I only partially agree with Matt’s post Thursday about park and rides, but I think the assertion that Ride Free Area (RFA) elimination will cost Metro “millions of rides” deserves to be interrogated a bit more. We’re never going to know definitively what the ridership impact of RFA elimination is, because it’s lumped together with a massive service change. I imagine the specific effect of the fares is going to be negative, although long term improvements in system complexity, interior bus circulation, and deterrence of disruptive riders may turn out to produce a net gain.
Moreover, it’s important to consider where those “lost” trips are going. Some of them are converting to foot, bike, or Link trips: it’s a marginal decrease in utility to that individual, but not necessarily a problem from a policy perspective. What would be a problem is conversion of those trips to high-externality car trips, but in downtown I suspect that’s a very small slice.
The remainder are trips not taken. We often hold up “trip reduction” as a civic goal, but in fact it’s a double edged-sword. The entire purpose of providing infrastructure is that it enables the contacts that create economic growth. Deter movement and you deter that growth. A trip not taken to a social service because it’s too expensive may have bad humanitarian consequences. These aren’t necessarily decisive arguments for the RFA, or indeed free transit anywhere, but they are its upside.
Shifting the discussion to park-and-rides, the calculation is very different. At park-and-rides that are at capacity, a well-managed parking charge* will drive some riders away, but more will carpool and take the bus, increasing the overall throughput of the transit stop. In terms of encouraging people to take transit, it’s win/win/win, a benefit totally orthogonal to arguments about the merits of suburban living.
But where not every space is full, charges will induce people to drive. A small margin will move or choose jobs closer to home, and newcomers will not choose that home-work pair in the first place, but the riders that brings are highly unlikely to be enough to make up the difference.
That said, if agencies really want to abandon the parking subsidy there’s a way to recover some of the large capital costs and possibly boost overall ridership. Simply selling the lots and garages, canceling parking leases, and using the proceeds to boost transit speed and frequency might net you more riders, albeit different ones. However, making transit irrelevant to an even larger portion of the region’s voters is a dangerous political decision.
* “well-managed” meaning the charge is just high enough to leave the lot at capacity.