Transportation-Development Symbiosis

The RPA’s Regional Assembly has included the following idea submission: expand reverse-commuter rail service. The proposal calls for surveying city residents to look for the main available reverse-commuter markets, and for expanding reverse-peak service on the model of Metro-North. It unfortunately does not talk about doing anything at the work end – it talks about looking at where city residents could go to the suburbs on commuter rail, but not about which suburban job markets could be served from any direction.

I don’t want to repeat myself about what transit agencies have to do to be able to serve suburban jobs adequately (if “suburban” is the correct way to think of Providence and New Haven), and so I’m going to sound much harsher toward the idea than I should be. Suffice is to say that talking about development requires a lot of reforms to operating practices. With that in mind, let’s look at some suburban job centers in the Northeast: Providence, Stamford, Hicksville, New Haven. As can be seen, those stations all look very suburban, and even Providence is surrounded by sterile condos, with the mall located a short, unpleasant walk away. Compare this with the urbanity that one finds around major suburban train stations in Tokyo, such as Kokubunji and Tachikawa.

But really, the kind of development that’s missing around suburban train stations in the US is twofold. First, the local development near the stations is not transit-oriented, in the sense that big job and retail centers may be inconvenient to walk to for the pedestrian. And second, the regional development does not follow the train lines, but rather arterial roads, or, in cities with rapid transit, rapid transit lines – for example, one of Long Island’s two biggest edge cities, East Garden City, is diffuse and far from existing LIRR stations (the other, Mineola, is relatively okay).

In both cases, what’s missing is transportation-development symbiosis. Whoever runs the trains has the most to gain from locating major office and retail development, without excessive parking, near the train stations. And whoever owns the buildings has the most to gain from running trains to them, to prop up property values. This leads to the private railroad conglomerates in Tokyo, and to the Hong Kong MTR.

The same symbiosis can be done with government actors, but isn’t, not in the US, and the RPA’s attempts to change this and promote integrated planning have so far not succeeded. Hickville recently spent $36.4 million on a parking garage adjacent to the station plus some extra sum on expanding road access, but none of the relevant actors has made any effort to upzone the station area for commercial, to allow easier commuting. Providence is renovating the station, with pretty drawings, but doing far short of a redesign that would add development to the area.

The importance of this symbiosis, coming back to the original idea, is that the correct question to ask is not, “Where can city residents go to the suburbs to work?” but rather “Which suburban and secondary-urban destinations can be adequately served by rail?” In all four Northeastern cities under discussion, there is more than one direction from which commuters could come. From the commuter railroad’s perspective, a rider who takes the train in the traditional peak direction but gets off in a suburb short of the CBD is a free fare, just like an off-peak rider or a reverse-peak rider.

The task for regional planners (as opposed to service planners and railroad managers) is then a combination of the following priorities:

1. As noted above, ensuring edge city and secondary CBD development is both close to train stations and easily accessible by pedestrians.

2. Aggressively upzoning near potential station sites, with an eye for junctions, such as Sunnyside, Secaucus, and New Rochelle.

3. Examining where people working in secondary centers are living, and which rail lines could be leveraged to serve them and where new construction would be needed. For example, Providence could use rail to Woonsocket and the East Bay and more local service to Cranston and Warwick, but reviving the tunnel to the East Bay could be expensive and needs to be studied carefully. Note that north of South Attleboro, there are very few people living near the Providence Line working in Providence, and so reverse-peak service is useful mainly in the original sense of people reverse-commuting from Boston, in contrast with service to Massachusetts suburbs of Providence such as Seekonk.

The problem with doing all three is political: current regional rail traffic is dominated by suburbanites using it as an extension of driving into the city. This influences local thinking because the economics of residential development are not the same as those of commercial development. Agglomeration and density are less important. Transfers and long access distances are more acceptable. People traveling within the suburb go toward the station in the AM peak rather than away from it, and so parking availability is more important. Take all of these together and you get a powerful constituency supporting continuing to choke suburban train stations with parking and sterile development for city-bound commuters, no matter how many tens of thousands of jobs are nearby.

This is why some symbiosis is necessary. One way to do it is via market mechanisms: if a well-capitalized company gets ownership of the transit infrastructure and is free to develop with few zoning constraints, it could decide to build office towers in Hicksville on top of the train station, or develop the empty lots near New Haven and Providence. This is possible, but may well be too hard politically, even more so than direct zoning reform, because every trope used by the community to oppose the changes (namely, fear of outsiders) would apply and also there would be explicit loss of control.

