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Does Light Rail "Rob" Bus Service, or Make it Prosper? You Decide!

Light Rail Progress – March 2001

A familiar canard circulated by many light rail opponents is that light rail "robs" bus service, which then "suffers". As a result, opponents claim, overall system ridership plummets.

This is not just false ... it's the exact opposite of the truth. in reality, for almost every single new light rail installation, total transit system ridership has soared.

The reasons:

First, light rail tends to be much cheaper to operate; the cost savings are passed on to expansion of bus service.

Second, appropriate bus routes frequently are restructured into crosstown and feeder routes to interface more effectively with light rail, thus opening new, crossways bus corridor service and attracting new bus ridership. Especially in the fast-growing suburbs, this provides brandnew transit access to and between new suburban origins and destinations which have been unaffordable and almost impossible to serve with traditional, radial bus routes.
Source: GL Thompson + TG Matoff, "The Network Approach: its Effect on the Performance of American Transit investments" (TRB, Dallas, Nov. 2000)

Third, the overall transit system gets a better "image" with light rail, and many people who never previously rode transit will hop on a bus, often to access the light rail service.

Here's a few examples of the impact of light rail on overall system ridership.


Sacramento, California installed light rail in 1987.

Sacramento LRV in streetAs a result, Sacramento Regional Transit's systemwide boardings grew from 14.0 million in 1987 to 26.3 million in 1997 - an 88% increase. Today, Sacramento's total transit system is considered a whopping success ... and light rail's being expanded.
Source: Sacramento RT, 2000


Portland, Oregon installed its MAX light rail Eastside line in 1986.

MAX annual ridership tripled between 1986-1999. Bus ridership is up over 35% since Eastside MAX opened.

Since Westside MAX opened in September 1998, bus and MAX ridership increased 137% in that corridor.
Source: Portland Tri-Met, 2000


St. Louis train near stadiumSt. Louis, Missouri installed its MetroLink light rail system in 1993. it has not only revitalized St. Louis's transit system, driving a major increase in systemwide ridership, but has caused transit ridership throughout the region to surge. Since LRT service was initiated in 1993, total transit ridership has climbed by 16.5 million riders, or about 44%.

However, that doesn't give the complete picture.

Prior to light rail, St. Louis's bus transit system was losing about 2.4 million riders a year. By 1998, that would amount to some 12.1 million riders lost. Ridership today would be about 25.3 million, not 53.9 million. Thus, light rail has helped to more than double all transit ridership.
Source: St. Louis Bi-State Development Agency, 2000

Spark That Makes the System Work

Bottom Line: Far from "robbing" bus service, light rail's proven it's a tremendous benefactor – the spark that can make the whole transit system thrive!

More on Rail Transit Ridership...

More on Financial Issues...

Light Rail Progress Rev. 2001/03/11


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