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(Photo: L. Henry)


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USA: More Evidence of the Powerful Mobility Benefits of Public Transit

Light Rail Now Project Team – November 2006

Certainly, one of the primary issues at the core of the "Transit Wars" – the incessant attacks on rail transit by pro-automobile critics and the responses by rail supporters – is the implications for urban travel and traffic congestion. Within a context of overwhelming government-driven emphasis on highways, ongoing expansion of streets, highways, and other motor vehicle facilities on a vast scale, overwhelming public dependency on motor vehicle transport, and the resultant precipitous growth in vehicle ownership and use in urban areas, any congestion-mitigating effects of a single new transit route, such as a rail line, are extremely hard to assess.

However, evidence – often provided by special circumstances – does emerge from time to time to demonstrate that public transit does play a significant role in alleviating traffic congestion compared to the level of congestion that would otherwise be experienced without it. The latest such study to provide additional evidence of the congestion-reduction benefits of public transit, particularly urban rail, analyzes data from the 2003 Los Angeles transit strike.

LA's 2003 transit strike

Study results are presented in a paper, "Effects of the Los Angeles Transit Strike on Highway Congestion" by Shih-Che Lo and Randolph W. Hall, published in Transportation Research, Part A, Vol. 40, No. 10, pp. 903-917. The article summarizes the researchers' analysis of highway sensor data to evaluate traffic flow and congestion delays during and after the 35-day transit strike.

According to the analysis, the data indicate that traffic speeds declined as much as 20% during the strike, and rush hour duration at specific locations increased as much as 200%, despite the fact that transit users represent a relatively small portion of total travelers and the increase in total vehicular traffic was small. Speed reductions were particularly severe along rail transit corridors. Traffic speeds declined, most sharply upstream from locations where queues normally end.

An abstract of the Lo & Hall study (and information for ordering the full study) can be found at this link: Effects of the Los Angeles transit strike on highway congestion.

LA Blue Line Blue Line light rail system is a critical link in Los Angeles mass transit network. Tremendous impact of LA's public transit on area's mobility was underscrored when it wasn't available – during 2003 transit strike. Congestion was particularly heavy in corridors normally served by rail.
[Photo (September 2006): L. Henry]

Ed Tennyson, PE, a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, hails the Los Angeles transit strike study as a valuable contribution to public transit and professional understanding of the impact of transit on traffic congestion.

Washington, DC: 9/11 crisis

Washington Metro Ed cites other evidence of the beneficial impact of public transit on urban mobility – particularly from the Washington, DC area. Perhaps the most relevant example, according to Ed, is the crisis of 11 September 2001, when the National Capital was attacked by terrorists. The Pentagon, one of the largest office buildings in the world, Ed relates, was on fire, and a plane was headed for the White House to destroy it (fortunately, the plane did not make it).
[Photo of MetroRail train: LRN file]

The police ordered the center-city evacuated and MetroRail shut down. The CEO of MetroRail, Richard A. White, defied the police, and told his dispatchers to get everyone home that they brought in. It was a most courageous and fortunate decision. Autos poured out of parking garages and gridlocked every intersection. Carpool riders were stuck. Buses got nowhere.

But the nine radial MetroRail lines leaving downtown were running with six-car trains (mostly) on 12-minute headways. I do not know how many extra trains were run, but not many, for lack of operators on the spur of the moment.

Anyway, in the next hour 45 trains took 48,600 people home, or at least out of the perceived danger zone. Virginia Railway Express could not help, as it had no crews on duty – or if it did, the CSX dispatcher in Jacksonville, Florida could not help. It would take 54 lanes of traffic to carry that many people out of the city, with traffic signals working correctly – but with gridlock, it did not work well at all. They spent most of the day getting out.

The highway-oriented Texas Transportation institute, notes Ed, each year says the National Capital is saving a billion dollars a year by having MetroRail to avold more traffic delay.

San Francisco: 1997 transit strike

BART Ed also cites the case of the 1997 strike of workers of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system – the regional rapid transit network serving the San Francisco-Bay Area. During the six-day strike, he relates, "The Oakland Bay Bridge could not begin to handle the traffic; most people were locked out." According to one newspaper report, "morning backups at the Bay Bridge started an hour early and ended 30 minutes later than normal." [San Francisco Chronicle, 6 July 2005]
[Photo of BART train: LRN file]

So what do these incidents prove? Ed Tennyson sums it up: "Transit matters, very much."

NOTE: information on the study of the Los Angeles transit strike of 2003 by Shih-Che Lo and Randolph W. Hall was originally brought to our attention by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Policy institute.

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2006/11/05

More on Public Transport in Los Angeles

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