The other way is the public way, which is where integrated planning comes in. Even on the level of intransigent railroads, it may work if all done together. In other words, there would be simultaneous effort to add reverse-peak service on the LIRR and the MBTA, upzone surrounding station areas and make them more walkable at the expense of some parking spaces, direct major developments such as malls and office complexes to the resulting TOD, and integrate local transit with the changed commuter service in all directions.

But whatever is done, it’s critical to integrate the two functions, of transportation and development. There’s no need for an overarching bureaucracy to take care of it all, even – just cooperation between regional planners, local planners, and transit managers. Transit needs thick markets, and if all development outside the primary CBD is diffuse and auto-oriented, there will not be any thick markets for it to serve. A transit revival necessarily requires new markets, and this means going after what are now hopelessly auto-oriented suburbs. And what needs to be done is not just figuring out where new service is required or where car-free urbanites commute to, but also what kind of TOD can be done at each secondary job center.


  1. Nathanael

    I can’t disagree.

    If we can’t see cooperation between the LIRR and Metro-North, I wonder when we’ll see the LIRR cooperate with anyone at all, though.

    • Danny

      Interesting. One of the main reasons for public transit (as opposed to privately owned mass transit) is the possibility of better integration of the different systems. I think this idea has been thoroughly discredited by nearly every transit system in the US. Hell, most agencies still don’t even have free transfers within their own agency…and that is before we even begin to talk about inter-agency cooperation.

      But anyway, internal politics is just one more problem with transit that is completely ignored because it doesn’t sound like “funding”. Funding is nothing more than a leverage device, and just like every other leverage device, it multiplies losses just as easily as it multiplies gains. Until we fix problems like these, increased funding is a pure waste of money.

      • Nathanael

        Naw, most agencies in the US have pretty good integration and cooperation. Consider Philadelphia, San Diego, Minneapolis, Boston, etc.

        Trouble is, the ones that don’t have good integration are some of the biggest and most famous: New York and Chicago.

        • Nathanael

          Note that in New Jersey there is full integration across the state, but all the logical services cross state borders. Despite this, NJT seems to be really quite cooperative with Amtrak and SEPTA.

          The problem really is a NY and Chicago problem.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Most bus riders in New Jersey never leave the state. Most NJTransit riders are on a bus. The busiest bus routes are in Hudson and Essex, few of them leave the county they operate in, even less if you consider if you look at by metro area and not county. ( West Hudson county is part of Newark’s metro, not Jersey City’s )

          • Nathanael

            Geez, really? Yeesh. Well, I don’t know what’s up with that either.

          • Nathanael

            In both of those cases, you’re seeing outright fights between municipalities. Though San Francisco is far worse.

            In LA, fare integration? We use cash here in LA! (sigh)

      • Nathanael

        Seattle’s doing pretty well with cooperation, actually. Fare integration is only a mess because the entire system of fare charging in Seattle is a mess. (Rear doors, front doors, zones, whaa?)

  2. Jiim

    Short run-through is lower-hanging fruit than reverse peak: NJT running through to Flushing, for example, or MARC running through to Northern Virginia. One isn’t trying to redevelop suburbia, but bring single seat rides into already developed urban areas from the suburbs the other side of the core.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, that’s true in New York and Washington. In Boston it’s different, coming from a) lack of run-through tracks, b) a big secondary employment anchor at the end of one of the lines, and c) genuinely shitty reverse-peak service.

    • Adirondacker12800

      So that someone in Rahway can take a job at the Flushing Burger King instead of the Elizabeth McDonald’s or the Rahway Wendy’s? Flushing and Elizabeth may be relatively dense job centers. But most of the jobs aren’t the kind of jobs that attract long commutes.

      • ENbrian

        I think you are severely underestimating the commute some working poor undertake, mass transit or not.

      • David Alexander

        You’ve admittedly hit on a point, that the high costs of commuter rail along with the questionable headways scare off some of the poor people who could even consider reverse commuting. Despite being within walking distance of Mineola’s LIRR station, many of my public transportation using co-workers end up using Long Island Bus because it’s far cheaper for them to use it, especially since they use the free transfer to another NYC Transit bus. It’s still rather sad to see crowded N6 runs while the Hempstead Branch sits empty and terminates across the street from the Transit Center where the N6 riders transfer to *another* bus to the depths of suburban Nassau County.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Or taking the bus to the train station in Queens then waiting for a train takes up just as much time as just taking the bus.

