Cities Infrastructure & Transportation
May 3rd, 2017 2 Minute Read Issue Brief by Aaron M. Renn

Does America Need More Urban Rail Transit?

Executive Summary

Efficient rail transit requires dense cities with highly concentrated downtown employment centers. Yet only a limited number of cities, such as New York and Chicago, fit the bill. Most American cities are low-density, have extremely decentralized origins and destinations of employment and trips, and have development and commuting patterns based on the automobile.

Low-density U.S. cities with new rail-transit systems have experienced limited ridership and single-digit transportation market share. Federal funds should be directed to rebuilding aging rail transit in cities where it already exists and where it serves a critical transportation function. In most cases, state and local governments should focus on providing transit service via traditional buses, not building new rail lines.

Key Findings

Apart from New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, U.S. cities are a poor fit for rail transit. Why?

  • Most cities have small central business district (CBD) employment: compare, say, Charlotte, North Carolina (63,000 CBD employment), St. Louis (58,000), and Dallas (70,000) with New York (2 million CBD), Chicago (500,000), and San Francisco (300,000).
  • Most cities also have low-density populations: compare, say, Denver (4,000 residents per square mile), Dallas (3,600), and Charlotte (2,700) with New York (28,000), San Francisco (18,400), and Boston (13,800)

New rail construction has proved to be a poor investment in most cities:

  • Los Angeles’s public-transit ridership has declined since 1985 despite $9 billion spent on new rail-transit lines.
  • Dallas built America’s largest light-rail network by length (90 miles), at a cost of $5.5 billion; but the network carries a mere 100,000 riders per weekday, a sliver of total travel in the Dallas region.
  • Despite billions of dollars in new rail spending nationwide, during 2004–14 84% of national growth in total publictransit ridership came in the New York region.
  • Of the 53 U.S. metro areas with more than a million residents, only five have at least 10% of their commuters use any kind of public transit; and only 11 have at least 5% of commuters use public transit of any kind.

Critical existing rail systems in America’s high-density cities require significant investment in repairs:

  • Boston’s MBTA system has a $7 billion maintenance backlog.
  • The San Francisco Bay Area’s BART rail system has a $10 billion repair backlog.
  • Rail systems in the metro areas of New York, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia also face multibillion-dollar repair backlogs.



Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. Follow him on Twitter here.


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