S.A. largest U.S. city without rail transit; why?

March 1, 2019 GMT

Cities across Texas, the U.S. and world continue to open and expand rail transit systems. Why would any city want to do this?

There is more than one answer. First, steel-wheel-on-steel-rail technology has been successfully applied to urban transit for nearly 200 years. Starting with horse-drawn streetcars, steel rails proved to be a faster, quieter and more comfortable ride than the omnibus on city streets.

It takes very little energy to roll a steel wheel on a steel rail. For every $10 spent on gasoline for an automobile, $1.10 is used to overcome the rolling resistance of the rubber tires on the pavement. If the car had steel wheels running on a steel rail, less than 6 cents, possibly as low as 2 cents, would be spent overcoming the rolling resistance. If you want to save energy and money (as well as reduce the related pollution), rail technology is the way to go.

Because rail transit is a popular form of high-capacity transit, developers build compact, walkable, mixed-use projects near rail stations. This results in a “land use multiplier” or “transit multiplier” effect that reduces the vehicle miles of travel more than the increase in transit passenger miles. Various international studies have found that for each passenger mile on rail transit, vehicle miles are reduced by 1.4 to 9 miles. Contemporary values for the U.S. are in the range of 4 to 5 vehicle miles reduced for every passenger mile on rail transit.

SA2020, the SA Tomorrow Sustainability Plan and the draft SA Climate Ready plan all call for reductions in vehicle miles of travel. If you want to reduce vehicle miles of travel (and associated pollution, transportation costs, traffic fatalities and impervious cover), then rail transit makes sense.

In January, a new 27-mile commuter rail line called TEXRail began operation from downtown Fort Worth to DFW International Airport. In the last year, streetcars began operation in El Paso, Houston has ordered more light rail cars, and Dallas has secured federal funds to extend its light rail stations for longer trains.

Passenger rail service now operates in all the largest Texas cities with the exception of San Antonio. In fact, San Antonio is the largest city in the U.S. without rail transit. Why?

Bill Barker teaches in the graduate urban planning program at UTSA. Both the Institute of Transportation Engineers and the American Institute of Certified Planners recognize him as a Fellow.