NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Light Rail, Wrong Track

January 7, 2003

As cities debate the addition of light rail to their transit systems, it may be worthwhile to consider its success where systems are already in place. With the release of the 2000 Census data, such an evaluation of light rail is possible.

What the data reveals is that in cities with major rail lines, transit ridership is either declining significantly or only increasing slightly. This is the case regardless of whether a city has had rail lines for some time, as with Atlanta or Washington, D.C., or has installed lines recently. San Diego began rail service in 1981 and Denver in 1994.

Between 1990 and 2000, the share of people traveling to work on public transit was flat or fell in major metropolitan area s:

  • The decline in public transit's share of people going to work fell 22.5 percent in Atlanta; 18.4 percent Washington, D.C., lost.
  • San Diego's public transit system gained 2.6 percent and Denver gained 2 percent.
  • Dallas undertook a major transit investment to open three new light rail lines and one commuter rail line in the last decade, yet ridership declined 23 percent from 1990 to 2000.

Light rail's difficulty in reversing the trend away from transit may be due to the fact that it is usually focused on downtown. Population and employment growth have shifted outside of the downtown core.

  • According to one estimate, on average, 90 percent of employment occurs outside of city centers.
  • Light rail also faces competition from less expensive options such as carpooling and telecommuting.

Also, nearly every major metropolitan area saw telecommuting make significant gains in market share from 1990 to 2000. Washington, D.C.'s grew by 20 percent, Denver and Dallas by 30 percent and Atlanta's by nearly 56 percent.

Source: "Is Rail a Transit Success Story?" Policy Note, November 2002, Buckeye Institute.

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