More Light Rail Suckage

Portland is the poster child for light rail "success," but this is an interesting definition of success:

"Many (Portlanders) use their public transportation system," says
Weyrich. In fact, 9.8 percent of Portland-area commuters took transit
to work before the region build light rail. Today it is just 7.6
percent. In a story repeated in numerous cities that have built rail
lines, rail cost overruns forced the city to raise bus fares and reduce
bus service. That's a success?

A lot more money for fewer total transit riders.  This is absolutely predictable.  Light rail creates huge investment along one single route.  The assets created are totally inflexible -- unlike buses, they can only run one single route.  For most western cities with low density and literally hundreds of different commuting routes this way and that, light rail is silly.  Here are a couple of analysis I did for Albuquerque, LA and Phoenix.  Here is more about Portland.


  1. dearieme:

    I just don't understand why people are so keen on steel-on-steel traction. Or on fixed routes. Bonkers.

  2. Sol:

    Well, speaking purely on a cool basis, trains rock. Of course, ideally these are big old steam trains we're talking about, not light rail.

    In practical terms -- they're talking about adding a commuter rail route locally. Today they reported on a "study" on the front page of the newspaper. As nearly as I could tell, basically a puff-piece by the supporters of the system, purporting to show how much money drivers would save if they took the system. Maybe it's just because they always rub me the wrong way, but a bunch of problems with their numbers jumped out at me.

    For instance, they figured it cost people who could take the train $27 a day to drive to work. $2.50 of this was for auto insurance, which would only be eliminated in the unlikely event that these people could get rid of a car as a result. So that's $24.50 to drive really. Then $8.75 was for parking! That might be the case at the most expensive parking structure in town here -- but wait a minute.

    With the train, the price for a daily ticket would be $7.25. But this cost would be subsidized to the tune of an additional $7 by my reckoning (they indicated $3 in the article, but their numbers clearly did not add up). So that's a cost of $14.25. But then, by the article's logic, the city loses $8.75 in parking fees. In effect that amounts to a cost to the governments per driver per day of $15.75, and a total cost to rider and governments of $23 a day. That's only very marginally better than the $24.50 it costs to drive.

    But it gets better, because that's assuming their ridership numbers are an accurate estimate. Back in the continuation of the article there's a blurb which suggests they may be significantly off. If they only get half as many riders as they think, then the subsidy per ride triples, to $21 dollars! And suddenly it is an awful, awful deal for all involved, except the lucky few who get heavily subsidized rides at significant cost to the rest of us.

  3. Highway:

    You may want to amend your post, unless you found somewhere in those articles where 'total transit riders' went down. The percentage of commuters riding transit went down, but that could happen if total commuters went up faster than transit added capacity.

    I agree that there's problems with transit. I love trains, but really don't think that rail is a viable transit alternative for US cities. There's just too much spread on where people are and where they want to go. Especially when you're trying to basically retrofit your transit to existing development.

    So if rail's not a viable transit alternative, and people hate buses (a common sentiment among those who use them), what are you left with? Zilch. Maybe if people could come up with a better kind of bus, it would work. Otherwise, transit is doomed to be a minor player in US commuting.

  4. Allen:

    The things I don't get about the whole "value" of having a fixed route is that bus rapid transit can built built with a fixed right-of-way at 1/3 of the upfront cost.

  5. Jeff:

    And in Houston, our transit authority has just decided to expand our expensive, inefficient light rail system. I believe the only people that use it are the homeless and employees of the transit authority.


  6. dicentra:

    Light rail in Salt Lake City seems to be working, but probably because of our geography. The urban/suburban areas are squished into a very narrow north-south corridor (Wasatch mountains in the east, lakes and mountains in the west), and most of the commuter traffic heads toward the center of SLC.

    The light rail is also north-south, and people are glad to ditch their cars a bit farther south and ride in on the train. It eliminates the hassle of parking and city traffic.

    SLC's problems are compounded by the fact that there's only one major artery heading north or south (I-15), and all it takes is one bad accident to screw everyone over for hours at a time. The surface streets can't handle detour traffic from the interstate. So for us, trains work, and they're trying to rehabilitate an old freight rail line (right-of-way already obtained) for commuters.

    I don't work downtown, but if I ever need to go downtown, I take the train. Much easier and cheaper than finding parking. Same with cultural events and Jazz games downtown: the train is packed every time.

  7. Swingline:

    An additional factor in this analysis is that some potential users that the paper is presumably pitching to may be dis proportionally effected- those gainfully employed commuters are being asked to take on substantial bond debt and operating deficits and increase their travel costs and make the trip longer and less convenient.

    What struck me in the article on the Albuquerque system is how carefully the paper avoided ever letting anyone do a direct comparison of the convenience of the systems. In Sharon Hedrich's case they mentioned that the train trip took 30 minutes verses a 45 drive and that she sits in a plush red seat and reads a novel. The implication the train is a total of 30 minutes but presumably she has to get to the station some how, and she has to wait for the train to arrive and then she has to walk to her office. Other passengers have to wait for a shuttle to arrive and enduring it puttering through the city. It seem very possible that Hedrich's new commute is in fact longer than the drive! Is the plushness of the seat real a factor? Presumably her car has adjustable bucket seats perhaps with lumbar support and without someone elses burrito stains on them. And she could listen to a book on tape download in the car, so her drive really isnt that spartan.

    The case of Geronimo Trujillo is similar- they tell you it used to take him 45 minutes to drive to the Pella window plant and he has to be there by 7:30am. In describing in train trip they say that it is dark when he leaves to catch the train in the morning and he brings his bike on board and ride from the station to the plant. How long is the total trip now? Scrupulously left out.

    If the papers want to do these stories it would be a public service if they produce actual useful experiences- how long is the trip really? What arrangements do you have to make in rain or bad weather. How often do people want to go out after work and you are stuck begging for rides? How big a factor is it that errands and shopping cant be done on the commute home? Do people miss on having their car trunk around to store stuff in.

    There is a lot of actual commuter experience that would be investigated by the paper that would help their readers make an informed decision.

  8. john dewey:

    jeff: "And in Houston, our transit authority has just decided to expand our expensive, inefficient light rail system."

    29 years ago I regularly rode an express bus from Westwood mall in SW Houston into downtown. That same route exists today. However, future metro plans I've seen would replace that express bus route with a combination bus and rail transit. No doubt the transfer from rubber tire to rail will increase the total time required for mass transit commutes. Transit planners will then scratch their heads and wonder why transit use has declined.

  9. la petite chou chou:

    There's nothing like getting stuck on the Portland Streetcar because either it broke down or something else broke down on the track in front of it. It's happened a couple times to me, once I was on it, and once I was stuck between it and a bus on the same route while in my car. Fun times.

  10. Jeff:


    "29 years ago I regularly rode an express bus from Westwood mall in SW Houston into downtown. ... Transit planners will then scratch their heads and wonder why transit use has declined."

    Transit planning isn't about efficiently moving people, it's about empire building. As an example, Metro's operating costs for the light rail are higher and the revenue is smaller than expected. So to save money, they replaced the police officers that use to patrol the park and ride lots with cameras. When the car thieves figured this out, they started having a field day. Put a mask and go trick or treating, breaking into hundreds of cars a week, you can't get caught, just smile for the cameras. So fewer people use the park and ride lots, but we have a train!