Light Rail Transit for Dummies (Courtesy Snapsort)
Light Rail Transit for Dummies (Courtesy Snapsort)
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Light Rail Transit for Dummies (Courtesy Snapsort)
Light Rail Transit for Dummies. (Courtesy Snapsort)

Waterloo, Canada is considering installing a light rail transit (LRT) system and Snapsort, a local Waterloo tech company, created this infographic to explain just what’s going on, in all sorts of infographic goodness. (Via the Atlantic.) The numbers on the chart are geared specifically to Waterloo, but it’s still a great illustration and worth a look.

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Branden Klayko


  1. At the risk of posting something controversial… light rail is generally, _NOT_ the answer. Now let me attempt to defend that.

    I’ll start first with arguing against myself. Light Rail can be quite viable in areas of high population density. The information above even supports that tenant with their comments concerning urban sprawl. Subways and rail systems have been viable for decades in large, dense metropolitain areas in Europe and Asia and in pre-auto major metropolitain areas like NYC and Chicago.

    However, the tech company is essentially arguing that if Waterloo adds light rail then more people will live in denser areas instead of spreading out. I think this logic is backwards. I don’t think people move out to the suburbs and exurbs because they don’t have a light rail option. People move out because (Stereotypically speaking) most families don’t want dense housing. They don’t want to share walls with neighbors and they want their own yards for their kids. If an area already has a dense population for one reason or another… light rail is viable, but don’t expect the majority of people to give up their home in the ‘burbs because they can suddenly move to a condo and take the light rail to work.

    Light Rail is something that everyone wants, but if you look at ridership numbers across the company… they want their friends and neighbors to use it… while they drive their car to work in much less traffic. Very few people are using light rail even people that initially said they wanted it.

    Part of their argument above focuses on costs and taxes… I don’t know what subsidies the Canadian government is offering for light rail projects. Light rail is *INCREDIBLY* expensive to build. Orders of magnitude more expensive then building the equivalent miles of road…. and inherently inflexible because you can’t drive the train somewhere else… trains can only go where the tracks go.

    Commuter rail is even worse…. building trains out to the ‘burbs may have decent ridership into the core business centers in the morning, and back out in the evenings, but what happens the other 20 hours of the day? Typically these kinds of rail lines struggle to have enough ridership to cover their operating costs.

    Finally, their first block compares the capacity of one train to one bus… but one bus is roughly equal to one “car” on the train… the train just has more cars… nothing says you can’t put more buses on the roads.

    Because roads are mixed use, buses and cars can use them… and because buses can drive on any road… the bus routes can change as the population and business centers change. You can’t move tracks (not without a huge expense).

    I don’t know much, if anything about the city of Waterloo. The city may very well have the necessary population density to sustain a light rail, but there do appear to be a lot of forward looking statements regarding their expected population growth. I certainly hope for them that those numbers are viable.

    Lastly, I want to talk about light rail and Louisville. I was born and raised in Louisville. Graduated from Seneca and went to Speed School, but after finishing my Masters of Engineering I was offered a job in Houston and I’ve lived here the last 12 years. Yes, Houston is an ugly, sprawling mess of roads and cars. There is very little viable mass transmit… it’s in many people’s eyes the antithesis of what city planners would like to see a city be. However, Houston works… and Houston and Louisville share a lot of similarities: Both cities started with a strong core, but through the 70s and 80s the downtown areas became much less viable with massive numbers of peoples fleeing further and further out. However, in the last 15 years or so, both cities have seen individuals choose to move back to the city center in denser areas. Houston has a very limited light rail system and is working to extend it but what they’ve built they’ve only built in the very densest parts of the city, and have had pretty good ridership numbers because of it.

    Louisville cannot try and be like Portland, OR. (I’ve lived there too). Oregon has a government mandated “urban growth boundary” that enforces population density which makes their rail system much more viable (but even it has issues). With Louisville, most people like their home in the suburbs and the increased growth in the East-End over the last decade continues to show that to be the case.

    I suspect Louisville, like Houston, may have patches that could support a light rail system, but trying to build tracks anywhere and everywhere would be a foolish and incredibly expensive endeavour.

