Some Thoughts On Metro’s Modest New Parking Policy Proposal

Should Metro parking policies
Metro is voting on a proposed update to its parking policies this Thursday. Metro Gold Line Atlantic Station parking structure. Photo by Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

At this Thursday’s meeting, Metro’s Board of Directors will be voting on modest changes to the way the agency manages parking. Theoretically, these changes are expected to set the stage for increased parking revenue, which has positives for walkability and livability, but the devil may be in the details.

According to the staff presentation [PDF], Metro currently manages more than 70 parking facilities with more than 22,000 parking spaces. In 2016, with new Gold and Expo Line extension parking lots opening, this will rise to more than 25,000 spaces. 330 more spaces are added when the Crenshaw/LAX line parking lots open in 2019.

Metro Boardmember and Duarte City Councilmember John Fasana, at last week’s Executive Committee meeting, remarked that parking spaces cost Metro “$40,000 a pop.” And that’s just up-front costs, without ongoing maintenance and operations. Metro’s overall 25,000 space parking portfolio, assuming parking expert Don Shoup’s industry standard of $24,000 per space instead of Fasana’s higher number for above ground structures (some spaces cost a lot more than this, probably some cost less), cost the agency at least $600,000,000.

So, even under conservative estimates, Metro has spent more than half a billion dollars on parking spaces. Metro gives more than 93 percent those spaces away for free. Metro CEO Phil Washington and other Metro leaders increasingly frequently speak about budget shortfalls and the need for increased revenue, cost-cutting, and likely fare increases.

I’ve often written critically about Metro’s free parking as a massive unfair loss leader for the agency. What might be given more weight is analysis by transportation experts. Metro’s recent peer review by a panel of American Public Transportation Association (APTA) experts made the following recommendations that bear repeating here: (full APTA review coverage here)

  • Station parking is expensive to build and maintain, so parking costs should be [at least] partially recovered.
  • Easy parking encourages driving that first last mile; it’s better to re-direct parking resources to instead fund convenient, frequent bus service.
  • Free park-and-ride subsidizes higher income riders and decreases transit’s air quality benefits.

So… with looming deficits and expert recommendations, Metro is retooling the way it does parking.

Not quite.

The new Metro parking ordinance is unfortunately not so different from current practices.

The proposal consists of two documents: a 31-page mostly-boilerplate Metro Parking Ordinance [PDF] and a 12-page Parking Rates and Permit Fees [PDF]; both are summarized in this presentation [PDF]. The bottom line on how Metro says it will manage parking: “No New Fees at Park and Ride Facilities With the Exception of Union Station.”

Subtle differences in Metro parking signage - violators can be cited - not just towed. Image via Metro [PDF]
Subtle differences in Metro parking signage – violators can be cited – not just towed. Image via Metro [PDF]
Under current Metro regulations and practices, the agency can tow cars that violate agency rules. The new ordinance sets up rules under which, instead of high-stakes towing, the agency can ticket parking violations. Perhaps those parking tickets are the real source of revenue in the new policy?

The presentation states that the new ordinance will “provide a structure for pricing, setting parameters for parking fee adjustments” so perhaps this formalization will set the stage for gradually implementing demand-responsive pricing. My fear is that, as I read it, the new policies may be overly rigid for managing something something as dynamic as parking. Parking demand varies dramatically at different times and places. Ideally, parking prices could vary similarly.

Historically, increases to monthly permit costs were determined by Metro parking staff, generally in response to long wait lists for sold-out stations. Even under the current staff-managed permit fees, Metro parking prices remain too low to manage current demand, so more than a third of Metro’s permitted lots remain sold out and unavailable even to people willing to pay for a permit (screen print this morning). The new ordinance would somewhat-rigidly lock in current below-market prices.

