As rickety as public transit sometimes seems, this region still has an infrastructure that cities such as Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; and Atlanta have spent billions trying to replicate to ease their dependence on the automobile.
Although rising energy prices have cooled our love affair with the car, most of us still desire the sense of independence having one offers, increasing costs or not. Yet surveys continue to show that regional rail access boosts suburban property values.
A recent study on the subject, first reported by my colleague Paul Nussbaum, was conducted by Econsult Solutions Inc. on real-estate values in the four suburban Pennsylvania counties served by the SEPTA regional rail system.
Richard Voith, the economic-consulting firm's president, said the study was limited to those counties "primarily because we were focused on providing the information that would be useful in the Pennsylvania transportation funding discussion."
The study found that if SEPTA were forced by funding cuts to shrink the rail system, "housing prices could take a downward turn," Voith said.
Econsult Solutions examined single-family house transactions from 2005 to 2012 and the average property-value premium resulting from being close to a regional rail station.
The closer you are to the station and the more parking available, the higher the premium - we're talking about $31,000 to $37,000 a house.
This is not Voith's first study of property values and public transportation. The previous ones - in 1991 and 2000, when he was senior economist at the Philadelphia Fed - told the same story for a wider suburban swath, since those studies included the PATCO line in South Jersey, which Voith said he would like to look at again.
Such a study might show the impact on PATCO ridership of the River Line light rail from Camden to Trenton, which opened in 2004 and has helped foster transit-oriented development on the Bordentown waterfront.
The 1991 study, which included PATCO and SEPTA rail and used 1980 census information, showed that access to rail service added an average of $5,594 to the median house value of $87,455 in 1990 dollars.
In 2000, Voith found that "access to Center City by commuter rail service carries a positive value in the housing market," and that "the premium for houses in communities with commuter rail service, as a percentage of house value, did not diminish from 1980 to 1990."
There are no hard numbers, but the percentage of house value linked to rail access rose from 5 percent to more than 6 percent in Pennsylvania, and 14 percent to 16 percent in South Jersey from 1980 to 1990.
Rail access also means fewer cars are needed, Voith's study showed.
None of the work looks at Philadelphia "because there is transit everywhere in the city, much of which competes effectively with commuter rail," he said.
"I don't think that it means that commuter rail is not valuable, but rather that competing properties without commuter rail have the benefit of other viable transit services."