Metro planners are looking at how people use the system’s park-and-ride lots. While they help people at the region’s edges access transit, many commuters in closer-in areas drive very short distances to Metro stations because good pedestrian and bike connections don’t exist.

Where Metro’s parking customers come from. Image from WMATA.

On the PlanItMetro blog, system planners studied how people use each of the 35 stations where Metro operates parking lots or garages and where they come from. They found that people drive from as far as Baltimore, Annapolis, and Manassas to use Metro’s 9 terminal stations, which have lots of parking and are some of the system’s busiest.

Meanwhile, 26 other stations serve “neighborhood parking” needs, attracting commuters who drive very short distances. Two-thirds of drivers at Forest Glen station come from within two miles, while 30% of drivers at Van Dorn Street, West Hyattsville, and Fort Totten come from within one mile. These commuters could walk or bike instead, but many of these stations are located in a way that makes doing so hard, if not impossible.

Fort Totten is in the middle of a park, and while surrounding neighborhoods are fairly dense, there are very few street connections to them. West Hyattsville is surrounded by vacant lots. Van Dorn Street is hemmed in by rail yards, busy roads and the Beltway. Forest Glen actually has decent street connections, but people living south of the station have to cross the Beltway on a dark, dangerous pedestrian bridge.

Aerial photo of Van Dorn Street Metro from Google Maps.

As a result, people living near these stations feel like they have to drive there. This means more car traffic and more pollution, since cars produce the most emissions within the first few minutes of operation.

But poor pedestrian and bike access also restricts the capacity of a station to how many parking spaces it has. If those spaces are filled by the morning rush hour, that station is effectively closed to new riders until the evening. That might explain why stations like Forest Glen and West Hyattsville have some of the system’s lowest ridership.

How can we fix this? Part of the answer is eliminating barriers for pedestrians and bicyclists, by creating new street or path connections and by making the streets that do exist safer and more inviting to them. Another is to put more people around the stations themselves by building housing and other amenities there, like shops.

Not only can this justify investment in better foot and bike connections, but it provides “eyes on the street,” making the walk to and from the station safer. And residents living farther away may be more likely to walk to the station if they can also grab coffee or drop off their dry cleaning on the way there.

Local jurisdictions are planning for more housing and other amenities around end-of-line stations, which already have to accommodate thousands of car commuters. “Neighborhood parking” stations don’t need as much parking and are usually in established communities, making them good places for infill development.

There are already plans to build compact, walkable neighborhoods around Fort Totten, Van Dorn Street, and West Hyattsville, including housing, shops, and a well-connected pedestrian and bike network. These are all in various stages of execution, though a development at West Hyattsville has been stalled for years.

Single-family homes across from Forest Glen’s park-and-ride lot. Photo from Google Street View.

But Montgomery County purposely restricted new development at Forest Glen in the 1990’s in the name of preserving the neighborhood’s “single-family character.” While its other Metro stations are booming with new construction, the only thing being built near Forest Glen today are 7 single-family homes.

Metro is a huge public investment, and the land around each station is very valuable. Allowing it to lay fallow, or to be developed with low-density uses, is a total waste of land and taxpayer money. Park-and-ride lots are very useful, but when they’re the only way to use Metro, they make stations less accessible to riders without cars and reduce the value of Metro to people living nearby.

In the coming years, Metro will open the new Silver Line in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, while Maryland will hopefully complete the Purple Line in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. In order to get the most out of these projects, we have to make the best use of the land around them. That means not repeating the mistakes we’ve made at places like Forest Glen and Van Dorn Street.