America’s Rail Revival

Public transportation in America is often dismissed as a nostalgia trip. Several generations of Americans have voted with their foot pedals, we are often told, making cars the only sensible way to get around.

Yet worsening traffic congestion and climbing gasoline prices are now encouraging many people to give transit another try. Progress, the newsletter of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, reports (Nov. 2000) that public transportation ridership jumped from 7.9 billion in 1996 to 9.1 billion in 1999, a 15 percent increase–nearly double the 7.8 percent increase in automobile miles driven over the same period.

And public transportation

Walking School Bus

Fear of traffic and abductions means many kids are now driven to school. Upset that their children were missing the exercise and sociability of a morning walk, Danish parents began taking turns picking up kids at the door and escorting them to school, notes Alternatives Journal (Winter 2000). The idea is now spreading to North America, including suburban Toronto.

now means more than buses in many cities from coast-to-coast. Light rail, a technologically updated version of the streetcar, has been introduced over the past 20 years in Denver, Dallas, St. Louis, Portland, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, San Jose, San Diego, Buffalo, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Edmonton, Calgary, and most recently between Bergen and Hudson in northern New Jersey. Meanwhile Phoenix, Memphis, Minneapolis, Little Rock, Charlotte, and Vancouver are now constructing light rail lines. Even Kenosha, Wisconsin, (population: 80,000) launched a new two-mile streetcar line last summer.

But the light rail boom has sparked strong criticism from some quarters. Many conservatives continue to harp, as they have for the past 50 years, that public transit is a waste of money. They’ve recently been joined by a small number of progressives complaining that fancy rail projects siphon away funds from bus service in low-income neighborhoods. This was certainly the case in Los Angeles, where massive cost overruns on subway construction led to cuts in bus routes. But in most communities, the arrival of a train boosts overall transit service. Commuters who forsake their cars to ride the train end up taking the bus more often too, and they press public officials for better service. Salt Lake City, for instance, saw a 21 percent rise in bus ridership during the same period its light rail line opened.

While critics on both right and left come armed with economic studies showing buses to be more cost-effective, they ignore light rail’s proven record of luring motorists out of their cars with a smoother ride, the absence of diesel fumes, and a separate right-of-way, which means rail cars don’t get bogged down in traffic like buses. The new southwest line in Denver carries six times as many passengers as express bus service that once covered the same route, notes Rail magazine (Winter 2000). It’s telling that almost all cities that have built light rail lines–with the exception of economically strapped Buffalo and Baltimore are constructing or planning expansions.

Some rail opponents tout busways–rail lines without tracks–as a lower-cost alternative. This idea was conceived in the eco-friendly Brazilian city of Curitiba and busways have been built in Ottawa, Ontario, and Pittsburgh. But Scott Bogren, communications director of the national transit advocacy group Community Transportation Association of America, says busways make sense in some situations, but generally don’t save as much money as promised or spur the same kind of urban revitalization as light rail.

While buses will remain the heart of public transportation in most American cities, and busways may show potential in some situations, it’s clear that light rail enjoys a clear record of success in transforming public transit into something more than just mobility of the last resort. As G.B. Arrington, former director of strategic planning for the transit authority in Portland, (which is now building two new light rail lines) says, ‘This is not just a transit system for the poor, the elderly, and people with DWIs.’

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