Minneapolis and Saint Paul need parking benefit districts

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Betsy Hodges uttered one of my favorite lines during last month’s Transportation Mayoral Forum. We’d gotten to the wonky part of the discussion, about parking policy and zoning requirements. Hodges was one of the few candidates that really understood the parking question:

“I’m in my second term on the city council and in my first term especially I would always get this question, ‘what was the most surprising thing to you about being on city council?’ It took me a while to realize that the genuine answer to that question was the amount of time I spent talking about parking. Everything we do, parking gets talked about…”

Hodges is absolutely right. If you ask any politician, public works employee, or planner about parking they will immediately sigh. Their eyes will glaze over. They’ll stare off into the distance, and you’ll be lucky if you get another sensible word out of them for the rest of the day.

This article is reposted from TCDP media partner Streets.MN. Check out the links below for other recent Streets.MN stories:

I’ve written about this before, about how parking our cars somehow taps into some sort of lizard brain that turns us all into George Costanzas. When parking our cars, for some reason we believe that parking is a god-given right. While parking, we display neolithic competitive instincts, and cling to an irrational belief that parking should always be free AND convenient. Our parking lizard-brain leads us into all kinds of paradoxical dead end alleys. We end up driving around forever looking for a free parking spot, or leaving our car in an inconvenient place because we don’t want to move it.

(For today’s example of lizard-brain parking fiascos, see here.)

On a more macro-scale, it means that most of our buildings come with massive private parking lots designed for peak capacity (e.g. the day after Thanksgiving) that sit unused 99.9% of the time. It means requiring student apartment building to have expensive off-street parking garages that car-less students don’t even want. It means pitchfork uprisings in Lowertown, even though half of downtown Saint Paul is already being used or car storage. It means attempts on University Avenue to save 900 on-street parking spaces, when 20,000 off-street spaces sit empty most days mere feet away. (Caveat: The issue of on-street parking on University is a bit more complex than this, including safety and sidewalk concerns. But there’s no shortage of parking in general along University Avenue…)

Integrated Parking Management

Well, yesterday at the Saint Paul Transportation Committee I heard the first sensible discussion of parking policy in my Twin Cities’ memory, a presentation by Craig Blakley from the Saint Paul Planning and Economic Development office about the need for Integrated Parking Management.

Right: The Snelby bank parking lot, a long-time area windfall.

Referring frequently to the “Cupcake debacle” (a now infamous bit of St Paul lore where a successful cupcake entrepreneur attempted in vain to open a new store on Grand Avenue, but — despite the mayor’s help — couldn’t get permitted because he didn’t have enough off-street parking spaces, and ended up moving to the Mall of America instead), Blakley spoke about the paradox of overbuilt parking, and the need to coordinate parking supply between businesses in an entire area, instead of on a one-by-one basis.

Right: StP’s only special assessment parking lot, on Grand Avenue.

The gold standard of this approach is the city-owned parking lot by the Grand Avenue Dunn Brothers. There, the city operates a collective parking lot on a church property, and assesses all the businesses in the area for it. That’s the model that the city is attempting to follow along University Avenue, and in other parts of the city. The issue has become urgent at the corner of Selby and Snelling, where a re-development of a is removing what had been a free public parking lot owned by a (since merged) bank. (Note: I used this parking lot many times myself.)

Blakley has been trying to persuade the businesses in the area to agree to parking assessment district similar to the Grand Avenue situation, but with little luck so far. Businesses are reluctant to pay for a service (communal parking lot) that they’d recently been getting for free, and building and maintaining a parking lot is quite expensive.

An improved parking lot along University Avenue.

What About the Market?

Right: A PID parking meter in Pasadena, CA

Despite the common sense being displayed in the city’s attempts at pooling parking supply, Saint Paul seems to be neglecting the key part of the picture. In my Streets.mn piece on parking policy from a few months ago, I summed up the situation like this:

It’s not just Lowertown. There are a dozen places where you could apply these principles. Right now, all over the Twin Cities people are pulling their hair out about parking in Uptown, Dinkytown, Selby Avenue, Grand Avenue, and pretty much anywhere else.

As long as we keep on-street parking free or absurdly cheap, almost everyone is going to be pissed off about it. That problem will never disappear, no matter how much paradise you pave. But if you get the prices right, parking problems will melt away.

Costanzas of the world won’t like it, but the key to solving the parking picture is to make sure that the price signals are correct. And so far, the approach that Saint Paul seems to be taking isn’t focusing on price or demand. It’s only affecting supply, by consolidating and re-designing parking lots. If we want real change, we need to go the extra step and begin tweaking actual driver behavior.

There are a number of benefits to reforming parking prices in both downtowns, and at key dense nodes (Uptown, Snelby, Grand Avenue, etc.).

1) Market prices mean convenience for customers.

Right now, as everyone knows, in some places parking is a real pain in the ass. You have to drive around searching for spots, hoping to find one that’s free or extremely cheap. For many people, entering an expensive garage is admitting defeat.

Reforming prices by charging market rates for coveted on-street spots will mean that these spots will turn over more often, and go to those who really want/need them. By making these spots expensive, you’d ensure that one or more of them is open and available at all times. You’re basically trading convenience (it’s easy to find a spot) for money (a dollar more per hour).

2) Revenues can go directly to neighborhoods.

If you have increased parking meter revenue, it can begin to off-set the costs of key improvements. This is called a “Parking Benefit District” and for business owners, it’s basically free money. (You’re beginning to charge for a valuable service that had been provided for free.) This revenue stream, which at a corner like Selby and Snelling might exceed hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, could fund sidewalk improvements, flowers, streetscapes, or even defray the cost of a “free” collective parking lot a block or two away. The key is to give the purse-strings to the neighborhood. Let them decide how the money should be spent, NRP style.

3) Price signals fully use existing resources.

For a driver, a two-tiered parking structure would offer more choices. In a place like downtown Saint Paul, cheapskates could park in already-existing ramps for next to nothing while less mobile / Rockefellers pay a premium for a rock star spot on the street. Everyone benefits from more choices.

Right: All the parking in downtown StP colored blue.

Parking policy reform would begin to make use of all the already-existing parking we’ve spent the last few decades building all through our downtowns. When bike lanes, new businesses, or infill developments are blocked because of parking riots, while existing ramps sit empty, that’s a real tragedy for a city.

The more I think about the political and material landscapes of our cities, the more I believe that parking policy is one of the few effective levers our cities have over transportation. If we want to really begin to change the calculus of transportation decisions, no amount of LRT lines, bike share kiosks, or education campaigns is going to change behavior as long as we keep offering free parking at every destination. To truly begin to shift away from the hegemony of single-occupancy vehicles, we need to change the parking equation. Parking Benefit Districts are the way forward.