Harvard questions Boston's commuter railClosing out "Rail Week" at Houston Strategies, today we have a Harvard Kennedy School op-ed in the Boston Globe on their commuter rail (thanks to Chris for the heads-up). But first, if you haven't caught 'em already, don't miss Christof's recent posts on possible Metro University Line routings around Montrose and Greenway Plaza. My own thoughts here.
On to the excerpts:
...the history of commuter rail in Massachusetts suggests that while commuter rail can be helpful, it generally has not revitalized communities or reduced sprawl.In Houston's case, the question is, does this also apply to street-level light rail service in the core? There's work currently going on called the Urban Corridors initiative to figure out how to encourage density around these stops (more, including challenges, here: parts 1, 2, and 3). It is possible that Houston, because of a lack of zoning, may be more successful than the Boston metro in this regard, on the assumption that they did not sufficiently change their zoning around the stops to create density (most small municipalities/neighborhoods seem to hate density). But the results so far along the Main St. line in Midtown are not very encouraging.
Since the early 1970s, the state has provided hundreds of millions, perhaps several billion dollars to support and expand commuter rail service, which now stops at over 100 separate stations in Greater Boston. In the 1970s and 1980s, moreover, the state closed lines serving 39 other stations.
This history provides a natural experiment on how commuter rail service affects nearby communities. And it turns out that while commuter rail lines do carry thousands of people each day, they have not revitalized or significantly changed their host communities. That's the key finding in a new study by former Harvard graduate student Eric Beaton and published by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston (which I direct).
Beaton also found that while areas that had, gained or lost rail service are significantly denser than the region as a whole, density levels did not increase significantly in areas near new rail stations. Nor did they decrease in areas when nearby stations were closed. In other words, areas served by commuter rail tended to be dense at the outset, and losing rail service didn't change that.
Even more surprising, introducing commuter rail wasn't even associated with significant increases in transit ridership. Rather, people who started using new commuter rail stations merely stopped using buses or older rail stations. Any increases in transit ridership were so modest that the share of adults using transit to get to work in areas that gained commuter rail lines is still very close to the share of people in areas that lost that service.
From his data, Beaton concluded that " providing new commuter rail facilities is not likely to produce significant changes in travel and land use patterns." That's not to say that commuter rail has no benefits. Rather, it suggests that commuter rail can, at best, play a modest role supporting stringent efforts to increase density, reduce sprawl, and promote transit.
Commuter rail competes for public money with other transportation projects and a host of other priorities, from law enforcement to education.
Beaton's findings do not mean that we should cancel planned rail lines or close down existing lines. But they do suggest that we should rigorously analyze whether proposed, planned, and perhaps even existing commuter rail are efficient and equitable ways to achieve important public goals. The data also suggest that in doing so, we should focus most heavily on transportation benefits, such as reduced congestion or faster travel times.Above all, the data suggest that we should be very wary of claims that commuter rail will also produce a variety of indirect benefits, such as reducing sprawl or revitalizing ailing communities.