The Public Purpose
Number 36 - March 2000

Poicy Statement:
Urban Rail: Uses and Misuses

Where Urban Rail Works & Why

Analysis by The Public Purpose has consistently found that rail systems in highly automobile oriented urban areas are excessively costly and ineffective. This is not because The Public Purpose is opposed to rail --- indeed we are not. The Public Purpose finds urban rail systems to be superior and effective strategies where conditions are conducive to their use (See Rail Success Stories).

The Public Purpose is opposed to public strategies that do not effectively address public purposes and spending more to achieve public purposes than necessary, consistent with our mission, which is:

    To facilitate the ideal of government as the service of the people by identifying and implementing strategies to achieve public purposes at a cost that is no higher than necessary.

Regrettably, failure to effectively address public purposes and costs that are higher than necessary represent the record of new urban rail systems in automobile oriented urban areas, especially in the United States.

  • Virtually no traffic congestion reduction has occurred as a result of building new urban rail systems.

  • Virtually any public benefit that has been achieved through urban rail could have been achieved for considerably less by other strategies.

The problem is that where the automobile has become the dominant form of transport, and where urban areas have become decentralized and highly suburbanized, there are simply not a sufficient number of people going to the same place at the same time to justify urban rail. As a result, it is typically less expensive to provide a new car for each new rider than to build an urban rail system.

This is not to suggest that urban rail is inappropriate everywhere. In fact, urban rail plays a crucial role in the worlds most dense and centralized urban areas or portions thereof, such as Tokyo, New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong. With central area population densities up to 10 to 100 times that of US urbanized areas and very large central business districts, urban areas such as these could not function without their rail systems (See Keys to Urban Rail Success). But Portland, Phoenix, Orlando, Atlanta and Sacramento have nothing in common with the spatial arrangements of these dense urban areas, and urban rail is simply incapable of materially reducing traffic congestion, at any price.

Yet, virtually without exception, urban rail systems have been promoted to public office holders and voters as a means of reducing traffic congestion in highly automobile oriented urban areas. For example, it is typical for promoters to claim that light rail will carry the same passenger volume as six or even 12 lanes of freeway/motorway traffic. This is specious and misleading, in view of the fact that the average new light rail line in the United States carries barely 20 percent of the volume of a single freeway/motorway lane.

The Public Purpose does not oppose urban rail. The Public Purpose is against wasteful public expenditures, and false advertising. Unfortunately, these are all too often characteristic of light rail systems and their promotion. The Public Purpose will support any urban rail project that is the optimal solution to a critical transport problem.

    Note: Based on the introduction to The Public Purpose #16 (December 1997)

(c) 2001 --- Wendell Cox Consultancy --- Permission granted to use with attribution.
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