Up Sucker Creek

Up Sucker Creek
Photo Courtesy of the Lake Oswego Library

Monday, April 11, 2016

Why light rail?

Why not buses?
Or cars?
Why not toll highways?

For years, Metro has been trying to make driving a car as unpleasant as possible.  No new freeway expansions or improvements for decades, reduced parking requirements for infill development, "road diets" that take auto lanes and transform them into bicycle lanes, and road maintenance and bus service funding given a back seat to light rail operations and expansion.

Metro hates cars.  Or more correctly, Metro loves trains and sees cars (and buses) as the enemy of light rail.  Automobile drivers don't agree.

Why doesn't Portland embrace the idea of an expanded highway system that includes toll roads?  I went to a conference on transportation and housing in Austin,Texas last November where there are toll roads that take a large percentage of automobile (and bus) traffic off of the freeways which lessens the congestion for all.  Dallas has them too, as do other large cities.  With a growing population, Portland plods along with no highway improvements, making it one of the worst cities in the nation for time spent on congested roads. Toll roads would be great for BRT systems - but competition for LRT.  Smart Growth indeed!

The data is clear: Rail transit is not viable outside of a handful of "legacy" cities that developed prior to automobile use.  With the new Southwest Corridor Plan, Metro will exceed practical, responsible urban planning in order to promote another hugely expensive rail transit / pre-development project.  We do not need light rail to shoehorn people into the city core or town centers; If developers want to build apartments or mixed use, they can do so within walking distance of bus lines just as well.

But we're just going to let them do it, aren't we?.  The Smart Growth, "stack-em and pack-em" planners, not the road users - the majority of us, will have the last say.


Newgeography.com, 3/17/2016  By Joel Kotkin

Journalists in older cities like New York, Boston or San Francisco may see the role of rail transit as critical to a functioning modern city. In reality, rail transit has been a financial and policy failure outside of a handful of cities.

In 23 metropolitan areas that have built new rail systems since 1970, transit’s share of commuting — including all forms, such as buses and ferries — has actually slipped a bitfrom an average of 5.0 percent before the rail systems opened to 4.6 percent in 2013. The ranks of those driving alone continue to grow, having increased 14.4 million daily one-way trips since 2000, nearly double transit’s overall daily total of 7.6 million, according to Census Bureau data.

For transit to work effectively, employment needs to be concentrated. This explains why between 2013 and 2014, New York accounted for a remarkable 88 percent of the total increase in train commuting. But what works for Brooklynites headed to Union Square does  not generally work so well for people living in our increasingly dispersed metropolitan areas. Indeed in most cities — Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Diego, and even the new urbanist mecca of Portland, according to 2015 American Community Survey data, where new transit lines have been put in, it has failed to increase the share of commuters who take public transportation, and in some cases the actual ridership has dropped.

One reason for the poor performance is that much of the train ridership turns out to have been former bus travelers in the first place, which limits actual gains there. Taxpayers, however, should be screaming about this switchero; the subsidy for new L.A. new bus riders, who tend to be the poorest of the poor, cost taxpayers $1.40 while the cost for a new rail rider was $25.82 over the period of 1994 to 2007. If you believe in transit as public good, clearly building more trains makes less sense than expanding bus operations.

Given what we know about the share of commuters using transit in most cities, pumping money into this form of transportation seems doubly wrong while other needs such as roads, schools, sewers and parks are neglected. Rather than try to fit all cities, and all parts of metropolitan areas, into a 19thcentury technology, maybe we should look to encourage 21st century innovation.

All this suggests we need to revamp our ideas of transit, particularly in the newer, fast-growing cities. Trains may elicit a nostalgic smile about the good old days, but most Americans, and the vast majority of our cities, need to live not in the past but in an increasingly dispersed, and choice-filled reality. Time to embrace that future.


  1. Metro has far exceeded its' purpose. People do not realize what Metro is doing to them.

    1. For most of it's projects, Metro needs the approval and financial assistance of local jurisdictions. There is obviously a lot of Kool Ade for anyone willing to drink up. The sirens of environmentalism catch a lot of people's minds and imaginations to the point they cease thinking logically and fall prey to the propaganda. Light rail is preferred because future demand would overwhelm a bus system they say. So how is Trimet doing now with its demand projections? Smoke and mirrors. AND WE LET THEM!