NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Light Rail Costs Compared to Buses

March 20, 2003

As their incomes rose following World War II, Americans used public transit less and relied more on personal transportation. Basically, the demand for public transit is inversely related to personal income. As people's incomes rise they can afford the more comfortable and convenient travel provided by an automobile.

In urban areas, the share of trips taken by buses, trains, trolleys and subways fell from 50 percent in 1945 to 2 percent in 2002. Massive public investments have been made to persuade more people to use transit:

  • Per person-mile of travel, government now spends 20 times as much on public transit as it does on roadways.
  • Two-thirds of transit system costs are paid by non-riders through taxes.
  • By contrast, private passenger vehicles currently pay more than 100 percent of their share of road system costs.

Instead of investing in lower-cost transit buses, however, much of the new investment has gone toward light rail systems. These carry fewer passengers at a higher cost:

  • Light rail requires special tracks, so it lacks the flexibility of buses which can run over existing city streets; but 80 percent of its passengers are drawn from buses.
  • Its carrying capacity is far less than that of heavy rail trains, which carry passengers on the existing rail network.
  • Thus light rail requires taxpayers to pick up 90 percent of the cost.

The average cost per passenger mile is around $1.20, compared with average cost per bus passenger mile of about seventy-five cents. Of course, no transit option matches the average cost of automobile transportation, which is about 34 cents per vehicle mile.

Source: John Semmens, "Public Transit: A Bad Product at a Bad Price," Issue Analysis, January 2003, Laissez Faire Institute, 828 N. Poplar Ct., Chandler, Arizona 85226.


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