High Speed Rail

Rail Transit Is a Dead End, but Social Planners Keep Pushing for More

Government planners do not understand markets, so they promote overly pricey projects that fail to meet our real-world transportation needs.


It has been around 15 years since Orange County tried to build a $1 billion light-rail system that would have gone from one suburban parking lot to another. It would have moved around half of 1 percent of the county's commuters. What I remember most about that incredibly shrinking Centerline was that while it was supposed to reduce congestion overall, it would actually have increased congestion along main thoroughfares.

That was my first up-close encounter with the Cult of Transit. There is nothing wrong with expanding bus service and building new rail lines—provided they actually enable people to get where they are going. However, urban planners' fixation on transit stems more from social engineering than transportation engineering. The latter develops projects that enable people to get from Point A to Point B. The former builds projects designed to change the public's behavior—prodding them into getting around in ways the planners believe is best.

If you've got time on your hands, peruse the details of virtually any road-funding bond measure and see how much of the new tax revenue goes to roads—and how much goes to bike lanes and other alternative transportation methods. I remember when Gov. Gray Davis was at a ribbon cutting for a stretch of the 210 freeway near San Bernardino. Commentators declared that after that opening, the era of road building was over. No wonder congestion has only gotten worse.

Despite the planning community's long-running embrace of transit, the latest data suggests the public prefers to get around in their cars and SUVs. Using statistics from the Federal Transit Administration, transportation expert Randal O'Toole summed up the data in The Hill: "Ridership declined in all of the nation's 38 largest urban areas. Transit systems in Austin, Boston, Charlotte, Cleveland, Miami, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Tampa-St. Petersburg all suffered double-digit declines, with Austin losing 19.5 percent and Charlotte 15.4 percent despite being two of the fastest growing urban areas in the nation."

That's stunning given not only the $50 billion in subsidies that transit systems receive each year—but the Herculean attempts by urban planners to promote higher-density living through proscriptive land-use policies and tax subsidies, as O'Toole added. Transit systems work reasonably well in traditional cities such as New York and Chicago, but look at the design of California's metropolises. Commuting patterns go every which way, which makes it tough to develop an effective transit system to meet our needs.

Have you noticed how Californians move up and down the state?

They take Southwest Airlines, which offers low-cost, quick flights serving the major airports. Yet former Gov. Jerry Brown had focused his attention on building a $100-billion high-speed rail system that, if it ever is completed, will have ticket prices higher than airfares and will take nearly twice as long as flying to get from the Bay Area to Southern California. What is the point? The answer echoes my earlier point: Politicians and planners use public money to change how we live in pursuit of grandiose goals, such as slowing global warming. Easing cross-state travel is important, but if that were the primary goal, our leaders would consider a variety of practical—but boring—ideas, such as improving air service in hard-to-reach places such as Bakersfield, the Central Coast or Redding.

I think of my attempts to take transit to go from my exurb to downtown Sacramento. It would involve driving to a station 20 minutes away, paying for parking, buying a ticket and waiting for a train. It would take longer and cost almost as much as just driving downtown directly and parking. That train might make sense in the urban core, but not in the outlying areas, yet officials love to lecture us about our supposedly unsustainable reliance on driving.

This highlights the real problem with transit. Planners, not consumers, drive it. Real private enterprises—as opposed to firms receiving taxpayer-funded subsidies to build government-directed projects—would never build a rail system based on an "if we build it, they will come" model. They would build systems that meet customer needs rather than fulfill wishful fantasies.

Furthermore, O'Toole refers to our current approach as "big-box transit," which involves "moving people in 60-passenger buses, 450-passenger light-rail trains or 1,500-passenger heavy-rail or commuter-rail trains." This approach is the result of union pay scales and government's inefficient and centralized approach to transportation.

