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A Tale Of Two Stations

Install more parking at commuter rail stations, not just solar panels.

I love me a good solar panel. I have them on my house and on my calculator. And, I’m enthusiastic about what is happening to costs of renewable energy. The future for renewables is bright and it cannot come soon enough. I am massively in favor of large, utility-scale solar and wind installations and look forward to my engineering friends figuring out grid–scale, economically-competitive storage solutions.

I also love truffles – yes I am a food snob. On pasta, they are amazing. But there are other places, where they simply have no place. The same is true for solar panels.

What am I talking about? I take BART (the Bay Area’s commuter rail, which would not exist without the seminal analysis by Dan McFadden) to work. I almost dropped my Kindle when I saw that my local BART station replaced its massive parking lot with car ports covered in solar panels. The local Tweetosphere is full of group hug messages about how warm and fuzzy it makes us feel that our Teslas are now covered by shade providing solar panels. Big banner ads push this even further by stating that the solar panels generate enough electricity to power 200 homes.

So what is my gripe? We live in carmageddon. Traffic in the Bay Area is at an all-time high. 40% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions are generated by vehicles. If we are going to tackle this problem we should incentivize people to take public transport. Parking at my station in Lafayette, a wealthy little California town, fills up by 7 am at the latest. No more parking. So people drive.

What could one have done? One could have built a 4 or 6 story parking structure on the existing footprint. This would have at least quadrupled the parking capacity without changing the footprint. How much energy would that save, assuming people would opt to BART to work instead of drive if they could find a parking spot? Right now, there are 1629 spaces on a flat parking lot. Assume an average fuel economy of 24 mpg per car. Assume that most people have a commute to SF of 22 miles each way. So let’s call that two gallons per car per day. Assume three additional floors of parking, or and additional 4887 parking spaces on the current footprint. That makes 9,774 gallons saved per day. Let’s compare that to the energy the average California household uses per day – roughly 170,000 Btu (according to the EIA). There are roughly 110,000 Btu in each gallon of gasoline. So each day the solar panels provide the energy equivalent of 170,000 Btu/home* 200 homes = 34,000,000 BTU. The gas savings are, drum roll, roughly 1 billion BTU per day. A thirty fold difference. Mic Drop.

For comparison, the Walnut Creek Station (right next to Lafayette), just put in a multistory parking garage and ample locked bike parking. It’s full at all times as are the bike lockers. Go Walnut Creek! Also, Walnut Creek has encouraged the development of multistory apartment buildings in walking distance to the BART station. This would enable the Kombucha-sipping, CBD-vaping generation to walk to BART and get to work without ever worrying about a car.

Further, my simple calculation above does not even take into consideration the congestion externalities these parked cars no longer cause, the local pollution that does not end up in kids’ lungs and the safety consequences of having more cars. Of course I understand that dispatching more trains is a hard problem and increasing the capacity of local rail systems is not straightforward. BART is working hard on a better future. But failing to increase parking capacity and putting band aid solar panels on top of single story lots is just silly. Put those panels on top of a six floor parking garage and then advertise savings if you have to.

Of course, there is always the NIMBY issue of land use restrictions. The rich people of Lafayette probably don’t like the increase in local road traffic driving to BART and multistory structures might be visually offensive. If we are going to make real environmental progress, we’ll need to get beyond warm glow to hard numbers.

Keep up with Energy Institute blogs, research, and events on Twitter @energyathaas.

Suggested citation for this blog post:

Auffhammer, Maximilian. “A Tale Of Two Stations” Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, May 28, 2019,


Maximilian Auffhammer View All

Maximilian Auffhammer is the George Pardee Professor of International Sustainable Development at the University of California Berkeley. His fields of expertise are environmental and energy economics, with a specific focus on the impacts and regulation of climate change and air pollution.

