One of the features of American commuter rail is that it’s intended to be used by suburbanites. The propensity for making nearly every station a park-and-ride, with poor pedestrian access, is one effect of this. Another effect is stop distribution. It’s not just stop spacing – many commuter lines have tighter stop spacing than some European and Japanese lines – but rather where the stops are dense and where they aren’t. Normally, a commuter line will have densely spaced stops in the city, where the population is denser and there are more connection points and important destination, and thin out in the suburbs, where speed is more important. American commuter lines are different – in the city they make very few stops, since they don’t connect well to local transit and are treated as too special, but in the suburbs, at least the inner suburbs, they have very frequent stops.
For examples, let us compare Metra and the Paris RER. I’m choosing the RER because it’s an express system, meant to provide fast service within the city rather than comparable stop distance to the subway. Some RER lines even have a slightly American-style station distribution, if they don’t go deep into suburbia, making them more like express subway lines in New York, though even then the difference is much smaller than in the US, without even such long nonstop segments as 59th-125th Streets on the A/B/C/D. Metra is where the American stop distribution tendency is the most extreme, though the lines I picked are those for which Wikipedia lists mileage for stations. All distances in the following table are in kilometers and start from the Chicago terminus or from Châtelet-Les Halles.
|UP North||BNSF Line||Milwaukee North||RER A to Marne-la-Vallée||RER A to Cergy|
Observe that the stop spacing for the first 3-5 stops is very express, but drops to that of an average subway for the Metra line beyond that. The UP-North line is especially egregious – despite serving the densely populated North Side, it barely stops there, letting the Red Line do all the work. Meanwhile, on the RER A, this is not the case – although stop spacing tightens slightly beyond the first few stops, the effect is small. Even the long nonstop segment between Etoile and La Défense (the second and third stop on the RER A to Cergy) is not enough to create the same effect seen in Chicago, and to some extent other American cities.
Bear in mind, the RER is explicitly an express railroad, though it is fare-integrated with local transit within Paris proper. Systems called S-Bahn, as well as commuter rail in Japan, range from operationally indistinguishable to operationally barely distinguishable from wholly-urban rapid transit. Thus their stop spacing is much smaller, especially in the urban core.
Part of the issue is that there’s not much development around railroads in American cities, since development follows arterial roads and urban transit instead. This is related in both directions to the failure of commuter rail to provide good urban service: there’s upzoning around subway and light rail stations, but not around commuter rail stations. But even when there is development near commuter rail stations, such as around Forest Hills in New York, service is suburban-focused (midday LIRR frequency to Forest Hills is hourly).
Whatever the ultimate cause of this, the result is that commuter rail is not usable where people are most likely to ride transit. Thus it is not too useful for a transit revival. The present revivals proceed from the inside out, starting from the urban core and expanding to outer-urban neighborhoods and then inner suburbs. At each stage, it’s useful to expand transit a little bit beyond the reach of the revival to capture additional ridership, and perhaps hit an anchor, and so there’s room for additional transit use from farther out. This is short-circuited when urban and suburban transit are kept segregated. So far it’s not been enough to prevent some transit revival in some American cities, such as New York and Washington, but it’s a problem in such cities as Boston and Chicago and may prove a problem everywhere once cities run out of subway-accessible areas.