Opinion: 'Commuter Rail' Must Adapt to the New Commute

The sharp historic division between commuter rail and other forms of transit has limited the ability of regional rail systems to serve more users.

May 2, 2021, 11:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


New Jersey Transit

EQRoy / Shutterstock

Designed to serve suburban commuters, many of the country's regional rail systems don't provide efficient enough service to lure commuters out of their private vehicles, writes Jake Blumgart for Governing. "In recent decades, the vast web of rail lines that surround many older urban centers were only convenient if you worked a 9-to-5 job downtown." The stark division between "regular" transit and commuter rail in the minds of many transportation officials has left many workers with less traditional schedules without effective transit options.

"There are not such sharp contrasts between regional rail and the rest of transit systems in most wealthy European or East Asian nations. But in North America, the divide was sacrosanct. As recently as 2016, then-MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola drew a bright line between this service and the rest of the agency’s subway, bus, and light rail services: 'Commuter rail is commuter rail. It’s not transit. It’s designed to bring people into the city in the morning and take them home at night.'"

But the sharp drop in ridership during the last year has highlighted the problem with this mindset. After "commuter rail lines took a ridership hit of unprecedented magnitude," workers are slowly returning to their commutes, but "even those who go back to the office are anticipating that they will have more flexible scheduling and work-from-home opportunities a day or two a week." This means that "[i]f commuter systems try to return to their focus on white-collar suburban commuters, their ridership will be considerably thinned. To continue to attract riders and fares, they will need to change their appeal. To do that, they will need to change their frequencies and their fares."

Friday, April 23, 2021 in Governing

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