Something that’s always bothered me about mass train stations in America is that very few take advantage of the commercial advantage in having access to huge numbers of semi-captive customers with nothing to do for a few minutes. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the key reasons that Japanese rail is profitable is that the mass transit companies internalize the positive real estate externalities by owning land in the vicinity. Since transit agencies in America are publicly owned and very inefficient as a result, getting them directly involved in real estate is probably not the best idea. But they should still try at least to maximize the real estate they already have – on their station platforms, both above ground and beneath.
Washington, DC’s Metrorail system is the perfect example of a lost revenue opportunity. Because the stations were built relatively recently and with enormous government largesse, they are quite large compared to normal subway stations. Especially in crowded transfer stations like Metro Center and Gallery Place, there’s a ton of room for vendors to set up booths and sell things like coffee, food, and magazines. And in fact DC desperately needs an underground pedestrian pathway between the aforementioned stations to ease extreme crowding on the Red Line, which could be at least partially funded by selling off space in the new tunnel. (Ditto with one linking Farragut North and Farragut West.) DC currently doesn’t allow eating or drinking in its stations, but this would be a silly thing to let get in the way of funding for a system that desperately needs it. The metros in Paris and Bucharest both allow food to be sold underground, and neither seemed any more or less dirty than the DC Metro.
Outside of DC, a lot of the regional rail stations in the Philadelphia and New York suburbs have a good amount of empty space and a lot of rich commuters that they could be selling to. In fact, the train stations are one of the few places where developers can credibly claim that adding commercial or residential square footage won’t add to the burden on neighborhood parking spaces and roads. (Although try telling that to Ardmore – developers have been trying to build mixed use projects literally on top of the station for years, but they could never seem to cram as much parking into the development as the neighbors want, and so it’s never happened.)
So here’s the bleg: Does anybody know how much money such schemes can generate? Obviously allowing vendors to set up shop in train stations isn’t going to obviate the need for a thorough reform of the way this country does mass transit to make it profitable and sustainable, but can it amount to anything more than a drop in the bucket?
Guest saysFebruary 8, 2011 at 5:19 am
What the hell is a “bleg”?
Cap'n Transit saysFebruary 8, 2011 at 5:22 am
Rationalitate saysFebruary 8, 2011 at 5:52 am
Matt Lewis saysFebruary 8, 2011 at 6:57 am
Until this post, it didn’t occur to me just how few stations do have vending. Wow. European stations have so much stuff, but here there’s nothing. Stations for underground bits of Chicago’s El are desolate. This does seem like low-hanging fruit for improving transit…
Vending Machines saysFebruary 8, 2011 at 9:07 am
Since the transit agency in America is a highly inefficient public ownership and, consequently, to get them directly involved in real estate can not be the best idea. But they have yet to try at least one property that already have – their station platforms and above and below ground.
Anonymous saysFebruary 8, 2011 at 5:55 pm
BART may allow more businesses in stations
Many of the downtown SF stations (Embarcadero especially) are huge open spaces. Not totally sure where they’d put the businesses though, as theres not a lot of people milling about in the concourse itself. (like Penn Station in NY for example).
Still, a coffee counter here or there would be nice. Downtown Berkeley BART has a Peet’s coffee that seems to have plenty of customers.
DD saysFebruary 8, 2011 at 6:21 pm
Are there still vendors inside the ‘T’ stations in Boston? Back in the late ’90s, I remember a Dunkin’ Donuts on the green line, I think at Hynes/ICA? If that system has room for commercial sales, then surely some of the newer operators could find the space…
Anonymous saysFebruary 8, 2011 at 6:24 pm
Happily, BART is taking some tentative steps in this direction: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/01/28/BAE41HF9KA.DTL
I’ve always thought that BART’s parking lots (which it owns) could be redeveloped to great advantage. Apparently others have the same idea – http://www.oaklandnet.com/government/ceda/revised/planningzoning/MajorProjectsSection/ProjectInfoSheet_Renderings.pdf and http://www.bart.gov/docs/planning/MacArthur_BART_Access_Feasibility_Study.pdf – but, as usual, the notion of actually building less parking is anathema, even if only 10% of the current passengers drive in, and significant numbers of those do so from very near the station.
Alon Levy saysFebruary 8, 2011 at 11:45 pm
You can always try to guesstimate the amount of money retail would generate using estimates for rent levels and the amount of space available. I suspect it’s not nothing, but is still pretty small compared to American operating losses. Some Asian systems use it for extra profits, and the margins are much higher than the margins for transport operations, but they’re still much smaller than the core transport operations.
At very congested places, like Penn Station, it’s actually useful to kick out the retail and dedicate more space to passenger flow. The rents generated are much lower than the benefits of passengers being able to exit without a stampede.
MarketUrbanism saysFebruary 9, 2011 at 5:38 pm
I don’t have any expertise on this mater, but immigrant entrepreneurs sell food on the platforms where people switch trains along my route home in Brooklyn. I often grab churros, and I think they sell out a whole cart of them within the rush hour.
Thank goodness for illegal food on the trains and in parks!!!
Reminds me of the scene in Seinfeld where Jerry dashes out of the subway car to get a gyro, but only his hand and the gyro make it back into the train before the doors close….
Hmoroz saysFebruary 9, 2011 at 9:35 pm
Chicago’s CTA has magazine kiosks that guarantee them $500 a month:
Bill Nelson saysFebruary 9, 2011 at 9:46 pm
Commerce at commuter stations is very difficult because:
1. Most commuter stations are empty except for a couple of hours in the morning and the afternoon
2. In the morning, most commuters time their arrival a few minutes before train departures, which does not allow time for shopping
3. In the afternoon, they usually head straight to their cars to drive home.
Even the shopping Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, sitting above a station with thousands of LIRR commuters, draws its customers from the local area. The commuters are only interested in going to work and going home.
The one sort of business that does seem to thrive at commuter stations is anyone selling convenience items for the train ride, especially coffee — and perhaps newspapers to those who don’t get home delivery.
Caesar saysFebruary 10, 2011 at 3:04 pm
That was Kramer who did that.
It also occurs to me that the LIE sells mixed drinks on their Penn Station platform.
MarketUrbanism saysFebruary 10, 2011 at 4:16 pm
I could have sworn it was Jerry – I saw that episode recently, so I had to look it up. We’re both right. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cigar_Store_Indian Some guy took Kramer’s early inn the episode, and Al Roker stole Jerry’s gyros at the end….