According to the proposal, the initial parking prices are set by the Metro board, then can be adjusted up or down by another vote of the full Metro board. That, of course, takes months. Alternately the CEO can adjust them up to 25 percent every 90 days:

SECTION 47. The Metro Board is hereby authorized to adjust the parking rates higher or lower for any off street parking facilities, including parking structures and parking lots, in order to facilitate the parking goals, based on occupancy, comparable location. The Chief Executive Officer or its designee is hereby authorized to approve parking fee adjustments within a twenty-five percent (25%) margin and less frequent than ninety (90) days of the established parking fee. Any increases or decreases of parking fees beyond the twenty-five (25%) margin or more frequent than ninety (90) days shall require METRO Board, or its designee’s, approval.

In 2014, Metro increased the cost of North Hollywood and Universal City Red Line station monthly parking permits. The permits had been $39 and went to $59 and $55 respectively. Those increases (which incidentally, were not enough to keep these high-demand stations from remaining sold-out) would not have been allowed under the new ordinance. Under the ordinance, even CEO Phil Washington could only raise a $39 pass by 25% or $9.75.

So, for the roughly 7 percent of Metro parking where the agency actually charges for monthly permits, the new policy would lock in below-market prices, at least for a while.

It is worse for the 93 percent of Metro parking that is free today.

The proposal effectively locks in free parking for 93 percent of Metro’s station parking. The proposed rules allow the CEO to adjust free parking prices by 25 percent, but 25 percent of zero is still zero. So, even where demand, budget, environmental, or equity issues would favor shifting from free to, say, a dollar, any increase on free parking will take a vote of the entire Metro board. Ideally, one of the directors will catch this oversight, and perhaps modify the language. Perhaps Metro’s CEO could be authorized to modify board-approved parking rates by up to 25 percent or by up to one dollar a day, without requiring board approval. (One dollar per day is 25% of Metro’s standard $4 daily parking fee – what the agency charges for a single space for a single day.)

From my reading, it is also unclear how, within a given station parking lot, the Metro would convert free parking spaces to paid parking spaces. In the past, this was a staff decision, at least somewhat responsive to demand for paid permits. Gradually the number of permitted spots in many stations has grown to meet demand – though there are still free spaces in paid lots. If this shifting of spaces is governed by the above restriction favoring free parking, it should not. Staff or CEO should be able to reallocate spaces within a given lot, based on demand.

Lastly, the new ordinance enshrines free parking at stations where it should not. The new rate schedule includes no paid parking anywhere on the Metro Expo Line, including the often-full La Cienega station parking structure, which has the sad absurd situation, for years, of having two floors of parking signed as restricted to permit holders, but no permits for that station are on sale at Metro’s parking website. There is no paid parking on the Green Line, though the Norwalk station’s massive lot is said to fill up on occasion. If Metro is retooling its parking policies, it is important not to lock in free parking at those stations, and probably others.

At a time when Metro is facing a fiscal crunch, it is critical that the agency not making parking revenue improvements more difficult. While this policy may be laying some groundwork for some later improvements (and, likely improves revenue from citations and from Union Station) I would urge the board to continue to refine the policy before approval.

Ideally, though perhaps in the longer run, the Metro board should set principles and perhaps performance targets. Does the board want parking operations to for pay for themselves? Does the board want parking to contribute a target amount of revenue to cover operations and state of good repair? Does the board ultimately want great places at their stations – or pedestrian-unfriendly seas of free parking? The board should set these broad directions and should give Metro’s CEO and staff enough authority to carry them out.

  • calwatch

    Green Line parking lots are subject to the Consent Decree that brought the freeway in the first place. So you can’t charge for them, nor restrict them to transit riders only, without permissions of the plaintiffs.

    As for station parking, there is a sweet spot for a parking policy similar to that of BART’s, using a 95% parking capacity standard, but the revenue generated would need to be reinvested into something tangible like security, automated bike lockers, or dedicated station-specific transit rather than dropping into a black hole of the general fund. Also there needs to be a comprehensive list of parking charges published, and local elected officials should be consulted due to spillover effects that could harm businesses and neighborhoods that depend on parking availability for their customers and residents. The concern is that if Metro staff does have a unilateral ability to impose parking charges, then City X is not aware and is inundated with dozens of complaints about people parking all day not allowing homeowners’ contractors and business customers to park or do business.

