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Why I don't love Light Rail Transit (danco.substack.com)
117 points by dweekly 24 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 146 comments

I don't grok the framing of this. Why does this piece feel like it's proposing LRT and buses as binary, exclusive choices, instead of components of one system that each have different strengths and weaknesses?

Namely, this point:

> This is money that could be far better spent, on a per-rider basis, on operating good bus routes; but instead is going to be spent on beautiful, brand new lines that only serve a relatively small catchment area unless they’re already integrated into a dense transit network (which is rarely the case).


> unless they’re already integrated into a dense transit network (which is rarely the case).

What is the case, and why is it rare?

In other words, this seems to make the case that because planners are incompetent, they should fund bus route saturation instead of train lines inherently less capable of saturation.

But instead, it just leaves me asking why integration of LRT and bus lines (and ability, last-mile, cargo, and scenic/tourism transit options) isn't better, since that seems like the best goal.

He makes an argument that light rail is both less efficient and serves a limited population. I think it's good argument and a fairly well-known argument - light rail has been a poor use of transit dollars for a long time, it's only benefit is bragging rights since it can never be faster than ordinary traffic and it inherently costs more than buses. Medium rail and other system capable of faster movement than traffic is a different thing (but that's been neglected since it costs more to start and it doesn't give the cities more obvious bragging right). The only "benefit" of light rail is it makes it harder to abandon when the going gets tough. The flexibility of buses should be advantage but this flexibility means they're easy to gut in a circumstance of budget deficits.

All you are saying "why not have both" but if one is strictly worse than the other, there's no reason to have both, you can do better with one.

> it's only benefit is bragging rights since it can never be faster than ordinary traffic

Since the author is including LA's rail system in his stats, I'll just say that this is not correct here. Metro Rail lines are frequently faster than surface traffic along close parallel routes and often faster than with-flow freeway traffic, which is not particularly surprising considering that at most crossings they're either given bridges, tunnels, or signal-protected right-of-way.

You could argue that we could do the same thing with buses, but to the extent that a bus line requires special infrastructure to support the more efficient travel, any cost-efficiency advantage is likely to narrow or disappear.

I think all that matters is if a transit system has exclusive right of way lanes that doesn't interference from the general road network is what would make it fast. If it uses busses, light rail or heavy rail, the difference is only throughput.

For many people although LRT means a train sharing the road, sometimes, which make them as slow as busses, for a lot more money for something that doesn't have the same throughput demands, which I agree when I've tried out sf muni.

Agreed. Portland's light rail is quick until you get to downtown, where it shares the road with cars. Where I lived at one point, taking the bus was much faster. Additionally every train line has to cross one particular bridge, which is a massive choke point. A subway or elevated would be much quicker.

I'm staring at an Orange Line train outside my window that crosses the Tilikum but doesn't cross the Steel, but yeah, Red/Blue/Green are bottlenecked there. The contrast between the lines that go over the Steel bridge and the lines that don't are kind of my point, though.

The orange line becomes the yellow line, which also crosses the Steel bridge.

But the Orange line still terminates at PSU, and it also sometimes becomes the Green at PSU. You also don't have to stay on the train past city center, and Steel Bridge raises don't affect the intended Orange Line service to and from city center; trains just circulate at Union to minimize delays.

That's by design, which is my point. The Yellow and bus lines across the Steel are always affected more than the Orange line, and the ability to terminate at Union on a bridge raise allows for bus transfers over other bridges—it's integrated to play to the strengths of combining bus, streetcar, and LRT, and minimize the weaknesses of the Steel bottleneck. It's also why it's not just a Yellow line extension south.

Actually Los Angeles cut bus service for light rail expansions (which some say severely hurt ridership). So it's a perfect example supporting the author.

Regarding being stuck in traffic: there's plenty of downtown streetcars without dedicated lanes stuck in traffic built around 2010s.

> Los Angeles cut bus service for light rail expansions (which some say severely hurt ridership).

Are we talking about cutting bus routes along light rail routes, or are we talking cutting bus service connecting to / or outside of light rail routes?

> So it's a perfect example supporting the author.

If true, it can support the author's point that past a certain municipal density a good public transit system needs robust bus service as much or more than it needs rail backbones, which I agree with.

It doesn't speak to the central point of my comment above, however, which is that rail is not merely a luxury, it's often much more efficient in terms of the speed with which it moves its passengers, and necessarily so unless the same sort of infrastructure built to support it is built to support a bus, likely approaching similar costs per passenger mile.

> Regarding being stuck in traffic: there's plenty of downtown streetcars without dedicated lanes stuck in traffic built around 2010s.

I assume this is not LA talking about LA any more.

> it's only benefit is bragging rights since it can never be faster than ordinary traffic

This is 100% false. I take Philly's Market-Frankford line many days, it's absolutely faster and easier than driving. But I guess maybe you aren't counting elevated / buried rail.

Even still, give the trains priority and they will beat traffic.

The blue and orange Subway lines in Philly are not light rail. Light rail in Philly would be the green lines heading into west Philly, the trolley on Girard Ave (55?) Heading east/west on the northern edge of the downtown core, and the lines heading out west from the 69th street terminal. Interestingly, they cover the spectrum, with the 55 in traffic all of the time, the green lines underground on dedicated rails on the most congested part of their routes and in mostly two lane traffic for the rest, and the high speed lines on dedicated tracks connecting the far edge of West Philly, where the market Frankfort terminates, to outer suburbs.

Part of the problem around light rail is that it's so broad. Just looking at the range of meanings of light rail in Philly, I have no idea how anyone talking about "light rail" could say that their argument applies to all of the forms it could take.

Also I can confirm that Philly's combination of light and heavy rail will get you from many places in the city and suburbs to downtown faster than driving. Buses do an adequate job of last mile in the suburbs but even several miles outside the city there's still a good fraction of the population within a half mile of a rail stop. My point is that this system exists because rail lines were built through the middle of nowhere by the steel industry 100+ years ago. The tracks, rail cars, stations, and signals have all been replaced but the right-of-way remained. The author focused too much on the method of transit and not the long-term strategic benefits of a city owning a dedicated transit route to allow for future growth.

edit: added 2nd paragraph responding to parent comment

> Light rail in Philly would be the green lines heading into west Philly

No, those are trolleys. Explicitly not light rail. You can't compare a trolley seriously to the trains we're calling "light rail" in LA and other cities.

'The basic concepts of light rail were put forward by H. Dean Quinby in 1962 in an article in Traffic Quarterly called "Major Urban Corridor Facilities: A New Concept". Quinby distinguished this new concept in rail transportation from historic streetcar or tram systems as:

having the capacity to carry more passengers appearing like a train, with more than one car connected together'

Note that first and second qualifier for light rail, which a one-car trolley with capacity identical to a bus absolutely does not fit. Light rail has a specific meaning, and it's different from trolley/tram by design. If SEPTA or others are calling the trolleys light rail, they are misusing the term.

