Inspired by a vocal discussion on Twitter last night…
Park-and-Rides are one of the most controversial topics in planning and transit circles. Some contend that such facilities encourage unnecessary car use, while others believe that in the right circumstances they can reduce car usage. One example of a notoriously unsuccessful Park-and-Ride facility that came up on Twitter last night is the massive garage at the extreme southern end of MBTA’s Providence/Stoughton line, Wickford Junction, Rhode Island. Opened in 2012 at a cost of $44 million, the station includes a massive, 1100-space garage that is supposedly aesthetically modeled (on the outside, presumably) on the historic Lafayette Mills building nearby. Suburban American kitsch is the best kitsch.
Via RIDOT on Flickr, here’s the garage as completed….
And under construction in 2011.
The payoff for all of that investment? A massive, staggering number of riders–a full 159 inbound boardings per day in 2013, as you can see in the handy-dandy ridership map provided by the MBTA in their 2014 Blue Book.
There are few words for the amount of fail that the Wickford Junction project represents. To (perhaps) justify the investment, the station would need to attract nearly seven times the number of boardings it currently sees every day. And that’s to say nothing of the in track, trains, and crew costs that were necessary to extend commuter rail operations that far south in the first place. The overly rosy projections for Wickford Junction ridership date back as far as the 2003 Environmental Impact Study RIDOT conducted for the commuter rail extension, which contains the following helpful predictions:
Given the dire situation in Wickford Junction, then, I was intrigued by the situation along the rest of the Providence/Stoughton Line (and by the system as a whole, but hey, let’s start with one line, that’s easier to get a handle on). Here’s a spreadsheet with ridership numbers and parking capacities at all of the stations between Wickford Junction and Hyde Park (I decided it would be silly to look at Forest Hills and Ruggles, where things are complicated by the presence of the Orange Line). Ridership data is from the map above, parking data is from the MBTA website.
Since the sheet doesn’t display well on WordPress, full link is here. In graphic format, the patterns look like this:
A few things jump out.
1. The Rhode Island stations south of Providence are obviously a hot mess. If money had to be spent on extending MBTA service down there, the way to do it wasn’t to build fancy stations and then only run a few trains per day. Frequency matters. That should have been obvious from the beginning, but it’s exceptionally clear now.
2. Providence is a nice example of an urban station that doesn’t feel the need to provide huge amounts of parking to attract riders. New Haven could learn a lesson.
3. At the highest-ridership suburban stations on the line (South Attleboro, Attleboro, Mansfield, and Sharon) parking capacity is only about half of boardings, suggesting that many people do indeed walk or get dropped off (these station don’t have much in the way of feeder bus service–Sharon I know for sure has zero).
4. Stoughton and the Canton stations are an interesting case. Parking capacity doesn’t come close to matching the number of boardings–but according to the MBTA’s data, each station has 40% or more of its spaces available on a given day. Stoughton and Canton are relatively walkable despite a dearth of feeder bus service; presumably, many people walk or are dropped off at these stations, and others park for free on town streets to avoid MBTA parking charges.
5. Despite its entirely car-dependent location, Route 128’s parking remains underutilized by several hundred spaces, even taking combined MBTA and Amtrak ridership into account.
A few lessons seem apparent. First, MBTA and the agencies it works with have a problem with overestimation of parking demand–and in that, they’re certainly not alone among American commuter rail operators. Not every lot along the Providence/Stoughton line is underused, but the more monumental ones (Wickford Junction, T.F. Green, Route 128) certainly are. Operators and planners should let the demand for parking come to them, rather than trying to anticipate how it will develop. By all means, reserve space for a garage if necessary, but don’t built it until demand makes itself known. And for god’s sake, tell the locals to charge for parking too, or they’ll take away all of your paying parkers! And remember, even at the best-utilized park-and-ride stations on this line, it certainly appears that around half of riders don’t park to ride the train.
Second (and this may seem obvious, but MBTA and friends don’t seem to have grasped it) the quality of the built environment around the station matters. One of the CityLab articles I linked to at the top argued that distance from the city center should be the determining factor in the decision to build a Park and Ride facility; I’d substitute characteristics of the local built environment. Providence/Stoughton stations that are embedded in relatively walkable areas–Providence, Stoughton, Canton Center, Canton Junction, Hyde Park–exhibit very weak parking demand. Old New England towns don’t exhibit a linear progression from urban to suburban, and planners should pay attention to that. I don’t have much of a problem with Park and Rides in very suburbanized areas, but we shouldn’t be expecting people to drive half a mile from home to the station if they can walk it.
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I’d guess there’s some level of service (speed) issue here, too. The fastest train from Wickford to Boston is 1:40 for the 63 mile run for a whopping 38 miles per hour, despite most of the railroad being spec’ed to 125 mph or more. Service from Wickford Junction to Boston (and even to Providence) is only going to be competitive with driving if it is faster than driving with the overhead of parking, and this is not. Regional trains make the trip from Kingston to Boston in 70 minutes (60 mph) even though it’s 7 miles further than Wickford Junction. (Acela Express trains, taking advantage of the high speeds in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, pass Kingston, at speed, in 50 minutes.)
Inexplicably, service from Wickford to Providence is scheduled at 40 minutes at rush hour but just 30 minutes at off-peak times. (Outbound trains generally make the trip in 32 minutes.) This makes no sense.
In any case, I don’t think the southern stations have so much a frequency issue as a speed issue. Hourly rush hour departures to Boston, 60+ miles distant, should be enough. The issue is the 1:40-2:00 scheduled run time. If it was in the 1:10 to 1:20 range, which would be feasible with electric equipment, high level platforms and actually spec’ing equipment for the line speed of the railroad, there would probably be significantly increased ridership (not to mention the Providence-to-Boston segment, which would see more riders still, some of whom would be poached off of Amtrak, especially in the evening, when train 177 does considerable commuter business).
Interestingly enough, the Providence Line traverses some of the least fertile Commuter Rail territory of any line in Boston, yet makes up for this with (relatively) fast speeds and park-and-rides. There are only four town centers it serves between Boston and Providence (five, if a Central Falls/Pawtucket station were ever rebuilt/reopened) but the combined park-and-ride and walk-in traffic keeps ridership relatively high. Park-and-rides make sense where they don’t detract from walk-in service, yet the T has a habit of building big garages and running trains through towns without stopping (Ashland, Newburyport, Kingston and others are particularly nefarious; the Providence Line dues not suffer this disease). Splitting P&R and local traffic (Natick and West Natick) is another option, a third is the combined service you see on the Providence Line, or the Eastern Route.
A simple parking lot and platform would have sufficed in Wickford Junction and at TF Green, and the money spent on those white elephants could have gone towards improving the infrastructure between the stations and the terminus: more power for the overhead, faster trains running below. Instead, RIDOT invested in entirely the wrong thing, and the ridership proves it.
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