Park-and-Rides (Hoisted from Comments)

My post about the boundary zone between the transit-oriented city and its auto-oriented suburbs led to a lot of interesting discussions in comments, including my favorite thing to hear: “what you said describes my city too.” The city in question is Philadelphia, and the commenter, Charles Krueger, asked specifically about park-and-ride commuter rail stations. My post had mentioned Southeast on the Harlem Line as an interface between commuter rail and the Westchester motorway network, and the natural followup question is whether this is true in general.

The answer is that it’s complicated, because like the general concept of the cars/transit boundary zone, park-and-rides have to be rare enough. If they’re too common, the entire rail system is oriented around them and is not really a boundary but just an extension of the road network. This is the situation on every American commuter rail system today – even lines that mostly serve traditional town centers, like the New Haven Line, focus more on having a lot of parking at the station and less on transit-oriented development. Even some suburban rapid transit lines, such as the Washington Metro, BART, and the recent Boston subway extensions, overuse park-and-rides.

However, that American suburban rail systems overuse such stations does not mean that such stations must never be built. There are appropriate locations for them, provided they are used in moderation. Those locations should be near major highways, in suburbs where there is a wide swath of low-density housing located too far from the rail line for biking, and ideally close to a major urban station for maximum efficiency. The point is to use suburban rail to extend the transit city outward rather than the auto-oriented suburban zone inward, so the bulk of the system should not be car-oriented, but at specific points park-and-rides are acceptable, to catch drivers in suburbs that can’t otherwise be served or redeveloped.

Peakiness and park-and-rides

I’ve harped on the importance of off-peak service. The expensive part of rail service is fixed costs, including the infrastructure and rolling stock; even crew labor has higher marginal costs at the peak than off-peak, since a high peak-to-base ratio requires split shifts. This means that it’s best to design rail services that can get ridership at all times of day and in both directions.

The need for design that stimulates off-peak service involves supportive service, development, and infrastructure. Of these, service is the easiest: there should be bidirectional clockface schedule, ideally with as little variation between peak and off-peak as is practical. Development is politically harder, but thankfully in the main example case, the Northeastern United States, commuter rail agencies already have zoning preemption powers and can therefore redevelop parking lots as high-intensity residential and commercial buildings with walkable retail.

Infrastructure is the most subtle aspect of design for all-day service. Park-and-ride infrastructure tends to be peaky. Whereas the (peakier, more suburban) SNCF-run RER and Transilien lines have about 46% of their suburban boardings at rush hour, the LIRR has 67%, Metro-North 69%, and the MBTA 79%. My linked post explains this difference as coming from a combination of better off-peak service on the RER and more walkable development, but we can compare these two situations with the Washington Metro, where development is mostly low-density suburban but off-peak frequency is not terrible for regional rail. Per data from October 2014, this proportion is 56%, about midway between Transilien and the LIRR.

This goes beyond parking. For one, railyards should be sited at suburban ends of lines, where land is cheap, rather than in city center, where land is expensive and there is no need to park trains midday if they keep circulating. But this is mostly about what to put next to the train stations: walkable development generating a habit of riding transit all day, and not parking lots.

Where parking is nonetheless useful

In response to Charles’ comment, I named a few cases of park-and-rides that I think work well around New York, focusing on North White Plains and Jersey Avenue. There, the parking-oriented layout is defensible, on the following grounds:

  1. They are located in suburban sections where the reach of the highway network is considerable, as there is a large blob of low density, without much of the structure created by a single commuter line.
  2. They are near freeways, rather than arterials where timed connecting buses are plausible.
  3. They are immediately behind major stations in town centers with bidirectional service, namely White Plains and New Brunswick, respectively.

The importance of proximity is partly about TOD potential and partly about train operating efficiency. If the park-and-rides are well beyond the outer end of bidirectional demand, then the trains serving them will be inefficient, as they will get relatively few off-peak riders. A situation like that of Ronkonkoma, which is located just beyond low-ridership, low-intensity suburbs and tens of kilometers beyond Hicksville, encourages inefficient development. Thus, they should ideally be just beyond the outer end, or anywhere between the city and the outer end.

However, if they are far from the outer end, then they become attractive TOD locations. For example, every station between New York and White Plains is a potential TOD site. It’s only near White Plains that the desirability of TOD diminishes, as White Plains itself makes for a better site.

