Ride-and-park Reverse Commuting

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.

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  1. I reverse commute to Newark, DE…same situation as above, large (and free) park and ride lot, 15 minutes from the station to my work. Also helps that SEPTA allows us to use a zone 3 trailpass to reverse commute to zone 4 stations. My only (relatively minor) complaint is that Newark receives less service than almost any other station in the entire regional rail network, Cynwyd line excluded, as well as no weekend service. But overall, much better for me than driving every day.

    I would estimate that there are about 40-50 people that reverse commute to Newark every day, though very few of them drive from the station (maybe 10-15 total). Probably 80-90% of the reverse commuters on that line go to Wilmington, so overall, the reverse commute is relatively healthy to Delaware. It helps that reverse commute expresses exist both AM and PM.

    1. I reverse-commute to Claymont every day, and while my job is within walking distance of the station, there are about 5 people on my train who head immediately for their cars in the lot, and a similar number of people who continue their commutes on DART. Probably more on the higher-ridership trains that get to Delaware after I start work at 8.

      It seems to be facilitated by the fact that unlike SEPTA’s lots, the Claymont parking lot is free and doesn’t mind if you park overnight. There’s no station agent, just a security guard, and I think they’re mostly overseeing the cars. So it’s a pretty good setup.

      I had a summer job in Newark, and it gave me new appreciation for the frequency of service Claymont gets. My god, SEPTA’s Newark service is terrible! I had the option of going in early and killing time in Newark or taking enough buses that I killed a similar amount of time on DART.You have my sympathy!

      1. I know it’s getting off topic, but yes, the better service to Newark we’re supposedly getting with the track expansion can’t come soon enough. The University of Delaware is expanding, and there are an increasing number of faculty members such as myself who reverse commute from Philadelphia. With the new STAR campus opening up right next door to the Newark station that’s only going to increase.

    2. Service to Claymont and Wilmington is terrible. Service to Churchman’s Crossing and Newark is shameful. I know DelDOT and Amtrak are working on building the stretch of third track that will enable less-awful schedules to Newark, but the State of Delaware really needs to step up. The potential is clearly there.

  2. I see folks getting off Amtrak or SEPTA at 8 in the morning at Exton station all of the time, as I’m waiting to take a train into CC. They’re clearly going to a job (dressed in business casual clothes, briefcases in hand). I’m certain they’re ride and parkers, which I think is pretty cool.

  3. I’d like to know of anyone’s experience with ride-and-park via Strafford. SEPTA has one semi-express from CC in the morning (tho none from there to CC in the evening) and it would be a convenient drive from there to my office in Valley Forge.

    1. Dunno if you’ll get an answer from an old post, but the best way so far to stay right with the law is a monthly permit, and according to http://www.septa.org/parking/permit.html Strafford may have a waiting list for permits. However, Devon, the next station out, does *not*. I don’t know if a straight shot to Valley Forge Road is as useful as a straight shot to Old Eagle School Road, but I can’t imagine it’s a deal-breaker.

      1. There should be a website devoted to ride-and-parking. When I google it, all I get is this article!

        Yeah, I noticed there is a waiting list at Strafford. I don’t know much about the waiting list system (I’m from PATCO territory…); is there anyway to determine how long the waiting time is or how to go about beating it?

        1. My sources tell me that enforcement is extremely lax during the day at the lot south of the station across OESR from Our Lady of the Assumption. I can’t speak for overnight enforcement.

    2. I work in Frazer and I park at Strafford when I want to take the express or Daylesford if I want to drive 5 min. less. I will sometimes take the express to Paoli in the mornings, but getting out of the parking lot can be a bit annoying with all of the shuttles. There are only 2 shuttles at the Strafford station, but they are not in the way. Parking is $1 overnight and I have checks already written in advance, just need to put the dollar amount for the amount of days if parking for multiple nights. I have never had a problem for the past 2 years. I have only driven into the city on 2 separate occasions. So much better than my commute on 76 when I used to live in Manayunk.

  4. I’m wondering if anyone can describe a ride-and-park experience to Trenton on Amtrak? My husband is considering a job near Hopewell Junction which seems to be about a 20 mins car ride from Trenton. Seems like a reasonable commute, as we are within walking distance from 30th Street Station (Fitler Square). Thanks in advance for your comments.

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