Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Does Commuter Rail Cause – or promote – Sprawl?

with 5 comments

This matter keeps coming up – and not just here. We have been talking about it on the LRC list and I also posted a reply today to the “All About Cities” blog that extended the discussion to high speed rail.

Let us first understand what we are talking about. “Commuter rail” is originally a US concept: it is usually peak hours, peak direction only Monday to Friday service on existing freight train tracks. West Coast Express is the only example here.

WCE 902 Vancouver BC 2005_0620

Suburban rail service is widespread in most modern succesful cities. It runs all day and weekends too, but is usually somewhat less frequent than a metro. Timetables tend to be regular interval off peak (same minutes past each hour). It usually runs on the surface, though better systems now have tunnels or viaducts to get the trains closer to the city centre than the mainline termini. In Paris it is called RER, in Germany S Bahn. In London, most of the original railway companies were not wildly keen on commuters, since long distance passenger trains made more money for them. The central London tube trains lost money since they only carried people for short trips. So many lines were connected up to surface lines: for instance the Bakerloo was extended (originally out to Watford) along the West Coast mainline. The Central Line took over a Great Eastern branch into Essex. South of the river, Southern Railway early on electrified its routes and provided fast frequent trains to encourage commuting – because it did not have as much demand for InterCity style services as the longer main lines. (That is why there is much less Underground coverage south of the river) London is now trying to co-ordinate its surface rail – and they are calling it The Overground. They are also going to build Crossrail to link the GE and GW mainlines.

London Proposed Crossrail

High Speed Trains are not about commuting from the suburbs to the city centres. They are about city to city service – and provide a very much better service environment than the competing air shuttles, and often better door to door journey times, since airports have become security bottlenecks imposing long delays and long waits to every traveller. They normally do not stop in suburban locations, but one of the smarter ideas was to incorporate stops at major airports (e.g Charles de Gaulle)

Now some history. Most of this is in response to a wildly biased story in the National Post

While it is historically true that first omnibuses, then horse drawn trams, electric trams and trains all contributed to the growth of the suburbs, in the era before mass car ownership, they were very different places. Because there were no cars before 1900, most people walked for most of their trips. The original horse buses were very much a middle class way of getting around. Working people simply could not afford them. The first street tramways were simply a way of enabling the horse to pull more people, as the smooth steel rails offered less rolling resistance than often unpaved streets.

Then the railways wanted to build large termini near the centre of towns, for their long distance trains. And in order to do that they cleared slums. A very popular move with all but the slum dwellers who had to live within walking distance of their low paid jobs. So the railways were told, as condition of the slum clearances, to provide cheap fares in the early morning. Property developers – often associated with the railway companies, bought up fields near the line and started building small houses within walking distance of new stations – which always featured a parade of shops on the station approach.

I am talking about England here of course. But the growth of Vancouver is similar. The interurbans were much more about local services like the milk run – and fares (85c return to the fish packers in Steveston) were high enough to deter commuting by working people. They lived next to the job, but used the line for excursions.

The London County Council (and larger cities like Birmingham) continued with an aggressive program of reducing residential densities in the inner cities both before and after the first world war. They built large estates of small houses – and providing all the necessary amenities – parks, schools, shops – even pubs (“improved refreshment houses” with gardens for the kids) and fast frequent electric trams back to the centres of employment. And the trams too had “cheap workmen’s returns” for early morning commuters.

Ned Jacobs added the following observation about New York

Starting in the 1870s, affordable transit greatly reduced residential density in lower Manhattan, alleviating overcrowding and epidemics. Growth of the subway system coincided with improved wages and working conditions. The subways also helped produce the midtown business district and allowed industry to move up island. It also became easier for workers to change jobs without having to move. But it was hardly suburban sprawl; each tenement apartment typically accommodated one family instead of two or three, which was frequently the case when families had to live within walking distance of their workplaces.

