What American Commuter Rail Can Learn From Paris, Part 2

At Bourg-la-Reine, outside Paris, the rail station is surrounded by dense, mixed-use development and walkable streets. Image: Google Maps
At Bourg-la-Reine, outside Paris, the rail station is surrounded by dense, mixed-use development and walkable streets. Image: Google Maps

In Europe it’s common for regional rail systems to get ridership comparable to that of the subway in the central city. But in America, this is unheard of. In an earlier post I looked at how Paris achieves this ridership with regional rail service — the RER and Transilien networks — that runs much more frequently than three comparable American systems: the LIRR, Metro-North, and the MBTA Commuter Rail. There is a second, equally important reason for the discrepancy: land use.

American commuter rail stations are typically surrounded by parking. The intent is for suburban commuters to drive to the park-and-ride and take the train to the central business district. Few middle-class workers would be willing to live car-free near such stations and take the train to the city: They’d need a car to run errands, and the stations themselves are too hostile to walking.

The MBTA is especially bad here, since it sometimes avoids traditional town centers when siting commuter rail stations, preferring locations with more convenient parking. Nobody except suburban drivers would use such stations, and suburban drivers have no reason to use the stations except for peak-hour travel to Boston.

In contrast, there is ample development next to suburban train stations in Paris. The view from Bourg-la-Reine is high-rise housing projects — behind the buildings in this photo there’s a supermarket. Many Parisian suburbs are poor, but Bourg-la-Reine is solidly middle-class, and even in rich suburbs, such as those on Transilien lines L, N, and U, there is high off-peak ridership. In those areas, people can live car-free near a train station, do most errands on foot, and take the train downtown for work.

sharon_mbta
In Sharon, Massachusetts, the MBTA station is surrounded by parking. Image: Google Maps

The previous post explored how commuter rail ridership in Paris is more constant throughout the day than in New York and Boston, where a large majority of trips happen at rush hour. Excluding job centers, in Paris, 46 percent of boardings are in the morning peak, compared to 67 percent on the LIRR, 69 percent on Metro-North, and 81 percent on the MBTA.

These figures omit stations with more afternoon peak boardings than morning peak boardings. Those are suburban job centers, familiar to most Americans in the form of the office park. What about these places?

Here, too, Parisian land use favors high transit ridership more than American land use. The Paris commuter rail network serves many more suburban job centers than its American counterparts. The LIRR and MBTA have none, Metro-North has just White Plains and Stamford.

In Paris, the biggest is La Defense, a cluster of skyscrapers just west of Paris that has become Europe’s largest business district, with higher job density than any district within Paris. This is due to the reluctance of authorities in Paris, as in many European cities, to build skyscrapers in historic centers. In addition to La Defense, several smaller suburban edge cities are served by rail, including Cergy, Parc des Expositions, Marne-la-Vallée, Saint-Cloud, and Saint-Denis.

Unlike in the U.S., Parisian edge cities are built on top of train stations, or if not, the region builds new rail branches to serve them. La Defense was built up simultaneously with the first tunnels incorporated into the RER network. Parc des Expositions is on the way to Charles de Gaulle airport; the RER branch serving it, as well as the branches to Cergy and Marne-la-Vallée, was built in the 1970s. Frequent service all day ensures that people can easily get to these job centers from Paris and from many suburbs. Moreover, the office parks and shopping centers are oriented toward the train station, so transit riders can get to them without crossing too much car traffic.

In New York and Boston, edge cities are poorly served by rail even when they are close to historic commuter lines. For example, Long Island’s biggest job cluster, Mineola/Roosevelt Field, is very close to a major LIRR station, but isn’t located directly at the station. The LIRR could open a station closer to Roosevelt Field, but even then it would be separated from the mall by several large parking lots.

The LIRR Main Line also has no reverse-peak service: With two tracks, it can have bidirectional service or express peak service, but not both, and the orientation of the LIRR toward suburban commuters to the city means it chooses one-way service. (A third track project has been talked about for years but only recently gained political traction.) As a result, only about 8 percent of workers at the main Long Island job centers commute via transit, according to the U.S. Census, and their median incomes are only half as high as those of drivers. Passengers arriving at Mineola in the morning barely outnumber those departing. Elsewhere, they account for a much smaller proportion of ridership.