On rapid transit in American suburbia, one example of this principle is the Quincy Adams garage on the Red Line just outside Boston. While the station itself can and should be made pedestrian-friendlier, for one by reopening a gate from the station to a nearby residential neighborhood, there’s no denying the main access to the station will remain by car. Any TOD efforts in the area are better spent on Quincy Center and Braintree, which also have commuter rail service.

Where parking should urgently be replaced by TOD

American suburban rail lines overuse park-and-rides, but there are specific sites where this type of development is especially bad. Often these are very large park-and-ride structures built in the postwar era for the explicit purpose of encouraging suburban drivers to use mainline rail for commuter and intercity trips. With our modern knowledge of the importance of all-day demand, we can see that this thinking is wrong for regional trips – it encourages people to take rail where it is the most expensive to provide and discourages ridership where it is free revenue.

The most important mistake is Metropark. The station looks well-developed from the train, but this is parking structures, not TOD. Worse, the area is located in the biggest edge city in the Northeast, possibly in the United States, possibly in the world. Middlesex County has 393,000 jobs and 367,000 employed residents, and moreover these jobs are often high-end, so that what the Bureau of Economic Analysis calls adjustment for residence, that is total money earned by county residents minus total money earned in the county, is negative (Manhattan has by far the largest negative adjustment in the US, while the outer boroughs have the largest positive one). The immediate area around Metropark and Woodbridge has 46,000 jobs, including some frustratingly close to the station and yet not oriented toward it; it’s a huge missed opportunity for commercial TOD.

In general, edge cities and edgeless cities should be prime locations for sprawl repair and TOD whenever a suburban rail line passes nearby. Tysons, Virginia is currently undertaking this process, using the Silver Line extension of the Metro. However, preexisting lines do not do so: Newton is not making an effort at TOD on the existing Green Line infrastructure, it’s only considering doing so in a part of town to be served by a potential branch toward Needham; and the less said about commuter rail, the better. Mineola and Garden City on Long Island, Tarrytown in Westchester, and every MBTA station intersecting Route 128 are prime locations for redevelopment.

Commuter rail for whomst?

I believe it’s Ant6n who first came up with the distinction between commuter rail extending the transit city into the suburbs and commuter rail extending the suburbs into the city. If the trains are frequent and the stations well-developed, then people from the city can use them for trips into suburbia without a car, and their world becomes larger. If they are not, then they merely exist to ferry suburban drivers into city center at rush hour, the one use case that cars are absolutely infeasible for, and they hem car-less city residents while extending the world of motorists.

Park-and-rides do have a role to play, in moderation. Small parking lots at many stations are acceptable, provided the station itself faces retail, housing, and offices. Larger parking structures are acceptable in a handful of specific circumstances where there is genuinely no alternative to driving, even if the rest of the rail service interfaces with walkable town centers. What is not acceptable is having little development except parking at the majority of suburban train stations.

38 comments

  1. Ben Ross

    You leave out a crucial function of suburban parking at stations. Most US cities have many parking lots and above-ground garages in their downtowns. When such a city begins to develop a rail system, parking at suburban stations substitutes for parking downtown. It’s usually more economically attractive, and also better for the development of urbanism, to build on a downtown parking lot than on a suburban parking lot.

    Once the city gets rid of above-ground parking in the center, parking lots at suburban stations become an easy development opportunity. They have kept land in reserve for intense development — something that would be more difficult if the land had already been developed at insufficient density.

    The DC Metro offers multiple examples of this. It took a quarter-century after the Metro opened for parking garages in the pre-existing office downtown to be torn down and replaced with office buildings. The ending of this process coincides roughly with an acceleration of development around suburban stations.

    • Alex B.

      I do think this sequencing is important – the age and era of the Metro in DC helps draw out the process, but I think it’s a bit messier in other American cities.

      The one caveat I’d note is that DC is rather unique here. First, there’s still a ton of parking downtown – not nearly as much if it had continued to develop without Metro, but there’s still a lot of it. Second, DC has effectively banned above-ground parking in most of the Downtown area. Third, the combination of a strong real estate market and the unique height limit mean that there’s very little incentive for above-ground parking of any kind, even if it were allowed. Lots of other cities aren’t forced into the same choice when it comes to eliminating downtown parking garages.

