Riding from Rail to Reality

By Wendell Cox

Op-ed published by
Los Angeles Daily News
19 September 1999

In 1980, as a member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, I authored the amendment that dedicated 35 percent of the Proposition A referendum funding to building a rail system in Los Angeles. I had long believed that a comprehensive rail system would reduce traffic congestion and air pollution and had been involved in the unsuccessful 1974 rail tax election. My belief in the value of rail was strengthened by Commission staff and consultants who generally suggested that a rail system was the antidote to traffic congestion and air pollution in the Los Angeles area. Since that time I have migrated to the opposite view, based upon the now considerable experience with new urban rail systems in the United States.

Don Pickrell's seminal US Department of Transportation study in 1989 was the first to systematically evaluate urban rail relative to its objectives and showed generally that ridership fell far short of expectations and that costs were routinely much higher than planned. Since that time, transit agencies have become much better at projecting ridership, largely by producing much more modest predictions --- evidence that expectations can be achieved if only you aim low enough.

The problem of cost escalation, however, remains as intractable. Rising costs made it impossible to deliver the rail routes promised by Proposition A, so in 1990 the voters approved Proposition C to finish the job. During the period, the cost of the Los Angeles to Long Beach light rail line ("Blue Line") escalated from $140 million to nearly $900 --- admittedly part of the increased costs were attributable to system enhancements. But it is unlikely that the Commission would have approved building the Blue Line if it had known the eventual cost. Now, with rail system costs far higher than expected, there is simply no money left to complete most of the promised system, as the Commission's successor, the MTA, has placed a moratorium on further rail construction. The bottom line is that after spending more than $5 billion building rail in Los Angeles, things are worse than before construction started --- MTA bus and rail ridership is 25 percent below the patronage recorded on the bus only system in 1985. The rail system, which carries barely 15 percent of MTA riders is rising toward $400 million annually and will be equal to one-half the annual operating cost of the entire bus system. It is no wonder that the Bus Riders Union has sought legal recourse to limit this distortion.

But the failure of new urban rail in the United States has far more fundamental roots. Despite tax referendum claims that rail can carry the same number of people as up to 12 freeway lanes, no new urban rail system in the US has materially impacted traffic congestion. Indeed, traffic congestion is increasing faster in the rail cities than in the non-rail cities. New light rail lines carry, on average, only 20 percent the passenger volume of a single freeway lane, and subway systems (like the Red Line) average only 40 percent. Even so, less than one-half of rail riders are attracted from cars, with most riders having been forced to transfer from bus routes that previously provided more direct trips.

Why does urban rail remove so few cars from the road? The simple answer is that not enough people are going to the same place at the same time. Transit's best hope for reducing traffic congestion is to attract trips to work, which largely occur during the congested morning and evening peak travel periods. In the United States, the only locations that have high enough employment densities to attract significant transit market shares are large, concentrated downtown areas. The problem is that downtowns are no longer dominant. Downtown Los Angeles represents only three percent of employment in the area. This means that, with respect to 97 percent of work trips, there is simply no hope for transit to reduce traffic congestion. Even downtown, the potential is limited, because a large percentage of workers there already commute by transit.

A relatively new school of urban theorists, the "new urbanists," suggest that traffic congestion can be reduced by increasing urban densities in the hope that more people would then rely on public transit, especially rail, instead of their cars. New urbanist principles have been adopted by the Portland area, which regularly sends its missionaries around the world testifying of the paradise they claim to have created. But, in reality, Portland is less transit friendly than Los Angeles. Relative to its size, Portland sprawls nearly twice as much as Los Angeles, and its peak densities (population per square mile) are one-third that of Los Angeles. Indeed, peak population densities in the suburban San Fernando Valley are 60 percent higher than in Portland. The new urbanists have it wrong on another count as well --- higher densities mean greater, not less traffic congestion. It is hard to imagine a more bankrupt policy direction.

Finally, because so few people are attracted from cars, the cost per new rider is exceedingly high. On the most cost effective new light rail systems (not Los Angeles), the cost per new commuter is more than the cost of leasing a new standard sized car, such as a Ford Taurus or Honda Accord. On some systems, it would be less costly to lease each new commuter a luxury car, such as a BMW 740 or a Jaguar XJ8.

All of this is not to say that rail does not have its place. The large and dense historic central areas of Tokyo, Paris, London, New York and even Chicago are dependent upon their rail systems, which do carry significant numbers of commuters (though these cities also have intractable traffic congestion). But Los Angeles, Portland and virtually all other large US metropolitan areas are not New York or Chicago, much less Tokyo, Paris or London. They will never have the concentration of employment destinations that are necessary to make rail an effective strategy. It will require a recognition of this fact to implement policies that can ease traffic congestion.

    Wendell Cox was a member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission from 1977-1985. He now lives in St. Louis and runs his own business, Wendell Cox Consultancy, as an international public policy consultant. Write to him in care of Daily News Opinions, P.O. Box 4200, Woodland Hills, CA 91365-4200.

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