Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"Heritage TOD" in New Jersey

Back in July, I wrote about looking at transit-oriented development (TOD) in three phases: Heritage, Mature, and Young. today, I'd like to take a look at New Jersey's "heritage TOD", based primarily on a visit in March, this year.

One evening during my visit, I arranged to meet friends for dinner in Summit. I took an evening NJ Transit train from Penn Station, New York, where I happened to be that afternoon. This train travels on what NJ Transit calls the Morris & Essex Line, previously the Lackawanna. As the train stopped at station after station, I heard the ring of names made familiar by my mother: East Orange, Orange (where she had spent much of her childhood), South Orange, and Maplewood (where she was born). Her father (my grandfather) had lived in New Jersey and commuted daily to 635 Broadway in New York City. Gradually, the realization sank in that my grandfather must have ridden this same train back in Lackawanna days, past these same stations, day after day during the 1920s and 1930s - maybe longer. Looking out at the twilit towns I realized that almost all the buildings and stations were the same, too. After 80 years, that part of New Jersey had only added a few layers of grime to the bricks.

And I realized, "These towns are all transit-oriented development, heritage style!"
Aerial photo of "The Oranges" (Google Earth)
New Jersey has grown and developed a lot since that time, but the towns as seen from this rail line have remained largely unchanged. Much of the growth has been filling in areas that lay between towns, while the centers of many small cities have retained most their early twentieth century appearance. Now, Northeastern New Jersey is an almost solid tapestry of commerce, industry, and residences, as you can see this is the aerial map of "The Oranges" (click it for a larger version). Lighter gray areas are the commercial districts, and the dark green is forest reserves. The rest is all residential.

The Morris & Essex rail stations are shown with blue train symbols, and the line itself appears as a thin, dark line. It enters from the east (center right) and heads northwest toward the City of Orange; then it turns abruptly southwest to avoid a hill (dark green area). Beyond Maplewood, it swings west for a short distance before bending southward, leaving the photo area in the lower left corner. Notice how the commercial areas and the rail line are close together. Smaller commercial areas like Livingston (lower right) are found along roads where there is no rail service, but when this area grew up, the rail lines, rather than the roads, were the primary transportation arteries.

According the the Eire-Lackawanna Historical Society, the rail line we've been looking at opened from Newark to Orange in 1836, and westward to Morristown two years later, in an era when the alternative to rail travel was horse-and-buggy or horse-drawn omnibus. The line was electrified in 1930 in order to provide better commuter service, and it is powered by electricity today. (According to the Sierra Club, New Jersey has a strong clean-energy policy. About half of its electricity is generated by nuclear power, and it derives more energy from photo-voltaic sources than any state except California. Wind-power generating facilities were being built along the Atlantic coast as of mid-2011 - see the report linked below.)

Main Street, Orange, New Jersey (Google Streetview)
Not all the stations are surrounded by commercial or mixed-use districts: beyond the City of Orange, some of the stations are in residential neighborhoods. Buildings in the commercial station areas of the Oranges appear to be two- and three-story mixed use structures, with the traditional shops on the ground floor and apparently apartments above. They are very much like Michigan towns built around the same era - the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That mixed-use pattern, commercial with residential in the same building, is the use now recommended by most urban planners.

In the area of Brick Church Station, there appears to be some newer transit-oriented development as well.
One block north of Brick Church Station, Orange, NJ

Even with the many transit lines available, the population density is such that highways are overcrowded, while NJ Transit has been purchasing double-deck rail cars and more powerful locomotives to pull more of them. Trains serving Orange run from 5:05 AM to 1:48 AM the next day on weekdays with a total of 102 trains. On weekends service is also good, with 40 trains running between 5:18 AM and 1:48 AM the next day. About half of these run to and from Hoboken, a growing center of employment now, while the other half serve New York Penn Station. In the other direction, the line splits west of the Summit station, where some trains terminate; others travel southwest to Gladstone (population 2,582), while the remainder travel northwest to Dover (population 18,157) and a small number continue to Hacketstown (population 9,724).
The Raritan line, originally the Central Railroad of New Jersey ("Jersey Central"), shows an even clearer pattern of development along the line. In this next picture, you can easily guess where the railway runs, even without the stations marked.
Where's the Raritan Line? (Google Earth)

The aerial photo below is the same, but with stations marked.
Raritan Line with stations marked (Google Earth)

Did you guess right? (The other stations on the right-hand side of the picture are on the Northeast Corridor, running almost straight northeast-southwest, and the New Jersey Shoreline (originally New York and Long Branch) which leaves the NEC and runs south parallel to the Atlantic coast.

My mother's brother, like his father, lived in New Jersey and worked some days of the week in New York City. (He was a writer and editor, and was able to work at home the other days of the week.) He originally lived in Westfield, later moving a little north to a more suburban, wooded area in Mountainside. His wife drove him to the station in Westfield when he needed to go in to the city.

The town of Westfield (population 30,316) shows a very transit-oriented design from the air:
Westfield, NJ - Raritan Line detail (Google Earth)

The commercial area, north of the station, is clustered around it with the clear implication that many Westfield citizens' commute began and ended with a trip to the station. Industrial and commercial buildings are stretched along the railway line, no doubt confined there by zoning ordinances.

Westfield NJ, Jersey Central Depot (1892)
What is now downtown Westfield was first settled in 1720; the railroad line from the coast reached it about 1840. The Jersey Central built the Westfield station in 1892. The settlement's population grew, and the area was incorporated first as a Township, and finally in 1903 as a Town. But of course the mid-twentieth century saw the rise and dominance of the automobile, and with it a change in development and ridership patterns. This table shows ridership in selected years on the Jersey Central:
Jersey Central revenue passenger traffic, in millions of passenger-miles.
Year Traffic
1925 480
1933 337
1944 480
1960 175
1970 124
Source:ICC annual reports

Ridership on all Jersey Central's lines peaked in 1925, and probably would have continued falling had not World War II, with its fuel rationing and cessation of automobile production intervened to force people back onto trains. Now, with NJ Transit investing more in rail service, the ridership has climbed again: it was up to 1,007,035 on the Raritan Valley in 2005. (I can't find more recent figures, and can't convert what I've found to passenger-miles, so I can't really compare current ridership with the past.)

In many ways, northern New Jersey's early twentieth century development patterns are a model for newer TOD. The clusters of higher density around stations seen in the Oranges and Westfield are being emulated in contemporary TOD plans. The streets then were laid out primarily in a grid pattern, which traffic engineers now tell us is more effective than the meandering roads and culs-de-sac favored in late twentieth-century developments. But as in Northeastern New Jersey, there are not one but many patterns of successful TOD. One size did not fit all as that region developed, nor does one plan work in all regions now. Planning TOD remains a challenging, evolving science, with a great deal of art and local wisdom mixed in. But we're fortunate to be able to see how it was done a century and more ago.