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The Park And Ride Dilemma: Bus Riders Still Rely On Cars

KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols
Issaquah head planner Lucy Sloman stands at the rail of the Issaquah Highlands park and ride.

It’s late afternoon at the Issaquah Highlands, where a thick fog has engulfed the park and ride here.

Buses pull up to drop off a dozen people at a time. They’re arriving at one of the most walkable suburbs in the region, with densely clustered housing and front porches instead of garage doors facing the street. 

Issaquah Highlands was built to make it convenient for people to walk to transit. But despite planned density, sidewalks and footpaths, the numbers suggest most residents here use a car for some part of their commute. From the park and ride, just 1 in 10 of commuters were expected to walk or bike home. The rest piled into their cars and drove home.

Our region has become throttled by traffic. Washington’s Growth Management Act sought to fix this by concentrating new suburban development closer to mass transit. But one part of the suburban commute continues to confound urban planners: the last mile that commuters typically drive home.

Issaquah is trying to convince more people to walk and ride bikes around town. They have a program called Walk and Roll, which focuses on improving bicycle and pedestrian connectivity throughout the larger Issaquah area.

That can only help, because the park and ride, which draws commuters from Sammamish, Klahanie and Carnation, is maxed out. If people don’t find other ways to get to the bus, they’ll drive straight to work. Rapid growth in Issaquah Highlands means there will be even more traffic on I-90, which is already one of the most heavily traveled corridors in the region.

[asset-images[{"caption": "YWCA housing near the Issaquah Highlands park and ride", "fid": "114587", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201501/YWCA.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]On a recent walking tour of the area, Lucy Sloman, who heads the planning department in Issaquah, pointed to a beautiful apartment building run by the YWCA.

"This was very intentionally located immediately adjacent to the park and ride," Sloman said. "Part of the reason it was located there is we know, for people of low income, it is often difficult to own a car."

There are also plenty of market-rate apartment and condo buildings within walking distance. That's part of what makes Issaquah Highlands unlike other suburbs. The houses here forgo backyards, choosing instead to pool their open space into parklets scattered throughout the neighborhood. 

Even here, many houses are just too far from the park and ride (some are uphill and almost two miles away). And big parking lots at the center of town make it convenient to drive.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Senior lecturer Daniel Carlson, of the University of Washington Evans School studies transportation and land use", "fid": "114588", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201501/Carlson.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Dan Carlson, who lectures about urban planning at the University of Washington Evans School of Public Affairs, said the Issaquah Highlands are a mixture of innovation and dysfunction. He said it raises a larger question about how we want to grow as a society.

Carlson said development should be closer to existing transit routes, and that we should build up existing neighborhoods, rather than making new ones.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Passengers disembark from a bus at the Issaquah Highlands park and ride.", "fid": "114585", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201501/Bus.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]He said we shouldn't think of these communities as suburbs, but as employment centers in a network of metropolitan districts.

Issaquah Highlands has learned from its mistakes, and Sloman said Issaquah’s sense of itself is changing.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Townhomes at Issaquah Highlands", "fid": "114589", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201501/Townhomes.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]"Issaquah is a suburb,” she said. “But it is really working hard to transform itself into a regional growth center and really rethinking how it can retain the parts of the community that attracted people in a 21st century way."

Sloman wants to bring the design principles of Issaquah Highlands into central Issaquah, where 75 percent of the existing land is paved over with parking lots.

Unlike Issaquah Highlands, where the city worked with a limited number of developers to implement a vision in a relatively undeveloped area, bringing the vision to central Issaquah means communicating that vision to many different property owners - each of whom have competing goals.

Their goals may fall into alignment, however, especially if voters approve the ballot measure Sound Transit 3 this fall, putting Issaquah and Issaquah Highlands in line for light rail.

Back at the park and ride, commuter Ian Smith left on foot. But he wasn't walking home – he was walking to his car. "I had to park up the street," he said.

Because when he got here in the morning, the park and ride was full.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Lucy Sloman says Issaquah Highlands planners planned for transit, but they didn't necessarily design development around existing established transit routes. When planners first came to Issaquah Highlands, they had to take a windy road through a gravel quarry to reach the top of the plateau.", "fid": "114578", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201501/Sloman_3.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]][asset-audio[{"description": "Issaquah head planner Lucy Sloman on how growth leads to walkability", "fid": "114592", "uri": "npraudio://201501/Sloman_0.mp3"}]]