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.