S-Bahn Frequency and Job Centralization

Commuter rail systems with high bidirectional frequency succeed in monocentric cities. This can look weird from the perspective of rail advocacy: American rail advocates who call for better off- and reverse-peak frequency argue that it is necessary for reverse-commuters. The present-day American commuter rail model, which centers suburban commuters who work in city center between 9 am and 5 pm, doesn’t work for other workers and for non-work trips, and so advocates for modernization bring up these other trips. And yet, the best examples of modern commuter rail networks with high frequency are in cities with much job centralization within the inner areas and relatively little suburbanization of jobs. What gives?

The ultimate issue here is that S-Bahn-style operations are not exactly about the suburbs or about reverse-commutes. They’re about the following kinds of trips, 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 midcentury 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 midcentury hours
  • Middle-class reverse-commutes and cross-city commutes

The best example of a frequent S-Bahn in a monocentric city is Munich. The suburbs of Munich have a strong anti-city political identity, rooted in the pattern in which the suburbs vote CSU and the city votes SPD and Green and, increasingly, in white flight from the diverse city. But the jobs are in the city, so the suburbanites ride the commuter trains there, just as their counterparts in American cities like New York do. The difference is that the same trains are also useful for urban trips.

I don’t know the ridership by segment in Munich, but I do know it in Berlin, as of 2016 (source, p. 6):

Daily ridership on the Berlin U- and S-Bahn by interstation, in thousands; the Ring encircles city center, meeting the radials at Ostkreuz, Gesundbrunnen (north), Westkreuz, Schöneberg (south), and Südkreuz (also south, one stop east of Schöneberg)

Between Ostkreuz and Hauptbahnhof, just west of the meeting point with the North-South Tunnel, the east-west Stadtbahn has 160,000 daily riders. The proper suburbs are mostly less than 10,000 each, and even the more suburban neighborhoods of the city, like Wannsee, don’t contribute much. Overall, the majority of S-Bahn traffic is urban, consisting of trips taken either within the Ring or in the more urban outside-the-Ring areas, like Pankow, Steglitz, and especially Lichtenberg.

The high-frequency model of the S-Bahn works not because there is a mass of people who work in these outer areas. I don’t know the proportion of jobs in the Berlin region that are within the Ring, but I doubt it’s low. For reference, about 35% of Ile-de-France jobs are in a 100 km^2 blob (about the same area enclosed by the Ring) consisting of Paris, La Défense, and the suburbs in between. New York likewise has about 35% of metro area jobs in a 100 km^2 blob chosen to include Manhattan and the major non-Manhattan job centers like Downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City, and the Jersey City waterfront. I imagine Berlin should be the same or even somewhat higher (this proportion is inversely correlated with city population all else being equal) – Berlin is polycentric but all of its centers are on or within the Ring.

Rather, the reason the high-frequency model works is that there is a lot more ridership in urban areas than in low-density suburbs generating strictly unidirectional trips. The main users of the S-Bahn are city residents, or maybe residents of dense inner suburbs in regions with unusually tightly drawn city limits like Paris. If the highest demand is by people whose trip is 20 minutes and not 90 minutes, then the trains must run very frequently, or else they won’t ride. And if the highest demand is by people who are traveling all over the urban core, even if they travel to the central business district more than to other inner neighborhoods, then the trains must have good connections to the subway and buses and many urban stops.

In this schema, the suburbs still get good service because the S-Bahn model, unlike the traditional metro model (but like the newer but more expensive suburban metro), is designed to be fast enough that suburb-to-city trips are still viable. This way, middle-class suburbanites benefit from service whose core constituency is urban, and can enjoy relatively fast, frequent trips to the city and other suburbs all day.

