Light rail is a dubious solution to urban transit problems

As cities debate the addition of light rail to their transit systems, it may be worthwhile to consider its success where systems are already in place. With the release of the 2000 U.S. Census data, such an evaluation of light rail is possible.

What the data reveals is that in U.S. cities with major rail lines, transit ridership is either declining significantly or only increasing slightly. This is the case regardless of whether a city has had rail lines for some time, as with Atlanta or Washington, D.C., or has installed lines recently. San Diego began rail service in 1981 and Denver in 1994.

Between 1990 and 2000, the share of people travelling to work on public transit was flat or fell in major metropolitan area s:

  • The decline in public transit's share of people going to work fell 22.5 percent in Atlanta and 18.4 percent Washington, D.C.

  • San Diego's public transit system gained 2.6 percent and Denver gained 2 percent.

  • Dallas undertook a major transit investment to open three new light rail lines and one commuter rail line in the last decade, yet ridership declined 23 percent from 1990 to 2000.

    Light rail's difficulty in reversing the trend away from transit may be due to the fact that it is usually focused on downtown. Population and employment growth have shifted outside of the downtown core.

  • According to one estimate, on average, 90 percent of employment occurs outside of city centres.

  • Light rail also faces competition from less expensive options such as carpooling and telecommuting.

    Also, nearly every major metropolitan area saw telecommuting make significant gains in market share from 1990 to 2000. Washington, D.C.'s grew by 20 percent, Denver and Dallas by 30 percent and Atlanta's by nearly 56 percent.

    Source: Is Rail a Transit Success Story? Policy Note, November 2002, Buckeye Institute.

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    Data from 2001, shows foreign aid has remained stable in recent years, however, the United States surpassed Japan to become the world's largest aid donor for the first time since 1992, providing $10.9 billion or 0.11 percent of its gross national income (GNI).

  • A large part of the increase by the United States was a $600 million disbursement to Pakistan for economic support in the aftermath of the terrorists attacks of September 11.

  • Japan's aid decreased by 18 percent, mainly due to the 12.7 percent depreciation of the yen that occurred from 2000 to 2001.

  • Despite the large decrease, Japan still provided $9.7 billion in aid, almost twice as much as Germany, the next largest donor.

    Where does U.S. aid go?

    In 2000, the U.S. provided $12.5 billion in official development assistance and official aid combined. Russia, Israel, and Egypt together received almost a quarter of this money. In 1980 and 1990, almost half of U.S. foreign aid went to the Middle East and North Africa.

    In recent years, however, U.S. aid has been spread much more widely over geographical regions. Fifty-four percent of U.S. aid reached lower middle-income countries, while 44 percent reached low income and least developed countries.

    Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Recent Trends in Foreign Aid, OECD in Washington, No. 36, October-November 2002.

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    FMF Policy Bulletin/15 January 2003
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