How Park-and-Rides Can Move Transit Forward

Public transit in the United States has fallen short of its potential, but recent recognition of the real costs of the personal vehicle culture is helping to change that. Innovations in transit technology, business, and policy are uncovering the real value of system components, and revealing that one of the most significant market opportunities is the park-and-ride (PnR). Park-and-rides connect drivers to public transit, and transit agencies often offer this service for free to attract riders. New strategies—including, but not limited to, pricing—are needed to fully realize these opportunities.

PnR parking pricing is new territory, with best practices emerging. The common solution to transit parking demand—adding capacity at no, or hidden, cost to the consumer—not only induces more demand for the parking, it also distracts from the PnR’s real purpose of extending access to public transit. As cities push to put more people on trains and buses, they must resist the quick-fix of building free parking lots near these service lines and commit to planning for parking in a competitive, economic context. The PnR asset cannot be sustainably managed as a free carrot to attract ridership, but will thrive as a demand-driven, multifunctional asset.

Moving Past Free Parking and Full Lots

Many transit agencies associate full parking lots with high ridership rates, and assume that buses and trains are difficult to sell in a car-centric culture. But rapid changes in urban traffic patterns are challenging these standards. As urban land values rise, so do private parking costs, rendering free parking options more attractive. Drivers will often bypass underutilized lots for the chance to park closer to their destination and minimize, or even avoid, time on a bus or train.

In other cases, transit riders are unable to utilize the most efficient PnR for their commute, and as a result, they opt to drive all the way to their destination. As commuters are unable to reliably access transit, single occupancy vehicles return to congested arterials and transit ridership rates plateau or fall.

Meanwhile, a 2016 survey suggests that charging for parking can actually have a positive effect on overall ridership (although experience from other programs shows that pricing in general has the reverse effect, so implementation is important). At the same time, most transit agencies don’t rank parking as a top strategy for attracting ridership, even though it is one of their highest expense categories. Given the imbalance in PnR management and use, it appears to be time for a new strategy.

The Many Flavors of Pricing

Demand-based parking pricing is a strategy used in a diverse set of cities facing crippling congestion in their urban cores, including San Francisco, CA; Seattle, WA; and Aspen, CO. Under this strategy, on-street and PnR parking prices vary over a prescribed time band (month, season, or year) to optimize use of the total parking resource while ensuring that a small fraction of spaces are available at any given time.

For a softer approach, transit agencies can start by offering reserved or optimal parking spots for a fee. Although prices are not always palatable to the average consumer initially, pilot programs have shown that public response improves over time with successful results. These programs demonstrate the utility—and in some cities, necessity—of unburdening parking operations of their hidden costs by moving the parking asset out of the public commons and into the market economy.

These programs have diverse contexts but consensus emerges on two critical points: (1) parking pricing must be data-driven; and (2) the process must be apolitical. This can be accomplished using existing tools and templates. License plate recognition (LPR), in-ground sensors, and smart meter technologies are making data more accurate and accessible, with information on parking availability and prices being easily shared with consumers via smartphone apps and electronic message boards. Even seemingly low-tech (and low-cost) solutions such as annual surveys have been shown to be effective.

San Francisco and Seattle offer excellent examples of parking pricing programs that leveraged parking data to gain one-time political approval of a pricing process instead of multiple approvals for each price change. This approach enables parking suppliers to respond to demand, and invites public trust in a rational process instead of distrust in a political agenda.

Other Ways to Unlock the Potential of Park-and-Rides

Introducing pricing in the PnR space is unsettling to transit authorities, which are already challenged in selling their primary product. But managing PnRs as multifunctional assets instead of single-purpose paved space opens opportunities with several benefits.

Leasing lot space to nearby organizations and carshare companies increases transit authority revenue (or reduces commuter parking prices), gives travelers multimodal options, and supports local businesses. PnRs close to the urban core can benefit most from carshare vehicles. Agreements designating approximately five to ten stalls per lot for carshare use, by companies such as Car2Go and Zipcar, have been shown to be well utilized and lucrative. During times of low utilization (weekends and evenings), or in poorly used PnRs, stalls can be leased to places of worship or entertainment venues to boost facility use.

Developing PnR facilities with more amenities attracts a loyal consumer base while providing clear justification for the price of parking. PnR users typically travel to and from work, and may choose their PnR location according to its convenience to common services. Building coffee and newspaper stands, convenience stores, or comfortable seating at underutilized PnRs along major commuter routes can meet customer needs at locations closer to their homes, mitigate frustrations with slow transit headways, and attract new riders who value comfort and convenience. Adding mixed-use development around transit (transit-oriented development) will add demand to the park-and-ride and, in the long-term, will alleviate the need for first/last-mile solutions with greater, strategically located, urban density.

First/last-mile solutions such as integration with transportation network companies (TNCs) have shown promise in a few pilot programs. TNCs can operate at a lower cost than traditional call-and-ride systems, and supplement high-capacity trunk-line service in lower density neighborhoods where fixed-route service typically falls short. An effective feeder service to transit can mitigate the need for park-and-ride expansion and service those who cannot afford or do not wish to own a car.

A critical element of today’s transit ecosystem, the park-and-ride is the most effective and most utilized first/last-mile connection to transit. Optimally managing the resource that is available today, while strategically planning for innovative first/last-mile solutions that technology will affordably allow in the future, is mandatory for transit authorities’ success. Using intelligent development, first/last-mile solutions for low-density commuters, and high-frequency trunk-line service as elements of a holistic transit development strategy will allow our cities to move freely into the future.

Image courtesy of iStock.