I emphasize middle-class because lower-income jobs are noticeably less centralized. I don’t have any European data on this, but I do have American data. In New York, as of 2015, 57% of $40,000-a-year-and-up workers worked in Manhattan south of 60th Street, but only 37% of under-$40,000-a-year workers did. Moreover, income is probably a better way of conceptualizing this than the sociological concept of class – the better-off blue-collar workers tend to be centralized at industrial sites or they’re owner-operators with their own vans and tools and in either case they have very low mass transit ridership. The sort of non-middle-class workers who high-frequency suburban transit appeals to are more often pink-collar workers cleaning the houses of the middle class, or sometimes blue-collar workers with unpredictable work assignments, who might need cross-city transit.

In contrast, the sort of middle-class ridership that is sociologically the same as the remnants of the midcentury 9-to-5 suburban commuters but reverse-commutes to the suburbs is small. American commuter rail does take it into account: Metro-North has some reverse-peak trains for city-to-White Plains and city-to-Stamford commuters, and Caltrain runs symmetric peak service for the benefit of city-to-Silicon Valley commuters. And yet, even on Caltrain ridership is much more traditional- than reverse-peak; on Metro-North, the traditional peak remains dominant. There just isn’t enough transit-serviceable ridership in a place like Stamford the way it looks today.

So the upshot of commuter rail modernization is that it completely decenters the suburban middle class with its midcentury aspirations of living apart from the city. It does serve this class, because the S-Bahn model is good at serving many kinds of trips at once. But the primary users are urban and inner-suburban. I would even venture and presume that if, on the LIRR, the only options were business-as-usual and ceasing all service to Long Island while providing modern S-Bahn service within city limits, Long Island should be cut off and ridership would increase while operating expenses would plummet. The S-Bahn model does not force such a choice – it can serve the suburbs too, on local trains making some additional city stops at frequencies and fares that are relevant to city residents – but the primacy of city ridership means that the system must be planned from the inside out and not from the outside in.


  1. Eric2

    What it seems to boil down to is that a rail is a rail, there is no real difference between metro and S-bahn except when the tracks were built.

  2. Phake Nick

    What about plan to make use of reverse capacity of railway by intentionally relocating jobs (white collar or otherwise) from centers to suburb?

    • Eric2

      Terrible idea. Everyone has good transit access to the center, while only the center has good transit access to a particular suburb. So moving jobs to a suburb would cause most people to drive there rather than taking transit. If peak transit capacity to the center is stressed, then the solution is to build more of it.

      • Henry Miller

        Many cities are large enough that you cannot reasonably get from distant suburbs to the center – by any mode. Jobs in the suburbs attract a lot of people, and that is too late to change. People just write off the other half of the city (for regular trips, they might do it for Christmas or some other rare event).

        Transit needs to exist in the real world, and that means better connections to suburbs as the current urban form won’t change very fast. Circumferential are important. As is fast service. Those are the easy problems though, the hard problem is how to get any service at all within walking distances of houses.

        • Eric2

          “Many cities are large enough that you cannot reasonably get from distant suburbs to the center – by any mode”

          This is not really true. From Jamaica to Midtown Manhattan on the E train takes 29 minutes to cover a distance of 10 miles. That is a baseline for what can be achieved with well-built urban transit, not even considering regional rail overlays. There are only a handful of cities in the world big enough that their population can’t comfortably fit in a 10 mile radius. So while there exist many cities where you cannot reasonably get from distant suburbs to the center, that’s not due to the size of the city, but rather due to the bad transit infrastructure.

          “Transit needs to exist in the real world, and that means better connections to suburbs as the current urban form won’t change very fast.”

          I actually think that in many places, the urban form can change faster than the transit system. Consider the difficulty in building subways in NYC vs the relative ease (which one could imagine being even easier!) of building skyscrapers there, even new whole neighborhoods of skyscrapers like Hudson Yards and Queens Plaza.

          “Circumferential are important.”

          Absolutely. But they are less important than radials. And even if you build them to the same standard as radials (which is a waste), they will get less usage than radials. So If you are looking to encourage jobs, it should only be in the center (though I don’t think it’s necessary to encourage anywhere, the natural distribution sans zoning is fine).

