Shaul Picker is working on an FAQ for the benefit of people in the New York area about the concept of commuter rail through-running and what it’s good for. So in addition to contributing on some specific points, I’d like to step back for a moment and go over who the expected users are. This post needs to be thought of as a followup from what I wrote a month ago in which I listed the various travel markets used by modern commuter rail in general, making the point that this is a predominantly urban and inner-suburban mode, in which suburban rush hour commuters to city center are an important but secondary group, even where politically commuter rail is conceived of as For the Suburbs in opposition to the city, as in Munich. My post was about all-day frequency, but the same point can be made about the physical infrastructure for through-running, with some modifications.
The overall travel markets for regional rail
The assumption throughout is that the city region has with a strong center. This can come from a few square kilometers of city center skyscrapers, as is the norm in the United States (for example, in New York, Chicago, or Boston, but not weaker-centered Los Angeles), or from a somewhat wider region with office mid-rises, as is the norm in European cities like Paris, Stockholm, Munich, Zurich, and Berlin. Berlin is polycentric in the sense of having different job centers, including Mitte, City-West at the Zoo, and increasingly Friedrichshain at Warschauer Strasse, but these are all within the Ring, and overall this inner zone dominates citywide destinations. In cities like this, the main travel markets for commuter rail are, in roughly descending order of importance,
- Urban commuter trips to city center
- Commuter trips to a near-center destination, which may not be right at the one train station of traditional operations
- Urban non-work trips, of the same kind as subway ridership
- Middle-class suburban commutes to city center at traditional mid-20th century work hours, the only market the American commuter rail model serves today
- Working-class reverse-commutes, not to any visible office site (which would tilt middle-class) but to diffuse retail, care, and service work
- Suburban work and non-work trips to city center that are not at traditional mid-20th century hours
- Middle-class reverse-commutes and cross-city commutes
I center urban commuter trips because even in places with extensive suburbanization, commutes are more urban than suburban. Long Island, an unusually job-poor, commuter-oriented suburb, has 2.9 million people as of the 2020 census and, per OnTheMap, 191,202 Manhattan-bound commuters and 193,536 outer borough-bound commuters. Queens has 2.4 million people, 871,253 in-city commuters, 384,223 Manhattan-bound commuters, and 178,062 commuters to boroughs other than itself and Manhattan. The Metro-North suburbs – Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, and Fairfield Counties (New Haven omitted as it’s not really a suburb) – have 2.35 million people and 143,862 Manhattan-bound commuters and 79,821 outer borough-bound commuters. To work regionwide, commuter rail needs to be usable by the largest commute market; it’s urban rail that’s capable of also serving the suburbs without building suburban metro tunnels, rather than predominantly suburban rail.
Through-running means that trains run from one side of the region to the other through city center, rather than terminating at a traditional city terminal. Rarely, this means running trains through a city center station that already has through-tracks, like Penn Station or Stockholm Central; usually, this requires building new tunnels to connect different terminals, as it would to get to Grand Central and as it did in the other European comparison cases.
This rearranges the travel markets for commuter rail, but only somewhat. The largest group, urban commuters to city center, shrinks somewhat: terminating trains to some extent already serve it. The qualifiers come from the fact that city center is rarely entirely within walking distance of the terminal; it is in Stockholm, but it’s small and I suspect the reason Stockholm’s monocentric CBD is walking distance from the intercity station is that it opened as a through-station in 1871 already. In Boston, most of the CBD is close to South Station, but much of it isn’t, and little is within walking distance of North Station. In New York, the CBD is large enough that service to multiple destinations is desirable when feasible, for example both East Side and West Side destinations in Midtown and even Lower Manhattan, requiring additional through-running commuter rail tunnels.
What really shines with through-running is urban trips that are not commutes, or are commutes to a near-center destination on the wrong side of the CBD (for example, south of it for commuters from Uptown Manhattan or the Bronx). New York is unusually asymmetric in that there’s much more city east of Manhattan than west of it, where there’s just the urban parts of Hudson County and Newark. But even there, New Jersey-Brooklyn and New Jersey-Queens commutes matter, as do Bronx-Brooklyn commutes.
Even then, the urban commutes are significant: there are 55,000 commuters from the Bronx to Manhattan south of 23rd Street. These in-city travel markets are viable by subway today, but are for the most part slow even on the express trains – the A train’s run from Inwood to Jay Street and the 4’s run from Woodlawn to Brooklyn Bridge are both scheduled to take 45 minutes for 22.5 km, an average speed of 30 km/h. And then the New Jersey-to-outer borough commutes are largely unviable by public transportation – they cost double because there’s no fare integration between PATH and the subway and the transfers are onerous and slow, and besides, PATH’s coverage of the urban parts of North Jersey leaves a lot to be desired.
Adapting the city
Berlin is in a way the most S-Bahn-oriented city I know of. It’s polycentric but all centers are within the Ring and close to either the Stadtbahn or (for Potsdamer Platz) the North-South Tunnel. This shouldn’t be surprising – the Stadtbahn has been running since the 1880s, giving the city time to adapt to it, through multiple regime changes, division, and reunification. Even Paris doesn’t quite compare – the RER’s center, Les Halles, is a retail but not job center, and the five-line system only has two CBD stops, the RER A’s Auber and the RER E’s Haussmann-Saint-Lazare.
Can New York become more like Berlin if it builds through-running? The answer is yes. Midtown would remain dominant, and overall the region would become less rather than more polycentric as better commuter rail service encouraged job growth in the Manhattan core. But it’s likely any of the following changes would grow the market for commuter rail to take advantage of through-running over time:
- Job growth in Lower Manhattan, which has struggled with office vacancy for decades
- Job growth in non-CBD parts of Manhattan that would become accessible, like Union Square, or even Midtown South around Penn Station, which is lower-rise than the 40s and 50s
- Job growth in near-center job centers – Downtown Brooklyn may see a revival, and Long Island City is likely to see a larger upswing than it is already seeing if it becomes more accessible from New Jersey and not just the city
- Residential location adjustment – Brooklyn workers may choose to depend on the system and live in the Bronx or parts of New Jersey with good service instead of moving farther out within Brooklyn or suburbanizing and driving to work
- Residential transit-oriented development near outlying stations, in urban as well as suburban areas