It pains me to write these words, but The Seattle Times editorial board is (partially) right about an issue concerning transit. In a recent editorial, they encouraged Sound Transit to plan for continued car use in the design of light rail stations across the region, writing:

At this point, one principle is clear: Whatever is built must include parking…Yet parking remains a friction point, with some Seattle-based environmentalists lobbying the agency to minimize or eliminate parking facilities from its planned stations.

In response, The Stranger and Sierra Club called for those funds to be directed towards more sustainable bike and pedestrian infrastructure. They compared a parking structure at Tukwila International Boulevard with the bicycle and pedestrian bridge in North Seattle linking North Seattle College with the Northgate light rail stop. For approximately half the price ($58-$63 million for the parking structure versus $26-$33 million for the bridge), the bicycle and pedestrian bridge is projected to serve as many riders.

Let me be clear: urban transit centers should prioritize transit connections and arrivals by foot and bike. Our city generally has the infrastructure to move people from their homes to transit centers via these modes. But suburban cities do not.

Suburban street grid patterns generally do not facilitate transportation by means other than cars. They are winding, inefficient, and uninviting to people outside the comfort of their own vehicles. As a result, suburban residents depends on their cars for the “last mile” between home and the transit center shopping center, entertainment, etc. This reality seriously curtails the prospects of sustainability in these communities without serious innovations or rebuilding efforts.

Comparison of urban grid versus suburban grid. (Lawrence Frank & Co. and Sightline Institute)
Comparison of urban grid versus suburban grid. (Lawrence Frank & Co. and Sightline Institute)

I grew up in Issaquah, three miles from the nearest park and ride to Seattle. That three miles translated to a one-hour walk or a 22-minute bike ride, though I did not and would not walk or bike along the suggested route as the experience would be, in every way, unpleasant. The only viable option I had to get to work was to drive, to the park and ride or all the way into the city.

This is the reality for many suburban residents — they would be happy to take the bus, but only if there is an accessible park and ride. Without it, they will drive.

A glimpse of the walking commute I would have had to the local park and ride in the Issaquah Highlands
A glimpse of the walking commute I would have had to the local park and ride in the Issaquah Highlands. (Google Maps)

My local park and ride saved me 32 miles on the road each weekday. But even for residents who want to take the bus into work, too often their park and ride is full as early as 8am, forcing late-day arrivals and people outside the regular 8-to-5 office hours to drive. This impact was felt most by my friends and family in retail — the people who could have benefited the most financially from leaving their car behind.

We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. While many urbanists, myself included, work to create a world in which it is both possible and enjoyable to be car-free, that is not the reality in many suburban communities and will not be for some time. A car-lite lifestyle, however, is within reach.

We can and should continue to push for improvements to change this reality. Dense, transit-oriented development around stations — even atop the park and rides. Expanding bike and pedestrian infrastructure to facilitate residents who can and do choose those modes. These investments are essential in moving suburban communities towards sustainability. But they must be paired with adequate parking structures or we risk leaving suburban residents alienated from one of the most important infrastructure investments in our region’s history.

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Ben is a Seattle area native, living with his husband downtown since 2013. He started in queer grassroots organizing in 2009 and quickly developed a love for all things political and wonky. When he’s not reading news articles, he can be found excitedly pointing out new buses or prime plots for redevelopment to his uninterested friends who really just want to get to dinner. Serving as the Policy and Legislative Affairs Director, Ben primarily writes about political issues.

41 COMMENTS

  1. Nothing against park-and-ride for the suburbs! But how about having the suburbanites who use them pay for them? The ST3 draft proposes more than $1 billion for such suburban facilities, but it implicitly assumes they will be free, and this despite the poor ridership projections and high costs per rider of many of the suburban projects in the proposal. Why should Seattle residents subsidize the suburbs?

  2. You make a very good point. I agree, but like a lot of these issues (rail versus bus, elevated versus underground versus surface) the answer is “it depends”.

    For the areas you mention, park and ride lots make sense. You simply can’t expect bus service to go close enough to every street. The lack of a street grid and lack of population density make that impractical.

    For the same reason, though, extending light rail to those areas doesn’t make sense. To justify the very high cost of brand new light rail, you need to have very high ridership. The farther you go, the more expensive it is to build and operate. If you build a system (like ours) that goes miles without a station, then the stations better serve a lot of people. But park and ride lots are not that big. The biggest lot we have has less than 2,000 spaces, which is a tiny amount of riders.

