Federal transit data show that rail transit doesn't work
by Randal O'Toole The Thoreau Institute
Recently, MaryPIRG published a naive and simplistic report claiming
that "Rail Transit Works: Light Rail Success Stories from Across
Country." The first problem with the report, as Wendell Cox notes,
that two of the "light rail success stories" involve heavy
(subways), not light rail.
The report also relies on transit agency propaganda about ridership
projections and claims. For example, MaryPIRG says that "planners
expected 100,000 passengers daily on a new section of the Red Line
and had to add cars when ridership rapidly reached 120,000."
Thomas Rubin points out that the ORIGINAL ridership projections for
the Red Line were far higher -- 376,000 per day -- than the
projections made just before it opened. Moreover, he adds, the Los
Angeles transit agency has recently admitted that it greatly
overestimated ridership on the Red Line, and now admits that daily
ridership has never in any month averaged 100,000.
In the end, the numbers game of projections-vs.-actual is the wrong
way to look at transit. Transit agencies once greatly overestimated
ridership thinking that they needed to do so to convince local
governments to support rail projects. Now they know that many local
officials support rail projects no matter what the numbers say, so
they often project low numbers just so they can be on target when
rail line actually opens. Many politicians are so innumerate that
they are impressed when transit advocates say "It will take 9,000
cars off the road each day!" even though 9,000 auto trips is
than a drop in the bucket in a major metropolitan area.
The real questions that need to be asked are: How much does rail
cost? What do you get for your money? And what would you get if you
spent that money on something else such as bus or highway
improvements? The MaryPIRG report, of course, ignores these questions.
To help people put these numbers into perspective, I have posted
summary of 2001 National Transit Data Base (NTBS) numbers for all
U.S. commuter-rail, light-rail, and heavy-rail lines. (Trolley lines
such as the New Orleans streetcar are not included.) You can download
this Excel spreadsheet from
Here is what you will find on the spreadsheet:
Column A: Urban area
Column B: Rail type (CR, HR, LR)
Column C: Vehicle revenue miles
Column D: Annual unlinked trips
Column E: Annual passenger miles
Column F: Annual operating expenses
Column G: Directional route miles
All of the above are taken straight from the National Transit Data
Base, meaning they are data reported to the Federal Transit
Administration by the transit agencies themselves. "Directional
miles" are miles in each direction. So if you have a 15-mile
rail line, it has 30 directional route miles since the rail cars
(probably) go in both directions on all 15 miles.
Note that capital costs are NOT included. You can get some estimate
of capital cost for light-rail projects from
http://lightrail.com/LRTSystems.htm. You will have to get heavy-rail
and commuter-rail costs from the agencies themselves. The average
light-rail project cost about $40 million a route mile, but some cost
as little as $10 million a route mile. Heavy rail is about twice as
expensive and commuter rail is highly variable but usually less
expensive than light rail. When calculating costs per directional
route mile, remember that there are twice as many directional route
miles as route miles.
The next few columns are calculated based on the previous data.
Column H: Operating cost per unlinked trip
Column I: Operating cost per passenger mile
Column J: Daily passenger miles per directional route mile
Column K: Average occupancy i.e. passenger miles per vehicle revenue
Column M is automobile passenger miles for each urban area. It is
taken from Highway Statistics 2001, table HM-72, which lists daily
vehicle miles traveled. This number is multiplied by 365 to get the
annual number and multiplied again by the average occupancy of 1.6
get passenger miles. NOTE: These numbers aren't strictly additive
because several urban areas are listed more than once. I've corrected
for this in the totals in rows 55-58.
Column N is transit's share of motorized passenger travel. It is
based on total transit passenger miles in each urban area (not
otherwise shown in the table) divided by transit passenger miles plus
auto passenger miles.
Column O is the share of motorized travel held by each rail system.
It is the passenger miles (column E) divided by auto plus transit
Column P is passenger miles divided by trips, resulting in average
trip length. This is around 23 miles for commuter rail, 5 miles for
heavy rail, and 4 miles for light rail.
Column Q shows the number of daily passenger miles per freeway lane
mile in each urban area. Like column M, this is taken from table
HM-72 of Highway Statistics 2001. SEE NOTE in column M above.
Column R is rail passenger miles/directional route mile as a percent
of freeway passenger miles per lane mile (J/Q).
I used columns T, U, and V to calculate the correct totals for
columns M and Q. However, they only come out correctly when the main
list is sorted by column A. You can ignore them.
Rows 55-58 give the totals or averages for light rail, commuter rail,
and heavy rail, plus a grand total for all three modes.
Here are some points you can make based on these data.
BUSES CAN CARRY MORE PEOPLE THAN MOST LIGHT-RAIL VEHICLES CARRY
The average light-rail occupancy is only 27 people. Many express
commuter bus lines carry more people per bus than this. Particularly
pathetic, at average occupancies of 10 and 15 people respectively,
are the light-rail lines in New York (actually the Hudson-Bergen line
in New Jersey) and San Jose.
