By Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox
There is an effective lobby for building light rail, including in cities such as Houston. But why build light rail? To reduce car use? To improve mobility for low-income citizens? This certainly seems a worthwhile objective, with the thousands of core-city, low-income residents whose transit service cannot get them to most jobs in a reasonable period of time.
But rather than accept the flackery that accompanies these projects, maybe we should focus on effectiveness, judged by ridership, and the impact of such expensive projects on the transportation of the transit-dependent.
Take the Dallas light rail system, which serves growing Dallas and Collin counties. The DART light rail system expanded its lines by approximately three quarters between 2000 and 2013, yet the number of transit commuters declined, and transit’s commuting market share dropped by one-quarter. More than twice as many Dallas workers are employed at home than ride transit, and do not require the massive capital and operating subsidies of light rail.
Even the widely praised Denver system has barely moved the needle for transit ridership; before opening its massive light rail system in 1990, 4.3 percent of Denver commuters used transit to get to work.
The share did rise – by a total of 0.1 percent to 4.4 percent. Even Portland, considered the Mecca of the “smart growth” strategy, actually has seen a decrease in its transit market share, from 7.9 percent before light rail to 6.4 percent in 2013. San Diego, arguably one of the more successful light rail systems, has seen its transit market share stagnate, from 3.3 percent in 1980 before light rail to 3.2 percent in 2013.
And then there is Los Angeles, a city that was essentially built around the Pacific Electric “Red Car” system in the early 20th Century, and is the densest in the United States, more than twice as dense as Houston. Yet despite this, the regional MTA, which operates its large bus and rail system, as well as a subway, still struggles to reach its ridership record reached in 1985, when transit consisted of only buses. Despite spending over $10 billion in public funds, Los Angeles has seen ridership decline while the once-more thriving bus system has deteriorated. Nearly three quarters of all Angelenos still drive to work.
No surprise then that Houston, where the light rail system opened in 2004, has not been notably successful.
Between 2003 and 2014, Harris County’s population grew 23 percent, but transit ridership decreased 12 percent, according to American Public Transportation Association data. This means that the average Houstonian took 30 percent fewer trips on the combined bus and light rail system in 2014 than on the bus only system in 2003.
Finally, in each of these cities, driving alone has increased and, with the exception of Los Angeles, more people now work at home than ride transit to work.
These results reflect stubborn historical facts. Transit works well generally in older cities with historically large downtowns built largely before the ascendancy of the car. These “legacy” cities, notably New York, are hard-wired for transit and have the largest downtowns; in New York the Manhattan business districts accounts for about 20 percent of the workforce. Together these legacy cities – New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington – account for 55 percent of all transit work trip destinations in the nation.
In contrast, most Sun Belt cities have far fewer downtown jobs. In Los Angeles, downtown amount for less than 3 percent of employment and Dallas’ downtown accounts for only 2 percent of metropolitan employment. In Houston the number is only 6.4 percent.
With population and jobs concentrating in the periphery, light rail service ends up serving a geography to which relatively few commute. They have not materially increased transit’s share of travel, or reduced car travel. Worse still, their intense expense on single lines (routes) has precluded greater and less costly bus expansions that could have provided neglected communities – the young, the poor, the disabled, immigrants and minorities – with access to more jobs. The performance of light rail simply has not justified the expense.
Houston and other metropolitan areas need to take advantage instead of an incipient transportation revolution. Working at home is likely to increase substantially and automated vehicles promise to increase mobility while reducing traffic congestion. Companies like Uber could offer other private-sector based solutions. Houstonians should address the needs of the 21st century city not as some wish it to be but based how things really work.
Kotkin is executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism and Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University. Cox is a senior fellow at the Center, which is based in Houston. While a member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, Cox authored the amendment that provided the local funding required to begin building the Los Angeles rail system.
This article was originally published by the Houston Chronicle on 10/10/15