Swimming against the tide

Planning for concentrated urban development with commuter rail in Northeast Ohio

The following article written by former EcoCity Cleveland projectmanager Bradley Flamm in 2000 proposes thatwhile linking rail to land use decisionsis key to the successful implementation of bothunintended consequences may result from even the finest of intentions to build commuter rail in cities such as Cleveland. In such mature cities, commuter rail may actually siphon population and economic development away from urban core areas by lowering transportation costs for suburbanites and facilitating more low-density development at the fringe.

In Northeast Ohio, three Metropolitan Planning Organizations, five transit agencies and over a dozen other stakeholder organizations are currently in the middle of the second phase of a commuter rail feasibility study for the eight-county Greater Cleveland / Akron metropolitan region.

Over the course of the past three years, the number of lines under consideration has been reduced from 40 to seven worthy of further analysis, all radiating outward from Cleveland’s central business district (CBD) to terminus points from 24 to 72 miles away. Preliminary feasibility estimates indicate that none of the proposed routes is better than “marginally feasible” according to national commuter rail service standards (Parsons Brinckerhoff 1998), but local interest in the system is high enough to warrant continued study.

One important reason for the sustained interest in commuter rail in Northeast Ohio is that public debates about land use and transportation planning in the region have grown more common and have engaged larger and larger audiences in the region during the past decade (Beach 1999, Meck and Wittenberg 1998). Commuter rail feasibility study organizers and participants recognize the importance of this growing constituency and hope that commuter rail service will, among other transportation and economic goals, help “promote concentrated development” and “support urban core areas.”

These goals reflect the statement of principles of the study’s lead Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) and the ongoing public debate in the region. Feasibility study partners, recognizing the need to begin planning early for public-private partnering, are preparing written materials that promote the environmental, transportation, and economic benefits of developing transit oriented residential, commercial and office buildings at and near proposed stations.

An early emphasis on educating public and elected officials to the potential land use benefits of commuter rail service is wise, because the Northeast Ohio planners’ land use goals run counter to urban location theory and the actual experiences of most other metropolitan regions that have mature commuter rail systems. The accessibility and mobility improvements that have typically accrued from commuter rail service in North American metropolitan regions indicate that it will be difficult to achieve either of the goals cited above.

Stretches of the proposed Northeast Ohio system’s routes run through rural and other areas with very low population densities.

Commuter rail service has generally promoted lower, not higher, density regional development. And it has resulted in mixed benefits for urban coresCBDs generally are strengthened, but not necessarily residential and commercial neighborhoods within the central city and older suburbs.

There are some notable exceptions to the expected land use impacts of commuter rail systems. Planners, elected officials and developers have worked together at several major suburban rail transit stations in the New York, Washington D.C. and Toronto regions and the San Francisco Bay Area to create high-density, mixed-use, transit oriented neighborhoods(Cervero 1998, Cervero and Landis 1997, McNeal and Doggett 1999).

High levels of regional coordination, public investment, creative policy-making, and regional economic growth were necessary to achieve these unusual outcomes, however, and will be difficult to replicate in Greater Cleveland. Northeast Ohio planners and political leaders, therefore, will need to go beyond simply considering the fiscal and technical feasibility of commuter rail service in the region and weigh the benefits and costs of a range of additional public policies that would be required to achieve the stated land use goals.

It is not inconceivable that the political will could be found to coordinate transportation and land use planning efforts in this way. But unless that will demonstrates itself in a serious and sustained way prior to a final decision to build a commuter rail system, pursuing its development in Northeast Ohio could be an example of using the wrong tool for the right reasons.

The Northeast Ohio commuter rail proposal Commuter rail passenger trains operate between metropolitan and suburban areas with high quality, high-speed service over long distances, usually 20 to 50 miles or more, using heavy rail equipment (i.e. locomotives pulling multiple passenger cars). They are organized in a radial pattern around the central business district (CBD) of the dominant city within a region and provide service primarily for suburb-to-CBD work trips. They work well where CBDs contain both a large number of jobs and a significant proportion of total jobs in the region. Suburban stations are widely spaced (generally about 3 to 6 miles apart) and there is usually just a single downtown station, permitting the higher speeds that make commuter rail time competitive with private automobiles.