    • Alon Levy

      But that raises the question, why isn’t the rail station in the city’s downtown to begin with? Most of these suburbs aren’t Alexandria, where the traditional city center is preindustrial and far from the rail line.

    • Brad Ackerman

      Greenbelt is long overdue for making productive use of the land currently occupied by a sea of surface parking.

  2. Oreg

    Many great points. Park-and-ride stations make rail service accessible to drivers where there is no public transit feeder service available—but then they vastly lower the incentive to develop a feeder service.

  3. Alex B.

    I’m not familiar with this:

    “Development is politically harder, but thankfully in the main example case, the Northeastern United States, commuter rail agencies already have zoning preemption powers and can therefore redevelop parking lots as high-intensity residential and commercial buildings with walkable retail.”

    What agencies have zoning preemption, and have used that to build mixed-use development?

    • Alon Levy

      CDOT tried doing TOD in Stamford over NIMBY objections; the project failed, but because of financing, not because of local opposition. Overall the agencies don’t really do this though, due to capture by suburban interests.

    • Patrick

      The MTA also has zoning preemption power. Since zoning is done at the local level in most northeastern states, state (and federal) entities don’t have to abide by local restrictions. I discuss the application in the MTA’s case here: https://www.thelirrtoday.com/2019/01/development-near-transit.html

      In the past (like development efforts at the former NYS psychiatric hospitals), the state has been hesitant to use its outright preemption and bypass the localities, because any development would require services at some point…then the state either has to set up entirely duplicate streams for utilities, services, etc., or ask the municipalities to do that, saddling whatever development does come to be with extraordinary property tax bills, since existing residents won’t want to bear the expense of serving this new development built by subverting local processes. It’s one that has to be approached with great care, in areas where there is already some appetite for downtown development, and a way to work out some sort of PILOT scheme that doesn’t get the buildings stuck with huge tax bills, or encourage existing residents to get out their torches and pitchforks.

      The MTA has not taken a great interest in utilizing their power to catalyze development near transit, though some board members have encouraged the agency to do so to relieve its current financial stress. At the end of the day, it’s also a competency issue…if they struggle to get the trains to run on time (their core competency), what makes us think they will succeed in suburban development? As we’ve seen in other areas where they’ve ventured off the beaten path (e.g. Fulton Street), the results are often lackluster.

      • Alex B.

        Patrick,

        Thanks, that’s an interesting read. I’m familiar with zoning pre-emption for facilities, but not for otherwise run of the mill commercial development. I’d expect such a move would be challenged in court and it would be interesting to see how that would shake out.

        Perhaps that ability is the starting-point for negotiations about zoning around stations, however.

        Back to the original point: any examples of agencies in the US actually using this kind of pre-emption successfully for mixed-use development?

          • Alex B.

            Ah, I found the Environmental Report: http://www.ct.gov/dot/lib/dot/documents/denviro/stamford_final_eie_8-21-12.pdf

            I think one key element here is that though the state asserted the right to be exempt from zoning for any state-owned land, the proposed action here (despite modest deviations from the existing zoning) was still (per the environmental report) consistent with the local and regional plans for the area. Even so, for the portions of the plans that would’ve required a zoning change, those changes seemed rather modest.

            I still don’t know if that kind of pre-emption is really going to be a useful tool without some other kind of political and planning support (and pre-assembled land).

  4. Patrick

    I am glad to see you think park and rides have at least some role in suburban rail, unlike some others. Though while using zoning preemption to build on existing parking land near train stations is a good idea, it’s important to not shut out existing users of the facilities. With large distances between branch lines in the suburbs, there will still be a large amount of people in the middle, beyond walking distance or the effective reach of buses. I think if you take a surface parking lot and transform it into a 2-story subsurface parking garage with a 6- or 8-story apartment building on top, we are still coming out ahead.

