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
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?