The Public Purpose
Number 37 - July 2000

Sic Transit Light Rail:
Al Gore's Anti-Auto Boondoggle

By Wendell Cox

Published in The Weekly Standard of July 17, 2000.

Recently, Vice President Gore announced a 10 year $25 billion mass transit proposal intended to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. A principal initiative would be to build additional miles of subways and light rail lines. In announcing the program, the Vice President said "You should … have the choice … to park your car at a light rail station and be moved swiftly into a newly thriving downtown…" Unfortunately, things are not so simple.

The Vice President does have it right on one count, however. Transit is about downtown. But downtowns are no longer the dominant locus of commercial activity, and are becoming less so with every passing years. For decades the overwhelming majority of new jobs have been created outside downtown. Now, less than 10 percent of employment in the nation's metropolitan areas is downtown. Even in the New York City area, the number is below 20 percent. That means that for at least 90 percent of commuters, there is no transit choice.

Transit plays a significant role in the nation's largest downtown areas. More than one-third of commuters ride transit to work in nine downtowns, such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco. But in other downtowns the numbers are much smaller. And outside downtowns, such as in the suburban "edge cities" like Tyson's Corner in Washington, Perimeter Center in Atlanta or Schaumburg in Chicago and elsewhere, transit's market share is insignificant, often two percent or less.

This is because everywhere but downtown employment densities are far too small to support the extent of transit service that would be necessary to attract non-downtown commuters out of their cars. Simply put, not enough jobs or residences are within walking distance of transit stops. And, traveling between transit stops that are within walking distance usually takes much longer than commuting by automobile, because of slow operating speeds and the necessity of transferring from one route to another. People who commute by transit to jobs outside downtowns tend to have no choice, because they do not have automobiles available for their trips. This is a characteristic shared with 70 percent of transit riders, according to federal data.

The unfortunate, but indisputable fact is that transit has virtually no impact on traffic congestion except for work trips beginning or ending in the largest downtown areas. The Gore program seems oblivious to this.

The view that transit is the solution to traffic congestion is not without superficial justification. Tourists, especially policy wonks, travel to places where rail transit makes a big difference --- New York City, the Loop in Chicago, downtown San Francisco, central London, central Paris or Hong Kong. But what they all too often fail to realize is that little of metropolitan America looks like these places --- not even the suburbs of New York, Chicago or San Francisco, which have lower population densities than the suburbs of Los Angeles.

Further, the recent experience in rail development in the United States gives no comfort to the "transit solves traffic congestion" hypothesis. More than $10 billion has been spent in Washington, DC to build nearly 100 miles of subway. Yet, Washington's traffic congestion is worse than everywhere except Los Angeles, where $8 billion has been spent to build more than 450 miles of rail. After $3 billion of spending on rail in Atlanta, only 10 percent of commuters can reach their jobs within 40 minutes on transit. In contrast, for 100 percent of Atlanta area commuters, average work trip travel time is approximately 30 minutes. Making automobile competitive transit available to all in of Atlanta alone would require at least double the Vice-President's 10 year $25 billion budget, every year.

Then there is the matter of light rail --- the "spruced up" 19th century streetcar (trolley) technology by which the Vice-President suggests commuters will be "moved swiftly." There is nothing swift about light rail. Despite high levels of traffic congestion, automobile commutes normally take one-half the time of light rail.

The fact is that transit, rail or bus, is not a choice for at least 90 percent of people commuting to work in the nation's metropolitan areas. It not a choice for an even larger percentage of non-work trips. This is because transit is incapable of competing with the convenience and especially the travel time of the automobile. That is why transit's urban market share is under two percent, and why every year, the increase in urban automobile usage alone exceeds total transit usage (measured in person miles).

There is no point in throwing additional billions at rail systems to expand choices for a very few. As with virtually all of the rail systems built in the last quarter century, traffic congestion will continue to worsen in the rail corridors. But, worse, the emphasis on this a boutique rail strategy will consume financial, technical and administrative resources that would more appropriately be used to solve the transportation problems of all.

Wendell Cox was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley (1977-1985) and chaired two American Public Transit Association national committees. He is principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy in Belleville, Ill., an international public policy firm.

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