Light rail routing: do goals matter?

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

mode - tram/light rail, planning - route design, infrastructure - right of way


Light rail, Rational decision making


Decisions to fund light rail (LRT) have been critiqued as instrumentally irrational. This paper examines whether the seemingly more technical LRT routing decisions are instrumentally rational. To this end, we test whether routing decisions are made to address goals that are rationally derived from the challenges faced by the urban region. On the basis of a review of the literature, two rationales that underlie most of the stated goals are identified: providing service for the most heavily travelled and congested corridors and inducing development, and subsequently demand, in areas perceived to be underdeveloped or distressed and in areas that have deteriorated. In a survey of key respondents from 16 cities, we find that goals are only weakly correlated with the challenges. While most routes provide service on the most heavily demanded corridors, routing decisions are no less driven by a desire to cut pecuniary and transaction costs. For this reason existing rights of way are often preferred. This is explained by the intertwining of routing and funding decisions. The implications of these findings for evaluation techniques of LRT routes are discussed.


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