Additionally, as a counterexample to the issues in the article - the trolleys are taken more by the working poor than the more affluent in Philly.

Until recently, buses meant spewing fumes all over the city, which hopefully we're trying to reduce. BEV buses might be changing this, but they still come with their own logistical challenges.

Or natural gas buses, which don't produce that obnoxious diesel soot.

But still produce plenty of Carbon Dioxide point source in the middle of traffic.

>since it can never be faster than ordinary traffic

Of course it can. Just give them priority at intersections like lots of cities do.

Of course, you can do the same with a bus too: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bus_rapid_transit

Sure, but why? The vast majority of the cost for a good rail system is in the dedicated right of way, overpasses for intersections and the stations, a BRT wouldn't be significantly cheaper. https://www.theurbanist.org/2016/10/12/brt-is-not-cheaper-th...

Maybe not when used as a complete system -- the advantage is that you can piece in a BRT in specific areas where it would be advantageous, while the majority of the system consists of buses on regular streets.

Not the author, but I’d say because public transit budgets are generally fixed amounts of money, so if you spend millions on a light rail line, you don’t have that money to spend on buses.

I agree that a light rail network with feeder bus lines can work well. Boston’s “T” had done this in Cambridge - there’s an underground bus depot at the Harvard Square subway stop, where buses from all over the north side of the river converge so people can move to the train for the trip into downtown Boston.

I would note that the "T" isn't a light rail system or at least isn't mostly a light rail system. The "T" is a full subway system with a few light rail additions (parts of the green line).

This article mostly boils down to "Toronto has a lot of popular bus routes, other cities should just make bus routes work better instead of building LRT." This misses the key difference, even though it is pointed out elsewhere in the article.

Toronto first built two long subway routes with simple layouts. Suburban residents demanded better transit, so a number of fast, frequent (and therefore convenient) bus routes feeding the subway were created. Fifty years later, ridership on bus routes and subway routes is very high.

Cities that are building LRTs generally have fairly efficient bus systems already. Take Ottawa for a local example - they have had BRT to the suburbs for decades. Fast, separated lanes, etc. They are building an LRT in sort of a mirror of the Toronto system - two central lines, one E-W one N-S, and bus routes will feed into it. The train is fast, frequent, reliable - so transfering will not cause issues. This is being done to replace, essentially, fleets of buses leaving downtown every couple minutes, following the exact same routes for 10+ km before diverging. Replacing that initial section with a higher density mode, and changing the buses into suburban feeders, makes perfect sense.

Aside: I think the title is clickbait, and I think it makes a lot of statements without any citations (eg, "Montreal is much more European in layout and mindset" [so we should ignore it in our analysis]. Or "The area around the LRT lines definitely attract investment, but if you look at who actually uses the line a few years in, it’s mostly rich people.")

Other comment: While it points out Toronto's real bus route successes (high ridership numbers), it ignores the real issues they have had with building more subway/LRT lines over the last 30+ years. They have approved and cancelled some kind of Downtown Relief Line numerous times. Overfull buses is an actual issue in TO.

note: It took me a while to read the article and write this comment, so I'm sure some/all has been duplicated in other comments

Ottawa's LRT isn't really LRT as most people think about it. The "light" size of LRT makes it legal to have crossings in an urban area. Ottawa's LRT is fully dedicated, there are no crossings. So it has the benefits of medium or heavy rail, and doesn't have the typical drawbacks of light rail. Can you imagine spending billions on light rail without a fully dedicated right of way? That'd be silly, and the article would make more sense.

> Ottawa's LRT isn't really LRT as most people think about it.

I don't think you can generalize like that - Canada (where both the Author and I live) has 4-5 LRT systems, with several more under construction [1]. The light rail in Calgary is the longest, it is not grade separated (it has intersections inside and outside the downtown area). I feel that it also works pretty well. Toronto has the St Clair streetcar and is building the Eglinton LRT, which is/will be partially separated, I also feel they are/will be an integral part of the network. The full separation of Ottawa's system is a big advantage, to be sure, but it is only possible because it is upgrading from a BRT which was also almost fully grade separated (otherwise, land acquisition costs would have been dramatically higher).

The grade separation of the O-train is incidental to the point I was making - an LRT can make a great core of a transit network, using frequent train service instead of route duplication in Bus/BRT service.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light_rail_in_Canada

Where I live we have fully dedicated bus roads. Maybe they costs less than light rail - I don't know.

They are very popular. The suburbs they service are 20..30km away, and the dedicated roads make the long part of the trip very fast and comfortable. The far ends of the roads looks more like a train station, as they have large car parks surrounding them. Other cities in Australia now look on in envy.

There doesn't seem to be much chance of the buses being abandoned when the budget grows tight. A dedicated 2 lane mostly raised bus highway running parallel to a 8 lane highway isn't much use for anything besides buses, and they weren't cheap to build.

The article makes more sense to me when I read it as an argument against phase 3 of Ottawa's LRT, not against phase 1 or 2.

Phase 1 opened on the 14th, it's very nice so far

Yup! It is definitely good, a little hard to assess until they stop the concurrent service in a couple weeks. I also think Phase 2 will make it work much better - ending at Blair means there is still a lot of route duplication in the east end (and I assume west is similar)

His whole argument relies on scarcity of light rail routes, as a path to gentrification. But here is what the network looks like in a city like Amsterdam: https://almeretours.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Amsterdam...

Amsterdam is gentrified. I love the city but nobody who earns a below average income can really afford to live there. Most other Dutch cities rely on buses. Amsterdam still has them as well to cover some outlying areas.

What he is saying is that buses should come before rail because they are cheap. That way, if you decide to lay down your first rail, it can operate to its full potential.

Your argument re-enforces the author's point. Amsterdam has lots of light rail, and is almost entirely gentrified. It's one of the top-10 most expensive cities in all of Europe.

The American version of this argument, is like saying "if rail was less scarce, there'd be less gentrification when it gets built. Just look at all the subway lines in New York City" -- without recognizing that NYC is one of the most hyper-gentrified expensive places in the entire nation.

> without recognizing that NYC is one of the most hyper-gentrified expensive places in the entire nation

The lines basically all existed before gentrification. As others have said, it seems like the argument here is that if you build transit that is too good, rich people will come, so keep to buses. In reality, if more cities had good rapid transit, gentrification wouldn't be focused on just a few cities in the US and instead high skilled workers would have more choices. Right now as someone who loves good public transit, my city options in the US are severely limited.

Really it comes down to this IMO: If you build it, they will come. If you build it in one place, they will all come to one place. If you build it in many places, they will disperse.

