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French Style Light-Rail Will not Work in the U.S.

Baruch Feigenbaum
February 1, 2012, 11:51am

While many U.S. politicians chase the streetcar named Desire, French presenters explained why French style light-rail will not work in the U.S. The presentation entitled “State-of-the-Art Light-Rail: Lessons from France” occurred at last week’s Transportation Research Board Conference organized by the National Academy of Sciences. Several French rail practitioners detailed the differences between France and the U.S. 

While the French have some of the most successful light-rail trolley systems in the world, success is a relative term. Success in light-rail equates to losing somewhat smaller amounts of money compared to the large losses of U.S. operators such as Houston’s METROrail.

According to the speakers, French light-rail impacts land use and land value, creates jobs, spurs economic development, and affects long-term transportation patterns. The following ten factors have created successful light-rail in France.

1) Leadership: Creates a political system where mayors have six-year terms

2) Funding: Enables payroll taxes to fund the capital and operating costs of trains

3) Urban Form: Encourages high-density cities

4) Auto-culture: Increases the cost of owning a car

5) Pro-transit Planning: Includes protection from NIMBYists

6) Experience: Uses consultants for operations and implementation

7) Culture: Takes pride in identity and ownership of projects

8) Flexible Design: Designs different looking trains for each city

9) Inter-operation: Enables easy transfers between buses and rail

10) Utilities: Requires utilities to relocate pipes with no compensation 

The light-rail transit committee deserves credit for an objective session explaining the positives and negatives of this trolley technology. Many politicians do not want to admit the truth that French style light-rail seldom works well in the U.S. 

While I recognize that this technology works better in France than in most places in the world, I question whether this type of technology is transportation. Trolley-style light-rail is more about improving land use, increasing land value, and enabling urban revitalization than moving people from point A to point B. Increasing land values and enabling urban revitalization can be positives but like all other non-transportation causes, they should not be funded with transportation funds or pitched as solutions to transportation problems. 

Some of the factors that create successful French rail such as increased governmental powers and added economic distortion are negatives which should not be copied in the U.S. French light-rail is funded by a payroll tax; this tax is not a user fee. There is no relationship between one’s salary and one’s use of transit. Urban form should be decided by the free-market not the government’s desire to increase tax collections. Raising the cost of owning a car is acceptable if it eliminates hidden auto subsidies. However, when it penalizes auto owners it creates problems. Planning should be neutral not pro-transit or pro-highway. Utility companies should be appropriately compensated for relocation. They should not be forced to move something with no compensation.

Additionally, French style light rail is slow. France’s average light-rail speed is 15 miles per hour. In comparison, U.S. Heavy-rail systems average speeds range from 25 miles per hour in New York City to 35 miles per hour in San Francisco. How slow are U.S. trolley systems? Read on. 

If French light-rail is problematic, why are U.S. systems worse? Let me count the ways. First, many of the French political and cultural characteristics are absent in the U.S. Mayors do not have long-terms and there is less pride in civic identity. Second, many of the increased government powers in France are not popular in the U.S. (thank goodness) including high payroll taxes, control over urban form, anti-auto culture, pro-transit planning, and government requirements of private utilities. 

Third, the demographics of U.S. urban areas are very different from France. In France, wealthier residents live in the central city and the poorer residents in suburbs. Urban Revitalization in France is encouraged by the wealthier homeowners who accept the resulting higher taxes. In most U.S. cities, poorer residents live in the central city. Many of these residents are happy with their neighborhoods. If the city increases property taxes, many established residents can no longer afford their homes. Most of these minority residents are forced to leave their communities even though they have lived there for generations. 

Fourth, U.S. light rail is even slower than French light rail. According to the presenters, the average streetcar light-rail train in the U.S. averages between 5 and 10 miles per hour depending on whether dwell time is included. Many Americans can get to their destination faster by foot than by taking this trolley-style light-rail. Not surprisingly the French indicated that all train systems with an average speed below 12 miles per hour (including dwell time) are not practical in France because they are too slow. Trolley-style rail in the U.S. is slow compared to other types of rail. The average U.S. trolley train is 3-5 times slower than the average heavy-rail train. Fifth, the economic issues are more pronounced than in France. While fares on heavy-rail systems in New York City and the District of Columbia only cover 50% of their operating costs, this is better than the typical 20 % of cost returned on any U.S. light-rail systems. Because of different land-use rules, most U.S. systems will never reach the 40% farebox recovery levels of the French system. 

French style light-rail may never work well in the U.S. I am not convinced it works well in France. But even if it is successful in France, the U.S. is a very different country. This “solutionism” where one particular plan is right for every city in every country regardless of circumstances does not work.


Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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