Rail Disasters 2005

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The Impact of Rail Transit on Transit Ridership


This paper reviews ridership and other transit data published by the Federal Transit Administration from 1982 through 2003, plus 2004 ridership data published by the American Public Transportation Association, to determine the long-term eff ects of rail transit on transit ridership. Th e report also uses 1982–2003 data on miles of driving in each urban area published by the Federal Highway Administration to determine changes in transit’s share of egional travel. The report shows that:

  • Over the past two decades, transit ridership has declined in thirteen of twenty-three U.S. regions that have rail transit;
  • In four regions that have built new rail lines since 1970, transit ridership is growing, but at slower rates than before rail construction began;
  • In three other regions, transit ridership is growing but not as fast as the growth in auto driving;
  • In one region, transit passenger miles are growing as fast as the growth in auto driving, while in two other regions either transit trips or transit passenger miles are growing faster than the growth in auto driving.
  • For comparison, the report identifi es several regions with bus-only transit, including Austin, Charlotte, Las Vegas, Louisville, and Raleigh-Durham, in which transit is growing faster than auto driving.

Rail transit is promoted as a way to reduce congestion and air pollution. But it cannot do these things if rail construction causes or is accompanied by declines in overall transit ridership, or if it slows the growth in transit ridership to less than it was with a bus-only transit system.

A close review of individual cases reveals that the high cost of rail transit is often the cause of declining or slower growing transit ridership. Transit agencies often cannot aff ord to pay for rail’s high construction costs, or to pay offthe debt incurred in rail construction, without raising fares or cutting back on bus services. Th e high costs of Los Angeles rail construction forced service cuts that caused a 25-percent decline in transit ridership between 1985 and 1995, while the costs of debt service during a recession forced service cuts that caused a 33-percent decline in San Jose ridership between 2001 and 2004.

Nationally, the high costs of rail transit make transit increasingly ineffi cient. In the past decade, transit ridership has grown at less than 1 percent per year, while transit subsidies have grown by nearly 4.5 percent per year. Moreover, rail transit poses a serious equity problem: While rail lines are seen as a way of getting middle-class suburbanites out of their cars, to build them many regions have sacrifi ced service to low-income, inner-city neighborhoods.

The paper concludes that Congress has given transit agencies incentives to overinvest in capital-intensive projects in order to get “their share” of federal funds. Congress must fi x these incentives while local transit offi cials must work to insure their agencies provide the most effi cient service possible to their customers.