    And Union Station is a major facility, and is seeing a 33% increase in the daily rate, and market pricing for events that could enable them to charge more. So they are gaining revenue from this change.

  • Chewie

    I park at Atlantic Station pretty often. I think offering it up for free is a mistake. That parking costs something to build and maintain and that cost is most justly paid by the people who park there. Metro should have a low flat base rate (maybe $1 per day) for parking that covers the cost to build and maintain it and charge more in the lots with highest demand. There should never be a situation where the last parking space is taken. If that is the case the price of parking is too low.

    It’s also kind of absurd for a transit agency to have free parking when fares are rising and many bus lines suffer from infrequent service. Subsidize transit, not driving.

  • Joe Linton

    Metro staff can raise permit prices unilaterally today, and for a lot of these stations (NoHo, Universal) they’re full today, so there’s theoretically spillover today… so it doesn’t seem like that’s a rational for not charging.

    I didn’t know about the Green Line… won’t be the last place where @calwatch:disqus beat me to the punch!

  • davistrain

    This is another example of the “Riders by choice” vs. “Transit dependent” conflict. I think there are some officials at Metro who operate on the theory that “If we don’t offer free parking, the folks with cars will just stay in their vehicles and drive all the way to their destinations.”

  • Joe Linton

    I like how Jarrett Walker says “don’t sweat focusing on the ‘choice riders’ or the ‘captive riders’ – instead focus on the middle 90%”

  • Alex Brideau III

    There’s some logic in that. But I think that’s one of the strengths of the $1 price point. It’s low, sure, but still has the ability to woo many discretionary riders.

    I think a good number of urban shopping districts have had some luck with the low-dollar pricing. Before living near a Metro station, Hollywood & Highland’s “Parking for $2!!!” campaign was very effective in getting me to park there instead of circling the local streets.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I want to see a Walker/Shoup panel on this issue! :-) #PolicyGeek

  • Simon

    Nice article, Joe. Could you include a sentence on who to contact? It looks like the board of directors list is: and it would be most relevant to email: the mayor, one’s county supervisor, and one’s city councilperson.

  • M

    I live near Universal/Studio City stop and despite the “no Universal Studios Parking” signs, I have yet to actually understand any sort of system that Metro is using besides putting signs up to stop this from happening. Are people actually monitoring to make sure people aren’t using the parking as free Universal Parking? From some of my experiences over the years, I would say it seems like nothing it done.

    As someone who pays a premium to live within walking distance of a station, it does irritate me that such a large percentage of the parking spots are free. Meanwhile, we get a stupid, expensive pedestrian bridge, sidewalks that are flat out missing and/or in terrible condition within the areas surrounding the train stations, still no bike path along the LA River and speeding cars. Sometimes it seems like I’m the stupid one for living so close to the station, not the people driving to it and parking for free.

  • Joe Linton

    At this point I’d say Garcetti, Bonin, Fasana and your local county supervisorl

  • calwatch

    On the other hand, we know that especially for choice riders parking fees suppresses ridership. Look at Metrolink, for instance, which in their recent fare study, indicated parking was a challenge.

    Also, when parking costs money, even a nominal amount, people without expense accounts or reimbursement will park on the street. I see this happen all the time across the street from work, where the office park charges (!) $1 an hour to park and people line the streets with personal cars, rather walking 500 feet than paying.

    If you charge for parking, you have to provide some sort of value for the parkers. Many people would pay $1 if that meant a security guard could sit at the lot during the day and do roving patrols, for instance. But putting it into a black hole of the general fund is not going to make people happy. Drivers vote and they can sign petitions and recall elected officials just like transit riders and bicyclists can.

  • Salts

    It feels almost hopeless, doesn’t it? Metro can’t get a hundred decent and secure bike lockers but can pay for thousands of free surface and multi-story car parking lots. You really have to wonder, who is making the decisions at Metro and why are the people in power refusing to stop this? Could it be that the people with actual power are the ones making these decisions or are they too clueless and spineless to see the problem?

