Sunday, January 07, 2007

Boston disillusionment with commuter rail

I have noted this study before, but a new Boston Globe op-ed came out last week that sums up the problems amazingly concisely. As a matter of fact, after going through it to pull out the best excerpts, I realized it was so short and packed with good points (including the concluding recommendations), it really makes sense to just bring over the whole thing below (I don't trust newspaper link permanency). The full Harvard report is here, if you're interested in the detail.

If a city with the density, planning, and regulations of Boston can't really make commuter rail work, doesn't that imply it's a really bad choice for a city like Houston? (with the possible exception of Galveston - see the bottom half of this post) If it's not working in Boston with 25% of the metro's jobs downtown, why would it fare any better in Houston with only 7% of metro jobs downtown? If a 100 years (!) can't generate high-density urbanism around stations, maybe that's a pretty serious indication of a flaw in the model?

If, after reading this, you're interested in digging deeper, here's my op-ed on the flaws of Houston commuter rail, and the better solution.

Commuter Rail's False Promise
Why more rail lines won't prod more folks to take the train - and why we should make peace with cars.

As we all know, commuter rail is a Good Thing and the automobile is a Bad Thing. Trains are clean, provide cheap transportation, and get us to our destination quickly and efficiently. They discourage sprawl, with each station serving as a nexus for the "smart growth" so beloved by the new urbanist crowd. Cars, on the other hand, are the polluting, expensive, congestion-producing banes of the environment. These are the certainties that have been behind much of our public transportation policy and are behind, for example, the state’s $500 million investment in the soon-to-be-opened Greenbush Line.

In fact, though, many of these certainties may be untrue. A surprising analysis by Harvard-educated urban planner Eric Beaton adds more meat to the bones of some faint but persuasive arguments that call into question the value of fixed-rail mass-transit systems. Beaton looked at development patterns around commuter-rail terminals over the past 100 years. His study, published in September by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, contained some disconcerting results. (Disclosure: I’m an unpaid member of Rappaport’s board of advisers.) One would think, for instance, that new commuter-rail stations might encourage development nearby. It turns out they don’t. Areas around train stations are only modestly more developed than anywhere else. One would also think that new stations might encourage more use of public transit. That is also untrue. The number of people using transit to get to work is largely unchanged by the addition of new stations.

Those results may seem counterintuitive but, upon reflection, make enormous sense. Take a look at the MBTA’s lovely color-coded maps of its rail system. All lines run into Boston. That would be smart planning if Boston were where all of the employers were. However, though that may have been largely true a century ago, today just a quarter of the jobs in the metropolitan region are downtown. Instead, you’ll find them along the beltways – Route 128 and Interstate 495 – and at office parks in between.

Besides, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a typical worker holds a job for just four years. So, when it comes time to buy a house, there is little value in getting something close to a rail station. After all, most jobs can’t be accessed from one (try, for example, taking the T from Medway to the Westborough Technology Park – it can’t be done). And even if your current job happens to be downtown, the odds are that your next job will be elsewhere.

There’s more. Commuter rail is skewed toward serving the affluent. Unlike buses or subways, rail largely connects well-off suburbanites to downtown jobs in high-paid fields such as finance and law. Moreover, new rail stations have a trivial effect on automobile use, meaning they do little to help the environment. (In fact, according to the MBTA’s own data, commuter rail – which relies on diesel-powered trains – often increases the emissions of nitrogen oxides, which can contribute to the formation of smog.) And travel by rail is not as inexpensive as its advocates would have you believe. If you own a car already, the cost of driving may actually be cheaper.

Yet, what’s the alternative? More cars? Perhaps. As Beaton’s study points out, back before widespread adoption of the automobile, rail stations were popular places for development. But cars changed the ways we live and work. Employers began to locate outside of cities, where land was cheap. People moved to the suburbs, lured by the prospect of owning their own plot of land. Today, even with high gas prices and crowded roads, people love the privacy, comfort, and extraordinary freedom they get from their automobiles.

