3 Reasons Light Rail is an Efficient Transportation Option for U.S. Cities

Minneapolis Light Rail- Hiawatha
Minneapolis Light Rail- Hiawatha

Light rail is a type of electric railway that runs on right-of-way railroad tracks or on tracks in city streets. Using their own lanes and able to go anywhere, light rail cars mix well in urban settings by not getting caught up in traffic congestion. Though the United States operates the largest and most efficient freight railway system in the world, we have failed when it comes to passenger rail. Europe has surpassed North America in their expansion of electric railways which includes high speed rail and light rail. American cities on the other hand have been designed around our love of the automobile causing urban sprawl and a societal dependency upon car travel. However, many city planners and tax payers are now calling for a public transit renaissance to reduce sprawl, stimulate urban development, and provide commuters with a transportation alternative that’s convenient, fun, and helps reduce their carbon footprint. There are currently 31 U.S. cities with an existing or under construction light rail system and many more cities have light rail in the planning stages. In order for the U.S. to stay competitive with the rest of the world, we must continue this trend in rail travel and the following reasons show why.

Reason #1: Environment

DART- Dallas Light Rail
DART- Dallas Light Rail

Light Rail systems run on electricity that can be powered by renewable energy sources: wind, solar, and hydro. Since there is no pollution from a tailpipe, even operating on coal generated electricity, light rail produces considerably less greenhouse emissions per passenger mile than diesel buses. A car’s energy output is approximately 6.350 BTU’s per passenger mile, while light rail uses about 1,150 BTU’s of energy (high-speed rail uses 900). This makes electric rail systems 6 times more efficient than cars. Additionally, light rail transports people more efficiently by yielding a larger rider capacity.

But do people really give up their cars to ride the rails? Absolutely. Evidenced in cities such as Denver, Dallas and Atlanta, light rail increases public transit ridership thereby reducing the dependency on cars and buses. Research shows that light rail attracts more riders than other forms of public transit such as buses. Light rail is quiet, smooth, and more easily accessible and reliable. Not to mention there is a certain romanticism involved in street cars that is non-existent on a bus line. Portland’s light rail system boasts that 75% of their riders own automobiles. Light rail doesn’t just attract commuters, casual riders take advantage of the service as well for such things as shopping and sporting events. With less cars on the road, the overall health of the city would improve. Houston, who made the decision years ago to allocate money towards highway development while Dallas was building DART, has fought with Los Angeles over the years as America’s smoggiest city. Houston has since switched gears to work on their Metro system. Light rail also has the ability to support bike commuters, pedestrians, and disabled riders with convenient street-level boarding.

All of these environmental benefits of light rail combine to reduce our oil consumption and our dependency on foreign oil. Europe, who has been leading the way in both high speed rail and urban light rail systems, consumes less energy than the U.S. This country is responsible for 25% of the worldwide energy consumption with 5% of the global population. According to this report, if Americans used public transportation at the same rate as Europeans, the United States would reduce its dependence on imported oil by more than 40 percent or nearly the amount of oil we import from Saudi Arabia each year.

Reason #2: Development

Streetcar in Portland's Pearl District
Streetcar in Portland's Pearl District

Light rail is more than just an eco-friendly way of getting from one place to another. It serves as a pillar around which city neighborhoods and businesses can be developed for sustainable growth. Just as riders are attracted to light rail, so are investors. Before the city of Portland, Oregon began plans for its’ light rail system, MAX, retail and office vacancy rates were on the rise. According to TriMet,  more than $6 billion in development has transpired since the decision to build in 1978. Once an industrial wasteland, Portland’s Pearl District has seen 4.6 million square feet of commercial development with 7,200 new housing units between 1997 and 2005. Ridership on both MAX and the Portland Streetcar system has steadily increased over the past 10 years.

Since the building of DART began in 1996, Dallas has benefited from a 39-53% rise in property values along the rail line. Even in the current economic downfall, investors are spending money in the Dallas area. Greg Biggs, executive director of the real estate firm Cushman Wakefield, credits the interest of development in North Texas’ Telecom Corridor to DART stating that “there seems to be a momentum factor going on here“.