I do think the point on the positive feedback cycle is true, but it's not going away so to me that just says that from a market perspective there is a severe supply shortage of good public transit based cities, and the solution to that is not to forget about light rail. Building more transit everywhere is the only thing that will solve the problem.

I'm pretty sure his article is only about Sprawling North American cities built around big highways for cars.

Yea, he covered this with his line that "A lot of North American public transit advocacy can feel like a perpetual lament that North American cities aren’t laid out like European ones."

That seems like a pretty dismissive response: are European cities laid out like that as a response to light rail? If so, what's to say that North American cities won't also adapt to the presence of light rail?

And it's not just European cities; Japan has an excellent subway system, and I've heard China's very new one is good as well. This feels like the learned-helplessness counterpart to American exceptionalism: what's so special about North America? Other cities adopted rail and adapted; the article doesn't address why North American cities couldn't as well. And in places with a good subway, buses are despised — they're slower, overstuffed (a single subway station can accommodate hundreds or thousands during commute hours; a single bus stop would have lines hours long at that rate), less comfortable... Buses can't move people in a dense area at the volume a subway can.

(Also, why does this article only address Toronto? NYC is a pretty strong retort to the idea that subways can't work in North America.)

It's also easy to forget that the high density portions of most American cities were built around long since abandoned light rail or equivalents. San Francisco has turned a couple classic lines of street cars into a working museum, but it's easy to forget a much larger amount of San Francisco was served by them for several decades to the point where neighborhoods were shaped by them. It's even sometimes harder to further recall how many other American cities (almost all of them) had street car routes and passenger train routes lost to time other than as ghost remnants of neighborhood layouts (the odd street circle that used to be a street car turntable, the odd on street parking spaces where once was a street car passenger transit center, the odd railway trellis that used to be for passengers, etc).

It's almost cultural amnesia at this point that so much of North America believes it has used nothing but the car for transport. It's not even that far removed in history (the "Greatest Generation" had a lot more transit options than today, which is not even 3 or 4 generations removed).

He argues that’s only possible if you have enough density:

> Second of all, unless your city is really dense or you have infinite money to spend, any public transit system that wants to actually provide coverage across the entire city is going to need a good bus network.

Has any city ever argued against this? The thing is you need both, not just one.

Interesting point the article makes: better have more decent bus lines than fewer, elatively less useful lightrail lines.

When looking at European cities, which are less car-centric, lightrail is usually built when it makes economic sense: most forms of LRT have higher fixed costs, but lower marginal operating costs per passenger as soon as a certain level of ridership is reached, as well as a higher maximum capacity. Though there is some level of cause/effect - rail is more popular with passengers as it's more comfortable usually - this doesn't outweigh the economic argument.

With the numbers across the Atlantic, might as well just run busses. Once ridership is high enough, upgrading to LRT is always a solution. By the time that happens, it'll most likely pay for itself.

Perhaps rich people only take LRT because it's actually good enough to not drive over taking the bus? If I take the bus I know it's going to take significantly longer than if I just drove instead, especially if I have to transfer.

I would be fully in favor of making the bus network where I live better, but as a daily caltrain rider, I can't imagine actually replacing the caltrain route with a bus route. I don't understand how you can dislike LRT and then point out the benefits of Toronto's system of using LRT for heavy transit and bus for last mile. The bus is not good for long transits, and people want to use public transportation for long transits... we need trains for that.

In fact, reducing long transits are what you want to go after. They spend more time on the road otherwise and thus contribute a disproportionate amount of traffic. Plus since they are faster than driving (usually) they also actually get drivers off the road

This is a lengthy article, yet the author fails to address any of the concerns he claims to be countering.

He claims only the rich use light rail. But what is it about a light rail that causes a poor person to look at it and walk away deciding it's not for them? It simply doesn't make sense. Build LRT to a poor area, people will use it.

He then shows an infographic of a hypothetical city covered in bus routes, alongside the same city covered by one LRT route through a gentrified area. This is unfair. How about comparing equivalent LRT routes with bus routes?

Money sunk into buses is money no longer spendable on LRT.

There's an infographic that shows bus route ridership compared to LRT route ridership but we learn only the what, not the why.

Also, the article makes no mention whatsoever of Melbourne, an example of LRT working very well for over a century.

I'm disappointed to say that I learned exactly nothing reading the article.

Whatever the reason, I can say that, for example, in my home town of Austin, Texas, the actual money spent to get urban rail up and running has turned out in practice to be enormously more than for new buslines. Maybe it doesn't have to be that way, but it empirically is, and I don't think Austin is alone in this experience.

Perhaps in part because of the cost, the people riding urban rail in Austin are definitely more often professional class, and the people on buses are more often not. I can't say for sure why, but the rail tickets are a little more expensive, and that is the most obvious reason. I have to think that at least part of why the tickets are more, is that the rail lines cost more to get up and running.

Austin has repeatedly chosen stunted transit and no usable non-car infrastructure.

When I went to visit a friend at Apple in Austin, there was no bus that could take me anywhere near Apple's campus or any of the 4+ story residental complexes that permeate the area, yet there are a crapton of potential riders there!

TxTag is also a really poorly designed system, lacking any usage based pricing with TxTag highways often being paralleled by massive 50mph streets on either side.

The modus opeandi seems to be subsudize the living daylight out of cars, build no alternatives to it, and act surprised that Austin's traffic is worsening rapidly.

I was under the impression that the initial cost of rail is almost always higher than buses or other non-track transit. The long term cost is supposed to be lower, though.

I moved from Austin Downtown to Minneapolis for almost this reason. I didn't want to buy a car either and many if not most of the jobs are up in Round Rock or too far to bike or walk.

I now live downtown Minneapolis and it's been great, I even bought a condo and rent out my parking space for extra money ($200/month). My mortgage is less than my rent was in Austin (after my downpayment of course).

I think it's because most U.S. cities are suburban sprawl. They lack the density for effective light rail transportation. Austin is a case in point. The best a city could do to promote public transit is to lift zoning restrictions that limit density in the urban core of a city. The more density you get, the more cost effective public transit is.

Meanwhile, yeah, the bus isn't as sexy as the train. Can we make the local bus a bit more sexy though? Could we add leather seats, tables for laptops, excellent Wi-Fi, clean floors, coffee vending, etc and make the bus experience better?

I also wonder about automation and how driverless buses might improve bus routes by making them 24/7, for example, due to lower labor cost?

He explains it quite well. Light rail (and heavy rail too) is luxury public transit. Lower income people can’t afford to live near the stops. (The median income of DC Metro riders on most stations is well into the six figures.) Moreover, because rail is so expensive, you can’t build enough of it where it’s not going to rapidly increase surrounding property values, or really provide great coverage into low income neighborhoods. Bus service doesn’t have any of those downsides.

