Sound Transit did something really cool at their last board meeting. They updated their System Access Policy. Woo-hoo!

Seriously, though, this is kind of a big deal.  For the first decade or so of its existence, Sound Transit has muddled through without much of a formal policy about how to provide access to trains and buses. This is in part because the City of Seattle discourages parking lots at light rail stations*, and in part because land wasn’t really at a premium in many of the suburban stations where ST operates. So there hasn’t really been much to think about.**

But as Link expands outside the city limits and Sounder ridership grows, the agency needed a more formal way to think about how to balance the goals of providing access, maximizing ridership and responsible development.  The recent debates about parking at Northgate,  Mercer Island and Edmonds show how difficult such a balance can be to achieve.

Which brings us to the new policy. Currently, the agency has been building free parking lots at certain stations and not really enforcing whether or not the cars in those lots were transit riders.  Going forward, the agency will adopt a more comprehensive approach to station access, including:

  • Enforcement of transit-only parking at the stations
  • Potential parking fees (which would require specific board approval)
  • Consideration of pedestrian, bicycle, and transit access
  • Consideration of the total cost of ownership of its facilities

All good stuff. You can dig deep on the relevant documents here and here (.pdf). You should also check out Richard Conlin’s excellent blog post on the subject:

Current Sound Transit policy has emphasized providing free and open parking at stations with limited enforcement. Parking is a significant investment, is constrained in urban areas and has limited compatibility with dense development around stations. Providing free parking also encourages riders to use the private automobile to access light rail. While the private automobile has a role in accessing transit stations, particularly for those who are not well served by alternatives or have physical limitations, the Board agreed that this role must be only part of an access strategy, and that access investments should be developed based on how they meet ridership and community goals.

Obviously there will still be messy debates over the particulars of access to each station, but a formal policy from Sound Transit on the issue is a necessary first step.

*Tukwila / International Boulevard Station, one of two Link stations outside the city limits, has a parking lot. SeaTac Station is a unique case. 

** Though perhaps a more thoughtful access policy would have resulted in better intermodal connections at Mt. Baker?

40 Replies to “Get Ready for Better Access to Sound Transit Stations”

  1. Interesting that Tukwila/International Station has no feature other than a free parking lot and being somewhat suburban, yet it ranks in boardings with downtown, Stadium and SecTac stations.

    1. The A Line, 124, 128, and 140 also stop there. I’d guess that there quite a few transfers, especially from the A Line since it terminates there.

    2. Good point, but a bit exaggerated. I wouldn’t say it ranks with downtown or Sea Tac stations, unless you mean it ranks well below them. But it is roughly tied for fourth, which is surprising to me. Looking at the numbers ( and the geography, a couple of things jump out at me.

      A lot of the downtown stops are clustered together. This skews the numbers against individual downtown stops. If you work in between stops, you could easily get on one stop in the morning and a different one in the evening. More realistically, half the people in your office will use one stop and half the people will use a different one. If you work half way between the Tukwila and Rainier Beach stop, you probably aren’t walking to work after getting on the train.

      The really strange thing about the numbers, though, is how few people from the Tukwila stop are using it as a traditional suburban commuting train. As you said, the overall numbers for that stop are quite good (e. g. Tukwila almost has as many boardings as Columbia City, Rainier Beach and Othello combined). But here is the weird part: the north bound weekday morning numbers aren’t that good. Scroll down to the last page of the PDF and have a look. Over three times as many people ride the train in midday than the morning; about twice as many ride it in the evening as midday. In other words, people are riding the train to Tukwila in the morning, and back in the evening. If you didn’t know any better, you would assume that Tukwila was the employment destination, and downtown Seattle the bedroom community.

      My guess is that at least the first part of this is true, to a certain extent. I think there are a lot of people who work by the airport and they ride the train to Tukwila, and then hop a bus to the motel or restaurant to start their work day. Some of these folks start by taking a bus to downtown while some walk to a station.

      In general, the idea that the Tukwila stop is extremely popular because it has a nice park and ride, and thus serves all the suburban riders doesn’t hold water once you dig into the numbers. Instead, the numbers suggest that Link is fairly popular as a reverse commuting system. Given the layout of Central Link, I’m not surprised. It is just too slow for much of the way. The parts that are underground or above ground are great, the part that is on the surface is just too slow to hold much of an advantage over a bus. My guess is that since reverse commuting has not been well served by Metro for a lot of places, Link is a much better option for the folks working close to the airport. Meanwhile, the people who are doing a more traditional commute (from the south end of Seattle to downtown) simply take the bus.

