Railroading the Poor

Transit for the rich.


The chief argument for public transit is that it's necessary for those who can't afford cars. But many cities tailor their transit services to those who need them the least. The desire to entice rich people–commonly called "choice" riders–is a big reason why pricey light-rail lines have broken ground in so many cities, and why more than two dozen cities are angling for federal funds to build more.

Rail is much less flexible than a bus system and can cost five to 50 times as much. Add competitive contracting, which reduces operating costs by more than a third, and buses can be an even better deal. So public officials justify the hefty price tag for light rail by claiming that it's the only way to get affluent motorists out of their cars.

But there's nothing inherently unappealing about the bus. As long as it's fast, convenient, and comfortable, commuters will hop onboard. Instead, rail lines often replace bus lines, and this means the poor must endure more transfers as they go from bus to rail and back. And since light rail costs so much more than buses, devoting money to rail will improve mobility far less than devoting the same amount to buses.

Bus riders in Los Angeles are particularly familiar with this sad story. Beginning in 1986, local policy makers began to divert funds from a fairly successful bus ridership program toward rail construction. Eventually, the Bus Riders Union, a grassroots organization that represents residents who depend on mass transit, cried foul. It has been locked in a legal battle with L.A.'s Metropolitan Transportation Authority for nearly a decade.

Yet rail remains the favored child. After Los Angeles' latest light-rail project, the Gold Line, fell well short of ridership projections, local officials forged ahead with plans for a $900 million extension.?