The North American post war suburb is very much the creation of the car – and was fostered by the way that the interstate highway system opened up new areas for speculative development. But the places that were made had no centres. “There’s no there, there” because everywhere was equally accessible to the car. And eventually commercial development left the old town centres and went out to the freeway exits too. Now you need a car to go shopping – instead of picking something up near the station on your walk home. And, of course, before widespread car ownership people did not need two incomes, so Mum stayed at home to raise the kids.

The development of streetcar villages is quite different to suburban sprawl because they had to be walkable to function at all. You cannot walk anywhere in the ‘burbs, because the street system within the subdivision is deliberately designed to deter through traffic – so streets are indirect, and there are no sidewalks or footpaths – and no direct connections between homes and destinations even if they are close. I live one hundred metres from a community centre – but it is nearly a kilometre of walking to get to it – and for the first half, going the wrong way!

And companies like the BC Electric made money all sorts of ways – not just by running trams. In London, one of the biggest property speculators was the Metropolitan Railway, which had lost money for years on its short, in town line, but made money hand over fist turning what had been hay fields for the now redundant horses into desirable residences for city gents who wanted a garden and some fresh air. And even when they did buy a car it was mostly for leisure trips at the weekends. And polishing on Saturday afternoon.

Spareleaze Hill

The weird, wandering route of the Piccadilly Line out to Heathrow was to maximise the number of stations around which new houses could be built.

View Larger Map

It is possible that the streetcar village might have lasted a bit longer in the US, but GM and its allies made sure that the swift, efficient electric streetcars and interurbans were quickly shut down, so they could sell more cars, and tires and so on. The great myth is that people chose to move out of town but in reality they were offered very little choice – especially once the freeways started being punched through the older urban areas of the inner cities.

Eric Doherty clarified

General purpose transit (transit that runs all day and is designed to get most riders from origin to destination without using a car) does strengthen town centers and foster transit oriented development. Commuter transit (designed mainly to serve peak period commuters) to park-and-ride induces automobile dependant sprawl the same way as freeway expansion. That is why Falcon wants rapid bus on the freeway to parking lots – Falcon’s supporters include wealthy property speculators.

We need transit that serves communities directly, not transit that only serves huge parking lots. That is what the Rail for the Valley proposal is about, transit that allows more people to get around without a car.

I am not against some parking along transit routes that connect town centres. There are lots of decaying malls and other properties that could be used this way until they are re-developed, and some parking will always be needed near the rural/urban boundary.

And finally, while I was out to lunch, Robert Allen neatly responded to the National Post

Mr. Solomon’s confused argument,(“Spreading Sprawl”, Feb. 2 Financial Post), unfairly and incredibly burdens public transit with the awesome responsibility for the rise of suburbia. He infers that our increased automobile dependance, can be traced to public transit. A curious notion, indeed. It seems more plausible that time honoured road building schemes and other automobile subsidies are the real culprits. Rather than attacking public transit, perhaps he should look at the real culprit—-the road building and land gobbling lifestyle of the auto addicted. We should be denying the pusherman his “first one’s free” onramp. I think Mr. Soloman would agree with me that every kilometre of every road we build should be returning a profit to us, the shareholder. This might encourage better land use policies and less sprawl.

What promotes sprawl is car use – and land use policies that are designed to make any other mode choice as next to impossible as makes no difference. Building a freeway, or expanding an existing one, makes more sprawl inevitable. Adding transit as an afterthought – and many years later than the freeway starts construction – and not providing decent local service, also ensures that sprawl continues unabated. Building commuter rail (and doing nothing else at all) frees up some freeway space for other users. It does not cure congestion or have a significant impact on road usage. Expanding an integrated transit system, limiting traffic growth by use of congestion charges and other TDM measures and at the same time adopting new land use and development strategies is the only way that we are going to be able to limit suburban sprawl. Retrofitting the suburbs is going to be a big job, but an essential one. We certainly cannot afford any more car oriented suburban development anywhere.

