Commuter Rail Isn't A Smart Choice For Transportation Dollars

Commuter rail is an outdated model of transportation, and does little to reduce car use or promote transit-oriented development.

"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. 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."

"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."

Full Story: Commuter Rail's False Promise



Fails to factor peak oil

"Today, even with high gas prices and crowded roads, people love the privacy, comfort, and extraordinary freedom they get from their automobiles."

What happens if (when) gas goes to $5 per gallon.

Fails to deal with emissions.

My Travels Lead Me to Draw Different Conclusions

I was wondering whether or not this study looked at the existing zoning in place around these stations? Did their zoning laws allow for higher density? Did their zoning laws eliminate minimum lot sizes? Did they allow for mixed uses? Were design guidelines in place to ensure that their would be safe and comfortable paths to the stations? If the answer to these questions is no, then it wouldn’t be a surprise that development around these stations was not more dense or that people did not use the station as much as would have been liked. Essentially this is the argument of Jonathan Levine in Zoned Out, its a good
read if you have not already read it yet.

My experience as a young aspiring planner has shown very different results than this study. Last summer I worked in Los Angeles. All along their new subway, lightrail,and BRT lines, (Red Line, Gold Line, Orange Line) new high density, mixed-use development was under construction. These developments were much higher than conventional development densities in the LA metro. Specific examples worth looking into are: North Hollywood station, Del Mar Station, Mission Meridian Station, Lincoln/Cypress station, and Memorial Park station. In all honesty the only reason I decided to live in North Hollywood was because of the subway, which I took every day into downtown LA.

Likewise, this summer I traveled to San Diego, and I witnessed the same thing around their light rail stations, specifically: Rio Vista station, and Morena Vista Station. The downtown also has light rail, which loops around the central core. If you haven’t been to downtown San Diego recently, then let me tell you that their is immense construction going on in the downtown, and i’m not talking 4-5 stories, i’m talking 20 stories or more in a lot of areas. And what about the billions of dollars of high density, mixed-use, development announced for development around the new fast trak lines in Denver?

In addition, I also interned outside of DC in 2005 and witnessed the same high density, mixed-use development happening around the Shady Grove station, Rockville station, Bethesda station, Silver Spring station, and U Street station.

It seems from my experience that heavy rail, light rail, and BRT can actually lead to higher density, mixed-use development, where a lot of the nearby residents use transit for their trips, given the right conditions. Zoning around transit stations must be changed if we are ever to expect higher density development and higher transit use around transit stations.

p.s.. If you don’t believe me check out the examples I listed.

Rio Vista West and Morena Vista are an utter joke...

Read the op-ed article on Rio Vista West in Planetizen fron November if you don't believe me.

The high density development in downtown San Diego is essentially all luxury high-rise condos. Those types of developments a real city do not make.

Your "aspiring planner travels" in San Diego obviously haven't provided you with enough insight into the glaringly obvious failings of planning in "America's Finest City".

Luxury or not

Luxury or not these developments are higher density than conventional development. As a result, they help preserve the beautiful natural surroundings, which make San Diego such an attractive place and likewise, reduce the air pollution, which consistently afflicts their north neighbor (LA).

The reason these places are likely high end is because of their access to transit. Who wouldn't pay the extra money, to be able to avoid the horrendous traffic of southern California? Don't fault the designers or developments because of what is obviously and economics problem, which is out of their control. The fact is land is scare in southern California, demand is high, and traffic is horrible. Therefore, its no surprise that any high-density development with access to mass transit is going to be of a high-end nature.

I hate it when planners attack what is obviously a good thing just because it’s not perfect. Sure Rio Vista, Morena Station, as well as downtown San Diego aren't perfect, but they are better than the alternatives and that is what is important. Let's celebrate progress, not failures.

p.s. Just because i'm "aspiring" doesn't mean I’m not informed.

