Saturday, July 3, 2010

Appreciating sunsets

Photo: Mhilsenrad / Flickr
There's a particular theme I've been noticing more and more lately: strategies that are either praised as universally good or condemned as universally bad, but that are in fact neither. Some are quite good in the short term but unsustainable; others are generally bad but tolerated as necessary evils.

Borrowing money at interest is the ultimate unsustainable good. It's nice to have the cash flow, but in addition to the expense of debt service you sacrifice some long-term autonomy.

Park-and-ride lots are a good example of a necessary evil. Long term, they are not the answer, but in the short term they may be necessary to build a constituency for transit.

What these unsustainable goods and necessary evils have in common is their term limits. In the long term we want to see them go away.

There are two dangers here. The first is that we may not realize that something good is unsustainable, or that a necessary thing is actually evil. Then we might keep borrowing after the need is gone, or keep building park-and-rides that aren't necessary. The person who started the borrowing or the park-and-ride may know that it's not sustainable, but fail to pass that information on to those who are in charge later.

The second danger is that many short-term solutions have a way of sticking around. Someone can divert the borrowed money into something that doesn't actually help increase income. Or the park-and-ride can develop its own entrenched constituency that resists any attempt to remove it.

Here's what we can do about this: first, be mindful and recognize when strategies are unsustainable. Second, make sure that everyone else knows it. Third, when implementing an unsustainable strategy, develop a complementary sunset strategy. Take out a loan with a fixed term, and dedicate part of the income to repaying the loan. Rent the land for the park-and-ride from someone who will have an incentive to redevelop it with transit-oriented businesses or residences.

In future posts, I'll talk more about unsustainable goods, necessary evils, and ways to sunset them.


BruceMcF said...

Park and ride lots can be long term sustainable goods, but it requires looking ahead.

Looking ahead, the long term sustainable role for park and ride lots is to make parking spaces unnecessary elsewhere, while expanding the range of things that the park and ride lot is a parking lot for.

That is, there is nothing that is intrinsically unsustainable about a substantial ~ that is to say, double digit percentage ~ share of local transport being on personal vehicles, though perhaps more like golf carts and three wheel enclose motorcycles than the stereotypical 10mpg SUV. And if there is a substantial share of local transport on personal vehicles, then park and ride parking is the most material efficient parking ... and indeed, if electrified, the best place to invest in recharging facilities ... since when multiple destinations are accessed on the same multi-stop trip, only one park and ride parking place is required, rather than multiple parking places at multiple destinations.

So if local trips by private vehicles decline to, say, 40% and regional and inter-regional trips by private vehicles decline to, say, 10% ... we win the maximum amount of space back from parking if we squeeze the parking that does take place as much as possible to the park and ride lot.

Of course, this implies walkable development around the station, as a "suburban village center", which implies that that the long term sustainable suburban park and ride lot can no longer be surrounding the station, but occupying only a sector of the radius around the station, with the majority taken up by commercial, professional and residential development in easy walking distance to the station ... and the park and ride lot then becomes the common pool parking for that suburban village center.

How do we grab that land back if we are maintaining existing park and ride places? Perhaps the most sustainable way will be to push those spaces out closer to the residents with connecting local transport corridors that disperse the park and ride spaces closer to the houses, cutting the recruitment zone of the existing park and ride parking spaces, thereby freeing up existing spaces for infill development.

busplanner said...

I concur with most of both the main post and the Bruce McF follow-up. One must also recognize that suburban sprawl has already occurred and park-rides in some instances may be the best way to collect dispersed origins to one or a few high density destinatons.

For example, a park-ride that can offer a five minute frequency to an urban core is much more attractive to the typical commuter than a bus route with a bus stop within 1/4 mile but a frequency of every 30-60 minutes.

Of course, a park-ride can be part of a mixed use development or other development that improves land use and may attract reverse commuters.

Cap'n Transit said...

I'm sorry, guys, I forgot to link to my original post about park-and-rides. Yes, short-term they get people to ride the trains and build up a constituency, but long-term they are not the answer for any of our goals (see the list at the top).

Bruce, you seem to be arguing that park-and-rides may be the answer - but only if they're smaller and not really park-and-rides anymore. Well, okay.

Cap'n Transit said...

Oh, and this one too.

George K said...

