In Boston, they’ve got a turn of the century streetcar system that has some new vehicles on it. It’s not appreciably faster or more convenient than it was 80 years ago.
In Phoenix, they’ve got a city with top-notch highway infrastructure and extremely low density zoning regulations. In theory, they could do without LRT – but they’re a growing city, and sleek trains gliding along main streets add some cachet. By stringing together a mall, the airport, downtown, and multiple institutions of higher learning on a single line, they’ve pulled in some very decent ridership. But the city outside this “starter” corridor is much, much sparser, and it’ll be very difficult to justify further extensions.
In Portland, which was in the 80’s a very low-density city, they started an LRT system as an intentional decision to pursue trains instead of and in lieu of roadways. The LRT system, which is geared towards suburb-to-city commuters, is nice enough. But extensive street running and frequent stop spacing makes MAX impractical for crosstown commutes, and leads to some heinous backups as workers in the West side’s tech industry try to return home to their affordable houses on the city’s eastern flanks. Any attempt to add even a smidgen of additional highway capacity is heavily politicked.
In Dallas, they started building LRT about the same time Portland did, but without the attendant anti-freeway politicking. Dallas’s DART is also focused on suburb-to-city commuter markets, mostly following old interurban or freight rail rights-of-way. Dallas has built an impressive, extensive LRT system. But a focus on suburban commuters paired with continued highway expansion has led Dallas to have the lowest ridership per mile of any US light rail system.
In Houston, the city expanded as far and as long as it could on highways. Reversible HOV lanes were piggybacked on existing freeways; Houston’s park and ride buses carry about half as many people as Dallas’s DART does. The first LRT line hit so many major destinations that it now has the highest ridership per mile of any post-WWII LRT line. The plan for expansion calls for a thick network within the Inner Loop, oriented towards a multi-centric city – some lines, like the University and Uptown, won’t touch Downtown Houston at all.
Houston’s LRT isn’t ideological, a triumph over the evil of cars. Nor is Houston’s LRT an “alternative,” designed to be just another “option” for suburb-to-city commuters. Rather, Houston’s LRT is a tool. Developers aren’t blind. The inner loop is a treasure trove of unrestricted reserves and expired deed restrictions, just waiting to be redeveloped at more and higher densities. But this can’t and won’t be accomplished by building more and wider freeways. Those are fine for the periphery, where their construction continues apace. But for inner-ring density, at some point, you need the capacity that only comes from rail.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of the approaches these other cities have taken. But I like Houston’s the best, because it provides the strongest refutation to the troglodytes who snipe “boondoggle” articles off of CRT monitors in sleepy, stale towns. Houston is a city that grew up on the auto, that took much of its prosperity from the oil industry, that continues to grow with cars as more toll roads open up more land to more single-family development. Yet at the same time that its edges sprawled out, Houston allowed its cores to rise up, and in doing so has found the approximate limits of a strictly auto-based transport system.