    They also don’t scale. If you make your lot huge, then you end up with a lot of traffic around the park and ride lot itself, which is usually the problem the driver is trying to avoid. After a certain point, it becomes increasingly expensive to build the lots as well.

    Smaller park and ride lots make sense, each one serving a nearby neighborhood, rather than a giant one serving a city. Buses should serve these park and ride lots, not rail. You simply won’t have the ridership, nor the ridership pattern to justify the high cost of new rail. Once the bus picks up the riders at the park and ride, the bus can then go downtown, or to the nearest rail station. If there is a transfer, then it makes little difference where that transfer takes place. Since our light rail line follows the freeway, taking a bus to a different station is just as fast.

    So, yes, you are absolutely right. For an area like you describe, a park and ride (or a bunch of park and ride) lots makes sense. For the same reason, extending bus service, rather than rail, makes sense to those areas.

  3. Park and rides can keep some cars off the road into Seattle (or Bellevue), though other cars will probably appear to fill their place. They don’t really do anything for air quality, because the largest share of emissions come with the initial cold start. They don’t really create a place either.
    Transit agencies have applied some principles to this question:
    *Transit agencies should seek to use existing parking lots (e.g. churches, shopping malls) before building new ones
    *Park and rides should only be built where walk up (bike up) access is not effective. So definitely not in or adjacent to urban neighborhoods
    *Transit riders who don’t park and ride should not pay any of the costs of the park and ride. So operating costs should be paid by the user; capital costs probably by outside grants. The user could pay capital costs, but that might push costs beyond what people would pay.
    The point is that park and rides are an expensive last resort, not a core strategy

    • Not all those autonomous cars will be in use at all hours of the day and night. They will still need to be stored during their down hours, in areas where there services will be needed.

      • There are acres and acres of asphalt and concrete all around us that are also not fully utilized at all hours of the day and night.

        Any multi lane road could dynamically change from travel lanes to bumper-to-bumper door-to-door parking for fleet vehicles as demand changes from travel to parking. That may not even be needed since already existing parking is inefficient and underutilized. It would be stupid to send passenger-less cars many miles away to some central garage to spend the night or wait out working hours, but fine to have them drive one mile or so to parking on the fringe of the valuable land near a rail station or population centers.

        Wherever the parking is the owner of the vehicle ought to pay for it.

        • (1) Ownership of autonomous cars will drop because with car-as-a-service you pay 0 for anytime you’re not using the car. Right almost everybody “overpays” a tremendous amount for access to a car.–because what most people want is “reliable access,” not owning a car per se, but it’s been the only way to get it. The economics will make owning–or “owning but also not letting it operate for others who pay its cost while you’re not using it”–nuts for anyone who doesn’t constantly drive or have money to burn. Car companies know this and are investing accordingly (e.g., GM $1.5 in Lyft & a tech company, BMW CEO has stated future is fleet management. all of them are investing in this path).

          (2) Once human driven cars are out of the way, autonomous cars can almost literally stop and hang out anywhere. They will be smart smart enough not to hit each other or “parked” vehicles.

          (3) Anyone – from individual homeowner to business to municipality – will be able to ‘publish’ when a spot for a car to park is available and get paid for the time a car’s parked there. You’ll simply need to tap an app to tell it to move if needed.

          • There will always be lots of trips that cannot be accommodated in an on-demand autonomous car — parents with young children who must be strapped in a car seat is but one example. And I can’t fathom accommodating the couple hundred riders getting off Link light rail every 6 minutes at Angle Lake, all looking for that autonomous ride the rest of their way home…

          • There won’t be any human driven cars.

            By 2022 every new car will have autonomous braking (that’s a deal that’s already been made.

            My guess is as late as 2030 before public policy makes the no-brainer choice to prohibit human drivers, but the technology & industry will be ready long before then, and I’m hopeful it will be sooner.

          • Once parents have the option of “a car where there is a significant chance that my kid’s inattention/fatigue/inebriation ill result in their death” vs “a car where that chance is precisely 0” human driven cars will vanish pretty fast even w/o the law

          • I imagine the insurance costs of hold-out human drivers will increase dramatically as more people switch to autonomous vehicles and other transportation options. It will get politically easier to raise the minimum required insurance coverage, raise licensing standards and fees, and make it easier to strip a bad driver of their license permanently (it’s not like you would be reducing their mobility). Though by that time driving on a public road in supposedly non-autonomous cars will be an elaborate fiction where you are allowed to turn and accelerate and decelerate within an increasingly narrow box before the car intervenes (or the cars around you automatically notify the authorities and your insurance rates notch up). It won’t need to be made illegal.

