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How might COVID-19 affect regional ‘park and ride’ policy?

As jobs become flexible, many longstanding assumptions about how to plan for urban transportation could be in trouble.

Maplewood Mall ramp
The $11 million Maplewood Mall ramp opened to much fanfare in 2013, and is one of the largest park and rides in the system. Even before the pandemic, the parking lot was less than half full.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

To be sure, the pandemic has upended transportation patterns across the board. With the threat of COVID-19 keeping people in their homes, planners across the country are on the edge of their bus seats pondering the long-term implications to the daily commute.

The latest data on transit ridership offers a hint at what might come. So far, Twin Cities data shows an unequal recovery in ridership. While overall usage on the Metro Transit buses and trains remains down across the board, regular route bus service has returned back to 40% of its pre-pandemic usual levels. On the other hand, ridership on commuter and express buses, by far the hardest hit, remains down over 90% since COVID started. So far, there are no signs of a rebound.

These commuter ridership numbers are a red flag that matches longstanding predictions for how workplace changes might transform commute patterns. With a year of virtual meetings and working from home on the books, more companies seem to be embracing alternatives to the old 9-to-5 work week. Last week, the Target corporation, downtown Minneapolis’ largest employer, announced it was  moving more than 3,000 employees out of downtown’s City Center. According to one industry survey — and take this with heaping grains of salt — 81% of employers in large markets “expect to switch to a work-from-home mode.”

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If that’s even half-true, it’s huge news. As jobs become flexible, many longstanding assumptions about how to plan for urban transportation could be in trouble. For transit, in particular, a shift in workplace temporality could mark a need for more flexible, all-day transportation.

Peak-hour vs. all-day transit

One fundamental tension for transit planners is whether to focus service on all-day or peak-hour ridership. Peak-hour service requires a system designed around rush hours, which, as transit consultant Jarrett Walker points out, is typically quite expensive. Providing drivers and vehicles just for a few hours a day, and running one-way trips instead of back-and-forth routes, makes the system inherently inefficient. All-day service, on the other hand, allows for more consistent staffing and lower overhead, because drivers and vehicles can run back-and-forth routes and work regular shifts without time off the clock.

The Twin Cities transit network is split geographically around this divide, with most core urban routes running all-day routes, while most suburban service is organized around commuting and peak-hour schedules. That’s one reason it’s all but impossible to get an express bus out of the downtown in the morning, or vice versa. It’s also why it’s maddeningly difficult to run transit service to the Amazon warehouse in Shakopee.

If more Twin Cities employers follow Target’s lead and move toward “flex work,” transit would also have to change. Instead of having one-way demand focused at rush hours, workers might look for travel options at all times of the day.

The Maplewood park and ride

It’s just one tiny data point, but curious about how commuter transit was faring, I popped over to the Maplewood park and ride in the middle of a work day last week. The $11 million Maplewood Mall ramp opened to much fanfare in 2013, and is one of the largest park and rides in the system. Even before the pandemic, the parking lot was less than half full. A year into the COVID crisis, I found 11 cars, and 988 empty spaces.

Regional Park and Ride system usage 2004-2019
Regional Park and Ride system usage 2004-2019
It’s not fair to pick on one park and ride during COVID. If anything, the pandemic exposes the inflexibility of the suburban commuter system, where usage has plateaued since 2008 despite increasing investments. Of the more than 30,000 park and ride spaces in the regional system, on average they have remained stuck at around 55% full. While most of these parking spaces are in less expensive surface lots, larger ramps like the one in Maplewood represent significant investments. Outside of building housing in the mall parking lot, if shifting travel patterns hold, it’s hard to envision a scenario where the 999-space ramp ever fills on a regular basis.

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I reached out to Metro Transit to ask about how commuter patterns might affect its investments, something regional planners have been watching very closely. According to spokesperson Laura Baenen, they are “aware the market is changing and evaluating how to respond.”

An open question

The shifting travel patterns are not limited in the Twin Cities, and will be a huge story in transit planning around the country. While transit systems can remain afloat on the relief money in the federal American Rescue Plan, if change sweeps through workplaces, the future of the commuter services remains an open question.

With that in mind, I asked transit consultant Jarrett Walker what he thought about the future of park and rides in a post-COVID world. As Walker sees it, the best-case scenario for park and rides is as a temporary use, a transit stop-gap that preserves valuable land next to stations for future development.

“Because park and ride is specialized around peak commuting, a decline in peak commuting could certainly reduce the need for it,” Walker told me. “That could be a good thing if it supports more redevelopment at stations.”

For the time being, regional planning continues apace. The Southwest Light Rail / Green Line Extension will have park and rides at seven of its 16 stations, though all but one of those will be less expensive surface lots. Meanwhile, Metro Transit’s planned Gold Line BRT project in the East Metro just announced a budget increase of $58 million for a new park and ride ramp in Woodbury. As Christine Beckwith, the Gold Line project manager, explained: “There’s an equation, a model, they have for park-and-ride stalls which really do drive ridership, and the ridership makes you more competitive for federal dollars.”

The only problem is that, if workplace patterns shift and post-COVID predictions come true, that shiny new park and ride ramp might prove obsolete before it’s even completed.