Is Light Rail More Attractive to Users Than Bus Transit? Arguments Based on Cognition and Rational Choice


Milena Scherer

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

mode - tram/light rail, place - europe, place - north america, ridership - demand, ridership - forecasting, operations - capacity


light rail, bus, higher capacity, perceptions, induced demand


Decision making for a new light rail system is based on a demand forecast and the additional benefits expected to come along with rail transit. Recent light rail implementations have shown that the demand forecast was often inaccurate. The supposition is that the attraction of light rail, compared with bus systems, has been misjudged. This paper presents arguments on this bias based on a literature review of cognitive approaches and rational choices, with a focus on Europe and North America. The higher attraction of light rail for users is most likely because of four impact groups. The first of these is the attention-capturing factors, such as new and modern vehicles, special design, visibility of route (e.g., tracks, bus lanes), and media presence during the evaluation and construction process; these factors contribute to the memory representation and perception of transit systems. The second is the perceived attributes of transit systems, especially qualitative factors of reliability and ride comfort, which are highly associated with light rail systems. The third, neighborhood characteristics of areas served with a specific transit mode, were found to contribute to the perception and valuation of this transit mode. And last, following the theory of induced demand, the higher capacity provided by light rail vehicles compared with buses can affect ridership. It was found that cognitive approaches contributed to the explanation of the potential preference for light rail. These approaches help to clarify why demand is expected to differ, especially in situations in which light rail and buses provide similar service characteristics in regard to availability.


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