          • David Alexander

            Or in the case of one co-worker, taking the bus to the subway for one stop for the LIRR at Jamaica makes little sense, so it’s easier to take only two buses and not worry about the missing a train (or watching the LIRR burp from minor delays) and being doomed to arriving late. So while the bus is slower, it’s cheaper, and more flexible for certain corridors.

          • Adirondacker12800

            so for her the bus is a better choice.
            I looked at the schedule, It could be called “the Hempstead Turnpike bus”. I runs very frequently. Hempstead Turnpike isn’t well served by the LIRR, a frequent bus is probably the better alternative for most people within a few blocks of Hempstead Turnpike. And for someone in Franklin Square, a bus to Jamaica may be the fastest option.

        • Nathanael

          This is partly pricing dumbassery. Chicago is the extreme case, with low-priced CTA buses competing directly with more-expensive Metra Electric services.

          • David Alexander

            When you have a train engineer, conductor, assisstant conductor, and rear brakeman, you end up having to charge a bit more to justify their salaries and the so-called “premium” service that they offer.

          • Nathanael

            Not sure exactly. About a dozen?

            The point is that the trains are running, half-full, and then the CTA is also running the buses, jam-packed. This is just plain waste.

          • Adirondacker12800

            So one half full train with four staff members would need six buses with six drivers. Hmmm.

  3. jim

    The experience in Washington has been that when a Metrorail station (either an extension or infill) is proposed, the planners tear up their existing plans and write new ones for the area immediately surrounding the new station. Metrorail-catalysed TOD is a well understood and appreciated phenomenon. But no-one cares about commuter rail. Planners don’t assume that commuter rail stations will change anything, so don’t change their existing plans to accommodate them.

    That’s the disconnect you have to fix.

    (BTW, my ipad has decided I’m Jiim. It’s a very frustrating machine.)

    • Alex B.

      The question is – can you fix that disconnect without doing a great deal to improve the product that DC area commuter rail offers?

      I would say not. A path forward would need some chicken-egg process to it, some service improvements and some more dense development, and so on…

      • Alon Levy

        Well, partially good policy should give partially good results. Does anyone know how much TOD exists around commuter rail stations that get reasonable service, say half-hourly all-day? There are some of these on the NEC, the PRR Main Line, and the LIRR Main Line. Obviously this is still much less than those stations deserve, and the connections to urban transit could be a lot better, but there should be something.

        • Alex B.

          I think the most promising potential is some co-located Metro and commuter rail stations that are underperforming development wise (New Carrolton) or commuter rail service wise (Rockville, Silver Spring) where you might be able to get more development under the guise of Metro, while improved regional rail service could offer access in different directions, or express type service.

          A place like New Carrolton has a ton of challenges to creating walk able, dense development, but success there could go a long way towards proving the concept. Being that the station is on the Penn line as well, it would hopefully be easiest to increase service there, too.

          • Alon Levy

            Sure, there are these examples, but they’re all quite old. What would be interesting is if they build relatively dense development near train stations today. For example, I’m pretty sure that all the condos near Providence are new, and that they’re disproportionately populated by Boston-bound commuters, though I’d guess most residents work in Providence, making the condos standard urban renewal more than TOD proper.

        • Richard Mlynarik

          Walnut Creek in California pretty much exists (as both a residential dormitory and as a secondary CBD sprawlburb) because of developer interests that bribed effectively enough to deliver both six highway lanes and 4tph (base, today 6tph in peaks) of “commuter rail” (BART) service to their property holdings.

          And all the black and brown people are quarantined safely on the other side of the mountain range. Hooray!

          The investment (public squalor) was out of proportion to the outcome (private opulence), but it’s a real US example of good transit and highway enabling “TOD”, of a sort, even if not the brownstones-with-stoops sort of sundry dreams.

        • Nathanael

          The PRR Main Line runs through old, rich areas and practically nothing in those areas is going to get rebuilt.

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  5. DingDong

    Alon, you will love this story about the parking garage at Stamford:

    “Aside from many months of demolition and construction mayhem, there is the very real chance that CDOT will sell out the interests of commuters who now park within feet of the station and allow developers to build shops and offices on the site while moving 800-plus parking spaces up to a quarter mile away,” a Commuter Council press release said.

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