Out of Darkness, Light Rail!

When San Diego opened its light rail system in 1981, Mayor Pete Wilson declared it “a good idea whose time has come again.’” The bright red train cars, known as “the Trolley,” harked back to the urban railway that spanned 165 miles across metropolitan San Diego until 1949. As in so many North American cities, that streetcar system was ripped out as the automobile era dawned.

But the San Diego Trolley was built with a different spirit and purpose than its predecessor. It was light rail. And from San Diego, the new mode would spread across North America. Far cheaper to build than a subway, faster than a streetcar, and perhaps more alluring than a bus, light rail was seen as the answer to congested highways, growing populations, and civic fantasies of a dozen U.S. cities in the 1980s and early ‘90s.

In practice, the success of these systems varied quite a bit. But the ideas that set their shiny cars in motion remain today. Public transit funding hasn’t gotten much better since the 1980s, and cities are still living in that material world.

To understand the light rail boom, it helps to know how poorly the heavy rail systems of the 1960s and 1970s were perceived at the time. Washington, D.C’s Metro, Atlanta’s MARTA, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system were all born of that earlier era, a time of hearty federal funding for “urban renewal”projects with a futuristic bent. But the construction of these systems ran significantly over budget, and several experienced serious technical problems early on, like when a BART train in Fremont ran into a sand embankment five months into service, injuring passengers. “There was a backlash to heavy rail,” said Jeff Brown, a professor of urban planning at Florida State University who has written extensively on the history of light rail.

Yet local leaders in mid-sized cities still wanted—and needed—public transit. Highways were becoming more congested as urban growth patterns sprawled to the suburbs and downtown centers emptied out. In the 1970s, Edmonton, Alberta had been the first in North America to adopt light rail technology, which had started in Germany as a hybrid of tram-grade cars and rapid-transit-grade tracks. (Be warned: The term “light rail” is distinct from “streetcar,” although the difference between the two modes is murky; the latter usually—but not always—refers to historical urban railways that run in mixed traffic, with shorter routes, slower speeds, and more frequent stops.) Light rail seemed to have many advantages: It could run in existing rights-of-way, didn’t require digging tunnels or building aerial supports, and the technology was much less complex than heavy rail. “It’s more like an amusement park ride,’” an executive at the American Public Transit Association reportedly quipped at the ribbon-cutting of the Trolley.

But the lack of sophistication was also an advantage. After San Diego built its system in a few short years and for less than $6 million per mile—a fraction of what BART had cost, for example—Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Sacramento, San Jose, and Portland would all open their own light rails by the end of the decade, too. “There was so much excitement at that point among policy people,” said Shelley Poticha, a managing director at the Natural Resources Defense Council and the former executive director of the Congress for New Urbanism, a nonprofit that advocates for walkable, transit-oriented communities. “They thought, ‘Maybe this is the thing that’ll get people out of cars.’”

Buffalo’s Metro Rail system, which opened in 1984, boasts another benefit to local commuters: It’s (partially) snow-proof. (John Normile/Getty Images)

Certain people, in particular. Planners believed that light rail could draw a new market of riders. Car-owning commuters who lived in suburbs but might be interested in alternative transportation options were seen as the natural light rail constituency. Buses carried a stigma—a racist, classist stigma—but trains had cachet. “The idea was that if you provided a reliable, high-quality rail service, that might appeal to those individuals,” Brown said. That’s why virtually all light rail systems followed a “hub and spoke” layout, with long arms reaching out to the suburbs rather than focusing on the city core.

Compared to “captive” riders who relied on transit as their primary mode, these “choice” riders—terms have since fallen out of fashion in transit lingo—were generally better off and able to pay higher fares. Multiple studies have since proven that light rail systems do indeed recoup more revenue from passenger fares than buses do—in fact, the San Diego Trolley still boasts one of the highest “farebox recovery ratios” in the U.S.

All of this was important to 1980s planners. President Ronald Reagan cut federal support for transit by 32 percent in his first year in office, and later tried to slash operating subsidies and capital investment by another two-thirds. His characterization of Miami’s heavy rail metro in March 1985, which was just 10 months old and falling short of ridership projections, is a good snapshot of his views. “In Miami,” Reagan told a conference of county officials, “the $1 billion subsidy helped build a system that serves less than 10,000 daily riders. That comes to $100,000 per passenger. It would have been a lot cheaper to buy everyone a limousine.”

As the federal government withdrew support for transit projects (and for just about every type of public benefit, especially within cities), light rail was a comparatively modest ask by local governments, one they could pay more for themselves.

But as the spindly systems spanned out across the land, most fell short on attracting significant new crowds of riders or shifting commuters away from their cars. “They were sold on the idea of reducing congestion, and that didn’t happen anywhere,” said Brown. In Sacramento, San Jose, and Pittsburgh, transit’s overall mode share has declined since the early 1990s. San Diego’s has stayed flat. Even Portland, which probably has the most fleshed-out light rail network in the U.S., has gained only a couple of percentage points in its portion of commuters using transit since its MAX opened.

Meanwhile, while cities have continued to invest in light rail, it has often come at the expense of bus service, thus disadvantaging poorer riders of color.

“It’s not like [light rail systems] are unused,” said Jonathan English, a doctoral student at Columbia University (and CityLab contributor) who specializes in the history of urban transit in North America. “But after dozens or even a hundred kilometers of light rail, the effect of these transit systems as transportation has been pretty marginal.”

Part of the problem was the alignment of many light rail systems. Constrained by strict federal funding requirements, planners often laid their tracks along freeway medians and busy arteries to save money; that means riders often had to trek across multiple lanes of speeding traffic to board, and stations often had to be sited far from walkable residential areas. There was also little integration with existing bus networks, or vice-versa. “It’s good if you can walk to the light rail station, but even in cities with extensive networks like Portland, only a tiny percentage of the region’s population can do that,” English said. Fast, frequent bus networks could feed more riders to these stations, but few cities have focused investment in buses until very recently. English likens such unsupported light rail systems to “skeletons without a body.”

But the hottest mode of the 1980s was successful in other respects. Those early systems—which were soon followed by at least 12 more in the 1990s and 2000s—helped revitalize hollowed-out downtowns, with property values increasing around stations in virtually every city that built one. They helped anchor walkable, transit-oriented communities in many cities, with Portland as the poster child. Cities like Phoenix and Salt Lake City have more recently taken a page out of Portland’s book, building light rail with local sales tax measures to support placemaking and economic development efforts downtown. Sacramento, San Jose, and Los Angeles (which opened its first light rail line in 1990) have undertaken major bus network redesigns to better compliment rail systems and serve core riders. “I don’t think light rail policy is fully fixed, but we’re in a much better place than we were in the 1980s,” Poticha said.

All told, the legacy of the era’s light rail fever is mixed. But from a transportation perspective, it was a more practical trend than the more recent mania for downtown streetcars. The dinky little lines built in gentrifying sections of Detroit, Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., and other cities in the last decade make basically zero pretense of serving transit riders; these short loops of notoriously slow conveyances are instead built to drive up property taxes. Nothing wrong with that on its face. But as greenhouse gases from vehicles rise, and as the federal government continues to starve transit funding, streetcars are an uncomfortably old-fashioned look—and use of local tax dollars.

By comparison, light rail systems—the flawed children of Reagan-era compromise—seem a lot more rational. They might not have been able to lure Americans out of their cars, but their time may yet come.

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