Valley Metro - Phoenix Metro Bus Transportation

Some Light Rail Facts

Light Rail Fails Safety & Crime Tests

  Laissez Faire Institute Updated, November 2007

Issue Brief

Light Rail Fails Safety & Crime Tests


  • Light rail has a higher fatality rate than any other form of transit.
  • Light rail has a higher fatality rate than automobiles.
  • Light rail has a higher crime rate than any other form of public transit.

Travel as a passenger on public transportation is safer than travel by private cars. The fatality risk for a person traveling in a car is almost 100 times higher than that for a person traveling in a bus (American Public Transportation Associationís Public Transportation Fact Book). Passengers traveling in rail transit vehicles probably face a similarly low risk.

However, the on-board risk is not the only safety issue of concern. Pedestrians face risks prior to boarding transit vehicles. Further, rail transit vehicles operating on rights-of-way that intersect streetsóas is the plan for most new light rail systemsómay collide with persons, vehicles, or objects that come into the path of the transit trains.

As it turns out, light rail has severe safety deficiencies when compared to other modes of urban travel. The aggregate fatality rate for auto travel is around 14 persons per billion vehicle miles of travel. However, this includes rural travel, where the fatality rate per billion vehicle miles is 22. The nationwide fatality rate per billion vehicle miles of urban travel is 10. Thus, we find that light railís 12 fatalities per billion passenger miles of travel rate is actually higher than the rate for privately operated automobiles. [These figures are calculated from data appearing in the following sources: Public Transportation Fact Book (American Public Transportation Association), Highway Statistics (Federal Highway Administration).]

Urban Travel Fatality Rates by Mode 1996-2005 Averages Bus Commuter Rail Light Rail Urban Auto
Fatalities/Billion Vehicle Miles 43 332 295 10
Fatalities/Billion Person-Miles 5 10 12 9

Sources: Public Transportation Fact Book (, Highway Statistics ( Federal Transit Administrationís Transit Safety and Security Statistics and Analysis (

So, when we compare the fatality rates for urban travel by the various modes we discover that light rail has a worse safety record than automobiles. Consequently, the notion that luring some automobile users to switch to light rail travel will improve safety is not supported by the fatal crash data.

Those auto drivers who support tax-subsidized light rail on the assumption that their lives will be made better when others leave their cars to ride the rails may want to reconsider their position. Light railís fatality rate of 295 per billion vehicle miles of travel makes light rail trains extraordinarily dangerous to be near. A decision to replace bus transit with light rail transit is very likely a decision that will increase the hazards of travel in the urban region.

Crime Rates

A second safety issue concerns crime rates. Light rail proponents have repeatedly emphasized the potential for light rail stations to attract real estate development. This may well be true, but it is not an unmixed blessing. Light rail also appears to attract an unusually high number of criminals. Compared to other transit modes, light rail has the worst crime rate. Light railís crime rate is ten times higher than the rate for bus transit. Consequently, a decision to replace bus transit with light rail transit is very likely a decision that will bring more crime to the area.


Those running municipal transit systems might want to reconsider whether they really want to replace safer bus transit with more dangerous light rail. It may be easy for light rail proponents to shrug off light railís poor performance characteristics that lead to its being the most costly form of mass transit in terms of the cost per person-mile of travel. After all, itís only money. It should not be so easy to shrug off the increased risk of traffic fatalities and crime that light rail will bring to the community. Apprised of the higher risks posed by light rail, city officials cannot later plead ignorance in order to evade responsibility for the decisions they make today. This will expose city taxpayers to potentially large tort liability. We need to carefully consider the safety issue before we commit to building more light rail tracks on city streets.

Public Transit Serious Crime Rates 2002-2005 Murder/Rape/ Robbery/Assault Rate Passenger Trips* Bus 284 Light Rail 2,931 *per billion passenger trips, ** per billion passenger miles Source: National Transit Database (Federal Transit Administration)

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Light Rail Facts