The Livable Communities Coalition

Working to improve Atlanta's quality of life through smart growth

Anti-transit myth #9: Most light rail riders are former bus riders

Excerpted from Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation by Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind

Myth 9: Most light rail riders are former bus riders.

The fact of the matter is that light rail has been highly successful in drawing people out of their cars and onto transit. We already noted St. Louis MetroLink light rail as one example: a 1995 passenger survey found that 85 percent of rail riders had not previously used the bus. In fact, bus patronage in St. Louis rose rather than fell when the light rail line opened. According to a Denver survey of light rail passengers, dated December 8, 2000, “For 50 percent of all Southwest Light Rail passengers surveyed, light rail was replacing trips they would have made, at least partially, by driving alone.”

Another way to look at this myth is by comparing bus ridership with light rail ridership in the same transit corridor. If most light rail riders come from buses, then ridership should not increase much when rail is substituted. But in fact, it usually does. San Diego offers two good illustrations. On the corridor now served by the San Diego Trolley Orange Line, bus ridership was just over 3,000 per weekday before rail was introduced. Now, on light rail, ridership in the same corridor is 18,000. Similarly, in the Blue Line corridor, bus ridership was 400 peak hour passengers; with rail, it is 1,800. Those bus riders would have to clone themselves in multiples to make up a majority of the people who now ride the trains!

So the transit critics not only have their facts wrong, they have turned them upside down!

Light rail’s proven ability to draw riders from choice, people who would otherwise have driven, usually alone, is important because it directly affects traffic congestion. Riders from choice represent cars removed from traffic, usually in rush hours, on almost a one-to-one basis.

But we should remember that offering rail transit to former bus passengers also has its benefits. Because rail transit represents high-quality transit, those former bus passengers are less likely to leave transit and start driving if they get a car. Buses also clog up roads in rush hour, so substituting rail for bus helps reduce traffic congestion. And since, one a nationwide basis, light rail costs less to operate than buses, getting people off buses and onto rail transit reduces the expense of transit to the taxpayer.

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