I still recall when I realized how much political space the issue of parking occupies at Minneapolis City Hall. It was years ago, at a sustainable transportation conference, when then-Mayor Betsy Hodges took the stage.
“If there’s one thing that surprised me about being mayor, it’s how much time we spend talking about parking,” Hodges declared, referring to the countless hours of time city staff spend helping people store empty cars.
For too long, parking has been the tail that wags the dog when it comes to urban design, and for decades, the No. 1 policy prescription for ending parking complaints has been a regulation called “parking minimums.” These are rules found in every city code, requiring the construction of parking spaces for just about every type of building.
Both St. Paul and Minneapolis have had parking minimum rules on the books since the mid-1950s, and all that while they’ve dramatically reshaped the urban landscape. Over the years, the regulations have added thousands of acres of asphalt to the cities, creating the expectation of free parking next to entrances, alongside homes, and underneath apartment buildings.
For example, in St. Paul right now if you want to build or expand a business, you have to meet the minimum required off-street parking. These levels are set in a slightly arbitrary manner, based on pseudo-scientific studies often cut-and-pasted from other cities’ codes. The rules go on and on, most often used to add parking to businesses and homes, requiring property owners to pave yards or tear down adjacent properties in favor of asphalt.
For a senior high school, you need one space per employee, and one space per 10 students. For a golf course, four spaces per hole. A miniature golf course requires only one space per hole, and a driving range requires one space per 15 feet of driving line. A post office requires one space per 500 square feet, whereas a bar requires one space per 150 square feed of floor area. Each basketball or volleyball court requires six parking spaces, whereas a marina must pave one space for every two slips.
In planning circles, it’s been widely accepted for years that parking minimums are highly problematic, thanks in particular to the dogged work of a UCLA urban planning professor named Donald Shoup, whose definitive book “The High Cost of Free Parking,” was something of a revelation when it came out in 2005. On a macro scale, parking minimums have meant that there are now as many as 2 billion parking spaces across the United States.
On a smaller scale, parking minimums have harmful consequences, both obvious and subtle, for cities like Minneapolis.
A partial list: First, “free” parking is a hidden tax for people who don’t drive cars, who pay the costs of parking spaces each time they rent a home or buy groceries. Similarly, the requirements raise housing costs; the price tag of a single parking space easily averages five digits, an expense added to the cost of homes. The rules form a barrier for small businesses, especially anyone wanting to reuse an older building. Parking minimums harm the tax base, requiring the lowest-value uses for city land. They increase carbon pollution by incentivizing driving, which is a huge problem for stopping climate change. Finally, enforcing parking regulations takes up a time for city staff who could be working on other city problems.
For all these reasons, cities throughout North America have been gradually reducing or removing parking minimums. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have been ditching the regulation in select places for years — for example, in downtowns or along transit lines.
But other cities — like Buffalo, New York; Hartford, Connecticut; and Edmonton, Alberta — have gone so far as to ditch the mandates citywide. And this month, both Minneapolis and St. Paul are poised to join the ranks of cities that no longer mandate the construction of parking lots.
Minneapolis’ proposed rules
In Minneapolis, so far the change seems uncontroversial. Partly that’s because of the city’s lengthy 2019 public process around its 2040 Comprehensive Plan.
“It was unanimous” said Council Member Steve Fletcher, describing the recent vote at the Business, Inspections, Housing and Zoning Committee. “There was relatively little discussion [and] I was kind of surprised there wasn’t more.”
If adopted, the new Minneapolis rules would remove the minimum parking regulations from the zoning code, swapping them out for a set of guidelines around an approach called travel demand management (TDM). In a sense, using a somewhat complicated point system, the city will ask developers and businesses to incentivize transit, biking, and walking instead of building parking lots.
In addition, the Minneapolis ordinance [PDF] would add parking maximums, limiting how large developers and businesses could make their parking lots in new projects.
As Fletcher point out, because “we had this argument as part of the 2040 plan,” a lot of the debate about the parking proposal has already been addressed. The way Fletcher sees it, 2021 is a particularly good time to remove the regulation, because market demands are rapidly changing around parking.
“People understand that when we are building parking, it’s adding to the cost,” said Fletcher, pointing to the decreased demand for parking ramps in his downtown ward. “The market is showing us there’s less demand.”
In St. Paul, two proposals
Meanwhile, St. Paul has quietly been studying its own parking reform policy for over a year. The planning department completed a report earlier this year that puts two different options on the table for officials. One would use a similar TDM point system to swap out parking minimums, and the other would simply get rid of the rules altogether in favor of other incentives. The proposals are currently at the Planning Commission, and a recommendation will be sent to the City Council within a few weeks.
If the St. Paul does simply ditch parking minimums, the regulations in the two cities would be remarkably similar. They both rely on a point-based approach for TDM policies, giving requirements and/or bonuses for commercial and residential developments that provide things like bike parking, curbside drop-off zones, or shared-use vehicles.
Still a marginal change
The quiet secret about parking reform is that it’s still a marginal change, and most Twin Cities residents likely won’t notice any difference. Even without minimums required by city code, almost all developers still build plenty of parking spots, because free parking has long been an expectation for American consumers.
For example, St. Paul has had no parking minimums for years along the Green Line light rail, yet every development built along the corridor still has plenty of space for car storage. The story is similar in most of Minneapolis’ mandate-free areas; buildings without parking are the exceptions that prove the rule.
For the environmental and fiscal health of our cities, that situation has to change. In the 21st century, complaining about parking is the functional equivalent of complaining about the filter on your cigarette. It’s not something to be proud of, and any such kvetching should be generally ignored.
But that won’t stop parking complaints from pouring into City Hall, which is why elected officials are still expecting that parking fights will continue to be a struggle.
“It’ll take continued political commitment,” said Council Member Fletcher. “I can point to examples where we have a clear plan and guidelines, but people still fight [a project] out at every Planning Commission meeting.”
Ending mandatory parking-space construction is a low-cost change that increases flexibility, and represents a pretty basic first step toward sustainable cities.