At the same time, rail sucks up huge amounts of money that could be spent on better and more frequent bus service instead.

> Also, the article makes no mention whatsoever of Melbourne, an example of LRT working very well for over a century.

For those curious about Melbourne's system - this is a train/tram map (there are plenty of buses too): https://www.railmaps.com.au/melbourn.htm

Ubiquity and scale are important drivers of the success of the network.

Melbourne is also an example of the split between wealthy gentrified tram-serviced inner suburbs and car-dependant outer suburbia.

I'd agree with this, though I'd argue the main reason this split exists today is because as Melbourne has grown outwards in the last 40 years, there has been little serious investment in developing rail capacity to support those outer suburbs. Instead, the government chose to build freeways.

Then sell them.

This. People are stupidly allergic to splitting municipalities but the fact of the matter is that the poorer municipalities in many cases would be better served spending their tax dollars on themselves rather than throwing it into some bigger pot and mostly getting told by the richer portion of the city exactly where/how it gets spent.

I think this is true today - but historically many of those suburbs (and the tram network) were very working-class.

Some trams go further than the distance that anyone I know would call "inner suburbs".

Bundoora, Preston, and Box Hill to the north, Surrey Hills to the East, Carnegie to the South. (I don't think anything goes West further than Maribyrnong?)

All suburbs, more than 10km from the city, full of people who work 9 to 5 in unglamorous jobs.

Sure, it's cheaper further out, in places that will take over 45 minutes to commute from... but that's the case everywhere in the world, as far as I know. And it's not like Melbourne doesn't have a bus system to rival Sydney's.

The trams are a part what made the inner city areas attractive to the wealthy and drove gentrification, but that's only a recent trend, when the lines were first built and for most of their lifetime the areas serviced by the tram network were working class suburbs.

Even now many of these areas contain a lot of less wealthy people, jump on any tram and you'll see just about every demographic represented.

The point being made is that these areas become more expensive after the rail is built, so even if the rail passed though a lower income neighbourhood, it will gentrify in the long term.

> The area around the LRT lines definitely attract investment, but if you look at who actually uses the line a few years in, it’s mostly rich people. Why? Because they’re the only people who can afford to take it – not because the fares are too high, but because real estate in the immediate walking area around stations becomes too expensive.

I don't know if this is actually true, but intuitively it seems plausible.

>But what is it about a light rail that causes a poor person to look at it and walk away deciding it's not for them? It simply doesn't make sense. Build LRT to a poor area, people will use it.

It's generalization based on access. In order to be viable, LRT almost always runs through affluent areas where influential people live, and the areas that aren't affluent near the path are likely to gentrify. It's not that people from lower income neighborhoods won't ever use LRT, it's that they are less likely to based on their communities' geography.

The author answers that quite clearly.

1 - LRT is much more expensive than buses, but stations have the same catchment area.

2 - Because LRT is desirable, housing prices in the catchment, ie those walkable and bikable to the station, increase rapidly.

3 - Therefore, the majority of the gains are captured by the people who bought or buy housing in the catchment area. This also precludes use of the LRT by poor people, because they can't afford the housing that makes the LRT station usable.

4 - Buses can be used to increase the catchment area and provide essentially last-mile transit, but they generally aren't. Also, the increase of expense of LRT over bus lines often precludes this.

The subtext to all of the above is not only is LRT much more expensive, but it's also much less flexible. Moving bus routes is (my guessing?) 5-7 orders of magnitude less expensive than moving LRT.

Last year I drove alongside the Phoenix LRT every single day on my way to work. (I don't live anywhere near a stop). His take on who uses it; based on my daily observations of watching people at the stops (and walking through that neighborhood from my parking garage to my workplace) - is totally wrong.

Yes, the developers were trying very hard to gentrify that neighborhood. But they were far from succeeding. It'll take many more years. In the meantime, the people who are there now, need it desperately. And as a car-commuter, the LRT was way less disruptive to traffic than busses.

> But what is it about a light rail that causes a poor person to look at it and walk away deciding it's not for them?

This is very clear in the article: poor transportation from where they can afford to live to the expensive area around the station.

> This is very clear in the article: poor transportation from where they can afford to live to the expensive area around the station.

This is precisely why I'm saying the article doesn't make sense: how about exploring the idea of building the LRT in the non-gentrified areas, i.e. where you would supposedly put your bus routes.

But then that area would gentrify and those residents would be priced out. To prevent that effect you need to build enough light rail to counteract the gentrification effect. And you can’t do that because rail coasts so much to build.

Whereas road for buses costs nothing, because it's already there, because we can't imagine a country in which we cannot trace an uninterrupted asphalt path from the driveway of a house in one city, to the driveway of another house in another city.

Roads cost practically nothing compared to rail. We have two to three million miles of paved roads in this country, and we spend around $200 billion a year maintaining it and building more. People drive 3 trillion miles on highways alone, adding up to a per passenger mile subsidy of $0.01-0.02. Rail subsidies (for local transit) add up to $0.50 per passenger mile.

It's ironic to me because one scandal in Calgary, as I remember it, was extending the LRT to an otherwise rich, secluded area. The residents objected on the grounds they'd be overrun with hooligans.

I think the main point was that LRT doesnt move more people than an equivalent bus route, yet costs more. Given that, less LRT is built than bus as the scarcity makes it used by only the rich.

> Build LRT to a poor area, people will use it.

I thought one of the major issues with light rail was how much it costs vs. just using buses? If a last-mile transport option is nice but very expensive then it'll only be installed in richer neighbourhoods and therefore largely be used by richer people.

Sub-area equity and ridership analysis are used to counter this, hence Seattle building its light rail network through one of the poorest & highest transit ridership parts of town, and continuing it north through U-District (where cheap studios can still be had) up to Northgate and eventually Everett.

Would be gentrifiers are in for a rude awakening: http://theneedling.com/2019/08/12/thousands-of-engineers-fle...

> He claims only the rich use light rail. But what is it about a light rail that causes a poor person to look at it and walk away deciding it's not for them? It simply doesn't make sense. Build LRT to a poor area, people will use it.

Are you sure you read the article…?

> The area around the LRT lines definitely attract investment, but if you look at who actually uses the line a few years in, it’s mostly rich people. Why? Because they’re the only people who can afford to take it – not because the fares are too high, but because real estate in the immediate walking area around stations becomes too expensive…Unless you have bus routes or other last-mile ways of getting to the LRT, then it’s going to be a public transit option that’s only available to people who can afford to live nearby. And the nicer you make the line, the higher an income threshold that’s going to require. (Unless you do the hard work of actually integrating the LRT line via last-mile bus routes into all of the other neighbourhoods that aren’t gentrifying.) LRT investment on its own doesn’t expand public transit; it gentrifies it.

