From OregonLive:

With TriMet on the verge of opening its fifth MAX route, the $1.4 billion Orange Line between downtown Portland and Milwaukie, some might wonder if it’s even worth asking whether light rail has been worth the investment.

TillikumBut a new “Future of Transportation” analysis of U.S. Census data conducted by Yonah Freemark, project manager at Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago, raises some serious questions about TriMet’s decision to invest so heavily in light rail over the past three decades.

Writing for The Atlantic Cities, known for its unabashed advocacy of mass transit, Freemark says “it doesn’t take much digging” to realize that light-rail systems built with billions of taxpayer dollars in Portland and four other cities since the 1980s have not lived up to their promises.

“These initial five systems in themselves neither rescued the center cities of their respective regions nor resulted in higher transit use — the dual goals of those first-generation lines,” he writes..

Full column (and Tri-Met response) here.


UPDATE: Example of integrated light-rail in public spaces – Angers, France (metro pop. 395,000):

light rail in the city



  1. Having looked at the stats on development attraction (or subsidization would be more appropriate), transit ridership and service levels, I’ve known this for a long time already. The more worried I get knowing Portland’s LRT developments are actually influencing some of the transportation planning up here in Metro Van (particularly the Surrey LRT proposal).

  2. Having read the Atlantic Cities article, it certainly seems that light rail (or any other transit form) planned in a vacuum is risky. The Atlantic Cities article focuses on auto-centric development (free everything: roads, bridges, freeways, parking), sprawl development planning and the resulting low density near stations (and everywhere else) as major factors contributing to poor performance.

    And my oh my, does this ever sound like Surrey.

  3. LA Metro has a light rail line down the middle of I-105 that has absolutely no hope of attracting passengers. The stations are miles apart, they’re located in the middle of freeway overpasses and there’s absolutely no density to be seen in any direction. Like the green line in LA I believe the green line in Portland also runs in the middle of a freeway as does part of Calgary’s LRT and much of the yellow line up the valley east of Oakland. I can’t think of a more pedestrian hostile environment.

  4. I’m surprised more of us aren’t concerned about LRT in Surrey.

    The only study that I am aware of doesn’t look promising:

    Compare the LRT plan Surrey is pushing for (alternative 3) with Skytrain and BRT (alternative 4).

    Option 3: $2.18 billion with 12,000 new weekday transit trips.

    Option 4: $2.22 billion with 24,500 new weekday transit trips, not to mention no transfer needed from Langley to Downtown, and frequency and speed far higher than with LRT. Also no risk of collisions.

    For a 2% increase in upfront costs, you get a 100% increase in ridership, comparing the two technologies.

    Meanwhile, ridership expectations for opening day on the proposed Broadway Skytrain has been doubled to 250,000.

    For these reasons, and although I am a strong transit proponent, I oppose the plan for Surrey’s LRT.


    1. The Surrey LRT and SkyTrain proposals aim at completely different audiences in my mind. The SkyTrain one is about moving Fleetwood and Langley residents north-west to SCC, NW, Burnaby and Vancouver. The region gets a lengthened backbone while Surrey gets a solution appropriate for the next decade.

      The LRT proposal is all about Surrey getting its “fair share”. It creates substantial, “permanent” links between the town centres and leverages economies of scale to extend an olive branch to Langley. It’s not justified today, it’s a solution for the Surrey that might be in the future if subsequent city councils and the development community don’t screw it up.

      The South of Fraser is screaming that they aren’t getting their fair share of funding, but there’s a much bigger imbalance that is at the heart of all the transportation problems in this region: the fact that we spend most of our money accommodating fewer than 20% of trips. I refer, of course, to the outrageous sums we’ve spent recently and the equally outrageous sums looming on the horizon for moving people and goods across the Fraser River. Fully 80% of south of Fraser trips never cross the river and an even higher percentage of north of Fraser trips begin and end on the same side. Yet billions upon billions are being spent on bridges.

      Correct that massive imbalance and suddenly there’s money for every pie-in-the-sky transit idea under the sun.

      1. Well, the frustrating thing to me is that BRT provides practically the same utility of LRT at a fraction of the cost. By lengthening the “backbone” of the expo line to Langley, while also connecting Guildford via SCC to Newton, you get the best of both worlds.

        And frankly, you’re right that the discussion is about Surrey getting its “fair share”. It’s not about what is actually needed for the region. It seems sacrilegious to suggest Vancouver should get another expensive line before Surrey, but it’s simply what the region needs more. Besides – Vancouver will not be the only city to benefit from the Broadway Line, but Surrey is undoubtedly the only one to benefit from the Surrey Lines.

