With few exceptions, most of the Charleston region suffers from an oversupply rather than a shortage of surface parking space.
There are lots of reasons why that’s the case: an auto-centric lifestyle, zoning rules, developer preferences. There are also lots of reasons why it’s not ideal: wasted land, missed tax revenue, exacerbated stormwater runoff, decreased walkability.
Ideally, a greater focus on effective, convenient mass transit would further reduce the need for so much parking. So it’s somewhat puzzling that a recent report for the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments looked into building lots of new parking lots to accommodate transit riders.
To be sure, park and ride can be an important part of a mass transit system, particularly one that covers a large distance like the planned bus rapid transit line between Summerville and downtown Charleston.
A new park and ride lot under construction off Rivers Avenue near Otranto Road, the first dedicated parking CARTA has built from scratch, will serve both existing bus routes and the future Lowcountry Rapid Transit system, for example. Its location makes it a sensible investment.
But generally it would be preferable for CARTA to take advantage of existing parking lots rather than build new ones. So far, that has overwhelmingly been the case. Of 19 park and ride lots serving CARTA or the TriCounty Link system, 18 use previously existing lots.
According to the COG study, usage in those lots varies considerably. Some were nearly empty when the report’s authors conducted car counts. Others had 50 or more vehicles that appeared to be taking advantage of the park and ride system.
It’s difficult to know for sure how many people are actually taking the bus instead of, say, shopping at a Walmart on James Island or at the Target in Citadel Mall. Getting an accurate count would require a significant investment of time and energy.
The numbers matter, however.
Maintaining park and ride lots and building new ones can add up to a significant investment for a perpetually underfunded public transportation system. According to the report, 100 park and ride spaces cost about $192,500 over 20 years for landscaping, repaving and other basic needs.
That would be money well spent if ridership is high. It’s certainly less than the cost of keeping up or expanding the region’s overburdened road network.
But when money is tight, which is often the case at CARTA thanks largely to disappointing state and federal support for public transportation, it’s crucial to make sure that each investment helps maximize the usefulness and success of the larger transit system.
Generally, CARTA ought to put a priority on enhancing bus service while the region prepares for a more advanced option in Lowcountry Rapid Transit. Park and ride is and will continue to be an important part of the system, but preferably in a way that takes advantage of existing resources.
After all, there are lots of underused parking lots near bus corridors. It makes sense to put those to better use before laying down more asphalt.