On November 14th, A Better City welcomed global transit experts to discuss lessons learned in reimagining and rebuilding regional rail systems as part of the Partners in Public Dialogue series at the Old South Meeting House.
Isabel Dedring – Former Deputy Mayor for Transport and Deputy Chair of Transport for London and current Global Transport Leader at A Better City member firm, Arup – and Anna Pace – Former Director of Project, Planning and Development for Toronto’s Metrolinx- joined Bruce Mohl – Editor of Commonwealth Magazine – for a conversation about what Metro Boston can learn from their experiences in transforming regional rail systems in London and Toronto.
Commuter rail service into and out of downtown Boston serves as a vital element in the region's economic success. As housing prices in the urban core continue to rise and as available land becomes scarcer, workers will look to live further and further from the city, all while continuing to effectively reach jobs in key inner core clusters. Furthermore, improved connectivity throughout the Metro Boston commuter rail region could unlock economic growth potential in Gateway Cities and other regional economic centers. The Massachusetts economy is driven by Metropolitan Boston. The 164-community region claims 69% of the state’s population, 74% of its jobs and generates 84% of its gross domestic product.
Our commuter rail system touches this whole metro area and beyond with 388 route miles over 14 lines that move almost 130,000 people per day, or 10% of the MBTA systems ridership. This infrastructure, these right-of-ways and this reach would be almost impossible to replicate today, not only in direct build cost but also in terms of land acquisition and opportunity costs.
The challenge is to move from a “commuter” system, one built around a 20th-century work structure of a 9-5 suburb-to-city center commute, with limited mid-day and off-peak service to a regional system that provides continuous connection opportunities across the area. Furthermore, we’re running dirty and cumbersome equipment that is out of step with service enhancement goals as well as climate and carbon emission goals.
Especially compelling is the shift in economic development and job growth near rapid transit hubs and away from the auto-centric growth of the 20thcentury. Rapid transit enables denser development both at the commercial and residential levels, which leads to agglomeration effects: when the clustering of businesses and the expanded labor pool reduce transaction costs and builds knowledge and human capital nodes with spillover effects.
Anyone who has experienced the clustering in places like Kendall Square, the Seaport or the Longwood Medical Area knows the power of agglomeration and transportation infrastructure. Businesses located in more exurban areas are moving to urban core because the nature of work is changing and they want access to a specialized and dynamic labor market.
While there have been numerous examinations of structural issues around the commuter rail system, MassDOT is currently in the process of completing a long-term visioning effort, the Commuter Rail Vision Study, to be completed by the end of 2019. This conversation with representatives from London and Toronto allowed us to hear about the goals, outcomes, and lessons learned in two peer urban environments to inform our process and guide us to a world-class system.
Toronto, on the other hand, has approached their overhaul as one large $16 billion over 10 years project branded “Big Move,” which will provide the transformation of GO Transit from a peak only commuter system to a faster, frequent all-day two-way system Regional Express Rail to connect communities. As Anna recounted, the head of Metrolinx determined that “if we’re going to be building a whole new system on top of our current infrastructure, let’s do it right.”
Bold vision for a major overhaul or incremental updates that improve public support has allowed both London and Toronto to reach the ultimate goal, a cleaner, faster more connected system that provides “undeniable benefits in terms of local economies, equity, and property value.”
Thank you to all who joined us for this event and please reach out for further information.
 A Better City. “The Transportation Dividend.” 2018.
Review the event slides here.