Why Cities Are Abandoning Light Rail Transit In Major Public Transit Decline

COST Commentary: The article below is an excellent summary regarding many cities’ reasons for abandoning light rail as a responsible mode of public transit. As I post this article, a major headline article in the Austin American Statesman is “Action on light rail put off.” I sincerely hope the reason is that Cap Metro and the City of Austin have better understood the major deficiencies of light rail as a solution to Austin’s future transportation/mobility needs. All the reasons below and others expressed in previous COST postings are based on facts and actual results throughout the U.S. There are zero, successful role models of cities similar to Austin, or Austin 100 years from today, experiencing successful implementations of light rail. It is a huge waste of taxpayer funds and an ineffective transit mode; resulting in worsening affordability and congestion. See the previous News Article posting on this web site:

New Austin & Cap Metro Transit Plan will waste billions of taxpayer dollars and totally fail

The light rail plans suggested by Cap Metro and the City have been based on a false perception of the future. In fact, the plans have been based on a return to the past use of transit which does not exist today nor will it return. Our future mobility plans must be based on the rapidly changing future, driven by technology innovations and the reality that many aspects of the future are very different than the past. One major example is: The past was based on transit being a wheel and spoke configuration bringing people from the outlying areas to the city’s core where the vast majority of the jobs were. Today, less than 10% of most cities employment is in the core and 90% is in the surrounding metropolitan area. This trend can be seen clearly in the Austin area, including the Domain and other Domain-like developments in process.

COST strongly agrees with the article below and reaffirms it would be a major mistake to implement light rail in Austin. Again, the previous posting summarizes many of COST’s views and contains editorials by the Dallas Morning News which indicates their concurrence with many of these views based on Dallas’ many years of light rail experience in developing the longest light rail route in the nation.
Cities Rethink Rail, Amidst Transit Slump

By Baruch Feigenbaum, Reason Foundation, Surface Transportation Innovations, May 2018

Cities across the country that were planning on constructing light rail and streetcar lines are delaying or cancelling those projects and building bus transit projects instead. Last month, Nashville residents rejected a $5.2 billion light rail-centric plan by almost two to one. Tampa leaders, who have fought for rail for decades only to be defeated, are embracing a high-quality, cost-effective BRT vision for the region. Metro Atlanta is developing a region-wide transit plan focused on bus, not rail. Finally, Fort Lauderdale has cancelled an expensive, unneeded streetcar project.

There are a number of reasons why cities are choosing bus over rail. First, bus is significantly cheaper than rail. A BRT project is typically 1/3 to 1/9 the cost of a similar light rail project. In a recent round of FTA grants the median price of a light rail project was $575.7 million while the median price of a BRT project was $36.1 million. While BRT and light rail have similar operating costs, light rail has higher maintenance costs. Fort Lauderdale was planning to build a streetcar maintenance facility for its streetcar. New buses can be maintained in existing city/county garages.

BRT projects can be implemented more quickly, typically in two to four years. The average for light rail projects is seven years. BRT also offers flexibility. As metro area development patterns change, BRT service can be adjusted. Commute patterns in most U.S. cities have changed over the last 50 years. BRT service can be customized for changing needs.

Despite the lower cost, BRT has many of the same economic benefits as rail. Recent studies from Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and the Center for Urban Transportation Research note that per dollar of transit investment and under similar conditions, BRT leverages more transit-oriented development than light rail. Transit researchers speculated that light rail might lead to more TOD due to its perceived “permanence,” but research has proven that not to be the case.

About the only reason to build a light rail line is the “sexiness” factor. Put simply, rail is sexy and buses are not. But what riders really care about is the quality of the service, and in this regard perceptions of bus and rail are much closer together. Graham Curie of the University of Monash found that systems with better services including higher frequency and integrated ticketing attracted more ridership. As a result, a high-quality bus service with a 10-minute headway (a bus every 10 minutes) will be preferred over a light rail line with a 20-minute headway. In another study, David Hensher and Corrine Mulley showed potential riders a BRT and a rail transit network covering the same geographic area. After researchers identified the service attributes that riders preferred and focused on those components, participants had no preference between the BRT and light rail networks.

These results suggest that transit users start with a perception of rail and bus in their mind, in which bus offers slow, unreliable service and rail offers fast, consistent service. Riders are actually mode-neutral; what they want is the best overall service. As long as BRT provides that service, they are generally happy with BRT.

As discussed above, one of the major advantages of BRT is its flexibility. And given current and future changes in transit service, that flexibility is key. Overall transit ridership has been decreasing for the past two years. Comparing March 2018 numbers with March 2017 numbers, every major urban area the size of Charlotte, NC or larger lost transit riders. Even Seattle, which had so far not experienced declines, lost riders. Further, every transit mode lost ridership—not just buses but rail systems as well. In the last 12 months, nationwide bus ridership declined 6.3%, light rail ridership declined 5.7%, heavy rail ridership declined 5.3% and commuter rail ridership declined 3.3%.

There are many factors behind the drop, particularly a growing economy and the role of ride-hailing services. But the continued drop in ridership month after month for several years has gotten so bad that the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) wrote a policy paper examining the problem. For an association paper, the document is fairly objective. APTA admits transit agencies have actual competition for ridership from transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft. The paper suggests that dedicated bus lanes, which makes sense in transit corridors with very high frequency service, will grow bus ridership. APTA argues that transit systems should create a loyalty program because that is the “type of engagement” that appeals to millennials. The paper also discusses the role of land use and the development of low-income housing and community services in suburban and rural areas that are not traditionally well suited to transit.

While helpful, I would have liked more from the APTA report. What it does not acknowledge is that TNCs and automated vehicles are going to fundamentally change transit service. Transit agencies can start changing and adapting or risk becoming irrelevant. For example, transit agencies should be partnering with Uber, Lyft and private micro-transit services such as Chariot not just for first-mile and last-mile rides but for transit service in low-density suburbs and exurbs. These partnerships are complicated and may take years to fine-tune. Kansas City’s partnership with Bridj was ultimately unsuccessful. But that does not mean other regions should not experiment to find out what works. Transit agencies need to be transitioning to mobility agencies in which they are not operating transit service but managing services operated by public and private entities.
The APTA report uses a somewhat arbitrary 2000 to 2017 timeframe to claim that rail ridership is up. But for the timeframe that matters the most— 2017-2018—ridership is down significantly. Further, even in areas where rail ridership is up, that is largely because rail lines have replaced bus lines. If you eliminate five bus lines and add a rail line, rail ridership had better increase. But in most of those areas, the increase in rail ridership was less than the decrease in bus ridership. All modes of transit are struggling, and honesty is needed to solve the problem.

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