15 thoughts on “A Tale Of Two Stations Leave a comment

  1. I don’t know the specifics of the BART stations you’re discussing but with mild California weather year-round I’m surprised you aren’t more interested in improving station access for transit users, cyclists, scooter users, and pedestrians. Focusing on access by these modes could open up ridership to many more people at a fraction of the cost of building new parking. Lessons on commuter rail parking from the Toronto area, where our regional transit agency is the largest provider of parking in North America:

  2. I like the link between behaviour and emissions, a complex issue with some less than obvious outcomes. The road I live in is the car park for the rail station from which many locals use for their commute to London. Until recently the shortest car ride to the station which I am aware of was 200m, recently this has become 100m. However, an increasing number of people are using electric bikes for the ride from home to station, many of these are the short range folding variety and are used at the other end of the journey (electric scooters and mono-wheels are also being used). There are alternatives to the 25 mpg automobile. Fortunately, my employer encouraged me set up a software development office/team where I live, one of the side effects for several of us was that it changed the mind-set that the only way to travel locally was by car, walking, cycling, bus offer less frustration than parking, petrol and other frustrated drivers. Cars have a role to play, but there are alternatives that sometimes have a better outcome.

  3. This post ignores costs in its evaluation. BART is heavily subsidize such that most people who subsidize it have to take some other form of transport, mostly driving, for BART service to be maintained. This means expensive rail systems like BART are inherently self limiting when it comes to taking cars off the road. BART only works because most people don’t take it and subsidize it. The real cost per passenger mile including depreciation should always be considered when evaluation any transport system.

    The probable reason the Lafayette BART station does not have a multi story parking structure is the cost per space. The last I heard it was costing BART around $60,000 per space in a parking structure. This results on a 30 year bond on each space having to be charged around $4 per workday which most BART users won’t pay to park, especially when they were guaranteed free parking when BART was put before the voters in 1964. This is why BART doesn’t have adequate parking even on the new eBART stations.

    Any claims of CO2 reduction have to be calculated at the real cost per tonne of reduction or they are meaningless. In the US we produce about 20 tonnes of CO2 per person per year. A sustainable world production is probably more like one tonne per year so we have to reduce CO2 production by 19 tonnes per year, or basically no production. This can only be done if the cost of reduction is about $50 per tonne or less, is about $1,000 per person per year which is all that is realistic economically and politically. Since BART is so heavily subsidized by car drivers it is doubtful that it reduces CO2 production at an acceptable cost.

    Any evaluation of transport systems or environmental benefits are meaningless without a realistic cost estimate.

    • Paul: since you mentioned subsidy etc – i wonder if you have recollection’ of something i recall hearing/ reading in 1980 or so. “BART must operate at capacity for 700 years to recover/save the energy that went into building it.” Something similar can likely be said about operating energy.

  4. YES! I often missed getting a spot at Orinda and had to drive to West Oakland to take BART. Put garages at Lafayette, Orinda and Rockridge, this would, I think, reduce traffic on 24 in the mornings.

  5. I live in Lafayette and agree with Max 100%. We need a second story on those BART parking lots. I am very fortunate to live downtown, only an 8 minute walk to the station AND be retired as well…but, I do believe we need much more parking at BART to get people off the highways. Thanks for your perspective.

  6. What a great comment on building parking structures.
    I thought California was so environmentally conscious until I observed how many cars are being driven with only a single person in the car.

    If CA is serious, it should improve the structure of transportation to enable commuters to use mass transit.

  7. EVs are good. They still need E [energy/ electricity] which must be extracted/ converted/ stored/ reconverted. EVs are more efficient on a miles/ joule basis. What happens to the batteries at end of life?

    Re BART: to ‘recover’ the energy used to build the system it would need to be used at capacity for 700 years? This was being ‘spoken of’ as an economists estimate in the late 1970s. Any basis to this ‘outlandish’ recollection?

  8. Max as I drive around in my Tesla in congested traffic I’m seeing the carmageddon you are seeing but Im thinking – we have to get all these people off the burning of fossil fuels in their cars. I’m thinking we need a massive surge in EV buying and we need it right now. Another disturbing trend is massively powerful pickup trucks here in Texas, up to 700 horsepower, so they can drive 90 mph, and they do drive that fast on our Texas Interstate highways. I follow them in my Tesla for windage but they are getting only 15 mpg in those trucks and Im getting an equivalent 130 mpg in my Tesla. When are we going to take the need for CO2 reduction seriously?

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