Commuter rail systems also are generally developed using existing rail infrastructure, running trains along the same tracks that freight railroad companies use, or tracks that formerly served that purpose and have since been abandoned. The primary purpose for doing so is to save capital construction costs. (Cervero 1998, Gray 1992, and Pushkarev and Zupan 1982)

The proposed Cleveland commuter rail system closely follows this model. The seven proposed rail lines will be cut back to five or less, but will retain the typical radial pattern. Heavy locomotives will be used, operating over long distances at relatively high speeds, serving suburban stations separated by an average of 3.9 to 4.2 miles, depending upon the precise routes and stations selected.

Because traffic congestion is relatively light in Greater Cleveland, however, the time savings that commuter rail provides in some metropolitan areas will, at best, be only a few minutes from station to station (not counting access and egress travel time). At worst, station to station travel time will be significantly longer than in private automobiles.

If not competitive, what then?

Consequently, a Greater Cleveland commuter rail system is not likely to be time-competitive with CBD-bound commuters using personal cars under normal circumstances. Planners may balance a time-uncompetitive system with more comprehensive service designed to benefit reverse commuters travelling to suburban employment centers. Non-commute uses are also being considered, such as serving special venues like an amusement park near Solon and the national Football Hall of Fame in Canton, as well as professional baseball, football and basketball games in downtown Cleveland.

The bill for such service could be high, however. Capital cost estimates for the system (assuming that five of the seven routes will be established) range from $563 million for basic, three daily round trips service to $1.38 billion for more comprehensive, eleven daily round trips service.

Another basic assumption of successful commuter rail systems may not be well met by the proposed Northeast Ohio commuter rail system, that the CBD is of sufficient size to make the large investment worthwhile. In 1990, the population of Greater Cleveland was just over 3,000,000 people and the CBD contained about 150,000 jobs, or 15 percent of the total 1990 regional employment of just under 1 million (Bogart and Ferry 1999). These figures meet rough thresholds for feasibility reported in Cervero 1998, though in the case of total population, just barely so.

Pushkarev and Zupan (1977) propose a different threshold as a rough indicator of feasibility for various modes of transit service: non-residential floor space in a CBD. Their work suggests that commuter rail works best in cities with over 70 million square feet, but downtown Cleveland has significantly less than this.

A 1998 survey by Grubb & Ellis identified about 20.7 million sq. ft. of commercial office space in the CBD and a Cuyahoga County Planning Commission study (1999) found 2.6 million sq. ft. of retail space. Data were not available for industrial floor space or for public office space (both significant in downtown Cleveland), but they would not increase total Cleveland CBD non-residential floorspace to the Pushkarev and Zupan threshold. While this indicator is not a rigid one and is based on research almost 25 years old, it nevertheless provides another reason to review technical and ridership feasibility analyses with caution.

Impacts of commuter rail on land use patterns

The transportation benefits that are created by a typical commuter rail system, and that would be created in the Greater Cleveland area, accrue predominantly to the CBD. The downtown commuter rail station at the center of the system is the terminus of each individual line and is the only location that is directly accessible from all other points on the network.

Therefore, the CBD reaps most of the benefits associated with greater accessibility: higher land values and increased levels of private investment from developers serving businesses that require geographic proximity to other businesses and ancillary services, prefer prestige, centrally-located addresses, or both.

Along with expected benefits to the central business district come expected decreases in urban densities in suburban areas. Traditional urban location theory based on neo-classical economic assumptions suggests that a commuter rail system focused on a CBD with a large concentration of professional employment will facilitate sprawling patterns of residential development because of the balance commuters seek between housing and transportation costs (Huang 1996, Giuliano 1995, Heilbrun 1987, and Wells and Hutchinson 1996).

Where longer distances in metropolitan areas can be traversed at lower costs in money and time (the effect of highways, busways and commuter rail), individuals working in the CBD are free to invest more funds in housing. These transportation savings are generally expressed in larger homes on larger lots.

The proposed Northeast Ohio system’s routes run through rural and other areas with very low population densities. Such areas could absorb additional growth at low densities and, indeed, are generally zoned for large lot sizes that would prevent compact development. Commuter rail service can provide the transportation savings that allow low density development.

A 1992 survey of nine commuter rail systems indicates that, in terms of out-of-pocket cost of service, commuter rail travel is very inexpensive. At that time, the average passenger-mile cost was $0.115, while average automobile costs were $0.25 to $0.35 per mile, including insurance (Gray 1992, p. 64). These two expected impactsa strengthened CBD and lower densities in suburban areashave occurred in other regions with mature commuter rail systems.

