Times, ABC7, and Metro Parking Stories Are Wrong and Misleading

Yesterday, the L.A. Times ran Lack of Parking Drives Many Away from Mass Transit, an article by Laura Nelson.

The Times starts with the example of a San Fernando Valley Metro Red Line commuter nearly missing grabbing a parking space. This leads to assertions of “parking shortages” on “L.A.’s light-rail system [sic – Red Line is heavy rail].” The article goes on to quote various Metro representatives, then parking expert UCLA professor Don Shoup. Ultimately, Nelson characterizes Metro parking as a “key policy question.”

Vid capture of
Screen/video capture from ABC7’s misleading L.A. Metro parking story. Alex Gonzales of Anaheim, a city not even in Los Angeles County, says “If you can’t park, then why would you take the train?”

Like a sad game of telephone, ABC7 (KABC-TV) picked up the Times’ assertions and stretched them to near absurdity.

ABC7’s story, Parking Issues to Blame for Low Transit Ridership in Los Angeles, has the gall to interview a man-on-the-street from Anaheim, a suburb not even in L.A. County, who says, “if you can’t park, then why would you take the train?”

It looks like he is riding the train in Pasadena but, honestly, couldn’t ABC7 find someone who lives in L.A. County?

Sure, transportation issues cross political boundaries, but should Metro, a governmental agency with jurisdiction over L.A. County, prioritize limited funds to serve people who don’t live here?

First two general points, then responses to Times article specifics:

1. Lots of People Ride Metro, Few Use Metro Parking 

Let me first note that lots and lots of people ride Metro buses and trains. About 1.5 millon every weekdayThere’s no “low ridership” issue here. Especially during rush hour, buses and trains are standing room only.

The vast majority of these Metro riders do not park. According to Metro’s on-board surveys, more than 80 percent of transit riders arrive by walking. Fewer than 4 percent drive and park. Even when excluding buses, just looking at the Metro rail system, only about 15 percent of riders drive and park. That is roughly 1 in 7.

The system works. Mostly with most riders paying no attention to parking.

2. It Costs Metro Hundreds of Millions of Dollars to Build and Maintain “Free” Parking 

Free parking is not free for Metro to build and maintain. Metro has already spent more than $200 million to build station parking. As more parking comes on line, Metro pays more and more to operate and maintain it.

Multi-million dollar investments in parking come with trade-offs. As an agency with a limited taxpayer-funded budget, Metro can choose to fund more buses, more rail, more parking, more freeways, more walkways, bike share, etc. The difficult political job of the agency is to strike a balance between these competing public goods.

Responding to Various Erroneous or Misleading Points  

The Times, ABC7, and even Metro routinely just say “parking” when they’re really referring to just “free parking.” For example, the Times (apparently repeating a Metro assertion) states:

In North Hollywood, where the Red Line subway ends, the MTA estimates that it loses as many as 1,500 riders a day because the parking lot fills up by 7:30 a.m.

Below is a photo of the North Hollywood Red Line Station parking lot at 7:30 a.m. this morning.

Metro Red Line North Hollywood Station today at 7:30am
Metro’s Red Line North Hollywood Station parking lot, which “fills up by 7:30 a.m.” wasn’t full today at 7:30 a.m. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

The North Hollywood station parking lot has 909 parking spaces. 451 are free. 425 require a paid monthly permit (currently $59, but sold out.) The free parking section is full, by about 6:30 a.m. The paid section never quite fills up. At 8 a.m. today there were still at least 200 empty spaces. Nonetheless that ‘parking lot full by 7:30 a.m.’ myth gets repeated frequently: L.A. MagazineZev’s Blog, Metro board motions [PDF page 6], but the lot is not full. (Note: Laura Nelson responded via Twitter that “full” more-or-less meant “unavailable.”) 

How about the rest of that Times quote of Metro estimating it’s losing 1,500 riders a day? I think this figure from this Metro staff report [PDF] which reads:

Staff conducted a review of parking demand using Metro’s Regional Transportation Modeling Program for the North Hollywood and Universal City stations. The unconstrained parking demand for both stations far exceeds supply. Unconstrained parking demand is defined as the number of spaces required if there are no regulatory or financial restrictions on use of the parking. The 2014 unconstrained parking demand at North Hollywood is 3,075 spaces. Metro provides 951 [sic – actual: 909] spaces, leaving an unconstrained demand of 2,124 parking spaces.

