Politics of light rail in North America

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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.

United States[edit]

In many cases there has been considerable opposition to new light rail systems[where?], 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 by American political scientist and rail transit critic James Dunn, provides a good summary of these arguments.[2]

Spatial mismatch[edit]

Dallas, Texas, United States.

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.[3] 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.[4]

Travel time[edit]

[dubious ]

Sizeable Baltimore Light Rail vehicles operate in mixed traffic in the city center.

Light rail is faster than non-express bus service[5] but slower than express bus service and automobile transit.[6] 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ Dunn, James A Jr. (1998). Driving Forces: The Automobile, Its Enemies, and the Politics of Mobility. Brookings Institution Press. ISBN 0-8157-1964-7. 
  3. ^ Kain, John F. (May 1968). "Housing Segregation, Negro Employment, and Metropolitan Decentralization". Quarterly Journal of Economics 82 (2): 175–197. doi:10.2307/1885893. 
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ "Light Rail Schedule Speed – Faster Than Bus, Competitive With Car,". Light Rail Progress. March 2001. Retrieved 2011-12-15. 
  6. ^ "Denver - Schedules". Regional Transportation District. April 2013. Retrieved 2013-11-14. 

External links[edit]

Links to U.S. sites supporting light rail[edit]

Links to U.S. sites opposing light rail[edit]