      1. Maybe the Tukwila economy is like Kent then Here we have many working class families. There are well used transit routes such as the 169. They are circulators for people in the many retail and warehouse jobs. Surprisingly then you end up with a region that is both low density, jobs rich, low cost and transit friendly!

        However, at the same time, such an economy can be destroyed by over centralization and densification resulting in high rents that Seattle embarked upon 20 years ago.

        Really, Seattle, as an economy, was a Kent/Tukwila model all those years ago.

      2. “people are riding the train to Tukwila in the morning, and back in the evening”

        Another factor is that many transit riders prefer living in Seattle where their other (non-commute) transit is easier. Their all-driving colleagues don’t have this preference, and often prefer the opposite (living in the burbs). This would manifest itself as a larger-than-expected reverse commute from Seattle.

        “My guess is that since reverse commuting has not been well served by Metro for a lot of places,”

        !!!!! Commuting to the suburbs has sucked horribly, unless you work right in downtown Bellevue or near a 150 or A stop. Link rumbling through Rainier Valley is a godsend compared to anything suburban workplaces have seen before.

    3. The reason TIB is so well-used is it’s the southernmost P&R, so its cachement area is all of south King County. People drive from Auburn and Kent to TIB to take Link. This, by the way, shows what they think of the frequency and speed of the buses to Link, since they’re not riding them. When Angle Lake and KDM stations open, people in the southern half will go to those P&Rs rather than to TIB. That could leave TIB emptier, although it may give room for drivers in Tukwila/SeaTac/Burien who are finding TIB full.

  2. I think reserving lots for transit riders is a good idea, but I don’t know if charging for spots is.

    There could be an ORCA check-in station which recorded the spot number and a tap of the card and then the parking would be validated by the subsequent trip. And the ticket machines could prompt for the spot number as well.

    If parking is charged for then the light rail will not be cost effective for casual users. A family of four already pays $15 for a round trip to a game or downtown shopping from Tukwila.

    1. I would imagine many who park in Tukwila catch the next Link for the airport in the early morning. Free/No Hassle parking combined with their employer paid Passport transit pass, and life is very generous to a select few.
      But hey, a rider is a rider is a ….

      1. But mic, there is plenty of free parking at Kent/Des Moines P&R and Star Lake P&R. I don’t know what ST is thinking, but some here have defended the ST 574 as providing the important purpose of giving airport workers a free place to park with a shuttle to the airport.

        I think airport workers should get free parking, especially since they work graveyard shifts when transit mostly shuts down. But, why can’t that free parking be a block of spaces at the airport? And simultaneously give airport workers fully-paid transit passes if they opt not to request a parking stall?

      2. It would be easy to tell how many airport workers are using TIB. They are all issued Port of Seattle parking decals which would be clearly visible. My bet is it’s very few approaching none. The lot is pack for peak commute and on game days. Airport service workers would be a much more 24/7 demand. More likely the people heading from TIB to SEA are taking a business trip for the day and have discovered the cheapest way to park and fly.

      3. Of the 210 boardings RossB pointed to in the Early and AM Peak period, 20% went south to Seatac, or 42 riders compared to 168 going NB. I’d bet most capture a freebie parking spot for the day trip to either catch a plane or service someone that will.
        Not a huge number, but still 42 less spaces for someone wanting to ditch the carto alleviate congestion on I-5. Tukwila to Seatac congestion on Hwy 99?- not so much.

      4. I don’t think I did (“either catch a plane or service someone that will.”)
        But that really blows me away that Seatac workers rely on transit that much. Thanks for the info.
        I guess that proves Mr. Bailo right, once again.

      5. I find it very hard to believe that overall percentage of employees commuting via public tranist in Seatac exceeds the ~42% of DT Seattle. The only document I can find is an old Commute Trip Reduction Program. An overarching theme is, “Parking is ample with large surface parking lots with free employee and visitor parking.” For many of the large employers the Drive Alone mode exceeds 80%. The lowest I see is Northwest Airlines – Ground at 44%. It’s the only one below 50%. Comparing that with a 35% share for downtown employees leads me to believe that the use of public transit is nowhere close to that of the CBD. Granted these statistics are pre-Link but I don’t see those 42 parking spaces at TIB as a game changer.

