Some people with experience in American bus planning have come strongly for park-and-rides, as a convenient means of concentrating all people boarding buses at one spot in order to improve frequency. The charge is led by Joel Azumah of Transport Azumah, who, responding to my question of whether it’s worth it to have strongly peaked buses, says,
Instead of running a separate park & ride and regional service, you can broaden the span of park & ride service. That would allow you to use some buses more than once or to add the early & late buses for flexibility. Park & riders that use services with a narrow span will drive in if they think their schedule is going to change. The extra buses will reduce that tendency.
In this view, the primary purpose of off-peak service is to provide peak riders with extra flexibility, making it a loss leader. This is indeed one of the main purposes of an all-day clockface schedule, as opposed to the essentially peak-only service provided by nearly all North American commuter lines. And yet, one part of Joel’s response bothered me. Observe that he contrasts his view with “running a separate park-and-ride and regional service.” In other words, a bus that serves a park-and-ride can’t serve walkable residential and commercial suburban strips. While this is a plausible constraint for an express bus, it is not a real issue for commuter rail, as long as the commuter rail is done right: trains make multiple stops, and those can include both walkable towns and some regional park-and-rides.
Of course, American commuter rail is without exception done wrong. This manifests itself in three different problems, all of which make park-and-rides look much more important than they actually are.
First, the rolling stock used, except on the LIRR, SEPTA, and Metro-North, is substandard. In particular, trains hauled by adapted freight locomotives take a long time to accelerate to even medium speed: the MBTA’s current trains lose 70 seconds just accelerating from 0 to 60 mph, and the FRA-compliant improvement, using Colorado Railcar DMUs, only cuts this to 42, as established in Table 3.1 of the Fairmount Line study. For comparison, modern EMUs, even of the FRA-compliant variety, lose about 13 seconds. The result is that trains can’t make frequent stops while maintaining acceptable average speed. Thus the service pattern already includes widely separated stops, forcing people to drive to stations, and moreover involves complex patterns with express trains.
Second, nearly all agencies, assume because of tradition that they can only serve peak riders to the CBD. Occasionally there’s some reverse-peak service, but its usage as a percentage of employment in the suburbs served is trivial. Even Metro-North, perhaps the most forward-thinking agency for reverse commuting, is uncompetitive for suburban employment. Stamford has a ridership of about 4,000 employees, in addition to about 3,000 residents working in New York; the total number of transit users working in Stamford is 8,600, itself only 11% of the city’s employment. This pattern in which nearly all ridership is inbound peak reinforces itself, and agencies do not usually try to provide adequate off-peak and reverse-peak service. The MBTA provides two-hour service off-peak on most lines. The LIRR runs trains one-way on the Main Line during peak hour, to allow the peak frequency of 20 trains per hour to run express trains rather than just locals.
And third, invariably, the suburban stations are all park-and-rides themselves. Some are explicitly configured as such, such as Metropark and Route 128. Those are good and need to be there. The problem is that pretty much all stations are friendlier to cars than to pedestrians. Sometimes they’re located outside the towns they purport to serve – for particularly bad examples, look at satellite photos of Plymouth and Westborough. Plymouth’s station is to the north of the old train station and town center, robbing the station of pedestrian traffic, and because Plymouth’s ridership has to come from drivers, the MBTA prefers to have most trains skip Plymouth entirely and just serve Kingston-Route 3, a standard park-and-ride. In a similar manner, Hicksville has a fair amount of development near the station, but so much parking that it’s poorly connected to the station for the pedestrian. Even Providence, Worcester, and New Haven get stations without much pedestrian-oriented development nearby; Providence, the best of the bunch, has development, but it’s sterile residential plus a mall flanked by pedestrian-hostile arterials.
The result of all this is that there isn’t a single example in the US of a commuter line, rail or bus, where most people walk to the station. Thus, issues including off-peak ridership and development near the stations look unsolvable. Those park-and-ride users grumble about difficult parking and do not take trains except to the city during rush hour. Who will drive to take a train that comes every two hours when it’s possible to just drive to the city?
Commuter rail done right does not have this problem, because it runs good (high-performance, low-energy consumption) trains with only one or two staff on board, and so it can run with long span and high frequency while serving many stations. This is roughly how many modern light rail lines in North America operate: there are a few park-and-rides, and a lot of stations located in between that are accessible to pedestrians and interface with feeder buses.
But for mainline rail, one has to look for examples outside the US. In Japan, new transit construction outside the dense city cores is accompanied by intense development near stations: see, for a recent example, the Tsukuba Express. Shopping centers and dense residential areas will generate ridership all day and in both directions; park-and-rides exist, but do not occupy center stage as they do in the US. Likewise, in Germany, one of the practices that evolved in the recent transit revival is closely spaced stations, located everywhere a railroad intersects a walkable place; speed is maintained via trains with good acceleration and level boarding, resulting in average speeds that match those of American commuter lines despite the shorter interstations.
The political infrastructure that exists in Germany and Japan and allows this and is absent in the US is coordinated planning. There is no way a single entrepreneur can create all the required development and local transit coordination. Transportation isn’t web entrepreneurship; it has no Mark Zuckerbergs or Larry Pages, who can almost singlehandedly create all the agglomeration required to support the new technology. Most of the time, this is done by cooperative government planning. The rest of the time it’s done by established conglomerates, usually combining real estate and transportation, including the Hong Kong MTR and the private railroads in Japan.
There is also some component of technology there. Small-scale entrepreneurs can run express buses, which can’t adequately serve many stations while maintaining competitive speed, much more easily than they can run trains, which can. They cannot run trains at all in the closed-access paradigm that rules American (and Japanese) railroading; they have an easier time in open-access Europe, and yet even then most private players are again big conglomerates, such as Veolia and Virgin.
Although transit must make room for the private sector, a transit revival that relies on uncoordinated private players will necessarily fail. Britain, the most privatized of the countries with a revival (high-income East Asia has no revival, as in the big metro areas transit never declined in the first place), needed to revert to public infrastructure planning with Network Rail, and maintains some of the key features of cooperative planning, including integrated tickets and fares. The rest of Europe contracts out services, but still strives to improve intermodal and interagency transfers; in Switzerland, transfers are timed even when multiple operators are involved. The role of people like Joel and the other private-sector players is to bid for operating routes that fit into a combined system, and add service (still within a fare union!) on thick routes where timetable coordination is less important.
What this means is that a transit revival must include more competent government planning. If there had been no Interstates, and certainly if there had been no expressways built by the states from the 1930s on, some of the railroads would’ve survived to do planning entirely in the private sector, as is the case in Japan. But given that there’s nothing like Japan’s private railroads in the US to plan integrated transportation using market principles, the government needs to do it, and it needs to do it well. It can’t privatize everything; the operators will just loot it for subsidies and neglect any components of development that don’t lead to immediate profit. And it needs to learn from some of the practices of express bus operators, but recognize when it can do better than just copy them.