It’s an empirical observation that rail riders who are faced with a transfer are much more likely to make the trip if it’s near their home than near their destination. Reinhard Clever’s since-linkrotted work gives an example from Toronto, and American commuter rail rider behavior in general; I was discussing it from the earliest days of this blog. He points out that American and Canadian commuter rail riders drive long distances just to get to a cheaper or faster park-and-ride stations, but are reluctant to take the train if they have any transfer at the city center end.

This pattern is especially relevant as, due to continued job sprawl, American rail reformers keep looking for new markets for commuter rail to serve and set their eyes on commutes to the suburbs. Garrett Wollman is giving an example, in the context of the Agricultural Branch, a low-usage freight line linking to the Boston-Worcester commuter line that could be used for local passenger rail service. Garrett talks about the potential ridership of the line, counting people living near it and people working near it. And inadvertently, his post makes it clear why the pattern Clever saw in Toronto is as it is.

Residential and job sprawl

The issue at hand is that residential sprawl and job sprawl both require riders to spend some time connecting to the train. The more typical example of residential sprawl involves isotropic single-family density in a suburban region, with commuters driving to the train station to get on a train to city center; they could be parking there or being dropped off by family, but in either case, the interface to the train for them is in their own car.

Job sprawl is different. Garrett points out that there are 79,000 jobs within two miles of a potential station on the Ag Branch, within the range of corporate shuttles. With current development pattern, rail service on the branch could follow the best practices there are and I doubt it would get 5% of those workers as riders, for all of the following reasons:

  • The corporate shuttle is a bus, with all the discomfort that implies; it usually is also restricted in hours even more than traditional North American commuter rail – the frequency on the LIRR or even Caltrain is low off-peak but the trains do run all day, whereas corporate shuttles have a tendency to only run at peak. There is no own-car interface involved.
  • The traditional car-commuter train interface is to jobs in areas with traffic congestion and difficult parking. The jobs in the suburbs face neither constraint. Of note, Long Islanders working in Manhattan do transfer to the subway, because driving to the East Side to avoid the transfer from Penn Station is not a realistic option.
  • The traditional car-commuter train interface is to jobs in a city center served from all directions by commuter rail. In contrast, the jobs in the suburbs are only served by commuter rail along a single axis. There is a fair amount of reverse-peak ridership from San Francisco to Silicon Valley jobs or from New York to White Plains and Stamford jobs, even if at far lower rates than the traditional peak direction – but most people working at a suburban job center live in another suburb, own a car, and either commute in a different direction from that of the train or don’t live and work close enough to a station that the car-train-shuttle trip is faster than an all-car trip.

Those features are immutable without further changes in urban design. Then there are other features that interact with the current timetables and fares. North American commuter rail has so many features designed to appeal to the type of person who drives everywhere and uses the train as a shuttle extending their car-oriented lifestyle into the city – premium fares, heavy marketing as different from normal public transit, poor integration with said normal public transit – that interface with one’s own car is especially valuable, and interface with public transit is especially unvalued.

And yet, it’s clearly possible to make it work. How?

How Europe makes it work

Commuter trains in Europe (nobody calls them regional rail here – that term is reserved for hourly long-range trains) get a lot of off-peak ridership and are not at all used exclusively by 9-to-5 commuters who drive for all other purposes. Some of this is to suburban job centers. How does this work, besides timetables and other operating practices that American reformers recognize as superior to what’s available in the US and Canada?

The primary answer is near-center jobs. Paris and La Défense have, between them, about 37% of the total jobs of Ile-de-France. Within the same land area, 100 km^2, both New York and Boston have a similar proportion of the jobs in their respective metro areas, about 35% each, as does San Francisco within the smaller definition of the metro area, excluding Silicon Valley. Ile-de-France’s work trip modal split is about 43%, metro New York’s is 33%, metro San Francisco’s is 17%, metro Boston’s is 12%.

So where Boston specifically fails is not so much office park jobs, such as those on Route 128, but near-center jobs. Its urban and suburban transit networks do a poor job of getting people to job centers like Longwood, the airport, Cambridge, and the Seaport. The same is true of San Francisco. New York’s network does a better but still mediocre job at connecting to Long Island City and Downtown Brooklyn, and a rather bad job at connecting to inner-suburban New Jersey jobs, but so many of those 35% jobs in the central 100 km^2 are in fact in the central 23 km^2 of the Manhattan core, and nearly half are in the central 4 km^2 comprising Midtown, that the poor service to the other 77 km^2 can be overlooked.

As far as commuter rail is concerned, the main difference in ridership between the main European networks – the Paris RER, the Berlin S-Bahn, and so on – and the American ones is how useful they are for plain urban service. Nearly all Berlin S-Bahn traffic is within the city, not the suburbs; the RER’s workhorse stations are mostly in dense inner suburbs that in most other countries would have been amalgamated into the city already.

To the extent that this relates to American commuter rail reforms, it’s about coverage within the city: multiple city stations, good (free, frequent) connections to local urban rail, high frequency all day to encourage urban travel (a train within the city that runs every half an hour might as well not run).

Suburban ridership is better here as well, but this piggybacks on very strong urban service, giving strong service from the suburbs to the city. Suburb-to-suburb commutes are done largely by car – Ile-de-France’s modal split is 43%, not 80%; there are fewer of them than in most of the US, but not fewer than in New York, Boston, or San Francisco.

But, well, Paris’s modal split is noticeably higher than the job share within the city – a job share that does include drivers. What gives?

Suburban transit-oriented development

TOD in the suburbs can create a pleasant enough rail commute that the modal split is respectable, if nothing like what is seen for jobs in Paris or Manhattan. However, for this to work, planners must eliminate the expression “corporate shuttle” from their lexicon.

Instead, suburban job sites must be placed right on top of the train station, or within walking distance along streets that are decently walkable. I can’t think of good Berlin examples – Berlin maintains high modal split through a strong center – but I can think of several Parisian ones: Marne-la-Vallée (including Disneyland), Noisy, Evry, Cergy. Those were often built simultaneously with greenfield suburban lines that were then connected to the RER, rather than on top of preexisting commuter lines.

They look nothing like American job sprawl. Here, for example, is Cergy:

There are parking garages visible near the train stations, but also a massing of mid-rise residential and commercial buildings.

But speaking of residential, the issue is that employers looking for sites to locate to have no real reason to build offices on top of most suburban train stations – the likeliest highest and best usage is residential. In the case of American TOD, even the secondary-urban centers, like Worcester, probably have much more demand for residential than commercial TOD within walking distance of the train station – employers who are willing to pay near-train station premium rent might as well pay the higher premium of locating within the primary city, where the commuter shed is much larger.

In effect, the suburban TOD model does not counter the traditional monocentric urban layout. It instead extends it to a much larger scale. In this schema, the entirety of the city, and not just its central few square kilometers, is the monocenter, served by different lines with many stations on them. Berlin is ahead of the curve by virtue of its having multiple close-by centers as a Cold War legacy, but Paris is similar (its highest-intensity commercial TOD is in La Défense and in in-city sites like Bercy, on top of former railyards attached to Gare de Lyon).

At no point does this model include destination-end transfers in the suburbs. In the city, it does: a single line cannot cover all urban job sites; but the transfer is within the rapid transit system. But in the suburbs, the jobs that are serviceable by public transportation are within walking distance of the station. Shuttles may exist, but are secondary, and job sites that require them are and will always be auto-centric.

Read More