- Light rail is far more expensive than other more efficient transportation options
- Very few Americans use public transit, especially light rail, requiring massive taxpayer subsidies for support
- Public transit such as light rail is so unpopular because it is slow, inconvenient, expensive and unsafe
Interested in more intellectual ammo to slap down the central planners still supporting the proposed $1.6 billion money pit known as the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project?
Randal O’Toole, director of the Transportation Policy Center at the Independence Institute in Denver, has been dissecting public transit plans through vigorous research and analysis for decades. His latest work examines six reasons why “Most Americans Don’t Use Transit.”
In addition to the obvious financial reasons to oppose wildly expensive and inefficient light rail – the Durham-Orange line is projected to cost more than ten times more than a four-lane highway, while moving roughly about 7 percent as many passengers – there remains one simple truth: very few Americans use public transit, especially light rail.
Reason number one, according to O’Toole, is because transit is agonizingly slow. For instance, O’Toole points to data from the American Public Transportation Association’s Public Transportation Fact Book, which finds that the average speed of light rail lines is 15.6 miles per hour, compared to an average speed of auto travel of more than 30 mph in most American cities.
And that is just a comparison between actual ride times. This doesn’t factor in the extra time light rail riders must spend driving and parking at the rail station and waiting for the next available train, transferring lines, or walking from the rail stop to their actual final destination.
And reason number two is light rail is not just slow, as O’Toole points out, it also is very inconvenient. “If you don’t want to go downtown, transit is practically useless,” he says. Most transit is oriented to downtown areas; however, today “only about 7.5 percent of urban jobs are still located in downtown areas,” according to O’Toole. “As a result, transit just doesn’t work for most people,” he concludes. Indeed, this disconnect between light rail routes and people’s actual traveling needs shows “how out of touch transit agency leaders are with the people they are supposed to serve.”
O’Toole’s third reason most Americans don’t use transit? It’s too expensive. In spite of the billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies thrown at public transit like light rail, the user costs are still higher than driving a car to get where you are going. The comparative calculations can get complex, with costs of the purchase of a car, gas money, insurance, etc. compared to fares for public transit, but with all things considered, O’Toole concludes: “Bottom line: If you already have a car, the variable cost of taking your car on any particular trip will be far less than the cost of riding transit.” And if you don’t already have a car, he adds, it is relatively easy to find options that keep driving cheaper than public transit.
The fourth reason cited centers on privacy and security. “Compared with the aura of security offered by riding inside of an automobile, many people avoid transit because they feel vulnerable and threatened by other riders,” O’Toole notes.
Crimes such as theft, assault and sexual harassment are common on public transit systems across the world. Such incidents pose a particular threat on light rail, in no small part because “there is rarely anyone aboard to keep vehicles secure.”
These concerns are an especially acute disincentive for women, as O’Toole notes, “A woman may only have to suffer one or two experiences with groping or other forms of sexual harassment before she decides to never ride transit again.”
Reason number five piggybacks on the second reason. Not only are light rail routes centralized in downtown areas where fewer people are working, other destinations like housing and shopping have become so diffused that there simply is not a critical mass of people “moving from one point to another that mass transit systems need to work.” Simply put, people and the places people want to go are too spread out for light rail to offer viable transportation options.
Finally, for reason number six, people avoid public transit because so many public transit options are falling into disrepair. Enamored with building the next new shiny toy, transit officials have neglected maintenance costs, causing existing public transit to become dilapidated and unsafe.
These reasons people won’t use light rail are on top of the other problems presented by this incredibly expensive mode of transportation. Why should we pay billions for public transportation that is so unpopular because it is slow, too expensive, inconvenient, unsafe and run down?
The sooner light rail advocates recognize these facts, the better.
To learn more about North Carolina transportation policy over the past 30 years, read the Civitas Institute’s Public Policy Series.