Metro-North has both better reverse-peak service and somewhat pedestrian-friendlier stations at White Plains and Stamford, so those stations have more afternoon boardings. However, even there, the stations themselves are surrounded by parking and not by buildings, and Stamford Station is separated from the office building by a freeway. Only 11 percent of people who work in Stamford and 14 percent of people who work in White Plains use public transportation to get to work.

The ultimate difference in how commuter rail is run is that in Paris, as in other European cities where it gets similar usage to urban rail, the network extends the city out to the suburbs. The RER’s origin is as a regional Metro project to connect to the suburbs, including La Defense, and even some legacy Transilien lines have been transformed with electrification, frequent service, and transit-oriented development. Integrated planning ensures that if the region intends to build a new job center, it will simultaneously build a rail line to it.

In contrast, in the U.S., commuter rail lines extend the suburbs into the city: The land use is hostile to getting around without a car, and the off-peak frequency is so low that for most people the service might as well not exist.

American suburbs are not doomed to be overrun by cars forever. However, the present arrangement of land use and suburban rail transit points them in that direction. Sprawl repair in suburbs served by legacy commuter rail requires improving service levels: Hourly off-peak service is not enough. If land near stations is developed, and if frequency is increased to be useful outside rush hour, then commuter rail off-peak ridership will rise to the levels seen in Paris today.

  • HamTech87

    In New York State, each town or village has “Home Rule” which means the county or state governments can’t tell the town how to zone. The result is that the low-density, car-dependent population of the town chooses large free or low-cost parking lots at the station over dense development. The biggest question at town meetings when any development comes up is, “Where am I going to park?”
    I wonder whether a New York State governor could say, ‘If you don’t rezone, I’m going to reduce MTA MetroNorth service to your station?’ Short of doing this, I don’t know what would work.

  • JudenChino

    This:

    American commuter rail stations are typically surrounded by parking. The intent is for suburban commuters to drive to the park-and-ride and take the train to the central business district. Few middle-class workers would be willing to live car-free near such stations and take the train to the city: They’d need a car to run errands, and the stations themselves are too hostile to walking.

    My wife had an opportunity with a prominent company whose headquarters was in Westchester and happened to be right by the Metro North. But of course, the actual headquarters, while no more than a couple hundred meters away, isn’t actually walkable. you’d have to cross the giant parking lot, climb a guardrail and walk along the road to get to the office park where the HQ is located. So yea, that was a no-go.

  • Alon Levy

    Yes, there’s more regional involvement in growth policy here, which contributes to TOD and also to generally higher housing growth than in the New York and Boston areas. But in Connecticut, the state can preempt local zoning on top of train stations, and attempted to do so in Stamford over local objections. The Stamford TOD plan fell through, but to my understanding it was not because of NIMBYs but because of financing difficulties.

  • Let’s fix landuse

    This is an excellent series by Mr. Levy. Part 2/Landuse was
    particularly revealing. Could we please have Mr. Levy do a follow up Part 3 that looks at
    what structural changes could be made to planning processes and
    jurisdictions in the New York conurbation that would result in the kind
    of growth in places like Paris? He touches on this subject in Part 2, but it merits its own article.

    It is striking that for all of the
    effort by activists in New York to promote TOD, bus lanes, cycling, etc,
    we are fighting with one hand tied behind our back with a
    governance model that structurally favors interests opposed to such social goods.

    There is obvious common cause here with housing and social justice advocates, who are
    similarly battling for scraps of affordable housing tacked on to luxury
    mega projects. Our fragmented planning processes not only promote
    environmentally destructive and economically inefficient land use, they also promotes racial and economic segregation. Ultimately, the cumulative effect undermines the health of the metropolitan work force and therefore the long-term economic growth of the metropolis.

    Thank you Streetsblog and Mr. Levy for an excellent series. Please keep it up.

