Public Interest Transportation Forum -

Transit Analyst Wendell Cox Takes on Light Rail Planned for the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul

In a presentation to the Sensible Land Use Coalition Forum in St. Louis Park, Minnesota on May 26, 1998 private transit analyst Wendell Cox attacked the sensibility of building light rail transit in the Minneapolis - Saint Paul region of Minnesota.

Here are some excerpts from his talk that bear on Seattle-Tacoma as much as on Minneapolis-St. Paul:

Let me offer a few facts pertinent to the discussion of light rail.

•Light rail is not more energy efficient than the automobile. US Department of Energy data indicates that light rail, and for that matter heavy rail (subways and elevateds) consumes more energy per passenger mile than the average automobile.

•Light rail is not safer than automobiles. In fact, light rail's fatality rate per 100 million passenger miles is double that of the bus and double that of the automobile in urban applications.

•Light rail is not faster. Light rail operating speeds are barely faster than bus speeds. The average single automobile commute in the United States is twice as fast as the average light rail commute.

•Air pollution is going away. Our progress in reducing air pollution is astounding and will continue. Traffic will continue to grow, but air pollution will continue to diminish.

•Light rail has not reduced traffic congestion. During the 1980s, three US cities built light rail. In Buffalo, the work trip market share dropped 29 percent. It dropped the same in Sacramento. And the champion was Portland, where the work trip market share dropped 33 percent. Traffic counts in light rail corridors in St. Louis and Portland show that traffic volumes have continued to grow at historic rates.


Why is it that urban rail has so little impact? It has to do with he fact that urban rail is poorly matched to the development and demographic patterns of the late 20th century.

•Modern life styles require door to door transportation. About the only place this can be provided by transit is to downtown.

•Downtown is the only location well served by transit because it is the only place there is a sufficient density of destinations to be served by transit.

•Even if you could provide the radial transit system --- bus, light rail or even heavy rail --- commuting speeds would still not be competitive with the automobile. As a result, few would ride.

A report produced for the Netherlands Ministry of Transport found that public transit was not an alternative for 80 percent of the person trips in this highly urbanized European nation, despite the comparatively high level of service.


So what it comes down to is this.... Why build rail?

There seem to be two possible rationales.

•The first is to provide an incinerator for federal funding that otherwise would be spent in other areas.

•The second is to build rail simply to build rail --- sort of a 20th century bureaucratic idolatry.

Click here for the complete text of the talk by Wendell Cox .

And click here for the coverage of his talk and the light rail issue in the CityPages of Minneapolis/St. Paul.

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Last modified: February 07, 2011