Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Parking or Transit?

A new study by researchers at USC showed that people who live within half a mile of LA Metro’s new Expo Line were driving significantly less—as much as 40% less than they did prior to the opening of the light rail line.  They also drove less, and had a lower carbon footprint than those who don’t live near transit.  This is excellent news, and most welcome to those of us who understand that driving is not hard-wired into Angelinos, but is a result of an infrastructure that has been built almost entirely around the automobile for the past 80-odd years.  The study showed that infrastructure matters.  If we build it right, we maximize the chances that many more people will leave their cars at home and take transit more often.

The study also contained some important insights about infrastructure around transit stations.  For example, the study found that those who walked to the Expo Line stations showed improvement in health as a result of the approximately 20 minutes of daily moderate physical exercise they got walking to and from the station and their destination.  The study also found that connectivity to bus networks increased use of the Expo Line.  One of the factors that decreased a person’s likelihood of walking to the station was the existence of a large arterial roadway with heavy automobile traffic that had to be crossed in order to reach the station.  Crossing streets with heavy automobile traffic is intimidating for many people, and in such cases, they wind up taking their cars instead.

So, if we want to increase the use of a light rail transit (LRT) facility, the study strongly suggests we should design it to be comfortably and safely accessed by bus, walking, or bicycling.  This means providing easy connections to bus transit, prioritizing safe pedestrian and bicycle access, and reducing heavy automobile traffic on streets around stations.  Improved bus service and a network of bike lanes leading to a station can significantly increase the radius of people who use those means to get to an LRT station.  On the other hand, if we want to decrease the likelihood that people will walk or bike to an LRT station (thus decreasing the health benefits that accrue), design it primarily around automobile access.

What about those people who live beyond the half-mile radius around a light rail station.  Unfortunately, for many Southern Californians the default answer is to promote automobile access.  Take Ms. Leda Shapiro, whose letter to the L.A. Times in response to the study complained that the study didn’t emphasize “the common practice … of parking your car at the station and taking the train.”  Ms. Shapiro apparently misses the point that the study, for good reason, was trying to measure how many people didn’t drive to the station, Ms. Shapiro then reverts to a car-centered default position in her understanding of the role of transit:  

It is time to demand that parking structures be built so we can park and ride and get our cars off the freeways.  Buses … do not run often enough outside normal working hours or are too unreliable.  Many more people could ride the train outside that walkable half a mile if there was parking available (even with a small fee).

While she’s not wrong to bemoan the paucity of good bus service in many areas of our city, I would argue that after a point, more automobile parking is actually counterproductive.  A major problem is that at a certain point plentiful automobile parking and (as the USC study demonstrated) the resulting heavy auto traffic may discourage people from walking or biking to the stations.  

But the problem of prioritizing automobile parking is broader than that.  Large parking lots and parking structures tend to make the approach to the stations more distant and time-consuming for people arriving on foot or bicycle, who have to travel further to reach the platform, and contend with entrances to the station designed for cars.  Moreover, the large physical footprint of a parking lot makes it more difficult to build transit-oriented shops and apartments within convenient walking distance of the station, because the function of the station changes from being one that is comfortably accessible on foot to one that is primarily accessible by car.  Light rail patrons who arrive by car are less likely to patronize small shops nearby, because they’ll get right in their cars and leave.  If they want to shop, they’ll be much more likely to patronize shopping centers with plenty of parking, perpetuating the auto-centered sprawl model of retail development.  Thus, stations with large parking lots don’t lend themselves to the kind of mixed-use development that entices people who live nearby to walk or bike to those local shops.  Let’s not forget that local shopping keeps more dollars in the local economy and creates local jobs, unlike the Wal-Mart style of retail centered around shopping by car.  Build transit for cars and we lose the virtuous cycle of car-light living and replicate some of the worst aspects of the automobile-centered lifestyle, such as sprawl, traffic, parking lot purgatories, and unhealthy sedentary travel habits.

Light rail transit should be designed to gradually shift people away from car dependency, not continue it.  If we want to get more people to use transit and further reduce traffic, our carbon footprint, improve our health, and our local economy, we should not “demand” more car parking, as Ms. Shapiro wants, instead we should demand more frequent and longer running local bus service to transit stations, more bike lanes and low-stress bike routes to those stations, good bike parking, and pedestrian-friendly streets in the surrounding neighborhoods.  The good news is, those pedestrian and bike-friendly infrastructure improvements are much less expensive than the infrastructure that must be built to accommodate significantly more car traffic.  And if we subsidized local bus transit to the same degree that we currently subsidize automobile parking, we could afford more frequent bus service.  And make no mistake, more frequent bus service is essential to make our cities less car-dependent.

So here’s a dilemma: do we build multi-billion dollar parking structures at all LRT stations that significantly raise the cost of building those stations?  As UCLA economist Donald Shoup has demonstrated, there’s no such thing as “free” parking.  What if the additional costs of building a large capacity park-and-ride facility (and they are considerable) make extending our LRT system so much more expensive that it becomes politically difficult to build more light rail?  I guarantee you, Ms. Shapiro and other car-dependent citizens will raise a ruckus if they have to pay parking fees sufficient to recoup the full cost of new parking facilities, so parking costs will likely have to be subsidized to entice them to bring their cars to the station.

I’m not saying new transit stations should lack any automobile parking, but motorists should be required to pay the full cost of providing parking.  Perhaps parking structures could be located away from the station, reducing traffic and the physical footprint of the station itself so that it is more convenient and welcoming for people arriving by bus, bike, or on foot.  Perhaps a few stations (at the end of a line, for example) might provide extensive park-and-ride accommodations while others should be designed primarily around transit, walkable, and bikeable access with a minimal amount of car parking.

We should pay close attention to the USC study’s encouraging results.  It proves that we can design transit and the surrounding infrastructure in a way that has the potential to alter people’s transportation choices.  Designing stations primarily for automobile parking may bring a few more drivers to the station in the short run, but it unfortunately tends to negate the other, more virtuous choices.  It is a trade-off we should carefully consider when building new LRT stations.

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