Anti-Light Rail Campaign in Kansas City
The Kansas City Star ran an article today about a new group that’s campaigning against the city’s light rail proposal. The Show-Me Institute published a study earlier this year pointing out that light rail is exorbitantly expensive, increases traffic congestion, carries lower ridership capacity than freeway lanes, is less energy-efficient than passenger cars, results in lower per-capita transit ridership, doesn’t stimulate urban development (unless the government adds in huge additional subsidies), and is a particularly poor fit for Kansas City, an area with a low concentration of downtown jobs. The study outlines even more drawbacks, but these are all good reasons to hope that Kansas City nixes light-rail plans — perhaps instead funding a new, flexible, low-cost bus–rapid transit program.
The Star ran another couple of excellent pieces not too long ago about light rail, one of them an op-ed by Randal O’Toole, the same urban planning expert who authored our study, and the other a very even-handed look at light-rail myths and realities. This latter piece was almost uniformly great, but had a large flaw — it mentioned the Show-Me Institute light-rail study only to highlight one of its minor arguments, and dismiss it:
Issue: Light rail would be dangerous for riders because it attracts criminals and would lead to a wave of crime.
Fact or myth: Big myth.
Earlier this year, consultants for Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser raised a “concern over crime” on light rail. Then Randal O’Toole, working for Missouri’s libertarian-leaning Show-Me Institute, called light rail dangerous and said it “has by far the worst crime record in the transit industry.”
As proof, O’Toole and other light rail opponents cited some fights and stabbings on the Portland, Ore., MAX system, including one story that quoted a police sergeant saying “the MAX has been a living nightmare for us.”
Yet those critics can’t name another city where crime has been a problem on light rail besides one section of Portland’s system.
Overall, light rail’s crime threat is inflated because few crimes occur on mass transit systems.
After another Star piece made a similar argument earlier this year, I first responded by pointing out that comparing the statistics only makes sense if you do so in comparable terms:
Just looking at the robbery statistics for 2005, there were 535 incidents reported on buses and 377 on light rail. When considered in terms of robberies per passenger mile, it’s as though there were nearly 4,840 robberies on light rail in comparison to those 535 on buses. (Or, alternatively, it’s like there were about 42 robberies on buses in comparison to those 377 on light rail.) I could show similar comparisons for almost any of those measurements of transit crime.
In other words, the rates of violent crime, in general, only seem lower for light rail because there are far fewer miles of light rail track than there are miles of bus routes. But if both are considered in comparable terms, light rail is far riskier.
Focusing on homicides doesn’t get you much in the way of meaningful statistics, true, but as we’ve seen recently in St. Louis, the relatively unrestricted access to MetroLink trains and stations makes it a more attractive target for those looking to cause trouble. From the Riverfront Times:
In recent weeks dozens of those same teens have been implicated in violent attacks that have hospitalized people working and living near the light rail stations in the Loop and the nearby DeBaliviere neighborhood. On July 26 a group of at least twenty teens assailed a family as they left the platform at the Forest Park-DeBaliviere station. That same night another group, according to police, attacked a person at the Delmar station.
MetroLink officials contend that the same group of teens was involved in both attacks. Moreover, the transit agency vigorously denies that the commuter train has anything to do with the assaults in the Loop or the spike in shoplifting and juvenile misconduct at the Galleria.
“What we do for the Galleria is take them their employees and shoppers,” stresses Metro spokeswoman Dianne Williams. “With the Loop incidents, we and our passengers were the victims. These kids aren’t traveling there by Metro. They’re coming by car or walking. They’re not coming by Metro.”
Police testimony, however, tells a different story. The two seventeen-year-olds implicated in the group assault of the family were apprehended on the MetroLink platform. The teens told police they were on their way to their homes in Jennings and St. Louis City after spending the night hanging out near Loop restaurants and bars.
Several teenagers who gather at the Galleria and in University City connect MetroLink with the rowdy behavior. “We used to hang out in the Galleria, but when MetroLink opened it got too crazy there,” notes Johnnie Fields, a senior at Gateway High School who met with friends on the sidewalk of Delmar Boulevard on a recent weekend.
Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that light rail is causing crime — rather, crime that might have occurred elsewhere migrates to areas with rail stations because they can make easy targets. Or, in other words, the potential costs involved in committing crime are lower than they might be somewhere else. As the economist David Friedman points out in his work on the economics of crime:
Economists approach the analysis of crime with one simple assumption—that criminals are rational. A mugger is a mugger for the same reason I am an economist—because it is the most attractive alternative available to him. The decision to commit a crime, like any other economic decision, can be analyzed as a choice among alternative combinations of costs and benefits.
Light rail stations generally have easier access and less oversight than buses; you don’t have to pay the driver. Fare inspectors and a stronger police presence can help combat that problem for rail, but that can amount to a cost that isn’t generally tallied by rail supporters.
Crime on light rail systems is touched on only briefly in the full Show-Me Institute light rail study. Out of approximately 150 paragraphs of text (not including endnotes, pull quotes, etc.), I count seven that mention crime at all — one paragraph in the executive summary, five paragraphs on page 5, and one paragraph on page 23. In fact, the one mention of crime in the executive summary comes toward the end of a litany of reasons why light rail isn’t a worthwhile investment. In that list, O’Toole mentions crime 9th out of a list of 11 reasons — and even then, only after first mentioning safety statistics. Clearly, while light rail’s crime level in relation to buses is worth mentioning, it’s not one of the study’s primary arguments.
The real arguments against light rail are much more concrete and practical in nature. I’ll list them again here, because they deserve repeated exposure:
- Light rail is expensive, typically experiencing high cost overruns;
- Light rail has a much lower ridership capacity than freeway lanes;
- Light rail costs much more to operate than buses;
- Light rail requires years of advance planning, with no guarantee that transit needs or preferences will remain static during that time;
- Few regions have actually seen increases in per-capita ridership after constructing light-rail lines;
- Most regions see the share of riders using transit for travel actually decline after constructing light-rail lines;
- Light-rail lines that operate in city streets significantly increase traffic congestion;
- Light rail is particularly ineffective in municipalities without high concentrations of downtown jobs — like Kansas City;
- Light rail is usually less energy efficient per passenger mile than passenger cars;
- Light rail does not stimulate urban development without huge additional government subsidies.
I haven’t seen any of the anti–light rail ads that have been produced as part of the new campaign in Kansas City, but I hope they include some of these compelling reasons to reject rail as an urban transit solution.