Metrorail: a car magnet


Scenes like this in the middle of Tysons Corner led Fairfax planers to avoid adding parking garages at Silver Line stations. (Bill O’Leary — The Washington Post)

Toward the end of Monday’s online chat, I annoyed some readers by referring to Metro garages as car magnets. Not everyone got a proper chance to assail my conclusion, so I thought I’d offer that opportunity on the blog.

The discussion got started with this exchange between one traveler and me.

Q. Parking in DC
I was in Boston last week. They have traffic and a public transit system. However, garages in downtown Boston charge at least $20 – $40 a day. In DC, it is cheaper for some people to drive in and park than it is to take transit, even with subsidies. Perhaps if garages raised their rates, more people would carpool or take transit. Your thoughts Doctor?

A. I moved to DC from NYC in 1988, so I’ve always been very aware of how cheap it is to park in downtown DC. (When I left New York, it cost $20 to park in midtown Manhattan.)

I also know that many employers throughout the DC region offer a huge subsidy to their employees by providing free parking.

This is an enormous incentive to drive.

Metrorail also provides an enormous incentive to drive by surrounding its suburban stations with massive parking garages.

At the same time, I resist the idea of punishing people for using the systems that were built for them. So I don’t like the idea of just jacking up the price of parking and then declaring a win. The region’s governments would have to make transit travel a lot more convenient to match any new disincentives for driving.

It was the Metrorail sentence that provoked the followups.

Q. What? Metro’s garages give people an incentive to ride Metro into the city and keep their cars out. What do you think downtown traffic would be like without Metro’s garages? How are people supposed to get to the subway, unless you think Metro operates bus routes within walking distance of every home in the region? One of Metro’s biggest failings is that it didn’t build enough suburban garages (like their absence from the new Tysons stops). Every car parked in a Metro garage is a car off K Street.

A. I think it would be much better if people had alternative ways of reaching suburban Metro stations. Today, the Metro garages are car magnets.

At that point, I had to leave the chat room, but I later noticed these reader responses.

Q. If people’s lives were “home to Metro, Metro to work, work to Metro, Metro to home,” sure other methods are great. However, who has that? Many people I know have errands to run after work (be it picking up the kids, grocery store, meetings, etc.) For all of these, you need a car after getting off the Metro.

Q. Would you rather have all of the cars on the Beltway or interior connectors? This is a very narrow-minded and short-sighted opinion.

I’d like to offer a few more points and then open up for additional comments:

  • Our four-decade history of surrounding suburban Metro stations with lots and garages encourages suburban sprawl and is unsustainable.
  • If Metro garages were a great idea for controlling congestion, why didn’t the core communities build any?
  • Fairfax County is the first suburban jurisdiction to adopt an anti-magnet strategy by declining to build more parking garages around the four Silver Line stations in Tysons Corner. I hope Fairfax leaders can resist the pressure to reverse that policy, so that Tysons can have a real shot at becoming a liveable city.
  • Metro certainly cuts down on the number of car trips into the D.C. region’s core, which is swell for those who live and work in the core. But it adds tens of thousands of car trips each day in suburban communities. Many of those trips are very short — just enough to jam up highway exits and local streets. Why is the region putting more value on the urban environment than on the suburban environment?
  • A greater investment in buses, bike lanes and walkable communities wouldn’t end congestion around Metro stations, but it would ease the commute for everyone, including drivers.
Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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