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All aboard: the growth of global rail and our future cities

Even Los Angelenos are taking the train. Thomas Hawk

All aboard: the growth of global rail and our future cities

Even Los Angelenos are taking the train. Thomas Hawk

There is a major rail revival around the world, including light rail, metro rail, heavy rail, and high speed rail. At the same time car use has peaked and is in decline in most cities. However transport planning, especially in major Australian cities, continues to plan for expansion of road capacity and cannot understand this rail fetish. Why is there a reversal in the historic transport patterns?

The global rail revival

In Europe, 65 cities built new or expanded light rail systems between 1980 and 2007; 160 European cities have light rail. Metro rail systems have also been added or are under construction in many of the larger European cities. Europe has also rapidly expanded its network of high speed intercity rail lines.

In Asia, with little rail tradition, the trend is even more obvious. Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Manila, Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Seoul and others have added rail, including metros, monorails and light rail systems. India is building metros in 14 cities; China in 82. China has also built the world’s largest high speed rail network in the last 15 years.

Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the growth of rail in the Middle East where cheap oil meant the car was king. Doha is building extensive rail. In Saudi Arabia, bidding is underway for Riyadh’s metro network. In Dubai, a 108 km metro with 39 stations and an integrated light rail and bus system is largely completed. A metro is planned for Kuwait.

The trend is also very obvious in the US, Canada and Australia where car-dependent cities, once only considered suitable for suburban bus transit, are now seeing a rail-based future.

The number of light rail systems in the US has grown from 15 in 1995 to 29 currently. Light rail is emerging as the mass-transit core in medium size but relatively low density cities such as Portland (Oregon, USA) Edmonton (Alberta, Canada) and the Gold Coast (Queensland, Australia). In larger and higher density cities such as San Francisco, Toronto or Sydney, light rail is emerging as a secondary system to support heavy rail and metro.

Rail is spreading all across Asia and the Middle East. Nadir Hashmi

Light rail is emerging in small cities - there are now 118 cities with less than 150,000 people who have adopted light rail.

Out of cars, on to transit

Transit patronage in the US is now 23% higher than in 1993, and growing faster than car usage. The growth has been particularly strong since about 2003, and has continued since 2008.

All of the growth in patronage since 1993 has been on rail-based modes. Rail modes have increased their shares of total patronage, particularly heavy rail (from about 25% to 35% of the total); bus share has significantly declined from 65% to 50%. The patronage on light rail has increase rapidly from a relatively small base of 168 million to 481 million over the same period.

Public transport patronage is growing faster than car usage in virtually every major city in Australia, and car usage per capita is now falling in many cities.

The highest growth is in the suburban rail systems in Perth, suburban and light rail growth in Melbourne and suburban rail and bus use in Brisbane.

What is behind these trends in urban rail?

The 100-year growth of automobile use in cities appears to have plateaued and then declined across the world’s developed cities. In the US, in the age group from 16 to 34, car use decreased 23% between 2001 and 2009. Transit use went up 100%, walking 37% and biking 122%.

These are remarkable numbers and suggest a much deeper transition is happening than simple supply and demand based on previous elasticities.

Perth residents are piling on to rail like never before. Kelvin Tan

Car use in developed cities changed in 2004 when oil reached $US80/barrel and dropped significantly when it went to $140 in 2008. Though Australian cities were buffered from much of the GFC, a significant decline in car use per capita has continued from 2004 to the present. Those Australian cities that provided new rail infrastructure grew substantially in transit patronage; those that did not remained static.

Such data suggest that fuel prices and availability of rail are likely to be part of the mix of explanations.

But urban structure, urban culture and urban economy may provide further explanations.

Urban structural limits

After years of traffic speeds increasing, all the world’s cities have now plateaued or declined.

European cities have calmed traffic, built cycle-ways and transit and backed away from large freeways. Average traffic speeds have stopped growing. The cities of Asia and the Middle East have also hit the wall on their average traffic speeds.

Most projections of car use suggest that major global growth in car use will occur in the emerging cities of China and India and the Middle East, though data is hard to obtain. But the urban fabric of dense Asian cities is such that little space for car use exists. The remarkable growth in urban rail in China and India suggests that these cities may have hit the wall much sooner than occurred in European cities and certainly far sooner than American cities.

The cities of America and Australia grew mostly in the era when cities were built for automobiles; they are about five times less dense than European cities. Space for car use is much more available. Car ownership and car use grew to a much higher level but is now plateauing and declining. They have reached a limit on the growth of freeways and other urban space (such as parking) for cars, so average traffic speeds have plateaued or reduced.

The urban structure or fabric of the city has prevented any further growth in car use. The only way forward seems to be with alternative transport, especially urban rail.

Younger people want to live in places where they can walk and cycle, not drive. Frans de Wit

Urban cultural and economic change

As car-use declined, the biggest change in the economy has been the digital transformation and the consequent knowledge/service economy. It has been a concentrating force in terms of city structure and fabric. The knowledge economy and digital jobs are focused in city centres where creative synergies between people occur. Old CBDs have been transformed back into functional walking cities. Those that do it best have attracted the most capital and young talent.

Young people want to reduce car use and switch to alternative transport. On transit or walking, young people are already connected by their smart technology phones and tablets; these are illegal to use while driving. The mobile phone is a far more important device than a car for younger people. Baby-boomers gained freedom and connection with a car. Gen Ys don’t need one.

Younger people are also moving to the parts of cities where walking or transit dominate, because these have the kind of urban experience and culture they aspire to. They feed the market that enables the rail revival and city centre renewal to continue.

Urban structural limits and cultural and economic change feed the move to rail. If a city doesn’t provide rail infrastructure, it can easily miss out on this important social and economic change. The biggest threat is if car dependent cities do not recognise that the golden age of the car is over.