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Against Park and Rides


On the handful of times I’ve used BART to get somewhere besides the urban core, I’ve been dismayed by the land use choices at some of the outer stations–extremely valuable land in an area with an acute housing shortage, devoted to nothing but the subsidized storage of cars. This staggeringly inefficient land use choice is often defended, as newishlawyer does, as a half-measure; better to get people using transit for some of their commute than none at all. Jarrett Walker makes the case against park and rides well here. (Walker, by the way, is not the kind of wonk who chooses journalism over politics–he’s an active transit consultant who’s been involved in transit reform in many cities, and is well aware of the politics involved.) I’ll summarize and add a few thoughts of my own. There may be some cases in which this is true, but as a general rule the problem is, as usual, that this ignores the ‘scarce resources’ problem in two ways and contributes to perverse incentives in two others. First, the scarce resources issue.

1) Land. If you’re doing high-speed, high-capacity transit right, it dramatically increases the value of the land within the walkshed of the station, by declaring it to be for nothing but car storage, without seeing what other uses people are willing to pay for. By taking dense development and economic activity off the table, you diminish the potential for economic growth, and the potential to take some of the market pressure for housing, offices, etc off San Francisco. Of course, one way to alleviate this is to build parking garages, which use less land to store more cars, leaving more left over for potential TOD. The problem with this, of course, is that parking garages are expensive to build, and it generally falls on the agency to build them. Which leads to the second scarce resources problem:

2) Dedicated funding for transit. Every time in my life I’ve had the opportunity (and having spend most of my voting years in Seattle this is a bunch of times) I’ve voted for higher taxes in exchange for funding more and better transit. In every case, the taxes I’ve voted to authorize have been insufficient to meet the transit needs they’re aiming to meet. At no point is the level of service great enough, the funding for capital improvements to improve service sufficient. On the other hand, there’s lots and lots of government spending on roads and other amenities for cars, most of which I never get the chance to vote against. We’re often too quick to assume this is a reflection of what people want, rather than a reflection of greater power for interests who enrich themselves with road construction than those who enrich themselves with transit construction. If we had train and bus manufacturers in every state, things might be different. Certainly in Washington state, transit does better at the ballot box than roads do, and there’s some evidence to suggest that WA voters not alone in that preference. But whether the imbalance is driven by our preferences or by our politics, it’s something we have good reason to be frustrated with from a variety of perspectives. So when pressure is used to take some of that too-little money we have available to subsidize transit and is used to subsidize car use instead, we have very good reason to push back against that.

On the perverse incentives:

1) It’s easy to understand why suburban communities gifted with a high speed high capacity transit option might think the demand for a park and ride is a reasonable one to make. It’s only a few miles away, after all, so from an environmental perspective it might seem reasonable–creating a structure that allows people to drive 3 miles rather than 23. The problem, of course, is that when park and rides are constructed, they don’t just offer a place for people in town to park. They offer a place for people who live even further out to park, if they get up early enough. In an effort to provide low-carbon transit for people 30 miles from downtown, you up providing medium to high carbon access for people 55 miles from downtown to park, if they don’t mind getting up at 4:00 AM to get them. (I’m not sure about other agencies but in the case of Sound Transit, because it’s a regional authority it’s not allowed to build municipality-restricted facilities. The towns themselves could acquire station-adjacent land and build something only for their town’s residents, but of course then they’d have to spend their own money, which is a great deal more difficult politically. The expectation that parking should be free really is at the root of the problem here.) So park and rides supported to incentivize low-carbon commuting and local access end up incentivizing ever longer commutes, and getting up really really early.

2) The above scenario–teasing suburban residents with the sweet free parking next to the train station, only to be taken away by the early risers, leads to a fairly predictable political demand–more free (or heavily subsidized) parking. Why wouldn’t they? This cheap, convenient solution to their transportation dilemma is already there, we just need a little more of it! Of course, there are other ways to get them to the station: walking, busing, biking, cabs and kiss and rides. And these can be better or worse. If we didn’t tease people with the illusion of free, convenient parking right next to the station, we might incentivize them to put political pressure on their local governments to improve local transit, or maybe better bike access, to the transit center. What they’re probably willing to pay for car storage almost certainly couldn’t compete with what people are willing to pay for other land uses for that extremely valuable land, if forced to compete. If they were exposed to the real cost of car storage, the personal and political efforts to find a good way to access the station would be directed more productively from the start.

I’m not a dogmatist. I know that some political projects require sub-optimal elements to generate sufficient initial political support, at least initially. But that doesn’t make it good policy. If we’re going to build park and rides, they should at least be priced according to demand, rather than a willingness to get up really early. (I’d say that means charging enough that there’s generally still some spaces available after, say, 9:30.) Newishlawyer is concerned we need to better “sell” urbanism and density before we make a policy change like this, but I disagree. There are places where urbanism and density arguably need a better sales pitch; I happen to live in one of them. But in much of the country, including most places where serious mass transit investment is likely to be made now, it’s already in increasingly high demand. We need to legalize building more of it, so people who aren’t extremely wealthy or winners of the low-income housing lottery can live close to their jobs, and whenever possible stop using limited transit dollars to subsidize ever greater sprawl.

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