San Diego "Density": typical TOD textbook case studies

Actually, luxury higher density developments in downtown San Diego have absolutely nothing to do with why San Diego has less smog than L.A. It all has to do with geography and wind patterns. Los Angeles has the unfortunate distinction of having been situated in a bowl, surrounded on all three sides by precipitous topography. San Diego is a landscape of canyons and mesas, quite different. So it really doesn't matter how many Calthorpesque TOD's you construct in Los Angeles, it will NEVER have the air quality of San Diego.

You are a newby to Southern California, aren't you? I can tell by your over-the-top optimism for "America's Finest City" and the rest of the So-Cal megapolitan region for that matter.

You are aware that San Diego is on the brink of bankruptcy, as the city attorney, mayor, and city council are attempting to come up with over 1 billion dollars as a result of a pension-related scandal which is about to costs thousands of city employees with their jobs. I'm sure you're also aware that the housing bubble in San Diego is on the brink of decimating the regional economy, as a direct result of hyper-speculation in the very high density luxury condos you tout. Most of the jobs in San Diego over the past five years have been either in, or related to the real estate/construction economic sector.

So much for TODs and higher density to the rescue in "Enron by the Sea". No matter how many pretty transit-oriented development pictures Calthorpe and Polyzoides can come up with...

And as for the typical "beautiful natural surroundings" San Diego real estate/boosterist rhetoric, I would argue that the San Francisco Bay Area has a much more superior urban and natural setting than does San Diego, in addition to the Bay Area's higher culture, better entertainment, more vibrant urbanism, stronger regional economy, and greater political awareness and participation.

So what you are saying is

So what you are saying is that if all of those high rise towers/medium density projects in downtown San Diego and around the transit lines had been built in the typical sprawling mcmansion style of southern California, then somehow air pollution, traffic congestion, and the rate of open space loss, would somehow be lower in San Diego? That seems like an absurd claim.

I understand that unique geography afflicts Los Angeles, and exacerbates their air pollution problem. However, I also believe that even with their unfortunate geography the fact that 9,758,886 people live in Los Angeles County alone. And that the vast majority of them live in an auto centric pattern. Don't these facts have a lot to do with their air pollution problems and not that it’s just a product of geography or weather phenomenon as you suggest.

In addition, I never said that San Diego was perfect. When I praised San Diego I did not praise them for the fiscal prowess or civil management skills. However, I did praise them for their planning efforts, which are due. Fiscal problems are not new to cities. But to conclude that San Diego's fiscal problems somehow result from TOD's, TND's, and Vancouveresque podium towers rather than mismanagement, politics, bureaucracy, or the pension scandal, which you mentioned, is naive. I’m not advocating mayors around the country copy San Diego's fiscal policies, or management style but rather their planning policies.

You also spoke of the large housing bubble afflicting San Diego. Again, I do not believe this problem to have been caused by TOD's, TND's, and Vancouveresque podium towers but rather the inability of the housing market to rapidly respond to the changing economic conditions of Southern California. In the past two years I have worked for firms in DC as well as LA. At both of those internships I encountered developers who had been trying to get their projects approved for 5-10 years as a result of stringent zoning and administrative bureaucracy. The fact that there is this much of a lag time between initial demand and product delivery has alot more to do with housing bubble creation than the development style, which you suggest.

You right let/s just forget the whole TOD trend, forget Calthorpe, and forget Stefanos, lets just continue to watch the same broken sprawl model try to deal with the severe problems afflicting southern California. Its no surprise then to me that the census has reported for the first time more people are emigrating from SoCal than immigrating.

As for San Francisco I couldn't agree more. Some how this uniformed newby managed to also get up to San Francisco, and I couldn't agree more. But that doesn't mean San Diego should just be happy following the SoCal trend of the past 50 years. And if I’m correct didn't Calthorpe and the TOD trends hail from the beautiful Bay Area which you so admire? And just because the Bay Area may be more beautiful than San Diego should somehow the residents of San Diego be ok with paving over their paradise?