One of the nation’s most flourishing urban neighborhoods is Denver’s LoDo district. Dedicatied to revitalizing and sustaining this historic area of Denver, city planners see the RTD light rail system as the backbone for growth. The building of a light rail system demonstrates an abiding commitment to community services and development, which is exactly what investors want to see.

Reason #3: Economic Sustainablility

Denver Light Rail- RTD
Denver Light Rail- RTD

A 2007 article at Forbes named America’s top 5 cities with the most expensive commutes. Houston came it at number 1 with the average commuter spending “20.9% of household costs on getting to work”. Following in Houston’s footsteps were Cleveland, Detroit, Tampa, Kansas City, and Cincinnati. What did all of these cities have in common at the time of the study? All had a small or non-existent rail system, while four out of the 5 cheapest cities for commuters had an extensive rail network. Some of these cities now have light rail in development, including Cleveland and Houston after witnessing the economic success of Dallas.

Though there is much debate over the economic benefits of light rail, with many false claims, studies prove that light rail stimulates the local economy and reduces sprawl.  Every dollar spent on public transit projects generates 6 dollars in the local economy, according to the American Public Transport Association. With the increase in development comes a surge in jobs thus providing the local government a 4-16% gain in tax revenue.

With oil prices rising and light rail cars able to move people more efficiently, the operating cost of light rail compared to a bus line is considerably cheaper. Cities that rely on buses alone for public transit spend more money per passenger than cities with light rail. High ridership numbers allow for lower costs and higher efficiency. Notably, light rail cars have a life expectancy of 30-35 years compared to the 12 year life expectancy of a city bus. But there’s no need to rely on studies alone. Just take a visit to one of the many cities where light rail has revitalized the urban community: Denver, St. Louis, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Dallas, Portland. While you’re there, I know a great way you can get around town.

6 thoughts on “3 Reasons Light Rail is an Efficient Transportation Option for U.S. Cities”

  1. Light rail (LR) ridership has plummeted since the pandemic; work from home has gutted the commuters LR depended upon. Public transit puts diverse individuals into a confined space with shared/recirculated air. Will it take a more lethal pandemic for us to get the message?

    No empirical evidence exists to demonstrate LR has ANY impact on climate change. It is a false canard to sell outrageously expensive trains that, most of the time, run empty. Supporting claims depend on the trains (or buses) being filled, which is a rarity.

    LR cannot achieve any level of actual cost/benefit, if they could, private entities like Blackrock, would be funding them. Instead, we go deeper in debt with bonds, higher taxes/rent and promises of grants from a federal government $31t in debt, running trillion dollar deficits and struggling to maintain key social programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid).

    A “new mobility” is evolving where on-demand/doorstep to destination mobility, makes fixed route/fixed schedule LR a dinosaur. Electrification, micro transit, micro mobility, shared mobility and autonomy are emerging at a rapid pace and devastate the rationale for LR.

    Public transit is time wasting, dangerous and inconvenient for most Americans. People gravitate to the convenience and versatility of a personal vehicle. Try going to the grocery store, buying ice cream, going to Home Depot for some 2×4’s and bags of compost or taking three kids to the dentist/shopping. First responders, delivery vehicles, service trucks (plumbers/hvac/construction) etc. make up a lot of our mobility – LR does nothing for them.

  2. That’s interesting that four out of the 5 cheapest cities for commuters had an extensive rail network. I guess light rails can really save you gas money. I’ll have to get more acquainted with the light rail system in my city and see if it makes my travel cheaper.

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  4. Under Reason#2 you have a picture of the Portland Streetcar in the Pearl it is labeled as the Max in the Pearl. The two are different entities with different purposes, funding etc. That said you can pay for one and by agreement have access to both.

    I am one of those Portlanders who has a car and rides the Max to work because it is more fun and way easier than driving.

    1. Birch-
      Thank you for pointing that out. I have corrected it.
      You’re lucky to live in such a beautiful city. I hope to get there for a visit someday and try out the MAX and Streetcars myself.

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