      6. Bernie, as you say, that data is very old and out of date. Could be commute trips are more or even slightly less. We don’t really have the data to argue. What we can see and what I said is that the workers in SeaTac use transit more. That’s why their passes cost more than anyone else. Don’t you think the guy making $10/h would use an unlimited transit pass more than the guy making $100k/y with the same unlimited pass? Anyway, my point was that obviously many workers in SeaTac are heavy transit users, so mic shouldn’t assume anyone going south from TIBS was some rich flyer getting free parking at the expense of some poor bus rider.

      7. obviously many workers in SeaTac are heavy transit users

        It’s not obvious what the percentage of transit use is. The barriers are obvious as stated many times on this blog and detailed in the report; poor coverage of the areas where people actually work and infrequent to non-existent at the times many of the shifts start/end. It begs the question as to why the Passport pricing would be so high relative to other areas. My guess is that it has more to do with how much local area governments pitch in to defray the cost. If Seatac doesn’t see much benefit to their workforce they have little reason to commit money to it. Seattle OTOH would be dysfunctional without the tremendous level of transit service downtown receives.

      8. Bernie and Matt,

        An industry friend once told me that Passport pricing is adjusted annually based on a complicated formula that contains multiple factors, not modeshare per se. If I remember correctly, SeaTac’s prices shot up dramatically a couple years ago for several reasons: Passport started using ORCA data to set rates instead of the far less reliable CTR data, ridership did go up, and there was a significant change in service hours available within the pricing subarea. So when some large transportation project opened in 2009 at SeaTac (anyone remember what that was?) ;) and early adopters switched to ORCA, SeaTac employers were in for a price shock when renewal contracts came around in 2010. It’s still a pretty good deal at $60/month per SeaTac employee for an unlimited use pass, though it still doesn’t make sense that it’s more than the $51/month for Seattle CBD employers.

        (Fun trivia: Pierce County’s service levels are now so bad that an annual, unlimited use ORCA Passport costs only $14/month/employee in Tacoma/Lakewood and only $5.80/month/employee in the Pierce County suburbs.)

    2. “If parking is charged for then the light rail will not be cost effective for casual users. A family of four already pays $15 for a round trip to a game or downtown shopping from Tukwila.”

      Not if the parking revenues were used to subsidies the train fares. An extreme example of a similar behavior is the National Zoo in Washington D.C. It costs $12 to park, but once you’re there, admission is free. If you don’t way to pay to park, you can ride the Metro.

  3. Charging for parking makes sense. Any discount is a subsidy. I’m not against subsidizing such things, but I think it makes sense to weigh the costs with the benefits. At some point, when Metro or Link raises the fair too high, they lose riders. I’m sure the same thing is true for park and rides. I think there are some differences, though. There is way more flexibility when it comes to charging (or not charging) for a park and ride. You can charge only during busy times or for a particular park and ride. Charging anything will probably result in some people driving more, but also some people using a different Park and Ride or taking a bus the entire way. On the other hand, you don’t have that flexibility with bus fares.

    At some point, in some stations, it might make sense to just sell the parking lot (for development). That money could be used to improve the overall system. For example, if you sold off a few of the spaces at Northgate and used the money for the bridge across I-5, lots of people would be thrilled. Of course, the parking at Northgate is a lot more complicated (involving private land and legal issues).

  4. So glad they finally got around to this after completely cocking up the transit situation at Wait-to-Battle-the-Headwinds-across-the-Montlake-Bridge Station! /sarcasm

    1. Yeah, they finally ask “How will people get to the stations?” after designing all the stations of consequence inside the city limits. Brilliant.

      1. The brilliance extends to the stop placement as well.
        The recent service change that was to improve West Seattle connectivity to the airport and beyond involved terminating the ST560 at Westwood Village with connections to West Seattle serviced by Metro’s RR C and the 21.
        Well the RR C and the 21 dump you off in front of Target while the 560 stop is two blocks away just south of the B of A branch.
        That’s a lovely schlep with your luggage.
        Across a very busy arterial, and then, either up and down a grade, to stay on the sidewalk, or thru the parking lot diagonally.
        Reverse the same for your trip home from the airport.
        But, now the 560 runs a lot more often!
        It will be interesting to see the ridership numbers.

