Why New US Urban Rail Systems
Attract So Few Automobile Drivers

New urban rail systems have failed to reduce traffic congestion for two fundamental reasons.

Most locations in the urban area are not served: In new rail cities, more than 99.2 percent of the urbanized area is beyond the typical maximum one-quarter mile walking distance from a station (Figure #1).(1) As a result, the overwhelming majority of jobs cannot be reached by urban rail.

No speed advantage: Even in the few corridors served by new urban rail, it generally provides no speed advantage compared to highway alternatives (Figure #2). New light rail systems average 17.2 miles per hour, and the fastest at-grade(2) system operates at 18.2 miles per hour.(3) This provides only marginal improvement over the 12.8 mile per hour average speed of buses, leaving light rail slower than other modes. It is slower than express bus systems, which operate at approximately 24 miles per hour.(4) By comparison, the average automobile commuting speed is more than 30 miles per hour (nearly double the new light rail operating speed).(5) At such modest speeds, it is incorrect to characterize light rail as "rapid transit."

Because of these factors, travel surveys generally show that the majority of new urban rail riders are former bus riders.(6)

1. Calculated from 1996 National Transit Database and Texas Transportation Institute data.

2. At grade systems cross major arterials at street level, requiring crossing gates, and causing roadway traffic to stop. Grade separated systems operating in subway (underground) or on elevated structures and do not cross major arterials at street level.

3. Calculated from 1996 National Transit Database. Light rail systems with downtown subways (Los Angeles and St. Louis) operate faster than 18.2 miles per hour, but still are slower than commuting by automobile.

4. Wendell Cox, Jean Love and Samuel A. Brunelli, Reinventing Transit: Putting Customers First (Washington: American Legislative Exchange Council, 1996).

5. Light rail speed calculated from 1996 National Transit Database. Express bus speed calculated from 1990 National Transit Database (which because of its design had more comprehensive speed data for express bus systems). Automobile commute speed from Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey, 1995.

6. Jonathan E. D. Richmond, New Rail Transit Investments - A Review (Cambridge: Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government), 1998.

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