Friday, April 18, 2008

A more recent article on Rail Transit in the US

Abstract from Clifford Winston and Vikram Maheshrim
On the social desirability of urban rail transit systems, Journal of Urban Economics Volume 62, Issue 2, September 2007, Pages 362-382

Despite a decline in its mode share, investment to build new urban rail transit systems and extend old ones continues. We estimate the contribution of each U.S. urban rail operation to social welfare based on the demand for and cost of its service. We find that with the exception of BART in the San Francisco Bay area, every system actually reduces welfare and is unable to become socially desirable even with optimal pricing or physical restructuring of its network. We conclude rail’s social cost is unlikely to abate because it enjoys powerful political support from planners, civic boosters, and policymakers.


When I have a little time, I will produce a more comprehensive bibliography. My reading of (a fairly extensive) literature is that rail makes sense only in the densest places, such as New York, Boston, Tokyo, Paris, London, Seoul, etc. I would build metros in Indian cities that do not have them. But I have never seen a socially compelling case for light rail.

BTW, I personally love rail. One of the best things about living in Bethesda and working in Foggy Bottom is that I almost never drive to work. Metro is great for me. But should low income taxpayers in Kansas (or Frederick, Maryland, for that matter) be paying for a professor to be able to read in comfort on the way to work in Washington?

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

but once places become that dense, the cost of land for rail construction increases dramatically. it seems that your opposition to rail and acceptance of suburbia will at some point clash with rising gasoline prices. by the time the finances make sense in the present, the real cost would be much higher than if a government had thought ahead and actually {gasp} planned for being an urban area. of course this assumes two things: 1)the population would continue to grow, but this does not seem like too much of a stretch for most metro areas, 2) energy prices will continue to rise and we will not be saved by hydrogen or other alternative energy cars.

Jim said...

Richard, the findings of Winston and Maheshrim have been forcefully critiqued - see here and here. W&M seem to have ignored or misrepresented many of rail's benefits (e.g. positive land use impacts and reduced pollution) and many of auto transport costs (e.g. road subsidies and parking costs).

Farrar said...

Thanks to Jim for the two links which certainly undermined the validity of the Winston and Vikram paper.

While reading them, however, one quickly realizes how complex the subject is, and how much room there is for error. Also, as Richard points out, one size doesn't fit all.

I was particularly interested to note the conclusion for the DC area study that lower income residents benefit less from the transit system than the higher income residents. I have often wondered about this when noting, especially in established systems, that rail lines tend to serve the more posh areas. But is this cause or effect? Does political pull draw rail lines to wealthier areas, or do rail lines increase nearby residential property values. The two systems which I know best, Portland and Bordeaux, seem to serve rich and poor equally well. But these are relatively new systems, and perhaps this will change over time.

(Richard, your closing remark is appropriate, but without knowing the details, I would tend to put the blame more on the supposed regressiveness of the local tax system).

Anonymous said...

yes... good text.