  • quinyus

    Was this in Tarrytown or Hawthorne/Valhalla? Hudson line maybe

  • JamesR

    The satellite cities around New York tend to have administrations that are actively aware of the need for more TOD with a commercial office component around the train stations. Yonkers, Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, and White Plains are all either currently planning for TOD around their stations or have already done so – White Plains is doing a lot on this right now. The office development is already there in that case, and it just needs better connectivity from the station. White Plains, like Stamford, has a lot of high speed one-way pair roads that make the pedestrian experience rather abysmal at peak commuting hour.
    In the case of the towns and villages with rail access, there has been residential multifamily around stations, but not much in the way of commercial – the road network in these communities can’t really handle it, and the folks who live there have paid a lot to live in communities with a certain bucolic character that they are loathe to lose.
    There’s also the issue of the fact that office is already overbuilt in the NY Metro… it’s just that a lot of it is not in transit-accessible locations.

  • Agreed; this is a great series. Speaking of land use and transit, might this be the time to suggest leveraging freeway infrastructure and space (i.e. replacing at-grade and elevated freeways with tunnels – especially in urban areas) to encourage transit use? Alon brought up Stamford MNR and accessibility limitations due to I-95; indeed, in NYC, highways limit access to several rail stations (e.g. the Deegan along the MNR Hudson line, the Bruckner along the NEC, which will soon host 4 new MNR stations). I see this as both a transportation justice (equitable mobility) and an environmental justice issue that should be examined.

  • elvevaag

    But that TOD is actually ridiculously car-dependent and parking-obsessed. Look at the zoning codes for the redevelopment districts in any of the four cities you mentioned, and you’ll see parking requirements ranging from 1 to 2 spaces (!) per residential unit. Even in downtown Yonkers, parts of which have a Walk Score of 99.

  • BART Advocate

    I think BART in SF, for all of its headaches, actually does a pretty good job with this. Aside from job centers in downtown San Francisco and Oakland, BART also connects to job centers in downtown Berkeley, Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill, San Bruno, Fremont, and upcoming Warm Springs. It connects with several historic downtown centers, such as Berkeley, Concord, Lafayette, and Fruitvale. It’s only really out in the far-flung suburbs that BART starts to replicate the MBTA by having stations on the periphery surrounded by acres of parking.

  • Wanderer

    In the Bay Area, it’s the zone around Caltrain commuter rail stations that tends to be underutilized. Caltrain stations tend to be in town centers, they essentially created those town centers, since the railroad has been running for 150 years. Most stations don’t have a vast sea of parking around them, although several hundred spaces at a station is not unusual. But the level of development, especially given the enormous need for housing in Silicon Valley, is generally very modest. Redwood City–and to some extent Mountain View–is an exceptio9n.

  • kclo3

    Indeed, even for a number of 19th century commuter lines, towns developed asymmetrically to one side of the station such that there was always an “other side of the tracks”, although, this isn’t always the case. In working-class communities, freight depots would be built right next to the station and warehouses/factories would often occupy the closest lots, naturally substituted for parking when they would get torn down.

  • HamTech87

    Transit competes with driving, and sometimes TOD without doing other stuff like speeding and increasing span and frequency of bus and making parking more difficult and expensive, is needed.
    White Plains is a hub of the Bee-Line Bus, the county system. Yet it takes far far longer on the bus to reach there than to drive. Bus lanes and cue jumps outside of White Plains are needed

  • Longmedis@gmail.com

    Did your Streetsblog team visit Paris, or is this a Google Maps research study? If the latter, I would highly recommend visiting the city. I have been there eight times in the last year to help mitigate their diesel transportation pollution crisis. Beyond the terrible gentrification and inequality that your site pushes up against; the lack of park n rides have exacerbated the issue in Paris. Parisians simply drive into the city center instead of stopping on the fringe. Massachusetts; my home state; got it right where Paris got it wrong, Mass CR has a diverse selection of stops, some PnR, some quaint villages, some suburban offices, to accommodate different needs. Paris is in no way a transportation model, and these types of articles get thrown around willy nilly. My local rep, Eric Lesser, great guy, very smart, is gonna go far; can’t get off this Boston-Springfield rail pipe dream. The service ended in 2004 due to several concrete reasons; and no matter how much data we provide, your articles and others keep his pipe dream alive.

  • Compass

    Couldn’t agree more. These authors; and politicians; may want to dig through a few books. Eric Leeser, Seth Moulton, they’re well intended, but have to get off the Dukakis crazy train; no pun intended. Lesser uses a new German train as a precedent for Massachusetts, as the state starts to cut commuter rail service, Moulton uses London as a rail precedent, a city 14 times the size of Boston.