In the 20 years following the 1973 opening of the San Francisco Bay Area Regional Transit (BART) system, for example, over two thirds of the total office space constructed near the system’s stations, some 28 million sq. ft., was concentrated in the CBD (Cervero and Landis 1997, p. 324). Other factors contributed to such growth, of course, including supportive public policies, a strong economy, and the presence of important cultural attractions.

Nevertheless, Cervero and Landis conclude “BART’s presence was likely a vital and necessary pre-condition for much of the growth that did occur” (ibid.). Conversely, outside of the CBD, “BART has generally been a stronger force toward decentralization than concentration” (Cervero 1998, p. 92). Theory and empirical studies also provide us with clues as to the land uses to expect in the immediate vicinity of suburban commuter rail stations.

Mode choice and travel demand theories supported by analysis of urban transportation elasticities indicate that commuters value their time in ways that disfavor transit use. The time it takes to access a transit station (i.e. to travel between home and the station) and the time it takes to wait for a vehicle to arrive are often perceived to be two to three times longer than actual elapsed time within transit vehicles.

Making access to suburban commuter rail stations as easy as possible, therefore, is a priority and has been achieved in most cases through the provision of ample, free parking spaces. Seventy four percent of commuters using Chicago’s Metra rail system, for example, arrive at stations by private vehicle (55% drive alone, 13% are dropped off, and 6% carpool), with the percentage rising the farther away from the CBD a station is located (Ferguson 2000). This leads to a proliferation of land uses that makes best use of private vehicle pass-by opportunities: gas stations, dry cleaners, auto repair facilities, and fast food restaurants.

Swimming against the tide

Expected land use impacts of establishing a commuter rail system in Northeast Ohio, thus, appear to contradict Northeast Ohio planners’ stated land use goals. Rather than promoting concentrated development, we expect to see a strengthening of the CBD, but not necessarily the entire urban core, continuing deconcentration in suburban areas, and auto-oriented development and urban design in the immediate vicinity of suburban commuter rail stations.

But theory and the experience of other commuter rail systems, however compelling, are not fate. Conditions in U.S. cities have changed significantly since urban location theory was originally developed. Monocentric cities with a single CBD have been replaced by polycentric cities of dispersed sub-centers, sometimes called “edge cities” for their location on the edges of historical urban areas.

Though in some ways this complicates the prospects of providing effective transit services, polycentric metropolitan areas that have institutions capable of coordinating rail transit with appropriate land use planning can influence the types and intensities of land use impacts. Several of Northeast Ohio’s major employment centers are located at or near proposed commuter rail stations and, conceivably, could serve as nodes of future transit-oriented development.

Planners and elected officials in metropolitan regions around the world have used planning and policy tools to encourage compact, mixed-use, transit-supportive urban development around rail stations in suburban locations. Their efforts have required large investments of public funds, creative modifications of existing public policies, strong visions of future regional development and form, and the good fortune of strong and growing regional economies.

In North America, the Ballston and Rosslyn stations in the Washington D.C. region, the Pleasant Hill BART station in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the North York station in the Toronto region are good examples (Cervero 1998, Cervero and Landis 1997, and McNeal and Doggett 1999). A number of important lessons have been learned from these experiences and others in Europe, Asia and Australia.

Though the specific combination of supportive conditions is different in each region, the most important seem to be the following:

  • The existence of a clear regional vision for growth and development in the medium to long term helps guide policy development and infrastructure investment.
  • Strong respected institutions working with clear transit-supportive policies are able to effectively promote compact development.
  • Buoyant economies drive the growth that can be directed to station areas.
  • The existence of station areas with high development potential provides the necessary opportunity.
  • The availability and use of a wide variety of supportive public policies are required to make compact development happen.

How do circumstances in Greater Cleveland match this set of conditions? Unfortunately, the answer is that they do not match them very well. Consider them one by one.

Regional vision

Ohio is what planners call a “small box” state because of the proliferation of small political jurisdictions. In the eight counties collaborating on the commuter rail feasibility study there are close to 300 cities, village and townships. And because Ohio is also a home rule state, each jurisdiction reserves land use planning decisions for itself.

