This Could Easily Be Said About Phoenix Light Rail

Tom Kirkendall observes that this could have been written about Houston light rail.  I would add that it also could have easily been written about Phoenix light rail, which I have criticized here and here and here.  And heavy rail? Don't get me started.

Beyond these impressions, Tom Rubin observes that VTA has "the worst
operating statistics fo any American transit operator." The reason for
this, he says, is that San Jose "” being built mostly after World War II
"” is one of the most spread-out urban areas in the country. Not only
are people spread out, but jobs are spread out, with no job
concentrations anywhere.

This makes large buses particularly unsuitable for transit because
there is no place where large numbers of people want to go. So what was
VTA's solution when its bus numbers were low relative to other transit
agencies? Build light rail "” in other words, use an expensive
technology that requires even more job concentrations.

Now it has one of the, if not the, poorest-patronized light-rail
systems in America. So what is its solution? Build heavy rail, a
technology that requires even more job concentrations.

This is an interesting factoid from another Anti-Planner post:

The amazing thing to the Antiplanner is that anyone would take this
proposal seriously. The average urban freeway lane costs about $10
million per mile. The average light-rail line costs about $50 million
per mile and carries only a fifth as many people. Seattle's proposed
lines were going to cost $250 million per mile, making then 125 times
more expensive at moving people than a freeway lane.


  1. Rob:

    In a city like Charlotte, the citizens have forced urban planning around the light-rail. Light-rail is being built in areas that the city wants people to live and commercialize.

    While we do have a downtown area (oh it's called "uptown" because it's less depressing!??!), there is a huge suburban population. The thing that gets me is, that in Charlotte, we have a bus system that admittedly loses money, yet we continue expand mass transit and try to force people into those areas with urban planning. So, in a way, the mass transit programs here don't work without gov't coercion.
    Meanwhile, our outer beltway is pushing 25-30 yrs to complete (which has been outgrown in areas already) !!!

  2. Jim Collins:

    I think that this issue would be better addressed by asking why does it cost so much per mile? I do have a problem with the numbers that are used here, especially the $50 million per mile for light rail. Rail requires less land than a highway and is cheaper to construct when compaired to a highway.

  3. Rob (another Rob):

    I have used VTA. Feh...

    It's core runs down the middle of First Street in San Jose - AT STREET LEVEL.

    This forces motorsist to wait for and sometimes collide with the light rail cars. It also slows down the trains, which are sometimes forced to wait for traffic, such that I could handily beat it to SJSU in my car - using those nasty freeways and surface streets.

    Ever heard of elevated or subaway trains?!? At least those don't impact the traffic nor are impacted by traffic.

    Light rail is also bleeding the bus system dry. While neither system is self supporting, the busses come far closer. Monies which could be used to improve bus service (which people actually use) are instead spent on the spiffy looking rail system.

    Public transit works when there are concentrations of people who will use it. When in a largely suburban environment, it is a losing proposition.

    Here in San Jose one also has the added "benefit" (?) of riding with "the public" - you know folks having conversations with thin air without benefit of a headset or cell phone. Bathing also seems foreign to many of them......

  4. Chuck:

    In general, planners don't think very far ahead. It won't be long until we have self-driving cars (my guess is within the next 20 years). Once this happens, there can be driverless taxis everywhere. VTA type systems become useless but the public will be paying the bonds for 50 years.

    Airlines are making the same mistake. For example, self-driving cars could do at least 100 miles per hour between San Francisco and Los Angeles which makes the short plane trip between these cities pointless. So why the projected need for lots of 737 type planes for short haul flights?

  5. Bearster:

    "Planning" appears to have two meanings:

    Planning (private companies) means to anticipate changes by customers and respond to them.

    Planning (government) means to decide what's good for people and force them to it.

    Did y'all spot the quote by Jim Pederson (Democratic candidate for the Senate) about Phoenix light rail? He basically said you have to scramble some eggs to make an omelette (not quote in those words).

  6. Adam Herman:

    Look, I'm a libertarian too for the most part, but I don't see government building yet more freeways as the answer to urban congestion. It sounds to me like since the blog author drives, he'd like the government to subsidize his favored mode of transportation.

    Mass transportation has it's place and is vitally necessary for those who do not own cars. If car owners get subsidized roads, non-car owners should get subsidized buses and trains. Or it should all be paid by user fees. I've never gotten how so many libertarians are cool with government-provided roads but not cool with government-provided buses.

  7. Bearster:

    Speaking for myself (I don't call myself a libertarian since I don't believe in anarchism), I agree. The government should not subsidize drivers.

    Without conceding that they do (there is a sales tax when you buy a car, an annual registration tax, and a big chunk of the price of gasoline is tax), what do you suppose is the best answer? Compensate for the car subsidy by subsidizing rail?

    Isn't this the formula that has gotten us to the brink of insolvency in the first place? "Group X gets their subsidy, so this entitles us to a subsidy for our group!"

  8. Jim Rockford:

    In the LA area, much of the very spread-out metropolis is simply gridlocked on freeways and surface streets during rush hours, about 6AM-9AM, and 3:30-7:30PM. Lunch 11AM-1PM is getting bad too.

    Particularly gridlocked are too many cars on Wilshire, running East-West from Downtown to the Sea, and going through Beverly-Westside. Also Melrose, Santa Monica, and Hollywood Blvds which run roughly parallel. Fairfax, Robertson, etc. which run North-South are also gridlocked, along with the freeways. Frequently, commuters will "jump off" freeways and major arteries and navigate through formerly quiet residential streets out of sheer frustration.

    The answer for LA? Quick-to-build Elevated Railways. Street-level is an obvious non-starter. Buses (the "Bus Riders Union" promotes them because "rail is racist" i.e. white people use it) just sit in traffic. Subways are a nightmare to tunnel in LA's fractured and methane high geology. Els would be amazingly ugly, but could be put up FAST and allow people to commute in to various lots, take the Els to various job centers: Beverly-Wilshire area, Beverly Center/Cedars, Melrose/Hollywood and Santa Monica. Run the El to Venice and have a light-rail running on say, Windward Ave from Marina Del Rey up to Santa Monica and you allow people to get to their destination FASTER than by car and take traffic off the streets. This was NYC's reason for building first Els then subways in the 19th Century.

    Caveat: they systems must be policed very heavily with zero tolerance. Thuggish behavior makes middle class white people (the majority of commuters) flee back to their cars.

    Naturally LA's politicos want a subway because it's prettier. Sigh.