Access to Rail Stations Can’t Just Be About Parking for Cars

A recent feature in the Journal News highlighted the parking constraints near Metro-North stations. According to the report, nearly half of the 43 Metro-North stations in Westchester County “have wait lists for one or more of their lots,” as well as three of Putnam’s seven stations, and one of Rockland’s five stations, despite the fact that commuter parking has increased five-fold since the 1990s.

To meet demand, Metro-North has added 5,124 parking spaces to its stations in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam over the past two decades, bringing the total to 6,382 spaces. But Metro-North says it has just about maxed out the parking it can build, other than a 500-space garage planned to replace a 109-space facility at the North White Plains station.

What if instead of trying to maximize the number of parking spaces, there was an emphasis on making it easier to get commuters to and from stations without cars at all? One means to that end is to follow the lead of New Jersey and Connecticut, which both appear to be embracing transit-oriented development (TOD), as well as some communities in the Hudson Valley. This may seem strange for people who are used to seeing commuter rail stations surrounded by asphalt, but before the onslaught of the automobile it was once the norm to build residential and commercial buildings around train stations.

Providing ample amounts of parking around transit stations only makes sense if nobody wants to live near transit. But that’s just not the case. True, parking can help transit agencies attract riders, but not without substantial opportunity costs. In other words, dedicating vast amounts of land for parking near transit stations instead of housing and commercial space is literally paving over tremendous economic development potential.

Tri-State’s associate director Ryan Lynch echoed this sentiment in the article, acknowledging the need for some parking, but also that too much surface parking can create “dead zones in the middle of urban centers” where housing, offices, retail and restaurants — the type of development that provides both vitality and tax revenue — could be situated instead.

Providing access to transit shouldn’t stop at parking and TOD. In order to better manage how commuters, especially in Westchester, get to rail stations, communities must make walking and biking viable options. This starts, of course, with making sure that streets provide safe, convenient access for all modes. Westchester County may be on track to do just this. Today, Westchester County’s Government Oversight Committee of the Board of Legislators passed a Complete Streets Act, an act that would prioritize biking, walking and transit access in street design and implementation. That bill is now headed to the full County Board, which is expected to meet next month.

7 Comments on "Access to Rail Stations Can’t Just Be About Parking for Cars"

  1. Too often, developers and municipalities look to create a “transit village” or “TOD” to get tax credits or subsidies; but they expect the state or transit agency to pay for the transit component.

    For example, the current TOD project in North Brunswick, NJ calls for a very expensive new rail station on the Northeast Corridor line apparently to be paid for by NJ Transit (the taxpayers), large amounts of commuter parking, and no bus access or good walking or bicycle access from the rest of North Brunswick or surrounding municipalities.

    It is unlikely that most of the employees in the big box stores and other businesses in the development would be taking rail to the jobs (the station is not scheduled to open until after the first big box stores are completed, in any case). Customers of these merchants are also likely to be from te surrounding area, not from other communities along the corridor. Yet there is no indication in the on-line plan for this development that calls for bus, bike, and sidewalk improvements extending out into the greater community. And New Jersey’s TOD/Transit Village guidelines do not even mention these needs.

    TOD/Transit Village transit cannot be a single station on a single rail line. There must be destinations in multiple directions that are accessible by decent bus, bike, and pedestrian services to truly be called Transit Oriented Development.

  2. Ahhh….. Nice example Rob. I used to live in North Brunswick and was on the environmental commission. The original plans for the TOD in North Brunswick were spectacular, world class even. But then the developer started to loose his shirt with the downturn in the economy on 2007. Now he is forced to build something that will turn a quick and easy profit and we are stuck with another Big Box strip mall with a parking lot nearly a mile long. The proposed hotel will be on the highway, not next to the train station like the original plans and much of the disturbed part of the property will be impervious surface, either asphalt or rooftop.

    Accordingly almost all of the housing will be surrounded by asphalt front and back and parked cars (pleasant, NOT!) And while the walking component is okay for those that live in town, I testified in front of my township council that the bike way design was primitive, circuitous, hazardous and didn’t follow most of basic design standards for bicycle facilities long established by AASHTO. Most of the on-street bike amenities were 4 foot wide bike lanes next to 7 foot wide street parking. I told the council that this was so substandard that I feel they are open to litigation if anyone gets hurt or killed while riding a bike in those. And like you said, there was no attempt to get people to the “TOD” complex by anything other than an automobile.

    Again, another project built to New Jersey’s low expectations. No wonder why so many people and companies are racing to get out of there and establish themselves in the West were the people actually have vision and their communities reflect that!

  3. Rob, the answer is zoning. The Town must allow developers to build enough to make the project profitable. Too often, suburban towns (especially around NY) have incredibly restrictive codes that prevent the kind of density that makes urban development profitable. Too much asphalt is often codified into existence, not because a developer wants it. It’s required.

  4. @Jared – The answer is much more than zoning; but, yes, parking requirements in municipal plans needs to be changed. Just as bad, the state requirements for TOD/Transit Villages REQUIRES a large amount of commuter parking. (And in this case, I strongly suspect that NJ Transit will close the nearby Jersey Avenue station after the North Brunswick Station is built and that most of those who now drive to Jersey Avenue will drive to North Brunswick instead.) That is one reason I suggested the need for bus service to the station.

  5. Access to RR Stations shouldn’t just be about parking for cars. Agreed, but until the market invests with another means for getting as many or more riders to the trains we shouldn’t interfere, should we?
    Not all station environs have potential TOD value. Certainly, we should periodically evaluate whether it has continuing value with its current configuration. More parking spots perhaps.