What is this “unconstrained demand” with “no financial restrictions”? It is meaningless nonsense. Ultimately nothing that exists on planet earth can exist in wholly “unconstrained” theoretical economic cartoon-fantasy-space. Metro needs to balance its constrained budget.

Metro dressing this mumbo-jumbo up in a scientific-sounding “Regional Transportation Modeling Program” is irresponsible. 

The Times reporting that “MTA loses … 1,500 riders a day” is irresponsible.

What’s the “unconstrained demand” for, say, free train rides? Is Metro “losing” tens of thousands of riders a day because they actually charge a fare?  Is the 405 Freeway “losing” cars because Caltrans can’t afford to add a dozen more lanes? Is UCLA “losing” students because they charge tuition? Is the L.A. Times “losing” readers because they don’t give papers away free? No – all of these real-world entities have constraints. Responsible staff reports and journalism should reflect this reality.

Back to the Times article, which asserts:

Metro has five new rail lines under construction. Only some suburban stations will have parking […]

I don’t know what definition of suburban is being used here. Mercifully, the Regional Connector and Purple Line subway do not add parking. Here are the “only some suburban stations” including suburban Inglewood and suburban West L.A., which will have parking:

  • Foothill Gold Line: parking at 100% of stations (6 of 6), 1,525 spaces
  • Expo Line phase 2: parking at 43% of stations (3 of 7), 580 spaces
  • Crenshaw/LAX Line: parking at 37% of stations (3 of 8), 330 spaces

The Times asserts:

One of the biggest barriers to attracting new riders to Metropolitan Transportation Authority trains is not the price of fares or the frequency of service. It’s the lack of parking.

This sentence makes it sound like “lack of parking” is a bigger barrier than “fares” or “frequency” (Ok, technically, the sentence doesn’t exclude the possibility that fares and frequency could be the biggest barriers, and parking would be third or so. It would be misleading to write “One of the five most populous cities in California is not L.A. or San Diego. It’s Fresno.” Technically it is correct; Fresno is CA’s fifth most populous city). But what’s a bigger barrier to attracting riders: fares, frequency, or parking?

Trying to compare these is a bit like apples vs. oranges — actually it is mostly-capital vs. mostly-operations. The price of fares and the frequency of service both have an impact on 100 percent of riders. On the other hand, parking is only used by one rail rider in seven, according to on-board surveys mentioned above. Even if Metro budgets could support a huge parking construction boom, it is hard to imagine that the percentage of driver-riders would ever be a majority.

More from the Times article, quoting Metro:

“Our objective is not to make money on parking; our objective is to get people to ride the system,” said Calvin Hollis, a Metro managing executive officer.

“Not to make money on parking” sounds kind of neutral, no? If Hollis were being clear, I think he should have said something more like “Our objective is to lose hundreds of millions of dollars building parking, and for parking operations to continue to be a loss leader every year.”

Overall, transit systems, like freeways, bike paths, etc. operate at a loss. And they should, because the public has chosen to subsidize certain public goods. The balancing act is finding which mix of loss-leaders will be most cost-effective in furthering the objective of “get[ting] people to ride the system.” I’d like to see Metro study what is most effective. I think it would likely include more frequency of service, technology, walkability, bikeability, etc.

Again, the Times, again quoting Metro:

Metro officials say they are trying to encourage alternatives modes of getting to stations, including adding more bike racks and adjusting bus routes to complement rail lines.

Groan. Through awareness is perhaps growing, with Metro adopting First Last Mile and Complete Streets documents, let’s follow the money. Metro spends hundreds of millions of dollars to providing free parking, and is basically getting out of the business of funding bike and walk facilities. To date, “adjusting bus routes” has meant cutting bus lines that run anywhere near parallel to rail, to force bus riders onto the rail systems. So, when a new rail line is built, instead of keeping current bus service to allow flexibility and redundancy, bus service gets cut.

One insightful commentary on the Metro station parking policy issue arrived via The Source’s transportation headlines. Steve Hymon quotes the University of Minnesota’s Andrew Young:

You can build parking lots that [make] transit useful to those who live some distance away from stations or you can build housing and destination adjacent to that station that will be used by those in future who will work and live there.

The question is: do you want to build for an existing constituency or do you want to build for a currently nonexistent constituency that one day will live next to the station? In many places, building for the future is hard for current politicians….people like the status quo and people in the status quo are the ones who vote and it’s always hard to change that.