I'm going to have to disagree about the park-and-rides Cap'n.
I agree that it would be nice to build dense housing near the train station, to attract people to live close enough to the train so that they wouldn't need to drive. However, what about the people further out? Even if there were sidewalks and interesting things to look at, the sheer distance would be enough to discourage people from walking. Also, even if you ran jitneys for those people, the thing about the lower density in the suburbs is that bus routes tend to not do as well compared to the city. If you run frequent shuttle service, the buses will not get as many passengers per bus, and therefore will be inefficient. If the frequency is lower, people will not have the patience to wait for the shuttle and end up driving anyway.
I live in Staten Island, where the more suburban feel is different from my former home in Brooklyn, where getting to the subway was a 5 minute walk. On my side of Staten Island, there are very few park-and-rides, generally because the density is higher and therefore, the buses run more frequently and are still fairly efficient. However, on the South Shore, where the density is lower and there are higher rates of auto ownership, there are more park-and-rides. Although there are buses that feed into the same locations as the park-and-rides, they are still not that well used and are some of the most inefficient routes in the whole city (Routes like the S55, S56, S74/S84, and S78). On the South Shore, it is a more popular option to drive to a Staten Island Railway station/major express bus station than to take a local bus
The point that I am trying to make is that the only real solution besides park-and-rides is to encourage people to live near a transportation hub by building higher density housing in the vicinity of the hub. For the remaining people further out, I just don't think that there is an efficient or effective way of getting those people to the hub besides a park-and-ride.

Cap'n Transit said...

You know, there were no park-and-rides a hundred years ago, and people managed to get where they wanted to go, even in areas with low density.

What makes you think that they have become such an essential part of our society that we will not be able to live without them a hundred years from now?

Alon Levy said...

George K: the practice in a good chunk of the first world is to provide connecting buses that are timed to arrive at the train station just before the train.

Limited numbers of park and rides could work, but even then, they don't need to have a lot of free parking. (For example, Singapore charges for station parking). And most stations don't need large amounts of parking; you'd much rather place retail at the stations, to encourage some reverse commuting and off-peak travel, whose marginal cost to the operator is much lower than that of peak-direction travel.

George K said...

Cap'n Transit: The difference is that fewer people had cars 100 years ago. Therefore, there was no alternative to walking/taking a feeder service to the train to get where they were going. Now that most suburbanites have cars, they are going to use them, especially since, in their minds, it is more convenient than a feeder service.

Alon Levy: The point that I was trying to make is that in lower density areas, those buses would not be well utilized. I am aware that the buses are scheduled to come into the train station before the train leaves, but that strategy is only really effective when the route serves high-demand areas.
The only real way to solve the problem of low demand for shuttles would be either, as you said, charge a modest amount for the parking or make the shuttles free. Part of the reason why the parking lots near the Staten Island Ferry aren't as full as they could be is because they charge $5-$6 for parking, wheras the local bus/Staten Island Railway allows a free transfer to the subway, effectively making the feeder services free.
By the way, how would placing retail at stations attract reverse commuters?

busplanner said...

Some comments on New Jersey Park-Rides (bus and rail):

1. More and more of them are charging for parking.

2. A few of them have a mix of bus and rail service. This adds to the value of the location and increases the frequency potential on the key route (generally into NYC). Many have off-peak and weekend service.

3. Some of them are at least limited mixed use (such as in parking lots of malls. There are additional mixed use proposals in the works.

New Jersey, once you leave the close in to New York suburbs, has many areas that cannot support frequent bus service of a traditional stop every 1/4 mile or more type. The trips into NYC (or Newark or Jersey City or Philadelphia) are too infrequent or too slow to attract suburban commuters. A park-ride permits the collection of these commuters and permits frequent (5-10 minute) peak frequency and decent (30-60 minute) off-peak, night, and weekend frequency.

So, while not ideal from a land use/air quality standpoint, half a loaf is better than none.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks, all. Again, yes, less people had cars a hundred years ago. I want my son to live in a world where, a hundred years from now, hardly anyone will have a car. And I may not have to do anything; other people may be forced to give up their cars by circumstances beyond the control of any of us.

That's the difference between short-term strategies and long-term visions. In the short term, sure, people are going to keep buying cars, but in the long term that's unsustainable. That's why we need to plan for the long term as well as the short term.

Alon Levy said...

George: in cities that bother to make the bus/train transfers work, people use them even when they have cars. Zurich builds canton-wide schedules to maximize transfer convenience, leading to high transit ridership. It has low car ownership by first-world standards, as a result of its good transit system rather than as a cause.

While Europe is far ahead of North America there, it doesn't have a monopoly on getting people to trains on buses. Calgary has made it a strategy to minimize the number of park-and-rides, which are expensive to construct. Instead, it upzones areas around light rail stations. This both generates reverse peak trips in the process and reduces construction costs; Calgary's first three LRT lines were amazingly cheap by any first-world standard, and the system is well-patronized by Sunbelt standards.