Somewhere along the way, hipsters and train travel forged an unholy union.

I hear it all the time in Austin, Texas. Every time I’m at a party and someone is complaining about traffic or having to get a cab, someone says “If only we had a train!” And everyone nods sympathetically, because of course trains will solve all of our problems. It doesn’t occur to anyone that wanting an easy way to get home when drunk is not a sufficient reason to build an entire light rail system. And since there is a $1.4 billion bond on the Austin ballot for November, these conversations are becoming even more common.

Most people haven’t really examined light rail; they just accept that, because it seems to fit with other cherished liberal ideas, like improving health, reducing car emissions, creating denser cities, etc.,  it is also good idea. The truth is that light rail is not the panacea that planners think it is. For the most part, it’s an extremely expensive “solution” that solves nothing: it doesn’t help the environment, reduce congestion, or improve mobility for those who need it most. Here’s the truth about light rail:

Light Rail Is Not Environmentally Friendly

The most important point is that, once you factor in the energy costs of construction and feeder buses, light rail is not environmentally friendly. In this example from the Southwest light Rail Transit project in Minnesota, it would take more than 100 years to offset the energy costs of constructing the rail line, as compared to the bus transit system.  For that same rail line, the use and maintenance of light rail would use more energy per year than bus transit. And finally, claims that light rail decreases carbon dioxide emissions fail to take into account the transit system as a whole; light rail transit requires an extensive system of feeder buses, which have low ridership. So each passenger mile, including both rail and bus, ends up consuming more energy than just using bus transit. Even without looking at the transit system as a whole, light rail would cut emissions by one-tenth of one percent – we’ll see better energy savings than that as old, energy-inefficient cars are retired from the roads.

Light Rail Does Not Make a City More Affordable

Austin’s proposed light rail bond for $1.4 billion is only the first step in a proposed $32.4 billion project, 80% of which will be financed by local taxpayers. Just the first installment for $1.4 billion will be one of the largest tax raises in Austin’s history. Rents in Austin have already risen 49% since 2003, which has resulted in the flight of families with children and low-income renters to the suburbs, which face a growing problem of poverty and crime. Light rail would only add to this problem.

Light Rail is Not Cost Effective

Light rail is 9 times more expensive than bus transit and 27 times more expensive than van service on a per-passenger, per-mile basis, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Every dollar that is spent on construction of a light rail project is money that isn’t spent on schools, police force, or benefits and salaries for city employees.

Light Rail Does Not Fix Congestion

Light rail does not create new transit users. The majority of light rail riders were previously bus riders, not car drivers. Light rail simply does not serve enough people to reduce congestion. At most, the Austin light rail will serve one-third of one percent of riders. And since light rail is often given signal priority, it often makes congestion worse — not to mention the increased congestion during construction.

Light Rail Does not Necessarily Make People Healthier

There is some evidence linking use of light rail with walking an additional 4.5 minutes on top of the six minutes walked by bus users. However, in-depth assessments of the health impact of light rail has not been conducted anywhere in the U.S.

So what’s the alternative?

So what’s the alternative, at least for Austin? Build more roads, particularly a loop connecting the main arteries. Austin is the only large city in Texas that doesn’t have a loop. In fact, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas each have more than one. Traffic light synchronization can help reduce congestion, as it has in Houston. Self-driving cars, which are already on the road in Nevada, would drastically reduce congestion and increase safety. Self-driving cars, furthermore, can be used by anyone, including those without driver’s licenses, and the money not spent on rail bonds could easily be used for transportation vouchers for the low-income and disabled.

There are alternatives available. Let’s not choose rail just because it sounds good.

  • Excellent analysis!

  • Nicholas Miles

    You forgot the most obvious libertarian alternative for reducing congestion, which is actually charging drivers for using the roads instead of just wholesale subsidising them with tax money. Traffic jams are the breadlines of the West.

  • C. S. P. Schofield

    I have a seventh reason; light rail is harder to shift than other forms of transportation that serve the same local purposes. Once you put a rail system in place, you’re stuck with the lines you’ve built. This is why the City Planning fetishists love light rail; it sets their visions in stone … except that it doesn’t really. What it does is ensure than if the city the light rail is built for changes substantially, the rail system will become even more of a white elephant.

  • Train = chug that beer

    I found your article while trying to figure out why the light rail in Fort Worth doesn’t run all night.

    I rented a condo downtown and like to go to Dallas for cocktails a few nights per week. It is an hour or so Uber to my favorite bars.

    I love light rail. I usually bike to class (UTA downtown) and then take the train anytime that I am going to be drinking. I put so few miles on my car last semester that my battery ran down.

    Y’all really need to get light rail. It is awesome! People here don’t drive drunk as much as they do down there because of the trains.

  • Mark Lesniak

    I agree! But you don’t build more roads! You cannot build roads out of congestions that’s insane – it’s the most basic arithmetic that doesn’t work. You need to repurpose assets.