Opening up the marketplace could result in myriad, small-scale alternatives, similar to the way that Uber and Lyft have disrupted the taxi industry. Government planners only understand taxing and regulating and do not understand markets, so they promote overly pricey projects that fail to meet our real-world transportation needs. Until planners figure that out, expect those transit ridership numbers to keep falling.

This column was first published in the Orange County Register.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998 to 2009. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

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  1. I used to live in an urban area. It was entirely too common to see those full size 60 passenger buses with so few passengers you thought they were empty. I remember discussions of switching to smaller buses for off-peak hours, or lines that never came close to filling the big buses. Always the same excuse: they couldn’t afford the extra rolling stock. Yet buses wore out all the time; if they had bought some small buses, both would have lasted twice as long, and the cheaper acquisition and operating costs would have paid for themselves almost immediately.

    San Francisco and other cities used to have private jitneys, 12 passenger vans, on popular routes. Short buses, more often, makes riders happier, disrupts traffic less, is more flexible, and has no drawbacks. Fast, simple, easy service. So what if they skimmed the cream of the routes? So what if they didn’t honor municipal bus transfers? Their tickets were so cheap it didn’t matter, and passengers didn’t waste the bus driver’s time with quibbles over whether a transfer had expired. But cities outlawed them anyway.

    1. I have seen or heard the comment about empty buses many times. I rode the bus for most of my 40 year working career. When I got on the bus it was almost empty, when I got off the bus it was almost empty. In between on that 30 minute ride the bus would fill to standing room only. So seeing a bus empty does not mean it does not carry a lot of passengers, it just means that it does not have a lot at the point you are seeing.

      Regarding smaller buses. Transit programs often point out that cost difference in large buses and small buses is small and not enough to cover the administrative difference associated with running a system. Monitoring, drivers salary, and maintenance are similar no matter the bus size. So it is better to just run larger buses at off hours.

      1. Username checks out.

      2. You sound poor.

      3. Although I appreciate your pointing out the weakness in another persons clearly anecdotal evidence, replacing it with your anecdote seems a little ironic.

        Statistics show that all forms of public transportation in places other than NYC and Chicago are vastly underutilized. The NYC subway seems semi-full on the weekends because they cut the number of cars and trains substantially. It looks to be more full, but you probably waited 15 minutes longer for it to get there.

        1. Whether or not public transportation vehicles are empty or full is not the point. The point is whether they are the highest-value way to get around. For the vast majority, even when crowded, they aren’t.

          1. I recall an article on one of the old Gawker sites, lamenting that Uber and Lyft, not only harm taxi’s but also put added pressure on Rail and bus lines, because of lower costs, and direct, easy travel. Somehow the fear was that bus lines would be cancelled because of the lower cost to use Uber and Lyft, The Author was worried that using Uber and Lyft, because it is cheaper and more enjoyable, would harm the poor, who can’t afford to use Uber or Lyft. I still have no idea, how a cheaper more enjoyable way of getting around would harm the poor? From the comments, even most the liberals could not figure it out either.

    2. Often buses get the short shrift of a transition to rail. The bus system goes from multiple bus lines running North-South and East-West through the city, to being a feeder system, where the buses take you to a rail line. This has the overall effect of reducing peoples’ use of the buses, and so they seem more empty.

    3. Calgary did exactly what abcdabab talked about: long vans were offering rival commuter service but the transit union bent city council to its will.
      Edmonton is tearing up major commuter roads for years to extend LRT lines that nobody was calling for, out to neighbourhoods that were built out 40+ years ago (in other words, decades late)

  2. “Rail Transit Is a Dead End, but Social Planners Keep Pushing for More”


    It’s because they’re dead ends that they push them.

