Why TOD is superior to park-and-ride

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.

The night time is the right time – Pittsburgh by sleeper

Part 3 of a 3 part series.

Last time, before I got sick, I explored the various ways in which state investment could improve rail service between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. But even an optimistic projection of funding for new trainsets and track upgrades couldn’t bring PHL-PGH trip times much below six hours. Six hours is still a long time, even when used productively, and the necessary level of funding may be difficult to obtain, even though it’s relatively cheap by transportation infrastructure standards. Can intercity rail hope to compete if it’s restricted to the seven hour and twenty minute schedules of today?

It can, because it so happens that seven and a half hours is a nearly perfect timing for a direct sleeper train. Amtrak does not do much in the way of point-to-point sleepers today, so even veteran rail passengers may be unfamiliar with the business model. With sleeper cars no longer on Northeast Regional trains 66 and 67, the closest approximation in the United States is the Auto Train, which is something else entirely. But it’s a common practice for Deutsche Bahn, and First ScotRail runs a world-class exemplar of direct service on its London-Scotland Caledonian Sleeper, the lowland sections of which (Edinburgh and Glasgow sections) run on a similar seven-and-a-half hour Pittsburgh-Philadelphia schedule for a hypothetical Pittsburgher (to resurrect the PRR’s name for the all-sleeper train that ran the overnight New York-Pittsburgh schedule). First ScotRail is sandbagging their speed, of course; London-Edinburgh is only four hours and twenty-two minutes on the East Coast Main Line in the daylight. But the Caledonian Sleepers also spend half an hour every morning parked in the insanely busy Euston Station, taking up a track on the cusp of a frantic London rush hour, allowing arriving passengers a leisurely wake-up from the slightly short night. I’m not familiar enough with the layout of Pittsburgh Union Station to know if it’s feasible to replicate that mode of arrival there, but it’s most certainly possible at 30th Street Station, however much Amtrak Operations will inevitably grumble about it, and similarly impossible in the madhouse of Penn Station New York.

And what a schedule! Late evening departures from Pittsburgh and New York, around 21:30 or 22:30, give or take, mean that arrivals in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and New York can all occur before 8:30, enabling a full day of work or activity immediately on arrival; any arrival before 7:00 at 30th Street can’t be meaningfully beaten, even by the 5:20 (ow) flight out of PIT; the 6:31 PHL arrival still leaves the early-morning flyer a 20 minute train or cab ride from Center City, and in the other direction, airport connections from PIT are strictly worse. And unlike a predawn flight, you don’t experience any of indignities of flying, or anything else for that matter; the perceived travel time by train can be only minutes, depending on how quickly after boarding you can fall asleep. Continue reading The night time is the right time – Pittsburgh by sleeper