  2. It is critical for economic development reasons and to change the perception of mass transit that Louisville has limited light-rail. In a couple of years Louisville will be the largest city in the US that lacks local passenger rail service, that is not a position that you want to be in. Also, do not underestimate the impact of light-rail images in a city’s promotional literature or TV commercials. Bus rapid transit, if done well can be a cost effective way to greatly improve the quality of public transit. Prepaid fare stations, traffic signal preference, and dedicated bus lanes can go a long way toward improving commute times. Another idea would be to mark the streets with painted symbols that clearly indicate the bus lines. Commuters could then recognize that a bus line roughly follows their daily route. All of this is really a moot point though because of our city and state’s incompetent and regressive leadership. In Frankfort they consistently underfund public transit (approx. $1.3 million to Louisville transit) while refusing to enact any changes (true casino gambling) that would give them much needed revenue. Locally our mayor continues to subvert democracy and build the very unpopular and over-priced boondoggle known as the downtown ORBP. This epic mistake will build outdated 100 year infrastructure that will repel the citizen’s most likely to support an improved public transit system. In addition to political support, the 8664 demographic would be the most likely to live in the dense corridors conducive to successful public transit systems. Instead of a realistic light-rail/BRT plan, our clueless leadership is attempting to placate transit advocates by promoting a traditional rail line between Louisville and Lexington. Never-mind that Greyhound does not even think that demand justifies a direct bus line.

  3. @Stunoland

    I would encourage you to read this paper from a European agency on their learnings from light rail implementations. (Or if that’s too long, here’s a great synopsis.)

    Light rail does have many soft benefits from an advertising and tourism perspective, but I don’t believe those alone mitigate the huge costs associated with building it (at least haphazardly). And frankly, many of the major cities with existing light rail installations are operating those systems at a huge deficit. Building light rail because all the other big cities are doing it smacks of the old, “would you jump off a bridge because your friends did?”

    I still maintain for light rail to be viable there is a minimum population density (and no… I don’t pretend to know what that number is) that must exist all along the railway in order to sustain the ridership numbers necessary to make rail construction viable.

    Whatever the number is, a certain number of people must live and/or work within a very short distance of a stop and have a routine need to travel to another location that is close to a stop. Also, most folks don’t like to deal with transfers…. So if are talking about multiple lines… don’t count on most people to be wiling to deal with more than one. So… it’s generally a small percentage of people that will ever routinely utilize rail.

    Light rail is not a “if you build it, they will come” type-thing. Yes, it sounds great on paper… but most people won’t give up their cars to take rail… it’s just that simple.

  4. Charlotte, NC is one least dense cities in the US (286 sq. miles, 709,000 people). They estimated a ridership of 9,000 users per day for their 9 mile light rail line. They had over 16,000 riders the first year. Transportation infrastructure determines density and development, not the other way around.

  5. @Stunoland – Hey Stu, in regard to the proposed Thoroughbred Rail Link do you feel there are just not enough potential riders for it to be worthwhile?
    Alan, I think light rail could succeed in Louisville if it connected the right areas. The airport, fairgrounds, Cardinal Stadium, UofL, Old Louisville, downtown and the medical area seem most logical to me and roughly conforms to the abandoned T2 plan from several years ago. This is a well traveled area, as anyone commuting from downtown into Old Louisville at evening rush hour has noticed, and Old Louisville has one of the highest pop. densities in Louisville. I think the most important thing though is connecting it to neighborhoods so residents can easily use it, rather than it being primarily a tool for visitors going to and from downtown and the airport.

  6. If I recall right there was a study on putting in a light rail line south of downtown to U of L, ending around the airport or UPS. They found they couldnt justify the line. The numbers didn’t work out to make it worth the cost, or something.

  7. Had to be away from my computer much of yesterday. Also, For some reason my companies’ firewall is messing with brokensidewalk’s javascript so I can’t link to comments properly.

