The C is for Crank

Park-And-Rides: The Backlash to the Backlash

By Erica C. Barnett January 11, 2010

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As we alluded in Morning Fizz, there's been a major backlash to the city's efforts to police illegal park-and-rides around light rail stations. Today, a prominent local environmentalist has published what could be the beginning of the backlash to the backlash.

After PubliCola broke the story about crackdowns on the paid private lots last week, the Seattle Times, KING-5, and others picked up on the story, and everyone from columnist Danny Westneat to Seattle Transit Blog to city council member Bruce Harrell railed against the policy.

The arguments varied—Westneat argued that barring folks from commuting to rail by is tantamount to the city refusing to "let" people ride rail, whereas Harrell argued that more parking lots are necessary to promote economic development—but the conclusions were the same: The city should abandon its longstanding policy of barring park-and-rides in areas around light-rail stations.

Yesterday, Mayor Mike McGinn reversed the policy, arguing that it hurts businesses like Safeway, which was one of the businesses busted by the city for allowing an illegal park-and-ride.

City Council president Richard Conlin says he agrees with the policy, which he says is "probably necessary at this point" because "it's [the parking lot owners'] business, so why wouldn't we allow them to do that?" Council member Mike O'Brien—who, like McGinn, was elected on a strong environmental platform—says that although "I think, for the most part, investments in park-and-rides in the city are not a good idea," they might be acceptable as an "interim" solution while the economy is bad and King County Metro lacks money to improve bus service to rail stations. However, O'Brien says he would like to see the city track who, exactly, is using the lots—suburban commuters or nearby residents who simply lack easy bus access to light rail stops?

Today, Sara Nikolic of FutureWise—a local environmental group—wrote a scathing op/ed for the blog Hugeaasscity blasting McGinn for abandoning the city's anti-park-and-ride policy. Nikolic does a terrific job of summing up the objections to allowing park-and-rides, so I'm just going to excerpt the hell out of her piece here:

On the surface, the policy strikes many people as silly—or worse, counter to the goal of encouraging more people to take transit. After all, the dense and pedestrian-friendly transit-oriented communities that many expected to sprout up in advance of light rail have yet to materialize, and alternative modes of station access are underfunded, insufficient, and in some cases, unsafe.

And it’s true that if the goal is to maximize ridership in the short term, then the City should encourage parking at every station. The park-and-riders would come, and the trains would be fuller.

But unfortunately, pursuing that myopic goal would torpedo the long-term, transformative potential of the light rail investment. The vision for these station areas—as articulated in the 2001 station area plans, and on track to be upheld in the neighborhood plan updates currently underway in three light rail station area neighborhoods—is the conversion of an auto-dominated area of the city into pedestrian friendly, mixed-use neighborhood centers where people can easily access light rail by foot, bike or bus. Allowing park and ride facilities is not only a flagrant disregard for that vision, but would also make it more difficult to achieve for two key reasons:

  1. In many cases, these surface lots are the very properties that the city hopes will redevelop to help create more dense and pedestrian-friendly transit-oriented communities. Allowing income generation from retaining the surface lots will delay the necessary tipping point at which it becomes profitable to redevelop the properties.

  2. Surface lots are hostile to pedestrians. They are unpleasant to walk along, and in poor lighting or with heavy traffic, can also be unsafe. Encouraging more cars to enter and leave these lots during peak commuting times, when people may be accessing the station by foot or bicycle, will only exacerbate safety issues.

... What’s needed here is patience. We will likely have to wait for the next development cycle before much building happens in the SE Seattle station areas, and they will remain less than ideal in the near term. Because while the City had the vision in advance of light rail to implement policies that discourage auto-oriented uses, it unfortunately didn’t commit to the kind of meaningful public investment that would have catalyzed the creation of real transit-oriented communities.

I have almost nothing to add to Nikolic's compelling arguments, except to repeat a point we made in today's Morning Fizz: One of the points of light rail is to get people out of their carsm because sprawl and auto emissions are bad for the environment, among other reasons. Inviting people to commute in their cars Seattle neighborhoods from elsewhere defeats that purpose.

For McGinn to support surface parking lots at rail stops, even as a "temporary" solution to the down economy, is disappointing. Moreover, if Nikolic's editorial is any indication, it may lose him some of the supporters that got him elected on a strong environmental platform in the first place.
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