Do Trains Relieve Highway Congestion? October 31st, 2000
by William Lindley October 31, 2000A recent topic of conversation on the All-Aboard mailing list was the question: Do passenger trains (whether urban, regional or intercity) reduce auto congestion?
David Pedersen wrote:
“It pains me to see fellow rail advocates state that trains will reduce auto congestion. There is no way any train anywhere will reduce congestion. The need for transportation is growing so fast that any cars/trucks taken off the roads are replaced with 2-3 more. Additional air service or more roads does not reduce auto congestion either.”
“The Dane” writes:
“I’m sorry to disagree with you on this point but I must. Trains everywhere reduce highway congestion. The roads between Washington D.C. & New York City would be swamped if train service was to cease. New York City would grind to a virtual standstill if the Subway were to stop running.”
It sounds like a paradox but they are both correct!
While removing trains may dramatically increase road congestion, the converse is not necessarily true. I suggest that:
- When you remove train service,
- congestion increases; yet
- When you add train service,
- there is a negligible effect on congestion but a large positive social and economic impact.
In the widespread case of a city whose highways are plugged with far too many cars, people use surface streets, delay their trips, or simply do not travel. The last part — people not traveling — is positively frightening because it has a huge negative social impact (people stay home) and a huge negative economic impact (people who stay home don’t spend their money).
What happens if you introduce a rail system to such a city? Some people who formerly drove will ride the train.
Imagine the space occupied by one commuter’s car suddenly being empty on that congested highway. What happens? The driver behind him moves up. The back-up is twenty feet shorter, the congestion delay one second less.
However, the way people perceive congestion is at the bottlenecks. And by definition there is always more traffic trying to enter a bottleneck than it can handle. Thus, even though we have removed that commuter’s car from the road, there is no appreciable effect on congestion.
Furthermore, any congestion reduction causes those people who formerly stayed at home to consider traveling, and the folks who delayed their trip will be more likely to travel at the more convenient peak times.
However, once your train service is well-used, suddenly removing it puts all the former rail users on the road at those same peak times. That is the paradox.
The better argument for rail service then is that adding trains (buses, bicycles, and any other alternative) has a hugely positive social and economic impact. Happier people, a higher “velocity of money,” better employment, and so on.
– William Lindley
[Tucson] Depot’s hidden treasures October 30th, 2000
Arizona Daily Star, 30 October 2000.
“Above the false ceilings and behind the hideous wood paneling and fuzzy wallpaper at the former Southern Pacific Railroad depot lies an architectural gem waiting to be restored… The $26 million, 12-year remodeling project began when the city bought the property about two years ago. It has been described as the cornerstone of downtown’s revival. The station is conveniently located across from Hotel Congress on Toole Avenue, and city transportation officials hope a downtown trolley will stop there to let passengers enjoy a complex of shops and restaurants.”
(More on the Tucson depot)
Letter to Downtown Parternship re: Phoenix Union Station October 20th, 2000
October 20, 2000
Downtown Phoenix Partnership, Inc.
502 E. Monroe, Suite C-1
Phoenix, AZ 85004
To Whom It May Concern:
The Arizona Rail Passenger Association supports the expansion of the Downtown District as described in your Fall 2000 newsletter. The revised boundaries would include all of what is popularly known as “Downtown Phoenix,” for the first time including Union Station on South 4th Avenue.
Union Station will have an increasingly important role in the not-too-distant future. We are working for, and hope you will join us in calling for, Amtrak to return its Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle trains through the Valley; for high speed rail between Phoenix and Tucson; and for commuter trains from Sun City West, Buckeye, Chandler, Gilbert, and Queen Creek to bring employees, students, and shoppers right into the heart of Downtown Phoenix. Your new boundaries clearly indicate that Union Station is convenient to all of Downtown.
The station should be purchased by the City of Phoenix and entirely returned to its original purpose for which it is still well suited – the Gateway to Phoenix.
I am also excited about the District Cooling program, which will extend just one short block away from Union Station. The station, completed in 1923 before the advent of air conditioning, could well benefit from a modern system like this.
I hope you will approve the new boundaries, and I look forward to working with you on making Phoenix Union Station a valuable part of Downtown.
/s/ William Lindley