Surprise! Metro May Have Actually Built Too Much Parking for the Expo Line

I see a spot: the parking lot at the Bundy stationEXPAND
I see a spot: the parking lot at the Bundy station
Hillel Aron

There was much excitement and ballyhoo when Phase 2 of the Expo Line opened in May, allowing L.A.'s nascent rail network to stretch its tracks to within blocks of the salty Pacific Ocean. But there were also complaints that the trains were too slow and that the line had too many stations. And, this being Los Angeles, people also worried that there wasn't enough parking.

About a week before the Expo Line extension opened, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece, "The Expo Line is finally coming to the Westside, but limited parking raises concerns," highlighting the fact that only three out of seven of the new stations had parking lots, and those three lots only had 544 spots, which, according to the Times, were "expected to fill up early."

The piece went on to quote a rather hysterical Pacific Palisades resident (not exactly Metro's target demographic, considering that the average train rider makes $26,250 a year) who said:  "So how do I get to the station?... Isn't the point to get more people with more money to ride the train?"

Em... no. 

Anyway, the Expo Line extension has been running for just over two months, and average weekly ridership has risen by about 15,000. So those parking lots must be total Silver Lake Trader Joe's–level clustercusses, right?

Not exactly. 

Average number of parking spaces used in 2016, according to Metro
Average number of parking spaces used in 2016, according to Metro

According to Metro, the three new stations are all more than half empty (or, as an optimist would say, less than half full). The Sepulveda Station, which has 260 parking spaces, is averaging a 38 percent utilization rate; the Bundy Station, which has 217 spaces, is averaging 30 percent; and the Santa Monica station at Colorado and 17th Street, with its paltry 65 spaces, is averaging 49 percent.

Unlike the vast majority of Metro's 26,000 parking spaces, these three lots are not free — they cost $2 a day, about as cheap as anywhere in the city.

"We were kind of surprised, with all the concern of not enough parking, that the utilization rate isn’t even at 50 percent capacity," says Metro spokesman Rick Jager. "It’s showing us that people are finding other ways to get to particular stations, as opposed to driving their vehicle."

Level 2 of the Sepulveda station parking lotEXPAND
Level 2 of the Sepulveda station parking lot
Hillel Aron

The Expo Line has three parking lots in older stations. The lot at Crenshaw is averaging 37 percent usage; the lot at La Cienega is averaging 51 percent; the Culver City lot is the only one that's full, with a 99 percent utilization rate.

This shouldn't be all that surprising. According to Metro's own survey, 66 percent of train riders walk to their rail stop, while only 25 percent either drive or are dropped off, meaning that fewer than 25 percent drive and park. Only 45 percent of rail riders even own or have access to a car. 

"The perfect amount of parking for Metro isn’t zero," says Streetsblog L.A. editor Joe Linton. "But I think when they try to guess at how much free parking to give away, they overestimate."

Some might think it's better to have too much parking than too little. But there's a cost to overbuilding on parking. People are more likely to ride rail if they can get off the train and immediately walk to a coffee shop or restaurant — to something they can use. By contrast, if they have to walk through a giant parking lot and cross a street, the trip is less appealing.

And, of course, there's a monetary cost. Asphalt ain't free. Neither is land. And every dollar spent on parking is a dollar taken away from things like nighttime service and bus lines. 

"It’s regressive," Linton says. "By offering free parking, you’re subsidizing rich riders. Instead of spending millions of dollars on parking, [we should] spend millions on bus service."

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