Don't Fall in Love with Light Rail Yet

Light rail is seen as a golden opportunity to revive inner cities. Not so fast, argues Alan Hoffman.

Hoffman compares the urban love affair with light rail to the early praise rained on the interstate highway system. Years later, that system would be derided heavily from all around the country.

"It's becoming clear the freeway-based system may not be sustainable. Metro-area auto congestion continues to worsen, urban sprawl continues unabated (while threatening some of our most productive farmland), concerns about greenhouse gas emissions are growing, and there's the specter of steeply rising prices for 'post-peak' oil.

But leaping to light rail could well trigger a new set of unintended consequences. In some locations, it may work well–it is a proven and popular transportation tool. But I'd argue it's as mismatched to today's American urban form as was the freeway-centric vision of the 1950s to the urban form of its day. And that we ignore this mismatch at our peril."

Full Story: Light Rail Boom Needs A Second Look



The Point is Solid

The basic point as I see it is that light rail is not appropriate everywhere, that it needs a certain amount of density around it to thrive.

I completely agree, and I think most planners would as well. Light rail shouldn't be expected to work well in the absence of density. If it is built in low-density areas, there should be plans to densify those areas, at the very least around the stops, or to provide adequate park-and-ride lots (preferably as parking structures, which waste less land).

The warning against panaceas in general and comparison of our current infatuation with light rail to our 1950s-60s infatuation with the interstate highway system is also well taken.

Yes we can...

The proverbial 1-seat ride is counter-productive. No transit system can operate without transfers. When whole transit systems are arranged to enable 1-seat rides, the whole system suffers.

Light rail systems require transfers. This ‘combining’ of transit modes can improve transit systems overall.

Think of it as ‘matching supply to demand’. Light rail lines cover long-distances and serve a high demand. Bus lines that run short distances to light rail stations have a more readily measurable demand that can be more practical to meet with suitably frequent bus service.

We should think of mass transit as a “fundamental” travel mode, no less fundamental than walking and bicycling. Once all these travel modes are considered fundamental, land-use and development patterns evolve to serve their optimal function.

The question isn’t bus vs rail. The question is how may all urban/suburban modes of travel function to produce within metropolitian regions, dozens of functioning neighborhood economies where an 'extreme' amount of long-distance travel and transport is no longer required to meet most needs.

The point Alan Hoffman makes in his article is irrelevent.

Perpetuating Sprawl

"But I’d argue it’s as mismatched to today’s American urban form as was the freeway-centric vision of the 1950s to the urban form of its day. And that we ignore this mismatch at our peril."

The freeways and the suburbs they generated changed the form of American cities. Likewise, light rail and transit-oriented development can change the form of American cities.

Hoffman insists on building transit systems that serve sprawl rather than light-rail systems that generate transit-oriented development. This would just perpetuate sprawl.

He is positively hostile to transit-oriented development, which he describes as "Pockets of affluence developed around light rail stations" - as if it were a bad thing that affluent people want to live in neighborhoods where they can walk.

He may be right that we should build better transit to the suburbs. But that point is not an argument against also building light-rail and transit-oriented development.

Charles Siegel

Chicken or the Egg

It is a valid point and comes back to the old chicken and the egg paradox - what leads to what?

The mismatch is evident when one sees the light-rail stops (proported to make communities more sustainable, presumably by encouraging less driving) immediately surrounded by free park'n'rides, rather than dense walkable mixed-use nodes with enough residential density within to support large scale essential commerce, some employment (that's far more than the token 1:1 or 2:1 that seems to happen).

However the change has to start somewhere - regions could do worse than building forward-looking mass transit. Couple it with frozen highway expansion or even contraction and land use/form preferences will begin to catch up. Consider an aging population, rising costs (time & money) of commuting, etc. What proportion of the population are the boomers? Soon enough they will be less able to drive, combine this with those for whom car-commuting may not longer be as reasonable (time spent, fuel costs, parking costs) and places offering pleasing short walking-distance from *everything* will become more desireable.

Dare to be inspired by good ideas and innovation no matter where they begin - Recognise them, spread them


This is silly. Unlike the interstate highway system, no one is proposing to build light rail everywhere. Rather, it's proposed incrementally. Atlanta is a good example: the Beltline proposal includes light rail around the densest parts of the city. Out in the suburbs there are BRT proposals for commuters. Different solutions fit different situations - everyone knows that.

And I do think that BRT can produce denser urban areas, especially where physical separation is built for it.

Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.
Woman wearing city map tote bag

City Shoulder Totes - New Cities Added!

Durable CityFabric© shoulder tote bags available from 9 different cities.
T-shirt with map of Chicago

Show your city pride

Men's Ultrasoft CityFabric© tees. Six cities available.