  5. michael b

    It seems to me that a properly executed P&R station in a major metro area should be designed almost exactly the same as a mid-sized airport terminal, and probably have a similar funding stream (ad valorem ticket fees, retail stall rentals, and parking fees). 1. The station concourse should contain retail, rather than trying to build adjacent TOD. There’s going to foot traffic, but the surrounding couple blocks will probably be quite hostile pedestrians. While beyond those couple blocks won’t be particularly walkable. 2. The station should be served by bi-level road infrastructure for arrivals and departures. 3. Cell phone lot & taxi holding areas. 4. Arriving passengers should cross under departure ramp to access the major central parking garage with rental car desks on the ground level. 5. The arrivals road should be 2 stage with active pick-up closest to the station and regional buses further away. 6. It all needs a ring road circulate traffic between levels & back to the highway. Basically, a smaller version of this, replacing the airport terminal with rail station.

    https://www.google.com/maps/@43.1290834,-77.6678187,627m/data=!3m1!1e3!5m1!1e2

    If it can’t be done the “right” way, then it should be in-filled with TOD.

    • adirondacker12800

      Why would it need car rentals? It reason for being is so that suburbanites can drive there and park.

      • michael b

        That’s how it is currently, but I would disagree with that being the best approach. IMO, the purpose of a Park & Ride should be to serve as the functional transfer point between the mass transit-oriented city & the auto-oriented suburbia, which means having an environment that’s effective at mixing outbound city residents and inbound suburban. Airports, which are a form of mass transit, already do this pretty effectively.

        I grew up near an MBTA commuter rail P&R, and it’s far from the efficiency of an airport. From the suburban perspective, the standard P&R interface doesn’t work well:
        1. The parking regime doesn’t consider trips other than 1 day commuter. There’s only a daily rate. There’s no differentiation for short or long term parking. And every spot in the lot is taken by 7AM, rendering the station nearly useless thereafter. At the airport, there’s various pricing tiers & long term parking is pushed to the back of the lot, off-site, or top of the garage.
        2. Given the parking realities, you could get dropped off in the morning & take a taxi/TNC at night, however there’s really no “mass” at any station beyond 128 to support a functional taxi service – it’s too dispersed. So each station has 2-4 taxis or ubers in the vicinity, but it’s unreliable & there’s no recourse.
        3. Given the parking & taxis realities, you could ride a bike, walk, or take a bus (or maybe even a moped) to the station, but there’s absolutely considerations for anyone arriving outside of a car, so it’s totally dysfunctional.

        So almost everyone that uses commuter rail arrives at exactly 6:35 & takes the 6:42 inbound.

        Then, in the opposite direction, the design is functionally useless for the majority of transit riders. The P&Rs are too dispersed, too low amenitized. The interface to taxi or local bus is dysfunctional or non-existent. There’s almost never a rental car counter or even a zip car. And most of the towns are BAD for walk/bike.

      • Steve

        I wouldn’t advocate for all P&R stations to have car rentals, but I am carless in NYC and when I do rent a car my first choice is to take commuter rail out of the city and rent near a station. After all, I’m not renting to drive in the city but to drive away from it! Stations that I know of that have car rentals in or nearby include Seacaucus Junction (a 10-minute walk), Stamford (across the street) and New Haven (in the station), and I’ve rented at them all. Much cheaper than renting in the city plus you don’t have to deal with traffic in/out of the city. It also helps to reduce congestion in the city, something that is of great concern now. I’d like to see more car rentals at train stations, especially if a goal is to make commuter rail bidrectionally useful for everyone.

        • adirondacker12800

          Those aren’t park and ride stations. They might behave like it to some extent but they weren’t designed that way.

          • Steve

            No, but P&R or not P&R wasn’t my point – renting at a commuter rail station is really what I was getting at. If I’m renting a car, I don’t really care what else is around the station and the farther out from the city I can get to rent a car the better it is all around. I would think that I’m not the only person who would use them if people knew about them. Many people who rent cars in the city do so just because they don’t think that there are other options.

          • adirondacker12800

            I wanted to rent a car in New Jersey and get there by train I’d use Newark Airport, more alternatives to escape the gridlock. They build an ginormous park and ride in Connecticut you’ll still be able to rent a car in Stamford or New Haven.

        • michael b

          Yeah, I agree. I would infill develop as many P&Rs as needed so that the remaining few locations are substantial enough to have all necessary amenities. When I lived in DC & Boston, none of the stations functioned coherently for outbound city residents. So I’d have to use the airports (Logan, National) for car rental services.