I may have been new to southern California, but its not too long before this "Newby's" common sense kicked in and was able to see that the sprawling southern California model is not a sustainable least not without costs...traffic congestion, air pollution, sky high housing prices, and a considerable loss of open space.

ps. This debate is about commuter rail potential, not San Diego, let's keep it that way.

San Diego's Planning Policies?

The San Diego planning paradigm you hold up as an example for other municipalities to follow is actually a failure in public participation and urban governance. You do realize San Diego has just gotten over the collective hangover called "City of Villages" which was a chivalrous, yet short-sighted attempt to increase densities and create a "sense of place" for the scores of second-ring neighborhoods surrounding downtown San Diego. The plan failed so badly with NIMBYist community members that the city's award-winning planning director, Gail Goldberg, had to resign and take a position as planning director for the City of Los Angeles. Other instances of the "San Diego model" of planning include: "Temporary Paradise", the private sector "study" prepared by Lynch and Appleyard, but completely ignored. Other notable examples include the two plans prepared by John Nolan, as well as numerous updates to the General Plan (ALL IGNORED).

The San Diego model for urban planning is in fact one in which other municipalities should completely ignore. It has served as a vehicle for the very sprawl which is characteristic of Southern California (and the nation for that matter).

As for economics and urban governance, they are merely the building blocks of any successful region (which Calthorpe loves to preach to us), and that are completely crumbling around the feet of every San Diegan as we speak. The diference between San Diego and nearly EVERY other metopolitan region experiencing the housing bubble is that San Diego's economy was completely based upon real estate speculation and "flipping". The bubble really had nothing to do with the "Southern California housing shortage" you speak of. In fact there are several studies out that attest to the very opposite conclusion. See The San Diego experience was just about selfish greed, not supply and demand housing economics as you infer.

Therefore, the density, developments, natural setting, planning paradigm, and whatever else can be spoken for with regards to what San Diego is doing right is COMPLETELY overshadowed by the disfunctionalities that have persisted in this quasi-tourist/military settlement over the past century.

A quick photo trip to visit the Gaslamp and/or Petco Park will not give you this sort of insight into "America's Finest City". I would highly suggest reading Voice of San Diego or San Diego City Beat sometime to educate yourself on the built, social, political, cultural, and economic environment of San Diego before you throw out typical TOD textbook examples of developments in San Diego from "The New Transit Town" and "The Transit Metropolis".

I do not deny the fact that

I do not deny the fact that San Diego's plan has probably had a lot of problems or "dysfunctionalites" as you call them. But then for the matter what plan hasn't? No matter where you go or what plan you read about there are going to be problems (not enough public input, fails to reach all the goals, has unintended consequences). This is what we call "life," live and learn! Every city has dyfunctionalities, most of them more severe than San Diego. I’m not touting San Diego as some sort of utopian paradise.

All I am saying is that through out my travels I found San Diego to be on one finest cities I have ever visited, right up there with Portland, Seattle, Denver and a handful of European cities.

All I have found in your responses has been an attack on my "uninformed, newby, optimism," but in all honesty I’d rather be optimistic than cynical.

Therefore, I will ask you a very important question. If not San Diego what other model should we follow? If not TOD's/New Urbanism than what? A lot of people want to decry the work of others with out providing solutions of their own. Let's here some of your ideas so that the rest of us may now take a crack at your proposals. Who knows maybe we will find some common ground. My ears are all open.

Good Models of Urbanism (San Diego is not one of them)

Listen up, seeing as you're "all ears".

Barcelona, San Francisco, Vienna, Florence, Chicago, Portland, Madison, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Melbourne, but CERTAINLY not San Diego...

Now that you have my textbook examples, does that in any way change the central point that San Diego is a bad example of urbanism and planning practice?


Some common ground

Thank you, Honestly that’s all I wanted to hear... I agree of those models, which I have been too Chicago, and Portland, they are in fact great models most likely better models than San Diego. However I could not off the top of my head think of specific transit stops in either of those regions, as I did not spend considerable time there during my visits. Had I known of some examples from Portland, or Chicago I would have stated them.

