Committee Approach to Research
The approach of the Committee on Light Rail Transit to research has been to evaluate and disseminate.
Some urban regions have implemented light rail lines to enable a restructuring of their bus services from a CBD orientation to a decentralized orientation to jobs and destinations increasingly in the suburbs. A committee research focus is evaluating the consequences of such transit route restructuring, including transit patronage, transit productivity, and transit operating expense consequences. Committee-sponsored research demonstrates that transit route restructuring around light rail investments generally has not only increased access to opportunity by transit dependent populations, but has resulted in much better transit performance over all measures compared to bus-only CBD-oriented transit systems.
Another traditional focus has been on sustaining the safety of LRT operations. The committee submitted a proposed research statement on this topic to the TCRP, which has been accepted.
Recently, the committee and its Subcommittee on Light Rail Circulator Systems have undertaken research into the roles of streetcars as economically and ecologically efficient people movers and urban development/redevelopment generators. There have also been evaluations of the use of partial and full low floor vehicles, initiatives to deliver power with minimal or no overhead wiring, the use of diesel engines and ways in which LRT operation can be improved in mixed traffic environments.
The committee also has been active in disseminating the findings of its evaluation initiatives to transit system operators, suppliers, regional planning officials, and regional leaders. Over the years it consistently has organized two well-attended and well-crafted paper sessions at the TRB Annual Meetings supplemented by presentations of research directly to its committee meetings. A subset of these papers each year is published in the Transportation Research Record.
Finally, subsequent to the first National Light Rail Conference that took place in Philadelphia in June 1975, the committee has sponsored 10 additional light rail conferences, jointly with APTA beginning in 1995. This series included one international conference in 2006, which was co-sponsored with APTA's European counterpart the UITP and conducted in St Louis.
Energy and Climate Change, and Infrastructure Renewal
Future research directions likely will continue these thrusts, but increasingly it will take a somewhat different slant to more explicitly address the huge areas of growing energy scarcity and climate change.
Since its inception, the committee has recognized how LRT can be used to carry a greater share of metropolitan travel at a lower operating cost per passenger km/mile than buses. Recently, there has been increased attention to lowering the capital costs. These efforts will have to be carried further to identify how LRT can contribute to metropolitan mobility at lower energy costs and less dependency on foreign oil with minimal greenhouse gas emissions.
Another future issue, in common with that of other modes as identified in TRB's Critical Issues booklet (TRB, 2005), is renewal of aging infrastructure. The first new start LRT systems now are a quarter century old and some elements will require renewal in the not too distant future. At the same time, there will be pressure to initiate additional new systems and to further the expansion of established systems. The need to find more energy efficient ways of accommodating metropolitan travel with reduces environmental impact will continue to make LRT an attractive transit mode.