Tag Archives: light rail

The Benefits of Light Rail

The Millennials favorite city, Portland, is showing just how well light rail works in reducing congestion. Which is to say, it’s not working at all.

According to a new report from the Oregon Department of Transportation, between 2013 and 2015 the population of the Portland area grew by 3.0 percent, but the daily miles of driving grew by 5.5 percent. Since the number of freeway lane miles grew by only 1.0 percent, the number of hours roads are congested grew by 13.6 percent and the number of hours people are stuck in traffic grew by 22.6 percent. Many roads are now congested for six hours a day.

I’m not sure where those new freeway lane miles are supposed to be unless they resulted from expanding the region’s urban-growth boundary. Except for reconstruction of part of state highway 217–which wasn’t counted in the above numbers–there hasn’t been any new freeway additions in Portland since the 1970s. Instead, the region has been putting all of its spare dollars into light rail and streetcars. Continue reading

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A Reporter Rode Denver’s Airport Light Rail–And You Won’t Believe What Happened Next

Here’s a heartwarming story of a man who rode Denver’s airport light rail once, and it worked for him, so now he wants everyone in his Virginia city to pay higher taxes to build light rail to the local airport in case he might want to ride it again someday. How thoughtful and touching.

Of course, there are a few problems with his story. First, what he rode wasn’t light rail, which averages about 20 miles per hour; instead, he rode a commuter train that averages 38 miles per hour. So if he manages to persuade people in Virginia to build light rail to his local airport, he will get something far inferior to what he rode in Denver.

Second, the writer is guilty of survivorship bias, which is an assumption that because something worked for him, it will work for everyone else. But the Denver airport train doesn’t work for everyone else, partly because it is unreliable and partly because transit is slow for anyone who isn’t near an airport line station. Continue reading

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Dallas Area Rapid Transit Regroups

Dallas has spent more than $5 billion (more than $8 billion in today’s dollars) building the nation’s longest light-rail system, and has very little to show for it. In 1991, just before Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) began building its first light-rail line, the region’s transit systems (including Ft. Worth and various suburban lines) carried 19.4 transit trips per capita. That’s not much, but it’s more than they carry today: despite having 93 miles of light rail and a 34-mile commuter-rail line, the region carries just 14.1 trips per capita.

At first, the public seemed to respond to the light rail. In 1995, the year before it opened, DART buses carried 44 million trips. By 2001, with 23 miles of light rail, buses plus light rail carried more than 60 million trips. Per capita ridership peaked in that year at 20.1 trips.

Ridership continued to grow and reached 75 million trips in 2004. But it wasn’t keeping up with population growth, as trips per capita had fallen back down to 19. After the financial crisis, DART bus and light-rail ridership fell to 55 million and today has only partially recovered to 66 million. One reason for the decline was financial: vehicle miles of bus service have fallen by nearly 10 percent since 2005. Continue reading

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Light Rail for Las Vegas?

On the same day that the Antiplanner debated rail transit with Vukan Vuchic, the Las Vegas Sun announced that transit planners there are once again studying light rail. Las Vegas is the nation’s third-largest urban area not to have spent large amounts of money on rail transit: Detroit has a people mover and is building a streetcar line; Tampa has a streetcar; and Las Vegas has a monorail connecting casinos, but none of these were megaprojects (and all should be considered failures).

Rather than pat themselves on the back for avoiding the cost headaches that come with light rail, the city’s Regional Transportation Commission is considering an $800 million light-rail line vs. a $350-million bus-rapid transit line. Officials should look at Denver, where the bus-rapid transit line provides faster service than any of the region’s rail lines; is the only line that didn’t have huge cost overruns and did greatly exceed ridership projections; and whose buses share space with cars so the line relieves congestion for everyone, not just a handful of train riders.

Professor Vuchic maintains that light rail is somehow essential for urban livability. Cities that built light rail, he said, created pedestrian friendly streets. On one hand, light rail kills three times as many pedestrians as buses, per billion passenger miles carried, so I don’t consider that very friendly. On the other hand, any actions that can be taken to create a pedestrian-friendly environment are completely independent of what kind of transit is provided. Continue reading

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Sometimes the Answer Is “Yes”

As the Antiplanner has noted before, Betteridge’s law states that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” But there are always exceptions, and one can be found above a recent Seattle Times article about a recent light-rail ballot measure, asking “Did Sound Transit mislead legislators and voters?

