Abstract: Defining an Alternative Future: Globalization and the Birth of the Light Rail Movement in North America

Gregory L. Thompson


The purpose of this paper is to: 1) trace how European experience with light rail captured the imagination of transit reformers in the United States; 2) look at how the idea actually took root in the first application of light rail in Canada (Edmonton, 1978) and in the United States (San Diego, 1981); and 3) examine briefly the traffic behavior consequences in San Diego and Edmonton. The light rail movement arose in North America during the 1960s and 1970s amid growing disillusionment with technological progress. The paper argues that the coming of light rail to North America was an expression of a new North American spirit of political activism. The light rail movement attempted to steer technological progress away from what the established transit institutions in North America promised. In that respect it had a revolutionary aspect to it, earning the appellation of "movement." I also argue, however, that the early light rail movement had a strong pragmatic streak, resulting in a complex and not obvious relationship between the light rail movement and both the established transit industry and the anti-highway movement of the same period. Many people were involved in the decisions in Edmonton and San Diego. None were in it for financial gain. Vendors had little part in launching this revolution. Though they did not achieve the goals that they hoped for-perhaps 15 to 20 percent of regional travel using transit, less automobile use, less pollution, less sprawl—on balance these people did more good than harm.