    @Edmund — while most of my original post was pretty harsh on light rail and while I have a largely fairly grim opinion of it… even in my very first post I concided that it can be viable in certain circumstances, mostly due to relevant population density. I have no idea where people would want to build light rail in Louisville, and I suspect there could be viable arteries, but light rail is one of those topics where enthusiastics supporters want to see it go anywhere and everywhere and magically see all the cars come off the road… and that’s just not a realistic perspective. The reality is that BRT is often a much, much more viable option. No it’s not as “sexy” as light rail, but it can move just as many people, is cheaper to implement and is fundamentally more flexible system. The Waterloo tech company’s poster above is specifically endorsing lightrail over BRT and appears to do so in a fairly haphazard manor.

    One more point that I didn’t really speak to above… if light rail is only affordable (relative to BRT) because of Federal dollars… is that really a “plus” for Light Rail or is that more an indightment of misdirrected funding on the Federal level? I’m all for taking advantage of the system that’s put in place, but I’m also for fixing the system when we can. People fell in love with Ethanol too but there are numerous studies that show that ethanol is only viable because of governmnet subsidies and while I can understand why a corn farmer wants to see ethanol succeed… we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need a system that can win on its own merits. The same is true for light rail.

    @Josh, @Chuck Burke — I’m not familiar with Charolette’s system but I took the opportunity to do a bit of Googling and found the LYNX Wikipedia page. The ridership numbers reported there appear to agree with what you posted and those do look phenominal. However, I will also point out that sections of the article that discuss the original project cost estimates, the the overruns… and some of the controversy with the line. Even in a case like this that appears successful… the line cost twice as much to build as people thought it would initially and it can only operate with a huge tax subsidy and doesn’t appear to be really solving the problem it set out to do.

    As for the statement, “Transportation infrastructure determines density and development, not the other way around.” I’ll concede there is inherrantly some truth to that statement. If there isn’t a way to easily got to point B…. people won’t go there. Consider the US’s westward expansion… sure a lot of people moved West… but it certainly wasn’t overnight.

    However, I think you need to back that statement up with something. We aren’t talking about a situation where Light Rail is the only viable transportation system. There is a perfectly viable alternative that’s (1) cheaper and (2) already in place. Most people will elect to drive their own cars on roads the existing roadways.

    Look I have a 30mile one way commute everyday. I’m often contemplated taking a bus to work to save on gas and wear-and-tear on my car…. and maybe get some time back to catch up on some reading, but for ME to do that… I would still have to drive my car 15-20 minutes to the nearest “Park and Ride” location to get on a bus. That means my car is now sitting out in the Texas heat all day in a not-very-securey parking lot. Then I have to ride a bus downtown, and then transfer to a different bus. Finally, if, while-at-work, I decide that I want to run an errand… I would be severely limited in where I could. I’ve worked in this area now for the better part of 6 years and I’ve never even tried the bus once. It’s too inconveinent. I’ve also thought about car pooling, but I don’t have any neighbors that I know well that work close to me…. and if I did… I would still be giving up the use of my car on occasion. Many people find the tradeoff worthwhile… but many don’t.

    I’m not proud of this…. I’m really not. I’ve looked into the bus routes and availble van pools many times. I’ve signed up on two different web sites to find a potential car pool, but I’ve never gone through with it… and it’s because all things being equal… driving my car is the easiest option and that’s what most people do.

    Sad, but true.

    Mass Transit in general only succeed when it’s either the only option or when the benefits outway the negatives.

    And conveineince is a *HUGE* part of that equation. Rail is too expensive to build anywhere and everywhere and the only people that will routinely utilize it are those that find it more conveineint/cost-effective over their other choices.

  8. “Transportation infrastructure determines density and development, not the other way around.”

    Alan, I think you glossed over the larger meaning of this point. The permanence (and expense) of rail lines encourages development along the line, leading to increased densities and commercial destinations. Ideally. While BRT is flexible, the changeable nature of its routes does not give developers and business owners the same type of confidence in their risk as light rail would.

    That said, it can’t be touted as a magic wand for growing communities and retail along the corridor. There needs to be a critical density of ridership that is growing beyond the transportation infrastructure limits. Light Rail would support that existing growth and ramp up its potential capacity.

