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?