  5. I think this policy could be better developed. The Tukwila Int’l Blvd Station was a poor example. It’s too far from I-5 to draw users. All it has done is provide parking for TSA and airport workers free of charge. Passenger car trips must be accommodated in any transit center planning. Not doing so or trying to force people to use transit to transit connections is social engineering and will only help those that push the “Agenda 21” conspiracy.

    If people don’t find parking, they drive and ultimately give up on transit. A study by BART found that 27% will abandon transit and drive to their desired destination if lack of P&R parking is a recurrent problem.

    ST needs to make reasonable investments to address regional needs. ST needsto to make reasonable accommodations for people paying RTID. I pay an MVET on my truck and motorcycle for transit….not to mention…another extra $40 total for Metro KC.

    ST’s policy to reduce parking will only further alienate prospective users and taxpayers like myself. I pay vehicle taxes and I expect to DRIVE my vehicle to ACCESS these facilities.

    1. I see having buses do loop-de-loops in parking lots to pick up a small number of extra riders as another form of social engineering.encouraging people to drive to parking lots instead of getting on board further up the line. Can I expect a little better treatment than that for the $1200+ I pay for transit each year?

    2. Unlike many park-and-riders, I pay for my transit pass completely out of pocket, in addition to the many tax levies that go to fund Sound Transit construction through the city proper.

      But I can’t and will never be able to access the train in any reasonably efficient manner, even on the rare occasion that it serves my destination. Moreover, I’m likely to find mealy-mouthed politicians selling me a streetcar “solution” this time next year. But at least I paid for the express tracks to CharlotteRoyal’s park-and-ride!

      Suburban entitlement. Yeesh.

    3. The phrase “But as Link expands outside the city limits” had me a bit confused. It could be read two ways:

      1) Link is expanding and now will serve the area outside the city limits.
      2) The Link area that is outside the city limits is expanding.

      I know you meant the latter, but it is a bit misleading. Central Link is primarily a suburban route, and not a very good one at that. Because it runs on the surface, it doesn’t work that well for a suburban commuter, or someone from the city who wants to get out to the airport (over 30 minutes from downtown to Sea-Tac). The best part of it (the transit tunnel) already existed and is still used by buses. Extending that tunnel to Mount Baker is the best thing to come from this line. Unfortunately, it is dragged down by the rest of it. The Mount Baker station itself is inconvenient, while the line manages to miss the V. A.. The surface part makes consistency difficult, thus limiting frequency. The obvious reason is that they were cheap when they built it.

      The not so obvious reason (to those who don’t follow politics) is that it was built as a suburban/urban partnership. The suburban areas wanted something cheap, but they still wanted something. For whatever reason, the Seattle folks didn’t want to just build a Seattle based system. A Seattle based system (or a system simply based on need) would have started with the first part of North Link, a line from downtown to the U-District, with a stop in between. My guess is the first three stops on the North Line will be more popular than everything south of the Mount Baker station combined.

      Right now, the Central Link is really two subway lines linked together by a street car. It offers two big benefits: It extends the inner city line to Mount Baker. This is the part of the line that really is “Central”. This makes sense and should have been built right after building the line to the UW. The second is that it serves as a great reverse commuter line for folks working at the airport. I have no problem with either one of these projects, but my guess is that this wasn’t what most voters had in mind when they voted to support Link. But that is what happens when you decide to build something that is cheap, and start with the less important line to please suburban voters.

      More to the point (of this article) I doubt that many people will use the park and rides to get into Seattle. Maybe it will be used by folks to get to their job at the airport, but my guess is that most of those folks don’t own cars. Your average motel worker doesn’t want to pay the cost of driving to work (I didn’t, when I used to clean rooms). The suburban office worker just won’t put up with the long commute on Link. Unless they get rid of all of the express buses (a possibility) then most of these folks would rather park at a different park and ride and ride an express bus into the city.

      Now Lynnwood and Bellevue is a different story. Since that line will be fast, that is where the “Park and Ride” saga will really play out. In the case of Bellevue, they have already decided to serve a park and ride (South Bellevue) instead of an office complex (Factoria). For Lynnwood (and Shoreline for that matter) things could be a lot more interesting. For example, I would like to see the combination of a (relatively) dense station combined with a park and ride nearby (and frequent shuttle buses). Since the shuttle bus would be traveling a short distance, it could make the run frequently.