  • Here’s how they deal with this issue in Denver

  • Darren

    You mention (and I’m sure many station-adjacent neighborhoods agree with you) that “…local elected officials should be consulted due to spillover effects that could harm businesses and neighborhoods that depend on parking availability for their customers and residents.” BART stations that charge for parking have permit parking within a several-block radius of the station, allowing up to 2 hours parking for non-permit holders. Setting up a permit district would of course require consulting with elected officials, but it seems to work fairly well by BART’s North Berkeley stations. Plus there’s potential for that sweet, sweet citation revenue!

    And as for your earlier concern about suppressing ridership, fewer than 5 percent of Metro riders access the system by driving and parking, so annoying a few drivers will minimally affect systemwide ridership. And besides, it would be demand-based pricing, so if the parking lots started emptying out, you could just lower the prices. This percentage is likely far higher for a commuter-oriented system like Metrolink that also has, on average, higher-income riders.

  • Chewie

    You could look at it from an economics perspective. What is the elasticity of demand for transit rides with respect to the price of parking? Usually non-necessities tend to have elastic demand, meaning that price hikes cause big drops in quantity demanded. Transit is not a necessity for car owners. On the other hand if you are going somewhere where parking is truly expensive, like DTLA, paying a buck to park at a train station is no big deal.

    Stepping back a bit, it’s clear to me that free parking in general does much more to hurt than to help transit.

  • calwatch

    The proposal that Chewie wants is to impose a $1 charge on all park and ride lots, without any benefit being provided to the parkers like security or cameras. So now you have parking lots which are empty, people parking on the streets to avoid paying that fee, and disgruntled people that vote which will shoot down future taxes for transit. I agree that parking should be charged if the lots are full. BART’s North Concord/Martinez has parking spaces available and is free to the public.

  • Azunyan

    Here’s the thing that I don’t understand.

    If they are worried that people won’t ride Metro unless they give out free parking or about “first mile/last mile” problems, why did they even build a free parking structure in the first place?

    Couldn’t they just built a high rise residential building then? Bam! You now have people living literally a few feet away from a train station! Now they solved first mile/last mile.

    I mean duh? Don’t build stuff to hope people to come to the train station, turn the thinking around and make it so that people live near the train station instead!

  • calwatch

    But that’s free parking in general, not specific to rail stations. You’re arguing that parking should not be built at rail stations to begin with, even in suburban areas, replaced with TOD on what would be the parking – which might be a fair position. But charging $1 for parking at parking lots where there is no demand issue just shifts the problem to neighborhoods and shifts people from higher capacity, and higher boarding rail to lower capacity bus. It’s better for commuters to be taking one Metrolink train boarding 200 people at a station at a time, than for them to be riding Foothill Transit buses and parking in neighborhoods (which they do, i.e. for the 498). But since Covina charges for parking and parking along Grand Avenue is free, many people take the bus, which is competing with the train, so buses have to run every 5-10 minutes and cost the taxpayer more than a rail car being added to a Metrolink consist.

  • calwatch

    Except if there is no parking at train stations, then the average voter will think that the rail is not for them. Then they won’t vote for tax increases. With the failure of Measure J but just a few thousand votes, and a new tax increase on the horizon, Metro cannot afford to alienate more voters. Also high rise housing to replace 500 spaces in places like Azusa is going to be a non-starter. Remember that many people who live at rail stations don’t even use the rail to commute since they may work off the rail line.

  • Azunyan

    The average voter doesn’t even participate in the voting process. LOL.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Certainly the first round of pricing should be exacted at the lots that are frequently at capacity. It makes the roll out much simpler and more practical, IMHO.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Instead of surface parking lots adjacent to stations, if it’s determined that parking makes sense at that location, I say build it underneath some TOD.

    That said, I suspect that Metro considers many (most?) of its station-adjacent parking lots as future development sites and is just using them as interim parking until those developments finally get in gear.