Developing a regional vision shared by residents of all the region’s communities in such an environment is a task that has not yet been accomplished, though there have been several notable efforts. The Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, for example, has adopted a set of guiding principles that clearly emphasize concentrating development in existing communities while protecting farmland and open spaces in rural communities. But they apply only to the regional transportation planning process (and only for five of the eight counties) without any enforceable influence over land use decisions.

In the non-profit sector, EcoCity Cleveland, a small but locally well-known environmental planning organization, has developed a Citizens’ Bioregional Plan for Northeast Ohio (Beach and Flamm 1999). And though it provides a comprehensive transportation and land use vision for the region that promotes transit-oriented, concentrated development and has the support of many environmental, civic and planning organizations, it does not enjoy an official status that would give its recommendations real influence.

Supportive political culture and strong, respected institutions

In the absence of a strong regional vision, it is clear that there is no general agreement that transit is an important part of the regional transportation system that should be further developed. Cuyahoga County’s Regional Transit Authority and six other public transit agencies in the region provide services that range from effective to inadequate.

Requests for new transportation capacity projects in the region are largely for highway and road widenings and most people rely on automobiles for all of their transportation needs. Though some communities and developers are discussing transit-friendly developments (the proposed Crocker Park complex in Westlake, for example, would see 648,000 sq. ft. of retail, 216,000 sq. ft of office space, and 512 housing units built on 75 acres of land), such plans are exceptions to the rule of auto-oriented development in the region.

There is no regional institutionwhether an MPO, a transit agency, or another type of agencycurrently in a position to change this general culture of dependency on automobiles.

Strong, growing economies

Northeast Ohio’s population has been stable for over thirty years at about 3,000,000 residents. Forecasts for the future show that little change in this situation is expected (Center for Regional Economic Issues 1995), reflecting population forecasts for the state as a whole which predict less than 6 percent growth for the period 1995 to 2025 (U.S. Department of Commerce 1997).

Prospects for job growth are modestly better. But barring a “lightning strike” of new growth and development from successful “incubator industry” strategies to develop the biomedical and materials science (polymers) sectors (see Center for Regional Economic Issues, 1995), Northeast Ohio is unlikely to see the kind of growth that Toronto, San Francisco and Washington D.C. have used to ensure succesful station area development programs. Station areas with high development potential: It is more difficult to assess this condition for promoting concentrated development in Northeast Ohio than the others, given that the locations of proposed stations are preliminary.

Three of the proposed stations are located in largely built-up town centers where new development would be difficult without significant changes in local zoning and development policies. Fourteen are identified as “parking / town center” locations where presumably a mix of parking and transit-oriented development could be achieved, again if the appropriate public policies are in place. And some of the non-CBD Cleveland stations may also have potential for redevelopment.

The EcoVillage proposal for the West 65th Street station area on Cleveland’s existing light rail “Red” line may eventually serve as a useful example in this latter case, not only of the possibilities, but of the serious effort it takes to achieve such results (Beach 1998-99). Over half of the proposed station locations, however, are identified as “parking” stations. While well suited to the needs of the likely riders in the suburban and rural locations where they are located, stations surrounded by large parking lots are not well suited to transit-oriented development. On the contrary, as we have seen, they will more likely facilitate further deconcentration in the region.

Varied and effective set of public policy tools

To effectively take advantage of the potential for transit-oriented development at commuter rail stations, local governments would need to be ready to make significant zoning policy modifications. Among the zoning strategies used in other regions are liberal floor/area ratios, providing developer density bonuses, and “upzoning” station areas to permit these changes. Local governments, together with whatever agency ultimately manages the commuter rail system (this has not yet been addressed), would need to provide tax and development incentives and land assembly services and be willing to enter into joint development ventures with private developers. Strong coordination of public and private planning, the integration of project and station designs to facilitate pedestrian circulation and the assurance of compatible land-use mixes would also be necessary. Beyond these policy tools, parking management through higher parking prices in the CBD and in other station areas and regional growth management controls would also be useful in directing development towards the station areas where concentrated development is desired.

Cleveland planners have experience with some of these tools. For example, many communities in the region have already used tax abatement to attract industrial or commercial development. Cleveland’s Regional Transit Authority has worked to develop the mixed-use Windermere station on the Red line and is working to do the same at the EcoVillage station.