Can we put the genie back in the bottle? I doubt it. And if that’s the case, rather than fruitlessly trying to get people out of their cars, perhaps we should simply concede the battle and make the best of it. Encourage carpooling and hybrids, raise fuel standards, introduce congestion pricing on toll roads, and (I know this makes some gasp) expand our highway system. But more commuter rail? That’s just a train in vain.

Tom Keane, a Boston-based freelance writer, contributes regularly to the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at

(thanks to Cities On A Hill for the pointers)


At 9:02 PM, January 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Adding to the Galveston rail support I want to add a couple more thoughts and details. As opposed to most cities Galveston's employment hubs are county offices, downtown and UTMB. All 3 of these locations are within a few blocks of existing rail lines. Also include the cruise terminals. All commuters into Galveston must travel I-45. The existing rail along highway 3 travels through virtually all the cities along I-45 in Galveston county and Clear Lake.

As poor and slow as it is the trolley travels within a block or two of the existing rail yards and connects them to UTMB and to some locations along the seawall. Landry's already runs free shuttles to take you from the Strand to their establishments along the seawall (at least it did a few months ago).

This rail line along highway 3 runs right under Beltway 8 east of I-45, which if you've ever driven down I-45 on a Saturday you know how bad traffic can be along the freeway. A rail line down that track could do something that few commuter lines can do, drop you off very close to where you want to go and possibly help you travel at a higher speed than the freeway.

At 8:15 PM, January 08, 2007, Blogger C Neal said...

Boston is remarkably reliant on cars - but that's not for want of trying from the transit authorities. Boston's rail has a big disadvantage from zoning controls that stipulate minimum parking requirements. Zoning in the metro area is strikingly auto-oriented in spite of the region's transit investments. This is a big reason why employment is now scattered on the fringes - land regulations in the older communities along transit corridors are too restrictive. And big park-and-ride lots around rail stations have a negative influence on surrounding land values, hence little development activity.

Since Houston's one and only zoning indulgence is free parking, these problems with Boston's commuter rail could well apply there as well. But Houston isn't only distinguished from Boston by driving more, so the comparison isn't entirely fair. If the city relaxed parking requirements or taxed surface lots near rail stations, you might even show Boston how it's supposed to be done.

At 11:50 PM, January 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Commuter rail works in Boston, Tory. It might not encourage smart growth - most people who want that lifestyle live near the T, while commuter rail primarily attracts park-and-riders. But that hardly means it doesn't work.

One thing this article doesn't mention is ridership. If commuter rail doesn't take cars off the road, how would all those people who fill the trains each day have gotten to work (or the airport, or major destinations)? Would the affluent people that rail supposedly targets have used the bus?

Here's an experiment: Go to Boston and poll the residents, asking them if they would like to give up commuter rail. Say, "Instead of this mixture of highways and rail lines, how would you like to just have more and bigger highways?" Since only 25% of Bostonians work downtown, and probably only a fraction of those live near a rail line, I'm sure a huge majority will want to give up the option of ever using rail, and consign themselves permanently to roads.

At 5:23 AM, January 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike said...

Here's an experiment: Go to Boston and poll the residents, asking them if they would like to give up commuter rail. Say, "Instead of this mixture of highways and rail lines, how would you like to just have more and bigger highways?"

Whenever people discuss or argue about public issues, I am reminded of the wisest thing I ever heard one of my Economics professors said when I was at the University of Houston. He said that it is one thing to listen to what people say they will do or what they want. It is another altogether to watch and see how people act and watch what they actually do. That is when you make your judgments as to what people really value.

I remember this over and over again whenever I read someone state that "you should ask so and so what they want" or "people say that they want X". That is the difference between political markets and real economic markets. When we rely on political markets in order to guide public policy, what we discover is that we usually end up with too little of what people really want or too much of what they really don't use.

At 7:55 PM, January 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

take a look at San Francisco's BART system. Unlike Boston's commuter rail, it's a high speed system that tends to travel close to the freeways.Best of all, it's a nice smooth ride.

As a former Mass Resident, I got lost trying to find the Newburyport commuter rail station. It certainly wasn't along I-95. They simply must make it functional for people to accept it.

As for the Katy freeway, yes, a rail line like BART going down it would have been ideal.

