Expert Punctures Myth of Rapid Transit

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Media Appearances, Urbanization

If city hall is still considering building a light rail transit system to beef up public transit ridership, they may want to tune in to the research of Randal O’Toole, a U.S. author and economist who has studied rapid transit to death.

His conclusion, after studying the effects of LRT and bus rapid transit in dozens of U.S. and European countries, is that they do little, if anything, to increase ridership.

And O’Toole, who wowed a crowd yesterday during a Frontier Centre luncheon speech, makes a pretty strong case.

“I can’t think of anywhere in the world where it makes sense to build light rail,” said O’Toole, an urban development expert and author of The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths.

Not even in O’Toole’s home town of Portland, Ore. — a city that has LRT and a town many hold up as a model for so-called smart growth.

What O’Toole’s statistics show is that cities that have LRT have not seen a significant increase in the percentage of commuters who use public transit.

It contradicts everything we’ve heard in Winnipeg by councillors such as Jenny Gerbasi and Donald Benham that rapid transit, LRT or BRT, gets people out of their cars and into public transit.

Usually what happens is the people using LRT are the same people who used to take the bus, O’Toole found.

And the people driving their cars keep driving their cars.

“They aren’t providing good transportation for anybody,” said O’Toole. “So you’re not relieving congestion, you’re just spending a lot of money.”

It turns out, especially for cities like Winnipeg, that traditional buses are the way to go for public transit, argues O’Toole.

“Buses are flexible, they’re fast and they’re cheap,” said O’Toole.

Besides, Winnipeg doesn’t have much of a ridership problem compared with other major cities around the world, said O’Toole.

Winnipeg is tied with Calgary for the fourth highest percentage of commuters in Canada who use transit to get to work.

It’s a nagging little statistic I’ve written about many times. It’s nagging to the pro-rapid transit folks who keep telling us we’re falling further behind other cities on transit.

The truth is, we have higher riderships than cities such as Edmonton and Vancouver, both of which have various forms of rapid transit.

I’ll bet you doughnuts to dollars that what Mayor Sam Katz’s rapid transit task force recommends is exactly what O’Toole is arguing — that the massive costs of BRT or LRT come nowhere near the minuscule benefits.

And that the smartest thing to do is to enhance our existing bus system.

The scary part is how close we actually came in Winnipeg to sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into BRT, only to increase ridership by a sliver — if at all.

All I can say is thank goodness the BRT nuts don’t hold power at city hall anymore