  9. @JNalley business relocating conveineint to stops is a fair point that I did gloss over. However, even that’s not simple. The fact that a train might run near a location is not all that important to a business. What matter is whether people can get on or off that train near that location. (Yes, that’s obvious, but bare with me). However, as the number of stops along a route increases the time the train takes to complete the route increases… which decreases the conveince factor for many folks. Which can impact ridership.

    It’s a complex, complex issue to be sure.

  10. Though the system service is a bit different, what do you all think about streetcars such as those implemented by Portland, Oregon (surprise) and some other cities that are taking a serious look at them including Cincinnati. My understanding is that they are less expensive to implement than light rail, could be used in areas that we already have some density and destinations which would reduce the need for parking, which could increase the ability for more density, and could serve as a “marketing tool” for the city as well. I am not necessarily convinced that streetcars are viable in Louisville given we have no history with streetcars… (obviously a joke), but in seriousness, for the streetcars to work we would have to retrain people that a streetcar & a bike & a pedestrian are all users of the street.

  11. I tend to agree with Alan’s take that you really can’t plant down light rail and hope for higher density (which may not come) while invariably triggering deficits. But I also agree that if you are already witnessing increasing density for other reasons, then that may guide you toward where a light rail system can go, in hopes if improving that density growth.

    However, we should also realize that the current primary mode of transportation, roads and road vehicles, are very highly subsidized, and we shouldn’t ever pretend that they aren’t.

    The bottom line for me is that we should ignore the radical sides of these arguments, and only go forward with plans that we can prove to be viable. Basing anything on mere hopes is a prescription for economic disaster, when Louisville can afford it the least.

    Toward that end, my best guess that we would get much more “mileage” out of enhanced bus systems and local access bridges.

  12. @Steve Magruder

    I think we are in total agreement. Again, please don’t let all my negative comments imply that I’m totally against the concept of light rail. I think light rail van be quite viable in circumstances, but the tone of the original post from the Waterloo tech company appears a little too enamored with light rail and is dismissing BRT out of hand.

  13. I think brt is a viable option for the city, but it has to be done right from the start with all the amenities of an advanced transit system. I have seen a few examples that are nothing moe than a glorified bus.

  14. @Patrick Piuma – When I lived in Portland I would make use of the street car running from PSU to the NW quadrant from time to time but found it to be insanely slow and it was generally quicker for me to walk. Granted not everyone is happy walking a mile or two to get to destinations and it did seem to have good ridership but it was without a doubt my least favorite mode of mass transit in that city. Maybe it stopped at traffic lights, I can’t recall.

    Alan, I think BRT would be a great addition to Louisville running on the route i suggested and possibly others.

  15. As mentioned by several others the big problem with BRT is lack of flexibility. As long as people want to go where it goes the large capacity trains are fine, otherwise they’re just going to drive around empty helping nobody. Buses can change routes very rapidly to avoid problems as well as to adapt to changing needs. Derby and Thunder are good examples.

    The route that was proposed in the past for light rail in Louisville made absolutely no sense. It was to go from the Airport (maybe LAP) to the UofL campus to downtown. Sounds like a great route until you realize nobody commutes this route on a regular basis. Sure it would be nice for visitors but they wouldn’t even begin to support what the system would cost.

    Louisville has a lot of other issues that need to be addressed before we even begin talking about light rail again. When other issues are resolved and the economy improves maybe we can begin talking again, until then it’s a dead subject.

  16. Honestly, this is the reason nothing gets done in this city, you get a bunch of bureaucrats arguing about the finer points of the extreme sides of an argument. At the end of the day, Louisville has to think big in order to attract the 20 something recent graduates who will be creative and bring good business ideas to our city. As it stands right now, the only thing that people think of when they think of Louisville is Horse Racing, great for middle aged white people who love to sprawl, not so great for the people who would bring density to the city and thus allow for LRT to be useful. If we spend money on transit, lets go all the way, instead of paying more for a bus system that no one really likes in our city anyways. TARC is despised, and their ridership suffers. The routes are poorly planned, their are too few buses running to business parks in the east end, the system is outdated and will continue to be that way as long as people push for BRT…

  17. @Josh — My first “real” job was the summer before I started high school and it was downtown on second street between Chestnut and Muhammed Ali and I took the Poplar Level road tarc from an intersection walking distance from my house to get to and from work as a 13 year old. That was my first real “freedom” in terms of getting around the city and I definately took the bus a few more times getting to other places. I certainly don’t despise Tarc but I don’t think I’d ridden one since I got my drivers license.

