Light Rail, Primary Arterial Transport

Skytrain is by far one of the best example of light rail done right in North America.  It carries over 300k people each day and runs an actual profit on operations.  No other system in North America can boast such an efficient, clean, and effective system.

The Sound Transit Central Link will likely become a very strong player in Seattle’s future transit.  The ridership this fourth quarter was up 5%, almost entirely because of Sound Transit Central Link.  Bus ridership stayed pretty much at the same level.  This is the same thing that has occurred in every single system (except Buffalo, NY) that built a light rail line to act as an arterial – or even minor arterial – transport.  The light rail, as people become familiar with it, regularly choose it over regular or BRT bus service, and a huge percentage of riders are choosing it over a car (i.e. they traditionally did not ride the bus or transit at all for that matter).  Light rail is a very effective way to increase transit usage, and in the long run it also decreases operational costs for a transit authority.

Light Rail in Seattle is set to be exceptionally costly in capital costs, primarily because of the city’s decision to build most (over 90% of it) in huge tunnels, raised above road & ground level, or placed underground (dig and cover style).  This has made the capital costs massive.  However, in 20 years, especially with inflation kicking in, the light rail will most likely prove to have been one of the most intelligent transit decisions in Seattle in well over 30 years or so.


The net operational costs of the light rail per person carried and the net development that light rail encourages is light years beyond what BRT or general bus routes can provide.  The light rail, operationally will fall to well below a 1/3rd of the cost of buses operationally.  Even with capital costs as high as they are in Seattle these costs after inflation and time will become a negligible cost compared to what regular road damage and bus capitol and costs end up being.

Don’t believe me?

Vancouver’s Skytrain actually provides additional money for feeder buses and other transit because it operates profitably.  The capital costs in that city where even higher than Seattle’s because of the automated (i.e. it is unmanned, no driver) and on raised infrastructure right of way.  However even these capital costs start to be a minimal concern for existing lines over time, as the inflation and heavy utilization (over 358k per day on Skytrain in 2010) of the system continues the costs that are saved on roadways, lives saved (over auto usage), and additional things add up to be vastly higher than the cost of the infrastructure.  In addition, the infrastructure isn’t exactly costing a ton of money after it is built, these systems (i.e. rail) last for decades upon decades, unlike most road systems.

Portland’s MAX Light Rail, the original 15~ miles or so, with operational costs and infrastructure capital costs included, is less than it would have been to provide buses to ply the entire distance on existing roadways.  There is no way they could have managed the same ridership levels (over 30k per day on this single short line) with buses on existing roadways (the Interstate gets backed up every day, and has zero area to expand into – i.e. it is only going to get worse for drivers).  With BRT they could have managed some ridership increases, but it would have been less than light rail and would have cost the city millions more than the light rail has if they could have gotten the same ridership increases.  Today, the light rail along most of the original Blue Line has many lines feed into the primary corridor along the Banfield, bringing that 30k per day much closer to 40 or 50k per day and growing.

For more examples check out Denver (Rapidly growing system), San Francisco, New Jersey (Which includes connections with MTA & other systems!), Boston (The most efficient light rail in the US), Philadelphia, and San Diego for more light rail systems that have gained their respective transit agencies a decreasing cost in operations dollars per rider while increasing the quality and efficiency of the ride!

Don’t get me wrong, I praise light rail for all it’s strengths, but buses absolutely serve a significant purpose in any transit system’s mode options.  Especially for less heavily traveled routes where light rail just makes no sense!  BRT for those routes that need upgrading but have minimal capital outlay or will likely not achieve light rail capacity needs.  Of course there is also those cities that are growing rapidly enough that they should bypass the light rail and step right into the big league of commuter rail or subway systems.  San Francisco being one of those cities that complements each mode;  heavy rail, subway (BART), light rail, streetcars, and buses.

Cheers to the cities that have had the insight, open minds, and intelligence to build out their systems.  Boo to those cities that continue to falter in back woods thinking.  They do the country a disservice and the betterment of all mankind suffers for it.  Anyway, I’ve said this before, but the facts haven’t changed so I figured I’d repeat myself with this entry.  🙂

Until later…   keep on rolling.


  1. Thanks for bringing up the awesomeness of Skytrain. I’m getting tired of peole lavishing praise on MAX, which is a mediocre system at best. Skytrain has three times the ridership of MAX, with similar track mileage. Link’s level of grade separation and Seattle’s higher population density (compared to Portland) mean that should be matched up against Vancouver. And we definitely need to learn about station area development from Vancouver.


  2. You make a good argument about Link’s long-term value, but Vancouver’s Skytrain is decidedly NOT light rail. It’s an automated, entirely grade-separated heavy rail system more similar to BART or the Washington Metro than MAX or Link. The grade-separation and automation provide higher capacity and greater frequency, but came at a much higher cost. Light rail is comparably lower density and frequency, but also less expensive and less disruptive during construction. These are choices a community must make during the planning process and mindful of the resources they have to commit. One mode is not inherently better or worse than the other.


  3. blah… the Skytrain vehicles are almost the same, minus a driver. I know they’re different, but they ride similarly and such and are very similar in size.

    …I’ll make a point to not call it light rail anymore. …and yes, they’re closer to heavy rail in the term of ridership. All this silly renaming of names of vehicles & modes over the decades really doesn’t help the regular folk know what these things are. 😦


    1. Actually you aren’t far off when calling Skytrain “light rail”. I remember when Skytrain started they were calling it ALRT (Advanced Light Rail Transit). You can still find references to ALRT.


      1. Yeah, I’ve heard & seen a few articles utilizing that terminology too. All these terms aside, it is a truly awesome system! 🙂

  4. Nice post – but I’m wondering where you came up with the “90% of Link is tunneled” figure? My rough estimate of a fully built-out ST2, as currently proposed, would be roughly 10 miles tunneled and 45 miles above-ground – about 20% Maybe you are talking about Seattle – only segments?


    1. I was being inclusive of the entire list; “huge tunnels, raised above road & ground level, or placed underground (dig and cover style)”

      90% isn’t in tunnels, 90% is just built in a VERY expensive manner. The price is hundreds of millions per mile. Vastly higher than any other similar light rail system – i.e. compare to Portland, Denver, etc. 🙂


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