Monday, August 27, 2007

Park and Rides are Not the Answer

Streetsblog just linked to this New York Times article about how congestion pricing could encourage commuters from the suburbs to take the train or bus instead of driving all the way into Manhattan.

Here's what Times reporter Ken Belson and the planners he interviewed are afraid of:

Still, the money generated from congestion pricing will take years to collect and spend. In the meantime, suburban commuters face crippling traffic jams, overcrowded trains and buses and a shortage of parking spaces at stations. So any new riders might be getting on trains and buses already running at capacity.

Regional governments should be looking to increase train and bus capacity and to encourage private bus operators to get into the act. Here's what they shouldn't be doing:

Mr. Cameron said that 15 percent of Metro-North trains are out of service every day, and Connecticut residents must wait an average of four years to get reserved parking spots at stations on the New Haven Line. There are similarly chronic shortages in New Jersey, Westchester and Long Island. At the Princeton Junction station in West Windsor, there are 3,560 spots to accommodate 7,080 daily riders.


New Jersey Transit and the state’s Department of Transportation have added nearly 15,000 parking spots at train, bus and light-rail stations since 2002 and expect to build an additional 3,700 in the next three years to keep up with ridership, which has hit records the past several years.

Mr. Kolluri and transportation officials elsewhere say that more spaces could be added, but that many towns are unwilling to accept them because they fear an increase in traffic — the same problem that has led Mr. Bloomberg to pursue congestion pricing so vigorously.

Okay, Messrs. Cameron, Kolluri and Belson, repeat after me:

Park and Rides are Not the Answer.
Park and Rides are Not the Answer.
Park and Rides are Not the Answer.

The town leaders have it right: if you build parking, it encourages people to drive. What is the answer? Make it easier for people to get to the train or bus station ... without driving! That cuts down on traffic in the suburbs, which is almost as big a problem as in the city.

The best answer: make it easy for them to walk.

Look at each station, and figure out how many commuters live within a comfortable walking distance. Try walking around the area: does it feel safe? Are there nice, wide sidewalks? Safe places to cross the street? Interesting things to look at? Stores to stop in along the way? If not, build them!

The next best answer: get them to live within walking distance.

All three of the tri-states have made noises about slowing sprawl and encouraging transit-oriented development. But go to any Long Island train station and you won't find too many people living in town. There are stores and parking lots ... and more stores and parking lots. From most of the elevated LIRR stations you can see that the areas behind the stores have been hollowed out to make more parking lots. To find actual houses and apartments you have to walk a while. I know people who've moved to the Island and haven't been able to find an affordable apartment near the train. Fix this. Change the zoning so that developers can build apartment buildings (without parking garages; I'm looking at you, New Rochelle) right near the train and shopping. They walk to the train; no traffic!

The next thing: jitneys and shuttles

Many suburban houses, if they're not walking distance to a train, are a short ride away. If these people ride to the train, they probably don't spend more than fifteen minutes in the car, and most of that is spent sitting in traffic. If they could spend ten minutes on a shuttle bus, they probably would. Make it a small, low-floor bus that can zip through subdivisions. Don't have just three buses that take forever to wind through every cul-de-sac; run a whole bunch. Don't make a lot of widely-spaced bus stops that they have to walk to, make it so that they can just walk to the end of their driveway fifteen minutes before the train leaves, hop on and go.

You tried buses and nobody rode them? Well, the start of the congestion pricing trial is the perfect time to start new habits. Rather than training a whole bunch of new train riders to drive to the station, make the bus easy. Make it free for the first month. Offer free service for a year (and maybe a cash payout too) for anyone who gives up their reserved parking spot. Identify some neighborhood "thought leaders" and do whatever it takes to convince them to ride the bus. If Bob the Systems Administrator sees Liz the Senior VP from Mutual Funds waiting for the bus, maybe he'll try it too.

I'm not even a marketing consultant. I bet a marketing consultant could come up with some even better answers. But please, please move away from the same old sprawl-inducing stopgaps. Repeat after me one more time:

Park and Rides are Not the Answer!


Unknown said...

how about BICYCLE park and rides? if the 'burbs (and the city) were more bike-friendly, it would be a no-brainer to get to the train via a five-, ten-, or fifteen-minute bike ride.

a better bicycle infrastructure could ultimately encourage some people to forgo the train altogether, thus lessening the strain on the transit system.

Cap'n Transit said...

Absolutely, Anne! Some of those suburban roads are pretty scary on a bike, though.

AlexB said...

