CARTA park-and-ride (copy)

Construction is under way on a $2 million park-and-ride lot off Rivers Avenue in North Charleston for CARTA. This lot is the first in a planned network of 22 CARTA-owned lots meant to help commuters. Brad Nettles/Staff

It’s probably a little over-optimistic to imagine that the 269 parking spaces in a new CARTA park-and-ride lot under construction off of Rivers Avenue near Otranto Road will fill up soon.

But the project — which is the first of several planned park and ride investments for CARTA — ought to be viewed as part of a longer-term push to court not just riders who need to take the bus to get around the Charleston area, but people who want to.

The new park-and-ride lot will have a covered shelter, bathrooms, lighting, security cameras and other features that make it more than just a patch of asphalt. Indeed, it’s expected to have more amenities than the average bus stop by a long shot.

And it replaces an ad hoc park-and-ride lot at a former Kmart nearby that had been the system’s most popular such location by far.

Combined with the fact that CARTA has recently upgraded all of its express buses, the new lot will ideally help entice a key but tricky rider demographic — people who have cars.

One obvious advantage of park-and-ride is that the North Charleston lot is free, whereas parking in some garages a few miles away in downtown Charleston can cost the equivalent of working a couple of hours at minimum wage.

In fact, parking prices helped boost the popularity of CARTA’s other recent ambitious experiment with park-and-ride. Riders can pay $5 per day to park in a lot in Charleston’s Upper Peninsula and ride the free HOP shuttle on a loop that goes as far south as Broad Street.

The service opened last year and has so far mostly exceeded expectations, raising the hope that similar efforts could take some of the pressure off of low- and middle-income commuters who work in downtown Charleston but struggle to pay for parking.

The new Rivers Avenue park-and-ride lot is also well-located to tie into a planned bus rapid transit route that will connect Summerville and downtown Charleston.

Unlike the traditional CARTA system, that transit line’s traffic-beating capabilities — buses will operate in a dedicated lane — ought to make it a truly enticing alternative to car commuting, especially during rush hour.

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But bus rapid transit probably won’t be enough to convince masses of Charleston area residents to ditch their cars entirely, so park-and-ride will be an important part of the system’s success.

The new park-and-ride lot will also serve as a base for commuters who want to carpool.

It’s worth attempting in the future to use existing parking space — there is lots of underused asphalt along Rivers Avenue — rather than building a new lot. Doing so will require openness and generosity from business and property owners, who in exchange stand to benefit from increased foot traffic.

The extremely long-term goal should be a transit system that dramatically cuts down on the need to drive in the first place.

But for now, park-and-ride is a crucial way to better connect car owners and CARTA, and that’s a logical next step toward a more robust bus system — one that works for more Charleston area riders.