Well Below Single Freeway Lane:
The Portland & St. Louis Examples
Even during peak travel hours light rail carries comparatively few riders compared to freeway lanes, though data is not generally available. In Portland, for example, inbound (toward downtown) light rail volume averages approximately 1,100 per hour during the 6:00 a..m. to 9:00 a.m. peak period. By comparison, each lane of the adjacent Banfield Freeway (Interstate 84) carries approximately 2,600 people per hour --- nearly 2.5 times the volume of the light rail line. In the outbound direction, each freeway lane carries 1,500 persons hourly, 28 times the light rail averages of 55 passengers during the same period (Figure #1). Overall, during the morning peak period, the freeway carries more than 10 times the volume of the light rail line.(1)
Theoretical and Practical Capacity: These findings appear to contradict the often cited claim
that a light rail line has the same person carrying capacity as up to six freeway lanes. Yet US
transit agencies do not even provide the service that could carry such a large number of
For example, St. Louis, with one of the nation's most intensively used new light rail lines,
provides seating capacity for fewer than 900 passengers each peak hour --- one-third the capacity
of a freeway lane. With a "crush" load.of standing passengers, the St. Louis line could achieve a
passenger volume of nearly 2,000, still 25 percent below a freeway lane's capacity. Moreover, it
is apparent that the St. Louis line has not reduced traffic congestion. Traffic on the adjacent
Mississippi River Bridge (I-55/64/70) has increased by more than 20 percent since before the
light rail line opened. Despite being able to save between $4.00 and $11.00 daily in parking charges by
taking light rail, the vast majority of commuters continue to drive.
It is theoretically possible (2) for light rail to carry the volume of six freeway lanes,(3) but it would
require service levels and passenger demand far above present levels. Like Interstate 10 between
Fort Stockton and Van Horn, new light rail systems have the capacity to carry much more
volume. Interstate 10 does not because there is insufficient travel demand in that area. Light rail
does not because there is little demand for a mode of transport much slower than the automobile
on which one may stand for a major portion of the trip.
1. Oregon Transportation Institute, Max Versus Banfield Freeway: A Comparison of Actual Passenger Usage, Internet: www.hevanet.com/oti/MVFE.htm., based upon Oregon Department of Transportation and Tri-County Metropolitan Transit District data, 1994.
2. Similarly, it is possible to rebuild the University of Texas football stadium to seat one million rather than 100,000 spectators. Like light rail, however, rarely if ever would demand approach the capacity.
3. Curitiba, Brazil has two non-grade separated busways that carry a peak hour volume equal to five freeway lanes in a single direction.