So the claim is more or less: «the only way to keep a poor neighborhood poor while providing public transit is to build public transit that rich people are unwilling to use, because if you build transit that rich people enjoy, they will move in and gentrify the neighborhood»?

Seems like a good argument for building a whole lot more light rail, since it’s apparently quite desirable...

Maybe if we had more human-scale, walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods everywhere, there would be enough of them to meet the high demand and more such neighborhoods could support mixed-income residents.

Wrong—the claim has nothing to do with what rich or poor people like to use.

The claim is that the only way to provide affordable public transit that's sustainably accessible to people who aren't rich (that is, even when gentrification occurs in the city core) is to provide surface transit (buses), which can serve a much larger area than light rail.

> Maybe if we had more human-scale, walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods everywhere, there would be enough of them to meet the high demand and more such neighborhoods could support mixed-income residents.

Sure—let me know when you find the funding required to build all those "human-scale, walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods everywhere." In the meantime, let's provide affordable transit that's accessible regardless of which neighborhood you live in: high-frequency, reliable buses.

The problem is largely not about lack of “funding” per se, but more about zoning laws, urban planning more generally, and a whole society organized around driving and inefficient sprawl housing with large-scale short-term subsidies but long-term unsupportable infrastructure.

(More funding for transit certainly wouldn’t hurt. Also, buses are great, especially BRT with dedicated lanes. Buses, light rail, subways, commuter trains, long-distance trains seem like complementary parts of a transit system more than competitors.)

There are plenty of cities in the world with effective subways, light rail, and BRT serving working-class neighborhoods.

Great—let me know when you've changed the zoning laws, fixed urban planning more generally, and how the whole society is organized around massive subsidies for driving and inefficient sprawl housing with long-term unsupportable infrastructure. In the meantime, let's provide affordable transit that's accessible regardless of which neighborhood you live in: high-frequency, reliable buses.

JIt would be great if every place in DC was within a 10 minute walk of a subway station. The costs make that completely impossible.


DC is a triangle ten miles on a side. Look how much area is without subway service. (Most is those are lower income parts too, on the eastern side of the city.)

By 2040, DC is studying the possibility of building maybe one new subway line within city limits. One. Maybe. New York is working on Phase II of the Second Avenue subway, a 1.5 mile segment. It’s currently stuck in environmental review hell, and if they get through that this year and start construction, they project being done by 2027-2029. It will take decades to build the whole 8.5 mile segment, and probably $20 billion plus.

These are two of the most transit oriented cities in the country (not to mention, immensely progressive politically). The idea of having numerous transit oriented neighborhoods, such that transit isn’t a scarce amenity that causes property values to skyrocket, is completely unrealistic. At least with any sort of rail.

It’s too expensive (relative to expected ridership) because almost all of the area not near subway stations is zoned as low-density residential and I believe mostly consists of single-family detached houses (didn’t help that the city was shrinking in population for 50 years from 1950–2000).

Not having enough 1- and 2-bedroom apartments in low-to-mid-rise buildings for all the people who now want to live in them is not some law of nature though.

https://statisticalatlas.com/school-district/District-of-Col... (This isn’t a great map; maybe someone can do better than my 3 min web search.)

No, it’s too expensive full stop. There’s plenty of density in many of the neighborhoods not currently covered by rail. But it’s costing $3.8 billion per mile to build subway in New York now. DC would be less, but at these prices new subway is pretty much a non-starter.

And yet it works for Tokyo, London and Copenhagen to pick three random cities.

Those cities do not spend anywhere near as much as the US does per mile of rail. (Whether surface, elevated or underground)

Rail requires an investment. There is an upfront cost followed by at least a century of return. These cities have been investing in their networks over time.

Look at Crossrail's per mile cost (for the new sections of track)...

The problem is that our required investment is multiples more for the same result. To use one of the examples above, Copenhagen is building a fully automated circle line subway underneath downtown for the same price it's costing Maryland to build 13 miles of non-grade-separated light rail through the suburbs.

Crossrail's per mile costs are still a fraction of New York's. Crossrail upgraded 40+ miles of above-ground track, redeveloped dozens of stations, renewed 20 bridges, and built a 15-mile segment of new track (13 of them in subways) for about $20 billion. And in just a decade of construction. Phase II of the Second Avenue subway, meanwhile, is costing $3.8 billion per mile. And just the first 4.5 miles of the 8.5 mile line will have taken 20 years to construct, not including the significant prior work that was done since the 1970s.

So how are you guys able to build freeways and even homes if your construction costs are so high?

(If you've ever tried to get a builder in Copenhagen or London you won't start talking about construction worker wages as being lower in Europe!)

We can’t build things, which is why our infrastructure is shit pretty much across the board. My daughter’s school bought a failing golf course and turned it into athletic fields for students. It’s taken 8 years since the school first purchased the property to build a baseball field, a track, and some tennis courts. There was three separate law suits and it took almost 7 years just to start construction.

Public projects are even worse because of a law called NEPA. The law requires a detailed environmental study of pretty much every significant project, including new rail projects. Just putting together the environmental impact statement can take years. The median is 3.6 years and a quarter of projects take more than 6 years: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/CEQ-EI.... Because these are all administrative decisions, there are numerous opportunities to file lawsuits, take appeals, etc., over pretty much any decision made in an EIS.

Any significant transit project can expect to spend at least a decade in planning, permitting, and litigation, with litigation continuing through construction. The environmental and administrative laws are so broadly worded, pretty much anyone can hold up a project for years using various pretextual reasons (water runoff, wetland management, threatened species, traffic management, etc.).

Contrast how France does things. In France, the government is a single organ—local governments are mere administrative subdivisions of the national government. Decisions get made, and whatever environmental review is needed is done, and once that is done, the legislature passes a law that preempts any other law, allowing the project to proceed without further legal challenges.

Also, I think Europeans for the most part aren’t antisocial tools. People in Chicago sued Ronald McDonald House Charities to stop building of housing for families of cancer patients being treated at Northwestern Hospital.

I went looking for the Ronald McDonald House thing and couldn't find it. When did this happen?

> So how are you guys able to build freeways and even homes if your construction costs are so high?

I mean, the US... Mostly doesn't, in the kind of city large enough for subways. Have you seen all the articles on how bad the housing situation is in places like LA, SF or NYC?

The housing situation in London has been comparably bad.

Forgive me if there's something I am not getting about this article, but isn't his argument "Light rail is bad because it disadvantages rich homeowners," with a mild veil of pretending to care about the underclass?

I think his point is that it is terrific for those rich enough to live near an LRT station and results in big appreciation of real estate (poor people disproportionately rent can own so property value increases benefit the rich but not the poor). Buses do very little for property values but help everyone's commute.

