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Portland is a PR machine for light rail & streetcar

Here are Some Facts About Portland Oregon          

“It must always be remembered how cost-effectiveness works in the public sector: the cost IS the benefit.” - author unknown

Some Transit Facts

How Trimet reports ridership

Trimet actually reports boardings which counts each time someone boards a transit vehicle. 10,000 riders means 5,000 people making round trips. Or 2500 people getting on a bus, transferring to rail going to work and then the reverse coming home. Trimet calls it ridership which suggests that a different person is being counted for each boarding.

Rail and increased boardings

TriMEt publicizes the fact that some people who find rail more attractive that the bus and start taking transit, thus adding to transit ridership. However, TriMet discontinues any existing bus service on routes that get rail. These people have to take the train or quit using transit. Trimet also re-routes area buses to feed the rail line instead of going directly downtown. This adds an extra boarding to each trip as people transfer from the feeder bus top rail. What previously was a one boarding trip becomes two boardings. Presto, a big increase in the ridership report without needing any increase in people.

But rail loses some transit riders

Rail stations are further apart than bus stops. Some people cannot walk the added distance and go back to driving their car. Others don't like to transfer, especially at crime prone stations in some neighborhoods. These people are lost to transit and offset the new transit users that are attracted to rail. The net of these effects is largely a matter of speculation with some rail critics claiming that rail does not increase transit usage at all. For one example, see The Oregonian, July 22, 2004

Rail and removing cars from the road.

Discount this claim by around 2/3 because 2/3 (or more) of rail passengers would be in buses if there were no rail. These are the people that rode the buses that Trimet discontinued when rail opened. But we need to discount the remainder to the extent that rail gains some riders, and loses some riders as mentioned above.

Light Rail Costs Less?

Bus lines replaced by light rail were often less expensive than the average line, because they were high-demand routes. Rail also increases bus costs because the new feeder lines to take passengers to trains are more costly than average lines. A better comparison would be adding the costs of light rail and feeder-bus trips together and stacking this figure against major trunk bus lines, the kind light rail replaces. Oregonian July 12, 1998

TriMet Claims that MAX carries 26% of afternoon rush-hour commuters

traveling from downtown in the Sunset Hwy. and the Banfield Fwy. corridors. (http://www.trimet.org/pdfs/publications/factsheet.pdf ).

Analysis: Both corridors have three traffic and one rail lane in each direction. A rail "lane" is about the same width as a traffic lane. MAX carries 26% or one point above 1/4 of the four lanes (counting a track as a line). Therefore MAX carries about the same number of commuters as one lane of road. But MAX only took about 1/3 of these commuters out of cars because around 2/3 of MAX riders were formerly in buses before trimet canceled the bus service when max opened. And MAX does not carry freight.

Trimet claim: Ridership on buses and MAX has increased for 17 consecutive years.

However, the U.S. Census travel to work survey shows only a 1% travel to work market share increase for transit in Portland between 1990 and 2000. That is an average of 1/10 % per year. (Calculated from Exhibit 4.10, and 4.11 at http://www.jhwa.dot.gov/ctpp/jtw/jtw4.htm ) At that rate Trimet will have ½ of us out of our cars in only 500 years. (1% increase in 10 years is a 10% increase in 100 years and a 50% increase in 500 years, neglecting compounding)

Cost of transit: Transit riders pay only 19.5% of their cost and taxpayers pick up the remaining 80.5%. (http://www.trimet.org/pdfs/publications/factsheet.pdf). This means that the true cost of that $72 monthly pass (http://www.trimet.org/fares/index.htm) is $369 - enough to make monthly payments of $197 on a new $10,000 car (http://www.carfinderservice.com/make/Kia) and have $171 per month left to pay insurance and gas. (Note that the stated TriMet cost is only operating cost, it DOES NOT include the cost of construction light rail. If construction cost were included, the real cost of the monthly pas would increase substantially.)

Frequent claim: Light Rail Carries As Many People as a six lane freeway.

First fallacy is comparing people in a transit vehicle on rails with people in private vehicles on freeways. When you compare rail transit to road transit, road transit has far higher capacity PER LANE (which are about the same width as a track + roadbed) and is usually far cheaper). IF you run one 40 seat bus every ten seconds you have 14,400 people per hour without standing. Rail can only manage one train every few minutes due to safety considerations.

Second Fallacy is assuming that all of the transit riders would each be in one per car on the freeway. Most light rail riders were in buses before the rail was built and they would still be in buses if the rail were not built. Less than 1/3 of them would be in private cars (see above). When Portland's transit salespeople claim MAX carries 3000 people per hour, only about 1000 of them would otherwise be in cars. At about 1.2 people per car, that would only be 833 cars per hour. A freeway lane is generally considered to have a capacity of around 1800 cars per hour. So that is around 45% of one lane of a freeway (plus a few busses).

Counting methods are different: Rail counts all boardings along a line, freeways counts cars past a point. This means that the road usage doesn't count all the cars that use only part of the freeway away from the counting point, underestimating usage. Transit does count every time someone steps on a vehicle even if they ride only a few blocks.

