Policy Study

Ten Transit Myths

Misperceptions About Rail Transit in Los Angeles and the Nation

Executive Summary

For more than a decade, the proponents of rail transit in Los Angeles and elsewhere have widely promulgated a set of stock arguments in favor of construction of rail transit. Although rail transit can provide advantages in some circumstances, the proponents of rail often mislead decision makers and the public by claiming nonexistent advantages for rail investments. This campaign has helped convince officials and the electorate that rail transit is a necessary component of a contemporary urban transportation system.

Left unchallenged, these arguments have gradually bored their way into conventional wisdom. However, a close examination reveals that the rhetoric of rail tends to involve sweeping assertions, uneconomic thinking, and assumptions that range from difficult to impossible to verify. We have come to think of this collection of arguments as a mythology. This paper addresses these ten myths, as follows:

Myth #1: Adding Rail is Cost-Effective
Fact: Rail is economically inferior to conventional bus service. The high cost of rail bleeds existing bus systems.

Myth #2: Rail is the People’s Choice
Fact: Voters have been swayed by what amounts to disinformation.

Myth #3: Rail is Fast Transit
Fact: Once out-of-vehicle, station access and transfer delay time is accounted for, rail travel times tend to be longer than the time required to complete the same trip by bus.

Myth #4: Rail Is High-Capacity Transit
Fact: Bus corridors consist of parallel bus lines collectively providing higher capacity than rail lines. Light rail lines cannot deliver more than a small fraction of the carrying capacity provided by dedicated bus rights-of-way. Only the most heavily utilized heavy rail trunks are competitive with busways, and then only at significantly higher costs.

Myth #5: Rail Construction Provides Jobs
Fact: Bus systems provide far more employment per public dollar expended than do rail systems and much more local employment.

Myth #6: Rail Promotes Superior Urban Form
Fact: Rail investments cannot defeat the location incentives provided by the market for urban land.

Myth #7: Rail Will Be Paid For With NonLocal Funds That Cannot Be Used For Other Purposes
Fact: Funds requested for rail must often be spent on rail systems, but local authorities may seek funds for a variety of purposes and have considerable discretion in how local transportation funds are spent.

Myth #8: Rail Will Attract New Riders to Transit
Fact: Rail seldom increases and often reduces total transit ridership.

Myth #9: Rail Will Decongest Roads
Fact: Rail is not a decongestant. New facilities cannot decongest existing facilities. The impact of transit on highway level of service is small.

Myth #10 There are No Alternatives to Rail
Fact: Doing nothing is often better than building a rail system, but there are many low-risk alternatives to rail. We have lacked the political will to pursue them.

By their nature, myths are nearly impervious to attack, even by sound theory. Consequently, our strategy is to measure outcomes as frequently as we can, and to examine the position of rail advocates in light of these results.

Our counterarguments are often grounded in the Los Angeles experience. However, these myths tend to be advanced anywhere rail advocates congregate to pursue their special interests. Thus, we also rely on national data and explain our Los Angeles conclusions in as broad a context as possible.

There is an eleventh myth we have not addressed. We cannot. No one can, and this provides the myth with a nearly divine status among rail advocates. The eleventh myth is “Rail will ultimately perform as required, but only if the rail system is constructed in its entirety.” Thus, no matter how dismally existing rail systems might perform, proponents have an argument for building more. We cannot disprove this argument conclusively because it is grounded in blind faith, and we cannot afford to build rail systems large enough to test it. However, we can draw informed conclusions from the best evidence available. Larger urban rail systems are not better rail systems; they are more expensive failures.