Rough Sketch of a Solution to Downtown Saint Paul's Parking Problem

Last night, there was a meeting at the Jerome Theater about parking in Lowertown, Saint Paul. I wasn't there, but (as always) dogged Pioneer Press reporter Frederic Melo attended.

He tweeted thus:

Parking is a big deal, for lots of reasons. It's something I've been thinking about more and more these days, and I'm not alone. Last night's meeting is not unusual in local city politics. Ask any elected official. Parking is near the top of what people complain about in everyday city life.

But accommodating parking comes at a high cost, in terms of both city budgets and urban fabric.

Here are the problems as I see them:

[Two Costanzas.]
Problem #1: Parking cars in downtown Saint Paul can be frustrating.  Last night's meeting is Exhibit A. (Meanwhile, others find it easy.) This problem will only get worse as more businesses, residences, and activities locate downtown. Picture driving around for 20 minutes looking for a spot, turning down one-way streets, cursing. Picture a city of Costanzas.

Problem #2: The city is already filled with expensive parking lots. The city and developers have already spent many millions on parking garages downtown. Historic buildings have been converted into parking garages. [Shudder.] There are lots of parking garages, and they're really expensive.

[One of downtown's many blank walls & unappealing sidewalks.]
Problem #3: Large parts of downtown are ugly and unappealing to pedestrians. Walk around and see this for yourself. While there are a few really nice parts of downtown Saint Paul, many streets are lined with windowless concrete walls. (Usually, these are off-street parking garages.) The sidewalks are covered with litter, especially this time of year. Once you leave Lowertown or Rice Park, there aren't enough businesses, people, or street activity to make walking in downtown Saint Paul very pleasant.

These problems are interlinked. Solving Problem #1 comes at the expense of Problems #2 and #3. It seems an impossible challenge.

[Leave Lowertown or Rice Park, and lots of downtown Saint Paul is ugly and empty.]

Here's a rough sketch of a solution. Almost all of this is based on the work of the economist and planner Donald Shoup, the expert on US parking policy.


Step #1: Do a parking survey. Count the number of on- and off-street spots downtown. Also, get a rough measure of how "used" each spot is. What is its average occupancy throughout the day and week?

You'll probably find (as the city repeatedly says) that there are lots of parking spots downtown. You'll probably also find that a some of these spots are in very high demand. Most of these will be on-street surrounding prime attractions (e.g. the Farmer's market). On other hand, you'll probably also find that many spots have low demand, and sit empty much of the time. Most of these will be off-street garages, or in marginal locations.


Step #2: Set prices according to demand. Make the prime spots expensive and the distant spots cheap. This will ruffle a few feathers, but making prime spots expensive will encourage people to "turn over" the spots more quickly. Parking at in-demand locations will become easier but more expensive. This would eliminate "cruising" for parking, and end Costanza frustration. It's pretty straightforward: those who value convenience pay more, those who want to save money walk farther out of their way. The important thing is that all the parking gets used. We get full return on the investments that the city and developers have made over the years.

[You could hire way more people like this guy.]
Step #3: Take the added revenues and create a downtown Business Improvement District (BID). During recent discussions of downtown's future, some folks in the city have said they'd like to see a BID. This parking plan would provide a funding stream with no added property or sales taxes on local businesses or residents. How we spend the money would be up to residents, businesses, and the downtown Chamber. Some possibilities: streetscape improvements, ambassadors / people to pick up the ubiquitous litter, nicer bus shelters, bike racks... I don't know! How the money would be spent should be up to the people that use the space. Give those 100 people in that room a pot of money to fix their problem. If they want to build a parking lot with it, more power to them.


Step #4: Repeat as necessary. This might involve several iterations, as the supply and demand of parking shifts over time and prices need to be adjusted. Ideally, you could make this process automatic using "smart" meters. (This is what they are doing in San Francisco.)

That's it!

[They're doing this in San Francisco. They made an app for it.]
There are three benefits of this plan.  First, parking becomes easy and transparent. We make an app for it. If you are looking for a spot on Mears Park, there will be one there for you. No more Costanzas. Never worry about it again. Second, it's far cheaper than any other solution out there. Parking ramps are very, very expensive, both in terms of dollars and in terms of opportunity costs. For every block of downtown Saint Paul that's a windowless parking garage, that's one block that won't have people in it, and that will be horrible to walk next to. This is way cheaper, and preserves the urban fabric. Third, it gives people some political control over their own destiny. What would those 100 people do with thousands of dollars per year to invest downtown? I don't know. I doubt they know either, but it'd be interesting to find out.

The bottom line is that parking in downtown Saint Paul should not be free after 4:30. Free parking might benefit a few lucky people, but causes lots of problems and frustration for many others. As long as parking is free on the street, nobody will use the thousands of spaces in the huge ugly garages we've spent millions to construct. People will waste countless miserable hours cruising the streets looking for the perfect spot in order to save $5 on their way to see the Wild, the Saints, Keillor, or whatever Scientologists do at night. Meanwhile, off-street garages will just sit there, underused. That's not a happy situation.

This solution is an outline. Details need to be added. But this would work. It'd be cheap, and in the long run, it would make some of the 100 people in that room yesterday happy. It would improve downtown Saint Paul as a place to work, live, and play. It would be a great stride toward making our downtown a "real city" once again.


Jinwen said...

I thought you only need to worry about bike parking...LOL

Brad Lewis said...

Thanks for giving a new pathway towardsparking management systems India . Really thankful for sharing it !!

Dex said...

One way to resolve this issue, and remedy overpopulation in one fell swoop... death penalty for parking violations. : )