A bleary-eyed man staggers, coffee mug in hand, into the depths of Market East Station. In the pre-dawn gloom, he makes his way to Track 2, and boards a train.
Fifty nine minutes and twenty ounces of coffee later, the train pulls in to West Trenton station. The man, fully awake and caffeinated, has caught up on his morning e-mail on his smartphone, and makes his way to the parking lot, which is rapidly filling up at this hour. He jumps in his car, and against the main flow of traffic, drives towards I-95. His office, in a Mercer County office park unserved by New Jersey Transit buses, is less than 15 minutes away.
A fictional narrative about a hypothetical Philadelphia commuter? Hardly fictional, and hardly hypothetical. Ride-and-park reverse commutes (park-and-ride in reverse) are an increasingly popular lifehack in the Delaware Valley, and it’s not hard to understand why. As much as car-free urban living has grown popular, greater Center City has grown even faster, and parking is as difficult and as expensive as ever. Gasoline prices have been mostly level since the Great Recession, modulo seasonal variance, but they remain non-trivially high. And the time involved in driving long distances is seen as especially wasteful in an era of constant internet access, when that time can be devoted to any number of work-related or social tasks, so spending an hour on a train to save 40 minutes in a car makes sense.
The catch is that the small brigade of ride-and-park commuters have evolved in a fragile environment that does not anticipate their presence and may inflict sharp penalties at any moment. While SEPTA and PATCO do run reverse-commute trips, the scheduling is subject to change for the benefit of the peak-direction crowd. The real pitfall is parking. Not all SEPTA parking lots allow overnight parking at all, and most of the ones that do make it difficult to prepay for subsequent days of parking. That means that any parking enforcement before 8:00a might sweep them up in the dragnet. Despite the fact that the lots are nowhere near full, except during working hours, SEPTA does not offer a parking permit for ride-and-parkers. In addition to leaving money on the table, this prevents useful communication. For example, SEPTA cannot create protocols for where to park in the event of snow, which might lead to snowplows burying a reverse commuter’s car under an eight foot high plowed snowdrift.
And the bad consequences of leaving reverse commuters out in the cold reverberate in more places than SEPTA Headquarters. Brandywine Realty Trust is seeking to build a residential tower at 1919 Market Street, a/k/a the embarrassingly empty lot on the northeast corner of 20th and Market. The latest version of their proposal includes a 223 space parking garage attached to a 278 residential unit tower. Building so much parking is an expensive proposition, but even right on top of the densest transit corridor in the city, Brandywine does not feel it can market upper-end housing without building parking. I submit that it would have been far cheaper for Brandywine to build a parking garage for the future residents of 1919 Market Street in Fort Washington, Claymont, or Fern Rock, than on-site. Not only does that option save money, it preserves economically useful land, in a city that badly wants Center City residential real estate and could do without more parking. Sadly, while the city’s new zoning code does not require any accessory parking in Center City’s CMX-4 and CMX-5 districts, the zoning code makes no provision for locating parking away from developments in greater Center City, regardless of whether minimum parking requirements apply. Given that PPA is plunging at least $15 million of public money into renovating its garage at 8th and Filbert amid calls for the state-controlled agency to sell off its surface parking lots, finding ways to move cars and parking out of Center City seems like it ought to be a higher priority.
As I ranted about last week, transit outside the city is charitably described as sparse, and as suburban employment centers were built, they tended to have very little regard for proximity to Regional Rail stations, thanks to the precepts of the sprawl development Ponzi scheme. There are some places that are lucky enough to have connecting bus routes or 200-series bus shuttles, but they are more the exception than the rule, nor do they provide connections to all trains at a station. Much as an all-transit commute might be ideal, sprawl suburbs were built for cars. Ride-and-park acknowledges that some places are just not ready for transit primetime, while minimizing the economic, environmental, and societal effects of previous bad development choices. Keep the cars in places built for cars, and the people in places built for people.
As of now, I know (mostly thanks to the internet) of ride-and-parkers who use Claymont, Cornwells Heights, West Trenton, Fort Washington, Paoli, Exton, Woodcrest, and Lindenwold stations, confirming anecdotally that the best park-and-ride lots also make for the best ride-and-park locations. Where else do you know or suspect that someone is using transit to keep their car out of the city and their sanity intact? Sound off in the comments.