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New Light Rail in the US – Promise and Reality

New Light Rail in the United States – Promise and Reality

A study prepared for the Road Transport Forum New Zealand and the New Zealand Automobile Association by Wendell Cox Consultancy, Illinois, United States

1. Key findings and comments

 The trend in the US is a substantial growth in motor vehicle use, of 3.5 percent annually in urban areas from 1982 to 1997. Road traffic congestion increased by 68% between 1982 and 1997. In the same period, the capacity of urban roading systems increased by 31%.

 The geography and demographics of modern US cities make new urban rail systems a highly ineffective and expensive strategy for reducing traffic congestion

 Downtown areas represent the only location that public transport can readily compete with motor vehicles. As a result of employment and housing moving to the suburbs, public transport’s potential is limited while 90 percent of work locations have little or no alternative to the motor vehicle.

 Public transport’s market share is small in the United States, including areas that have built new light rail lines. In 1997, public transport accounted for less than two percent of urban travel nationally, a drop of 75 percent since 1960.

 In a comparison of light rail market share in the year before light rail opened and 1997, there was a decline of seven percent. On average new US light rail lines carry 85 percent less volume than a single motorway lane couplet (2 lanes of motorway, one operating in each direction).


 As little as 10 percent of the cost of building and operating light rail systems are recovered in fares. On this basis, it would be less expensive to lease a new car for each new commuter than have him/her travel on light rail.

 Light rail and motorways cost about the same to build. But because passenger volumes are so much higher, the cost to build and operate motorways, is one seventh that of light rail per passenger kilometre.

 No new light rail line in the US provides a capacity equal to that of a single motorway lane. If the Portland light rail system had not been built, the traffic volumes reached on June 30, 1997 would instead have been reached on June 4, 1997.

 In European urban areas, motor vehicle traffic has increased at the expense of public transport, despite the much higher level of public transport service.

2. Introduction

Road traffic congestion is increasing in the United States. In major urban areas, it increased by 68 percent between 1982 and 1997. In the same period, the capacity of urban roading systems increased by 31 percent.

Light rail is often promoted as a means of reducing traffic congestion. Its proponents claim that it can attract significant numbers of drivers away from motor vehicles.

The hope of reducing traffic congestion has been a primary factor in the construction of new light rail systems in an number of US metropolitan areas since 1980, including Baltimore, Buffalo, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Portland, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, St Louis and San Jose.

What the Report covers

The report evaluates the United States light rail experience against its primary purpose, reducing traffic congestion. It looks at each new light rail system and provides an overall performance analysis, including light rail usage, light rail’s impact on nearby roading and light rail’s usage compared with passenger volumes on motorways and arterial roads.

The report analyses the factors driving light rail’s performance such as land use patterns, convenience, journey speed and travel patterns. It also deals with the factors that have driven the development of light rail, especially the availability of federal funding.

Definition of light rail systems (from Wendell Cox Consultancy)

Light rail is a contemporary name for the "streetcars" that operated in most large US (and probably New Zealand) cities from the late 19th century to the 1950s and 1960s. Electric power is collected from overhead lines. The average speed for new US systems is 16.2 miles per hour. Light rail can carry up to 15,000 to 25,000 riders per hour in each direction in trains of up to three cars (but never does in affluent nation applications). Examples of light rail include St. Louis Metrolink, Portland's MAX, Los Angeles "Blue Line, Melbourne's trams, Adelaide's tram and the new Sydney Darling Harbour line."

Why light rail systems are being built in the US

 Concern about traffic congestion. There is a perception that light rail can reduce traffic congestion, despite there being no objective evidence.

 Civic price. There is a perception that a city needs a light rail system to be considered “world class”.

 Availability of Federal funding.

3. Public transport in the United States

Annual subsidies for public transport are now approaching US$40 billion

Annual per capita usage is at the lowest level in 100 years. Public transport’s market share has dropped more than 40 percent since 1980, with the downward trend accelerating in the 1990s. In 1997, public transport accounted for less than two percent of urban travel nationally, a drop of 75 percent since 1960.

Public transport is losing its market share of work trips at a rate almost as great as the overall market share loss. From 1960 to 1990, public transport’s market share declined 60 percent, compared to an overall market share loss of 70 percent.

Reasons for the decline - suburbanisation

From 1950, US urban areas have undergone significant commercial and residential suburbanisation. The dense central business districts (downtown) are no longer dominant, now representing barely 10 percent of metropolitan employment.

Downtown represents the only location that public transport can readily compete with motor vehicles. As a result, public transport’s potential for reducing traffic congestion is limited to this rather small market.

Public transport productivity has declined markedly and, unlike much of the western world, there has been little effort to inject competition into public transport to control excessive costs. As a result, higher subsidies have not returned a correspondingly higher level of service.

Impact on public transport market share

Public transport’s market share is small in the United States, including areas that have built new light rail lines.

 The average public transport market in urban areas served by light rail dropped from 1.10 percent to 1.02 percent, or a seven percent market share decline, in a comparison of figures from the year before light rail opened and in 1997.