The Antiplanner doesn’t like to use generalities, but one that is even more reliable than Betteridge’s Law is that almost everything light-rail advocates say is untrue. Contrary to what they claim or imply, light rail is not light (light-rail cars weigh more than heavy-rail cars), it’s not high-capacity transit (buses can move four times as many people in the same corridor), it’s not fast (averaging less than 20 mph), and it’s far from efficient.

Last November’s ballot measure, known as ST3, asked Seattle voters to agree to pay $54 billion in taxes to get 62 miles of light rail and a few new commuter trains. That’s an unbelievable amount of money for so little in return. Continue reading

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Who Is to Blame for Downtown Sacramento?

If anywhere is a poster child for the effects of light rail on economic development, it is downtown Sacramento. Sacramento was one of the first American cities to build a modern light-rail line, opening its original 10-mile line in 1987 just a year after Portland’s. Since then it has extended that line and built two more, all of which go downtown, for a total system that is 45 miles long (compared with 60 miles in Portland).

Downtown Sacramento is mostly low-rise buildings with a few scattered high rises. Flickr photo by Sacramento Real Estate Photography.

As the capital of the nation’s most populous and possibly richest state, Sacramento is no small town. The urban area had 1.8 million people in 2015, slightly less than Portland and slightly more than San Jose. The city itself had half a million people, more than Atlanta, Miami, or Minneapolis. Continue reading

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Another Rail Boondoggle

After holding a final public hearing last night, officials in Durham, North Carolina will probably decide next week to build a $3.3 billion ($2.4 billion construction plus $900 million interest on debt) light-rail line from Durham to Chapel Hill. It is hard to imagine any place that is more poorly suited for rail transit.

The region’s population density is less than 2,000 people per square mile. Except for the universities, there are no real concentrations of jobs. The biggest job center in the region, Research Triangle Park, has about 50,000 jobs spread out over 11 square miles, but it isn’t even on the proposed light-rail line. To make matters worse, the proposed 17.7-mile rail route is so circuitous that someone on a fat-tire bicycle could probably beat the train by taking a shorter route.

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New Light-Rail Line Opens in Denver

Today, Denver’s Regional Transit District is celebrating the opening of a new 10.5-mile light-rail line in Aurora, Denver’s largest suburb. Part of the only planned rail route in Denver that isn’t focused on downtown, the line–which holds the distinction of already having killed a pedestrian before it even opened–is supposed to allow people at the Denver Tech Center, a large employment center in south Denver, to get to the airport without going all the way downtown first.

The green dashed line, known as the R line, opens today. Click image for a larger view.

The problem with this idea is that light rail is s l o w. The new line will average 16.5 miles per hour. Getting from Belleview, one of the Tech Center stations, to the airport by rail transit will require a change of trains in Peoria. The R-line is expected to take 45 minutes to get from Belleview to Peoria, and the A-line takes another 21 minutes from Peoria to the airport. Add to that up to an hour of wait time–both trains operate on 15-minute headways during rush hour and every 30 minutes the rest of the day–and you have a trip that can’t compete with driving, which takes just 26 minutes from the Tech Center to the airport. Plus, the Tech Center is so large that many offices are not within easy walking distance of a light-rail stop.

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This Is Why They Call It “Lie Rail”

When the Antiplanner spoke in Norfolk two years ago, my opening line was “They should call it lie rail because everything about light rail is a lie.” The proponents of building light rail in Virginia Beach have certainly proven that to be true.

Above is an advertisement for the ballot measure. In addition to saying, “Reduce Traffic Congestion,” which it won’t do, it says, “Connect the Oceanfront, ODU [Old Dominion University], Airport & Naval Base.” Yet the ballot measure proposes to increase local property taxes to build a three-mile, $300 million light-rail line that won’t go to any of those places. They say they have long-term plans to build extensions to those places, but they also say that don’t plan to come back and ask for more tax increases.

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Don’t Ride the Tide-tanic

The Wall Street Journal suggests that a light-rail line that is on next week’s ballot in Virginia Beach would end up being “empty trains to nowhere.” That’s based on the fact that the existing Norfolk light-rail line that this one would connect with is one of the emptiest in the country with the highest subsidy per rider. The only problem with the Journal‘s article is that it doesn’t acknowledge the much larger light-rail boondoggles on the ballot in Los Angeles, Seattle, and other cities.

As it happens, the Antiplanner is flying to Virginia Beach today to participate in an open forum about the light-rail proposal. The forum will take place Wednesday evening. If you are in the Hampton Roads area, I hope to see you there. In the meantime, due to the length of the flight, I may not have a chance to post here tomorrow.

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