Thursday, November 16, 2006

Harvard questions Boston's commuter rail

Closing 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.

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.
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.


At 2:32 AM, November 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory says
"But the results so far along the Main St. line in Midtown are not very encouraging"

What did you expect to happen in just three years. Your article a week or so ago, said that it takes a year to start working on a subdivision in the Houston area, and that is something the local developers are used to. I think the biggest impediment to more TOD is all the developement that was happening near to the route anyways. Apartments, shops, and townhouses were being built close (but not close enough) to the rail route even before it was built. Like in midtown along grey. I do not consider them TOD (due to distance and that they are car focused) but they are close enough to provide plenty of competition to any nascent TODs.

I am not sure wether we will ever see the type of developement we hope for, but I think we should wait at least a couple more years before we get discouraged.

At 7:55 AM, November 17, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

But don't forget that the route was known and construction began far more than 3 years ago, so developers had plenty of time to start projects that could have opened along with the line - so it's really more like 5-6 years with not much happening.

I've heard one of the big problems is land speculators demanding far more than developers can stomach on what is a very risky development.

The link in that sentence is to a Wall Street Journal article on the Midtown disappointment, which I'll probably most more detail on soon.

At 1:20 PM, November 17, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory says
"very risky development"

and even more risky before the rail line was finished and we didnt have any idea wether any one was going to use it. Alot of competing developement was also already happening before we knew the rail line was definitely happening. If we could have had a psychic as mayor and he knew that Downtown and midtown were going to start booming in the new century and could convince the public. We could of had the rail line in before all the competing developements started and then I think we would be seeing more TOD.

But, also, I think the developers are scared of TOD. All of the much talked about development that is going on inside the loop seems to me to be the same as suburban developement just on a different scale. It is all still car based, and segregated by use, class and income.

At 11:38 PM, November 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where is my commuter rail? I have been waiting 15 years already! How much longer will it take? :)

A good test site for commuter rail would have been what is now the Westpark Tollway. Why would an 4-lane expressway be built on railroad right of way? Didn't they think about the future when it is too small to begin with and there is no room for expansion to ease congestion? This is like a permament Katy Freeway; it is simply too small to meet future demands. Now if it was a freeway, Alief-Clodine and Westpark's ROW could be part of the freeway making it wide enough to meet future needs.

At 7:18 AM, November 28, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Metro did reserve a rail corridor right-of-way along Westpark, which is why the freeway is so narrow. Westpark will probably get congestion pricing soon to keep it flowing (buses are free), but I've also heard Metro is starting to think commuter rail might not be the right answer in that corridor (yeah!), and they may create some sort of HOV/HOT lanes instead for express buses, vanpools, and carpools - moving far more people for far less money.

Commuter rail is very problematic for Houston, and not the right way to go. See my Chronicle op-ed for the reasons:

At 2:57 PM, January 01, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any transit is better than adding more hummers and Suvs to the road. We need to develop more transit and more efficient public transit. I am from Boston and I have train stops right in my town. Its nice to be able to get into the city without driving in about 20 minutes! I can also take the subway as well and its much easier to use now with the new charlie cards. We need to have more public transit, more lines and get more cars converted to alternative energy like hydrogen and electric/solar.

At 3:01 PM, January 01, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Commuter rail is right for any city, especially a smog filled, disgustingly anti-environmental city like Houston. Sorry if I offend anyone, but its the truth. George W Bush JR lives iN Texas and was one of the worst anti-environment governors of all time. Now, he's president because they rigged the election in 2000. Massachusetts commuter rail is just fine. Lots of people use it and are kept off the roads because of it. In my opinion it has helped with easing traffic congestion. It would be much worse if the riders on commuter rail were added to the roads. When you combine it with the big dig improvements it has really halped. Boston is not as smog filled and spread out as Houston is. We actually think Green! And have developed greenways and parks and such. Houston is just an ugly mole on the map of america. The entire city should be leveled and redesigned in my opinion. You need more greenways and parks...more transit and less Hummers driving around! At least we care about the environment here in boston!


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