Saturday, July 28, 2012

Oil and Water or Parking at Rail Stations

The expanding rail system in Denver is undergoing a fundamental rethink of how it gets it passengers to its rail system as detailed by the Wall Street Journal. There are some very relevant parts for Dallas and DART in there.

Here's the fundamental parts:

After the system opened in 1994, planners built parking lots and garages around many of its stations to cater to commuters. That strategy put parking on land that would have been ideal for stores, apartment buildings and squares catering to riders living adjacent to the stops.

As a result, there has been little of that kind of development around the stations to change the area's car-dependent culture, and riders commute to the stations from up to 20 miles away.

"Once you put in a parking structure, it's difficult to move it," says Bill Sirois, senior planning manager at the Regional Transportation District in Denver.

Denver-transit planners now are becoming more flexible when it comes to how much parking they require near rail stops and where they put it.
In the continuing expansion of the Denver rail system—which will add up to 122 miles of light rail and commuter rail lines to the existing 35 miles within the next 10 years—land adjacent to stations will be earmarked in some cases for village-type developments.
Whether to cater primarily to commuters or to residents near rail stops is a pivotal question for mass-transit planners in some cities. Many western cities expanding relatively young rail systems don't have the density or "walkability" that has allowed residents in older, Eastern cities such as New York to eschew cars in favor of mass transit.

Still, some of Denver's peer cities already have embraced this approach. San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, and the TriMet mass-transit system in Portland, Ore., long have favored relegating park-and-ride service to their farthest flung stations in the suburbs. Meanwhile, they encourage dense clusters of apartments, condominiums and offices adjacent to their urban rail stops. The twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., have taken a similar approach recently.
Critics ask whether Denver's change in approach on parking will chase some riders away rather than attract them. "So, they're going to make it more difficult to use transit in hopes that the real-estate speculators who use public money to build these things can flourish?" asks Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a think tank in Denver. A former board member of Denver's transit system, Mr. Caldara long has been among its most vocal critics.

This something I have espoused for a long time. Why would any system that wants to redesign the urban landscape surround the instruments that accomplish that feat with pedestrian-deadening surface parking lots and single-use garages? If the goal is to redo our transportation system from a car-based one to one that sees a greater tendency for walking and transit, why does it virtually require a car for its use?

This, I believe, is a reflection of a different generation. The older planning set, as well as almost all of the political spectrum, see cars as either indispensable or inevitable, neither of which is accurate.

I've said it before and it is relevant here. People will do what is convenient. Americans don't have a love affair with the car. They have a forced marriage. Nothing else is convenient. Look at it in this case, parking lots immediately surrounding stations. Any attempt at redesigning the urban environment around it will be blunted because the parking is taking up the space that the urban environment needs to thrive. We made the car more convenient. So if there is a development there, the impact of seperating the rail station from it with parking will lower the everyday use of the rail system from the development, as well as from people outside the area who might travel to the development.

There are other endless examples of this. A few weeks ago, I talked about how signal timing is a virtual impossibility in an urban area. But what is being timed, whether urban, suburban or rural? Autos, at the expense of everything else. Why aren't the signals timed for bikes? Walking? Buses? All of these have a different speed. By picking the car, we are picking our preference.

What happens when a street is widened? Property is taken to account for that space. What was that property. In an urban area, where most property is flush with the property line, it is sidewalks (in outer areas, it can also be private property). What is the message that is sent when we narrow sidewalks to widen space for cars. The autos have priority over pedestrians.

Speaking of sidewalks, how often do neighborhoods, even close-in ones, have sidewalks? Anything less than 100 percent is too low. Can you imagine a neighborhood without roads? Even rural, farming communities have at least dirt ones. What is that message that is sent that the only infrastructure that was built was to accommodate cars? Cars take priority over anything else.

From 1945-1990, virtually every city large and small built at least one freeway and almost always many more. In the meantime, city transit systems languished. Those that were able to continue were almost always a bus, stuck in traffic (and facing signals not timed for them, slowing them down even more). No new investments were made in transit except in isolated cases. It wasn't until the 1990's that there were multiple cities with concrete additions on the ground.

Reverting back to the topic, it is clear that even when our transit systems  were being designed, it was with the idea of the car first. In essence, we are investing in a transportation system not designed to be an alternative to the car, but rather shorten the distance cars make on each trip.

And the ironic part, is exactly what Bill Sirois touched on above. Unless we are talking surface lots, once these parking structures are in place, their stay is quite long, reducing not just the tendency to encourage alternative transportation now, but a long time into the future as well.

What Denver is doing in trying to encourage TOD's, what San Francisco did in allocating parking in the outlying areas is exactly what virtually every rail-building-transit agency should do. Why do the rail stations of Mockingbird, Park Lane, Victory (though the parking is not DART's property), Union (alos not DART's property) Market Center, Inwood, Bachman, 8th & Corinth, Illinois, MLK, Lawnview and White Rock Lake all have abundant parking? There are within five miles of Downtown Dallas, the first place that urbanism started in this area. Several are also near urban enclaves of varying degree. Now granted there are some urban stations, but more have parking than don't, even within Loop 12.

What critics like Jon Caldera fail to realize when they say things like without parking, it won't be used is that at some point, for that dynamic to change, there has to be a starting point. At some point, there will have to be a restriction of parking, there will have to a densification of the urban area.

It isn't because planners dislike cars, but rather out of every widespread transportation system there is, personal autos have the greatest amount of negative externalities, both public (pollution, health, cost, and land) and private (sedentary, cost, injury and death). If we know that, then why are cars put first above everything? It isn't because they are the most efficient or the most operable. New York City and the rest of the Alpha World Class Cities are proof of that. In NYC, walking is the most used transportation form, followed by transit. Cars are third. I'm not saying every city has to be the equivalent, but it would be better than what Dallas achieves, an 87 percent single use occupancy.

For DART, it has to achieve better than 32 stations out of 55 that are commuter-based, or 58 percent. If the the Downtown Dallas rail stations are removed, the percentage is raised to almost two-thirds. The Orange Line opens Monday and I don't know its numbers off the top of my head, though I believe only the Las Colinas Station serves the neighborhood, though the University of Dallas Station may too.

Where are the walkable neighborhoods? Where are the bus transfers? Where is the actual ability to live car-free? All these were promised during DART's referendum to form the agency in the 1980's. While there is a lot that the rail system lacks that is outside DART's control, this is something that could help the system that they have direct control over. In the end, they have to ask themselves do they want a transit system that serves the future of Dallas, or one that was built for the 1980's Dallas.

1 comment:

Ken Duble said...

I've been saying for years DART could have its cake and eat it too. This could be done with long-term, transferable leases, say 49 years or 99 years. Because it is public land, developers could build in parking areas without paying sales tax, as DART is a public entity, and as such, tax-exempt. In exchange, the lessor would be required to provide underground parking sufficient to serve both its commuters and patrons.