» North Carolina Railroad studies new commuter rail system in the state’s center, but its ridership estimates may be unrealistic considering the region’s demographics.
The fastest-growing tech hubs in the United States are unified in their sprawling nature and provide definitive proof for at least one uncomfortable truth: the country’s smartest inhabitants aren’t necessarily rushing off to urban hubs. Despite the recent increase of wealthy, young, white inhabitants in many central cities — a reverse “white flight” — the overall trend suggests that the fastest-growing high-education metropolitan areas continue to be places with low overall density.
According to a new report from the Brookings Institution, of the country’s 100 largest regions, 28 feature both high growth rates and high levels of educational achievement (what it categorizes as “Next Frontier” and “New Heartland”). Of those 28 regions, only two had higher transit use than the average of the 100 largest metros nationwide and only four had fewer people per capita who drive alone to work. Meanwhile, according to the “Sprawl Index,” calculated by Smart Growth America, only a third of those 28 regions were less sprawling than the average, based on street connectivity, centeredness, mixed-uses, and density.
(These data are sortable in a table at the conclusion of this article.)
In other words, while central cities like New York and San Francisco may be coming back with an influx of new inhabitants, that growth has been overshadowed by increases in sprawling areas.
Chief among them is North Carolina’s Triangle, presided over by the state capital in Raleigh, surrounded by the smaller cities of Durham, Cary, and Chapel Hill. With a population of 1.8 million, the region is the third most sprawling of all American regions says Smart Growth America, with the lowest levels of land use mixity in the country. According to the Brookings data, which refers specifically to the (arguably more sprawling) Raleigh-Cary section of the region, eighty percent of its workers drive to work alone, with only one percent using transit. It has increased in population by 35.4% since 2000.
Now the North Carolina Railroad, a state-controlled organization that owns the state’s primary rail line, has released a study in which it estimates ridership along a potential commuter rail line that could stretch from Durham to Raleigh, via the suburban jobs-heavy Research Triangle Park, and then onwards in both directions as far as Goldsboro to the southeast and Greensboro to the west. Trains would run in each direction every forty minutes, though only during rush hours. The document, a follow-up to a capacity study completed in 2008 for the same corridor, projects as many as 4,600 daily riders if the system were activated today. By 2022, it suggests a daily ridership of more than 11,000 — enough to make it the country’s 13th-heaviest used commuter rail line, quite an achievement for the nation’s 29th-largest metropolitan area.
The N.C. Railroad suggests that a 50-mile starter line between West Durham and Clayton, via downtown Raleigh, would attract the majority of riders.
Both Raleigh and Durham are considering the implementation of their own electric light rail systems that would eventually connect. Raleigh’s line could extend from Cary to northeast Raleigh, via downtown and North Carolina State University; Durham’s would link east Durham with the University of North Carolina, via downtown and Duke University. Those light rail investments, which would in some places follow the same corridor as the commuter line, lack a funding source at the moment, though the region’s counties are considering bringing a 1/2-cent sales tax to vote in November 2011.
But this proposed commuter rail line would be far cheaper to implement, costing only about $250 million to build, as compared to the more than one billion dollars that would be necessary for the light rail links.
The Triangle is not a metropolitan region in the traditional sense, with a heavily populated and jobs-rich core. Rather, it’s a highly diffuse, polycentric place, with several jobs cores and no large neighborhoods made up primarily of apartment housing — in other words, it doesn’t have many areas ready-made for transit. The map below shows how jobs are spread out across the region in relation to the proposed commuter rail corridor.
The question is how or even if fixed-guideway transit can be made to work in a place like this. Efficient public transportation is almost always highly dependent on heavily concentrated neighborhoods to which people can walk from stations. Though there are plenty examples of commuter lines with park and rides on one end, almost all rail line users from Boston to Portland have a work destination within walking distance of a station. Can a region like the Triangle adapt to an improved transit system? Does its existing commuting patterns make the use of anything other than the private vehicle possible?
What seems clear is that the N.C. Railroad’s estimates of 11,000 daily riders by 2022 is unrealistic. With just four stations between downtown Raleigh and downtown Durham, the line would feature a very small total area within walkable distance of stations, reducing the potential rider base. Moreover, neither downtown is particularly large and the Raleigh station wouldn’t be directly adjacent to the jobs center. To make matters more difficult, the primary residence of most of the workers in each downtown is that respective city, not the other one. And neither south Durham nor North Raleigh, both areas of huge housing growth in recent years, would get stations.
It’s worth considering how the proposed system compares to similar routes around the country. Austin’s new 32-mile Red Line commuter line, which offers just nine round-trips a day, all at rush hour, has been attracting around 1,000 daily users since it opened. Salt Lake City’s FrontRunner North, which shuttles commuters 44 miles into downtown from Ogden, is now carrying 5,000 people a day, with all-day two-way service. Could the Triangle, with more spread-out employment than those two regions, get more riders?
Even if the answer is no, the goal of commuter railroad operations between Raleigh and Durham — something equivalent to more frequent Amtrak — isn’t an inherently bad idea. Any track improvements would aid in the movement of all intercity trains using the corridor. At a far lower cost than light rail, commuter rail would offer mobility between the region’s big cities, opening up the possibility of getting between the downtowns far more easily than is possible today.
In addition, investing in commuter rail along the Raleigh-Durham corridor would open up the possibility of investing in light rail elsewhere. Durham Mayor Bill Bell has noted his fear that more frequent intercity trains would doom any hope of light rail between these two cities, but perhaps that’s a good thing — this route isn’t necessarily ideal for urban rail. It passes through the sprawling Research Triangle Park, whose suburban office park layout makes it hopeless for fixed guideway transit. Meanwhile, the densest non-downtown areas of both Durham and Raleigh aren’t on the line, meaning that ridership would be inherently limited compared to other potential corridors.
Instead of spending big bucks on electric rail on this corridor, both Durham and Raleigh could concentrate on serving their own, potentially more rider-heavy lines. Most people who work in downtown Raleigh will continue to live in or near Raleigh — and the same can be said for Durham. The transit system should be designed to reflect that fact.
|Commute Sheds for Downtown Raleigh and Durham|
|Sprawl, Commuting Habits, and Growth in the Nation’s Big, Growing, and Educated Metros
“Sprawl Index” data from Smart Growth America; lower number indicates more sprawl. Data on commuting habits and growth from the Brookings Institution. Images above: (1) Potential Central North Carolina commuter rail, from North Carolina Railroad; (2) Employment density and home locations of workers in North Carolina’s Triangle, from Census data