Sunday, January 14, 2007

Tying Commuter Rail Investments to Transit-Suppportive Land Use

A policy brief from the Kennedy School of Government's Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston entitled "The Impacts of Commuter Rail in Greater Boston" by Eric Beaton, a recent graduate of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, may have some lessons for this area.

Beaton attempted to determine if the Boston area's heavy investment in commuter rail since 1970 resulted in greater population density and transit ridership rates around commuter rail stations. His study found that commuter rail is associated with "small, but generally positive, impacts." (Pg. 2 of 16)

The study also found, however, that there were similar positive impacts in relatively densely populated areas that lost commuter rail service during the multi-decade study period. In other words, it is possible that the presence of commuter rail has a relatively small impact on getting people out of their cars and onto transit. Rather, population density--a demand side factor--appears to be be the key driver of transit usage rather than the presence of commuter rail--a supply side factor.

This surprising finding led Beaton to conclude that "commuter rail is most likely to impact land use patterns when it is explicitly and clearly linked to local and regional policies for land use and development." (Pg. 2 of 16) He found, not surprisingly, that there is a strong correlation between population density around and transit usage.

As suggested in a previous post, it makes good sense for Metra to couple its investment in rail lines and stations with a requirement that the relevant local governments institute land-use policies that will increase population and/or employment density around the line or station. If anything, Metra's investments in exurban rail line extensions and rail stations in areas hostile to transit-supportive land use help accelerate the kind of development that generates significant additional auto traffic.

The RTA and the Moving Beyond Congestion proponents make no mention of legislative changes or other legally binding requirements tying transit investment to transit supportive land-use development. They focus on demand-side solutions, relying on the assumption that if you build more public transit infrastructure people will come. The flaw to this approach is that it ignores the land-use context and consequences. Will Metra investments rail lines and stations that will serve areas where 95 percent of total trips will still be by car truly contribute to reducing congestion and gasoline consumption in the region?

Beaton's study suggests the politically difficult task of tying transit investment to transit supportive land use requirements is precisely what is necessary to obtain more than a minimal return from the billions of dollars in capital investment in commuter rail that the MBC project contemplates. We can only hope that in its upcoming stategic plan the MBC will propose meaningful land-use requirements that must accompany transit investments going forward.

Others have reached more far-reaching conclusions from Beaton's study, namely, that commuter rail is generally a bad investment and that air quality and congestion relief benefits should be realized by improvements to autos and highways. This Boston Herald perspective entitled "Commuter Rail's False Promise" is one example:

By Tom Keane | December 31, 2006

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

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