Transportation Deployment Casebook/2014/US Light Rail Transit
As the world’s population continues to grow it will become ever more necessary to develop means of transporting large amounts of people into and within cities. Automobile congestion is a problem that has plagued metropolitan areas for decades. As cities continue to swell, it will be necessary to expand public transit infrastructure in order to mitigate the problems associated with the private automobile.
Light Rail Transit (LRT) is a mode that has grown in popularity in recent decades. This technology is akin to electric streetcars, and has found favor with many transit advocates. Since the 1970s many cities have decided to build and expand their LRT systems greatly in North America and abroad. Though capital costs are significant, LRT has the ability to boost local economies as well as increase transit ridership. Many regions have found the investment to be worthwhile, and continue to build out their systems.
The report that follows will explore the lifecycle of Light Rail Transit in the United States. Examining the roots of this technology will help to illustrate how we got to where we are today. A discussion of the growth of this mode of transportation will help us understand the possibility for future development. By looking at the growth trends of LRT we will be able to make predictions about what the future of this mode will look like.
Light rail is a passenger rail mode of public transit. Light rail trains may be operated singly or in small strings of cars, most trains operate as two or three cars coupled together. Light rail trains are able to operate at street level, on an elevated track, or underground. Because Light rail is able to operate at street level, and has the capability of coupling multiple cars together, many advantages exist.
Building transit infrastructure at grade is significantly less expensive than building underground or elevated infrastructure (Black, 1995). This means that initial capital costs for light rail are less than that needed for building heavy rail. LRT has the advantage of being able to be expanded to meet future demand. As transit demand increases over time, local services are able to couple more cars together to provide the necessary capacity. Along with increased capacity, LRT also has the advantage of speed over other modes of public transit. Most LRT consists of dedicated right-of-ways. This allows the vehicles to achieve much higher speeds than buses that are forced to deal with the problems of city traffic. It is often argued that this fact will result in higher levels of ridership than standard city buses (Black, 1995).
The advantages of capacity and speed over buses that LRT can offer is clear, but LRT also has advantages that set it apart from heavy rail. In addition to the benefits of lower capital costs, LRT also has advantages in terms of public safety. Though trains are still dangerous for a number of reasons, it is argued that LRT is safer than heavy rail because of the elevated power source (Taplin, 1998). Traditional heavy rail require the use of a third rail, a power source at track level that can easily kill a person. By suspending the power source overhead, LRT is less prone to accidents of this nature.
It is worth mentioning that many people like LRT. The growth of this technology has been rapid because many have been quick to sing its praises. The systems that are in place are new, and relatively comfortable for passengers. People like riding LRT more than they like riding buses, and often, people like having LRT in their areas more than they like having buses. Low noise levels and no exhaust in the immediate vicinity are often seen as advantages over buses (Cervero, 1984).
Many metropolitan areas are developing LRT systems to increase the accessibility of their urban regions. In his book Urban Mass Transportation Planning, Black points out that LRT is sometimes seen as a compromise between upgrading stigmatized bus services and the hefty investment of deploying heavy rail (1995). Cervero furthers this point by stating that LRT is a viable option in mid-sized cities, where heavy rail is not due to a lack of economic justification (1984). The viability of LRT in some areas has to do with the fact that this type of transit system is able to operate at grade, which is significantly less expensive and somewhat less disruptive to build than constructing a system below ground or elevated above street level.
Though it is less than heavy or elevated rail, the investment needed to deploy a LRT system is still significant. This limits the market for LRT considerably. In smaller cities that do not have the density to support a rail system of any kind, buses are often the transit mode that is most widely used. On the other end of the spectrum, many of the most densely populated cities in the United States already have well-established rail systems. In these areas, LRT is not as necessary, and serve a more complimentary purpose, working in conjunction with buses to feed traffic into the more established systems.
It is up to individual metropolitan areas to determine whether or not LRT is an appropriate addition to their transit system. Potential for increased ridership and economic development is crucial. Once the justification for the investment in LRT has been made, it is important for local governments to forge partnerships with local businesses and neighborhood groups to ensure the corridor’s success. By working with existing stakeholders and establishing guidelines for new developments, cities can work towards the creation of more transit-oriented development that will help achieve ridership and economic goals (City of Saint Paul, 2011).