    That said, I think you’re points are completely valid. I don’t think fixing the existing routes will solve all of Louisville’s problems, but I think it’s a necessary first step. However, BRT could be (and probably should be) implemented by Tarc. I think it’s a necessary player in any mass transit conversation in Louisville.

    Personally, I would LOVE to see a tech company in the Louisville area offering six figure salaries so that I could move home and my kids could spend more time with their grandparents (and great-grandparents), but every time I look into jobs in Louisville… the pay cut I would have to take is too big. Transit has nothing to do with wether or not I would move to the city. The availability of jobs, benefits, and salaries does.

    Of course, I’m no longer the “young 20s demographic” (more like mid-30s), but my wife and I miss Louisville and we want to be there, but we haven’t found a way to make that work for us…. and that’s just sad.

  18. I also relied on busing throughout my adolescence and young adult life (although my teen years were spent using the Seattle Metro Bus System, and later Sound Transit). I didn’t own my first car until i was 20 years old (25 now). You know what i remember most about TARC? That strong odor of Urine and B.O. everyday. I had to ride the bus, so at the time i did it, but spending 2 hours going less than 20 Miles is atrocious. As far as the tech salaries are concerned, Im not gonna go the route of Waterloo and claim that Light Rail will bring thousands of high paying tech jobs, but what it will bring is the “sexy” factor. Techies love sexy, and a Midwestern middle of the pack city like Louisville could use some more sexy points to continue to attract those businesses that Indy or Nashville or Cincinnati will get. Those cities get it, like how cincy is building their street car system. Louisville isn’t Portland or Austin or Tuscon or any other middle sized city, its playing by its own rules and it should try to stand out a little more. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try BRT, but if its not going to cost much more to do the sexy thing, lets just do it (I would only condone BRT if it was half the cost or less of Light Rail). 20 somethings or even 30 Somethings usually like sexy and once here could fall in love with the charm that Louisville has to offer. I know i did, and I’m from one of the nicer metros in the entire country.

    On a separate note, Texans have that “everything is bigger here” mentality and would prefer to drive their Suburbans and Escalades to their ranch houses while enjoying a 45 ounce steak and then watching the cowboys on a 70 inch flat screen. Sprawl is in their nature, and it doesn’t surprise me that ridership is falling flat, but that is not indicative of other markets. Seattle, Charlotte, Portland, etc. show explosions in ridership even in just the first couple years.

  19. Since it’s relevant to this thread, some more follow-ups. There has been a recent publication that throughly analyzes the benefits of BRT that I just came across. Here’s a link:

    And an analysis from another blog I follow.

    Lastly, @Josh Link — your stereotypical view of Texans is, like most stereotypes, slightly offensive, but also pretty accurate. You sohuld try to squeeze into a “compact spot” at Fry’s sometime between all the SUV’s and Pickups (that also think they are “compact”!?!?) However, It’s probably also worth pointing out that the large Texan Metropolitian areas like Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth receive a HUGE influx of people from all over the country. In many ways, a population sample here speaks more to prevailing attitudes in the country as a whole then it does of stereotypical texans.

    In fact, a project at work a couple of years ago decided to do a team building where they posted a “Map of the World” and had everyone mark where they were from on it. The majority of the project team (~30 people) weren’t even US-born and NONE of the team members were from Texas. (However, there was two from Kentucky). The project I’m on today has a much smaller team, but the pattern is similiar: Our supervisor is from India, a contractor originally from China, one developer from Mississippi, and two Louisvillians! (Although we did recently add one contractor that’s a native Texan.)