One of the so-called “selling points” for light rail systems is the idea that congestion will decrease on roadways if people have a train system in place. The only problem is that this claim of decreased congestion is false. Just ask Jarret Walker, transit supporter and founder of “Human Transit” a recognized pro-transit blog. The Transit supporters says this: “Years ago, politicians and transit agencies would sometimes say that a transit project would reduce congestion, though most are now smart enough not to make that claim.” Apparently Greenlight Pinellas supporters are NOT smart enough to avoid the “lower congestion” claim, since they routinely and unequivocally claim that more transit (and light rail) will decrease congestion. In April the Sunbeam Times Blog issued this challenge to Greenlight supporters: “Can Greenlight Pinellas show any facts that prove that traffic congestion decreases with rail? We are all waiting.” Well, we are all STILL waiting!
“The light-rail line running alongside the avenue often disrupts the traffic signals, triggering long delays for those who get caught at the stop lights”. 2012 Minneapolis news report on Train’s effect to make commute more difficult and increase congestion and plans to spend another $1.1 million to try to fix the problem.
An analysis of roadway congestion conducted by the Sun Beam Times was done in April based on road volume and speed data from areas with and with rail transit systems. The sources included the 1) highway and arterial speed data in the “2012 Urban Mobility Report” of the Texas A&M Transportation, 2) traffic volumes from Oregon’s Department of Transportation and 3) Analysis by Transit expert Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute. The April analysis in the Sun Beam Times reveals that in Portland, traffic volumes went up on local freeways in the first 12 years after trains began running. It revealed that cities without trains have higher highway and main arterial surface street average speeds compared to those with rail and have shorter travel times. These conclusions are reproduced below. In addition, the Sun Beam Times is publishing here these graphic analyses of traffic speeds in cities with and without rail and is willing to share the excel spreadsheet and source data on request.
In addition, an updated online search was done today to determine if rail can actually reduce congestion. Yet again, no data or such conclusions can be found. Instead there is a litany of admissions on how rail and transit does NOT decrease congestion and then excuses on why that is not a problem. Examples include the following:
- Federal Transit Administration on Hawaii Rail project: “Many commenters [on the Draft EIS] reiterated their concern that the Project will not relieve highway congestion in Honolulu. FTA agrees….” (page 208 of this report) and “You are correct in pointing out that traffic congestion will be worse in the future with rail than what it is today without rail, and that is supported by data included in the Final EIS”
- Sightline Daily (Blog on a “Sustainable Northwest”): On the theory that transit improvement decrease congestion “the evidence for this isn’t so good.”
- Human Transit blog by Transit Consultant Jarrett Walker: “the relationship between transit and congestion is indirect. … In most cases, it’s unwise to claim congestion reduction as a likely result of your proposed transit project.”
- UC Davis Researcher Heres Del Valle: A higher availability of transit did not decrease the number of vehicle miles travelled (figure 1 on paper).
- University of Toronto Researcher Bento: “these results fail to support the hypothesis that increase provision of public transit affects [vehicle miles traveled]” (quoted by Sightline Institute).
- Journal of Transport Geogrpahy: On only three of the six rails lines was congestion affected and only by slowing the rate of increase of congestion. Also, any decrease in highway congestion in a subset of data was only temporary. In other words, congestion still got worse in Denver with rail! “Overall, the three light rail corridors in operation have succeeded in lowering the rate of increase in the level of traffic on highways within the rail transit influence zone as compared to highways outside the influence zone.”