At 9:46 PM, January 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You make a good point Neal. But I think people in Boston are pretty happy with having the option of trains to get around their region.

What the article needed was ridership figures - that would really tell us what people *do*, and not just what they *say*.

At 10:47 PM, January 09, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

As always, the bottom line question is cost-benefit. Yes, the commuter rails may take a few people off the roads, but at what cost? And are there far cheaper options that could take the same number off? Or options that use the same amount of money, but move far more people? I believe there is with an express lane network and distributed express point-to-point transit with buses and vanpools.

At 8:46 PM, January 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe there's more to be said for a transit system than how many cars it takes off the road. The luxury of Boston's commuter rail system, and the reason why people there don't mind spending money on one (even though supposedly only 25% of them will ever use it) is that it takes you to every worthwhile destination in the region, on-time and in comfort. And it's much more attractive that buses and vanpools.

At 8:52 PM, January 16, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, it may connect all the major destinations, but with what trip time vs. an express bus/van with high-speed lanes? Especially if the rider has to commute into town on one rail spoke and then back out of town on another? Commuter buses with express lanes can be quite reliably on-time and quite comfortable (we're talking the ones with airline-type seating - not locals).

At 5:21 PM, January 19, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why would they have to use different spokes? Commuter rail is pretty fast, and the routes are generally more attractive, since there isn't a freeway around them (increasing the desirability factor). Let's try it on existing railroads and see if Houstonians like it.

At 9:10 PM, January 19, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

They would have to use different spokes because not all jobs are at the hub downtown - they are out some of the arms/spokes. If you don't live along that spoke, you have to take another one into the hub, then go out again. It's really just a problem of indirect routes and transfers that add so much time that people aren't willing to do it.

Example: would you expect people in Sugar Land to ride the commuter rail to the LRT at the Astrodome, connect up to the Uline in Midtown, and then go west to Greenway or Uptown? That's an hour easy one way, when the drive up 59, even at rush hour, is probably 20-30 mins max. It doesn't even have to get that extreme: it takes a full half hour to ride the 7.5 mile Main LRT up to downtown, after they probably already rode the commuter line 20-30 mins. Yet nonstop HOV from Sugar Land to downtown is less than a half-hour. Would people double their commute time to ride a train instead of a bus? Maybe a few times for novelty, but not long term.

"Trying it" on existing tracks is

1) still very expensive. Once that capital investment is in the ground, there's no way it gets shut down.

2) requires rerouting a significant amount of freight, which the freight lines would have to be heavily compensated for (if they could do it at all)

3) Metro has to cancel all even-remotely competing HOV service, which actually makes transit slower and less convenient for a lot of people - thus they stop being transit riders at all. Even the small LRT line on Main caused a substantial drop in overall system ridership, because it introduced transfers to many previously nonstop thru routes.

At 6:18 PM, January 20, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now you're bringing in light rail, a bit misleading when we're trying to do a pure comparison between different transit forms. Let me offer a different situation... a commuter from Tomball, taking a train down the BNSF tracks to downtown. This is a pleasant, even scenic ride, involves no transfers, and could bring him not only to work, but to a baseball game or anything else. I could see families taking the train on weekends to spend a day in the city.

Whereas if you tried to bus people from there, things would get complicated fast. I suppose you could run a toll road along those tracks with high speed lanes, but I think there would be some local opposition, and you'd still have a problem once you got to the loop.

So maybe it could be tried on a corridor like this, where there are existing tracks and no HOV service? Could we at least figure up the costs and let voters decide?

At 7:51 PM, January 20, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

That has been one of the lines I've thought was worth considering in the past, since there's not a good spoke freeway/HOV out that way. But I've been told BNSF essentially won't give up the line - they move a lot of freight on it (if I'm remembering right). Also: it bends east before the loop, and doesn't really get to downtown.

At 10:41 PM, January 21, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It could get to downtown. Are they still studying the 249 and 290 possibilities?

At 10:43 PM, January 21, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I believe they are under long-term consideration, but nothing's imminent. The total focus right now is the core LRT/BRT network.


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