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One big barrier to MBTA ridership? Not enough space for cars

Drivers waited for others to exit the MBTA’s Alewife Station garage; it was full just after 11.
Drivers waited for others to exit the MBTA’s Alewife Station garage; it was full just after 11.Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Of all the challenges with getting more people off the roads and onto public transit, one stands out for its irony: At some stations, there’s not enough room for the cars.

Most days, many of the parking lots across the MBTA’s commuter rail and rapid transit stations are full by early morning.

“There are a number of constraints to public transportation, but parking is the first one. If they can’t park, they can’t access it,” said Representative Hannah Kane of Shrewsbury, who has called for more parking along the crowded Framingham-Worcester commuter line. “I certainly believe that if parking was available, more people would take it.”

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Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officials say they are considering adding parking spaces but caution that it makes sense only at certain stations.

The MBTA owns more than 100 parking lots and garages, and other landowners offer parking at another 175 locations near commuter rail and subway stations. Some parking facilities have thousands of spots, others just a handful. Across the system, about 70 percent of spaces are filled on any given morning, and about one-third of lots owned by the T are at least 90 percent full on a typical day.

But those numbers tell only part of the story: There is huge variance from lot to lot, with some nearly full by the middle of rush hour while others sit begging for vehicles throughout the day.

Parking is something of a double-edged sword for the T. In the battle against Boston’s epic traffic congestion, officials are leaning on the commuter rail to persuade more drivers to avoid using their cars, by adding more coaches to trains to accommodate more riders and eventually increasing service to near-subway frequencies. But even with more room on trains, many riders can’t board if they can’t park.

On the other hand, adding parking could undermine other efforts to cut down on driving and pollution, such as adding housing near transit stations.

Today, the competition for few spaces can make for anxious and hurried mornings to beat everybody else to a space.

“I’m in an office at Kendall Square before 8 a.m. I really don’t need to be in the office at 8 every day,” said Bruce Leicher, who commutes on the Fitchburg commuter rail line most mornings from Littleton. That stop’s 200-space lot is filled most days, according to a Globe analysis of MBTA parking data from earlier this year.

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“You can’t get to a doctor appointment or run an errand [before work] because you have to get to the parking lot” early, he added.

Riders’ odds of getting a spot depend on where they’re trying to catch the train.

The big stations at the ends of the subway lines — Wonderland, Braintree, Alewife, and Oak Grove — come close to filling up most days, as does the Quincy Adams Red Line garage, according to agency data. So do a number of commuter rail stops, such as the nearly 300-space lot in Framingham and the South Attleboro lot near Rhode Island whose 566 spots routinely fill up.

Other parking lots near stations are owned by private landholders, smaller regional transit agencies, or municipalities that host the stations. They, too, are often filled, such as the South Acton stop on the Fitchburg Line or at North Billerica on the Lowell Line.

“By 8:15 a.m., the spots at North Billerica are substantially gone. There are people even parked in places where you’re not supposed to be,” said Sharyn Hardy, who sometimes has to drive to work in Boston when she can’t find a spot. Her other option is to track backward to Lowell, where there are usually spots, but that adds at least a half-hour to her commute.

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Meanwhile, other stations have plenty of space: Big lots in Kingston and Newburyport, for example, were less than half-full over a three-month stretch from April through June 2019.

In recent years, the T has put millions of dollars into fixing and repairing parking garages and lots — but not into expanding them. Instead, the MBTA’s approach has been to play the crowded and less crowded lots off each another.

In 2018, the agency increased parking fees at busy stations, such as Alewife, while dropping them at less crowded lots, such as the 400-space lot in Halifax. The idea was to divert riders to open lots and relieve the crowded ones.

This kind of price adjusting is considered a best-practice by the American Public Transportation Association, whose written guidelines suggest that shifting drivers to different lots is often more effective than adding parking spaces. Adding spaces requires expensive real estate purchases and maintenance, on land that could be used for other development.

The T says the price-toggling has been successful in some respects: About half of the lots where prices increased last year saw spots free up in the months after the rate change, while about 27 percent more drivers started parking at lots that saw a price drop.

But transit officials acknowledge that many stations are still full, preventing other riders from accessing trains. MBTA revenue director Evan Rowe said the agency is considering increasing parking at its lots as part of a study that will be completed next year. The T also hopes to strike agreements with cities and towns to allow on-street parking near stations. But these plans are not definite, and the T has not committed any money to expanding parking.

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The agency is less likely to build more parking garages, Rowe said, because of the higher costs associated with such structures. Building a garage can cost more than $20,000 per space, according to some estimates.

Adding parking isn’t the only potential measure; making it easier to walk or bike to stations is also a focus, Rowe said.

“The solution isn’t just more car parking. It’s providing more station access overall,” he said. “You have to look at it on a station-by-station basis. . . . A diverse system like this doesn’t just have one solution.”

The best solution depends on the location: Some commuter rail stations are in busy downtown areas where it makes less sense to add parking, while it’s more logical to add spaces at more remote locations, because driving is the only obvious way to access those stops.

Jarred Johnson, chief operating officer of the advocacy group TransitMatters, suggested that buses and eventually driverless vehicles could be used to shuttle passengers to commuter rail trains more regularly.

Another option would be to simply add more stops, he said. That may be doable without slowing train service if the T follows through on early plans to electrify the commuter rail system, because electric trains run faster than diesel-powered vehicles.

“It’s not the only thing we can do, but where we have severe demand for parking and not nearly enough room to expand it, we can add stations,” Johnson said.

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That was part of the thinking when the MBTA agreed to test daily commuter rail service from Foxborough. The large lot outside Gillette Stadium, officials reasoned, could absorb some of the drivers who crowd into busy lots along the Franklin Line.

So far, however, ridership on the Foxborough trains has been low, according to spokesman Joe Pesaturo, and the 500-space lot typically gets only 30 to 40 cars a day. In an effort to boost use of the station, Kraft Group is making the lot, normally $4 a day, free from January through March.


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com.