          Actually – living now in Milwaukee – and the airport here actually happens to function well as an outbound transfer point from the city since there’s local bus service connecting to car rental, plus all the rail & interurban bus connections. It doesn’t seem to function particularly well for inbound suburbanites, though.

  6. adirondacker12800

    For example, every station between New York and White Plains is a potential TOD site.

    Most of them already are New Urbanist’s wet dream of TOD-y-ness. A really quick surf through Wikipedia showed the the station with the most parking is Fleetwood with parking spaces for 27 percent of the passengers. They could all be getting there in three person car pools but I doubt that.

    The most important mistake is Metropark. The station looks well-developed from the train, but this is parking structures, not TOD.

    That part of Middlesex County needs a park-n-ride somewhere. Where should it be? It has dedicated ramps to/from the Garden State Parkway. Is there someplace that would be “better”? North of the tracks was already developed when they did that and south of the tracks, beyond the parking, was developed into offices.

    Iselin has it’s own CDP and is already quite dense and getting denser. … where should the park-n-ride be?

    A situation like that of Ronkonkoma, which is located just beyond low-ridership, low-intensity suburbs and tens of kilometers beyond Hicksville, encourages inefficient development. Thus, they should ideally be just beyond the outer end, or anywhere between the city and the outer end.

    Put it in Ronkonkoma they lose the urge to drive to Hicksville or Babylon. The people who live in Ronkonkoma are getting grumpy about the popularity. So popular they had to double track it. It’s probably time to think about a dedicated park-n-ride with ramps directly connected to the Long Island Expressway. Out in the middle of nowhere a bit farther east.

    • Alon Levy

      That part of Middlesex County is dense enough for connecting buses, and maybe small parking structures spread across two branches. People will grumble at the loss of parking, but the ability to run short-stop and reverse-peak service to Metropark if office development is walkable from the station is really valuable.

      That Ronkonkoma and Hicksville are substitutes for each other for park-and-riders says everything. These stations are 38 km apart on the Main Line, maybe a bit less on the highways. Long Island’s population isn’t growing – both counties are permitting less than 1 housing unit per 1,000 people per year (NYC: 2.5, Tokyo: 11). So beyond basic schedule reliability (=double-tracking to Ronkonkoma), there’s no need to invest in capacity there, at least not until the white flighters all die or move to Florida and get replaced by pro-growth voters. The spare capacity on the LIRR should go to the city and service planning should focus on the growth market of reverse-peak service rather than on trying to give a flat population more one-seat express trains to Penn Station.

      • adirondacker12800

        Wikipedia says Metropark has 3,615 parking spaces and 7,447 average weekday boardings. The offices and hotel are already developed, I suspect some hardy hikers walk to the office from the station. No mention in Wikipedia of private shuttles. I suspect the people in Iselin and Colonia are finding their way there without parking or if they do drive they don’t use the Garden State Parkway. It is where the Northeast Corridor crosses the Garden State Parkway, where should the park-n-ride be? You didn’t answer that question. Purely anecdotal and paraphrased, one of the usual whines is “The North Jersey Coast is too slow. I fight traffic on the Parkway and park in Metropark”. Once they get to the top of the years long waiting list. Where should the park-n-rides be? It would likely be a very good thing if the Long Branch expresses served a park-n-ride in the median of the Parkway that keeps the parking out of Matawan, Hazlet etc and the traffic out too. Freeing up space for other people who don’t use Metropark because the lots fill up at dawn. How many park-n-rides should there be in New Jersey? Keep in mind that PATCO has a few. Keeps traffic off the bridges and out of Philadelphia. Where should they be on Long Island? Or Massachusetts?
        The people who drive to Ronkonkoma or Hamilton aren’t driving to Hicksville, Babylon or New Brunswick. If wasn’t for the peak commuters creating demand the reverse commuters wouldn’t have any service.. Is it better they get on a train closer to home or drive farther to get on one? And why can’t the agency do two or three things instead just one? MetroNorth and NJTransit are managing to do some.

  7. Joseph Brant

    Where do you think the appropriate areas for BART/Caltrain park and rides should be?