I'm not a huge fan of his arguments but I'd say he's saying more of the opposite, ie. "Light rail only advantages rich homeowners"

"Light rail advantages the owners of nearby land, driving out the low-income tenants, and doesn't serve as many people as a similar-cost bus system"

The real trick is buried: dedicated bus lanes. You can't get reliable, frequent service without bus only lanes that are camera enforced. LRT is popular because it usually gets a dedicated RoW which makes service look amazing next to a bus stuck in traffic.

He makes a good point. Where I live (Portland, Oregon) we have dumped most of our transit money into LRT. As a result, even though I live within the urban limits, if I want to take public transit downtown it's a little over 2 hours by bus -- there's a stop .22 miles away, but the schedule is once an hour on weekdays, not at all on weekends. Google actually suggests it would be faster if I walked 46 minutes to another bus line that would then get me to the LRT, and it would only take about 1.75 hours total.

Or, I can just drive 20 minutes into the office. I'd love to be able to take public transit but I'm not giving up an extra couple hours of my day to use it.

Same here. Bus doesnt start until 6am. So it never works for me. Biuld all the rails you want, spend billions on tunnels, if i cannot get to/from work on time it all means nothing.

The argument in the article seems to be mainly focused on gentrification, which is a huge can of worms, but I disagree with the implied notion that increasing the value of any land is inherently without merit (I say this as someone in the lower-middle class).

Ottawa's LRT just got started a few days ago, and I for one am super happy about it. As a cyclist, the train offers a huge amount of freedom (even though I don't live too close to a station). The buses here do accommodate bicycles, in theory, but in practice making your bus driver and a hundred passengers wait multiple minutes to hook your bike to the front isn't very appealing. With the train I can just walk on.

Ultimately, I think this argument is against a single point, but there are many points to be made in favour that were left uncovered.

Some good observations here, maybe especially the point that without a good bus network light rail can become luxury transport.

But speaking as someone who sometimes uses rail in Los Angeles of all places (and in fact has used public transport almost exclusively for the last month), a couple of counterpoints seem worthwhile:

* In a sprawl-y traffic dense city like Los Angeles -- or even in a less dense area like Utah's Wasatch Front where traffic density in a few corridors heavily outweighs capacity at peak travel times -- rail as a backbone isn't just a nicer bus, it's a more efficient bus, and probably more efficient than a bus can be short of something like LA's Metro Silver Line which utilizes the 110 to provide express service. If you want an efficient system, rail backbones might not be the only tool in your box, but they should be one of them.

* The light rail systems I'm most familiar with (LA Metro and Utah TRAX & Frontrunner) definitely get used, and especially heavily used at commute times. The last few weeks when I've used the Metro I've seen the Expo and Gold line cars packed to the point of no more standing room during rush hour, and people have to wait for the next car. That's past capacity usage in a city most people don't naturally associate with public transportation.

* Additionally, while I can't claim any unusual ability to discern socioeconomic status on sight, informal observations about the level of diversity I've seen on my rides suggests it's not majority middle/upper class riders. And on the LA lines that have seen falling usage (Green and Blue), the research IIRC seems to say the riders who went elsewhere got cars, suggesting they were low-income and rode for economic reasons beforehand.

* The unstudied rail supporter insistent of its virtues and indifferent to other forms of public transport is NOT one that I frequently encounter. I may be wrong, my observation sample may be biased in several ways, but I would expect that if you polled a sample of rail supporters on the question of whether high-quality bus service is equally important, a majority of them would say yes. If you picked self-identifying new urbanists (presumably the people the author spends some of his own credibility on caricaturing as scare-quoted “forward-thinking” brunch people) I expect that percentage would be even higher and you'd find them more than ready to share their own ideas on last-mile problems and cost-per-passenger-mile of rail-vs-bus plus bonus topics like whether/how ride-hailing apps, electric scooters, and bicycles should fit into all this.

Sydney is in the middle of a multi-year project to install LR, at staggering expense. It's still not clear to me what this achieves, as opposed to creating a dedicated bus lane where the tram line is going and paying for a few hundred extra high-frequency buses.

The linked article below is about Seattle, not Sydney, but I expect that the cost breakdown is similar.

Breakdown: 87% spent on new right-of-way plus 13% spent on light rail.


Ottawa just finished the first Bus Rapid Transit to LRT conversion in the world[1]. It's only been a week or so, but it seems to be going quite well. I hope we can get some solid data in a few years

1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXGOscjTRsc

This blog post doesn't use the words "zoning" or "affordable housing" once.

And on a related note is this article from ProPublica: https://www.propublica.org/article/how-some-of-americas-rich...

> The Koch brothers, of all people, funded an anti-LRT campaign in Phoenix

Why is it surprising that a massive private petrochemical conglomerate would be against mass transit?

Let's also not forget they are avidly against buses too. Not sure what bringing their name up in this piece does for the point of the article. If anything it makes me cast doubt in the points if the ad campaigns they have run (shown to be quite ridiculous by Hassan Minaj and others) influenced them without more of a critical eye to the arguments.

This made me look up Caltrain Daily ridership[1] which is about 65K/day. Now Caltrain is not considered "light rail" because it uses regular rails and locomotives with their accompanying "full size" train cars. Versus the lighter framed "light rail" cars that VTA uses for its service.

It is interesting that while CalTrain is over crowded at commute times and struggles with having enough capacity, the light rail system is underutilized. Citylab covered some of the issues of the light rail system but I would really like a transportation expert's evaluation of Bart/Caltrain/Muni/Lightrail/Bus service in the greater Bay Area. There seems to be a huge opportunity here even though I get that there are big systemic forces that resist making those changes.

[1] http://www.caltrain.com/Assets/_Marketing/pdf/2018+Annual+Pa...

> It is interesting that while CalTrain is over crowded at commute times and struggles with having enough capacity, the light rail system is underutilized.

True in San Jose—VTA is one of the least functional public transit systems in the entire country—but not in San Francisco. The state considers Muni Metro to be overcrowded, in fact: https://mtc.ca.gov/sites/default/files/CCTS_FebWorkshop_Brea...

The first point I really took issue with was this:

> farther away was more desirable than closer in

Before the current urban renaissance, this was absolutely not true. Inner suburbs were often nicer, especially if adjacent to a "nice" part of a city. People still lived very far from the urban core, commuting to the city, and that was cheaper and less desirable than an inner suburb.

I think this article conflates two different concepts. One is the physical mode (bus vs light rain vs heavier track/subway), and the other the purpose (rapid transit vs not).

You can use buses to implement some form of rapid transit (the article's references to Brampton and Mississauga for example are both implementing Bus Rapid Transit systems). In these systems, you have buses running effectively the same role as LRT, except on a dedicated road surface instead of rails. BRTs are great, but cannot scale up as much as LRTs.

