Rail Cities are on the Right Track

Prof. Dr. Jeff Kenworthy,
Professor in Sustainable Cities, Curtin University of Technology
Perth, Western Australia.

Cities in both developed and emerging economies are going through some radical changes which offer hope that in this century they will be able to free themselves from already established patterns of automobile dependence and to prevent the development of it, in cases where motorisation is currently very strong. In a new book to be released in August this year (Newman and Kenworthy, 2015) entitled The End of Automobile Dependence: How Cities are Moving Away from Car-Based Planning we show how there are numerous signs revealing strong changes in cities away from the dominance of the car.

Car use has peaked in a lot of developed countries and is in decline, and this is reflected in data on many cities worldwide. In our new book we show data for 45 world cities and the trends that are happening. Public transportation systems have been improving in their speed competitiveness to cars, per capita public transportation service levels are near universally on the rise, per capita usage of public transportation is growing, parking in the CBDs of cities per 1000 jobs is declining, transportation-related deaths per 100,000 persons have fallen significantly in virtually all cities in our study and transportation emissions per capita such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile hydrocarbons and sulfur dioxide are all radically down. Even the densities of cities have reversed from their almost constant post-World War II decline and are now densifying again, especially in sub-centres based around rail. This is helping to reduce the amount of car use that is needed and to provide more and more people with the opportunity to live without a car.

Very importantly, we have shown how the Gross Domestic Product of cities has decoupled from the growth in car use (see also Kenworthy, 2013). Cities are becoming wealthier with smaller and smaller amounts of car driving needed to generate the wealth. This is fundamental, as in the past it was believed that parallel growth in car use was inevitable as wealth increased. But we have found that even in cities that are renowned for their motorisation trend such as Taipei, Prague and Sao Paulo, the amount of car driving needed to generate a unit of real GDP is falling. Furthermore, we have also discovered that even in cities such as Sao Paulo, which has become notorious for its traffic jams, only 30% of daily trips are by car and motorcycle. These modes simply take up a lot of space and do a lot of damage, but they do not actually provide a high percentage of people’s daily mobility needs. The city was not designed to accommodate them and they ruin, for example, the mobility of millions of people stuck in buses in traffic jams, who are using only a fraction of the road space of car users.

All these things are very important and suggest a different future for cities in the 21st century. But the one thing that stands out very prominently in all this is the rapidly accelerating role of urban rail in supporting and leading some of these trends. The speed of urban rail systems worldwide has been increasing relative to cars for the last 45 years and urban rail systems are on average now about 13% faster than the comparable average road traffic speeds, as measured in whole metropolitan areas. The growth in the service levels of public transportation systems (seat kilometres per capita) is being led by urban rail and the growing usage of public transportation is most strongly seen in urban rail systems, whereas in some cases bus systems in the same cities are even in decline, or are experiencing only small increases.

In another paper called Peak Car Use and the Rise of Global Rail: Why This is Happening and What it Means for Large and Small Cities (Newman, Kenworthy and Glazebrook, 2013), we show how there is a revolution currently underway in cities as diverse as those in China, India, the USA, Australia, Europe and The Middle East. They are all building and planning urban rail systems at an unprecedented rate, so much so that one can argue that we are entering a new Golden Age of rail, the likes of which has not been seen since rail first burst onto the urban scene in the second half of the 1800s.

Why is this happening? Put simply, rail systems are offering the competition to the automobile that is so desperately needed everywhere. They are providing the anchor points around stations for new dense, mixed-use development, which is highly walkable within the station precincts and superbly connected to other parts of metropolitan regions due to the speed, reliability, high profile and very user friendly and legible nature of rail systems (whether these are new metros, such as the excellent and growing system in Dubai, or light rail systems (LRT) for corridors with smaller travel demand, systems which Dubai is also implementing very well). The city reshaping potential of rail and its capacity to produce less automobile dependent land uses, is something that is so important for cities as they move through the 21st century and grapple with the big problem of climate change and how to reduce CO2 emissions, especially from the large and growing transportation sector, which is still highly fossil-fuel dependent. It is also critical to the livability of cities.