Although occupancies will obviously be higher than average during
rush hour, and many light-rail lines are run with two or more cars
hooked together, you can also run more than one bus when you need
Any light-rail line with an average occupancy of less than 40 people
-- meaning all but one system shown here -- could more effectively
handled by buses. Heavy-rail and commuter-rail lines are more often
run in lengthy trains so the occupancy figures are less significant.
Information about buses can be found in
http://americandreamcoalition.org/modeuza.xls, which is the same data
table as the rail table for all modes of transit and all agencies
that report to the Federal Transit Administration. This Excel file
about 370 kb in size and contains data for 1,145 agencies and modes,
compared with just 52 on the rail spreadsheet.
BUSES COST LESS PER TRIP THAN MOST LIGHT- OR HEAVY-RAIL LINES
Light- and heavy-rail lines can be evaluated by comparing cost per
trip with similar costs for buses. Nationwide, the average cost per
bus trip is $2.40, but rail lines usually aren't built in average
corridors: they are built in the most heavily used corridors in a
region. We can get an idea of the cost per bus trip in heavily used
corridors by looking at bus agencies that tend to focus on such
corridors. These operators, such as the Trans-Hudson Express in New
York, Laidlaw Transportation in California, and San Francisco Muni,
have costs of about $1.50 to $1.60 a trip.
All but two light-rail systems (Boston and Los Angeles) and all but
three heavy-rail systems (Boston, New York, and Philadelphia) have
costs that are greater than this. This suggests that buses could
cost-effectively replace rails in all other cities.
BUSES COST LESS PER PASSENGER MILE THAN MOST COMMUTER-RAIL LINES
Because commuter-rail trips are longer than other rail trips, cost
per passenger mile is a better measure of their cost than cost per
trip. These can be compared with the costs of bus operators that
focus on long-distance commuter trips, such as Golden Gate in San
Francisco, Loudoun County in Virginia, and Hudson Transit in New
York-New Jersey. These operators spend an average of 15 to 20 cents
per passenger mile on operating costs.
Only New York and (surprisingly) Ft. Worth have commuter-rail costs
in this range. Boston is 23 cents a passenger mile, Chicago is 26
cents, and most of the rest are 28 to 36 cents. Dallas (in sharp
contrast to Ft. Worth) is $1.00. Most of these commuter rail lines
could be handled by buses at a lower cost.
ONE FREEWAY LANE CARRIES FAR MORE PEOPLE THAN ANY RAIL LINE OUTSIDE
OF NEW YORK SUBWAYS
Rail advocates often like to say that a rail line can carry as many
people as an eight- (or sometimes twelve-) lane freeway. But column
in the rail table shows that no rail line outside of New York City
subways carries as many people as a single freeway lane.
* The most productive light-rail line barely carries a third as many
people as a freeway lane.
* The most productive commuter-rail line outside of New York City
carries less than a sixth as many people as a freeway lane.
* The most productive heavy-rail line outside of New York City
carries less than two-thirds of a freeway lane.
* New York City subways carry fewer people than two freeway lanes,
and that is probably the most that can ever be expected of any rail
line in the U.S.
Note that the number of people carried on a freeway lane is highly
variable. Los Angeles freeway lanes, for example, carry 50 percent
more people than those in New York, partly because they are more
modern and thus have greater capacities. And remember that, unlike
most rail transit lines, freeways also carry freight.
RAIL TRANSIT ONLY WORKS WHEN YOU HAVE MILLIONS OF JOBS IN ONE PLACE
Wendell Cox likes to say that transit is really about downtown. In
presentations, I point out that transit is really only an important
mode of travel in urban areas with a huge number -- roughly a
half-million or more -- centrally located jobs. That pretty much
limits it to six urban areas: New York, Boston, Chicago, San
Francisco, Philadelphia, and Washington.
The numbers in the table show that rail transit does pretty well
New York and makes a marginal showing in the other five cities.
Elsewhere, it is insignificant when measured by market share of
travel, and it has particularly failed in cities that have mainly
grown in the last fifty years, such as Dallas, San Diego, and San
LIGHT-RAIL TRANSIT DOESN'T EVEN WORK IN THE NEW YORK URBAN AREA
Notice also that the transit that does work in New York and the other
five cities is mainly heavy rail and commuter rail. Light rail
doesn't even work in the New York urban area, as shown by the
Hudson-Bergen failure (4.2 percent of a freeway lane!). The other
York-area light-rail line in the table is a Newark rail line,
sometimes called a subway, originally built in 1935. It also has
pretty low ridership and certainly didn't deserve the $200 million
that New Jersey Transit recently put into it.
In sum, light rail doesn't work, and neither, outside of the New
urban area, do heavy rail or commuter rail.
Randal O'Toole The Thoreau Institute
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