How Well Does Light Rail Attract New Transit Riders?

The answer to the question in the headline is “not very.” Thirty years into the initial experiment, however, light rail has not been the game changer it was hoped to be.
Alan Levine / Flickr

Yonah Freemark details the complicated legacy of the light rail investments of the 1980s, which have not been very successful in increasing the share of trips taken on transit. Buffalo, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, and San Jose opened light rail in the 1980s, “[yet] it doesn't take much digging to find that over the past thirty years, these initial five systems in themselves neither rescued the center cities of their respective regions nor resulted in higher transit use — the dual goals of those first-generation lines.”

“According to an analysis of Census data, in four of the five cities with new light rail lines, the share of regional workers choosing to ride transit to work declined, and the center city's share of the urbanized area population declined, too,” reports Freemark. San Jose was the only exception.

Thus, light rail investments do not automatically result in increased transit use. In fact, “Two of the initial light rail metros, Buffalo and Portland, had significantly higher transit mode shares in 1980 (7.9 and 9.7 percent, respectively) than they did in 2012.”

Freemark’s point is not to call for an end to light rail investments. Rather, he insists that cities cut back on the conflicting policies of continuing highway expansion, and develop a consistent transportation strategy: “Each region also built free highways during the period (I-990 in Buffalo, I-205 in Portland, US 50 in Sacramento, CA 54 in San Diego, and CA 237 in San Jose), and each continued to sprawl (including Portland, despite its urban growth boundary). These conflicting policies had as much to do with light rail's mediocre outcomes as the trains themselves — if not more.” 

Full Story: Have U.S. Light Rail Systems Been Worth the Investment?


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