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Why Light Rail Isn't a Waste of Money

Last weekend a friend of mine sent me an article from The Economist talking about why trams, streetcars, and light rail are a waste of money. The argument is basically that steetcars are expensive, less efficient, and that — despite North America's renewed interest in them — we should instead be spending our scarce public dollars on more buses.

Here's a snippet from the article:

…but cash spent on streetcars displaces spending on other, more cost-effective forms of public transport like buses, which offer cheaper and more-efficient service but are considerably less sexy. The capital cost per mile of a streetcar is between $30m and $75m, while a rapid bus service costs anywhere between $3m and $30m, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Now, there's no question that buse routes are initially cheaper to implement. You don't have track to build. But I don't agree that the cost structure is quite that simple if you consider the number of people you need to move in your city. I struggle to see buses as a more efficient service.

The big difference between modern light rail and buses is capacity. Toronto's new streetcars will move about 3 times as many people as your typical bus. So you'd need to triple the number of buses and triple the number of drivers — adding to your labor costs — if you want to have a chance at moving the same number of people. 

Streetcars are also electric, which means they run on a renewable energy source. We're in the process of making this switch with private transport, so why go backwards when it comes to public transport? You can certainly run electric buses as well, but then you're building overhead power lines and bringing up your initial costs.

I think the challenge is that when people think of light rail, they think of slow lumbering streetcars. I agree that many of these lines are inefficient and I've written about it. But there are a number of ways to implement light rail. And when done well it can efficiently move a lot of people for costs that are far less than a subway.

Image: Aecom