Wednesday, December 20, 2000
Halifax Chronicle Herald

Don’t be railroaded on issue of urban transit

By Brian Lee Crowley

ACCORDING to the HRM’s new mayor, Peter Kelly, using existing rail lines to create a light rail transit system is the way of the future. Even though ridership today would be extremely low, he argues that now is the time to build. As people realize the joys of light rail transit, in his view, they will progressively abandon their cars. A line to Bedford will, in a few years’ time, be a godsend, as the traffic on the Bedford Highway, for example, becomes even more unbearable.

If the mayor’s assumptions about light rail were correct, the picture he paints of the future of urban transit would be an attractive one. But, alas, he has his facts quite wrong, and his vision of an urban transit idyll is, in fact, a costly and inefficient nightmare.

Light rail is often sold by its anti-automobile advocates as the “Great Decongestant.” Build light rail and those suburban commuters will leave their SUVs at home, preferring to be whisked in cheap and speedy comfort to their destination. But this is not the North American experience. Rail is expensive and doesn’t take people out of their cars – it takes them out of buses. The vast majority of light rail riders are former bus users, not motorists.

Light rail advocates like to suggest that their solution is high capacity. Not so. Bus corridors have vastly more carrying capacity than a single rail line. Even a single-lane dedicated bus right-of-way has greater carrying capacity than a light rail line. And conventional bus service is much cheaper than rail.

As for the drivers who support light rail lines, they do so in the secret hope that others will use it, and open up the road for them. When given the choice, few of them actually volunteer to leave their car behind. In the U.S., cities that have made big investments in light rail have seen their traffic congestion worsen at a rate nearly a third faster than those who have invested in highways. In a mere handful of huge cities does rapid transit carry more than 10 per cent of commuter traffic. The average for all cities is a mere fifth of that.

In fact, contrary to many urban myths, the car makes a major contribution to solving the urban transit problem. That is one reason why people cling to them so stubbornly, in spite of huge subsidies to light rail users – nearly $15 Cdn per one-way trip in the U.S.

The 19th century view of urban transit was that everybody needed to go to the same place – downtown – in the morning, and then back to the suburbs at night. But, in fact, urban activity is being hugely decentralized in time and space in the 21st century.

People work more and more from home, and have a variety of work, educational and shopping activities that take them at all hours throughout the city. Even people who work at Purdy’s Wharf want to be able to hop in their car for a meeting in Dartmouth, or a lunch at Saint Mary’s. They want to be able to run home at short notice if a child falls sick, or if they need to go to the supermarket or get to soccer practice at the end of the afternoon. Destinations now are hugely decentralized, something light rail can never be. Highly individualized transport like the car is becoming more essential, not less.

Yet the light rail advocates consistently rob the automobile-using public to subsidize their pet schemes to force people into high-density urban developments they don’t want, and make it as difficult as possible to use their cars. The taxes paid by car and truck users not only pay all the costs of the roads they use, but often also pay for underused public transport, whose ridership is never as high as the planners’ rosy projections.

The result is underinvestment in the practical measures that would reduce congestion on the roads, and overinvestment in rapid transit that makes little contribution to solving our urban ills.

If our real transit problem is that peak use of major arteries is too heavy, there are much cheaper and more effective ways of dealing with that than investing hundreds of millions in ineffective light rail. Contrary to the mayor’s view, the capacity of our existing roads is not fixed, but hugely variable. Take just one example. If we established variable rate tolling on the HRM’s major arteries, we encourage motorists to use non-peak times for non-essential trips by making it cheaper for them to do so. Transponders, like those used on the bridges, would eliminate toll booths.

But the toll collectors would have to make a commitment only to spend the revenue on road improvements. Now there’s a promise worth keeping, Your Worship.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: