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.

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  1. Thanks for expanding (or rather explaining) my overall argument on TOD. As a somewhat recent transplant from DC, I’ve been amazed by how the Philadelphia region underutilizes its transit resources, with PATCO being the most galling example (24/7 rapid transit service is a luxury). This is free money, folks, or rather latent investment from our previous investment in infrastructure that we can tap to make our communities thrive, the real question is how we go about doing so. While I can’t really answer the question as fully as I’d like, I think that DRPA playing a greater, more visible role in promoting TOD by working more closely with developers on serious TOD plans for PATCO parking lots is certainly a good start.

    One note on the Lumberyard: I do think the current density is pretty reasonable, given the general density of this wonderful borough. I will be interested in seeing how the third phase of the Lumber Yard development turns out though, since that promises to be slightly taller.

    1. The mention of the Lumberyard was mostly hearkening back to when the developer scaled back from the original plans thanks to the Great Recession. (The timing for that project was somewhere between abysmal and disastrous.) There were a lot of hasty decisions that made for some very questionable results all around. But it’s also true that the current units have zero availability at prices I personally can’t afford, so I guess it’s working out?

      Also I’m just a great big softie when it comes to 65 foot and 100 foot massings. Mmmmm, circa-2003 CNU-produced architecture porn…

      I know we come at urbanism from slightly different political angles, but we’re both capitalists, so you’ll understand when I say that I keep coming back to that figure for average total cost of ownership for a car. (I remember when it was only $5K, now it’s $9K?!) It all comes back to that Enrique Peñalosa quote, “An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation.” The flip side of it is that, in the 21st Century, a city that requires everybody to have a car is a city that’s going to immiserate its middle class out of existence.

      1. I really like that quote. I’ve seen it before, and I fully believe it. Every majorly successful place I’ve been on public transit in has had a huge array of ridership.

        Devin, is the third phase of the Lumberyard the one going up now? I can’t quite figure it out, but I assume so. I don’t know how tall it’s being built, but the other day going west on Haddon Ave, I saw the top of it peeking out between the trees from at least as far back as the Pop Shop. That made me happy.

  2. It’s interesting that you mentioned the End of the Suburbs. That’s the Collingswood “town read” this year, which is basically where interested people around town read a book and then get the chance to meet the offer at the Book Festival in October. Even if the Lumberyard is lower density than it could support, this town gets this kind of thing, as I point out in my own This Old City post that Devin linked to at http://thisoldcity.com/vignettes/photos-jersey-urbanism-what-south-jerseys-doing-right.

    What you said about orienting yourself around walkable transit access is spot on though. I live about a 5 minute walk from the Collingswood PATCO station and take it into Center City every day for work. We chose Collingswood, and specifically a home close to the station, very much on purpose. After spending years driving to a job, I vowed to never waste my time commuting by car again. But the easy access to the region’s core has been even more transformative than I thought it would be. The fact that I don’t need to drive means I’ve gotten to read so much on my way in to work. I’m connecting with people on social media, I’m writing blog posts, I’m researching things I want to do. I’m at the point now where I hate driving simply because all I can do is look straight ahead at the road. For example, I drove down from North Jersey the other day and I was SO BORED. I’d have rather been connecting with people online or reading articles about interesting things.

    I was already a huge fan of public transit, but at this point I really use it every single place I can, either in the city or in the suburbs. If I can’t take public transit for whatever reason, I’ll bike around, which has proven surprisingly possible in this part of South Jersey. This means that in the end, we drive for things we absolutely need to, like for a huge amount of groceries or hauling furniture around, neither of which happen all that often. Honestly, right now, we drive less than we did when we lived in Cambridge, Mass, which is insane given how dense and fairly well-served by transit that area is. We absolutely love that we can exist in the suburbs here with one car that we only sparingly use. I know other people in town who do the same, and that really speaks to these towns’ great position for the future of our regional organization.