    1. If they fixed the problem, they wouldn’t be able to justify stealing more money.

    2. Somebody has to keep consultants and city planners fed with multi million plan making.

  3. It would be nice if the “this was originally published at” bit was stationed at the top of the article instead of at the end. I got to some bit about Redding before I realized that this was a geographically-centric complaint that had little to do with broader libertarian thought, applicable to anywhere/anywhen/anywhy other than principally SoCal/2019/???.*

    That said, the article’s one redeeming macrocosmic reveal is the concession that, contrary to the clickbaity headline, rail transit isn’t a dead end provided it adheres to consumer demand instead of attempting to shape behavior. Which, at the very least, is a fair argument.

    * Also, it would help readers from inadvertently viewing some grotesque blasphemy originally published by WaPo, Buttfeed, etc..

    1. While this talks about the OC, it is relevant to the entire nation. This same problem pervades the entire country.

    2. We just built a new public transit system in Detroit. A single line, at surface level, that travels less than 5 miles. Think of a bus stuck in traffic that can’t alter its route because it’s on tracks.

      This conversation is relevant. The Detroit project was just another way to spend money ingratiating big labor.

  4. I can tell you from experience, the only train service in downtown Milwaukee, Amtrak’s Hiawatha line, has actually increased its ridership recently. It’s unclear what time frame you are using in your claim, but the Hiawatha ridership has added almost 30,000 riders in the last 2 years.

    1. 30,000 riders in 2 years. So, 41 more riders per day?

      1. That’s about right.

        1. Seems worth it. Keeps two minivans off the road.

    2. What’s happened to its bottom line over that period?

  5. Planes, trains, and…
    Oh, that’s it.
    Can’t let individuals wander off from the herd

    1. +100

  6. Planes, trains, and…
    Oh, that’s it.
    Can’t let individuals wander off from the herd

    1. +10

      1. Hahahaha!

      2. +100,000,000,000

  7. Albuquerque spent the last couple years destroying three lanes of Central Avenue to put in some special bus only lanes with special stations, that they aren’t even using because they fucked up the order for the buses, because they decided they had to be all fancy and get non-standard ones. But you still can’t drive in those lanes, even though they’re completely empty. Or make a left turn or even cross Central in most places any more. So it’s one lane in each direction for cars, and when you get where you’re going, you have to drive past it and wander through some neighborhood to get to your actual destination, fighting against the crap they put in the way so the streets would be more friendly for the five people in Albuquerque who ride bicycles anywhere.

    1. The irony is that Central would have been an ideal thoroughfare for a light-rail line from about I-40 and Tramway all the way out to about I-40 and Unser. Especially since these projects tend to be gentrification magnets once they’re put in place.

      It would have provided an incentive for the yuppies who live in the hills just west of Tramway and a lot of west side residents to do their commute downtown via train, and the central part of the line would have had enough pedestrian density to ensure a fairly steady supply of riders. Taking out three lanes of road for a fucking bus line was idiotic since there was already a line that serviced the thoroughfare.

      I can’t imagine what kind of payoffs Berry and the city council got for signing off on that shit.

      1. Sorry, the yuppies who live just east of Tramway.

  8. There is nothing wrong with expanding bus service and building new rail lines?provided they actually enable people to get where they are going.

    Well, a lot of libertarians think there IS something wrong with making people pay taxes for buses and trains, regardless of whether they are “effective”.

    1. Libertarians are okay with tiny and limited government, taxes, and government provided services.

      The key is that all those things are minimal and leave most of life’s decisions to the free market and individual choices.

    2. Libertarians would advocate to use user fees and local taxes for businesses on the line to pay for these services.

    3. If they’re really effective, then they could presumably be run at a profit. Private actors would be willing to provide the service, counting on paying customers for support instead of taxes.

      1. There have been attempts at private intra-urban bus companies, but other than charter runs contracted by companies to pick up groups of their employees and transport them from home to work and work to home, the local governments have tried with mixed success to drive them out so they don’t compete with the public transit system.

