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Reason Foundation

Great Rail Disasters

The Impact of Rail Transit on Urban Livability

Randall O'Toole
February 1, 2004

Executive Summary

The stampede to plan and build rail transit lines in American cities has led and is leading to a series of financial and mobility disasters. They are financial disasters because rail projects spend billions of taxpayers’ dollars and produce little in return. They are mobility disasters because rail transit almost always increases regional congestion and usually reduces transit’s share of commuting and general travel.

Out of the nation’s fifty largest urban areas, twentythree had rail transit in 2000. This study reviews those twenty-three regions and finds:

Based on these and other criteria, including cost effectiveness, safety, energy, and land use, this paper constructs a Rail Livability Index that assesses the effects of rail transit on urban areas. Every rail region earned a negative score, suggesting rail reduces urban livability.

Rail transit is not only expensive, it usually costs more to build and often costs more to operate than originally projected. To pay for cost overruns, transit agencies often must boost transit fares or cut transit service outside of rail corridors. Thus, rail transit tends to harm most transit users.

Rail transit also harms most auto drivers. Most regions building rail transit expect to spend half to fourfifths of their transportation capital budgets on transit systems that carry 0.5 to 4 percent of passenger travel. This imbalanced funding makes it impossible to remove highway bottlenecks and leads to growing congestion.

Rail’s high cost makes it ineffective at reducing congestion. On average, $13 spent on rail transit is less effective at reducing congestion than $1 spent on freeway improvements. Investments in rail transit are only about half as effective as investments in bus transit.

Rail transit also tends to be more dangerous than other forms of travel. Interstate freeways cause 3.9 deaths per billion passenger miles. Accidents on urban roads and streets in general lead to about 6.8 deaths per billion passenger miles. Among the various forms of urban transit, buses, at 4.3 deaths per billion passenger miles, are the safest; heavy rail averages 5.0, commuter rail 11.3, and light rail 14.8.

Rail transit does little to save energy. The average light-rail line consumes more energy per passenger mile than passenger cars. While some commuter- and heavyrail transit operations use a little less energy per passenger mile than cars, the energy consumed to construct rail lines can more than make up for this savings.

Nor is rail transit an effective way to clean the air. Even where rail transit has attracted new transit riders out of their cars, rail transit costs roughly $1 million per ton of air pollution eliminated. Many other techniques to clean the air cost less than $10,000 per ton.

Rail transit attracts riders because of its higher frequencies and fewer stops—and thus higher speeds— than bus transit. Yet buses can also operate more frequently with fewer stops. Rail transit requires years to build and can cost fifty times as much to start as comparable bus transit. As a result, the cost of attracting one auto commuter onto rail transit, relative to bus improvements, averages $10,000 a year or more.

For many, rail transit’s incredible expense is its main attraction. Auto-haters love rail transit because it consumes funds that could otherwise be spent reducing congestion. Politicians love rail transit because the companies that will profit from it are a source of campaign contributions. Transit agencies love rail transit because it boosts their budgets and national prestige. But the public should not be fooled: For everyone else, rail transit is a disaster.


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