Actually, Cheaper Parking at RTD Stations Will Hurt Ridership

Image: David Sachs

The Aurora Sentinel published an editorial yesterday that missed the point on parking rates at RTD stations. The Sentinel claimed that charging $3 to park at Iliff Station will make transit inaccessible to lower income residents, which in turn will diminish ridership:

Redrawn zones mean that if you board Aurora’s R Line at the Iliff station, a round-trip ticket will cost about $9, without discounts. Now add $3 parking to that price, and the city is doing two things: They’re making parking and riding light rail downtown a luxury for many Aurora commuters. That’s wrong. Mass transit is not and should never be a luxury. It’s created as an affordable way to get people around a congested city, and it must be priced to lure stubborn westerners out of their singly-occupied cars.

The city and RTD could easily diminish ridership, or restrict ridership solely to wealthier commuters, by making bad decisions about parking and ridership rates. So far, it’s not good.

The Sentinel appears to be unaware of two key facts: parking is expensive for RTD to build and maintain, and cheap or free park-and-rides induce more “singly-occupied cars.” If stubborn westerners need to curb their driving habits — and they do — then RTD should price parking higher than $3, not lower.

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Parking at RTD stations is often free, if not inexpensive. Image: RTD

A review by the American Public Transportation Association of Los Angeles’s park-and-ride system might hold some lessons for Denver. As Streetsblog LA reported, APTA found that the cheaper and more abundant parking is, the more likely a rider will drive solo to and from the train station instead of walking, biking, taking the bus, or carpooling. Because parking costs money (the average structured parking spot costs $24,000 to build, according to former UCLA professor Donald Shoup) that fees do not fully recoup, undercharging for parking is effectively a subsidy for driving.

Transit is supposed to build communities where people don’t rely on cars, not encourage more car trips. If cash-strapped RTD charged more for parking at its 30,000 spots, it could use the money to fund better first- and last-mile connections, like frequent bus service and biking and walking infrastructure. This would be more equitable than underpricing parking, since low-income riders are less likely to drive to the train in the first place.

Furthermore, riders who do come in cars would be more likely to carpool to save on parking costs, enabling more people to use the same number of parking spots. Ridership would increase, not decrease, as the Sentinel fears.

Evidence does suggest that RTD is not charging enough for parking. According to the Sentinel, parking at the nearby Nine-Mile Station, one stop further out, is “overcrowded.” That means the price should be higher to make sure the parking is efficiently used.

It also makes sense to charge more for parking at stations closer to the city center. Otherwise, there would be an incentive for suburban motorists to drive down the highway, passing station after station, before arriving at one a few stops from downtown. They could park for a buck or two and hop on the train for a few stops.

A $9 round trip fare isn’t cheap, but RTD is working with advocates on a fare structure that would cut prices in half for many low-income residents. That needs to happen. So do higher parking rates at park-and-ride stations so RTD can fund better connections to its transit nodes. The Sentinel is right that transit shouldn’t be a luxury, but by charging the right price for parking, RTD would make transit more accessible, not less.

Filed Under: RTD