  9. Some of the biggest problems with making rail work are definitely the political considerations. Los Angeles is an excellent example, with its light rail ending a mile or so away from the airport. People using rail to get to the airport to avoid paying parking fees or leaving their car unattended would be one great reason to use rail, but the taxi cab companies and the parking garages around the airport used their political muscle to make it so that the light rail stops a mile short of the airport. Yeah, what kind of solution is rail that doesn’t go where people want to go?

    They’re still talking about running rail from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. The monorail in Las Vegas also doesn’t go the airport–for the same reasons. They could increase rail traffic in both cities dramatically by spending the millions necessary to get light rail to go the last mile to the airport, but they’d rather talk about spending billions to run rail between Los Angeles and Las Vegas? If the rail they build between Los Angeles and Las Vegas doesn’t connect to either airport, few people will use it.

    It already takes longer and more effort to get to LAX from within Los Angeles than it does to fly from LA to Las Vegas.

    1. Considering its already faster to drive from LA to Vegas (due to all the security at airports now) I think a lot of people would use rail precisely BECAUSE it doesn’t touch the airports

      1. Right. And once all those people started taking the train instead of going to the airport, it’ll be decided that TSA is needed at the train stations, too.

    2. Going to LAX is hell. Not only is the traffic getting there, and around the terminal horrid, but the terminals themselves have not adapted well to the post-9/11 security regime. Luckily we have Burbank, Ontario, Long Beach and Santa Anna airports.

      1. We had a commenter here years ago who said that if he ever went to Hell, his punishment would likely be driving around the LAX terminal forever.

      2. Long Beach was the best back when it was a major aircraft manufacturing facility. I loved the one room terminal, single baggage carousel, and the close parking. John Wayne is good for the steep take offs and landings.

    3. If the rail they build between Los Angeles and Las Vegas doesn’t connect to either airport, few people will use it.

      And then you have Denver, which finally built a rail line from the airport to downtown, but the line is such a poorly-engineered mess that there’s talk of shutting it down permanently.

    4. Doesn’t the Metro in Phoenix also require a one- or two-stop bus ride to actually get to the airport, even though the Metro stops at a station called Airport?

    5. Another issue is energy efficiency. On the basis of energy(fuel)/ton/mile, heavy rail is the most efficient way to move bulk goods across land.

      On the other hand in terms of energy(fuel) per passenger mile, both heavy commuter rail and light rail are actually worse than single occupant cars.

      The major problem here is that trains at any size have a huge towing capacity but compared to freight, people weigh next to nothing, even in aggregate across an entire packed to capacity passenger train. In terms of weight/energy efficiency every passenger train ever might as well have been running empty.

      1. Another issue is that public transit (even bus systems) almost never sets fares high enough to cover operating costs, much less capital expenditures needed for system construction/maintenance.

        And with the huge up front capital expenses needed for major rail projects, the fact that those capital costs are generally funded with government debt such as bonds. The debt service on those capital costs becomes a fixed cost that can’t be reduced even if the rail system is shut down, the typical response to cost over runs is to cut bus transit system budgets.

        1. In my small city budget issues forced funding cuts of about $200k in public transit and the elimination of some bus routes. Of course the Peeple got all upset about unfairness to impacted riders, and demanded the city find some money and restore the service. Turns out they total about 50 per day. So we could give each of them a $4000 Uber pass instead.

    6. Crony capitalism all the way!

    7. I got asked this question flying into Vegas. I told the lady that where I lived it was an hour to an hour and a half to the airport, plus the hour light, plus getting there before the flight. But its a five hour drive. In which case, why fly?

  10. This is why Green New Dealers want to eliminate personal automoblies.

  11. You know who else loved rail transit?

    1. Casey Jones?

      1. John Henry?

    2. Dagney Taggart?

  12. What I would really like to see is more mass transit options not necessarily within a city, but between nearby cities, that are say an hour or so apart. It just gets tedious and boring to drive those longish distances, and it just feels like a big time sink where you could be getting something useful done.