  6. I just want to note another problem – in our rgion there is MBTA commuter rail service with a fare structure totally indepemdent of our local RIPTA bus system even though there is some overlap where services could complement each other and some need for bus-rail transfers. What would help to get more not to drive to a station is coordinated fare products, like an Easy Pass, that permits transfers or taking whichever service best fits the need.

  7. In south-western Dutchess county, there has been not one transit agency,but now two transit agencies that have failed
    to provide adequite service for this economicaly important part of the county.

    First when MTA Metro North RR bought the Beacon -Danbury line back in 1995 and have yet to run revenue passenger trains,then the Dutcherss county LOOP buses
    (the mis-managed county bus transit system) when they partialy implemented the new routes and schedules as per the 2008
    transit development plan.There are long time gaps with some of the routes and last year,a new circulator bus route was implemented,the route G,in the city of Beacon.
    This bus replaces,after a 2 year absence,the shuttle bus that went from Beacon’s main street to the Beacon Hudson line station.It should be noted the new bus departs
    before the arrival of the NB MNRR train,thus rendering this bus inefective.There is no service for all of the LOOP buses on

    Beacon’s new TOD – Matteawan Station Transit Village

    The city of Beacon has 2 rail lines – the Hudson line and the Beacon-Danbury line (simply known as the ‘Beacon line’) which goes through a part of the downtown
    business district along Main Street.Beacon’s upper Main Street re-vitalization currently in progress,(the Roundhouse restaurant/spa-hotel/condos opened last year)
    would be a part of the new TOD

    the current bus stop at the post office would be moved to this area forming a new transit hub for the city of Beacon

    bicycle-pedestrian enhancements with improved sidewalks,crosswalks,bicycle racks etc.

    The area around the new station stop would be a restoration of the 19th century Matteawan village


    Metro North RR has become a part of the problem when they should be a part of the solution.Without MNRR passenger service on the Beacon line,southern Dutchess rail commuters who live on the west side of
    the TSP are forced to drive all the way to the mall-like parking lot at the Hudson line Beacon station and those rail commuters
    who live on the east side of the TSP are forced to drive to the mall-like parking lot at the Southeast station (Putnam county),this all contributes
    to the traffic congestion of the highways in the area (SR 52 and SR 82) which are currently at a critical stage

    the 2010 census shows a substantial increase in population for Dutchess county as a whole,southern Dutches,the Beacon line corridor,
    has shown the most increase in population since the last census taken in 2000,the same year a feasibility study was done for the MNRR Beacon Line.
    This MNRR 2000 feasibility study for the Beacon line,was not for the entire Dutchess county section of the line from the Southeast (Putnam county) station
    on the Harlem line to Beacon,on the Hudson line.The study was for the line in the,sparsly populated,scenic mountain section east of Hopewell Jct.It is
    almost like MNRR wanted to prove restoration of revenue service on the Beacon line was not feasible.

    As per this recent census the Beacon Metro area (city of Beacon,town and village of Fishkill and the town of East Fishkill)
    has a combined population of 68,848 – more than the city of Mt. Vernon (67,292) in Westchester

    a higher percentage of MNRR Hudson line rail commuters from Poughkeepsie are going to Westchester (White Plains was specificaly named as the destination)
    than all other destinations – with a direct interurban/intra-county rail link from Poughkeepsie to White Plains
    these commuters can avoid the long road transit trip (Bee Line bus #13 or TOR TappenZee Express) from the Hudson line Tarrytown station to White Plains,
    or a long,and costly,car commute on the congested highways

    buses have to operate on the same congested highways as everyone else and as a result often times the buses are late

    traffic congestion on SR 55 in Dutchess county,the east-west trans county highway,has also reached a critical stage – without a Poughkeepsie Hudson line – Southeast Harlem line
    rail connection,those who work here in Poughkeepsie,the county seat,and live in the lower Harlem Valley (Pawling and Wingdale are served by the Harlem line),
    are forced to drive this highway to Poughkeepsie due to lack of adequate Dutchess county LOOP bus service

    I propose,at first,that MNRR implement a shuttle train on the Beacon line between the city of Beacon,Hudson line,and the village of Fishkill.A park-n-ride lot would be built
    at exit 12 of I 84.Those rail commuters who currently take the train south from HUdson line Beacon station,and drive to the mall-like parking lot at this station,would instead take the shuttle train
    to the Hudson line.Those who normaly drive I 84 then exit onto SR 9D at Beacon,causing traffic congestion as all these rail commuters drive to the Hudson line station,would instead exit at the nmbr. 12 interchange
    and park at the PnR lot.FYI:there would be a new access road from I 84 to the lot

    I also propose for the ‘last mile’ from the station a ‘mini-trans’ shuttle bus like the twn of Clarkstown in Rockland county.
    This ‘mini trans’ bus would take people ‘reverse comuting’ via rail,to all the places of employment in the Fishkill area. (IBM is laying off a number of workers at East Fishkill but there is still a whole lot of employers in the area)

    after this initial shuttle train,The Beacon line serrvice,and track/ROW,would be expanded/upgraded to eventualy have trans-Dutchess svc. between the Hudson line and the Harlem line

    for much (much) more on my grand vision for restoration of passenger svc.and development of,the Beacon line,I refer you to my ‘Southern Dutchess Interurban Rail Transit’ presentation

    Kevin Newman
    Poughkeepsie NY
    Trans Dutchess Railway Assotiation

    “As states and regions strive to put Americans back to work,policymakers should be careful not to sever the transportation lifelines between workers and jobs.” Brookings Institute May,2011

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