          • Henry Miller

            Distant suburbs is key. Looking at google maps I can tell that Peekskill NY is a suburb of NYC, despite being 50 miles away. I doubt many people living there head all the way into the city. East Hampton is 100 miles from Manhattan, but looks like a suburb to me. (both of these may not be official suburbs, but you can tell by the density of roads all the way they function like suburbs.

            I do agree that transit can change the form of cities. But there are limits to how much – more transit in NYC won’t make much a difference to LA (this isn’t a straw man – people will move form LA to NYC and good transit can help encourage that – but clearly the number of people who will is tiny)

          • Tiercelet

            @Henry Miller

            What definition of “suburb” are you using to qualify Peekskill or East Hampton as NYC suburbs? Not to say that I couldn’t be convinced, but I feel like this needs a bit more of an argument for me to really buy it (and high-capacity road links in between doesn’t really seem sufficient–for instance, I suspect highways to East Hampton are sized more to handle the peaks of seasonal beach traffic, but it feels like there’s a difference between a summer community and a bedroom community).

          • Eric2

            “East Hampton is 100 miles from Manhattan, but looks like a suburb to me.”

            East Hampton is further from Manhattan than Philadelphia is (and unlike Philadelphia it won’t get HSR). It doesn’t matter that you can’t commute to NY, because most homes in East Hampton are second homes owned by rich people who really live elsewhere! So despite being continually built up with NY, I wouldn’t call it a suburb in the economic sense.

            “people will move form LA to NYC and good transit can help encourage that”

            I would actually say this isn’t true. Good transit (in NYC) will drive up the demand to live in NYC. But the supply of housing in NYC is essentially fixed by zoning, so the population is essentially fixed, so the increased demand will only mean higher prices. (Good transit can be a means of displacement via gentrification, but only when housing supply is zoning limited!) As usual landuse comes before transit…

          • Henry Miller

            Suburb probably isn’t the right term, but I don’t know what the right one is. Maybe I should use something like CSA or MSA? I mean the built up area around a city. That is mostly continuations urban area (if there are farms, they are just waiting for develop in the near future – “the old man” may need to die). You can use highway density as a proxy because highways are not built very dense in rural areas.

            Philadelphia is close enough to NYC that you can make a reasonable argument that local transit should be one fare for all cities. That is even though few people travel between the two, as the two cities try stretch out their transit networks eventually they will meet.

            The whole point of my comment is transit needs to cover getting people from where they live to where they want to be. When you rule out distant areas, you force those people into cars: both people who live there, and also people who live on your transit system who want to visit them. Where transit serves is a compromise, but the more area you can serve via transit the more useful the transit network is. As such most people here are far too willing to give up on distant areas of the city – they are hard but still important.

            >But the supply of housing in NYC is essentially fixed by zoning

            I’m including the entire NYC MSA in my comment. Even if NYC is full, there are suburbs – we are building new suburbs all the time. (NYC and suburbs can also change zoning, though realistically they probably won’t)

          • Eric2

            “The whole point of my comment is transit needs to cover getting people from where they live to where they want to be.”

            Only when it’s possible. Lots of people would like to live on a Florida beach and commute to a Manhattan job – not going to happen. A hundred mile commute from East Hampton to Manhattan is slightly more viable, but still the number of such commuters is low enough that improving such transit is likely a low-priority use of scare transit resources.

            “Even if NYC is full, there are suburbs – we are building new suburbs all the time.”

            There is virtually no land available for building within a reasonable commuting distance of NYC.

          • adirondacker12800

            as the two cities try stretch out their transit networks eventually they will meet.
            It’s one of the first things those new fangled railroads did, in the 1830s. The ferry between Jersey City and Manhattan was bypassed in 1910.

    • Richard Mlynarik

      I’d bet Edward Tufte would very much approve of that map.

      Unfortunately, a lack of captions make nearly all of Alon’s maps worthless to anybody who hasn’t lived in the cities written about.

