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Light Rail and Lower-income Transit Riders

Special Report by Light Rail Progress

© Light Rail Progress – August 2000

Critics of light rail transit (LRT) and other rail transit proposals frequently portray rail transit as catering almost exclusively to affluent riders while neglecting service for those who are less affluent and transit-dependent.

The higher average income of riders of many rail transit services is often cited. However, as we have frequently pointed out, there's no basis whatsoever for inferring that poorer riders are badly served or that they avoid riding rail transit trains.

LRT attracts wider range of riders

In fact, one could come to a quite opposite conclusion: transit-dependent individuals are still well served, but rail transit manages to attract more affluent suburbanites who tend to avoid the bus system. That influx of middle- and higher-income riders into the ridership mix may well be what computes to a higher proportion of affluent riders and accounts for the average income level of all rail transit riders.

The rich vs. poor argument has been repeatedly wheeled out by die-hard transit opponents who are actually targeting not just new rail transit systems, but even the bus services on which many lower-income travellers depend for mobility. The argument has been used, for example, in South Jersey against the "heavy" rail Lindenwold Line (PATCO), in Baltimore against LRT, in Atlanta against MARTA's "heavy" rail system, in Dallas against DART's light rail system, in Virginia Beach against LRT, and in a number of other situations.

But it's baseless. Here's why.

More riders – at all income levels

it's true that light rail attracts higher-income riders – but that only means it tends to carry a lower percentage of lower-income groups while typically winning a higher number of riders from lower-income groups ... as well as a higher number from higher-income groups!

The ridership base gets bigger, particularly by adding riders from higher-income groups. Ridership from lower-income sectors of the population doesn't increase as fast (although these riders may ride more), in part because unemployment is higher among these groups. Transit is particularly useful for work-trip commuters; so, if more middle-income and upper-income riders have jobs, it stands to reason that more new riders would come from these sectors of the population. And these are the same groups which are the heavy auto owners and commuters too!

Example: San Diego Trolley

The San Diego Trolley's East Line (Orange) is an excellent example of this. When first built in the late 1980s, it extended only to Euclid Avenue in the city's low-rent district. it offered service every 15 minutes whereas bus lines had offered only half-hourly or hourly service, depending upon the bus route. The bus routes were not eliminated, other than undergoing very minor changes.

LRT initially attracted 4,500 weekday riders, whereas the bus lines had about 3,000. Total transit ridership increased almost 100 percent, serving the poor in East San Diego.

In the early 1990s, East Line service was extended to the suburbs of LaMesa and El Cajon. As ridership jumped from 4,500 to 17,000 per weekday, the proportion of poor dropped from nearly 100% to approximately a third – but that was still a net increase in lower-income ridership, still far more poor riders than before. The poor could now easily access jobs in the suburbs!

At the same time, the great majority of new riders were somewhat more affluent, typically suburban work commuters and other travellers, many of whom had previously be using their cars. That pushed the proportion of more affluent riders higher, and also meant a higher average income level – even though more lower-income riders than ever were now also being served!

LRT serves all income levels

LRT and other rail transit services have demonstrated a marked propensity to attract middle- and higher-income ridership – the very people who would otherwise make up the majority of automobile users, clogging freeways and streets and contributing to an increased need for expansive roadway expansion and construction of parking facilities. Thompson's TRB study of the Sacramento 1990 census found that suburb-to-suburb light rail service attracted 60 to 70 percent more riders than equivalent bus service did. These were real numbers, not hypothetical projections.

In the process, however, lower-income riders find LRT improves service for them, also. And the improved access to better-paying jobs means that they have a crack at more quickly moving out of that low-income status.

Bottom line: Light rail is for everyone!

Rev. 00/08/08


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