Denver, Randal O'Toole, Transportation

Light rail increasingly dangerous for pedestrians

A pedestrian was killed by a light-rail train in Denver last Thursday, February 12. The very next day, another pedestrian was killed by a light-rail train in San Jose.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 40 people were killed in light-rail accidents in 2012. This is the most since at least 1992 (the earliest year for which I have numbers available). While the numbers vary from year to year, in all the years since 1995, light-rail accidents killed 333 people.

icon_blog_noteI recently wrote that auto accidents kill about 34,000 people a year. That sounds horrible, and it is, but unlike light-rail numbers, auto fatalities have been declining. More important, light rail carried just 26.7 billion passenger miles in all the years between 1995 and 2012. By comparison, highway vehicles traveled nearly 3 trillion vehicle miles in 2012 alone. At an average occupancy of 1.67 people per car (see page 33), that’s 5 trillion passenger miles.

In other words, light rail kills 12.5 persons for every billion passenger miles carried, whereas buses kill about 4.5 people per billion passenger miles. Urban roads and streets, by comparison, kill about 8.2 people per billion vehicle miles, which works out to 4.9 per billion passenger miles. While buses are slightly safer than cars, light rail is 2-1/2 times more dangerous than cars.

Transit officials are quick to blame the victims when rail accidents kill. “Did he dive under the train? We don’t know,” said a Denver official. (It turned out the man was slightly disabled.) But the real problem is putting 100,000-pound vehicles (or, worse, 300,000-pound trains) in the same streets as 150-pound pedestrians.

Denver compounded the problem by stupidly building its downtown light-rail tracks on one-way streets with the trains moving in the opposite direction from the rest of the traffic. This means pedestrians looking for cars coming from one direction may not see the train coming from the other direction. Last Thursday’s fatality took place near this location, but as officials weren’t even certain where the accident took place, we don’t know if wrong-way travel played a role.

Unfortunately, transit agencies and rail advocates care less about public safety than in getting their projects built. I once debated the head of the American Public Transportation Association who put up a chart showing that light rail was far safer than driving–for the light-rail occupants. What happens to mere pedestrians apparently isn’t important.

Randal O’Toole is transportation policy center director at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.  This originally appeared in his blog, The Antiplanner.

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