And to repeat what I heard at the SFU City Programme “Building increased density is not going to solve all our problems” (Brent Toderian) “It’s not the density, it’s the urbanity” (Andres Duany)

It’s not the trains, stupid. It’s the lack of integrated land use and transportation planning! (me)

Written by Stephen Rees

February 3, 2008 at 4:26 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Hear, hear! Thank you so much for this revealing History 101. I haven’t read the original article, but I hope the public puts it and the author to shame, and in the process, uncovering the truth.

    I assume you’ve heard of or seen “Who killed the electric car?”

    Erika Rathje

    February 3, 2008 at 9:34 pm

  2. I wish now I reread it, that I had made an effort to write more about our region. But all that London history has been buried away for a long time, and forced itself out. I remember very clearly the time when I first discovered the story of London’s suburban growth. Suddenly, the place where I then lived seemed to make some sense.

    The story of the electric car is not yet over. Yes, GM strangled one of its progeny. But many others are at work on similar projects. There is a whole army of people busily ripping the guts out of old pick up trucks, and replacing them with batteries and electric motors – and as a nice irony many of them are GM models!

    Stephen Rees

    February 3, 2008 at 10:52 pm

  3. I think the notion that transit makes for surburban sprawl would come as a shock to people in Stuttgart where we have an excellent S-Bahn and Stadtbahn and (for the most part) a compact city and suburbs clustered around stations.

    What limited sprawl exists is developing beyond the transit systems, where the car has an advantage over bus services. Oh, and on the government-sponsored prestige projects

    Andy in Germany

    February 4, 2008 at 12:14 am

  4. Good morning, Stephen.

    Just as a courtesy I thought I should let you know that I posted the comments below at the “All About Cities” blog. You may wish to reply or, more likely, tell the hosts to remove it at once.

    [The balance of this comment has been deleted. If anyone wants to read it I have inserted a link above. Unlike our trolls I do not tell other people how to run their blogs. Courtesy being “Budd”s” last resort – and not one I will fall for twice – the top line has been left alone]

    Budd Campbell

    February 4, 2008 at 9:03 am

  5. Stephen et al, thanks again for yet more insightful commentary.

    The lack of integration between appropriate land use and transit planning has got to be one of the most painful mistakes ever committed. It would be an interesting exercise to say the least to attempt to calculate the total cost of our dependency on cars. What miffs me is that the Taxpayers Coalition without fail ignores the cost — including public subsidies and private costs — of asphalting paradise while being ever so quick to comment on public transit expenditures.

    Regarding transit promoting sprawl, this is exactly what occurred in Calgary with what could have been an otherwise model implementation of light rail. Instead, the city advocated annexing thousands of hectares of farm land (notably in the south) for the creation of sprawling suburbs. We saw five or six subdivisions constructed at a time after C-Train was extended to Anderson Road. Yet if you cruise around most outlying stations (try Google Earth) it’s evident the widely discredited 1960s suburban mall with the attendant hundred-acre parking lot largely dominates the adjacent landscape along with 5,000 square foot single family lots. Even in 2003 one councillor in particular justified the annexation of vast areas of agricultural land in order to “manage growth.” Incredible!

    Further, they placed many stations in very inconvenient locations. The Chinook Station, for example, misses the gigantic Chinook mall by several blocks and deposits passengers along a god forsaken industrial rail corridor. Chinook is a prime candidate for high-density transit-oriented development if there every was one. I’m shocked that even after a generation nobody has figured that out.

    Further, several stations to the northwest are located in the middle of a freeway. I pity the poor university students and Varsity residents who have to venture across 200m long overpasses during winter blizzards.

    The transit-justified low density development helps explain why Calgary has fairly decent transit ridership while also having the highest greenhouse gas emissions of Canada’s five largest cities. Everyone is driving to the stations rather than walking.


    February 7, 2008 at 4:42 pm

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