Riders Won’t Flock to New System: Expert

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Media Appearances, Urbanization

RAPID transit systems don’t shrink congestion, boost transit ridership or encourage economic development, said an economist and urban sprawl expert yesterday.

Randal O’Toole, an American economist and author of The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths, delivered an often-humorous lunchtime lecture yesterday to many of the city’s business leaders. O’Toole, who was invited to speak by the right-leaning Frontier Centre for Public Policy, poked holes in all of the commonly accepted arguments in favour of light-rail transit or bus rapid transit systems, both of which Winnipeg is contemplating.

O’Toole says cities like Winnipeg look to Calgary and Portland and suffer needless “LRT envy”.

“The real problem with rail is it’s really, really expensive and it doesn’t do that much,” said O’Toole. “Rapid transit of any kind is not going to solve congestion. All it’s going to do is maybe slow down the decline of the transit system.”

An LRT system won’t boost ridership because it’s mostly former bus-riders who switch to the LRT system, not car-drivers. And cities with LRT often have some of the worst freeway congestion, said O’Toole.

O’Toole said Portland’s LRT system, along with its policies to discourage urban sprawl, have been failures, even though the Oregon city is often lauded as a centre of progressive thinking. Portland’s LRT did little to spawn economic development such as new condominiums or businesses. So few sprouted along the rail line that the city began heavily subsidizing new housing projects, most of which included large parking lots since few tenants actually used the LRT.

LRT might work in Winnipeg, where about a quarter of jobs are concentrated downtown, and a rapid transit system would encourage downtown development, but that would come at the expense of growth elsewhere in the city, said O’Toole.