But to say that the San Diego Villages plan has had no positive benefits for the region is naive. It still has reduced congestion, preserved open space, and reduced air pollution more than it would have otherwise been in typical suburbia. In addition the word bad is a relative term. What isn't good enough for planners in San Diego might be considered a huge step in the right direction for other areas that are wearier of change. True San Diego might not be as good as your cited examples that I’m not challenging. However, this article was originally about commuter rails ability to attract riders and to foster TOD development. And from my travels that assessment is incorrect even in the imperfect, failed city of San Diego. Just remember there are many places worse than San Diego. Plus if I’m correct many of the cities you've cited looked up to Calthorpe’s TOD regionalistic approach or new urbanism for that matter. Still I will certainly look further into the models you citied. Thanks for the heads up.

Read this article on San Diego (Reluctant City Must Grow Up)

It will provide insightful background into the current political and economic debacle:

More common ground...

You both most "work from home" since you seem to have the time to spend all day re-enacting North vs South.

Seriously, planners take too much credit for shaping the cities they praise. The reality is that economics (and the dominant transportation paradigms in place at the time of past growth spurts) probably have had an order of magnitude more influence on how cities have evolved than the feeble perturbations planners have introduced to the system.

New York, Chicago, Portland, and San Francisco are all wonderful cities for two reasons: They got big before the automobile, so their urban form is pedestrian and transit oriented, and they maintained sufficient economic strength and relevance to survive the darkest days of the 1950s - 1970s white flight and assorted planning disasters.

Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, etc. pass the first test but fail the second, while Dallas, Phoenix, Atlanta, etc. pass the second but fail the first.

Pretty much no new development built anywhere (in the U.S.) since 1950 possesses the urban charisma of the historical cores of NY, Chi, SF. etc. (except perhaps infill, and a lot of that is debatable). I specifically call out the vast suburban sprawl comprising most of the Bay Area, San Francisco proper notwithstanding. Remember, SF's 800,000 population barely comprises 12% of the SF-Oakland-San Jose CMSA at about 7 million. True, the East Bay has it's own walkable historic cores, but I don't often see Northern Californians holding up Oakland as an exemplar of urban living.

Now for the shameless plug for my own city: Los Angeles got big in the nascent days of the automobile, when transportation was (fleetingly) a much more balanced mix of cars, transit, and pedestrianism, resulting in the plethora of quaint downtowns and main streets peppering the LA basin, and laying the foundation for the region's polycentricity. Of course, the second large round of growth here was in the fifties, which filled in the space between those nodes with vast stretches of prototypical American surburban sprawl. (Sprawl built at about 2 to 4 times the average density of sprawling areas in most of the country, by the way). Now, we are continuing to get bigger, but with no more available land in the LA Basin, new development is increasingly serving to densify the region. Resulting congestion impacts coupled with rising fuel costs are laying the foundation for a new dominant transportation paradigm in LA. We have a rapidly growing metro system (7 fixed guideway lines already, with two more under construction and more planned). We also have an extensive commuter rail system, with about 400 route miles and 70 stations. Have we given up driving en masse? No. Do we compare to NY or Chicago or even SF in mode share for transit? No. But we are headed in the right direction, and we have the potential to evolve throughout the region, as opposed to a dense 19th century core city surrounded by vast sprawling suburbs that we don't mention in polite company when we extoll the urban virtues of the city...

Disclaimers: I'm from St. Louis, but got tired of watching that city slowing decay back into the soil from whence it grew. Compared to that, the constant building and rebuilding of LA is an urban paradise. I've been here 7 years.

look south

These naysayers in massachusetts should check out bridgeport, norwalk, and stamford in connecticut, all of which are seeing tremendous development and redevelopment in the vicinity of their commuter rail stations. Notably, two of the world's largest investment banks chose the area directly adjacent to the stamford rail station for their corporate headquarters in order to tap into the new york city labor market.

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