 As a result of overall public transport usage increases (bus and light rail), market share rose in Dallas, Denver, San Diego, San Jose and St. Louis. However, even after the increases all of these urban areas have a very small public transport market shares overall -- 0.71 percent to 1.34 percent.

 Public transport market share declined 22 percent in Portland. Public transport market share declined in the other new light rail urban areas, such as Baltimore, Buffalo, Los Angeles and Sacramento.


4. Light rail and congestion

Road traffic continues to grow at a substantial rate, 3.5 percent annually in urban areas from 1982 to 1997. This rate of growth exceeds public transport’s overall market share in all but three metropolitan areas, New York, Honolulu and Chicago, and is more than double the public transport market share in any new light rail metropolitan area.

With such small public transport market share, it takes little time for any public transport usage increase to be nullified by the growth in road use. As a result, any usage increase attributable to light rail will be largely imperceptible, in relation to the growth in traffic volumes.

On average, where light rail has increased public transport use, it has been equal to 20 days of growth in roadway passenger kilometers.

In Portland, light rail has reduced traffic volumes by the equivalent of 26 days of natural growth. If the Portland rail system had not been built, the traffic volumes reached on June 30, 1997 would instead have been reached on June 4, 1997. The cost of diverting one day’s travel growth to light rail was nearly $20 million.

Light rail compared to motorways

Light rail proponents often claim that commuter rail is less costly to develop compared with a new motorway. In fact, light rail and motorways are similar in cost. The average urban six lane motorway costs US$33 million per kilometre to construct. New light rail lines tend to cost from US$24 million to US$48 million per kilometre.

The difference lies in the practical passenger volumes: motorways carry much higher volumes.

Reducing congestion – the record

New US light rail lines carry only modest volumes in comparison to motorways. In no case has light rail attracted enough drivers out of their cars to materially reduce traffic congestion

On average new US light rail lines carry 85 percent less volume than a single motorway lane couplet (2 lanes of motorway, one operating in each direction).

St. Louis has the highest light rail volume: 70 percent less than a single motorway lane couplet. Portland carries 82 percent less than a single motorway lane couplet.

On average new US light rail lines carry 60 percent less volume than a single arterial lane couplet. The average new light rail line attracts the equivalent of approximately three percent of a two-way motorway lane (15 percent times 22 percent).

As a recent Harvard University study found: In no case has new rail service been shown to have a noticeable impact on highway congestion.

In Portland, traffic on the adjacent motorway (Interstate 84) has continued to grow and is now at least 58 percent higher than before light rail was opened. Traffic has grown at a greater rate than the other radial (downtown oriented) motorways in the area.

These findings appear to contradict the often cited claim that a light rail line has the same person carrying capacity as up to six motorway lanes. In fact, no U.S. new light rail line provides a capacity equal to that of a single motorway lane.


Future traffic congestion

It is sometimes suggested that light rail will reduce future traffic congestion growth, or provide capacity for growth. However, virtually all projections in urban areas around the US indicate that commercial and residential development will continue to be dominated by the suburban areas that cannot be served by light rail.

The futility of reducing traffic congestion with new rail strategies is illustrated by Atlanta’s experience. Over the past 20 years, Atlanta has opened the nation’s fastest operating metro (subway or heavy rail) system. Yet, only downtown has direct, no transfer service from throughout the area, and less than one percent of the urban area is within walking distance of a rail station. Meanwhile, traffic volumes have more than doubled over the same period, and Atlanta has received considerable publicity for having some of the nation’s worst traffic congestion.

5. European Experience

Results have been similar in Europe. That is despite its higher population densities, more comprehensive public transport systems, higher petrol prices, lower income and more focused cities.

There may be an expectation that traffic will become so intolerable that people will switch to public transport instead. If that were possible, it would occur in Europe with where urban traffic congestion is much worse. But there is virtually no evidence in Europe, or the United States, to support such a proposition. In European urban areas the motor vehicle market share has increased at the expense of public transport, despite the much higher level of public transport service.

The problem is that even in congested conditions, the motor vehicle tends to provide more direct and quicker travel than public transport --- and in many cases convenient public transport service is simply unavailable.

4. Light Rail – the reality

The geography and demographics of modern United States cities make new urban rail systems a highly ineffective and expensive strategy for reducing traffic congestion. The new light rail systems have generally failed to materially reduce traffic congestion and are more expensive than express bus systems or building motorways.


About Wendell Cox Consultancy

Wendell Cox Consultancy is an international public policy firm, specialising in transport, economics, labour and demographics. The principal, Wendell Cox, is a specialist in the field of urban transport. He is currently a member of the Amtrak Reform Council, which has responsibility for overseeing intercity rail passenger policy over the next three years.