I would assert that today’s constituency is more like 6/7ths there, as opposed to “nonexistent,” but I think that this commentary leads to the question of what kind of spaces do we really want around our transit portals? Will people “ride the system” if it is mostly surrounded by parking craters? Or if it is in a pedestrian-oriented mixed-use area, with convenient bus stops and bike-share kiosks? And, maybe, if we still need it, some very modest parking available at a very modest fee?

  • MaxUtil

    Lost in all of this too is the ‘opportunity cost’ of investing in parking instead of something else. Even if more parking attracted 1,500 extra riders per day, how many more riders would be attracted if the $100’s of millions were instead invested in better service, lower fares, etc?
    If Metro’s stated goal is to attract more riders, have they done any even basic analysis of where they get the best results for investing money? Or are they just responding ad-hoc to complaints from politically powerful forces because a few constituents complained they couldn’t park for free at the red line stop in the middle of the day?

  • Mikey

    The Times has been on this bizarre anti-Metro and anti-cycling kick recently. They’ve had ranting anti-bike editorials about some sort of imaginary “war on motorists” to which they alone are privy. Of course, auto dealers are their biggest remaining advertiser, so it doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together on this one.

  • Great follow up Joe. This is the type of writing that exemplifies Streetsblog.

  • Juan Matute

    I think the LA Times should do a similar article on the unconstrained demand for housing. But housing in LA costs well above replacement cost, and additionally must cross-subsidize parking.

  • Juan Matute

    My big lesson from all this is that Metro needs to find more convenient ways for people to pay for parking rather than the monthly pass. How about allowing people to pay for parking via an Express Lanes transponder – just drive right in the express entrance to the parking lot. Everyone else can pay with TAP or credit card upon entry..

  • Joe Linton

    Yes – there should be multiple duration options: hourly, daily, monthly. Right now it’s just monthly (and those are sold out.)

  • Joe Linton

    Free housing for everyone! L.A. County is loosing countless residents! (at least according to my magic black box model!) [Though we could have a straight-faced headline: “Parking Issues to Blame For Low Housing Availability” – not the parking issue that ABC7 or Times are interested in.]

  • KevinCrosby

    Maybe instead of worrying about adding parking spaces to accommodate the Red Line stations at NoHo and Universal City, some council members might look into advocating for a bike lane on Lankershim Blvd., which would service both stations and make it easy and safe for riders to arrive on bike.

  • Jeff Jacobberger

    Let’s assume that Metro has a problem attracting customers who do not live within walking distance of the North Hollywood and Universal City stations. How many more people would take the Orange Line to NoHo if the Orange Line had genuine signal priority, and ran buses more frequently at peak hours? How many people would bike to the Red Line if we had a relatively dense network of quality bike infrastructure around all Red Line stations to expand the catchment area from 1/2 mile radius (walking distance) to a 2 or 3 mile radius? More parking might be a solution to the problem, but it is far from the only solution.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    The initial design of the Universal and North Hollywood subway stations had twice as much parking as they do today. The MTA got resistance to having that much parking from community members who feared that this would attract more drivers to their area and increase congestion.

    It is a good idea to try and entice people to not bring their cars to the core part of the city which has the highest population density. Some cities in the Netherlands build parking lots for cars in the outlying areas, from there the drivers switch to bicycles or transit to enter the center of the city.

    Metro cannot build rail everywhere. A three mile radius of the subway stations in the valley would be the maximum distance for most people to travel by bicycle to connect with the trains. That’s a small fraction of the valley. Connecting to the Orange Line by bicycle increases the area covered, but there is a limit of only three bicycles that can be carried on each bus. If the bus bike rack is full, then an additional bicycle rider would need to have a folding bike which is allowed on the bus, or leave their bike behind in a locked storage box or at a rack.

    Bicycle lockers are also also reserved for one user for at least 6 months. This limits the amount of people who could be using it during a day. There should be a card that you insert which deducts payment for each use. Berkeley has lockers like that. Metro is aware of them, but so far has not been interested in getting any. There will be a indoor bicycle parking built at the North Hollywood transit hub which is supposed to be finished in 2015. There is enough space to have create parking for at least 250 bicycles.

  • I wouldn’t count on any indoor parking at NoHo. Look at the promised bike facility at El Monte Bus Station. Still not open.

  • Not possible. Never been done anywhere in America.