          • Yes, great points. I think two things specifically will be big organic drivers (so to speak): with automated breaking becoming universal in new cars in 2022 (and almost certainly automated parking), the experience of driving is going to change a lot, and I think an entire generation is going to start asking “what’s the point of doing the ‘other stuff?”

            And on the flip side, for any “other stuff you’re doing” universal and complete monitoring by insurance companies of every single behavior of the car/driver means every departure from what your insurer considers “perfect” driving costs you money.

            I think there are apps already that give you real-time feedback: how much fun is driving going to be when every three minutes you’re being warned that what you just did raised your insurance premium? 🙂

          • There is no way 200 car dependent riders every 6 minutes can fit into 1050 parking spots anyhow, unless rush hour is only 30 minutes long.

          • OK, pick another number. Point is the staging of autonomous cars to pick up and drive away large numbers of people, that will be a huge challenge. Thousands exiting a Sounders game and needing to drive away in an autonomous vehicle. I think the whole self-driving car thing will crest at level well below that being predicted by dreamers.

          • Interfacing a high density of people with an extremely low space efficiency transportation method is always going fail. Autonomous cars don’t immediately change that (though they could motivate true ride sharing, and eventually shrink greatly in footprint for single occupants), but they can act as valets to move vehicles to already existing paved areas that don’t cost the taxpayer $50,000 per spot.

          • >> Interfacing a high density of people with an extremely low space efficiency transportation method is always going fail.

            Good point. The opposite is true as well (as I say below). Interfacing a very expensive, high density transportation method (light rail) into a very low density neighborhood (a typical suburb) is likely to fail, or at the very least, be an extremely poor value.

          • What I’m thinking that is even if a light rail station in the middle of nowhere can be made into a success in terms of generating demand, the demand is self-arresting because single occupant cars can’t move all the people from the station to their dispersed destinations- the congestion limits the rate at which cars can pick up or drop off. Right now the limit is however many cars that the garage holds, autonomous cars could raise the limit greatly but are going to create a traffic jam around the station. There has to be bus service or housing or jobs or other attractions within walking distance to justify a stop.

          • @Lucas — I agree, which is why stations of this nature (in places served by BART, for example) do not have the huge ridership that one might expect (given the large number of people who live within driving distance of a station). Even the BART stations that are in relatively dense areas (far more dense than anyplace like Issaquah) don’t have very high ridership.

    • They make a giant leap in that story that people won’t own their autonomous vehicle. There is nothing to indicate that the desire for car ownership will drop if and when autonomous cars become mainstream.

  4. Park and rides, especially those near future light rail stops like Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace, should have an “expiration date” posted prominently on a sign to let drivers know that they will eventually be replaced. It might help fend off any sense of expected permanence that some spoiled users might try and push and prevent transit-oriented development from blossoming.

    Some parking garages near light rail stations will stay until the end of time, though, as they are on un-developable land right up against Interstate 5 or in other weird conditions.

    And furthermore, I’d like to see more kiss-and-ride spots integrated into stations. I use the Smokey Point Transit Center (a rare suburban transit hub with no parking and no kiss-and-ride) and it’s a chore having to choose where to wait for a ride home (either the well-lit but sketchy corner gas station or the unlit Rite Aid parking lot). Not fun!

    • Our next guest speaker on April 12 will be talking about her research on this program. Stay tuned for details!

  5. I think it’s worth taking a step back and try to understand our goals. If our goal is *ridership*, especially in the short term, then park-and-rides are very expensive per rider (you’re providing an expensive parking spot all day for one rider, free with fare!), but do accomplish that goal.

    But something worth noting is that just looking at ridership, you miss the overall impact. Each of those cars taken off the road makes it easier for people to live even further from their jobs. You’ve effectively used transit to widen highways to the far suburbs.

    Also, it’s not as if only people nearby will be parking in these P&R’s – in fact they’re often built at the far ends of a system. Many of the people that will use these actually live even further in the far suburbs. Any time you make it easier or cheaper to live further from work, developers will build there and people will move there. Park and Rides really are sprawl generation machines.

    If instead your goal is to better shape our built environment, then you want to build buildings near these nodes instead. Yes, ridership short-term will suffer. And it’ll be harder to convince people out in the suburbs to vote for it. But over time you’ll get development around these nodes, and perhaps build car-lite lifestyles.