      • Eric2

        Not worthless, but it’s bizarre to write a line like “Between Ostkreuz and Hauptbahnhof” for an international audience without labeling either Ostkreuz or Hauptbahnhof on the map. It’s not that hard, one can add such text in 1 minute with Gimp or even Microsoft Paint.

  3. Chaz

    Caltrain also does not serve residential neighborhoods in San Francisco well. Only three stops in the city, none of which are sited in particularly walkable locations or transit hubs. Hopefully more urban infill stations and frequent service all day will help with that.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, and I should add to this that Clem had to escape-clause urban trips out of his model because otherwise, by far the biggest origin-destination flow on Caltrain-with-DTX is from 22nd Street to Transbay Terminal, to the point that it raises issues like “San Francisco should run some extra trains just within the city.”

      • Sassy

        > to the point that it raises issues like “San Francisco should run some extra trains just within the city.”

        If demand in the city is so much higher than further out, would it not make sense to run more trains in the city? S-Bahn style trains turning around without making it deep into the suburbs isn’t unheard of.

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  5. adirondacker12800

    pink-collar workers cleaning the houses of the middle class
    Cleaning is blue collar. Middle class people stopped having servants 100 years ago.

  6. adirondacker12800

    But the primary users are urban and inner-suburban.
    There’s 8 tracks of railroad through Forest Hills in Queens. The people east Jamaica don’t have to stop there.
    All of metro Munich could move to Brooklyn. Like Queens, Brooklyn has local and express subway service. The LIRR doesn’t need to stop a lot Brooklyn either. Metro New York is not Munich. You have to keep the scale in mind.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, all of metro Munich could move to Brooklyn. And all of metro Berlin could move to Brooklyn plus Manhattan plus the Bronx. And all of metro Paris could move to the city plus Long Island plus Westchester. In all of them, regional rail is urban rail that also serves the suburbs in current usage, even if not in origin or in political support (the Munich suburbs have the exact same set of anti-city white flighters as the New York suburbs). Berlin is just where I have the best map for this.

  7. adirondacker12800

    Which one of them has local and express subway service? Allllll the way out to a major station on the suburban network?

    • Alon Levy

      On the subway? None. But then New York’s supposed express service averages something like 34 km/h, less than a lot of all-local systems.

      • Matthew Hutton

        The Victoria line takes 30 minutes to do 21km so does an average of 42km/h.

        Jubilee line takes 58 minutes to do 36.2km so does an average of 37.5km/h.

        Average speed on the whole London Underground network is apparently 33km/h – so only slightly less than the New York express trains.

          • Frederick

            To be fair, the average interstation distance of the NYC Subway is very short — about as short as Paris Metro. Meanwhile, the average interstation between Abbey Wood and Paddington is like 2.5 km.

            But then this just proves the point that NYC is in dire need of a competent commuter rail with sparser stops.

      • adirondacker12800

        If I’m coming from Long Island and I want to get to Manhattan, on an LIRR train, that expresses through Queens, ( or a Metro North train in the Bronx ) why do I care how fast or slow the subway is? And if I’m at a local subway stop in Queens, unless I want to get to Madison Square Garden, why do I care if there are LIRR tracks blocks and blocks away and a station even farther away? It’s one of the charms of having more than two tracks. Some trains can make less stops.

        • Alon Levy

          The point is that if you’re from Long Island and want to get into Manhattan, you’re in a pretty small minority among such people arriving from points east, so you shouldn’t get four out of eight tracks on QB + LIRR Main on which the stop spacing, fares, and schedule repel the great majority who are arriving from Queens.

          • adirondacker12800

            Most of the people in Northwestern Queens aren’t going to Madison Square Garden.
            They people in Northwestern Queens have 8 tracks. 63rd Street Tunnel, 60th, 53rd and Steinway/42nd.
            East Side Access is supposed to open in December. The plans call for someday running 50 LIRR trains in or out of Manhattan during peak. How are those people supposed to get there? personal helicopter to the top of the Met Life Building? Penn Station services will have to share with ten trains headed to the Bronx and beyond. How are those people supposed to get to Manhattan?

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