        If LRT gets built in Surrey, I foresee a disaster. It won’t see the success of other Skytrain lines, due to the inferior technology combined with much lower population density, and it will simply serve to delegitimize Translink further. Meanwhile, Broadway will become a serious problem. Ignoring Broadway to build in Surrey is a misallocation of scarce resources. Surrey’s system could be improved in the short term considerably simply with more buses. Broadway cannot.

    2. I share your view but less of your concern because most people seem to think the way that we do. Save for Calgary, the North American LRT experiment has been something of a flop, and many people now see that. LRT just don’t add much more than buses besides cost, and when you try to build more of an exclusive right of way, you pay just about as much as a metro with markedly inferior service. (In Toronto they seem to manage to pay even more than a metro with very markedly inferior service, but that’s what you get when the whole transit establishment becomes beholden to a failed idea.)

      Part of the LRT movement was based on the perfectly laudable desire to increase capacity on overcrowded bus lines. But that goal seems to have obscured the other important goals of increasing speed and frequency. So American transit agencies spent a bunch of money building LRT but in doing so didn’t actually increase the service that much. The predictable result is that bus riders switched to the LRT lines, but the whole system didn’t add many new riders nor did it become more relevant to the city as a whole. (And with articulated buses and double articulated buses, the capacity of bus lines is less of a constraint.)

      The very much disingenuous support of LRT on Broadway uses the same type of arguments: the 99 has this many riders which can be accommodated by the capacity of LRT, ergo there is no need for a metro. Too true. But with a metro you would add a tremendous amount of service – speed and frequency – that didn’t exist before. With LRT you’re still spending $1b+ without actually adding that much at all. The Condon argument was worst of all. It was essentially replacing all the trolley routes with streetcars for the price of the Broadway Line. But this plan added no transit service at all. It was spending two billion on next to nothing. But it did let them create maps full of red lines that made it all look good compared to the short red red line denoting the Broadway Line. That a bunch of grad students at UBC were taken in with this plan reflected poorly on grad studies at UBC. I was a fan of LRT in 2nd year undergrad. Started to re-think in 3rd year. That grad students haven’t figured this out shows a lack of critical thinking.

      One reason I’m so prolix on this point is because of the stupid Transit City Plan in Toronto. That thing made no sense. It was way more expensive than BRT, even more expensive than full metro in some cases, yet offered tepid improvement in transit service. Unfortunately the transit establishment got behind it. Part due, I suspect, to the strange grip that LRT is able to exert on the psyches of the adherents – see grad students above – partly due to the general LRT fad, and partly due to rank tribalism. Rob Ford was against LRT, so people against Rob Ford decided to be for it a la the enemy of my enemy is by friend. Now Rob Ford was no transit advocate, and he didn’t even know why he was right, but he was right. Subways make more sense for Toronto, and the Ford plan had more riders getting better service than Transit City. The “transit” advocates advocating for Transit City were bizarrely in support of a plan with fewer riders getting worse service.

      On the specifics of Surrey, again the LRT plan adds next to nothing that a much cheaper BRT line couldn’t offer. And metro to Langley and Metro up and down King George would transform the place in a way that LRT couldn’t. And these metros wouldn’t just be about shuttling people in and out of Surrey but within Surrey as well. Actually a King George Line is more important than extending the Expo Line all the way to Langley, although I would do that eventually.

      (One reason for the King George Line is that it could be extended all the way to White Rock. When we get true high speed rail to Seattle, which is admittedly well off in the future, this will have to connect to the local transit system. True HSR requires a whole new line which would require a whole new tunnel into Vancouver. And a sensible HSR system would also have a station south of the Fraser. (I know the HSR advocates have proposed a route up the Pacific Highway corridor and also along the BNSF tracks, both of which have merit. But neither would allow a station south of the Fraser in a very useful spot.) But if we were to build a whole new tunnel into Vancouver, it would always be more useful as a local transit tunnel than as part of an intercity HSR. So it would make sense for HSR to terminate in White Rock and connect with the King George Line that would have six stations in Surrey and then act as an Express Line into Vancouver with stations just at Metrotown, Broadway and Downtown. This would sacrifice some speed, but the express portion would be fast and would allow more convenient access to all parts of the city besides just downtown. And eventually Expo Line ridership will outgrow the current capacity increase program, and an express line would be then most welcome. This is all well in the future, we’ll start talking about it in 2040, but that is no reason to ignore how current transit systems can be used in the future.)

  5. We need both lines, in Surrey and under Broadway. Car use has to be higher taxed, through additional parking fees and road tolling to fund it, plus future taxes along a denser development that will happen along both lines. Not doing it just postpones the inevitable gridlock and loss of jobs and urban quality of life.

    1. Absolutely! Why are we arguing about this line or that line? It should be both lines!

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