cover government outlays.
- Light rail systems have high aggregate construction and maintenance costs, nearly seven times the cost per person kilometer of an urban motorway lane. However, it is not clear that both construction and maintenance costs are each seven times higher for railways.
- Light rail systems in the United States produces only 3.6 percent of transit trips yet consumes 12 percent of transit capital funds.
- 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?]
- 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.
- Light rail systems have external costs due to lack of safety. Prominent light rail critic Wendell Cox argues that, per passenger mile, light rail is less safe than bus, subway, and even automobile-based transit.[dubious ]
- Anti-LRT arguments made regarding cost and return on investment vs. buses
- Express buses can carry the capacity of light rail systems, and can do so at 1/7 the cost without the large startup investment required for light rail.
- 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 capacity
- 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.
Politicians in Canada have generally echoed the views expressed in the United States concerning light rail systems. Three cities in Canada operate light rail systems, which include Ottawa's O-Train, Calgary's C-Train, and the Edmonton Light Rail Transit. Other cities, like Toronto and Vancouver operate systems that are similar to light rail, but take other forms, such as tram or rapid transit.
In Ontario, light rail is in the planning phase for the Region of Waterloo's Grand River Transit, linking the twin cities of Kitchener and Waterloo. The Region's new rapid transit system is scheduled to begin construction in 2014 and open in 2017, with future plans to extend the line to the nearby city of Cambridge. A new LRT line is also being planned for Ottawa, opening in 2018.
Light rail is being proposed in Hamilton, Mississauga, Vancouver, Victoria and Winnipeg, and in Vancouver's fast-growing suburb of Surrey.
Toronto has the Eglinton–Scarborough Crosstown line under construction (scheduled to open in 2020), plus three other LRT lines from 2006's Transit City plan: Etobicoke Finch West (2020), Sheppard East (2021), and the Scarborough RT replacement and extension (2019) which will connect the eastern subway terminus with the Sheppard East LRT line.
- 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
- Dunn, James A Jr. (1998). Driving Forces: The Automobile, Its Enemies, and the Politics of Mobility. Brookings Institution Press. ISBN 0-8157-1964-7.
- Kain, John F. (May 1968). "Housing Segregation, Negro Employment, and Metropolitan Decentralization". Quarterly Journal of Economics 82 (2): 175–197.
- Thompson, G.L.; Matoff, T.G. (2003). Keeping Up with the Joneses: Planning for Transit in Decentralizing Regions. 69 (3). The Journal of the American Planning Association. pp. 296–312.
- "Light Rail Schedule Speed – Faster Than Bus, Competitive With Car,". Light Rail Progress. March 2001. Retrieved 2011-12-15.
- "Denver - Schedules". Regional Transportation District. April 2013. Retrieved 2013-11-14.
- "Driven to Spend:Pumping Dollars out of Our Households and Communities". Center for Neighborhood Technology, Surface Transportation Policy Project. 2005. Retrieved 2011-12-03.
- BLS (2003). "Consumer Expenditure Survey". Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved 2006-10-13.
- Eppli, Mark; Charles C. Tu, (2000). Valuing the New Urbanism: The Impact of New Urbanism on Prices of Single-Family Homes. Urban Land Institute.
- Litman, Todd (2003). "Evaluating Criticism of Smart Growth". Victoria Transport Policy Institute. Retrieved 2006-10-13.
- "2009 Rail Safety Statistics Report". Department of Transportation, Office of Safety and Security. 2009. Retrieved 2011-12-03.
- Kenworthy, Jeffrey; Felix Laube (2000). Millennium Cities Database For Sustainable Transport. Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy.
- Wendell Cox. "Light Rail in the United States: Promise and Reality". p. 44.
- Wendell Cox. "Light Rail in the United States: Promise and Reality". p. 39.
- Litman, Todd (2004). "Rail Transit In America -- A Comprehensive Evaluation of Benefits". American Public Transport Association. Archived from the original on 2006-10-17. Retrieved 2006-10-13.
- http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/002/351jldsx.asp The Search for the Holy Rail
- Wendell Cox. "Light Rail in the United States: Promise and Reality". p. 43.
- Mark A. Delucchi. "Do motor-vehicle users in the US pay their way?, at 20".
- Wendell Cox. "Light Rail in the United States: Promise and Reality". pp. 43–44.
- Wendell Cox. "Light Rail in the United States: Promise and Reality". p. 41.
- Wendell Cox. "Light Rail in the United States: Promise and Reality". p. 40.
- Breach of Faith: Light Rail and Smart Growth in Charlotte
Links to U.S. sites supporting light rail
Links to U.S. sites opposing light rail
- 'Breach 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
- '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.
- 'Rapid Transit, Light Rail & Monorail Index' The Public Purpose has a catalog of articles showing the problems of light rail.
- 'Jonathan Richmond's Professional Section' Jonathan Richmond has written many papers on the shortcomings of light rail.
- LightRail POW! - A website documenting the safety hazards of light rail
- The Monorail Society - A pro-monorail web site that promotes grade-separate rather than street-based transit.