  • Phantom Commuter

    It’s more important to place trip generators (jobs etc.) than origins (housing) at rail stations. People will figure a way to get to the stations if the system will deliver them to their destination without needing a second transfer. Park & Rides may not be needed for dense urban stations, but Metro has many lines and stations that are acting as de-facto commuter rail. These stations have large catchment areas, poor transit connections and must have park & ride lots.

  • Manny Ojeda Jr

    I do think that there should be a charge based on the popularity of the spaces. Thing is the current form of paying for particular spaces is time consuming the online pass is great for daily users while a pay kiosk would be good for casual users. Maybe one that indicates with a light that the space is paid for? or maybe a system that may charge ones ExpressLane transponder? I like the direction metros gone in the past few years… would be a shame to take steps back.

  • Chewie

    I’m not saying there should never be parking at transit stations. Like I mentioned before, I use transit parking myself. I am saying that parking should cover its own costs. I also think that Metro should analyze the opportunity costs of keeping its land in parking versus selling or leasing it to a developer to build jobs and housing near transit. People don’t ride transit to see Metro’s parking lots. They ride transit because it takes them to places they want to be. Also, most cities that have strong transit ridership have a built environment that makes parking difficult and/or expensive. In places with cheap and easy parking, driving almost always becomes the default mode of transportation and transit is lucky to be able to put out a bare-bones service for the poor and disabled.

    If you look at the transit trip I take most often, I have a choice between driving to the Atlantic Station parking garage or taking a bus to the station. If I drive, I save time and I don’t have to pay for parking. If I take the bus, it’s better for the environment and supports the social goals of public transit, but I have to pay bus fare and it takes longer. Thus, Metro, by making parking free, has incentivized me to skip the bus and drive to the train and has incurred a cost (building and maintaining a parking structure) in order to siphon revenue away from a bus.

    My take is, most people in LA County realize that transit is a valuable public service that is worth paying for. That’s why we were able to pass things like Measure R. If paying for parking means Metro has more money to make a better transit system, I’d say it’s well worth it. People who think free parking is a God-given right probably aren’t the kind of people who are into transit or urban places anyway.

    Side note: I think it would be neat to tie parking charges into TAP cards to make it convenient.

  • Darren

    Of course, an important caveat I forgot to clarify. If a lot is not filling up or at least getting to ~85% regularly, then it should be free. Also “perks” like cameras and security guards should only come any revenue left over after using parking revenue to pay for loan servicing, maintenance, etc.

  • Azunyan

    Over in the Bay Area, they use FasTrak transponders to pay for parking.

    When you enter the parking lot, it records your transponder and when you leave the parking lot, it automatically deducts the parking fee based on how long you were parking there.

    Since it’s the same FasTrak technology as we’re using I think we can use the same thing here at our rail stations. Or we can also use our TAP card to do this.

  • Azunyan

    Why not both? No one says you can’t create both jobs and housing near train stations. Look at the mixed use condos/commercial buildings in the Koreatown stations for example.

  • Phantom Commuter

    Of course you can have both, but offices near transit have a higher mode share than residents living near transit. The last mile is more important than the first mile for most people.

  • Phantom Commuter

    Suburban TOD’s simply provide parking for tenants instead of transit riders.

  • Phantom Commuter

    Atlantic is also the Phantom’s closest Metro station. It’s about 13 miles away and would take three buses. Norwalk/Santa Fe Springs is the nearest Metrolink station. Once again, poor bus service. Park & Ride is the only thing that makes using transit competitive.

  • Phantom Commuter

    The huge Norwalk Green Line station is completely full early in the morning. Transit service is very poor in the Gateway Cities and not really an option for reaching the station.

  • Joe Linton

    The trick is (and I think you know this) that at a certain point that free parking competes economically with the bus fare. If you live close enough to Atlantic and you could take a, say, $4 bus, or drive and park free… you’re going to choose to drive – because Metro is basically paying you to drive. If your bus is frequent and cheap and, say, $1 and your parking is $4 then you’re more likely to choose the bus.

