Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Park-and-rides and congestion

One reason I've been talking so much about congestion is that it's key to the thinking that goes into these massive park-and-rides. What's baffled me for so long, but what I could never put into words, was the double standard applied to commuting and local trips.

Transit planners wanted to get people out of their cars on Route 17, the New Jersey Turnpike and the Lincoln Tunnel, so they built a park-and-ride (PDF). Now people can take the train from Ramsey to Hoboken or change for trains to Manhattan. But they're still getting in their cars to go to Ramsey, sometimes for many miles. Why don't the planners see it as part of their mission to get them out of their cars door-to-door?

I've already covered the Kotkinism behind this double standard, but now I'm examining the question of how it can be justified. The answer is congestion. At the beginning at least, suburban roads were less congested than urban streets. Since then the constituency for widening suburban roads has been stronger with a broader base, while opposition to widening urban streets has been weaker and less organized. In general, people get more upset about the government knocking down their houses than about it taking away their front yards.

The congestion is also more concentrated as commuters approach the urban core, especially in a centralized city. This makes transit a more obvious and more cost-effective solution for core commutes and less obvious for the "last mile," or ten, or fifty, to home.

If we make "congestion mitigation" the top mission of government transit funding, it's not actually surprising that we get so many Kotkinist park-and-rides, allowing the suburbanites to stay in their cars until the last possible moment. That way the transit planners can take credit for fighting congestion without actually having to worry that some potential riders would be inconvenienced by having to walk to the train, god forbid move to a denser neighborhood.

What if, instead of worrying about congestion, transit planners and their government funders actually thought about reducing pollution and carnage, increasing efficiency, improving society and providing access for all? Would they be building, maintaining and subsidizing them at anywhere near the scale they do now?


Steve Stofka said...

There's truth in this statement, but it still leaves us with a key issue: how do we get transit access to those areas designed without it?

Eric Fischer said...

This was pretty much the explicit rationale for the design of BART in the San Francisco bay area. They designated their routes and construction stages by existing and predicted freeway congestion.

neroden@gmail said...

It's also because *some people* allowed all the rural railroad lines to be ripped out. At that point, the new suburbs became completely car-dependent. Previously, new subdivisions would have clustered around streetcar extensions and railroad stations (as they did historically). This created a massive constituency who, being car-dependent already, will support park-and-riding.

Heck, even I support park-and-rides. Train stations *always* had parking lots. But if you're at the point where you have to build acres of parking or a giant garage, *you haven't extended your trains and buses far enough*. A good park-and-ride on a rural branch line is a small affair....