The Urban Geography of Park-and-Rides

The urban geography of transit cities and of car cities is relatively well-understood. In a transit city, there will be a strong CBD surrounded by residences with spiky secondary centers, all quite small geographically but dense, centered around train stations and junctions; because density is high throughout, minor trips are done on foot. In a car city, all trips are done by car, the core is weak, and most employment is in suburban edge cities and edgeless cities.

What I haven’t seen is an explanation of how urban geography works in mixed metro areas: there are those in which short trips are done on foot and long ones in cars, such as new urbanist developments, and those in which short trips are done by car and long ones on transit, such as park-and-ride-oriented commuter suburbs. It is the latter that I want to address in this post.

The first feature of park-and-rides is that of all combinations of modes of transportation, they are the fastest and enable suburbs to sprout the farthest from the center. This is because the segment of the trip done in a car is uncongested and so driving is faster than transit, while the segment done on a train parallels a congested road, and conversely makes few stops so that average speeds are high.

On top of this, because intra-suburban trips are done by car, the density in the suburbs is very low, comparable to proper car cities (see the lower end of the density profiles of the New York, Chicago, and Boston metro areas), and this forces sprawl to go outward. New York is the world’s most sprawling city measured in total built-up area; the only other city of comparable size that’s not a transit city or a bus/jitney city is Los Angeles, which is forced to have denser suburbs because of the mountains. Of course Houston and Dallas sprawl even more relative to size, but because they lack New York’s transit-oriented core, there’s an inherent limit to their size.

The other feature is that there’s a definite socioeconomic history to the development of the auto-oriented commuter suburbs of transit cities. First, people move to the suburbs and commute into the city, almost always by train due to road congestion (or, as in the earliest New York suburbs, because mass motorization hasn’t arrived yet). The mass exodus into these suburbs comes from cars rather than commuter rail, and so the local services for people living in those suburbs are built at automobile scale, rather than at the walkable town center scale of 1910.

In North America there’s also a definite class element here – the early movers are the rich rather than the poor. Historically this was partly because poor people couldn’t afford regular train fare, and partly because the impetus for suburbanization was idyllic country homes with access to urban jobs rather than cheap housing for the poor. If I’m not mistaken, this wasn’t the case in Australian cities’ suburbanization, leading to a more urban transit-style mode of running mainline rail. The result of this class distinction is that North American commuter rail styles itself as for the rich: agencies make an effort to ensure everyone has a seat and downplay comfortable standing space, and the expectation is that transit is a last-ditch mode of transportation for when cars just don’t have the capacity to get people downtown, and so nobody needs to take the trains in the off-peak or take a bus to the train.

The result is that the park-and-ride city will still have a strong core with high-capacity transportation, and the primary CBD will maintain its supremacy for high-income jobs. Establishing edge cities in the direction of the favored quarter can happen, but there’s still a congested city nearby, and so from many directions it’s impossible to drive, and taking transit is impossible. Thus jobs in White Plains and Stamford are not nearly as high-paying as jobs in Manhattan.

There can even be secondary CBDs, if the inner part of the metro area, where people take transit more regularly than the suburban commuters do, is large enough. But those secondary CBDs are frequently quite auto-oriented. Brooklyn’s mode share for jobs is only 42-39 in favor of transit (for residents, it’s 60-25), and all other counties in the New York region except Manhattan have more workers driving than taking transit, a situation that is not true if one looks at residents. Those secondary CBDs then have mixed characteristics: they are dense and fairly walkable, as can be expected based on their history and location, but also have plentiful parking and a large share of drivers demanding even more. They can accommodate multiple modes of transportation, but driving is more convenient, and from the suburbs the commuter rail system isn’t always geared to serve them.


  1. EngineerScotty

    Don’t forget the role race has in the development of the modern US suburb (and the corresponding neglect of the cities). There was a decade-and-a-half gap between Brown v. Board and the passage of the Fair Housing Act, during which period whites flew to the suburbs to avoid school integration (among other reasons), and a combination of racist lending policies and restrictive covenants kept blacks from following them.

    • Alon Levy

      Of course.

      But, in the biggest cities, I think this is the second wave of suburbanization, really – i.e. the people moving in to take the secondary jobs, serving the people commuting by train to the CBD. In Westchester and Long Island, average incomes of commuter rail riders are over $100,000, so transit users outearn drivers. I think the story is mainly that rich people moved in in the 1920s and have taken the train ever since, and a mixture of rich people and middle-class people moved in in the 1950s and 60s. So the commuter part of the suburb predates Brown (in the city those people would’ve sent their children to private school anyway), whereas the sprawl part is more affected by it. Black and lower-middle-class white suburbanization came later, in the 1970s, but by then the suburbs were quite full and no longer as unambiguously appealing; the roads were more congested, widening them within the cities was no longer an option, and the suburban favored quarters had already formed away from where housing remained affordable.

