Shoots from the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii – Feb. 19, 2004-Great Rail Disasters

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Will rail transit improve Oahu’s livability? To answer this question, the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii reviewed transit, congestion, cost, safety, and other data for all two-dozen U.S. urban areas that have rail transit.

Our conclusion is that, far from enhancing livability, rail transit reduced the livability of every urban area that has it. In particular, we found it to reduce the mobility of both transit riders and auto users.


Collectively, the two-dozen urban areas with rail transit lost 33,000 transit commuters during the 1990s. By comparison, the two-dozen largest regions with bus-only transit gained 27,000 transit commuters in the 1990s.

Rail advocates often call rail critics “anti transit,” but our analysis shows it is rail transit that is anti transit. During the 1990s, a period of rapid growth in the transit industry, transit’s share of motorized travel declined in two out of three rail regions.

For auto users, rail transit doesn’t relieve congestion; in fact, it seems to make it worse. Sixteen of the 20 urban areas with the fastest rising congestion have rail transit, and one of the other four is building rail.

One reason rail transit doesn’t work is its high cost. Our study found that buses are far more cost effective than rails, while freeways average fourteen times as cost effective at moving people as rail transit.

Congestion in rail regions is rapidly growing because rail’s high cost leads most such regions to dedicate 50 percent to 80 percent of their transportation funds to transit systems that carry only 1 percent to 5 percent of urban travel. This doesn’t leave much left over to relieve congestion for the other 95 percent to 99 percent of travelers.

Nor is rail transit particularly good for the environment. Three out of five rail lines consume more energy, per passenger mile, than automobiles. Rail lines, especially light rail and commuter rail, are also dangerous, killing far more people per passenger mile than buses or autos.

Since automobiles pollute most in congested traffic, rail transit often leads to more, not less, urban air pollution. Even where rail transit can reduce air pollution, the cost is exorbitant