Is The Left Finally Starting to Question Light Rail?

This is the first even mild questioning of light rail I have seen, and it is certainly welcome.  It even acknowledges that the sole advantage of light rail over much more flexible and less expensive buses is that it is more appealing to the middle and upper classes.  Via Kevin Drum:

Josh Barro thinks our cities are building too much light rail. It's expensive, often slow, and offers virtually no advantage over simply opening up a bus line. The problem, according to a 2009 report from the Federal Transit Administration, is that "Bus-based public transit in the United States suffers from an image problem."




  1. Matthew:

    The main advantage of light rail that I've noticed from having ridden both a fair bit is that the light rail is less likely to have unscheduled breaks because it'd block the line, whereas most bus lines I've ridden are unreliable, taking 20 minute breaks at random locations, and frequently slower than walking for distances under 3 miles.

  2. morgan.c.frank:


    without that monorail, who would have ever heard of shelbyville?

    really put shelbyville on the map that monorail....

  3. SC:

    This. So much. My experience has been that most buses are slow and unreliable, especially at times when everyone is actually commuting. Because they stop frequently, they almost always take much longer than driving a car.

    Light rail gets crowded, but generally runs on schedule, and is as fast as (or faster than) driving a car. So as a car owner, I'll take light rail if it's available but generally don't take the bus.

  4. awp:

    On the other hand, when there is a light rail incident, it shuts down the whole line because a train can't change lanes and bypass the incident.

  5. Mike Powers:

    The problem with *that* is that most light rail designers have this dramatic, nostalgaic vision of trolley stops right outside every building, with happy workers piling out of the train to head down a couple of blocks to their favorite lunch counter, and so they put the damn thing right in the middle of the street where it gets stuck in traffic anyway...

  6. Mike Powers:

    The issue is that curing the "image problem" means kicking bums and poor people off the bus, and nobody is quite willing to stomach that yet.

  7. jdgalt:

    That is indeed the sole advantage if you assume that the purpose of transit facilities is to serve their users, but I really doubt that.

    The real purposes of transit, to the lefty politicians who order it built, are (1) to generate lots of permanent, union civil service jobs, and (2) to use up transportation improvement funds that might otherwise go to build needed freeways or add capacity to roads (perish the thought that either should ever happen). Light rail accomplishes both those purposes much better than bus service ever will.

  8. jdgalt:

    Poor people, no. Bums, yes. The purpose of charging fares (which are always much too low to pay even operating costs) is to keep bums off the vehicles. Cities that experiment with making their buses completely free (as Denver did) learn this the hard way.

  9. Jody Neel:

    Can't this be mostly solved by making the stops on primary bus lines as spread apart as light rail or metro stops?

  10. WesternRover:

    Indeed it can, and it also helps to require people to pay before they board, the same as with light rail, instead of the driver waiting for people to sift through the change in their pockets. There are a lot of things that can be done to make buses more like light rail without the expense of laying track. See

  11. WesternRover:

    Driving isn't always faster (because of freeway lanes reserved for vehicles with more than one person in them) and it isn't always cheaper (when parking at the destination costs a lot). There are buses, and there are buses. If you only gentrify some of them, it can work, and doesn't screw the poor. I used to take an express bus in the Seattle area that would start at a suburban transit center with free parking, enter the freeway from a left-hand HOV ramp, drive 25 miles without leaving the HOV lane, and then exit the freeway in downtown Seattle via another left-hand HOV ramp. Only a carpool could match that speed, but then you'd have to coordinate schedules with the other riders instead of being able to choose which bus to take at the last minute, plus you'd all have to chip in for parking as well as gas. Most of the people who rode this bus appeared to be working professionals who probably owned cars but chose to leave them at home or with a spouse.

  12. Jesse:

    In the suburbs of Minneapolis, there are quite a few "park-and-rides" that have buses of "motorcoach" quality that attract a fair amount of middle class ridership. A friend of mine rides these daily, and I've used them once or twice. The key is that they don't run the same routes and therefore do not carry the same riders as the intra-city ridership that only travels several blocks from low-income housing to wherever they need to go. Those inner-city buses are also not the "coach" type buses with the bucket seats in rows. They are your typical city buses with the hard plastic seats lining the walls. People on a 25-minute ride from the suburbs wouldn't go for that type of bus if they could afford to park their car downtown (at least where I live, the cost of parking is the biggest factor in the decision to commute via bus.)

  13. kidmugsy:

    Here's our local extravagance: but by golly it's cheaper than light rail.

  14. Matthew:

    Indeed, I've had that happen. It's just far less frequent - 40% of trips instead of 70% of trips. That said, the next bus isn't coming for longer than they normally take to sort out that problem.

  15. Matthew:

    Thanks for the link - that sounds like a good idea.

  16. Colin77:

    This Vox piece stating the real problem with infrastructure in this country is more how it's spent rather than how much is spent also strikes me as a step in the right direction by the left:

  17. irandom419:

    Wow, better check if ice will remain solid at the lower levels of Christian belief systems.

  18. paul:

    I live in San Francisco and use the buses all the time to get around the city. I have a car and I'm a working professional. I disagree completely that it should be primarily a welfare service. I also use the light rail (Muni Metro) and BART depending on where I'm going. To me the big problem with public transport in general is that it is NOT run for the benefit of the passengers but for the people who staff the service (and their unions) and, especially, for the politicians. Politicians hate buses because they don't cost enough that the suppliers need to fund their reelection funds to get the business. They also hate maintenance of existing track/vehicles for the same reason. See the central subway here for the biggest boondoggle of all, which would never have happened had Nancy Pelosi not been speaker of the house when it was showered with federal money.

  19. Ward Chartier:

    If the powers that be in Sacramento were to divert the billions set aside for high speed rail towards improving the image and infrastructure of bus transport, maybe we California citizens could support this idea.

  20. teapartydoc:

    Never heard of it.

  21. teapartydoc:


  22. thomg875:

    Are you showing us your level?

  23. NJ Syzlak:

    It's near North Haverbrook.

  24. DaveHalliday:

    I used to live in Seattle and had quite a different experience. I lived out on Sand Point and took an Express Bus two blocks from my house but it made 12 stops through the University District before hitting the HOV express lane. Took 90+ minutes both ways. Driving took 30 minutes both ways. I would be at work at 8:00AM and leave around 4:00PM so missed most of the traffic (same schedule for the bus trip too). It was $12 to park but I figured my spare time was worth it.

  25. klgmac:

    The first thing Detroit is doing after bankruptcy is building a new light rail that will be a burden to maintain. All while they can't maintain a bus system. It's Progressive stupidity at it's worst. A little prioritization would go a long way to helping the city recover.