    Oh, wait…

    http://www.wmata.com/rail/parking/

  • There is also a demand for Unicorns and Rainbows that is not being met. I request an investigation!

  • I am amazed that a facility with the demand that a terminus High Capacity Rail station creates (especially one that allows the bypass of a notorious choke-point like Cahuenga Pass) applies a communal economic policy to an obviously in-demand commodity like parking. Is car storage at the beaches free? At Chavez Ravine, Exposition Park or the area’s Indoor Arenas? No. Then why the Marxism from Los Angeles Metro?

  • Joe Linton

    Free ice cream, too! Damn these constrained markets!

  • Sam M

    SFO: “Customers with credit card backed FasTrak accounts can now use FasTrak at any of SFO’s parking garages.”
    http://www.flysfo.com/to-from/parking/

  • Lisa Bianconi

    Great article! Yeah, the NoHo free lot is full super early. It would be great if a driver were able to purchase one of those green spots that aren’t being used. This is good for when someone doesn’t ride the METRO daily, have a need for a parking pass and doesn’t want to worry about being late by circling the neighborhood 100 times looking for street parking.

    I have to drive to the Balboa Orange Line lot to get to NoHo. I’d take the bus on Balboa but the thing comes once and hour if it comes at all. You have to be there like 20 minutes before the scheduled time just in case it decides to come early. The connector buses are a real issue. Also, not everyone rides a bike or can ride one in a suit or skirt. :) I love our bike lanes and think we need to demand more for the safety of our cyclists and so the drivers get used to more cyclists on the road. But biking it is not the option to end all options to get people riding the METRO. We need to focus also on the connecting bus option.

    I run an international young artist high school program and my biggest headache is trying to help my students get to school via public transport. We try all combinations to get them to school. I pull my hair out trying to figure this out. It would be great if the major bus lines that feed into the METRO Orange and Red lines came more than once an hour and were coordinated to connect with train schedules. (please METRO)

    Don’t get me wrong, I am so happy to see more public transportation. I’m proud of my city for the efforts they’re putting in to this system in our massive, sprawling city because it’s not easy. As a native Angeleno, I remember the days of no Orange Line and taking the bus to the beach from the Valley. I am more than thrilled with the changes we’ve made so far. I’m sure we can find smart solutions to the parking/getting our behinds on the METRO.

    Look forward to reading more of your posts.

    LisaB

  • M

    Earlier this year I got super excited when I saw a bike lane being installed on Vineland near Universal City. As it turns out, the bike lane only begins at Vineland and Ventura and travels north for about a mile before the lane disappears. Part of the street the lane is on was resurfaced, but other parts are in terrible condition (including some areas where there is a consistent crack running parallel to bike tires in the middle of the bike lane.) There’s still no bike lane on Campo de Cahuenga or Ventura leading from the train station and there’s no bike lane on Vineland for bikes traveling south towards the train station. How this made sense, I have no idea. It’s sad that the city is not serious about making a COMPLETE solution to support bicyclists.

    I live near Universal and I try to avoid biking on Lankershim at all costs, honestly. The cars travel way too fast (I have to cross Lankershim on my daily bike ride and there’s one of those signs present that shows the current speed cars are traveling. Speed limit is 35, but it’s not abnormal to see cars going 45-50mph, going straight through the red lights.) Lankershim also has a tendency to flood horribly when it rains (I know, not a huge concern right now), but as it turns out, people that rely on public transportation still need to get to work and other places when it rains. The pedestrian experience for these same areas is also pretty bad. On Campo de Cahuenga there’s freeway entrances/exits that pedestrians must cross. For a period of time, a large portion of the street lights in the area were out and it took months of me writing to various city depts. to get the stupid things fixed, despite the fact that it was extremely dangerous and I was constatly nearly getting hit by cars speeding up Campo de Cahuenga to get onto the freeway. Why isn’t there a no-right-on-red sign, at minimum there and time for pedestrians to cross without cars driving at them? I have no idea.

    Anyway, I get frustrated that I have this enormous amount of feedback and suggestions to make this area better and most of what I’ve said over the years falls on deaf ears or takes about 5+ years to get the most minor of improvements implemented.

  • Phantom Commuter

    Parking is a necessary evil for systems that reach into, or have catchment, in suburban areas. Heavy Rail BART, CTA, MBTA and WAMATA all have Park & Rides. Commuter rail systems, like Metrolink, cannot operate without them. One solution might be the use of more shared parking. For example, a retail/entertainment TOD with a parking garage that can be used by commuters during the day and movie goers, diners or shoppers at night.