      • Zmapper

        One thing that helped equalize the difference between suburbs and the city here is the 20 year old Colorado statewide School Choice law. Basically, you could send your child to any public school in the state, provided that there is space (priority is allocated to those in the immediate neighborhood first, of course) and you are willing to drive/send them on the city bus system. A family could live in Denver proper and send their child to a school in Arvada or Cherry Hills Village, without having to move to the respective city.

        What the law did is it leveled the difference between suburban school districts and Denver Public Schools. If everyone living in Denver were sending their children outside of Denver for education, DPD would have to make improvements to their schools in order to remain competitive. There are still “bad schools”, but those schools have drastically improved since the 80’s because of market forces and competition.

        I don’t have statewide numbers, but I believe 40% of Middle/High school students in Poudre School District (Northern Larimer County) attend a school other than their designated neighborhood school. Boundaries are close to meaningless out here.

        Busing is different here, in that it is considered a privilege instead of an entitlement. School districts don’t even have to provide any bus service (other than to disabled students) if they want to. For instance, you must be at least 3.5 miles from your designated school to receive busing in Thompson School District (Southern Larimer County), Adams County charges $300 per family per year for busing, and Jefferson County covers their buses with advertisements.

      • Walter

        “I think the story is mainly that rich people moved in in the 1920s and have taken the train ever since, and a mixture of rich people and middle-class people moved in in the 1950s and 60s.”

        This is basically the story of the richer New York suburbs. Some of the richest suburban areas are the oldest, i.e. Scarsdale, Greenwich, New Canaan, Darien. These places also have the best service to the City, as Scarsdale has rush-hour express service, Greenwich has four stations with frequent service from the main station, New Canaan has its dedicated shuttle (with rush-hour express service) and the Danbury Line through trains to New York really serve as Darien expresses.

        Being largely developed in the 1910s and 1920s also allowed these towns to remain playgrounds of the rich, as when the middle class finally decided to suburbanize, costs and sundown laws prevented many ethnics and blacks from moving in unless they were prepared to pay a fortune. In Connecticut, the middle class suburbs tend to be away from the rail line (say a town like Trumbull) or have the worst/longest service to Midtown (places like Stratford and Milford). So they were forced to settle where, essentially, the train service sucked or didn’t exist at all. The rich were there first, demanded the best service, definitely won’t let anyone else park at their stations, and won’t allow the density to make housing near their very convenient stations affordable.

    • Adirondacker12800

      Purely andecdotal but my parents and their siblings went to the suburbs because the city was too expensive. That the suburbs had central heat, running hot water and were perceived to be cleaner and quieter helped.

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  3. Andre Lot

    Netherlands has an interesting model of TOD greenfield new towns that provide basic facilities and services within short distance of residences, and has some access to some train service.

    They will enable some long-distance train travel for locations close to other stations. The overwhelming majority (70%+) of residents will still drive part or all the way to their workplaces. The Netherlands doesn’t have massive CBDs, though.

    I think if this model were coupled with the American-style CBD (which has far higher jobs density than almost any European downtown except places like La Defense or Canary Wharf and City of London), be it a really central one or some built on other area with high-capacity rail and road access, it could be helpful to provide the market with single-family homes that are affordable but still not requiring drive-for-everything transportation patterns. Because American CBDs tend to be denser, they make one of the ends of the commuting trip easier to manage.

    As for Park-and-Ride, it is a scheme that can work greatly. But for that to happen, P+R facilities must be placed in the right spots. Some European cities have big plans for Park and Ride, having given up on expectations of even higher increases on all-transit trips from their far-flung areas. Facilities should be placed somewhere where the traffic flow degradation curve has some influx, or before a bottleneck like a bridge or tunnel or else.

    Some cities build P+R facilities too close to the central area, rendering there useless (drivers already navigated their way through city traffic and lost a lot of time). Some cities build them in areas poorly served by transit connections (like one bus line that comes only 2 or 3 times per hour). Some get it right and place them in strategic stations that are close to highway exits or the local highway ring-road, preferably with some express train service into town.

    Still, I don’t Alon’s point (I might have misunderstood him) that it is bad to have this fastest highway + faster transit combination that enables people to live further from their workplaces. Instead, I think this a rather positive outcome if done right, because it relieves real estate market pressure on the first ring of non-central neighborhoods..

    As for the “class element”, I think up to a point this is natural when you have highly decentralized governments, especially, as in US, in the case of education. Many families make their housing choices primarily concerned with the best house they can afford in a “good” district. It is a natural reaction from the middle class who, contrary to the really rich, don’t have money to afford private schools. I’d do exactly the same if faced with the dilemma of living in a nicer/better located/better serviced area or living in a neighborhood with good schools. And as expenses on basic education are highly correlated with the student enrollment, I’d not be so willing to give my child a lesser education just so that I feel good about subsidizing via local taxes better education for the poor. It is not that I think the poor should get bad education, just that my child education is a priority over anything else.

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