Policy Study

Myths of Light Rail Transit

Executive Summary

Local officials in many urban areas have become smitten with the hope that “light rail” will provide the solution to urban transportation problems. This dream is based on myths, and will be rudely shattered when the realities reassert themselves. The most important of these myths are:

The Speed Myth:
Rail transit is rapid transit.
The Reality:
When the time needed for station access, transfer,
waiting, and delay is taken into account, rail travel
times are longer than the time required for the same
trip by bus.
The Capacity Myth:
Rail is high-capacity transit.
The Reality:
Bus corridors, which consist of several parallel lines operating on urban streets, have vastly more capacity than any single rail line. Even a single-line dedicated bus right-of-way has greater carrying capacity than a light rail line. Only the most heavily used heavy rail trunk lines have greater capacity than busways, and these have significantly higher costs.
The Decongestion Myth:
Rail will decongest roads by converting automobile drivers into mass transit riders.
The Reality:
Rail is not a decongestant. Support for rail voiced by drivers is based on a hope that others will use rail transit and open up the road, and in fact rail riders are taken out of buses, not cars.
The Cost-Effectiveness Myth:
Rail transit is cost-effective.
The Reality:
Rail is economically inferior to conventional bus service.
The Urban Form Myth:
Rail promotes superior urban form.
The Reality:
The urban planners’ idea of “superior form” – high densities of both residences and places of employment – is counter to the values of the populace. In any event, rail cannot overcome the forces pushing for decentralization.
The Low-Income Myth:
Rail transit benefits low-income people.
The Reality:
The switch to rail imposes heavy costs on low income people.
The Jobs Myth:
Rail construction provides jobs.
The Reality:
Bus systems provide more jobs per public dollar expended, and more local employment.
The “Free Money” Myth:
Capital investment in rail will be paid for with non-local funds that cannot be used for other purposes.
The Reality:
While funds requested for rail must often be spent on rail, localities may seek funds for a variety of purposes and have considerable discretion over how local transportation funds are spent.

Good transit policies are within the grasp of every urban area, but they will not be found until decisionmakers divest themselves of these myths and build their programs on solid reality.