Questions and Answers
New Light Rail in the United States – Promise and Reality


A study prepared for the Road Transport Forum New Zealand and the New Zealand Automobile Association by Wendell Cox Consultancy, Illinois, United States


Q RTF and the AA have been proponents of motorways as the most viable option for dealing with Auckland’s congestion problems. Was Wendell Cox retained to simply support this view.
A No. The terms of reference were clear that Wendell Cox was to do an independent analysis of the issue. This report is just one contribution to the debate but it is also a significant one.

Wendell Cox Consultancy is an international public policy firm, specialising in transport, economics, labour and demographics. The principal, Wendell Cox, is a specialist in the field of urban transport and has an international reputation for his work.

Q How can you realistically compare the experience of light rail in major US cities with the traffic requirements in Auckland?
A Wendell Cox has been to Auckland and confirmed its geography and demographics are very similar to the US cities he has studied.

The difficulties urban areas face with traffic congestion are replicated around the world. Certainly, the size of the problem faced in the larger US cities is greater than in Auckland, but many of the cities studied by Wendell Cox are a similar size to Auckland and suffer exactly the same problems.


Q Why is public transport declining, rather than growing its market share?
A Wendell Cox has found in this report, and others he has done, that
the central business district is no longer as dominant in terms of employment and housing that it once was. This is backed up by Auckland Regional Council’s Land transport Strategy 1999 states that only 13.6 percent of employment is in the CBD of Auckland.

However, in terms of effectiveness and efficiency, central urban areas are the only location in which public transport has a competitive advantage of motor vehicles. This combination of factors means that public transport has limited potential for reducing traffic congestion.

Q Why don’t we expand light rail systems so that they go further than the central business district?
A The Wendell Cox Report concludes that expanding light rail systems to reach beyond the central business area is not the most efficient use of ratepayer/ taxpayer money in reducing traffic congestion into the central city.

In the US, the cost to build and operate light rail averages US$1.79 per passenger kilometre, of which approximately 10% is recovered from passenger fares. Generally, light rail costs much more than projected, in some cases as much as 325%, compared to original projections. This has necessitated tax increases in some urban areas.


Q Do light rail systems increase bus usage or replace it?
A In the US, most light rail users are former bus users. Often they have been forced to transfer because their bus routes have been truncated at light rail stations. The longer travel times that result from bus to rail transfers have induced some users to take their cars for longer portions or all of their work trips. In some areas, bus users have been disadvantaged by fare increases and service limitations that are traceable to the introduction of light rail.


Q What effect has light rail had on reducing motor vehicle traffic volumes in the US?
A It is estimated that light rail has reduced automobile traffic volumes in the US by an equivalent of less than 20 days natural growth. In other words, if light rail had not been built, current traffic volumes would have been achieved only 20 days earlier. In our view, this is not significant enough to justify the cost of light rail as the only option in dealing with Auckland’s light rail system.

Q What percentage of motorway traffic is carried by light rail?
A Proponents have claimed that light rail can carry the passenger volume of up to six lanes of motorway traffic. In many cases, light rail systems do not generally operate sufficient service levels to carry the than a single motorway lane couplet (2 lanes of motorway, one operating in each direction).

Q What promise does light rail hold for dealing with future traffic congestion?
A The prospects are not great. The overwhelming majority of commercial and residential development continues to occur in suburban areas and it is shown that these cannot be effectively served by light rail.

Light rail is too slow to attract car drivers and can carry a substantial number of people to the CBD area only.

Q Why do cities continue to build light rail systems if it is so ineffective?
A There are three primary reasons:
 a perception that light rail will reduce traffic congestion, despite no objective evidence that it achieves this
 a perception that light rail is a prerequisite to becoming a ‘world class city’
 the availability (in the US) of Federal funds for building light rail systems.

Q Doesn’t light rail have less of an impact on the environment?
A Despite perceptions to the contrary, light rail is not particularly energy efficient. Cars and commercial aircraft are more energy efficient per passenger kilometre.

Q Any morning traveller will tell you there are vast streams of traffic coming from outer Auckland into the city centre. Surely our experience is different from in the US?
Local research also shows the same decline in both public transport usage and the importance of the central business district that the report identified in US cities. Only 13.6 percent of employment is now in the CBD and this figure is declining annually as jobs become more dispersed throughout the region.

There is a combination of factors contributing to the high traffic volume in Auckland, including - increased car ownership, decentralised development, historic under-investment in transport infrastructure, reduced fuel costs, and increased access to relatively cheap imported vehicles. This report makes it clear that light rail is not the answer to all these issues.

Q Are more motorways the only answer to Auckland’s traffic congestion problems?
A This report is as an important contribution to the body of knowledge about Auckland’s infrastructure problems and should improve the level of debate. Our hope is that this report encourages planners and decision-makers to look objectively and holistically at the city’s transport needs rather than just rely on one option as the definitive answer to this issue.

Q What implications does this report have for light rail in Auckland?
A This report should be interpreted as a death certificate for light. In the light of the report’s findings, it is unthinkable that any form of light rail system should proceed. Its findings reinforce the view that completing the Auckland motorway network and improving public transport systems would be a far better way of dealing with the city’s traffic congestion.

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