New public transport may have no impact on private car use

Investment in expensive new light rail in the US does not necessarily get drivers out of their cars, according to an independent public policy research group in Ohio. New public transport in some cities has even been followed by an increase in people driving to work in their cars.

The Buckeye Institute has found that according to 1990 and 2000 census data, numbers of railway passengers are declining in both well established and new rail networks.

For example, in the period between the collection of the two sets of data, Atlanta’s railway system lost 22.5% of the city’s commuters, and Washington, DC, lost 18.4%. San Diego and Denver both gained market share but by only 2% and 2.6% respectively.

Transport officials must be feeling most despondent in Dallas, where there was major transport investment during the 1990s, consisting of four new rail lines, totalling 30 miles. However, commuters were clearly not impressed, with railusers declining by 23% in the ten years since the previous census.

One of the problems, say the Buckeye Institute researchers, may be that railways often have a ‘down-town’ focus, whilst population and employment may have moved outside this down-town core. According to one estimate, on average 90% of employment now occurs elsewhere.

Another problem for rail may be competition with less expensive options such as car pooling and telecommuting. In Dallas, 54% of new commuters used car pools to get to work, resulting in an increase of over 17% of the market share. One reason for the success of car pooling in Dallas may be the addition of 35 miles of high-occupancy vehicle lanes (HOVs) during the period between the two sets of data, according to transport research firm Wendell Cox Consultancy.

Wendell Cox has found that very few rail systems have experienced increases in passenger numbers. These include the system in Orlando, Florida, which has experienced a nearly 10% increase, the Portland to Salem line, which has increase by over 5%, and the Sacramento to Yolo, California, line, on which passenger numbers have increased by over 13%.

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