Suburban TOD

Hicksville is located 43 kilometers east of Penn Station on the LIRR Main Line. It’s a major job center of eastern Nassau County, with 25,000 jobs and a rather large shopping center adjacent to the train station. The station itself gets about 8,000 weekday boardings, more than any other suburban LIRR station except Ronkonkoma.

However, the station has no TOD. The shopping mall is transit-adjacent, but the route to it from the station passes through parking lots at both ends. The station is surrounded by thousands of parking spaces; a recent reconstruction of a parking garage cost $364 $36.4 million for 1,400 spaces, which at $26,000 per space is more than the per-rider cost of such expensive transit lines as Second Avenue Subway. As a result, the total number of people getting off at Hicksville in the AM peak is 700, for a rail share of 3%.

Such failure is quite common in the US. Leaving aside stations explicitly configured as park-and-rides, such as Metropark or Ronkonkoma, off-CBD stations have to have at least some retail and office space usable by reverse commuters, on the pure financial grounds that reverse-peak service is nearly free to provide. Otherwise, light rail and subway trains run empty in the reverse-peak, and commuter trains park downtown, leading to outsized costs for CBD railyard expansions.

For a comparison of how good TOD looks like, see this industry presentation about Tokyo’s Tsukuba Express. As is normal in Tokyo, the line is very expensive: $140 million per km for a line that’s just 26% in tunnel, though the tunnel percentage is much higher within the central city. But per rider this is not too bad, because as the images in the presentation demonstrate, intense TOD followed construction. Stations are surrounded by high-density office and residential buildings and not parking lots.

A theme I am going to revisit is that high construction costs should not be an excuse to scale down service levels. It may be expensive to develop on the parking lots adjacent to the station, but the ridership is always worth it.

If there’s to be a transit revival, it’s imperative to increase mode share at major suburban centers. The transit mode share for people working in Manhattan is 75%, while the auto share is only 14% – and the auto mode share is dominated by the suburbs that use the GWB, rather than Long Island. There’s some room to expand Manhattan employment, but not enough to make a dent in the region’s car use. It’s critical to instead make it easier to use transit and harder to drive to work in such secondary downtowns as Flushing and Jamaica, and in such major suburban centers as Mineola and, yes, Hicksville.


  1. Mark

    I followed your old blog and I’m glad to see a transportation/land use focus on this one. A great example of a failed suburban commuter rail station is Owings Mills, MD. There’s a (nearly abandoned) shopping mall less than a mile from the station. The owners of the mall, for various reasons, didn’t want transit riders visiting their stores, so they built a fence totally preventing pedestrian access from the transit station to the mall. Unreal.

    There’s a TOD plan for Owings Mills which has also stalled due to costs and political BS. We could learn a lot from Japan.

    • Wad

      Mark, we have the same BS along the Los Angeles-Long Beach Blue Line.

      At a station in Compton is a hotel-casino. The hotel property has run hot and cold on the Blue Line. First, there was a fence to prevent transit riders from visiting the hotel. Then, there was a passageway. Then, the fence was closed again. Someone then cut a hole in the fence and people still passed through, creating a dangerous situation. The hotel changed its mind and reopened the passage to the station.

      Now it’s closed again, and this time, there is both a chain link fence and a cinderblock wall behind it.

      Go to San Diego, on the other hand, and transit-oriented development is taken much more seriously. At the end of the line in Santee, there’s a suburban shopping center that’s literally wrapped around the Trolley. The tracks run right through the center, and the station itself is near the center court.

      Another line manages to connect three major shopping centers in a suburban part of the city. Interestingly, the three shopping centers — Fashion Valley (also a bus hub), Hazard Center and Mission Valley Center — are consecutively next to one another.

      Fashion Valley, in particular, was an interesting case. In exchange for allowing some of its property to be a transit hub (it was a bus transfer center before the Trolley was extended), Fashion Valley was allowed to more than double its retail square footage by adding a second floor of stores. It might be San Diego County’s most profitable mall.

      • Ian Mitchell

        Is it that the L.A. riots are still something that developers think about when they hear “compton”, whereas there’s no parallel for San Diego?

  2. Tom West

    Some commuter rail agencies are so wedded to the idea that (nearly) everyone drives to their stations, they feel that every lost parking space is a lost rider, and therefore changing land from parking spaces to buildings would be bad for them.

    In fairness, the boardings at a commuter station are limited to the number of people who can get there (in the AM peak). If transit capacity to the station is low, then the parking lot capaacity = daily boardings.

    • ant6n

      No fairness: One bus can replace 40 parking spots. I once did the math for a suburban commuter rail station of Montreal. They are spending 7million, mostly to add 330 parking spots to the existing 280. But even if you assume only 10 people per bus, and 1.3 people per car, than the number of people that arrive at the station per bus is higher than the number of people that can reach by car.

      At the same time, I _believe_ that even 3-4 story residential buildings (more appropriate for suburbs), if built reasonably compactly (TOD-style) can have more people living in them than a parking spot of the same size can bring people in, at 1.3 passengers per car — but i didn’t do the math for that.

    • RR

      This is true in my commuter rail agency. However, I’ve argued for years that we have under-priced our parking. We have seen churches partner up and offer shuttle services, while charging substantially more for parking permits than the villages do. I’d like to see parking shuttles coupled with parking price increases at commuter stations while developing the stations with downtowns into the more pedestrian friendly neighborhoods that they used to be 100 years ago.

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  6. Ian Mitchell

    I’d love to quote Keep Houston Houston here:
    “One of the mind-blowing things about the East Coast is that you have historic and world-class transit infrastructure which is almost criminally underutilized. So where in the South and the West you have New Starts rail lines with upzoning or tax increment financing around stations, in the east you have quarter-acre lots backing up to electrified train stops. If you posit that there should be skyscrapers in Brooklyn, then maybe it’s time to bring brownstones to Little Neck.”

    In my opinion, the whole of the LIRR, PATH, Metro-North, SIRR, Triboro (once it’s built), and ideally the NYC-bound portions of NJT, should be integrated in the same manner Paris’ RER is, or at worst as London Overground is with London Underground.

    Real Estate development should be a major part of how transit in the NYC Metro watershed is funded- if the organization itself is bad at it, just allow all of the land it owns adjacent to stations to be auctioned off for 100% voting rights but with 50% non-voting preferred stock in new developments required to be given to MTA. Locals might not like it, there might be NIMBY fights, but these things tend to happen more quickly when private developers are trying to make a buck than when government agencies are trying to ensure the utilization of valuable public infrastructure.

  7. Ian Mitchell

    I posted on the article you linked:

    Let’s replace this wait in line system with some free market economics- yield management.
    It’s how airlines make a profit. When parking is plentiful, make it cheap. Where it becomes constrained, charge more- a lot more- until you never have people looking for a space who can’t find one, just ones who refuse to pay what it costs.

    If $3,000 per year isn’t enough (it’s clearly not), then the prices (at least for some spaces, at some hours) NEED to increase.

    A recent reconstruction of the parking garage at Hicksville’s commuter rail station cost cost $36.4 million for 1,400 spaces, which at $26,000 per space is more than the per-rider cost of such transit “boondoggles” as the Second Avenue Subway.

    Alternatively, don’t just apply free market principles- let the free market decide entirely- Lease/sell all the land around these rail stations. Let developers build what the market demands. Maybe that will be large, for-profit parking garages. Maybe that will be shopping malls, apartments, or stations for doorstop or park n ride shuttle service, for $10 per passenger per day, you could run shuttles pretty far.

    Basically, anything else is better than what they’re doing now.

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