Leading Up To LRT
In order to more fully understand the development of LRT, it is necessary to look at its technological predecessors. The first city railways descended from the plateways that were used in mines. Early tramways were operated using horse power for many years. Horse powered transportation was problematic for a number of reasons. Along with limited capacity, high cost, and the potential for spreading diseases, horses produced much waste that collected along routes. Because of the mass amounts of horse pollution that resulted from such modes, fossil fuels found favor in these settings (Garrison, Levinson, 2014).
By the late 19th century electric trams were being introduced around the world. These vehicles were initially powered by a current that ran through an at grade rail. Electrified street level rails were not suitable for many urban environments because of the inherent dangers, and overhead wires were installed in some European markets, including Paris in 1881 and Frankfurt in 1884 (Taplin, 1998).
Electric trams appeared to be the technology of the future, and by 1900 almost all horse tramways in the United States had been converted to overhead electric systems (Taplin, 1998). This new technology provided relatively cheap and reliable transportation for the residents of many cities in the country. The heyday of the many US tram systems lasted for the better part of the first half of the 20th century. Electric trams and streetcars were an extremely important part of many cities public transit systems.
The rise of the private automobile had a very negative effect on transit ridership. Many people found that they no longer needed the services that the streetcars provided. The demise of streetcars was hastened in many cities with the introduction of bus services. Much has been made about the questionable manner in which the transition was made from electric street car to gasoline powered buses (Taplin, 1998). It is not necessary here to go into the specifics of the business dealings that led to this change, it is sufficient to note that by and large, rail service was changed to bus service. During this transition, only seven cities in the US decided to keep any of their street car service: Boston, Cleveland, Newark, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco (Black, 1995).
Light Rail (re)Birth
As the country moved further into the second half of the 20th century, many urban areas were looking for an alternative to the ever expanding development of the freeway system. Congestion in major cities was reaching previously unseen levels. Peak traffic times were becoming longer and more chaotic (Taplin, 1998). Many cities began looking backwards, to rail technology, for solutions to mitigate their growing problems. It has been argued that there was a sense of political activism in the movement back to rail technology. The idea that people could come together to change the course of technological progress was spreading during this time (Thompson, 2004). Some areas, such as San Francisco and Washington D.C., decided to construct heavy rail systems (Weiner, 1999). Other areas did not have the density necessary to justify such an endeavor. At this time, many American cities were considering improvements and alterations to their bus systems. Europe, however, was investing in light rail systems. It was only a matter of time before the US took notice, and renewed interest in light rail soon followed (Weiner, 1999).
Density in many American urban centers waned as people continued to move further away from city centers. Planners and policy makers saw the strategies being employed in Europe surrounding transit development, and many came to the conclusion that it was in their city’s best interest to pursue similar endeavors. With transportation companies being publicly owned, investing in rail systems was a real possibility during the 1970s because of the availability of funds at the local, state, and federal levels. Taplin points out the importance of the ending of the Vietnam War, explaining that defense contractors were looking for new markets, and saw transportation as an area of possible growth (1998).
The term “light rail transit” was not introduced in North America until 1972, but as Thompson points out, the idea was nothing new (2004). An engineer named Dean Quinby had described the idea a decade earlier in Traffic Quarterly (Thompson, 2004). What Quinby described was a new form of transit that was taking shape in many European countries. Many of the cities that had been the battlegrounds of World War II had made a concerted effort to improve their existing streetcar facilities. What was taking shape in European cities was different than previous streetcar systems. There was a clear emphasis on increased capacity. For the first time, large amounts of people could board and alight at street level stops place at intermediate distances (Thompson, 2004). The second distinguishing factor was speed. By utilizing strategies in traffic engineering and traffic light infrastructure, this new technology could achieve much higher speeds than its predecessors.
Interest in light rail in North America continued to grow during the 1970s. It was during this time that Ken Orski began to advance the light rail movement. Orski spent time in Brussels, working for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He observed the advances that were being made in transit in these regions, and brought many ideas back to the States. Orski thought that refurbishing old streetcar systems was not sufficient. He pressed for the building of entirely new systems that had the potential for greater capacity and longevity (Thompson, 2004).
