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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Four Dimensions of Rail Transit Performance: How Administration, Finance, Demographics, and Politics Affect Outcomes


The rebirth of rail transit in the US over the past two decades has resulted in a rail transit’s re-emergence as an integral part of both the physical and economic landscapes of many US cities. Currently fifty-four separate rail transit systems are operated in the US (see Appendix A). This re-emergence of rail transit in cities across the US raises an important question. How does society determine if its investment in rail transit is having an impact? More importantly for the current research: how is the impact of rail transit measured across different geographic regions and system types? Performance standards are one way of determining if public investments are reaching established goals. In this research the impact of variables representing four dimensions of transportation performance: administrative, financial, demographic, and political is assessed. Multiple regression analysis is used to assess the impact of important factors representing each of the four dimensions on the performance of all heavy and light rail transit systems in the US.

This study addresses three important gaps in existing research. First, this study is strictly concerned with the performance of rail transit systems; an area of research which is unique and due to the death of information in the past, absent from current literature. Second, existing research has not ade3quately addressed the impact of specific sources and types of government subsidies on transit system performance. Sources of subsidies include federal, state, and local funding, while types include dedicated and general revenue funding. Finally, existing research has yet to adequately address the impact of local political relationships on transit system performance.

Results indicate that a significant difference exists between the operation of heavy and light rail transit systems in the US. The main difference is that administrators of heavy rail systems seem to strive to achieve goals more closely associated with standard performance measures, while administrators of light rail systems may target different goals that are not directly associated with or reflected by existing performance measures. The results of this research are extremely useful, not only in terms of determining the impact of important variables on the performance of rail transit systems, but also in helping to focus and redirect performance research.

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