Mass Transit: The Great Train Robbery


Last month promoters of the Metropolitan Transit Authority's Los Angeles rail projects, both past and future, held a party to celebrate their "success." Although this may well have been justified for transit-builders and urban land speculators, there may be far less call for celebration among L.A.'s beleaguered commuters.

Despite promises that the $8 billion invested in rail lines over the past two decades would lessen L.A.'s traffic congestion and reshape how Angelenos get to work, the sad reality is that there has been no increase in MTA transit ridership since before the rail expansion began in 1985.

Much of the problem, notes Tom Rubin, a former chief financial officers for the MTA's predecessor agency, stems from the shift of funding priorities to trains from the city's more affordable and flexible bus network. Meanwhile, traffic has gotten worse, with delay hours growing from 44 hours a year in 1982 to 70 hours in 2007.

Sadly, this situation is not unique to Los Angeles. In cities across the country where there have been massive investments in light rail--from the Portland area to Dallas and Charlotte, N.C., and a host of others--the percentage of people taking transit has stagnated or even declined. Nationwide, the percentage of people taking transit to work is now lower than it was in 1980.

None of this is to argue that we should not invest in transit. It even makes sense if the subsidy required for each transit trip is far higher than for a motorist on the streets or highways. Transit should be considered a public good, particularly for those without access to a car--notably young people, the disabled, the poor and the elderly. Policy should focus on how we invest, at what cost and, ultimately, for whose benefit.

In some regions with large concentrations of employment, downtown major rail systems often attract many riders (although virtually all lose lots of money). The primary example would be the New York City area, which is one of only two regions (the other being Washington, D.C.) with over one-fifth of total employment in the urban core. In the country as a whole barely 10% of employment is in the city; and in many cities that grew most in the 20th century, such as Dallas, Miami, Los Angeles and Phoenix, the central business district's share falls well under 5%.

Some other urban routes--for example between Houston's relatively buoyant downtown and the massive, ever expanding Texas Medical Center--could potentially prove suitable for trains. But most transit investments would be far more financially sustainable if focused on more cost-efficient methods such as rapid bus lanes, which, according to the Government Accountability Office, is roughly one-third the cost of light rail.

Making the right choices has become more crucial during the economic downturn, even in New York City. The city and the federal government continue to pour billions into a gold-plated Second Avenue subway but now plan to cut back drastically on the bus service that serves large numbers of commuters from the outer boroughs and more remote parts of Manhattan.

Ultimately the choice to invest in new subways and light rail as opposed to buses reflects both a class bias and the agenda of what may best described as the "density lobby." The people who will ride the eight-mile long Second Avenue subway, now under construction for what New York magazine reports may be a total cost of over $17 billion, are largely a very affluent group. The new subway line will also provide opportunity for big developers to build high-density residential towers along the route. In contrast, the bus-riders, as the left-of-center City Limits points out, tend to be working- and middle-class residents from more unfashionable, lower-density districts in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

The proposals for High Speed Rail--a favorite boondoggle of the Obama administration and some state administrators--reveals some of the same misplaced fiscal priorities. California's State Treasurer, Democrat Bill Lockyer, has lambasted the proposed HSR line between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, suggesting the state may not be able to sell private investors on between $10 billion and $12 billion in bonds without additional public subsidies.

Other prominent Democrats as well as the State Auditor's office have challenged the promoters' claims about the viability of the system and its potential drain on more reasonable priced transit project.

This issue funding priorities was raised recently by the current administrator of the Federal Transportation Authority, Peter Rogoff, who questioned the wisdom of expanding expensive rail and other transit projects when many districts "can't afford to operate" their own systems. He noted that already almost 30% of all existing "transit assets" are in "poor or marginal condition."

Ultimately we need to ask what constitutes transit's primary mission: to carry more people to work or to reshape our metropolitan areas for ever denser development. As opposed to buses, which largely serve those without access to cars, light rail lines are often aimed at middle-class residents who would also be potential buyers of high-density luxury housing. In this sense, light rail constitutes a critical element in an expanded effort to reshape the metropolis in a way preferred by many new urbanists, planners and urban land speculators.