As the problems plaguing urban centers persisted, and light rail continued to seem like a viable option for more and more North American cities, it was necessary for key figures to gather and discuss ideas about policy and deployment. Through the 1970s, a series of conferences were organized as a way to stimulate discussion and disseminate ideas (Weiner, 1999). The first of these conferences was held in Philadelphia in 1975. Approximately 300 people attended this conference, which far exceeded projections. The talks of the conference mainly focused on the light rail developments that were happening in European countries at that time, and the ways in which these cases were applicable to urban areas in the United States (Thompson, 2004). An important aspect of this conference was the concentration on the development of a standardized light rail vehicle. Boeing was developing these vehicles at the time, and a tour of their Philadelphia facility was included as part of the conference (Thompson, 2004). Attendees came away from this conference, and the conferences that followed, enthusiastic about the prospect of light rail development. The new idea seemed like a viable option for many mid-sized US cities hoping to alleviate auto congestion and reverse decreasing transit ridership.
It was the city of Edmonton, Alberta that successfully brought the new concept of light rail to the North American continent. The first line opened in 1978, it was 4.5 miles long, consisting of a one mile stretch that was underground. This line has since been expanded (Black, 1995). Canada continued to lead the way in North American light rail development, with Calgary opening the South Line in May of 1981. Calgary continued to invest heavily in its rail transit system during the 1980s, with the Northeast line opening in 1985, the Northwest line opening in 1987. The need to deploy effective transit in Calgary was a priority for numerous reasons, not the least of which was the 1988 Winter Olympic Games (Black, 1995).
Though North America lagged behind Europe in its development of light rail, the United States followed closely behind Canada. The first system to be deployed in the US was in San Diego, California. Opened in July of 1981, the Tijuana Trolley, is a 16 mile line that runs from downtown San Diego to the Mexican border (Black, 1995). With an $86 million price tag, the cost seemed modest. This was thanks in large part to the state being able to purchase a large portion of a little-used freight line. The project was funded using the state gas tax; no federal subsidy was needed. Development in this region continued through the 1980s with a second line running from San Diego to the suburb of El Cajon, and a downtown loop that opened in 1990 (Black, 1995). The rail transit system in San Diego was focused on the central business district with further plans for lines to run out of the city in multiple directions. A system of 2000 feeder buses was established to support the rail system as it expanded out into areas of lower density (Thompson, 2004). At the time of planning and deployment there was concern that many areas would not have the density and ridership necessary to support the San Diego light rail system. In 1978, during the early stages of development, the San Diego Transit Corporation threatened to reduce bus service in the area if rail plains were implemented. The thinking was that there was not enough money in the region to support both systems. These fears were proven false. With the amount of revenue that the transit service was generating during the early years of deployment, it was clear that the system was a success. The region would be able to double the amount of transit service that it operated over the next 15 years (Thompson, 2004).
Light Rail systems continued to be developed on the west coast of North America during the 1980s and 1990s. Vancouver opened the Skytrain in 1986. This train system is unique in the fact that it is operated in a completely automatic manner, requiring not onboard personnel to operate. The size of this investment is also notable. At just over one billion dollars, this rail project was the most expensive to date in North America (Black, 1995). This line was constructed and opened in time for a large exposition held in the city, and during the expo, managed to carry over 160,000 passengers daily. Ridership on the Skytrain remained significant after the activities of the expo, averaging at 110,000 passengers on an average weekday in 1991 (Black, 1995). The line, which was originally 13 miles long, has since been extended significantly.
California remained on the forefront of rail development during this period, opening rail lines in San Jose, Sacramento, and Los Angeles by 1990. Sacramento’s RT Metro system opened in 1987 and consisted of two radial lines centered on a downtown transit mall (Black, 1995). San Jose’s burgeoning population and economic growth at this time made rail transit a viable option. Two lines serving the heart of Silicon Valley opened in 1987. The system continued to expand and was completed in 1991 (Black, 1995). In 1990, after a 30 years departure from rail development, Los Angeles saw the return of rail transit. After much publicity, the Blue line was opened, connecting downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach. Projects have continued to be developed in the area, including the 20 mile long Green Line, creating greater accessibility to the Airport (Black, 1995. The return of rail transit to Los Angeles is significant because it was a city that abandoned its previous transit infrastructures, and seemed content with being a modern metropolis that was dependent on the private automobile (Taplin, 1998).
