This week’s Q&A lays out a cost-benefit analysis by King County’s transit agency after one North Seattle reader expressed interest in the parking issue, asking if more space would increase the number of riders.

Share story

Tens of thousands of Puget Sound commuters use park-and-ride lots each weekday, and some leave their cars at lots’ entrances or outside of striped rows after searching for legitimate, open spots to no avail. Several lots reach capacity by 8 a.m.

For this week’s column, transportation experts offered analysis and hypothetical solutions for the crowding issue, such as the imposition of parking fees, after one North Seattle reader contacted Traffic Lab to question the connection between transit ridership and park-and-ride room.

“If there was adequate space at the lots across King County Metro Transit’s system, assuming there weren’t other bus-related issues, such as overcrowding, I think Metro Transit ridership would increase significantly,” Pat Russell said. “Are there any estimates by Metro or others on this?”

The short answer: Yes.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Learn more about Traffic Lab »

But according to Metro officials and experts, the correlation is not so simple. And considering the price of building new parking, they say there are more desirable ways to maximize space and improve transit access. New parking stalls can cost $30,000 to $75,000 each to build, according to Metro.

Here’s a cost-benefit analysis by the transit agency:

Doubling the system’s current park-and-ride capacity, which includes about 25,000 spots at 137 sites, for instance, would cost $615 million. Ridership, in turn, would increase by less than 5 percent, Metro says.

That cost-benefit ratio is “not as favorable” compared to other investments, Metro spokesman Scott Gutierrez said. Spending money to increase the speed and reliability of service instead, such as by adding new bus lanes, would have a higher return on investment, he said.

Donald Shoup, a professor in urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has received national attention for his parking-reform advocacy, supports imposing parking fees to solve capacity woes. Transit leaders should study local commuters’ habits to determine the right price to free up space, but still keep demand high, he said.

“Before any transit agency begins thinking of adding parking spaces, they should aim for the right price of the parking spaces they already have,” Shoup said. “The only thing worse than paying for parking is having no parking at all.”

The fees would incentivize other transportation options, such as cycling or walking, and serve as a more cost-efficient solution compared with building new spaces, he said.

He applauded San Francisco Bay Area officials’ move more than a decade ago to charge park-and-ride users there.

Richard Willson, a professor in urban planning at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, consulted for those officials during the switch. He said though some commuters initially were not pleased with the payment system, demand for parking stayed high, and passenger numbers remained consistent.

In the local region, Sound Transit has discussed initiating parking fees someday that could include low-income discounts. And Metro’s long-term plan for improving regional transit, called Metro Connects, includes the option of charging park-and-ride users in the future, too.

But for now, Daniel Rowe, who manages Metro’s park-and-ride programs, said the agency has different projects in motion to help maximize the system’s space.

“We’re trying to better manage the capacity that we have,” Gutierrez said.

For example, carpools of two or more people can reserve parking space for free at six of Metro’s busiest lots — Redmond, Issaquah Highlands, South Kirkland, South Renton, Northgate and Eastgate — to guarantee a morning spot. Metro has plans to expand the program to include nine more lots, Gutierrez said.

Sound Transit has a similar permit system for a $5 monthly fee.

Also, Metro and Diamond Parking have recently partnered to sell drivers reserved spaces at a dozen sites near popular transit lines as a way to expand parking options, Rowe said. That pilot project launched last week.

And for later this year, Metro is scoping out a pilot project that would help people get to full lots via app-based, ride-service companies, rather than taking their own vehicles, agency spokesmen said.

Last year, about 20,900 vehicles on average used private and public park-and-ride lots each weekday in King County, Puget Sound Regional Council data show.

At least 39 sites were 95 percent or more full, with some lots exceeding maximum capacity, meaning people parked near entrances, or outside of striped rows.

That style of overflow parking could decrease beginning next week with a new push by Metro to enforce park-and-ride lot rules.

Transit staff will patrol the Eastgate, Kingsgate, Redmond and Northgate stations starting June 12 and will tow vehicles that are repeatedly parked outside marked stalls or use the lots for nontransit purposes.

Less than a quarter of Metro’s daily passengers ride transit after parking at a park-and-ride or getting a lift from another driver, the agency says. That means the majority of riders are connecting via walking or bicycling.

By 2040, the agency expects that percentage of on-foot and bike travelers to grow and says parking spaces across the Metro and Sound Transit system will increase by 13,500 spaces.

 

Got a question?

Last week, we highlighted comments from people who say Seattle’s driving culture is distinct, after one Woodinville man who contacted Traffic Lab said motorists here are generally perceived by outsiders as inept.

If you have a question or idea for Traffic Lab, send it to trafficlab@seattletimes.com. We may feature it in an upcoming column.