September 26, 2006
This policy brief is based on "Commuter Rail and Land Use," a paper by Eric Beaton that received the Howard T. Fischer Prize in Geographical Information Science (GIS), an annual award given to the best use of GIS by Harvard University graduate student.
Findings from this paper suggest that commuter rail is associated with small, but generally positive, impacts. However, data showing positive impacts in relatively dense areas that lost transit service since 1970 also suggest that at least some of these positive impacts are due to the character of areas that grew up around railroad stations before the advent of automobiles. This finding suggests that commuter rail is most likely to impact land use patterns when it is explicitly and clearly linked to local and regional policies for land use and development. But that does not seem to be the case today. Rather, the large investments in commuter rail have had, at best, modest positive impacts on ridership and land uses. Looking to the future, this means that providing new commuter rail facilities is not likely to produce significant changes in travel and land use patterns.