Missing the Train: Why Raleigh’s Lack of a Light Rail is Holding the City Back

By Ian Ramirez

If you’re a vehicle owner and you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you can think of a time or two in your life where you felt a real freedom attached to driving. However, I’d also wager that you don’t always love sitting in traffic when you’re already twenty minutes late to work. Recognizing the environmental and economic downturn that has been borne out of American auto dependency has planners searching for both sustainable and efficient transit options to offer to the average commuter. However, where cities like Raleigh have faltered on offering new-age transit options, others like Charlotte are at the forefront of modern mass transit. The questions of how to best move the thousands of residents that make daily commutes into a city may at first seem daunting, especially given the American romanticism of the car. But for planners, the answers may lie in the not so distant past.

In the early 20th century, streetcars lined the roads of American cities in all directions, offering clean and safe transportation for all. Now, the light rail is doing the same thing in many major US cities. Given that light rails cost less than subways, are often cheaper to construct and maintain than normal trains, and offer more consistent on-time service than buses, it is easy to see why urban planners across the country have made the light rail their answer to both sprawl and auto dependency.

Throughout 2020, Raleigh had a single occupancy vehicle use rate of nearly 80%.[i] This means that nearly 80% of drivers were traveling alone when commuting. In addition to Raleigh’s high rate of lone drivers, the current average commute time is 23 minutes.[ii] These statistics indicate the city’s need for some form of mass transit that can alleviate the burden placed on both infrastructure and environment by auto dependency. As a regular driver in the Triangle, it is this writer’s very professional opinion that something needs to change so I can spend less time sitting in Durham traffic. There are innumerable reasons the light rail is an excellent answer for this conundrum. In multiple cities, this form of mass transit offered not just alleviation from congestion, but also economic and neighborhood revitalization in downtowns of cities in decline.

Source: Triangle Business Journals

Since 1986, the MAX Light Rail in Portland, Oregon has carried urbanites all over the city. The city has a population of approximately 650,000 people, and yet the light rail still manages to move roughly 3.9 million people annually. During non-Summer work months, like October, the Portland light rail moves an average of about 80,000 people a week. [iii] Given Raleigh’s similarity in population (467,000 people in 2020), and the abundance of surrounding towns outside of both Portland and Raleigh that serve as bedroom communities bursting with city commuters, the success of the light rail in Portland bodes well for Raleigh. The large number of mass transit users in Portland bodes well for other cities bold enough to introduce light rail as a transit option, despite some worry about who precisely benefits from light rail services.[iv]

On that note, it is important to ensure that low income individuals, people of color, and other disenfranchised communities are offered the opportunity to make use of a light rail, since these populations are often the ones who rely on mass transit services the most. Minority communities are often faced with, as engineer Christof Spieler states, “different standards for ‘choice’ and ‘dependent’ riders (that is to say white and Black).”[v] Spieler’s article goes on to explore the inequities in transit quality, bus stop location, and overall experience for commuters in different boroughs of Houston, Texas. While a light rail will not solve every racial divide in the transportation sector, equitable and clean transit is a great way to offer services than benefit multiple communities within a city. However, to reach those underprivileged communities, a city must first take a leap of faith through one key step: giving people new ways to get around.

Charlotte, North Carolina is a recent convert to the light rail lifestyle, having just debuted a light rail service in 2007. The city of Charlotte is an excellent example of a metropolis that recognized the potential benefits a light rail could have. Like Raleigh, Charlotte is surrounded by smaller towns and suburbs full of city commuters, and the city’s own data suggests that a least half of the city’s workforce commutes from outside the county. Additionally, the same data indicates that roughly 37% of Charlotte commuters spend over 30 minutes in their vehicles each morning.[vi] I was born just outside Charlotte. My parents ultimately moved us out of the city in the mid-2000s because the daily congestion was becoming unbearable. The data in Raleigh is strikingly similar, though commute times in the capital city are admittedly a bit quicker than that of the average Charlottean. 

However, the Charlotte Department of Transportation (CDOT) rose to the challenge, working with the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) to debut the light rail and revamp the streetcar system across the city.[vii] While the system may not have been in place as long as Portland’s, and as such cannot be analyzed as extensively, implementation in Charlotte points towards something that might prove to be a useful transportation solution for Raleigh planners. Charlotte geared their resources in the direction of capacity increase for transportation options. As a result, the city now has the potential to move more residents on public transit than ever before.

City officials hope that with this expansion of transportation options, people will make the transition from personal vehicle use to a more sustainable and accessible transit option that will also cut down on their daily commute to work. Charlotteans did not just invest in a light rail, they invested in their own future. Raleigh should do the same.

[i] United States Census. (2010). Census of Population and Housing. US Census Bureau.

[ii] American Community Survey. (2021, October 8). American Community Survey Data Tables. US Census Bureau.

[iii] Trimet. (2020, September 29). TriMet Service and Ridership Information. [Ridership Data and Analysis]

[iv] Chemtob, D. (2021, September 27). New light rail would drive development. But what about moving people? Axios Charlotte.

[v] Spieler, C. (2020, August 24). Racism has shaped public transit, and it’s riddled with inequities. Rice Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

[vi] Charlotte Area Transit System. (2019). 2030 Transit Corridor System Plan.

[vii] The Charlotte Department of Transportation. (2020, October 13). STATE OF MOBILITY: Charlotte 2020.

Ian is a second-semester senior at UNC, set to graduate in May with a BA in Public Policy. He also has minors in Geography and Urban Planning, the latter of which led him to the Carolina Planning Journal. He is a DJ for WXYC, the campus radio station. Ian was recently accepted to the Master’s Program in Public Policy at UNC, and will be part of the first cohort to graduate from the program. His planning interests include environmental land use planning, expansion of public transportation, and revitalization in areas initially targeted by Urban Renewal. 

Edited by Ruby Brinkerhoff

Featured image: LYNX light rail system in Charlotte. Courtesy of James Willamor, Flickr