» Suburban-oriented commuter rail projects may be cheap to construct, but they usually have limited effects on metropolitan travel.
The construction of new commuter rail lines in the United States has been a peculiar trend in an age of job sprawl and changing work habits. Though the largest American transit capital investments in terms of money spent have been in light and metro rail projects, commuter rail corridors — defined loosely as diesel trains running largely at peak hours between cities and their suburbs — continue to attract local interest. Over the past few years, Austin, Minneapolis, Nashville, and Salt Lake City, among other regions, have contributed millions of dollars to their construction.
The results have in general not been impressive. As Jeff Wood catalogued last week on The Overhead Wire, these investments have yielded very limited ridership — especially on a per-mile basis.
Nevertheless, cities to continue to make plans to focus their spending on them: Kansas City announced in 2009 that it was considering a 150-mile commuter network; late last year, Indianapolis suggested its primary rail investment would be in a commuter line to its northeast suburbs.
In a country in which planners have increasingly come to emphasize long-range decision-making at the regional scale, the recourse to commuter rail over other projects seems reasonable. With most local transportation taxes being collected via metropolitan units, rather than municipal ones, it is important to show that spending is being distributed not only in the central city but also at the edge. Because everyone wants rail and there is often inadequate money to pay for a full-scale light or metro rail project, cheaper commuter rail is seen as a reasonable first investment that, it is argued, will eventually lead to more support for more transit when “people” “see” how good the new line is.
If I may paraphrase and condense Jeff Wood’s argument*, however, the political difficulty with spending limited funds on commuter rail rather than other transit projects can be summarized as follows:
- The limited investments made in commuter rail produce a system with low frequencies because of single tracks in many places and competition with freight railroads.
- Low ridership results from generally bad service, which means few voters take advantage (and see the advantage) of rail service.
- Little voter understanding of the importance of rail systems increases opposition to future projects and even adequate funding of the regular transit system, since too few people, even in proximity of the commuter rail lines, come to understand why that spending might be beneficial.
But the problem with commuter rail is more significant than that. These investments do not meet much of a demand in many of the cities in which they are implemented — primarily because of their reliance on a peak-hour suburb-to-downtown professional clientele.
Except in the older cities (which have legacy commuter rail systems for the most part), the downtown job base has been falling off as a percentage of the metropolitan area’s total employment for decades. The rise of non-traditional working patterns that rely on Third Places and home offices mean fewer people need to get into central business districts for the same amount of work to be done. In most places, the center city simply isn’t a big enough attraction to require shuttling people to it from distant locales via big, heavy diesel trains running a few times a day. Indeed, in many cities, that work could probably be better done with a few express buses. Moreover, the suburbs lack the density (or, because of restrictive zoning, even the possibility of future density) to make those areas true destinations in themselves.
In regions with metropolitan governance schemes, though, the appeal of commuter rail is hard to dismiss: It provides the suburbs appealing rail service, and politicians need suburban support if, say, they want to enact tax increases to pay for better transportation. The construction of those suburban lines, however, has too little of an effect to truly convince suburban voters of the appeal of transit, so, as Jeff Wood wrote, those peoplehave little motivation to spend more on transit in the future. This is not a virtuous cycle.
If decision-making about how to spend a set amount of transportation funds is being made at the regional scale, leaders need to have a good idea of the kind of urbanism they’re looking for. If they want a jobs-heavy downtown core to which people from all around the area commute in, commuter rail might be a good idea. But that kind of job concentration is only possible when suburban employment is disincentivized or banned. Are any of the regions thinking about building commuter rail doing anything of the sort?
From the perspective of a central city mayor or city councilperson, focusing on their city’s transportation needs alone may be more productive, since urban-scale transit lines like metro rail, light rail, or bus rapid transit offer connections between a variety of destinations within the densest areas of the region — and they attract many more users in the process than do commuter rail lines. It is true that transit use even within central cities is also heavily dependent on the strength of downtown employment, but even a weak core, like strong ones, is more likely to attract riders from the surrounding neighborhoods than from far-out suburbs. We should be planning our public transportation systems accordingly. Can regions perform that type of planning?
* Note that I’m less convinced by Jeff Wood’s third argument that commuter rail lines are “too easy” to build. Most transit projects, of whatever scale, require a fight to be constructed. Just because a city or region is able to move forward with an expensive light rail project now does not mean they will be able to do do easily again five years from now.
Image above: A Salt Lake City FrontRunner train, pictured between two light rail cars, from Flickr user Russell (cc)