A rendering of a station site near downtown Bakersfield, California. California High-Speed Rail Authority

If a goal of the train is to reduce car-reliance, why does a new rendering show a big surface lot?

One of the primary goals of California high-speed rail is to get people out of their cars. So it’s a bit confusing to see the rail authority’s new video rendering of a proposed alignment in Bakersfield—complete with a great big surface parking lot outside the station.

Bakersfield recently agreed to drop a lawsuit against the rail project if the authority studied an alternative train route through the city. Unlike the original option, which loops into central Bakersfield via an Amtrak station, the alternative would run through a brand new F Street Station downtown. It would reportedly be “less disruptive than the earlier route,” uprooting few if any residential buildings.

California HSR Authority

But the station site shown in the video (spotted by Systemic Failure), while admittedly not a final plan, raises questions about how officials envision the Bakersfield stop. That’s not one level of market-priced garage parking embedded in a multi-story retail and residential complex—it looks more like the unpriced surface parking found at big box superstores. Not pictured: any semblance of transit connections, bike storage, or pedestrian access.

Such a scheme would go against the authority’s own original guidelines for station development, laid out in 2010, which emphasize limited parking facilities near high-speed rail hubs. The parking that does get built should be placed in garages, incorporated into mixed use developments, and available for shared use by nearby retailers and residents. And unless the spots are priced right, people will drive to the stations themselves:

Sufficient train passenger parking would be essential to the system viability, but this should, as appropriate, be offered at market rates (not free) to encourage the use of access by transit and other modes.

It would also go against much of the accepted high-speed rail practice in Europe. Those standards—recently outlined in a report by Eric Eidlin of the U.S. Federal Transit Administration—emphasize the placement of stations near center cities, where they can serve as balanced transport hubs as well as investment anchors for local economic growth. Eidlin discourages station designers from setting aside too much room for parking, surface or otherwise:

Large parking structures, in turn, will limit possibilities for denser land use around stations. This will reduce opportunities for the state to maximize return on its investment in HSR, and will do little to decrease traffic congestion, decrease greenhouse gas emissions, and increase transit ridership.

To illustrate this point, Eidlin juxtaposes the Part-Dieu high-speed rail station in Lyon, France, with the city’s St.-Exupéry airport (which also serves HSR). Part-Dieu, though in need of pedestrian upgrades, accommodates 26 million riders a year, with access to loads of jobs, office space, and a massive shopping mall. The remote St.-Exupéry serves a third of the passengers with a fraction of the uses—largely because it dedicates so much space to surface parking:

Eric Eidlin

The social benefit of reduced driving emissions is the why California high-speed rail was given funding from the state’s cap-and-trade program in the first place. Offering ample surface parking around the stations runs directly counter to that expectation. Local travelers may have no choice but to drive to a downtown Bakersfield station at present; a successful station design will offer them other options in the future.

Update: Authority spokesperson Lisa Marie Alley tells CityLab “no decisions have been made” about parking at the eventual Bakersfield station, and that reducing car- and airplane-reliance will be one of the goals. The authority’s station area planning agreement with the city, announced yesterday, makes multimodal access to the site an explicit aim. “We will look at some of those issues of how much parking will be at a station, how many bike paths will be there, what's electric vehicle access going to be like, and how are different modes and connectivity going to provide travelers with all types of choices,” says Alley.

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