  • Azunyan

    I have to disagree. I think first mile is more important than the last mile. You need to have people living near the stations first so that they are encouraged to use transit to get where they are going.

    In many places overseas, the property values of residential areas are actually based on closeness to the train stations. The closer to the train station, like within 15 minutes of walk, the more valuable their home/condo prices are.

    And it would be better to have commercial buildings near train stations too so that people their place of work is only few feet away from the train station also. This will solve the last mile problem.

    So the better idea is to just demolish these Metro owned parking structures and build mixed use residential and commercial high rises instead. If you build mixed use commercial/residential buildings, then you get the best of both worlds, both solving first and last mile problems.

  • Phantom Commuter

    What good is a transit system right outside your door that won’t take you where you are going ? If the transit system serves where you are going, you can use it whether it is right outside your door or not. You can walk, bike, ride a skateboard or scooter, take a bus or taxi, get dropped off by a friend, or even drive if there’s parking available.

    How often do you hear people say “I would take transit, but it doesn’t take me where I want to go” vs. “I cannot access the transit system” ? Most people can access the system from where they live, but many important trip generators are not well served by transit.

    Silicon Beach is a good example. It will not be served well even after Expo is open and the Purple Line Subway serves the sea. Most will still drive, even if they live right next to a Metro Rail station.

  • calwatch

    Except Metro no longer charges for transfers so the point is moot. And you could increase frequencies (and Metro should, especially on the 15 minute network – which is why I drive to night events, because I don’t want to be caught on 40-60 minute headways on a route that runs every 10-15 during peak). But that is costly and brings up the specter of empty buses again.

  • Joe Linton

    yah – true about the transfers…

  • Azunyan

    It sounds like we’re not on the same page here.

    I take it the real difference between you and me is that you’re trying to create mass transit to work with the cityscape that exists today, while I’m looking at how mass transit can re-shape the city differently tomorrow.

    It’s like saying “this is where people live today, this is where people work today, let’s try to fill in that gap with mass transit. Today this is how it is, that’s why we need parking.”

    In contrast, what I’m trying to convey is that “this is where people WILL live tomorrow, this is where people WILL work tomorrow, let’s try to build mass transit and the surroundings to fit that future. Tomorrow, our objective is to get rid of cars so we’ll use our scarce land space for something better than just parking lots”

  • Chewie

    In my case, I’m going from a Montebello bus, to the Gold Line, which means I would at least have to buy a transfer. Admittedly the transfer is cheap, but not that convenient on a TAP card (or maybe I just haven’t learned how to do that yet).

    Anyway, I just think it’s kind of sad that Metro is using the same tactics to attract riders that a strip mall does (ample free parking). It just doesn’t make for good places. Atlantic Station is great to park at, but it sucks as a place to be: just a bunch of wide roads and strip malls with almost nothing to offer for a pedestrian. Also, I think we have to break this culture of expecting free parking everywhere if transit is ever going to really compete with driving in greater LA.

    Even if Metro wins the battle of maximizing revenue at certain stations by offering free parking, it is losing the war to create the kind of city that truly fosters transit (e.g. falling ridership, despite rail construction boom). The sense of entitlement to free parking has to be broken, and that is a matter of cultural change and leadership.

  • Chewie

    The benefit is that you have a place to park and the transit agency has more money to provide better service. You can’t argue that parking is critical to generating ridership and then argue that parking in and of itself is not a benefit to the people who use it.

    It’s true that some people are upset by spillover parking, and that could happen. But in urban places where transit works well (e.g. Downtown LA, Downtown LB, Koreatown, Hollywood, Old Town Pasadena), street parking is usually tight and metered anyway. Drivers tend to be lazy: look at an aerial photo of a parking lot sometime. People cluster around store entrances even though they could save time by parking just a little further out and walking. Thousands of people pay to park every day in Los Angeles because they recognize that there is value in doing so.

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