Opinion: Trains made the Main Line. Why are we designing its future around cars? - PlanPhilly

By Alex Davis

For the string of communities stretching from Overbook to Malvern, the Paoli/Thorndale Line is an extraordinary asset. Running at speeds of up to 90 mph over Amtrak’s Keystone Corridor, it has a passenger capacity more than twice that of the Schuylkill Expressway. It’s the reason we call this place the Main Line. But despite the region’s railroad roots, the car-centric zoning that surrounds stations means the vast majority of trips here are made by car, reducing this mass transit corridor to a limited service for trips to Philadelphia. This transportation pattern comes with serious consequences. There’s a way we can fix it, but first, we need to understand how we got here.


Most 19th-century railroad suburbs were not built like the Main Line. Satellite towns have always orbited large cities like Philly, but they really came into their own with the advent of the railroad, which allowed quick transport throughout a region. Providing a small-town environment, but keeping big city amenities in reach, dense walkable urban cores filled the walking radii of railroads. Conshohocken and Norristown. Lansdowne and Media. These communities all have average population densities between 7,000 and 10,000 people per square mile. Compact, but not claustrophobic. Compare that to the four census blocks that touch the Wayne train station, with a density of 2,896 per square mile. Why the difference? Large estates occupied most of the land on the Main Line until they were subdivided, starting in the 1930s and continuing through the post-war housing boom. Auto-oriented sprawl was then all the rage, so that’s what got built. But that’s not the whole story. Decades later, cultural preferences and climate concerns have shifted, yet this pattern of development remains frozen in amber, not because of market forces, but rather due to a lattice of zoning laws that prevents densification around stations.


Over the course of two days, I traced zoning maps of the nine municipalities from Overbrook to Malvern to create the map you see above. (If there was an easier way, please don’t tell me.) As you can see, Lower Merion is the only township on this map that is making anywhere near optimal use of the railroad. The islands of multifamily zoning in Paoli, Berwyn, and Wayne might look somewhat reasonable, until you discover that Tredyffrin, Easttown and Radnor all have rules restricting second dwelling units to the upper floor of businesses, leaving all houses effectively limited to use by single families able to shoulder the full cost of the property. And at some stations like Strafford and Devon, the entire station is encased in single-family red.


The problem is that this pattern of development forces people to drive and, even with electric cars, our country cannot continue to cough up the enormous amounts of land, energy, and infrastructure required to support the auto-oriented sprawl that now covers the United States. On top of this, the climate crisis has moved transportation efficiency from a smart economic policy to a global humanitarian imperative. The bad news is that after a lifetime of car-centric planning policies, the United States has the least energy-efficient transportation system of any country in the world.


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