There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Driving away transit riders

The article in The Bee that so annoyed me in my "A dark transit picture" blog post lingers like a foul odor.

In the Nov. 19 article, interim Regional Transit General Manager Mike Wiley is quoted suggesting RT may start charging commuters a fee – possibly $1 a day – to park in light-rail park-and-ride lots.

It is understandable why RT would focus on things like charging for parking and making people who get discounts pay more. That's something they can do. It's easy. But easy isn't the answer. In fact, easy is the worst thing Regional Transit could do.

RT needs more riders. Raising the cost of using Regional Transit will likely drive riders away, just as the recent fare hikes did, and making riding transit more expensive certainly won't attract new riders.

Regional Transit needs to work with local, county and state officials to place a premium on free and subsidized employee parking.

The state already has a law in place that requires certain employers who pay for parking and then offer it free to employees to provide a cash equivalent of the parking cost to employees who don't use parking -- to people, for instance, who use transit. Unfortunately, this state program is so limited that it only applies to 3 percent of 11 million parking spaces provided by employers statewide, according to a 2002 Legislative Analyst Office analysis.

Ending free parking is an important avenue for encouraging people to take transit. A 2000 survey of Bay Area commuters discussed in the LAO report found the price of parking has a significant impact on commuting choices.

"The survey found that while 77 percent of commuters drive alone when free parking is available, only 39 percent drive alone when they have to pay to park. Additionally, among commuters with free parking, only 4.8 percent commute by transit. By contrast, among commuters without free parking, 42 percent commute by transit. While many factors -- such as access to reliable transit service and travel time -- influence a person's commute decision, the magnitude of these differences suggests that the presence of free parking plays an important role."

The city and the county have a vested interest here. Getting people to carpool and use transit helps improve traffic congestion. In addition, the region and the state benefit from improvements in air quality produced by reducing the number of automobile trips taken each day. The existing parking cash-out law -- Capter 553, Statutes of 1992 -- was passed to address these very issues.

This is an area Sacramento Regional Transit should be exploring.

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