Jake Blumgart has a superb piece in Governing (free but click “Continue to site.”) about the distinctly North American artifact called commuter rail, and why it’s so different from the way heavy rail infrastructure is used for transit in most other developed countries.
The key difference is that most other countries want their heavy rail services to be useful all day, while the default in most of the US has been to run only at rush hour with at best minimal service the rest of the time, as though the briefcase commuter is the only conceivable customer.
There are not such sharp contrasts between regional rail and the rest of transit systems in most wealthy European or East Asian nations. But in North America, the divide was sacrosanct. As recently as 2016, then-MBTA General Manager Frank DePaola drew a bright line between this service and the rest of the agency’s subway, bus, and light rail services: “Commuter rail is commuter rail. It’s not transit. It’s designed to bring people into the city in the morning and take them home at night.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, calls that whole concept into doubt.
“It’s not transit.” “The divide was sacrosanct.” Of course this division of the market by trip purpose also implied a distinction of social class, manifested especially in very high fares. But high ridership is diverse ridership. If the goal is to help everyone go places, it’s always best to design services that are useful to everyone and make those services connect, rather than run two systems side by side (commuter rail and slow buses, for example).
Commuter rail services also tend to run long distances across core cities without providing much relevant service to them. They either run nonstop or offer a frequency that’s too low to be relevant for the shorter in-city trips happening along the line.
I have my own trauma about this, because I spent too many years in the 1980s trying to advocate for an all-day frequent service on Caltrain, the commuter rail line between San Francisco and San Jose in California. Caltrain has the geography of a frequent all-day rapid transit service: it runs through the historic downtown of almost every city it serves, because the downtowns grew around the rail line. In terms of the useful transit provided, it could have functioned as another BART line.
Yet decades later, Caltrain service levels are still terrible in the context of the corridor it serves. It was big event when the midday frequency was improved from two hours, as it was in my day, to one hour, but that still makes it irrelevant to most trips along the corridor, especially those of less than 10 miles or so where waiting time becomes more onerous. So a bus system has to run alongside it, inefficiently serving some of the same trips that rail could be serving, and unable to efficiently feed the rail line very well because of the rail’s low frequency and erratic schedule.
Since then, as a bus network planner, I’ve encountered the same problem in many other cities. There’s just no way to integrate commuter rail with a local bus network, because good bus networks involve regular patterns of frequency that are not what US commuter rail does. At best you have to provide dedicated shuttles that meet the trains, and that’s a form of duplication that leads to worse access for everyone.
Blumgart’s piece touches on the effort that’s now being made to rethink commuter rail to make it more like what it’s always been in Europe, East Asia, and even low-density Australia and New Zealand. In all these countries, rail is how you travel longer distances across the region all the time, not just at rush hour.
That difference arises in part from a different geography of social class. When I lived in Sydney, I wasn’t happy with midday frequencies on the all-day rail network — mostly every 30 minutes then, mostly 15 now — but that was far superior to what most big US cities are used to. The difference is the suburbanization of poverty, which has been happening for decades in Europe and Australia but is only now accelerating in the US. The most remote parts of Sydney are some of the poorest. In this urban structure, lower income people have to travel longer distances, but mostly to non-peak jobs. Making heavy rail services part of the total transit system isn’t just a better use of infrastructure, it’s increasingly going to be an equity issue.
If Covid-19 causes a permanent drop in rush-hour commuting, we could see a golden opportunity to make better use of all the existing infrastructure of commuter rail. There are plenty of obstacles, but they aren’t physical. They’re mostly cultural issues embedded in regulation and labor practices. When it becomes important enough, those can be solved.