Monday, July 26, 2010

A simple solution to the commuter parking crunch

Today, Ben at Second Avenue Sagas linked to a Wall Street Journal article about the MTA's plans to raise parking fees at its commuter railroad stations. He ends on a note of concern that commuters who are priced out of their parking spots will drive all the way to the city instead.

I can reassure Ben here that this will not increase the number of commuters driving to the city. The article's author, Andrew Grossman, also could have reassured Ben if he had provided some important additional information.

The key here is that parking is in high demand along Metro-North and Long Island Railroad stations. Most stations have wait lists for their parking permits, at some stations customers can wait eight years. Fees vary from $200 a year to almost $1000. Some stations have implemented valet parking to try and squeeze more cars into lots.

I don't blame Ben for not knowing this, but I do blame Grossman for not putting it in his article. Don't tell me there's no one at the Wall Street Journal who's on the wait list for a parking spot at a Metro-North station. Grossman didn't bother to ask, possibly because it suited him and his boss, Rupert Murdoch, to have a story about the MTA vs. the unions, possibly because he was under a tight deadline and went with the simplest frame.

There's something else that Grossman left out. He is a transportation reporter, but he works at, you know, the Wall Street Journal, so you'd think that when he's writing an article about money he would ask someone who knows about money. Like WSJ economics reporter Conor Dougherty, who did a nice article three years ago about Donald Shoup and parking pricing. He might have been able to inform Ben that it's possible to set parking prices to keep the lots about 85% full, so that there is always a space for people who want to park.

Sure, some people will be unable to afford the more expensive fees, and maybe they will drive to the city, or maybe they will walk or take a bus to the train station, or even take a bus all the way to the city. Maybe they weren't even using the spots: the Times quotes Rye City Clerk Dawn Nodarse as a witness to all kinds of market distortions:
The problem fuels itself, she said: As the waiting list gets longer and longer, people who have changed jobs or even retired become increasingly reluctant to relinquish their permits, in case they need them again.

“Maybe they go into the city twice a month, but they know that it takes so long to get the permit, so they hang onto it,” Ms. Nodarse said. “We can’t force people to give up their permits.”

Whatever they do, their spots will be taken by those on the waiting list, who may be driving to the city today. At worst, there will be no change in the number of people driving to the city. At best, it may decrease the numbers. And in all cases, it will bring the subsidy level for the commuter railroads down a bit, closer to the level of NYC transit.

Of course, in the end park-and-rides are not the answer, and should have some kind of sunset provision. Maybe the MTA should just keep raising the parking fees past the Shoupian ideal, using the extra money to subsidize local jitneys and building transit-oriented development on the space that gets freed up.


Barb Chamberlain said...

Do they have a way to bike to the transit stop and either take the bike on the train or keep it securely locked up during the day? That can address some of the demand.


Cap'n Transit said...

Oh yes, Barb, see this page. There are bike racks at most stations, I believe. Bikes aren't allowed on trains during rush hour, though.

George K said...

I really don't think a $1 increase in the parking fee is going to cause people to drive to NYC, where parking is something like $20 per hour. I think parking at a rail station is $5 per day.

busplanner said...

Cap'n Transit - I have never studied Rye, New York; but I do have significant experience in developing rail station feeder service (jitney and conventional bus service). There are many situations in which feeder service "works". However, there are many situations in which feeder service does not "work"; that is, except for one or two peak period trains, the feeders operate basically empty and are probably more environmentally harmful than having commuters drive to the park-ride.

I did take the time to look at Rye on a map. It did appear from just a quick look that jitneys might work within the municipal limits at a reasonable cost; except that I also noted that two "Bee Line" bus routes did a good job of covering most of Rye. If the commuters using the parking are coming from within Rye, it would be interesting to know how a jitney service would significantly improve use of feeder service beyond that already provided by Bee Line buses (or that an expanded Bee Line service - especially frequency - could do more economically than a totally new jitney service).

On the other hand, if commuters are coming from nearby municipalities (such as the northern portion of Harrison), it does not appear that there is the population density in those neighboring areas to support feeder service at all.

One side note: If people are holding onto parking permits for occasional use, I hope Rye is overselling the lot. Almost any large park/ride permit lot can oversell permits by at least 5% of capacity and I know some which are oversold by 50% of capacity to account for people holding onto permits.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for writing, Busplanner. When you calculate the environmental harm of commuters driving to the park-and-ride, are you taking into account the environmental harm of hollowing out downtown Rye for parking?

When I say "jitney service" I just mean some kind of feeder transit. I don't really care who runs it or whether it is dedicated to train riders - but it's better if it's available for shoppers or whoever wants it.

You're right that there's no point in running empty buses, but if the buses are empty, it's important to look at whether the government isn't subsidizing the competition. For example, if commuter parking is operating at a loss, or if the town has made streets less pedestrian friendly in order to encourage people to drive in.

I don't think there's anywhere in New York State south of Bear Mountain that doesn't have the density to support transit. There are only areas where subsidized roads make it impossible for transit to compete.

My point here is that transit doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's competing with private car facilities, and if transit isn't viable you don't blame the transit, you look at the subsidies for driving.

busplanner said...

Cap'n Transit - As I have never been to downtown Rye, I can't truly comment on how or how badly commuter and other parking have hollowed out the area near the rail station in both economic and environmental ways.

However, my experience extends well beyond a commuter rail station located in (or around which) at least a small commercial area developed years ago.

I do believe, however, that there are successful park-rides on the Metro North Port Jervis Line which are not located in traditional "village" or "downtown" settings. In locations like these, local feeder service would most likely not be successful. For the average suburban commuter, time of trip is a major factor. If the feeder service is not reasonably frequent (meets most trains) and reasonably time competitive with driving, it simply will not be used. That is why I made the distinction between feeder service within Rye (where the density for success may exist) and feeder service from northern Harrison (where it appears there is insufficient density for feeder service and it is unlikely that such density would occur if a feeder existed.)

One must also consider that much of the nation, including sections of the NY Metro Area, do not have good rail service to the urban core. In these areas, park-rides located at key limited access highway interchanges serve as useful collectors both for bus service to the urban core and for carpools/van pools to locations where bus service cannot be supported.