      1. The point of the article wasn’t to talk about TIBS in particular. I just happened to use it as a photo. I think we agree that the question of station access will be most acute on East Link and North Link. To some extent, the decision to route Link along I-5 gives more momentum to the P&R side, because the walkshed is so poor anyway. But regardless, this policy is a step in the right direction towards a coordinated access plan.

      2. Link has a huge advantage at other suburban P&R’s don’t, which is frequent service until late at night. For instance, someone from Federal Way would probably choose Federal Way TC over TIBS when they are simply in downtown for a 9-5 workday. But if that same person wants to watch a Mariner’s game after work, or even have dinner at a downtown restaurant, the frequency benefit of Link for the trip home starts to look really big, so that same person might prefer to drive to TIBS, provided that he/she could depend on available parking being there. (This is especially true for Mariner’s games, where Link stops much closer to the stadium than the 577 does).

  6. There are many different ways to charge for some or all parking at a lot/garage. The ones involving the least enforcement cost make the most sense to me.

    To wit, the pilot program at Federal Way TC to lease a section of spots to morning commuters will both produce some revenue and provide a gaurantee of a parking spot for those willing to pay. This still allows some spots to be free, but it also encourages carpooling, increasing the productivity of the spaces. There are multiple cheap ways to “validate” transit usage for these leased spots, but I don’t think that is necessary, and creates an impression with some that they should be able to get a long-term permit for free if they just get their frequent transit usage “validated” … which would undermine much of the point of the pay-for-a-spot program.

    Some may cry that general access to transit will be lost as the number of paid/permitted stalls grows, but more riders per stall will be using the paid parking stalls than the free ones. And really, this is the same policy as with the leased bike lockers.

  7. I commute on Sounder from Auburn to Seattle. I was very happy to pay a modest monthly parking fee to the City of Auburn to guarantee parking availability… the free garage routinely filled up, leaving commuters circling for street parking that wouldn’t get them ticketed.

    (Then I realized that, being only 4 miles away from the station, it takes less time to ride a bike to the train than to drive, park, and walk.)

  8. So, if you want to think outside the box, one cool I’ve been imagining would be the development of a dynamic carpooling system oriented at trips between home and a P&R. The system would consist of a smartphone app to match riders and drivers. For trips home, the app would allow you get a last-mile ride from someone else riding the same bus or train as you.

    If a transit agency really wanted to increase adoption, they could even offer direct financial incentives to drivers who use the app to transport passengers, with the money coming from some combination of parking fees and money that would have been used to build a larger parking lot. For example, perhaps if transport one passenger on your way home, you get enough money to cover your parking fee. Transport two passengers on your way home, and you get enough money to cover your parking fee and your bus/train fare (or leave you with a small profit if your bus/train fare is covered by a pass).

  9. Also, Car2Go parking really should be allowed at Northgate and Green Lake P&R’s. If we’re going to build subsidized parking, there is no reason why subsidized parking needs to be exclusively available to people who own their cars.

    1. The point of Car2Go is to keep the cars visible and available. Pooling them all at a P&R would be even worse than the “Amazon private car fleet” situation that exists now.

      1. It would be no worse than the pooling that already happens today downtown. And some cars would be driven by reverse commuters out of the P&R in the morning and back in in the afternoon. Furthermore, if the park-and-ride lots have actual development around them, the pool of people to whom the car might be useful for will increase further. For instance, Car2Go vehicles left at Northgate P&R by transit users could be driven out by people visiting Northgate Mall or people living in nearby apartments, in addition to people coming off of the bus. This would fix the travesty that taking Car2Go to or from Northgate Mall is impossible without a half mile of walking, due to lack of parking, in spite of tons and tons of parking surrounding the mall!

        Mostly though, it’s basically a matter or principle. The reason why we have parking is that feeder service can be crappy and people with schedules to keep who just missed their half-hourly feeder bus don’t always have the luxury of waiting for the next one. Today, even though everyone pays for the parking facilities with their tax dollars, the benefit is exclusionary, in that if you don’t make the financial commitment to actually own the car you park there, you effectively can’t use the P&R at all.

        Since non-car-owners are still paying for the parking facilities with their tax dollars, allowing them to use such facilities via Car2Go only makes sense.

  10. BART recently started enacting policy to charge for parking at all of their stations to try and reduce the suburban subsidy and recover some of the cost of operating and maintaining the parking. They also have started to see how important land use is to a transit agency and they’ve developed specific levels of medium to high density zoning required before they will consider an extension.

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