Today we welcome guest writer and Strong Towns member, Jamie Littlefield to talk about the parking at commuter rail stations.


Here’s my confession: The commuter rail station by my house is filled with cars driven only a few blocks to park there. And, while I live only a half mile from the station and am a vocal advocate for bikes / walking, I almost always park my car there too. For shame.

What’s the deal with people who drive when it would take less time to bike to the station (or a similar amount of time to walk)?

It comes down to this unfortunate situation: The station and surrounding infrastructure are designed to prioritize parking.

Consider these three examples: 

1.     The sidewalk ends. Literally.

The most direct way for me to get to commuter rail is by taking the street directly north of the station. But, several blocks before the station, the sidewalk simply ends. I find myself walking on gravel and worrying about cars that don’t anticipate my presence. The street isn’t well-lit, so bicycling is also a challenge.

Solution: First and last mile solutions are important when we’re trying to discourage needless driving, especially in direct routes to public transit. Add bike lanes, a sidewalk, and lights to that street and I’d be much more likely to ditch my car.

2.     I don’t feel like climbing over freight trains.

In an act of poor-decision making, I once made it to a meeting on time by climbing over a freight train that was temporarily stopped on the tracks and blocking my access to the station.

I wasn’t the only pedestrian to make this dangerous decision either. Freight trains regularly sit on the tracks, blocking every North / South intersection that could be used to get to the station.

Commuters often arrive early, watch their train pull into the station, wait for 15 minutes, and watch their train pull away without them. All while blocked by the freight trains. Some have become frighteningly comfortable with climbing over the freight trains (see video on the right) in business attire, hoisting their bicycles over the non-moving trains, and even passing young children in between train cars.

When freight trains are blocking the station, people who live one block from the station are actually living one block PLUS a half mile walk up a dangerous auto-bridge. Take a look at the route (and note how people have to make a long North-South loop just to get on the bridge):

Solution: The route to the station is as important as the station itself. Complete streets advocates have been ecstatic over recent progress to get a ped / bike bridge constructed over these frequently-blocked freight train lines. But, access for people is something that should always be considered in the beginning of a project like this.

How many people would be willing to ditch their cars if planners were responsible for considering safe pedestrian and bicycle routes to every project?

3.     Cars are a part of the station design.

One of the biggest reasons I drive is that the station design relies on parked cars.

During one frigid evening a couple weeks ago, I paid for a ticket and entered the platform only to be told that the train was delayed by half an hour.

“Hope you drove your car so you have somewhere to stay warm,” said the friendly station attendant.

That made sense because there wasn’t enough room under the awnings to keep everyone out of the weather. Nor was there any heated spaces or access to restrooms. From a design perspective, parked cars served as a secondary (or even primary) structure against bad weather and platform overcrowding.

And, while there’s always a parking spot in the expansive lot, the bike racks can be so full there’s not a space for me to use my U-lock. Even after the transportation department added more bike racks, I’ve found myself locking to flimsy sign poles when there’s not enough space.

As a transit user, it feels that the station is designed to incentivize parking. Even when I’d rather walk or ride a bicycle.

Solution: A lot is being done to mitigate the situation in my city. But, these after-the-fact patchwork solutions can be challenging.

Let’s change the design order to focus on people first:

  1. How can each project (and surrounding infrastructure) be designed to work exclusively with people who are walking and riding bicycles?
  2. Now, how can we make parking work WITH that design?

I’m not the only one who would prefer to walk or ride to my local commuter rail station, even if it takes a bit longer.

You can call us the Annoyed League of Resistant Parkers. We’re using your parking lots, but we’re not particularly pleased about it.

Make a few design changes, and you’ll transform the lot of us into happy walkers, runners, and bicyclists instead.  

(All images from Google Maps)


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jamie Littlefield is the author of an upcoming book about placemaking - the wild and wonderful ways people are re-creating their cities. A former college English instructor, she has traveled the world in search of inspiring stories from innovators working to create a sense of place and connection with the cities they call home. Follow her on Twitter: @writingjamie.