Rail Transit Myths

The High-Capacity Transit Myth

Myth: One rail line can carry as many people as a twelve-lane freeway.

Reality: With the exception of New York City subways, no transit line in the country carries as many people as even one freeway lane.

Rail transit advocates often brag about the high capacity of rails to carry people. But capacity is less important than actual use. A review of rail transit systems in the U.S. reveals that, outside of New York, none carry as many people as a single freeway lane, much less an eight- or twelve-lane freeway.

Daily Passenger Miles Per Directional Route Mile or Lane Mile
                        Average    Most Productive   Most Productive City
Commuter rail             3,844        10,972            New York
Light rail                4,280         9,942            Boston
Heavy rail               24,710        45,905            New York
Heavy rail minus NY      14,479        18,212            San Francisco
Freeway*                 26,730        36,997            Los Angeles
* Passenger miles per lane mile, average of top 50 U.S. urban areas
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation

The table shows that, outside of New York, the most productive rail line is little more than two-thirds as productive as the average freeway lane in the nation’s fifty largest urban areas. The most productive commuter and light-rail lines only carry 40 percent as many passenger miles as the average freeway lane.

Individual transit lines in some cities outside of New York do carry as many people as a freeway lane. The San Diego line to Tijuana carries lots of people, but other San Diego lines are poor performers. Some heavy rail lines in Boston, Washington, and elsewhere carry more people than a freeway lane during rush hour, but carry few people during other hours of the day. But no line carries as many people as an eight- or twelve- lane freeway, as rail proponents sometimes claim.

Even at their lower productivities, rail would be worth building if they cost significantly less than freeways. But they don’t. Typical light-rail construction costs average nearly $25 million a mile, compared with less than half that for a freeway lane mile. Heavy rail generally costs at least twice as much as light rail.

While commuter rail costs may be lower if the rails are already in place and in good shape, commuter rail’s insignificant productivity outside of New York renders it at least as inefficient as other rail systems. Chicago has the most productive commuter rail system outside of New York, yet it carries fewer than 5,000 passenger miles per route mile.

The Development Myth

Myth: Rail transit promotes local investment and redevelopment.

Reality: Development along rail lines usually requires additional subsidies.

Light rail “is not worth the cost if you’re just looking at transit,” admits Portland planner John Fregonese. “It’s a way to develop your community at higher densities.” Faced with rail transit’s high costs and poor ridership, advocates sometimes admit that they don’t expect light rail or commuter rail to carry many people. Instead, they say, its real purpose is to promote neighborhood redevelopment.

Yet rail transit has a very poor record of promoting such development. At best, rail transit stimulates development of one area at the expense of other areas. “Urban rail transit investments rarely ‘create’ new growth,” says a report sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration, “but more typically redistribute growth that would have taken place without the investment.” The report adds that “The greatest land-use changes have occurred downtown.” Thus, rail transit is mainly a subsidy to downtown property owners.

In most other areas, neighborhood redevelopment has required major subsidies on top of the cost of rail transit. When Portland opened its first light-rail line in 1986, the city rezoned areas near all light-rail station for high-density, mixed-use developments. Ten years later, not a single such development had been built. So the city began giving developers huge subsidies, including ten-year property tax waivers, infrastructure subsidies, and direct grants to stimulate development.

John Charles, of the Cascade Policy Institute, has documented subsidies and the failure of Orenco and other transit-oriented developments in Portland. Some of the subsidized developments are pictured in these posters, provided courtesy of saveportland.org.

Planners studying the San Francisco BART system found that “housing growth in the San Francisco Bay Area has been much stronger outside BART corridors than near the stations.” Similar results have been found in Los Angeles and other cities that built rail lines. As a result, many planners now routinely build the cost of subsidized developments into their estimates of the cost of building rail lines.

Reports that rail transit has spurred development in such areas as Walnut Creek, California or Ballston, Virginia should be examined closely. What role did freeway access play in such development? What subsidies were used to stimulate development? A close look often reveals that rail transit played only a marginal role in redevelopment.

The Roger Rabbit Myth

Myth: The auto industry conspired to destroy American transit systems.

Reality: Buses are so superior to rail transit that almost every transit company in the U.S. converted streetcars to buses as fast as the streetcars wore out.

In the 1930s and 1940s, streetcar companies all over the nation recognized that buses were less expensive to purchase and more flexible to operate than streetcars. Rather than build streetcar lines to new suburbs, they purchased buses. As bus operating costs declined, transit companies also began replacing worn-out streetcar lines with buses.

General Motors, Firestone Tire, and Chevron Oil saw a market opportunity, so they purchased the National City Lines, a company that owned several streetcar lines, to make sure that when National City purchased buses, tires, and fuel, it would do so from GM, Firestone, and Chevron. This is called vertical integration and is not much different from supermarket chains that operate their own dairies.

Vertical integration, however, can be a problem when it runs afoul of antitrust laws. General Motors had a near monopoly in the market for buses. The federal government brought an antitrust lawsuit against the company for trying to maintain this monopoly by not letting other manufacturers sell buses to National City Lines. While the courts concluded that it was legal for General Motors to own transit companies, it was convicted and fined $5,000 for not letting those companies accept bids from other bus manufacturers.

Years later a congressional staff member named Bradford Snell resurrected the General Motors antitrust case and claimed that General Motors’ true goal was to drive transit companies out of business so that transit riders would be forced to buy automobiles. “The noisy, foul-smelling buses turned earlier patrons of the high-speed rail systems away from public transit, and, in effect, sold millions of private automobiles,” claimed Snell.

This conspiracy theory was featured in the famous movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. In Understanding Conspiracy-Theory Explanations of the Decline of Urban Mass Transit(pdf), Portland State University Associate Professor of Planning Martha Bianco suggests that the movie may have influenced Congressional passage of the 1991 federal transportation bill, which strongly shifted federal funding from highways to mass transit. Bianco’s paper thoroughly debunks the myth.

As Sy Adler, Bianco’s colleague at Portland State University notes, “everything Bradford Snell wrote. . . about transit in Los Angeles was wrong.” Buses “were clearly a better way to go and would have taken over with or without GM,” says University of Arizona transportation researcher Sandra Rosenbloom.

Far from finding buses to be noisy and foul smelling, transit riders welcomed buses because they were faster, safer, more comfortable, and could go places the rails didn’t go. No wonder that, of the hundreds of transit lines that were not owned by National City Lines, all but six also converted their streetcars to buses.

It is possible to go even further and argue that, without the investments provided by National City Lines, many of America’s urban transit systems would have been far worse off. In any case, it is clear that the “GM conspiricy” was a conspiracy to sell buses, fuel, and tires, not a conspiricy to harm transit systems. Despite all these facts, the myth remains so persistent that a researcher at the University of California (Irvine)’s Institute of Transporation Studies has recently given several lectures (Word document) to debunk it.