Even when diehard supporters of rail still claim a congestion benefit, it is always qualified and never a direct benefit. For instance, Todd Litman of the Victoria Transit Institute can only offer the indirect “benefits” of decreased “Congestion cost” (to who?) averted “congestion growth” or the revelation that during an LA transit strike, traffic congestion increased as people dependent on transit now had to find another way to work (no surprise here of the temporary effect of a strike). Congestion dreamers also often don’t account for the impact of economic downturns that are known to cause a decrease in traffic congestion and wrongly attribute the effect to transit. Litman complains that critics on congestion don’t do accurate analyses (without convincingly citing how) but then engages in this same behavior. For instance, he points to a decrease in traffic volumes of 6.4% on a “highway” parallel to the Hiawatha line in 2008 (actually it is a state highway “Hiawatha Avenue”, which would be similar to US 19 in Pinellas). But he doesn’t give the reference for independent analysis. Further, he does not refer to the multiple reports showing that travel times on that SAME HIGHWAY increased 20-40 minutes since the streetcar style “train” had signal priority at the intersections (see also here, here, here and here). Is it any wonder that volume went down on a major arterial street that had major delays in commutes? This is the sort of “data” that is used by transit advocates to assert that congestion decreases: a 6.4% decreased traffic volume on a street no one wants to drive due to delayed commutes caused by trains. The Local new station in Minneapolis reported it this way: “The light-rail line running alongside the avenue often disrupts the traffic signals, triggering long delays for those who get caught at the stop lights”. Because of the INCREASED congestion along Hiawatha Avenue caused by the Hiawatha Light rail, the taxpayers now need to spend another $1.1 million to readjust the traffic signal timing and it is still not likely to solve that problem.
An illuminating observation arises when looking at the goal of decreasing car congestion on roads. The transit supporters simply want people out of their cars for their own subjective reasons. As Jarret Walker (Human Transit blog) put it, the most effective way to decrease car use on roads is: “reduction of road capacity”, increase the “pricing of road space” and “economic collapse”. In fact, a concept of “congestion pricing” to force people to pay a tax on merely driving is pushed as a way to force people out of their cars and into the arms of government transportation with the “congestion tax” . In other words, take away the roads, make it more expensive to drive them and tolerate a poor economy in the name of making more people dependent on transit than on themselves in their personally owned method of transit: their car.
- More Cars riders with Portland Light Rail. In the first 12 years (86-97) after Portland’s “Max” train began operating, Portland saw more people transported by car while train passenger volume remained fairly steady. As economic upturn occurred in Portland (90’s and 2003-2006), traffic volumes went up even in areas also served by trains.
- Tampa-St. Pete Cars Faster than Similar Cities with Rail. Average Traffic Speeds during peak travel hours are faster in the Tampa-St. Petersburg Area compared to comparable sized cities with rail. (Tampa 59.1 MPH, Portland 49.2 MPH, Minneapolis 54.3 MPH, Charlotte 58 MPH, Denver 50.9 MPH). Despite similar highway speeds, travel times in Charlotte (with train) are 10% longer than in Tampa-St. Pete. In Denver (with train), travel times are 37% longer in a city with rail! (Page A-17 of report.)
- Tampa-St. Pete Cars Faster than Very Large Cities with Rail. Average Traffic speeds during peak travel hours are faster in the Tampa-St. Petersburg Area compared to “Very large” cities with rail, all of which are between 49.4-57MPH. (e.g. Tampa 59.1 MPH, Chicago 53 MPH, Houston, D.C.-49.4 MPH, L.A.- 48.6 MPH, Miami-56.7 MPH). (Page A-17 of report.)
- Rail Does Not Move People out of Cars. Light rail does NOT prevent people from buying or using cars. In Britain, the rate of car ownership and desire for cars actually continued to increase despite ample rail lines to serve the community.
- Roads Carry FAR More People than Rail. Detailed studies cited at the Transit site “The Public Purpose” shows: “The average freeway lane in US metropolitan areas that have built new light rail systems (since 1980) carries four times as many people per mile as light rail. Even signalized surface streets average twice as many people per mile as light rail.”
- Light Rail Systems are too slow to be an alternative to cars. Per “the Public Purpose”: “Light rail has a particular disadvantage in travel time. On average, during peak travel periods, light rail operates only slightly faster than buses and barely one-half as fast as automobiles.”