The overarching assumption is that light rail can save a city. Many government officials and planners assume public transportation to be a beneficial tool in city revitalization, as it enables users to travel between work spaces and homes easily. In order to span greater distances, yet maintain lower costs, the light rail is one of the preferred options. However, this should be analyzed as this lone strategy may not be the universal solution for every city. Factors such as system age, population/employed population, ridership etc. must be considered before making a decision on the implementation of the system in the region.

In an effort to either confirm or disprove this theory, 10 major cities in the U.S. with light rail systems will be investigated.

7 cities with growing populations and 3 with shrinking populations. Below, are a few articles from this year regarding proposed light rail systems in U.S. cities. Click an image to see the article

Mayor Barry extends length of Charlotte Avenue light rail plan after West Nashville backlash
Mayor de Blasio to Propose Streetcar Line Linking Brooklyn and Queens
Virginia Beach light rail referendum vote fails in a landslide



A rail transportation system involving trolleys, streetcars,or other, usually electrified methods of conveyance, 

whose rails are primarily on surface streets that are 

shared with other forms of transportation.


Light rail systems generally operate with lower capacity and lower speeds than 'heavy' rail such as subway systems. Light rail typically travels above grade but can dip below the ground on occasion.



Each of these cities have different populations, economic development and urban sprawl, yet all have chosen light rail as a strategy for urban expansion.


This ridership data was collected in 2016 from 10 light rail systems in American cities.

Cities like Boston and New Orleans have systems deeply rooted into the urban fabric, well over a hundred years old. While others, like Washington and Baltimore, recently implemented systems to promote urban sprawl.  

Population percent change from

April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2016 according to the US Census Bureau.

Population is a 2016 estimate from the US Census Bureau. Employed population is based on the civilian labor force of 16 years+ between 2012 and 2016.  


Each of these cities have been selected for a focused study because of their varying populations, ridership and system ages.


Comparing the 10 cities presents a broad perspective of factors that may affect light rail ridership. However, it also important to consider how much the light rail will be used based on convenience. If the system line is not near a commuter's home or work space, he or she may prefer another form of public transportation or a personal vehicle instead. The following focus on three cities will investigate these distances.

Boston, Massachusetts

mBTA | Green Line & Ashmont–Mattapan High Speed Line

Boston's line is by far the largest and busiest light rail line at 69,236,700 rides a year, and has been in service since 1897. At right, the light rail is mapped with major businesses and prime residential areas in the Boston metro area. This helps visualize distance between a commuter's start and end goal from the light rail lines. 

Click Ctrl and scroll to zoom in on the map. Click each icon for details.

Buffalo, New York


Buffalo is a shrinking city with an already relatively small population. The light rail line sees an average ridership at 4,899,700 riders a year. The system is newer than Boston's, starting service in 1984. 

Click Ctrl and scroll to zoom in on the map. Click each icon for details.

Baltimore, Maryland


Baltimore is a growing city with a relatively new light rail system, operating since 1992. The system has a relatively average ridership of 6,888,500 riders annually. 

Click Ctrl and scroll to zoom in on the map. Click each icon for details.


                In an attempt to find the solution for “saving” cities, urban planners often propagate generalized ideas that are not always universally applicable. In the study, transit oriented development is analyzed as one such city planning technique, primarily through the critique of the implementation of the light rail. Boston, a city with the greatest ridership; Baltimore, a shrinking city with the most recent light rail system; and Buffalo, a shrinking city with an already low population, set up diverse conditions for comparison to understand under which circumstances public transit benefits economic growth.

                In Boston, a growing city, the distribution of residential neighborhoods and corporate firms resulted in the creation of multiple urban centers. Thus, the light rail has expanded across four branches of the Green Line and connects users for long distances with less than a half-mile walk from stations. However, due to excessive use, the light rail had the greatest frequency of breakdowns and the most expensive housing rates in its proximity.

               Boston’s system is very old, and grew alongside the city, becoming deeply incorporated in the urban fabric. Baltimore, however, has a relatively new system. Additionally, the city is experiencing a slight decrease in population. Despite the age of the line, the system reaches over 33 miles and is quite accessible, within close range of major residential areas and work spaces.

               Buffalo, another shrinking city, introduced light rail in an attempt “to rejuvenate Buffalo’s Main Street by creating a pedestrian mall with an eye towards bringing business and retail back to the once bustling downtown street.” However, the system may have actually secured the decline of the city’s downtown retail district. Today, many people have dubbed the light rail as “The Train to Nowhere.” The trend in this city appears to be a preference for cars rather than public transport, due to the dwindling population and short rail line at only 6 miles long.

               In summary, Boston’s light rail is used frequently despite requiring major maintenance. In Baltimore, it is uncertain whether it is making the city “better,” by producing a net gain in economic output, but the mapped data shows an attempt to link residential and commercial areas. In Buffalo’s situation, implementing the light rail leads to the unintended consequence of having to recover its construction costs in addition to the already existing areas of inefficient expenditure. Thus, these varying results convey that a singular solution does not work for revitalizing every city.

Created for Professor Schramm, for the "Why Cities Flourish and Fail" seminar, part of Syracuse University.

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