Saturday, December 9, 2006

Park & Ride Lots - An Important Key To Success

I came across this small news story regarding increasing the lot size of the park & ride lot along the St. Louis MetroLink LRT line. It alone isn't much of a story but brings up a much larger problem that many public transit agencies have.

The problem is how transit officials and transit planners think regarding park & ride lots. All too often, the public transit industry downplays the need for park & ride lots. They'll build a transit project, such as an LRT line, but will place only small park & ride lots along the line. They want the public to ride the new line but fail to think when it comes to how people will get to the new project.

I guess they assume everyone will come by bus or walk but a significant portion of riders drive to the line and then will hop on board. That is, if they can find a spot to park.

Transit officials and planners seem not to understand that forced transfers drive off ridership. People are far more willing to meet you halfway than having to go through forced transfers between LRT and bus. They also seem not to understand that many people have rather poor or no bus service in some areas and therefore are willing to meet the transit system at a halfway point.

I have had years of first hand experience dealing with my local transit system, the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) in Pittsburgh, regarding this exact issue. PAT is famous for placing undersized park & ride lots in and then acting totally surprised when the lot overflows. In fact, they have outright refused to even consider a park & ride lot might actually be successful even though they have had decades of success with the lots.

One such incident was at a public meeting regarding the opening of the then new North Hills HOV lane in the late 1980's. They actually admitted to the public their true feelings towards park & ride lots. A resident brought up the question of possibly having a park & ride lot near the McKnight Road entrance to the HOV lane and was shot down with this from PAT's Director of Planning at the time (who is in charge of PennDOT currently): "People can just use the Perrysville lot that PennDOT built. It's too large and will never fill up. A big waste of money." The problem in this is that your making people in the McKnight Road corridor travel away from the McKnight Road corridor to the Perrysville corridor. The result was that many people just bit the bullet and drove all the way into town instead using public transit.

The fact is, the very large Perrysville Avenue park & ride lot, which was built by PennDOT and not PAT, was overflowing from day 1, has been extended several times as well as having a new separate lot added. PAT's admission that day was just one of many instances of PAT downplaying the popularity of park & ride lots and truly believing that nobody will use them. News reports at the time told of "surprised" PAT officials regarding the popularity of the park & ride lot even though they have had success after success with park & ride lots since the early 1970's.

There are stories from all over the country that are similar and date back for decades. Overflowing park & ride lots, new transit projects opening with little to no parking available as well as total surprise by transit officials when park & ride lots overflow.

Public transit systems across the US claim they want new ridership yet routinely thwart new riders from getting on board. The main problem I've found is that spending money on installing a park & ride lot doesn't bring the "prestige" of building an LRT line or busway yet the park and ride lots are important to have the line succeed as well as help the line meet projected ridership expectations.

My question basically comes down to this. If they are projecting these wildly inflated ridership numbers for a new transit project, why do they always vastly underestimate the number of riders that will drive to the line?

Between underestimating the park & ride lot's popularity and the transit officials and planners mindset that everyone wants to be forcibly transferred and/or spend excessive amounts of time on public transit, public transit systems routinely drive off potential ridership. Until the transit officials and planners begin to truly accept park & ride lots as a valuable resource in actually boosting the ridership and fare box revenue, we'll continue to see stories of park & ride lots overflowing, lots having to be extended at a greater cost than if they were sized correctly to start with as well as the stories of transit officials who were "surprised" by a park & ride lot's success.

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