    1. Spot on.

      But the flip side of it is that when we get pushback, it’s because there really is a deep cultural rift in play, and we are asking people to make big scary changes to themselves. As much as we think those changes have benefited us when we made them, we should take care to remember that it’s scary to make that leap, before you’ve made it. Not that there’s any helping the Stu Bykofskys of the world, but there are a lot of good people on the other side whose hands we are going to have to hold through all of this.

      (As an aside, I am always weirded out whenever I visit friends up in Camberville and people are always driving everywhere. I always wonder why the car ownership rates are so high, especially when the same demographic sample (i.e. my friends who went to liberal arts colleges) are almost universally non-car-owners in NYC, Philadelphia, and DC. Asking people directly hasn’t yielded useful data.)

      1. That’s definitely true! A lot of people are afraid of change. Point definitely taken. I have seen people new to transit use it though and be like “Whoa this is so convenient!” So it’s nice to see that sometimes. Part of me really thinks it’s an issue of branding/marketing too. Cars get such slick ads and marketing and all that, while historically cash-starved transit agencies have had to focus their efforts almost entirely on operations. SEPTA has been doing a great job of this in the past few years though, which has been good to see. PATCO though, not so much. They need people who actually want to promote public transit usage. Though maybe this year’s track work is done.

        (As to your aide: Ha. I’ve always thought of it as “Camberville.” Maybe it’s because many roads and transit routes make it easy to get to Boston but not as easy to get between two non-Boston points? Especially if your starting point and destination are on two sides of the Charles. I know someone who works in Watertown and sometimes goes from there to Somerville. It’s a 25ish minute drive or an *hour* taking a bus, the red line, then walking 20 minutes. Super inconvenient for such a short distance. I have a theory that our (and New York’s and DC’s, for the most part) grid layout mitigates this, because if you’re going to drive in a lot of Philly, you have to go east/west or north/south anyway, which is what a bus or the El or Subway would do anyway. No idea really why, just a thought. Also the arbitrary Cambridge/Somerville border is creepily analogous to the Collingswood/Haddon Twp border. (The combination of which would be “Haddlingswood”, perhaps?) I always wanted to do an art project where I draw a huge dotted line between the towns.)

  3. While I agree with a lot of the ideas here, I disagree with the assessment that dropping car ownership in transit-accessible suburbia saves anywhere near $7-10,000 per year. If you drop car ownership in the suburbs, you have to add equivalent transit costs. In greater Philadelphia, I would consider this a monthly Trailpass ($190/month), in Boston let’s call it a Zone 3 Commuter Rail Pass ($212/month). In other words, at least $2,000/year. And if the car being dropped is shared among multiple family/household members, those transit costs multiply as each person will need a pass while one car might have supported the family/household. (Not to mention also adding in the cost of a ZipCar or RelayRide or the like for any trips to Ikea, or a full-fledged rental for trips to other towns beyond your local transit network (and its hours of operation), or Amtrak if you’re fortunate enough to live somewhere that Amtrak is helpful.)

    Yes, there are likely savings, but they may not be anywhere near the substantial savings you claimed.

    1. I can’t speak for everyone obviously, but I can definitely say that living close to transit and in a town where we can walk to stuff has saved my wife an I from having to buy an entirely new car, which is definitely a nontrivial expense.

    2. I didn’t want to make an explicit claim because different people’s circumstances are different, and there are too many variables to take into account. If you switch to using a SEPTA Transpass or Cross County Pass, that’s ~$1100/year; an Anywhere Trailpass is ~$2300, and PATCO is wildly variable because they don’t believe in unlimited passes, but call it in the ~$1500 range. Some people (like me) will still be retaining one car, some won’t and will be relying on ZipCar/Enterprise. Some people with multiple members of the household will not give a damn what SEPTA’s counterproductive policy on pass-sharing is. (And if it incentivizes people to own fewer cars, that’s a win for everyone, including SEPTA, not that they’ll admit it.) Etc., etc., etc. So no, nobody will capture the full value of the savings, but putting the numbers out there as the ceiling is still informative.

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