Great Rail Disasters: The Impact of Rail Transit on Urban Livability


This paper grades rail transit in twenty-three urban areas on thirteen different criteria:

  1. The change in transit ridership from 1990 to 2000;
  2. The change in transit’s share of motorized passenger travel from 1990 to 2000;
  3. The change in transit commuting in the 1990s;
  4. The change in transit’s share of commuting in the 1990s;
  5. The reliability of construction cost forecasts;
  6. The reliability of ridership forecasts;
  7. Changes in congestion from 1982 to 2001;
  8. Changes in per capita driving from 1982 to 2001;
  9. The cost effectiveness of rail transit relative to freeways;
  10. The cost effectiveness of rail transit relative to buses;
  11. The safety of rail relative to autos and buses between 1992 and 2001;
  12. The energy efficiency of rail relative to passenger cars in 2002; and
  13. The effects of rail transit on land-use regulation and property rights.

The results show that rail transit has negative net impacts on every urban area in which it is located. In particular, rail transit offers no guarantee that transit commuting will increase or that transit will increase its share of travel. The twenty-three urban areas with rail transit collectively lost more than 33,000 transit commuters during the 1990s, while the twenty-five largest urban areas without rail transit collectively gained more than 27,000 transit commuters. During the same time period, per capita transit ridership and transit’s share of motorized travel declined in about half of the rail regions, while transit’s share of commuters declined in 60 percent of rail regions.

Regions that emphasize rail transit typically spend 30 to 80 percent of their transportation capital budgets on transit even though transit carries only 1 to 5 percent of regional travel. As a result, rail transit is strongly associated with increased congestion: Sixteen of the twenty regions with the fastest growing congestion are rail regions. Nor is rail transit environmentally friendly. Sixty percent of rail transit systems consume more energy per passenger mile than private cars and the congestion created by rail transit adds to air pollution. Rail transit, especially light rail and commuter rail, can also be deadly. Commuter-rail lines kill more than twice as many people, per billion passenger miles, as buses or urban interstate freeways, while light rail kills three times as many.

This paper also profiles transit in each of the major urban areas that have rail transit. The profiles detail transit trends and compare rail line productivity with the productivity of freeway lanes in the same urban areas. The results show that few rail lines carry as many people as a single freeway lane.

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Randal O’Toole, an adjunct scholar with the Commonwealth Foundation, is the director of the Center for the American Dream ( at the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado.

The Commonwealth Foundation is a free-market public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.