  • Heh

    I am not against parking, but I am against parking wastelands.

  • Joe Linton

    As Juan mentioned below – it would be good to see Metro manage these parking lots more efficiently. Only selling parking as a monthly permit (currently sold out at NoHo) isn’t working well. Trying to keep up with exhaustive demand for free parking isn’t working there either.
    One thing you might like: the Orange Line service is going to get a little better – see the last item here: http://la.streetsblog.org/2014/10/23/metro-updates-rail-to-river-complete-streets-brt-more/

  • Joe Linton

    I don’t know about the others, but BART charges for all its parking. I think that it would be great if Metro would follow that example. I don’t think that Metro should have no parking no where… but I think that Metro spends more money on parking than is prudent and cost-effective, because it’s trying to keep up with near-infinite demand for free stuff.

  • Wanderer

    There’s the opportunity cost financially, and the opportunity cost of space that could be used for housing or offices or stores etc.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    The El Monte Bicycle Hub is on this procurement on line 15 of this Metro pdf and the contract was expected to be awarded October 14th and the Bicycle Hub finished by the end of the year:

    http://media.metro.net/uploads/Procurements_Solicitation_Evaluation_Phase_revised.pdf

  • Dennis_Hindman

    I just got an e-mail from Anthony Jusay who works in the Metro Bicycle section. The contractors for the El Monte Bicycle Hub did not meet the goals for small business participation. This site is now anticipated to open in the spring of 2015. For North Hollywood, Metro is trying to tie the Bicycle Hub in with the old train depot. Its not known when this might be installed.

  • Guest

    This is where bikeshares can be incredibly useful and to solve the First Mile, Last Mile problem you are talking about. It will dramatically enhance the coverage of existing rail and BRT lines.

    This is actually demonstrated by the opening of Citibike in NYC and cross town subway rirders. It used to be a bitch to ride the subway or go across Manhattan from east to west or vice versa. Now with the addition of Citibike, you just hop on a biker and go. Get to your destination or transfer point and drop the bike off at another station.

  • ranzchic

    This is where bikeshares can be incredibly useful and to solve the First Mile, Last Mile problem you are talking about. It will dramatically enhance the coverage of existing rail and BRT lines. No need to worry about bike capacity on buses and bike facilities such as bike lockers are replaced by modular and more efficient bikeshare stations that has more capacity for the same amount of space.

  • ranzchic

    And it has the added benefit of it being multi-purpose: 1) Being a first mile, last mile connection 2) gives you more options for short hop trips 3) increased capacity of the lines as the short hop trips are replaced by bike share trips 4) the bike racks on the buses have increased capacity because bike share users do not use the racks anymore.

  • Over two years after the El Monte Bus Station opened?!? What contractors did not “meet the goals”? A proven operator like the almighty Bikestation? Will Metro be kicking Starbucks and Subway out of LAUS then?

  • Parking or any form of storage for private property, is a commodity and musn’t be given away, Has anyone at Metro studied “The Tragedy of the Commons”??

  • All the others charge for parking. Even Rancho Cucamonga Metrolink station is doing this now.

  • Who got the contract?

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Invitations for bids on the El Monte Bicycle Hub will be re-released in mid-November. Metro is anticipating a spring opening for El Monte Bicycle Hub, summer for Hollywood/Vine and fall 2015 for Culver City as part of the Expo Line.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Public transit planning consultant Jarrett Walker recently posted an article on his Human Transit blog entitled “basics: the math of park and ride” which is in response to the LA Times article written by Laura J. Nelson:

    http://www.humantransit.org/2014/10/basics-the-math-of-park-and-ride.html

  • Bluebrady

    I see everyone saying in the comments how a public agency giving away free parking, an in demand commodity, is basically marxism, and I agree. Even tho im more liberal than the average democrat and dont think that the government providing free service is particularly evil, i still disagree with this practice because it amounts to government actively endorsing a practice that creates air and noise pollution, whose infastructure literally destroys neighborhoods and slowly destroys neighborhoods adgacent to it, and that most cannot afford, that is, driving. Government has a responsobility to ensure a good quality of life for all, providing free parking does not.

  • Joe Linton

    Next Times article: County Parks Department estimates that it loses as many as 1,500 beach-goers a day because the parking lot fills up by 7:30 a.m.!!!

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