The problem facing these so-called visionaries lies in the evolving nature of the workplace in most parts of the country, where jobs, outside of government employment, are increasingly dispersed. Given these realities, transit agencies should be looking at innovative ways to reach farther to the periphery, in part to provide access to inner-city residents to a wider range of employment options. Considering more than 80% of all commuter trips are between areas outside downtown, priority should be given to more flexible, less costly systems such as rapid commuter bus lines, bus rapid transit, as well as subsidized dial-a-ride and jitney services that can work between suburban centers.

If reducing energy use and carbon emissions remains the goal, much more emphasis should be placed as well on telecommuting. In many cities that have invested heavily in rail transit--Dallas, Denver and Salt Lake City, for example--the percentage of people working from home is now markedly larger than those taking any form of mass transit. Since the approval of the Dallas light rail system in the 1980s, for example, the transit share of work trips has dropped from 4.3% to 2.1%; the work-at-home share has grown from 2.3% to 4.3%.

In fact, people who work from home now surpass transit users in 36 out of 52 metropolitan areas with populations over 1 million--and receive virtually no financial backing from governments. Yet if New York, home to roughly 40% of the nation's transit commuters, was taken out of the calculations, at-home workers already outnumber the number of people taking transit to work; and since 2000 their numbers have been growing roughly twice as fast as those of transit riders.

Clearly we should not spend our ever more scarce transit resources on a nostalgia crusade to make our cities function much the way they did in the late 1800s. Instead, we need to construct systems reflecting the technology and geographic realities of the 21st century and place our primary focus on helping people, particularly those in need, find efficient, economically sustainable ways to get around.

This article originally appeared at

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.

Photo: Michael | Ruiz

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Rethinking Rail

I’m a rail guy — always have been. I can remember my first ride on Amtrak with classmates when I was in elementary school. And having traveled around the country seeing some of the best rail transit has to offer. And yet, I’ve recently started to question whether it’s the best option.

As usual in a position like mine, you get a lot of things sent to you to read. A lot. I finally got around to reading an article called “Mass Transit: The Great Train Robbery” this week that was engaging on a couple levels.

At first, I dismissed this as anti-transit propaganda. For the editor of a transit magazine you’d be surprised how much anti-transit stuff I get. I suppose they figure if they can turn me against transit, they can turn anyone. Fat chance.

But as I dug into the article a little more, I realized that it really wasn’t anti-transit. It was more anti-rail, and even then it wasn’t the usual shouting about no one riding trains or you’re taking my car when you pry it from my cold dead hands, that I normally get.

No, this piece was more carefully considered with numbers to back up the writer’s arguments. Now, I know how numbers can be manipulated to work against transit. I see that everyday from the anti-transit groups. Still, it got me thinking.

Rail is expensive. There is no way around it, when you start slinging that much metal at that kind of speed, it is going to cost serious money. But I don’t think it is “prohibitively” expensive. But it may be something we need to rethink.

First of all, and I take offense at the writer’s use of the word “boondoggle,” I think we need to call in a PR agency to help with our high-speed rail situation. Having attended a few local meetings for the new rail line being built between Milwaukee and Madison and talking to many others, I can see that a large part of the opposition comes from ignorance (remember the no one rides trains comment above).

The President’s “vision” needs clarification. We need to drop the idea of “high-speed trains” because, frankly, when you say it like that, dramatic background music springs up and you get that announcer with the deep booming voice from the 50s in your head.

It’s a commuter rail line linking major population centers with others in a network to facilitate quicker travel on a mid-range level. It’s not better than air travel when you’re trying to reach the coasts from the Midwest, but if you want to travel somewhere within your region, it beats standing in a security line for an hour.

And on a local level, we need to rethink light rail. Having ridden the light rail in Portland, Denver, Baltimore, Minneapolis and other cities, I know how nice it is to just walk up, hop on a train and hop off at your destination.

Is rail within a city a bad idea? Far from it. But I am wondering if there are better options. Frankly, light rail vehicles usually are built like tanks, yet tanks have more versatility of movement. Within cities we need something in-between what we have for rail and what we have for buses.

The thing is that most of the movement has been made on the bus side. Buses have moved more toward trains than the other way around. We need a streetcar system that can operate like rail does, but still use some of the recent developments from buses (just look at what Foothill Transit did this week).

Frankly, it seems to me that we need to rethink rail. It’s difficult because that seems to go against rail’s very nature — you put it on the tracks, it goes. And yet, that’s what we need to do. Only then will I think rail get that public acceptance we really want it to.

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