Sure, no one wants any cars anywhere. But, no one can deny the incredible convenience of having a car in the suburbs. For example, one could get off the train, get in their car, pick up groceries, dry cleaning, etc, and get home in a small amount of time. Shuttle buses or bicycles are not going to decrease this convenience or become a comparable alternative. Development in the NY suburbs is already way too spread out to get everyone to walk/bike/take the bus to the train. Let's pursue what you suggest, but at the same time, try not to forget that someone driving a few miles to a train station is a massive improvement over driving 15 miles to their job. Car dominated Houston has convinced half of all commuters headed downtown to use park and rides.

Cap'n Transit said...

I can and will deny the incredible convenience of the car, anywhere. Unless you're really out in the boonies (where it's inconvenient to go anywhere) or the roads are massively overbuilt, you wind up sitting in traffic. If you miss the strip mall you wanted, you have to keep going to the next cloverleaf and then go back.

"The suburbs" are an incredibly diverse set of places, and most of them are more walkable than people think. In Bronxville you can get off the train, pick up groceries, get your dry cleaning, and whatever other errands you want, and be home in a matter of minutes - all on foot.

Don't forget that density is not some constant force of nature. Build lots of parking lots, and you get people driving everywhere. Provide easy ways for people to get to the train without driving, and you get nice compact, walkable development.

I'm willing to allow that park-and-rides can be a short-term fix, but they're not a long-term solution. If you've got the space, you can put up temporary lots to get train ridership up, and then build on them for transit-oriented development.

swtmix said...

Cap'n Transit, I have to disagree with your comment "I can and will deny the incredible convenience of the car, anywhere."

You are looking through the world with New York eyes. If you were to go to the suburbs of Denver, Phoenix Houston, Cleveland, Atlanta (or most other non-New York suburbs, you would find that they are NOT walkable. In fact, you would find that in most modern US suburban areas, THERE ARE NO SIDEWALKS. I currently live in a Detroit suburb and there are very few sidewalks along ANY of the major roads. I can stand on my balcony and SEE the store I shop at the most (about 3/4 mile away), but there are NO sidewalks between my condo and the store. And this is the norm, not the exception.

In fact, very few subdivisions have sidewalks. In most newer subdivisions, if you want to visit a neighbor three houses down you have to walk in the street because there is no sidewalk to walk on.

And this is not a Detroit phenomenon. I've lived in Denver, Columbus (Ohio), Seattle, Richmond (VA) and Washington DC. Again, in just about all of the newer areas in all of these metro areas a lack of sidewalks IS THE NORM, NOT THE EXCEPTION.

I am all for transit, but it is kind of difficult to walk to it if there is no sidewalk to walk on.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for your comment, Steve. Let me clarify mine a bit by pointing out that you're not talking about the incredible convenience of the car, you're talking about the inconvenience of walking.

Of course it's relative convenience that drives people's mode choices. But there are still plenty of places that have sidewalks, and if governments put money into sidewalks and other pedestrian amenities instead of park-and-rides, we'd have more transit-oriented development and less people driving.

Again, yes, put in a temporary park-and-ride while you wait for the TOD to emerge. But don't think that park-and-rides by themselves are enough.

swtmix said...

Again, I am all in favor of transit but for most of the suburban population in the US, it's not a matter of walking being more inconvenient that driving, it's that walking is basically NOT AN OPTION for them.

Again, take my own personal situation. Within 2 miles of my condo I have:

Home Depot
Meijers (like a super WalMart but nicer)
JC Penney
Best Buy
Dicks Sporting Goods
Several strip malls
A number of restaurants, banks, etc.

But there are NO SIDEWALKS connecting any of these places. So if I want to walk I can:

Walk in the dirt, weeds and mud
Walk in the street with cars driving 50+ mph past me.

True, once I get to some of these places I do have the option of walking across their parking lots dodging the cars.

And this is not an aberration; this is how nearly all US suburbs have been built over the last 30 years, with absolutely NO provisions made for pedestrians. As I stated in my last post, I've lived in a number of metro areas and this is standard in most of the country.

Now, in the situation in your original post, dealing with people commuting into Manhattan from the New York suburbs in New Jersey and Connecticut I can see and agree with your point. But unfortunately, in most of the rest of the country it just won't work without an investment of literally billions of dollars in infrastructure to give people the option of walking.

Again, it would be nice to have the OPTION of walking if I wanted to, but, because of safety concerns if nothing else, for most suburbanites it's not a matter of which mode is more convenient, it's that there is no option.

Unknown said...


It's a mess, but it's not going to get fixed overnight. And it's certainly not going to get fixed everywhere, in one go. But to say that it is un-fixable is defeatists. The cumulative effect of little changes add up over time, especially in the built environment.

So you may never be able to walk to most of the destinations on your list, but you should be able to walk to some of them.