I Don't Get Light Rail

Phoenix is in the process of tearing up half the city to put in its first light rail line.  There seems to be a hard core of people out there who get a huge hard-on for light rail, and I just don't get it.  Some random observations:

  • We are building light rail that is essentially a "trolley."  This means it runs at street levels, often down the median strips of roads, and has to stop at stoplights just like cars and buses.  My question is, in this configuration, how is light rail any different than a bus?  Except for the fact, of course, that it is far more expensive and far less operationally flexible. 
  • The system is not up and running yet, so I have not seen ridership numbers, but I will make a bet:  If we take the entire cost of the system's construction, plus its annual operating losses/subsides, I will bet that we could have bought every regular rider of the rail system a nice car instead and gas for life cheaper than the cost of the rail system.
  • It looks to me like the rail system will actually increase congestion.  For most of its route, it is removing lanes from busy roads, and by running down the middle it will make left turns more difficult and complex. 
  • Supporters of these systems point to NY or London as examples of what we can achieve.  Bullshit.  No city that has embarked on this light rail stuff has had the success or the political will or the money to build out a network with the critical mass that these larger cities have.  Most end up with orphaned routes (see LA, for example) that don't tie into anything. 
  • Phoenix is the last city on the planet that a rail based system should work for.  I don't have the book in front of me, I will have to get it from home, but I remember a book on urban development that showed Phoenix had the flattest population density distribution of any city studied.  What this means is that we don't have a city center and suburbs - it means that we are basically all one big suburb.  So there are no single routes (for example in Chicago from the northern suburbs into downtown) that have any critical mass of traffic.  People are driving from everywhere to everywhere.  In fact, my suspicion has been that there are a group of politicians and business people who want to try to create a downtown area, and are using massive public funds in the form of light rail lines converging on the city center to try to jump-start such development.
  • The Commons Blog has a link-rich post on the failure of the Portland light rail system, supposedly the model all light-rail promoters point to.

Update:  Jackalope Pursuivant has more on Phoenix light rail


  1. Mark Seecof:

    Arrghhh! Think! It's "public choice enconomics" time. Light rail provides more graft than any other municipal project. Construction is very costly, yet there are only two or three prime contractors and car builders. Those few players compete for business by size of kickbacks, not on price. More kickbacks come from the bond promoters (the system is always financed by debt-- repayed by taxes, not the farebox). Then, the complete system requires a permanent, inevitably unionized, workforce of political-incumbent-supporters!

    Besides the obvious gains from corruption, local politicians also enjoy lying to voters harried by road congestion--telling them that the trolley system will relieve traffic. Experience and fundamental analysis agree that it will do no such thing, but hope springs eternal in voters' minds. Every voter hopes other folks will ride the trolleys and thereby free up the roads.

    Finally, the Federal government disburses much larger (in proportion to utilization) subsidies to trolley projects than any other transportation works. About 20% of Federal fuel-tax revenues are diverted to mass transit spending. Rail contractors are eager to help sop up that incontinence.

    (You might ask, "why don't the politicians build costly roads--they could collect some graft, and actually relieve some congestion?" Answer (there are several factors): road building is too easy--many contractors will bid, so there will be much less graft; roads require more land and no kickbacks can be had on the cost of acquiring it (plus there will be political pushback against eminent-domain seizures); roads don't engender a special unionized workforce to be used as a private political army; and finally, roads serve everyone, so few bribes can be had in return for station-siting accomodations, allocation of special property-tax breaks to encourage "transit-oriented development," and so-forth.

  2. TJSawyer:

    You barely touched on the congestion these things cause! Here in Minneapolis, the light rail line paralleled a lightly traveled 4-lane road that once had perfectly synchronized lights taking one downtown on either express bus or cars in about 15 minutes. That highway is now virtually impassasble as the lights give priority to the LRT. The cross traffic is similarly backed up by the new arrangement. Worse yet, all the local neighborhoods have become parking lots for the suburbanites who now park on the side streets after a partial commute into the city.

    Net effect? Suburbanites with SUVs get reduced parking fees and a slightly shorter walk on foot. Everyone else loses. Unless they were a contractor or member of the building trade unions.

  3. Matt:

    Public transit only makes sense when it is
    - (ideally) disjoint from the road network
    - (better than nothing) given priority over the cars on the road networks

    Busses are a poor form of transit because they are subject to all of the same disadvantages of a single-occupant vehicle and have none of the benefits of a single occupant vehicle.

    Subways are an excellent form of transit because they are completley disjoint from the road network.

    Light rail that blocks intersections/roadways and has to stop for car crossings is problaby going to be just as ineffective as busses. And as you point out, considerably more expensive and considerably less flexible.

    That said, evaluating the effectiveness of public transit cannot be done on the basis of comparing the cost of implementation to the cost of just buying everyone a car and gas, as the latter model is incomplete for a variety of reasons. For instance, it doesn't address the cost of wasted land dedicated to parking and wide road ways required to support cars. It also doesn't consider non-economic factors such as the difference in aggregate pollution, or the population density the two differing systems can intrinsically support. There are a number of other deficiencies in this comparison as well, but I think it's fair to say that, while the cost of implementing a light rail in the US is probably going to be really high in practice, comparing it to the cost of just buying a bunch of cars is the wrong comparison to make.

