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Light Rail Transit and Economic Development [1]

Sarah Moon



Putting Metropolitan Detroit Back on the Map

The National Business Coalition for Rapid Transit states that the “rebirth of public transportation is a critical part of America’s future” asserting that transit ridership has increased dramatically in the recent past (UWMCED 2003).  Using the following seven premises they explain the importance of mass transit in developing a vital downtown core: reduced traffic congestion, less air pollution, strong spatial connections between jobs and workers, stimulated economic development around transit stations, job creation, reduced energy consumption, helps maintain vital downtowns, and helps to free highway congestion to allow for more free movement of goods and services essential to our nation’s economic prosperity (UWMCED 2003).

Any major metropolitan region lacking efficient, effective mass transit will find it difficult to grow and develop into a self sustainable regional economic power.  Many cities have found a solution in regional mass transit.  The average US household spends 18 cents of every dollar earned on transportation (APTA a), this includes ownership as well as upkeep and maintenance.  Mass transit can decrease the amount we spend on transportation by reducing or even eliminating the need for owning an automobile.

Light rail transit has been “proposed for a number of developing cities on the grounds that it can offer a mass transit solution which will be capable of carrying high passenger flows, and have the right combination of an appealing, modern image without the high cost of a full metro system” (Gardner 1).

Detroit & surrounding communities: the problem or the solution

The post-industrial development of southeastern Michigan over the past 50 years has concentrated in the suburbs and not the central city.  Consequently, many residents do not live within walking distance of their employment.  By bus, their commute can often take more than an hour and include at least one transfer.  Anyone with an option other than the bus (think single passenger automobile) will likely choose it. 

Currently, metropolitan Detroit services its mass transit needs using several disconnected bus systems.  To become the city of the future, Detroit and the surrounding communities need to consider implementing several transit options, including rail that connects with the existing bus systems.  “No one [transit] mode may be suitable for a city, or even a complete corridor; it may be better to select a combination of modes to match localized needs” (Gardner 10).  

The decision of which mass transit to implement depends on the size and future needs of the community that it will serve.  Detroit and some surrounding communities already have significant bus infrastructure.  Implementing a complimentary high speed rail system that connects these growing outlying cities, such as Ann Arbor, to the central city core will more effectively connect people to their jobs.

Milwaukee: What can we learn

Milwaukee is a relatively small mid-western city suffering from post-industrial decline, much like Detroit.  The big difference between the redevelopment in Milwaukee is that they are intent on revitalizing and redeveloping the downtown core with a mass transit plan that will link vital parts of the city.

Milwaukee has studied the importance of rebuilding and redefining the development of the city in conjunction with regional mass transit.  As purported by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development (UWMCED), implementing light rail transit (LRT) in the city can and will generate positive economic development if it is planned correctly and designed properly.  The effects of LRT will reach beyond merely creating an area transit station into community-wide revitalization supported by good planning and supportive public policy (Dunk et al 1996).

UWMCED offers several recommendations to create this community-wide revitalization around area transit stations.  These recommendations revolve around many new urbanist principles, such as creating high density, mixed-use, walkable areas, with commercial, office, and residential components, as well as creating unique streetscapes and improving safety and security (Dunk et al 1996).

Rail vs. Bus: What works, which is better

There are many advantages to rail over bus mass transit.  The most prominent is higher service quality which attracts many discretionary users; they can carry more riders thereby reducing labor costs; they require less land per peak passenger trip; and they cause less noise and air pollution (Litman 34).  Because development tends to cluster around rail transit stations property values are higher (Litman 31).  Investments in public transportation have generated even higher returns in the private market.  On average, for every one dollar invested in public transit, $6 is returned in the economy (APTA b).

Rail tends to be a bit nicer, providing more leg room, comfortable seats, a smooth and quiet ride, and high speed travel (Litman 34).  However, rail is more suited for high density areas (Litman 34).  It is best when “serving corridors where destinations are concentrated, such as large commercial centers and mixed use urban villages” (Litman 34).  It can be a catalyst for more “accessible, multi-modal communities and urban redevelopment” (Litman 34).

A study by Litman (2004) concludes that rail transit’s effectiveness is linked to its ability to provide economies of scale and network effects.  A large system is more useful, can attract more riders, and can integrate more efficiently with overall transportation goals and land use patterns of a region (Litman 42).

The debate

The contentious debate of rail transit is its suitability to the environment where it is being implemented.  Rail transit is not appropriate in every situation (Litman 36).  There are many factors to consider when evaluating the overall benefits of mass transit.  The more obvious are initial infrastructure costs, as well as ongoing operating and maintenance expenses.  But equally important and often overlooked are the public health benefits of walking to transit stops, decreased traffic congesting, less traffic accident related damages, parking costs, etc.

There is some debate about the overall effect of rail transit on surrounding property values.  While the net effect is to raise property values by increasing the accessibility of the area and spurring new development around the transit stations, there exists the problems of increased noise and pollution, and the increased traffic around the stations that may actually lower property values (Diaz).

Any sprawling city with mass transit will require lengthy bus rides and perhaps several transfers.  Effective rail systems require higher densities than a sprawling metro area can provide.  In many cases, cities have become so sprawled out that high speed rail transit is not currently a viable option.  With proper planning, policy changes, and diligent efforts, rail transit can reverse these trends.  Adding a rail system to an existing city will require integrating it with other transit options, such as bus or local streetcar and trolley systems.

It is clear that some version of rapid mass transit is necessary to create a viable, synergistic, growing region.  The only hope for regional mass transit in southeastern Michigan is effective implementation with accompanying supportive policies.  It is likely that rail transit will not thrive based on the current sprawling land patterns but given the right amount of policy support and proper planning, rail transit will lead to more healthy development in the region, including clustered developments around transportation nodes and effective links between people and jobs.

The successful implementation of rail transit in southeastern Michigan will involve a complete rethinking of transit and land development for this region.  People will need to give up their automobiles in favor of a more healthy and (inter)-active lifestyle.

American Public Transportation Association (APTA a).  “Benefits of Public Transportation: Essential Support for a Strong Economy.”, accessed on October 17, 2005.

American Public Transportation Association (APTA b). “Public Transportation Means Business”

accessed on October 17, 2005.

Levine, Marc V.  (May 1992).  “Light Rail in Milwaukee: An Analysis of Potential Impact on Economic Development.”  University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development webpage,, accessed on October 17, 2005.

Litman, Todd.  (October 5, 2004).  “Rail Transit in America: A Comprehensive Evaluation of Benefits.”  American Public Transportation Association webpage,, accessed on October 17, 2005.

The National Business Coalition for Rapid Transit.  (November 2003).  “The Economic Importance of Public Transit.”  American Public Transportation Association webpage,, accessed on October 17, 2005.

Van Dunk, Emily, Marc V. Levine, and Dale Dulberger.  (February 1996).  “Light Rail Transit and Inner City Redevelopment: A Proposal for Transit Oriented Redevelopment at 27th Street and Wisconsin Avenue.”  University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development webpage,, accessed on October 17, 2005.

[1] Economic development as defined by Litman (2004) is “progress towards a community’s economic goals, including increased productivity, employment, business activity, investment and redevelopment” (30).