There may be a reasonable argument that some of the cities with lower performing LRTs maybe should have implemented BRTs as a better investment. However, I think that BRTs more or less cause all the same issues that the author is worried about LRTs about.

Fundamentally, this is about the relative investment that a city should make into building concentrated high capacity lines vs spreading low capacity coverage over area. Light Rail vs Buses is a red herring.

In cities with high traffic, rapid transit buses cannot compete with light rail that has right of way.

LRT can move more people faster, and it can also move strollers, bicycles, and wheelchairs.

Buses can take strollers, and even bikes; the important thing is to allow people to board through the middle and back, directly to the open areas left for those items, rather than forcing them through the front. And then have ticket validators throughout the bus, so they don't have to leave the stroller.

Maybe it depends on the area but bikes definitely aren't welcome in my area. There are bike racks, but I mentioned in another comment they're not a good alternative. And certainly no room / not welcome in the buses themselves

Well, here we have (some) bus lines where you can just enter with your bike: https://euroveloportugal.com/files/2016/02/servico_bike_bus_...

San Francisco has a lot of bus and taxi-only lanes downtown so that buses have more reliable schedule and faster transit times.

Starting with a definition is probably useful. To many "LRT" means the type of rail system that doesn't have a fully dedicated right of way, it has crossings rather than over/under passes. I agree that those are quite silly; a lot of expense for little benefit over buses.

To others, an LRT is fully or almost fully dedicated. It often doesn't provide much benefit over a fully dedicated BRT, but its cost isn't substantially different from a BRT either -- it's the right of way, the stations and those over/under passes that cost the large bulk of the money. A good BRT will cost billions so you might as well spend a little bit more to get the cachet and the capacity of a rail system.

From what I can tell, Toronto is a good argument for subways and light rail. Many bus routes exist mainly to feed rail, without rail the buses wouldn't have the ridership they do have.

The nice thing about light rail is that it can actually make public transit more convenient than driving in dense areas, if the tracks are separate from the road. On a bus you are stuck in the same traffic as everyone else, so you might as well just be driving your own car instead. Light rail discourages driving, decreasing congestion, while busses add to it.

That's more a function of the street design than the transit technology. Streetcars in mixed traffic are about as slow as buses, and buses in dedicated lanes are about as fast as light rail.

Well, you can make a bus-only lane, if the street is wide enough.

"this is what rich people think poor people want" - rich person

This is Rail Transport Map from 2 cities I have experienced Singapore (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/68/Si...)

Delhi (https://lunchtigestbi.cf/photo/bab1f2ab4a3df96bd85c5eae30921...)

Both of them work due to different reasons. Singapore, it goes hand-in-hand with urban planning (and buses and other transport initiatives) and Delhi as Roads infra was cracking and with people living in city and working in sub-urbs taking train makes more sense than spend 2-3 hours in commute.

Misses one of the advantages of buses over light rail: flexibility to change. My hometown of Austin, TX is no role model for urban transit, but we have added bus-only lanes downtown in recent years, and also moved bus lines around a bit to use the existing number of buses and drivers more efficiently. A lot of this was based on feedback from users and also in response to the way the city changed over time.

Light rail, intrinsically, is more expensive to modify, and harder to get buy-in to modify. This means that, if your city population is changing at all fast, you will inevitably end up with a rail system that is at best, built for the city you once were. Buses, because they use the same network as the cars, are inherently better suited for adapting quickly (uh, I mean "less slowly") to the way the city changes.

Flexibility is a huge downside to anyone that depends on public transport. When you move in somewhere or buy a property access to public transport this is a big consideration and you don't want it to disappear one day.

I am in favour of buses, bus lanes and roads because they are flexible. Buses can be reasonably fast, and routes can be adjusted as time goes on to adjust for population changes, such as new apartment blocks. They also can be electric.

You still need trains though as a way to get a lot of people in from more populated suburbs.

Light rail I find a bit useless in many circumstances because it is so slow and stops so frequently. I guess that might vary per implementation. It's good if you happen to live within 5 minutes of the station and don't want to go further than 5 minutes walk at the other end.

I use car/bus/train/uber. Sometimes ferry. But never light rail!

I live in a city with light rail [1], it goes to several of the poorer areas.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manchester_Metrolink

Other long articles where Toronto is praised for its bus and streetcar network, and how they feed passengers into the subway system:



Infrastructure increases land value and benefits people who can afford to live close. Not very surprising.

I'm not sure buses would be more egalitarian though. Buses are great for people who are time rich and income poor; buses have far less predictable schedules and are subject to most of the chaos of traffic conditions, even when there are dedicated bus lanes. It still doesn't make a whole lot of sense for wealthy people to ride buses, and I don't think a great bus network would fundamentally alter the inequality dynamics. At least light rail smears out the "well off" zone a bit more.

>Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to set up a bus route that works well. You need buses, drivers, and some paint to make dedicated lanes and transit priority intersections.

It's actually even easier than that, in a sense. Most Toronto bus routes have no dedicated lanes and little or no transit signal priority, and they still manage to carry lots of people. The schedules aren't as reliable as they would be with some more priority, but they're frequent enough (10 minutes or better) that it doesn't matter.

> In the 60s and 70s, remember, cities were seen as undesirable. The goal was to live in the suburbs; farther away was more desirable than closer in.

This still is awesome if you have a remote job. E.g. I hate big cities almost as much as I hate to drive.

All we need is to stop concentrating business (e.g. by increasing commercial property and corporation taxes significantly wherever big business concentration is too high) and to develop public transport, whatever a technology. Even when this does not seem financially viable in the short term.

Businesses already pay a rent premium when they concentrate. Maybe we should change the reasons that lead them to do that instead of just punishing them for it.

What's the reason? How is it so significant they choose to pay? Or could they pay more perhaps? If they could might the money be used to subsidize public transport and remote businesses development?

Also how does it happen the New York subway is such a disaster while there is so much big business money in New York?

> What's the reason? How is it so significant they choose to pay?

I don't know! I'm saying we should find out before advocating policy changes.

> Or could they pay more perhaps? If they could might the money be used to subsidize public transport and remote businesses development?

Funding public transport is nice, but it doesn't actually solve the issue you were complaining about. As for subsiding remote business development, what do you have in mind? It seems to be quite funded already. Would dumping some extra money really change anything?

> Also how does it happen the New York subway is such a disaster while there is so much big business money in New York?

Another good question that should be answered before policy changes can be formulated.

E.g. I live in a European city with awesome public transport - it's comfortable, cheap, precise, frequent, fast and goes everywhere. I totally enjoy this but this provokes 2 thoughts:

What if I move to the US occasionally (for some years at least) - will I be forced to drive a car because public transport is bad, expensive and doesn't go everywhere there? I doubt I'm going to be able to afford (or even like) living near the office in a city centre. This frightens me.

