Commuter Rail�s Promise

The battle over what sort of transportation projects to include in the economic stimulus package centered around whether to emphasize the same old highway subsidies or to push more progressive transit. But not every smart-growth advocate favors more money for transit. A colleague of mine who has a lively blog about planning in Boston (scroll down to reach the item in question) says no more money should be wasted on commuter rail, which he says subsidizes wealthy people to live further and further out in the suburbs. In other words, commuter rail leads to sprawl.

I disagree with his conclusion, though I think he makes an interesting point. Indeed, commuter rail does cost far more per passenger than inner-city subway and perhaps also the newer light rail lines. While new commuter lines are built at an exorbitant cost to serve a fraction of the people who travel in and out of the city every day, city people who actually depend on transit (rather than viewing it as a convenience) face the constant threat of fare hikes and service cuts.

But commuter rail does not lead to sprawl — it will be part of the solution to sprawl. I say will be because in many places commuter rail has failed to live up to its promise. It holds the promise of being the basis for transit-oriented development that will transform the way people in the suburbs live. The suburbs are not going away, ever, so we should figure out how to get people to live more efficiently in those areas. By rewriting zoning codes to permit mixed uses on very small lots clustered around commuter rail stations, we have a chance to make smart growth living in the suburbs feasible. Here in Massachusetts one planning firm has all but made this type of suburban development its mission.

It’s challenging. Developers are skeptical about whether there is a market for this, and no one wants to be the first one to do it. But it’s not like they have to build the road as well as the town. The road is commuter rail, and it leads to where everyone wants to go (although few metro areas yet have many suburb-to-suburb rail links). A transit authority should not build any more commuter rail lines until real success in transit-oriented villages can be demonstrated. But cutting back on commuter rail service will just encourage people to stick to their cars, and that’s not the answer.

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


  1. Thanks for the point of view, David, and for linking that blog, which I hadn’t known before. Given this country’s issues with greenhouse gases and traffic, we can’t afford to pick sides in a bus-versus-rail debate. We need both for 21st-century solutions to our living patterns.

    Commuter rail and light rail can indeed be part of the solution, not of the problem. I disagree strongly with the implication that rail serves only the wealthy. Tell that to the downtrodden neighborhoods in Chicago who lobbied to re-open Green Line stations in their communities. And, in Boston, look at the wonderful work being done by Goody Clancy for transit-oriented development around the proposed Indigo Line.

    I would agree, of course, that if rail were configured only to serve the suburban wealthy we would be missing an important opportunity to serve more needy communities. But we needn’t do it that way, and shouldn’t.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.