    Public transit is only viable if it offers advantages to those who might potentially use it... such that more often than not, they WILL choose to use it. The advantages are - total speed of transit (including parking and stuck-at-a-light time), total-cost (including parking, insurance, gasoline, depreciation), and flexibility (how often do trains arrive? where are the stops? how is the network routing?)

    A system where the public transit mechanism has no significant performance, cost, or convenience advantages for the individual over driving your own car is going to be ineffective and not widely used. No amount of government action will change that.

  4. Max:

    It's all about controlling where people go. With the independence of cars people go away. With the control of mass transit they go where the politically connected property owners want, i.e. to the otherwise dying downtown areas. A lot of sunk costs there along with property owners that don't want to let go. "Owners" includes politicians that don't want to see tax rolls devalued as economic activity decamps to the suburbs. If these people see a benefit it doesn't matter to them what it costs others.

  5. Leah:

    Every time I see a city (other than Chicago, D.C., Boston, NYC, etc.) doing this kind of thing, I get the "Monorail" song from The Simpsons in my head.

  6. Rob:

    Yes, here in Charlotte, NC, we are building a light rail system, here's what you can expect:

    -Cost overrun (oops, we order things to early, or bought $10 million dollars of the wrong color paint) leading to
    -Funds diverted from other areas (our beltway is 75% complete after 20 yrs, and is not wide enough)
    -heavy congestion like you say (our rail will cross major roads, forcing traffic to stop longer)
    -subsidized ridership ... I can't wait to see how much extra tax I get to pay for that
    -more bike lanes (it's a symptom and/or co-disease of light rail)
    -light rail lines that don't have any park and ride areas ???
    -and the ultimate goal is: urban planning and saving the environment, telling you how to build your land and forcing you to live under the rules
    of HOA, to which you sign away many of your constitutional rights, which is indirectly signing them away to the gov't

    Correct me if I'm wrong but NYC and Paris are both underground and both systems are still subsized by taxpayers

  7. Bob Smith:

    Santa Clara county's light rail system was such a boondoggle that they were hundreds of millions of dollars in the red and had to ask for an additional 1/2 cent, 30 year, sales tax to finance it. It turns out that their ridership projections were hopelessly optimistic (read: fraudulent were this the private sector) and there was little or no budgetary discipline since they could keep asking for yet more sales taxes if they screwed up (1.5c total for public transit in SCC). It's nice to ride, but generally useless, and you pray there isn't an accident or you'll be stuck since unlike a bus you can't route around it. Since it's at grade it also screws up traffic. As for pollution, modern cars are so clean that electric rail no longer offers a pollution advantage, and light rail's rolling stock is so heavy that light rail produces *more* CO2.

  8. Sugar Cookie:

    As a resident of Portland, I always laugh about the national romance with our Max Line. Frankly, it sucks. It's main function is connecting the two malls in downtown.

    It doesn't reach enough places and most people only use it the "Fairless Square"--an area of town inside of which it is free to ride. And the fairless square creates another problem: it's only worth it to pay to ride if you travel a long distance. Otherwise you could pay the same price to travel 20 miles as you would to cover ten blocks.

  9. Ray G:

    We had a local radio guy here a few years ago who was great on these things, but he lost his mind, and now he's on a radio station so small that the signal fuzzes out if more than two birds fly overhead.

    When this ugly thing first reared its head, he had dug up some dirt on the developers behind it, and the main culprits, . . er. . politicians involved, and it was obvious that that the thing was also serving to make a few commerical land holders much wealthier than they already were.

    Things like buying up X amount of prime property along the route, before it was widely known exactly what the route would be. One politician is connected with a dial-a-ride type of company that will be working wtih the light rail. I'll dig around to see what I find on Google or wherever. Might be interesting.

  10. Bill:

    As a refugee from Santa Clara's dysfunctional light rail, I generally think it's a boondoggle, at least as we now build them. The infrastructure we seem to require today is far more costly than streetcar lines of the '30s and '40s (why use a catenary wire system with high-speed pantographs, when line speed is held to less than 50 mph, in place of the simple single wire/trolley pole system used by streetcars).

    In it's original configuration, Santa Clara's system connected two areas of employment concentration with downtown, but did little to reach residential areas. Couple that with limited service hours, and you get a lot of empty cars running back and forth.

    On the other hand, such systems do have a virtue: the service is unlikely to vanish as local politicians play with routing, a common vice of urban bus lines. It makes little sense to base housing decisions on government operated bus lines; service will come and go on political whims. At least light rail routing is predictable; although this is not, I think, enough of a virtue to overcome the incredible cost.

  11. Craig:

    Houston has a similar center-of-the-road light rail. After it debuted, there were a large number of vehicle-train crashes as cars tried to turn left across the tracks and were hit by a train approaching from the rear. I suppose the same thing will happen in Phoenix.

  12. Xmas:

    I can't remember which city it was, but I'm pretty sure one city went with dedicated Bus lanes instead of a light rail system, and that worked much better. Found it, Curitiba, Brazil.


  13. Royko:

    Ottawa had the courage Thursday to fend off Siemens.