What would happen if your city, in the name of progress, started giving poorer residents vouchers for landline telephones rather than smartphones? Or if, rather than stocking public libraries with computers, so that people could write emails, your city installed fax machines? You would consider these unnecessary expenditures on outdated technologies. Yet when it comes to public transit, many cities splurge on modes designed for a different time and place—namely light rail.
Rail transit, such as streetcars, widely spurred America’s urban growth during the industrial era, when automobiles hadn’t yet been invented, and settlement patterns were dense. There are still a handful of dense legacy cities—New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and Washington, DC—that wouldn’t function without passenger rail. But rail isn’t convenient or practical in sprawling cities, although many have built entire systems nonetheless.
These projects have been championed by everyone from environmentalists, to urban density proponents, to business groups like the Chamber of Commerce, and for numerous reasons. Rail, it is thought, will get people out of cars and into transit; will spur infill growth; and will bring a “sense of place” to strategic corridors.
But it doesn’t seem to do any of this, a conclusion drawn by numerous analysts, most notably Randal O’Toole. For decades, he has written in books, blogs, and as a Cato Institute analyst about the fool’s errands of cities trying to reorient themselves around rail. They spend billions on building and maintaining systems, only to find that their cities largely function as they had before, via car use and fragmented development patterns.
For example, transit ridership rates don’t dramatically increase following rail construction, and sometimes they even decline. O’Toole believes the ridership declines result because rail strips funding from buses, which are cheaper and more flexible.
Rail transit’s role as a catalyst for dense development is also highly questionable—some lines have seen little development go up around them, and experienced high vacancy rates in existing buildings. Others have enjoyed adjacent mid- and high-rise growth. But it’s hard to know, in the latter case, whether it was rail that spurred those developments, or some combination of government subsidies for developers, organic migration back into cities, land use deregulation to allow higher densities, or the construction of other nearby public amenities.