Ever since the advent of commuter express routes, park-and-rides (P&Rs) have been a mainstay in the built environment of the American suburb. You can see why it was an easy proposition to make: after postwar suburbanization but with jobs still in city centers, policymakers needed a way to keep transit viable among white-collar workers. The answer, of course, was what one old professor of mine called “fake density”: the park-and-ride.
Over the last fifty years, P&Rs have taken on different forms. Substantial but overlooked capacity often comes from leasing agreements with churches or other institutions that have low utilization during the work week. But the public is probably most accustomed with the large P&Rs, with multistory garages and thousands of parking spaces, that typically accompany a transit center or rail station.
Incorporating large P&Rs with major capital projects has been the de-facto expansion strategy of Sound Transit. In the pre-COVID mind of the transit advocate, P&Rs were a necessary evil: they dissuade transit-oriented development and exacerbate sprawl but can carry a transit project through an election. Just about every Link expansion project — north, south, and east — features multiple thousand-stall garages.
Before the pandemic, there was already a compelling case we didn’t have to join P&Rs and transit stations at the hip. Even if parking had to be built, I was always partial to the idea of letting local municipalities shoulder the cost of building and maintaining the P&R, letting an agency like Sound Transit to focus outlays exclusively on transit infrastructure. And when COVID happened, it virtually reset every preconceived notion about our perceived need for parking.
My commute downtown from the Eastside usually has me pass through either Eastgate P&R or South Bellevue Station, which have a combined 3,000 parking spaces between the two. I have been on my current commuting pattern since about summer of 2021 and the utilization of these two garages, although growing ever slightly the last 20 months, has stagnated around a few hundred vehicles by my count. Keep in mind that Eastgate regularly met or exceeded 100% of its capacity pre-pandemic.
Although Metro no longer publishes yearly P&R usage reports, these observations are corroborated by route-level ridership. Many of the Eastside peak-only commuter routes are only serving ~10-15% of their pre-COVID baseline ridership. Compare this to Metro’s core workhorse routes and RapidRide lines, where about ~60-70% of ridership has been recovered.
We have already alluded to a general post-pandemic strategy that focuses more hours on frequent reliable all-day service and fewer on commuter routes. But now is the time for Sound Transit to formally divest of the P&R strategy it has employed for decades. At bare minimum, planned parking projects should be substantially scaled back (or delayed) and station area land be aggressively purposed for TOD, more than it has been in the past.
With all that said, I don’t expect suburban commuter routes to be wiped off the face of the earth. As much as urbanists hate it, transit governance relies on the political capital of suburban constituents. Having a viable commuter base does not mean overbuilding parking, however. Agencies can pick the low-hanging fruit by looking at the glut of existing suburban parking lots from malls, churches, and even office parks that have lost their own workers to remote or hybrid work.