Light rail systems continued to be deployed across the country during the 1990s. Notable systems include those in Baltimore, St. Louis, Dallas, and Denver. Salt Lake City is a region that has more recently taken the lead in rail transit development. Plans were made to improve the transit infrastructure in order to accommodate the large amount of people that would be visiting the city for the Winter Olympic Games. The improvements were also necessary because of the vast amount of growth that was and continues to happen in the region. The geography of this area places restrictions of how growth is able to occur. The region is constrained by water on the west and mountains on the east. Because of population growth and increased density, it has been necessary for the city to proactively develop transit infrastructure that is capable of moving this large amount of people through the region. The city created a set of transit goals centered on rail development that it hoped to achieve by 2030. The goals that were set for the build-out of the rail system have already been accomplished (Utah Transit Authority, 2014). Much public support combined with strategic transit planning has made Salt Lake City an example for many cities to look at when considering how to proceed with future developments.
Light rail development is still growing rapidly, and as such it has not reached maturity. Cities will surely continue to build out their light rail systems for many years to come. The popularity of light rail only seems to be increasing. The advantages over buses and heavy rail systems are many, and as such cities continue to invest heavily in their light rail infrastructure. Cities are continuing to build light rail with dedicated right of way, as well as systems in mixed traffic. The flexibility of this transit mode ensure that it has a long life ahead of it.
Light rail is a technology that has built upon the foundation of its predecessors. As cities continue to grow, this technology will continue to be a viable option for many areas. The flexibility and efficiency of this technology are part of what make it unique. It is also necessary to state that there are many vocal advocates of rail system development. It is clear that people prefer light rail to buses in many situations, and this fact ensures its continued relevance. As long as urban populations continue to grow and the stigma of buses persist, light rail systems with be developed in many regions of the country.
Bus rapid transit (BRT) is an emerging technology that will have an effect on the future of light rail development. Light rail is far more permanent than BRT systems, and as such do not have the same flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. BRT is a technology that has many of the same attributes as light rail, and as such it will have consequential effects on its future growth. The ride experience and travel times are similar to those of light rail systems, and the cost of BRT is significantly less than light rail. Because of these factors, many cities will continue to explore the technology of BRT, which will certainly have an effect of their decisions regarding the deployment of future light rail lines.
The data used to analyze the lifecycle of LRT in the United States was obtained from the American Public Transportation Association 2013 Public Transportation Fact Book. The data that was used to analyze the lifecycle of light rail in the United States was passenger miles per year. This is a useful variable, as it clearly shows the development of the technology through the decades.
A projected lifecycle for light rail transit was developed using the following logistic function: S(t) = K/[1+exp(-b(t-t0) Where: S(t)= LRT passenger miles per year t= year t0-the inflection time, the year in which ½ K is achieved K= saturation level, the year at which the system is overly mature b= steepness of curve
The model used shows that the saturation level for light rail transit in the US is 7 billion passenger miles per year. The inflection point of this technology has not yet been reached. The year that inflection will be reached is 2020. At this point the increase will not continue to increase at an increasing level.
- American Public Transportation Association. Public Transportation Fact Book. 2013. Available: http://www.apta.com/resources/statistics/Documents/FactBook/2013-Fact-Book-Appendix-A.pdf. Accessed: November 1, 2014.
- Black, Alan. 1995. Urban Mass Transportation Planning. University of Kansas. Ed. Morlok, Edward. McGraw-Hill.
- City of Saint Paul, 2011. Saint Paul Transit-Oriented Development Guidebook for the Central Corridor. Ed. Drummond, Donna. Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation.
- Cervero, Robert. Light Rail Transit and Urban Development. Journal of American Planning Association, vol 50. No. 2. Spring 1984 pp. 133-147.
- Garrison, William. Levinson, David. 2014. The Transportation Experience. 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press. New York.
- Henry. Lydon. 2004. Light Rail and Urban Mobility: Is Light Rail Transit Justifying Its Investment? Transportation Research Circular E-C058: 0th National Light Rail Transit Conference.
- Taplin, Michael. 1998. The History of Tramways and Evolution of Light Rail. Light Rail Transit Association. Available: http://www.lrta.org/mrthistory.html. Accessed November 3, 2014.
- Thompson, Gregory. 2004. Defining an Alternative Future: Birth of the Light Rail Movement in North America. Transportation Research Circular E-C058: 0th National Light Rail Transit Conference. Available: http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/circulars/ec058/03_01_Thompson.pdf. Accessed; November 3, 2014.
- Utah Transit Authority 2014. Biles, Robert. Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. Available: http://www.rideuta.com/uploads/UTA2013CAFRFINALElectronicversion.pdf. Accessed: November 5, 2014.
- Weiner, Edward. 1999. Urban Transportation Planning in the United States: An Historical Overview, Revised and Expanded Edition. West Port, Connecticut.