    1. Hour apart… east coast. No wonder your politics are so awful.

    2. Along the same lines as your comment, what I’d really like to see is private jet travel for me between far-apart cities. Flying commercial airlines between California and New York is tedious for me.

    3. These would not be used much.

      It’s not the 1 hour trip that is the problem, it’s the ‘last mile’ issue. You have to get to the station, which takes time and requires parking, and get from the station to your destination at the end, requiring more time and expense. Your one hour trip now takes two hours and considerable hassle.

      Public transport effectiveness is directly correlated with population density. Places like NYC, Chicago, London, with high density are well suited to public transport. Denver, Phoenix, Columbus, not so much.

  13. Socialism has at least one outpost in U.S. It is known as Amtrak. Each long distance Amtrak train takes maybe 5 luxury buses off the interstate each 24 hours. For most towns and cities, buses would be more convenient than hauling your ass down to the depot for the once-a-day 2am train to Chicago. But while 5 buses are missing on the highway, there are maybe two hundred tractor trailer loads that are on the highway because the Amtrak train has disrupted freight service on the railroad line, causing the railroad to run at least one fewer freight train or has lengthened freight service to the point where shippers will send critical shipments by truck. No “friend of the environment,” Amtrak operates at a loss to the taxpayer but, hey, rail buffs get their hobby subsidized and vacationers get to see the desert and mountains from a train!

  14. Rail enthusiasts often forget that the countries with functional rail systems, like Japan, have the following:
    1. 100% private rail companies. Most of the JR regions receive zero government funding.
    2. Post-war destruction that allowed for efficient construction and planning.
    3. Cultural attitudes that don’t care much for driving.
    4. Nonexistent protections against eminent domain

    1. High population density.

    2. Also, Japan (especially Tokyo) has very low crime rates, the culture is willing to stand in a proper queue without cutting in line, there are few fare-jumpers, and groping on the trains is commonplace.

      America’s trains and subways are pretty much the exact opposite in all four points.

  15. I like traveling by train, even Amtrak. I can do work on the train, unlike in my car. I don’t have to wait in long lines and go through security for the train. For certain city-to-city trips it saves time and money because I’d have to go through traffic to get to the airport, (the train station is closer) go through security, and then get on the plane, wait for boarding etc. etc. The train is not as crowded, the bathrooms are nicer, stretching your legs and taking a walk is much easier.

    I’d like more city-to-city train options. Maybe they need to be privately funded. Maybe driver-less cars will eventually be as comfortable as trains.

    1. Most buses suck.

  16. In all my travel planning, over decades, I have always found rail to take the longest and cost the most.
    So much for the efficiency of central planning.

  17. Anecdotally, I’d say ridership in the San Diego is due to the 50/50 chance you will get on a train or bus that has an overwhelming pee smell.
    While on vacation there I even started referring to it as the P-Train.

  18. Anecdotally, I’d say ridership in the San Diego is due to the 50/50 chance you will get on a train or bus that has an overwhelming pee smell.
    While on vacation there I even started referring to it as the P-Train.

  19. I used to wonder how Reardon Metal was so valuable for rail lines and how that society ended up with so few automobiles and so many trains. I guess it’s the inevitable goal of Top Men to move in that direction.

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  21. I confess, I was vehemently opposed to the Bay Area Rapid Transit system while it was being built. Not the least because San Franciscans had to pay an extra tax for the suburbanites. Now, I sort of like it because I live outside SF and I’m certain that the city just can’t handle even one more car.

  22. It’s easier for a terrorist to wreck a train than a jet plane.
    Just loosen some of the tracks and watch it derail. A bullet train would be demolished by a derailing. It might even destroy a neighborhood with the rail cars flying into houses and starting fires.
    Since California doesn’t believe in building walls/fences or patrolling, they won’t be able to secure the miles of tracks.
    Worst of all, because they believe that policing is racist, there will be BART-like flash mobs robbing the train riders without fear of any serious law enforcement.

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