The dirty truth behind Park & Rides

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Park and ride facilities are darling infrastructure of the transit planning profession. By providing “free” parking to lure choice riders out of cars and onto buses and trains, ridership can get a big boost. No wonder transit operators in our metro provide 258% more “free” parking spaces than fifteen years ago, when the first Regional Park & Ride survey was conducted by the Met Council.

This article is reposted from TCDP media partner Streets.MN. Check out the links below for other recent Streets.MN stories:

According to the recent report and a summary in today’s Star Tribune, 2,216 parking spaces were added in 2013. The biggest gain this year, 580 net-new structured parking spaces at the 1,000 space Maplewood Mall transit station, cost $13.9 million dollars – nearly $24,000 for every added parking space.

Park & ride investment represents walk & ride disinvestment

Left: More amenities than most bus stops… (Photo: Wikimedia/CC)

In Minneapolis, we’re lucky to have anything more than a sign at our transit stops. We have plenty of room for improvement for our local service. But we instead choose to binge on ridership growth on the fringe, no matter how much money it costs us to “buy” those riders. Yet there are opportunity costs: For less than the cost of two Maplewood park & rides serving up to (2×580=) 1160 parked cars, we’re building a full Arterial BRT line on Snelling Avenue scheduled to open next year. Those improvements will serve an estimated ridership of 8,700. And, unlike additional parking spaces, these amenities serve all riders (not just the 3,000 new ones). This is 7.5 times more productive than the same investment in parking.

The Met Council’s park & ride fetish hurts towns, too. The Northstar commuter rail line was built with 2,772 park & ride spaces. Yet only a third of those spaces were used in 2012, for a commuter service which has a farebox recovery ratio of roughly half our bread-and-butter urban transit services (the ones we can’t find the money to improve). But we lost a huge opportunity on our $320 million Northstar investment in 2009 – instead of connecting existing, walkable, rail-adjacent downtown cores of Elk River and Big Lake, we built stations with hundreds of parking spaces in corn fields.

Right: “Parking Lot Express” (Photo: Wikimedia/CC)

There’s no such thing as free parking

The reality is that real estate devoted to the storage of motor vehicles costs money – whether it’s 20 spaces leased from a church or $20 million in new parking structures. Clearly, subsidized parking plays a significant role in the makeup of our regional transit system – but who’s paying? Not just the folks leaving their cars in the ramp to get on the downtown bus.

If the new Maplewood Mall ramp capital is amortized over a 20 year period, we’re spending roughly $1200 per space per year to have the capacity for 580 new park & riders. At 240 workdays a year, a $5 parking fee would be necessary just to pay off the investment. $5 per person in addition to the transit fare to operate the bus. A $5 parking fee which wouldn’t even pay for maintenance, snow removal, and lighting – so let’s bump that up to $7. And that’s assuming those ramps are full every work day. But they’re not. In 2012, MinnPost noted that roughly 2/3 of spaces were occupied. Tack on another $2.50 for the principle payment to cover the space elsewhere in the park & ride system that cost money but is not storing a car.

Suburban park & riders are clearly not paying $9.50 to park before paying an additional fare to get on the bus. Someone else is paying to subsidize their car storage habits. And you’re it.

How unfairness plays out

Imagine yourself as one of these two transit riders:

  • You board Route 94 in Downtown Minneapolis for a 10 mile, 20 minute ride to Downtown St. Paul for an end of the day meeting. You pay a $3 express rush hour fare, the same fare as someone who just boarded Route 467 to Lakeville – a 22 mile, 45 minute ride to the $8.7 million parking ramp where their car is parked (for “free”). You’re indirectly subsidizing their car storage habits.
  • You walk or bike from your transit-adjacent apartment to the Apple Valley Transit Station, a $21 million replacement to the original parking-constrained station across the street, where you pay $3 to board an express 480 to Downtown St. Paul. You sit next to someone who drove their car to the station and parked for free, but paid the same fare as you. You’re indirectly subsidizing their car storage habits.

Our current problem with parking is that it is nearly always bundled into other transactions. You’re nearly always paying for it hidden in the prices of goods, services, taxes, or transit fares – whether you use it or not. This causes two severe problems that are eroding our land use and mobility decisions. First, people are paying for something irrespective of their use, so people who don’t require car storage are paying for people who do.

It also interrupts a valuable feedback loop that exists to help people make decisions that are efficient for the individual and society as a whole: If that feedback loop existed, people would make better choices. If we did not find it to be a public responsibility to pay $10/day so transit can compete with the public responsibility to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into suburban freeway infrastructure, people may decide that it’s not wise to live 30 miles away from their job.

Changes needed

It’s not wise for our transit strategy to attract ridership at all costs by subsidizing car storage. Nor is it fair to transit riders who, by their own choice, pay the same fare but do not consume the same expensive parking spaces. There’s a solution.

Right: Technology!

Modern technology allows us to decouple parking costs from other costs, which is the first step. The near-ubiquity of GoTo cards (especially on commuter routes) allows for us to have a fast way to account for parking transactions, possibly with an RFID-equipped entry gate or a validation match to a parking space. For those without GoTo cards, new technology similar to parking meter kiosks can be used to conduct parking transactions. This change allows people to have proper incentives to make parking decisions based on the cost (or at least the partial cost) of their choice.

The second step is to eliminate the express fare for those who do not consume parking spaces. The fare would then fairly represent time-access to the regional transit network, whether you’re using the 94 Express or the Green Line local.

To start, the parking charge can be $0.75, the difference between the current local and express fares. Over time, the parking charge can increase until it fully covers the cost of parking maintenance, payoff of incurred debt to build parking, and a demand-responsive increase of park & ride spaces at the market rate for parking.

Eventually, parking could become a profit center for bus operations, assuming the cost for parking and the transit fare are marginally more valuable to potential riders than an excruciating commute on a packed freeway. Instead of today’s cost center, where parking soaks money that could otherwise be used on productive transit, it could actually make transit better – for all of us.

Start asking questions

MinnPost notes, “The [Met] Council projects that the region will need over 40,000 spaces by 2030 to keep pace with demand.” That demand exists because the cost of parking is free. Planners see this as the cost of growing ridership. But it’s really a cost to quality transit service for people who don’t need park & rides. Are we going to meet demand for something which, when free, appears limitless? Or will we ask suburban riders to pay their fair share – the costs borne from their decisions?