Despite the public transport is amazing at my location and you can even get to a neighboring town quickly, comfortably and at no additional cost (unlimited public transport subscription card is cheap and covers heavy rail together with light rail, subway, buses and even ferries), businesses still concentrate near the center (not even in alternative districts of the city) of the capital and the only businesses you can find in neighbouring towns are e-shop + very small businesses providing essential services to the locals. No IT companies of any kind (but above mentioned small e-shops and small hardware stores) or anything like that. Why? If I were a full time developer I'd love to live in such a town and work in an office there (in fact I used to live there but the office still was in the megapolis center, thanks to the trains it wasn't a problem), needless to say office rent is a way cheaper there. Why does this phenomenon take place and how might we stimulate geographic dispersion of businesses? Set particularly low taxes where we want them to move perhaps?

When the IT boom was beginning about 15 years ago I thought IT companies are going to build developer campuses, call centers etc in cheaper towns because this can save tons of money while IT workers can work anywhere thanks to the Internet (and, thanks to the great public transport system, they still can get anywhere quickly once they need to attain some kind of event). But, as we can see now, this is not the case.

The author gets oh so close right here to a key part of this discussion, race, but never gets there. Makes this at best a very incomplete piece.

A lot of the cities build subway or tram stations in underdeveloped areas as a precursor of future expansion. And it works - after subway stop starts to work more developers start to build high-rises, shops, people start to move there from other underdeveloped areas without prospects of having a subway station. I see this article as an excuse against proper city and public transportation planning. It works everywhere but US, so maybe it's time to stop arguing and follow the example of other countries?

He's not wrong about busses having many advantages, particularly in time to live and direct costs, but 2 things.

1. Without dedicated right of way, the wealthy won't ride OR fund (because they don't understand who would ride over drive) busses

2. The flexibility of buses is also their downfall. These areas won't get gentrified by businesses because if crowds do come, they may be temporary.

Extra-long or double-decker buses have crush load capacities around 120 pax. A single Bart trainset can have a crush load capacity of about 2000 pax and can depart every 2 minutes. So you would need a double decker bus departing roughly every 7.2 seconds to match that peak throughput. It just doesn't scale.

Pros with rail * smooth * quiet

Cons * fixed infrastructure - one breakdown or labour strike will bring the whole thing to grinding halt. You can't just simply move a lot of carriages to other places easily in response to demand * expensive

We'd be much better off with better (bigger, electric/hybrid) buses.

I didn't know some of these terms had slightly different (but overlapping) meanings: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passenger_rail_terminology

When the author says LRT they seem to be explicitly referring to streetcars. Which are, yeah, generally pretty stupid. Build real rapid transit or run buses. If you want to get rich people to ride the buses, add express routes that bypass poor neighborhoods.

I share some of the concerns but in many cases it's just the best you can do. Unfortunately we can't use eminent domain as much now to get better right of ways. Always some angry person or interest in the way.

I’m not buying this. I ride the light rail in Minneapolis a fair amount and others on it don’t look or act rich at all. In fact the express bus I frequently take seems to be full of more affluent people than the light rail.


> Anyway I’m going through all of this to say two things. First, you can move a lot of people by bus if you need to; the TTC is a good demonstration that large numbers of people will take bus routes for their regular commute if the network is well-run and gets them to where they need to go. Second of all, unless your city is really dense or you have infinite money to spend, any public transit system that wants to actually provide coverage across the entire city is going to need a good bus network.

> Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to set up a bus route that works well. You need buses, drivers, and some paint to make dedicated lanes and transit priority intersections. The cost just isn’t on the same magnitude as expropriating land, ripping it up, putting in rails, and then running trains all day.

> If an LRT line is carrying a daily load of passengers that could be handled by a bus route (as nearly all of them could be, and are, here in Toronto) then its purpose for existing isn’t “higher order transit”, it’s “luxury public transit”.

As someone who has lived in the greater Toronto area for years, I've seen its public transit system go from good to absolutely awful in a twenty year period. The system he lauds as excellent has not scaled, especially in the downtown, dense, core, where the streetcars and subways are jammed full and delayed constantly.


Don't reduce bus funding to pay for light rail.

This is the left talking to the left. To get better coverage, use fewer words (because the right is dumb but equal).

> “As I’ve talked about before, this spatial arrangement had a useful side effect: commuting distance was a part of the cost you had to pay to live the good life. But now, we’re going through this big inversion where downtown is cool again, and we’re losing the self-corrective mechanism we used to have.“

This seems fundamentally wrong to me in a way I find hard to square with someone as familiar with the subject matter as this author.

Many theories of valuation of real estate start with basic assumptions about people bidding with offers to pay (to buy / rent living space, buy groceries, etc.) according to their beliefs on how well they can use that land / space. If everyone is rational (clearly not, but not very important here) it means the person who can extract the most value from the land and has enough capital to outbid competitors will get the chance to use the land.

This has been true in dense downtown areas where workers compete by working more hours for a long time, such as in downtown Manhattan where bankers and high powered attorneys would live even during the supposed suburban period the author refers to.

To these workers, the time cost of commuting was not worth the extra space or “the good life” as the author calls it (which paints a very confusingly biased presentation). Instead, the marginal value of proximity to work more was valued higher.

Now, hardly due to “downtown being cool again,” white collar work is swinging in a direction where it’s not just bankers and attorneys who see the deal of reduced commute time in order to work more as a good thing, rather it’s tech workers, marketers, knowledge workers of all types.

Everyone feels pressured to work more and be seen visibly working more, for status signalling. Employers are less loyal to workers than ever, so you need to live close to many other possible employers, to switch to ass-in-chair long hours signalling at the new place once the current place lays you off.

You have to pay $3000/month rent, huge grocery bills, receive poor retirement benefits all predicated on blind faith in equity markets, to be in this frantic hedonic treadmill cycle just to barely keep a job and have even the tiniest chances at social mobility.

It seems quite obvious that service workers, low status jobs like teaching, blue collar work would immediately get pressed hard to push out and eat the costs of longer commutes. Their “good life” is having structured hours (don’t get me wrong, they are woefully underpaid and have poor negotiation power) instead of being compelled to do constant social signalling of more and more hours.

This all just seems like a consequence of labor collapsing in on itself in a slapdash scramble to grab enough money to possibly retire comfortably while capital just keeps taking increasingly larger shares of generated wealth.

Montreal’s subway is phenomenal.

There's a lot of interesting content here, but I found the example of Toronto a bit odd. Everyone I know who lives in Toronto ends up commuting by streetcar, at least in part, and they all decry it as overcrowded and slow. However that's just anecdotal. Maybe the typical Toronto commuter (who doesn't live on the waterfront) thinks it's fine.

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