What About Light Rail Transit?

Fort Worth Rail (photo from www.texrail.com)

*Editor’s Note: The following article is the first in a series dedicated to Light Rail Transit by guest writer Joe Hultquist. Please follow and share the series with others, as we hope to spur serious and informed local conversation about the topic. Mr. Hultquist served on Knoxville’s City Council from 2001 through 2009. He has dedicated himself, for more than two decades, to researching public transportation, particularly rail transit, and its impact on development patterns and transportation networks. He has developed relationships in the industry, in both the business and governmental sectors, that help inform his pragmatic, market-oriented advocacy.


Over the years, during a whole series of Knoxville-centric, as well as regional, visioning and planning efforts (Nine Counties One Vision, East Tennessee Quality Growth, Plan ET, The Big Table, etc.), the idea of rail transit has not only surfaced, but has often come to the forefront. But what does it really mean for a community to implement a rail transit strategy and system? What does it do for the people who live in an urban metro, and for those who come to visit? In a broader sense, how does it benefit the communities it serves? More importantly, perhaps, what are the underlying issues that might point us in that direction?

First, to take a step or two back, we all know that our lives are dependent on being able to move around, usually over a much greater distance than can be practically walked. Even those who live in downtowns like Knoxville’s have to be able to go to various places in our daily lives. Whether they’re places of employment, our homes, where we shop and go for a long list of necessary services, we need transportation. Car dependency has been the rule in Knoxville, as in most of the nation, for nearly a century. The same is true for a good bit of the rest of the world.

The problem, as we all know all too well, is that total dependency on personal cars can create some serious problems. Traffic congestion is probably the biggest single negative, but it’s not the only one.

Parking demand is another serious issue that we constantly face. Use of precious land for parking takes it away from other potentially more valuable, people-centered uses. According to various estimates, there are several parking spaces for every person in our country. One estimate has the number of surface lot parking spaces alone at eight hundred million.

Portland Light Rail (photo from trimet.org

That’s not including spaces in parking garages, which are very costly and still use valuable real estate, though not as much. For standard self-parking garages, 200-400 square feet of deck area is required for each space. Automated parking structures are more efficient, but they still require 200-250 square feet per space. All of this at a cost of $25 thousand or more per space.

And, surface parking creates heat islands that make our cities and suburbs hotter in the summer. Those parking lots are generally unpleasant places for human beings to be in, so they’re only people-friendly to the extent we can park in them at get quickly away from them.

Are there options? Well, transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft help in some ways, but they can’t fully address these problems, especially congestion. Whether you’re traveling in your own car or a TNC vehicle, you’re still taking up lane space on streets and highways, and contributing to congestion.

And, even though autonomous vehicles (AVs) are being touted as the answer to many problems, there’s little evidence that they will substantially reduce traffic congestion. In fact, they may actually make it worse in some situations. There are a great many unknowns, but as experience grows with AVs, it’s becoming more and more obvious they’re no panacea. The subject of AVs is huge, and really deserves a separate article to do it justice.

That gets us to public transit, which includes various flavors of bus and rail transit. Bus transit is critically important for getting people, especially those who have limited mobility options, in and out of neighborhoods, business districts and service institutions such as hospitals and clinics, among many other important destinations.

Music City Star (Photo Musiccitystar.com)

Good bus service is a wonderful thing to behold, but it’s challenging to implement unless the ridership is there to justify the investment. And the ridership doesn’t materialize without great service. It’s a bit of a Catch 22. And, when it comes to moving any distance, buses are actually slower than driving because (a) they get stuck in the same traffic congestion plaguing everyone else and (b) they have to make frequent stops.

For a truly effective regional transit system, dedicated rights-of-way (ROW) are needed. That can be done with either rail (commuter or light rail) or bus rapid transit (BRT). When a system requires dedicated ROW, that means expensive infrastructure located on valuable land that has to be acquired for that use, and therefore taken out of limited and valuable real estate inventory.

Rail transit, such as commuter rail like Nashville’s Music City Star, can be a workable solution for moving people from suburban areas to urban cores. It doesn’t work well if there are a lot of stops, as may be needed in urban and close-in suburban areas, because these heavy locomotive-pulled trainsets don’t start and stop quickly. Usually, commuter rail makes sense for longer runs, such as the Star’s Downtown Nashville to Lebanon run.

Light rail is another transit option that many cities and metro transit systems have implemented. It typically runs in dedicated rights of way, but can run in streets just like streetcars do in urban core areas. Light rail solves a lot of problems with its flexibility and efficiency. It can move passengers through dense areas, and also serve suburban areas (typically not much further than 20 miles). Starting/stopping performance is good, so stations can be close together when necessary.

Moving people is the primary function of light rail or any public transit system, but in order to understand the benefits and positive impact of rail transit (and BRT to some extent), the development that happens along the line has to be assessed. Sometimes called station area development, but more commonly known as transit oriented development (TOD), the real estate improvements that spring up along the lines are actually often the most important economic rationale.

Austin Rail Line (Photo from capmetro.org)

TODs, as they’re known, are evident around almost every rail transit system in the country. In fact, you can look at a aerial or satellite photo of the Washington, DC metro area and spot where the underground portions of the METRO heavy rail system runs based on the density of development that has occurred around the stations.

The same is true of light rail systems. Charlotte’s is one of the closest examples. The LYNX light rail system that CATS operates has recently opened their second line, which runs from downtown (“Uptown”) Charlotte northeast to Davidson and the UNC Charlotte campus.

As with the first LYNX Blue line, which runs south to the station adjacent to perimeter Interstate 485, the new line has already become a development magnet. Fairly dense, mixed use developments began to spring up around the planned station areas while the line was under construction. And, as with the south leg of the line, development around the stations will continue at a robust pace for the foreseeable future, as long as the economy allows development of any sort. You can read more about LYNX Blue Line TOD here, here, here and here.

This kind of TOD has happened everywhere modern light rail lines have been built. Cities like San Diego, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle, St. Louis, Dallas/Fort Worth, Phoenix, Houston, Durham County/Orange County, NC, Denver, Norfolk, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Austin have all built (or are planning to build, as is the case of the Triangle area) light rail transit systems. In most cases, they’ve seen major TOD investment happen around their lines. These are actually the next chapter in the story of passenger rail and rail transit history in our county. For a good historical synopsis of how we got to where we are today, this article is a good read.

As we prepare for a future that will undoubtedly encompass major population and employment growth, and the development that must necessarily follow, we will have to decide how we’re going to prepare for that growth, to the degree we do prepare. Few will argue that we shouldn’t be more proactive in that preparation than our neighbors in Atlanta and Nashville have been.

We’re only beginning to see the sprawl and resultant congestion that typically follow growth, but seriously considering what’s ahead and trying to prepare for that future should be at the top of our priority list in the greater Knoxville area. Developing a robust and effective (meaning popular) public transit system, potentially incorporating rail as well as bus technology, should be a key consideration in that planning and preparation effort.

But what are the obstacles to developing such a system? We’ll look at those in the next installment of the series.