Safety: Rail is safe for passengers on the train. Unfortunately, it kills people, mostly not on the train, at several times the rate of cars and buses (based on deaths per passenger mile.)

Cost: Transit agencies like to brag about how low cost rail is. However they almost always leave out the largest single cost: construction.

Rail relieves congestion:

Light-rail advocates have dropped the claim that train service will stop or significantly ease street and freeway congestion. Portland is the national leader in building light rail. It is also a national leader in traffic congestion (more  more). Critics say that these two leaderships are related: Had we spent the money on one added lane, instead of MAX, we would have been able to have all max riders in buses AND a lot of extra road capacity and a big pile of money left over. And that extra money could have been used for better bus service which would attract more riders to transit than we now have. Critics say that light rail costs too much and does too little.

Construction of roads vs rail: A rail right of way is about the same width as a lane of freeway, so both take up the same space and must be graded flat to the same width. Tunnels are the same. The main difference in construction cost is laying down an asphalt surface instead of ties, rails towers and wires. asphalt is much cheaper.

Rail doesn't Pollute

Light rail is electrically powered. In Portland Trimet purchases "green" power from wind mills etc, but if Portland's light rail wasn't buying that power, they would not shut down the wind mills. In most of the country, electricity comes from coal burning, which is quite dirty: it contains trace amounts of uranium, thorium and mercury which end up in the atmosphere in huge quantities due to burning billions of tons of coal. see: www.ornl.gov/ORNLReview/rev26-34/text/colmain.html

General Motors and Streetcars:

The key thing to know is that although General Motors bought a number of streetcar companies, companies that GM DID NOT buy also converted to bus. Here is the story of this urban rumor: http://www.lava.net/cslater/TQOrigin.pdf

Induced demand:

This is the claim that it is useless to build more road capacity because it will instantly fill up. To believe this you have to believe that people would suddenly drive to work twice each morning.

Externalities of Driving

Externalities — See Mark DeLucchi’s research (summarized here), which shows that the externalities from autos are far smaller than the subsidies to transit. And he based pollution costs on Los Angeles pollution in 1990. Cars are a lot cleaner today and most places have a lot less pollution (and thus lower externalities because pollution is less toxic in smaller doses) than Los Angeles.

Cars provide wider area of job possibilities.

If you had more job choices, you would probably be able to find one that pays better or has better working conditions. Compared to transit, automobiles provide those more choices by allowing you to reach any point in a wider area than transit in a given commute time. Recent data is showing that low income people increase their income by 40% by getting a car (link pending).

Eyes on the street

There is only one category of people required, by law, to keep their eyes on the streets and surroundings: motor vehicle drivers.

Claim: density reduces driving.

True, but at a rate slower than the density increases. For example, assume a one square mile area with 10,000 people and 9,000 drivers. If you double the density to 20,000 people and the ratio of drivers stayed constant there would be 18,000 drivers. In reality some people will choose not to drive and there will be only, guessing, 16,000 drivers instead of 18,000 - a reduction of 2,000 drivers in this hypothetical example. However this is still 7,000 more drivers in the same area - a big increase in congestion. This is how density reduces driving AND increases congestion. Since automobile pollution generally follows driving, this is also how higher density reduces total pollution and increases pollution where people live. In order to have NO INCREASE in congestion, EVERY ONE of the new people would have to be a NON-DRIVER. Also see Oregonian October 16, 1998

Rail brings development.

No, the incentives bring the development. Portland's city council approved tax incentives to build high density along the light tail line as reported in the Oregonian, October 24, 1996:

Of course the real question is: is high density development desirable?

Have you noticed that they don't claim that rail reduces congestion any more? see Oregonian October 16, 1998

Transit Cost:

Here is a note about that 22.6% recovery: What increase in ridership would it take to break even? First, if there were no cost increase, a 442% increase in ridership would do it. If the added capacity only cost ½ as much as the present, I guess that an 884% increase would do. Of course it would not be this efficient, so probably double that increase or more. Doubling that we are at 1768% increase. This is getting close to all trips in the area on Trimet for the "mass" transit system to break even. Not a very good example of mass production efficiency.

Commute times and density.

Very high density cities like Hong Kong have very short commutes. Unfortunately, they are also very slow due to extreme congestion.


is what you get when people get affluent enough to move out of a tenement and into a decent place to raise a family. What is wrong with that?

Typical Light Rail Promoter distortion of the Facts

http://www.lightrailnow.org/myths/m_por_2006-01a.htm :

Hmmm... So Portland's total local rail investment (so far) is about $512 million. But, stimulated by that investment is about $3.8 billion in new real estate investment within walking distance of a MAX rail station (defined as 1/4 mile). That would represent something like $76 million per year in property taxes alone (at 2%). By itself, this is a payback rate of about 7 years for the local investment - better than my high-efficiency furnace.

From the tables above, we can see that one-seventh of the transit fleet on 4% of the routes carries about one-third of the entire transit ridership - and at 63% of the cost of a bus running in the same geographic territory. If you are paying tax support dollars either way, you'd save money by driving the buses into the Willamette River and putting the riders on rail.