John Locke Update / Research Newsletter (Archive)

In this issue: Raleigh’s population density is so low that rail transit is doomed to failure

posted on in Local Government

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The following is an open letter to Wake County’s city council members and town commissioners.  It shows the folly of trying to build rail transit in the Triangle. Unfortunately, rail transit decisions made in other cities — Charlotte, for example — seem to be driven by emotion, not facts and reason.  Let’s hope for the sake of the taxpayers’ pocketbooks, that Wake County will be different.

Dear Wake County City Council Members and Town Commissioners,

Population density is one of the best predictors of the success or failure of rail transit projects.  Rail transit in low-density areas is doomed to failure.  It wastes scarce transportation dollars on rail instead of lower cost and more effective alternatives.

Recently released U.S. Census Bureau data show that Raleigh’s population density in 1950 was three times greater than its current population density.

Raleigh Population Density
Year                 Population      Area                            Density
                                                (Square Mile)              (Population/square mile)

1950                69,000             12                                5750
1960                94,000             34                                2765
1970                152,000           71                                2141
1980                205,000           99                                2070
1990                306,000           176                              1739
2000                541,000           320                              1691
2010                885,000           518                              1708

As Raleigh grew, citizens expressed their personal life-style preferences by moving to less dense areas of the city.  This trend is consistent with other Census data that show that nation-wide since 2000, close to 80% of all new households decided to settle in single-family houses. 

This shows that once the region began to spread out from about 1950-60, densities declined sharply, and have been stable at about 1700 persons/square mile for the last 20 years. This is a long way from the 8000 persons/square mile that transportation experts say is needed for rail-based transit service. Only one census tract (SE of downtown) in Raleigh is greater than 8000 persons/square mile, and it is very small and is not even on the rail lines.

Supporters of rail transit must prove that the 80 percent of the households who prefer the life-style of single-family homes will suddenly change their minds and want to live in high-density high-rise apartments and condos.  Or they must be honest about their plans to use highly restrictive land use policies to limit housing choices so that there is little or no alternative to living in these crowded conditions. 

If you have questions about this or other fact-based information about transit, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Michael Sanera           

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Michael Sanera is Director of Research and Local Government Studies at the John Locke Foundation. He served as a policy analyst for the Washington, DC based The Heritage Foundation, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the California based Claremont Institute. ...

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