    If you must build park and rides (ugh, and advocate for them on an Urbanist website), then at least make sure you charge for parking.

    • Wow – now park and rides are the cause of suburban sprawl? That is one giant leap of logic with essentially zero substance behind it.

      • Certainly not *the cause*. But a contributing factor. We have a hub-and-spoke land use pattern that’s geographically constrained and where jobs tend to be in the center and homes outside the center. This means the limit to sprawl is how fast and cheaply people can travel from the outside edge to the core. The typical potential homeowner goes through a balance in their mind of effort/cost of commute versus cost of a home.

        This limit is currently enforced by traffic. Only so many cars can fit on our roads anywhere near rush hour. Adding rail effectively increases the number of people that can travel from the far suburbs to downtown during a rush hour. That doesn’t worry me too much if we keep the growth fairly well concentrated (transit oriented development near stations). It does worry me if we just gave future residents of the far suburbs a free parking spot and a way to skip traffic.

        • Sprawl is more a result of a lack of proper housing in the core due to absurd land use codes. People build out because no one had the foresight to build dense. Unfortunately now the only density getting built are apartments for singles, SINKs, and DINKs. So until people with families have more options closer in, this is what will continue. And because of that, P&Rs become necessary. They are a byproduct, not a cause.

        • We have a multi-hub land use pattern. It’s past time to move beyond the notion that Downtown Seattle is the only hub, the only center worth thinking about. At the Ash Way Park-and-Ride in Lynnwood, express routes take bus riders to downtown Bellevue and the UW, as well as downtown Seattle. Enough with the Seattle parochialism.

    • What if Sound Transit works with respective cities and only partially fund Park and Rides. The cities could then reserve the spots for its residence using permits. The city would have a choice to keep it free or make it paid to recover some of its cost. The spots would be reserved till say 9 am after which they would be open to all.

      This may help reduce the cost of building parking for Sound Transit, limit sprawl since the parking will primarily be used by residents of each city and also make cities and possibly car owners pay for it.

    • @Matt_the_Engineer:disqus this is an insightful post but perhaps it is worth taking even further. What we’re talking about (if we think broadly about goals and interests) is not “urban versus suburban.” Rather, it’s “people in the suburbs who may be eager or at least willing to live next to transit” versus “people in the suburbs who don’t want to pay market rates for getting to transit stations from their inconveniently distant houses.” The former group is really who is being deprived by filling adjacent land with and using funds to subsidize parking versus filling adjacent land with housing and subsidizing walkability.

  6. If there’s such demand for park and ride space to fill it at 8am, then why does Sound Transit need to subsidize park and rides? It seems like they would get built privately anyway.

    • Better yet, if we’re spending $50k per parking stall in a big garage that fills up before peak really begins, why aren’t people driving paying for their spot? We have to pay to use Link and the bus or to park at the Airport.

      • People ride the bus so they can avoid paying for parking. Once you drop that incentive, ridership will drop. There is no incentive to sit in traffic on a bus if you can do the same thing in your car.

        • We have a limited roadway capacity. You just can’t add more cars. Time is the main incentive, not just money.

          Besides, where are people going to park for free in downtown Seattle?

          • They aren’t, that is the point. If people have to pay to park no matter what, they will choose the location closest to their work. If you are going to sit in traffic anyways, it might as well be in your own car.

            People tolerate sitting on the bus in traffic because they shed the expense of parking.

          • We’re talking about a few dollars, compared to $12+ downtown. If they aren’t willing to pay that, they’re welcome to sit in traffic and pay downtown.

    • Exactly. If there really is that much demand, let the private market take care of it. I’m not 100% against P&Rs; I’m against using public money to build and subsidize them. Ben seems to have missed that point.

  7. I don’t think many people are going to disagree with you that P&Rs are a necessary evil outside Seattle. That was not the main point of the editorial. What urbanists take issue with, and what you did not address, was this line:

    “Even in dense, urban areas, Sound Transit should plan for continued use of the automobile despite the anti-car zealotry in vogue at Seattle City Hall.”

    No.

    Write an article about that bullshit instead.

    • Actually I’ve met people who do disagree, so this article does a good job of explaining the problem. Because suburbia is so hard to access many inner city residents rarely visit it and do not understand its problems.

      The corollary to that is that to make suburbia more accessible to city dwellers you need to provide exactly more transit and less parking. The question is – what is more important – allowing suburbanites to access the city or allowing city dwellers to access suburbia. If you look at travel patterns the former is by far more common than the latter.

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