NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Rail Fails To Reduce Congestion

March 17, 1999

Rail transit is often proposed as a way to reduce traffic congestion on urban highways. Congestion, however, has increased faster in cities with new rail projects than those relying on highways to carry commuters and travelers.

Based on data from the Federal Highway Administration using the Texas Transportation Institute's Roadway Congestion Index, for urban areas with more than one million people:

  • Overall traffic congestion increased by 23.8 percent from 1982 to 1994; it increased 29.0 percent in cities with new rail projects and 22.2 percent in other urban areas.
  • Thus, congestion increased 30.6 percent faster in new rail cities.
  • In San Diego, congestion increased by 55 percent -- the fastest of any city using rail, despite opening its first rail line in 1981.

In Sacramento, Calif., congestion increased by 32.5 percent -- the second fastest among the 10 cities with new rail investments, followed by Atlanta (29.7 percent), Washington, D.C. (27.7 percent) and Portland, Ore. (27.6 percent).

Experts generally attribute rail transit's inability to reduce congestion to two factors.

  • First, rail transit's share of total trips is too small to have a significant impact on automobile use, since on average only 2.2 percent of commuters in the U.S. use transit.
  • In fact, transit carries more than 10 percent of commuter traffic only in New York, Washington, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia.
  • Second, most rail-transit riders are former bus passengers -- for instance, in Portland, Ore., as many as two-thirds of rail riders are former bus riders, and more than 60 percent of rail riders in Los Angeles were former bus riders.

Source: "Rail Transit Fails To Reduce Congestion," Policy Note, February 1999, Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, 131 N. Ludlow Street, Suite 317, Dayton, Ohio 45402, (937) 224-8352.


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