Devin Turner, Friend of the Blog, is up with an article on this old city about the promise of transit-oriented development (TOD) along the Haddon Avenue corridor in South Jersey, and why DRPA should be looking to redevelop its massive parking lots along the PATCO line. But something Devin glossed over (because it’s old hat for urbanist audiences but still new to public officials), is why that’s a good deal, even if trading parking spots for apartments doesn’t generate any net new ridership.
When people have to drive to transit, and just use it as parking arbitrage, they still have to own cars. That means, as an empirically-observed rule, they go about their lives acting like drivers, thinking like drivers, and voting like drivers. For any individual trip where the marginal hassle of transit is too high, they will defect back to their cars in an instant, since the costs of car ownership are fixed or hidden. Now, that’s not to say that parking arbitrage is worthless . Ask any random Philadelphian what they think of over 30,000 more New Jersey drivers on the streets of Center City every weekday, and watch the reaction! Not to mention the need to waste additional real estate to park all those cars. But the value created is a very fragile kind of value.
Meanwhile, when people can walk to high-quality transit, they can organize their lives around the existence of that access. Their understanding of local geography ceases to be the same as that of a car-driver. They can stop paying between $7,000 and $10,000 per year TCO to own a car, and the rest of us can pay less to subsidize the infrastructure necessary. Maybe that’s a second car, maybe that’s a first, but it’s a big payraise for anyone, from the minimum wage earner to the upper-middle class. That money can go to better housing, paying down debt, consumer spending, or anything else in this world that requires money. But to be clear, once that car is gone, there is a major cultural, political, and economic shift that happens in the newly car-free. There’s a strong virtuous cycle reinforcing those changes. And once people have really started thinking of themselves as non-drivers, the massive expenditures of public wealth that go to supporting the automobile ecosystem become untenable and repugnant.
Now, as it so happens, you will always be able to replace surface parking with housing at a favorable ratio, so long as it’s politically acceptable to build densely. That’s not always the case, but Collingswood has already come close with The Collings at the Lumberyard, which ultimately fell short of the density needed (it’s a low-rise development, by my jaded New York-trained standards), but served as an excellent demonstration project that the introduction of multifamily residences would not bring about the End of the World as South Jersey Knew It. Which is good, because with the End of the Suburbs arriving in full throttle, dense midrise TOD may be the only star South Jersey has left to hitch its wagon to.
The context of Devin’s article is the PATCO reconstruction project this summer, which will seriously degrade the quality of service for the duration, and is projected to drive away 3% of PATCO’s annual ridership. Since PATCO is reliant on its park-and-ride customers, it has to worry about getting those riders back. If its riders lived near its stations, it wouldn’t have to worry nearly so much. A crass surface gloss might be that that’s because TOD would create a captive market. A more accurate reading is that TOD would create converts.