But most of the suburban communities that may welcome commuter rail stations do not have recent experience with the types of zoning changes required to promote transit-oriented development. Because they pride themselves on low taxes, allocating funds for land assembly and absorbing some of the financial risks of TOD would likely be difficult. Parking mangement would be equally difficult to implement, even in the CBD. And regional growth controls that would constrain new development to station areas is not yet on the political agenda in any realistic manner.


What are the prospects for bucking the trends? “If you were serious about using a commuter rail line as a means of shaping regional development, you can’t do it with just a rail line,” Norman Krumholz, former Cleveland Planning Director told EcoCity Cleveland in 1997. "Nobody wants to do the hards things in terms of land use planning and zoning, shaping higher density nodes of employment, housing, and commercial activities around the stations, and then restricting development in other parts of the metropolitan areas."

What then, are the prospects for using a new commuter rail system in Northeast Ohio to promote concentrated development? They do not appear to be good. Technical and financial feasibility analyses have still not been completed, but the results will not be encouraging. The costs are likely to be very high and ridership projections relatively low.

These conclusions alone may be enough to lead Northeast Ohio planners to say no to commuter rail. Certainly, they will not convince skeptics like Krumholz, who has long argued for transit that provides effective service to those who need it mostpoor, transit dependent people. They will argue that investing large amounts of public funds in an expensive commuter rail system primarily to serve commuters who already have transportation choices is unfair and unwise. The capital costs will represent lost opportunities to provide better bus service in low-income areas and the necessary commuter rail operations subsidies will likely lead to reductions in existing bus service for those who need it most. It will be difficult to argue with such reasoning.

Beyond the technical and financial feasibility questions are those related to commuter rail’s potential for promoting concentrated development, as Northeast Ohio planners hope to do. As previously discussed, prospects are not good in this respect either.

Most important, I believe, are forecasts for continuing economic and demographic stability in Northeast Ohio. Though the total number of households may continue to increase due to shrinking average household size, the overall population and number of jobs in the region are not expected to increase significantly. Thus, even if the other important conditions were presentand we have seen that in large part they are notthe lack of significant economic growth in coming years would mean the opportunity to shape urban growth will remain extremely difficult to grasp.

Because there is not currently a strong regionwide commitment to transit-supportive development or the politically strong institutions required to make it happen, it is difficult to conclude that in Northeast Ohio concentrated development is an achievable goal through the development of a commuter rail system.

Finally, it is clear that current feasibility cost estimatesas high as they already aredo not include all of the costs that need to be taken into consideration to effectively use an investment in commuter rail to promote concentrated development. The land use planning strategies that would need to be instituted would require municipal governments to work with the state and federal governments and private foundations to obtain funds for land assembly, joint development partnerships, and possibly brownfields cleanup.

It is not possible to accurately estimate such costs at this point, but planners and other public officials need to keep them in mind as they finalize this feasibility study. Given these difficulties, is there a scenario that could conceivably lead to the successful implementation of a commuter rail system that could promote concentrated development and support urban core communities? Perhaps, but it would take at least three things to work.

First, stronger economic and demographic growth than is currently forecast would be necessary. Business and political leaders say they are doing their best to make sure that this occurs, but at the moment there is no way to know if they will be successful or not.

Second, higher levels of automobile traffic congestion would make commuter rail a more attractive choice for suburban commuters to the CBD, boosting ridership. This may, in fact, happen. The Inner Belt, a mile and a half long section of several highways in the center of the City of Cleveland (including several very long and expensive bridges), is slated for complete reconstruction in the coming years. As capacity is reduced for this work, traffic is likely to worsen significantly.

Finally, the development of a commuter rail system would not only have to serve as the rallying point for the region’s smart growth advocates, but successfully be used to generate political consensus to restrict growth in rural areas and concentrate it around the proposed stations. Though much work has been done by a diverse group of organizationsnon-profit and faith-based organizations, civic groups, university researchers, planners, business groups and some elected officialsthere still is no clear indication that the region is ready for such a change in approach to land use planning.

So, although we can imagine a scenario in which commuter rail could be effectively used to promote concentrated development in Northeast Ohio, it appears to be the wrong tool for that purpose.


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Commuter rail stopped in Summit County

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Commuter rail service has generally promoted lower, not higher, density regional development. And it has resulted in mixed benefits for urban coresCBDs generally are strengthened, but not necessarily residential and commercial neighborhoods within the central city and older suburbs.


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