In a recent study (Kenworthy, 2008) I compared in detail the many differences between cities globally, based on whether the cities had a very strong and dominant rail system (e.g. New York, Sydney, Berlin, Zurich), whether they had a rail system, but it was weaker in its overall role in the public transportation system (e.g Toronto, Melbourne, Chicago, Singapore, Copenhagen) or whether they had no rail system and relied only on buses for public transportation (at the time, for example, Denver, Phoenix, Bologna, Taipei...these cities have all since added rail systems because this simply is the trend). I then used a rigorous statistical technique to compare the median values for a whole range of different types of variables between the three city groups and whether those differences were statistically significant or not. Table 1 summarises just a few of these key variables and shows in each case that there is a quite systematic difference between the Strong Rail, Weak Rail and No Rail cities, with each variable being the best in the strong rail, second best in the weak rail and much worse in the no rail cities.

As can be seen in Table 1 the statistical significance of the differences between the median values of the three groups is very strong (significant in each case at better than the 1% level, meaning there is less than a 1% chance that the observed differences are by chance). As can be seen, cities which have a lot of urban rail, and its role is very strong in the overall public transportation system, have vastly better public transportation service levels and use, much better infrastructure in terms of routes that are totally protected from traffic congestion, far more competitive overall public transportation system speeds and much greater modal splits towards public transportation. But they also have greater walking and cycling due to the different kinds of living arrangements created by rail that also enable people to walk and ride bikes due to shorter travel distances. The overall cost to the urban economy of operating all passenger transportation is also lower in strong rail cities than the others. And finally, there are far fewer transportation deaths (these are total transportation deaths in all modes in the city).

In summary, as more people move into cities, and particularly megacities, this century will bring unprecedented pressure for cities to change to more sustainable modes of transportation. This pressure will come from the huge space consumption of automobiles for roads and parking, through worsening congestion and many local and regional environmental issues, not to mention the high economic costs of trying to run cities mainly on cars. In short, automobile cities are vulnerable cities.

The 20th century saw the rise of one of the most powerful city shaping forces ever experienced: the automobile. Cities spread out and many of them became impossible to live in without a car or multiple cars per household. But towards the end of this century we began to see the first hints of the peak of its power and now in the 21st century we are seeing a multitude of signs that the empire of car dependence that it created is now declining. We of course will always have cars in one form or another, but it is likely that many cities will end their utter reliance on them. Public transportation systems, in concert with a far greater role for walking and cycling will play key roles in this transition to cities that are not dependent on cars. And in this scenario it is now clear that urban rail will find a new Golden Age because of its capacity to move so many people in such little space, its ability to protect and enhance urban space for people, and its great attraction as a location for dense, mixed-use urban development, which is far less automobile dependent.

Table 1. Differences in selected key variables between strong, weak and no rail cities
Source: Kenworthy (2008)


  • Kenworthy, J. (2008) An International Review of The Significance of Rail in DevelopingMore Sustainable Urban Transport Systems in Higher Income Cities. World Transport Policy and Practice 14 (2), 21-37.
  • Kenworthy, J. (2013) Decoupling urban car use and metropolitan GDP growth. World Transport Policy and Practice 19 (4) 7-21.
  • Newman, P. and Kenworthy, J. (2015) The end of automobile dependence: How cities are moving away from car-based planning. Island Press, Washington DC.
  • Newman, P. Kenworthy, J. and Glazebrook, G. (2013) Peak Car and the Rise and Rise of Global Rail: Why this is happening and what it means for large and small cities. Journal of Transportation Technologies 3, 272-287.


The author is deeply grateful for funds received from the Helen and William Mazer Foundation to fund data collection on these cities. All photos courtesy of Jeffrey Kenworthy.

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