Land Use Around Transit

Hey there! Before we get to my post, this is my first post on this new blog! I’m Eliot, a central Massachusetts native who is preparing to move to Chicago, Illinois soon. I write “On the Rails”, a blog focused on public transit planning. You can read more about me and my blog here.

When it comes to public transit in the United States, and especially with modern expansion projects, planners get a lot wrong when it comes to land use surrounding new stations. While there are certainly exceptions, most stations aren’t surrounded by anything useful. Take the MBTA Commuter Rail in Massachusetts, for instance. Over the past 30 years, the Commuter Rail’s network has vastly expanded to serve new communities in central and eastern Massachusetts with the extension of the Worcester Line in the late 1990s, the restoration of the Old Colony Lines in the late 1990s and 2000s, and the South Coast Rail project coming this decade.

According to Massachusetts State Senator Eric Lesser (D-1st Hampden and Hampshire) and the Blackstone Valley Tribune, “Worcester found that opening the rail link to Boston was a key, key part of Worcester’s ‘renaissance’ in recent years.” Worcester gained this expanded service to Boston in the 1990s using the city’s Union Station, which was opened in 1911 close to downtown Worcester. I visited Worcester and was easily able to walk around downtown with a friend of mine, starting and ending at the train station. We walked around residential neighborhoods, and commercial areas, and passed by the DCU Center and City Hall, all in a walkable, urban environment that was built around the train.

The front of Worcester’s Union Station.
Main Street in Worcester, a few minutes’ walk away from the train station.

On the other hand, take my local Commuter Rail station, Grafton. Opened in 2000, Grafton was the first of the four Worcester Line infill stations opened between Worcester and Framingham (the others – Westborough, Southborough, and Ashland, opened in 2002). Grafton shows how the MBTA (and other transit agencies around the country) plan rail stations today. I’ve written about Grafton before (twice actually, as a guest post on Miles in Transit in September 2019, and on my own blog in July 2021), so go read my posts to understand the basic structure of the station.

The area surrounding Grafton station.

Remember that the station opened 22 years ago, and there are still no major residential or commercial developments surrounding the station. Recently, there was a plan by the town of Grafton to build the so-called “North Grafton Transit Village” within walking distance of the station. It’s been a few years since this proposal took shape, and there has been no word or sign of this development advancing. While not having transit-oriented development severely hurts the station in terms of ridership, as well as the town’s local economy, the station does provide a benefit to many in central Massachusetts. Grafton is a town with just shy of 20,000 people, a suburb of Worcester, and one of the further exurbs of Boston. The only things near its train station are the veterinary campus of Tufts University, a business park, and the main road with no sidewalks whatsoever. The lack of walkability to the station means that if someone wants to use the station, they either have to drive or take the very limited bus service.

I have lived in the Blackstone Valley since 2004 (and moving out in 2022), and the Worcester Line provides another way for the residents and visitors of the area to travel throughout Massachusetts. It provides a more climate-friendly transportation option for those looking to go to Boston, Worcester, or beyond. It provides for those without access to a car to reach jobs and other sites of interest. The Worcester Regional Transit Authority (WRTA) operates a shuttle service between the Grafton train station and various locations in Grafton and Northbridge, with trips operating to the train station during the early morning and evening peak on weekdays. Outside of those hours, there is an hourly bus service between the rest of the locations on weekdays (omitting the train station). This service has been in operation since 2013, is funded by both the towns of Northbridge and Grafton, and has been helpful to the local economy (see my post, “The Hills of Worcester’s Transit” for more).

When it comes to planning future public transit, existing and new development around the station site should be prioritized. The Worcester Line runs through plenty of town centers along the route between Boston and Worcester, but the newer stops are located away from the center, due to parking areas. Instead of parking lots that go on and on, we could have stations in town centers, located within walking distance to numerous homes and businesses, but we don’t. It’s time to change that.

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