    • Reedman Bassoon

      Where they are built. Milpitas/Great Mall and San Jose/Berryessa. The problem is that the concept of “park and ride” requires “ride”, and those BART stations, with their parking lots, have sat unused for a year and a half while BART figures out how to buy trains and run trains. Mountain View is where VTA/Light Rail and Caltrain meet. If Google expands and BART extends to downtown San Jose, then BART, Caltrain, VTA/Light Rail, ACE, and Capitol Corridor will have a merge point [along with HSR in the far distant future]. P.S. The Milpitas BART station is also an excellent location for park and ride to Levi’s Stadium, with VTA/Light Rail right to the front gates. P.P.S. There is a Great America Amtrak station next to Levi’s, but it gets few trains, so it is not worth considering. P.P.P.S There is a separate problem with “kiss and ride”, because large portions of stations are red curbs, where stopping to let someone out is a big-time traffic ticket.

    • Paul

      In the East Bay:
      El Cerrito del Norte is a good P&R for the I-80 corridor
      East of the hills (Orinda-Antioch, West Dublin/Pleasanton, Dublin/Pleasanton). There’s very little local ridership in these areas, most people are going to/from San Francisco. You could certainly make a case for redeveloping the parking at Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill as TOD, but the feeder buses would need to be improved.

      • Reedman Bassoon

        BART has a 3000 person, multi-year waiting list for parking in Pleasanton. The structure is full at 7:30am many mornings. But, BART considers adding more parking there to be in conflict with its “transit first” thinking. So, it refuses to expand. So, the local government just broke ground on a new 700 space parking structure (city government doesn’t need BART’s permission) that is typical “California overpriced transit construction”.

  8. rational plan

    Most UK stations have parking, but many are not large, as they are mainly located on former station goods yards. All but the most remote ones, charge for the parking as well. A lot of people will drive further and pay more to park at the busier stations, ignoring a local station, because the busier station will have semi and express services and a lot more frequency, which is important if you end up delayed in town and don’t want to rely on your local stations less frequent evening service where you might only have a train every half hour that calls at every little station on the way home.

  9. Josh

    I disagree about peakiness and costs. My local transit line, the LA gold line, conducts most maintenance midday. This is obviously cheaper in labor costs than evening or night maintenance. This means about 1/3 of the time midday frequencies are 15 min or worse. In turn that means that no one relies on the line for short midday trips as it just isn’t reliable enough. Therefore they are run every 12 min instead of more frequent, because they are only used for long trips anyway.
    Anyway trains and track maintenance are based on track usage, and I suspect old trains are discarded partially based on mileage just like cars, so all those costs are proportional to the number of trains.

    • Alon Levy

      Train maintenance isn’t really based on track usage, though… acquisition-and-maintenance contracts here do not even bother specifying mileage, they go by years. Moreover, train lifespan seems pretty consistent, around 40 years, regardless of usage. London’s trains get about 50% more distance driven per year than New York’s, but last the same amount of time.

      Track maintenance, same thing. The international benchmarks for HSR maintenance costs are constant; I’ll dig up links if you want.

        • Tonami

          That sounds more like a reliability metric to compare one rolling stock to another. The higher the number, the more use the purchasing agency can get out of the equipment.

          • Josh

            It implies that repairs are required every number of miles, not per time. Meaning if it sat in reserve it wouldn’t need to be repaired. Meaning the more it is used the more repairs it will need so costs scale with usage. Anyway the MTA uses it as a metric of how good their maintenance is, not how good the rolling stock it buys is.

  10. JJJ

    Metropark is a fine location for a garage because of how it links to highways.

    The pedestrian situation is horrible, but that doesnt have to be the case. There is also an opportunity for local shuttles. the current NJT buses are not good enough. The mistake was designing it exclusively as a park and ride, rather than a park and ride with other infrastructure.

    Iselin has a downtown, and used to have a station, but it was closed when Metroaprk was built. Woodbridge has a station, on the coast line, but the coast line mostly sucks, although that doesnt have to be true.

    You dont mention Hamilton, but thats a good park and ride because it keeps drivers out of Princeton and Trenton in the same way that Jersey Ave pulls drivers out of needing to enter New Brunswick. What would really elevate Hamilton is if SEPTA terminated there, instead of Trenton. Could easily be done with a new track that would make the southbound platform an island platform.

    • adirondacker12800

      SEPTA should terminate in Penn Station New York and all the Pennsylvanians who drive to New Jersey to get to New York could get on a train in Pennsylvania. Solves traffic and parking problems, in New Jersey anyway.

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