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Reforming Parking, from the Ramp Down

November 07, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

The groundbreaking work of UCLA Prof. Donald Shoup demolishing the myth of "free parking" has spurred a nationwide burst of creative thinking around reforming our most pervasive, but also most invisible, subsidy for private motoring.

Our own Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota's College of Design, is advocating one of the best of these ideas: If we must build new parking ramps, let's make them adaptable to other uses in a less autocentric future. That means high ceilings and level floors, the opposite of most "ramp" design since World War II, he told Finance & Commerce.

You might wonder why we need more parking in a country that already has an estimated 800 million-plus spaces -- four times the nation's number of cars. Obviously, each 9-by-19-foot receptacle is empty most of the time, but still requires twice the square footage needed for the average office worker.

And because nearly all of them in the United States are "free," cruising for one that's open burns a big share of a global total of "about one million barrels of the world's oil every day" wasted in the pursuit, according to the Christian Science Monitor. 

A "smart parking" solution to this problem is described by CSM guest bloggers Greg Rucks and Laurie Guevara-Stone: sensors that track vacant spots and broadcast the data online in real time so would-be parkers can reserve and pay for them on mobile devices. Versions of this idea are being piloted in Los Angeles, San Francisco, China and other countries. If it works, it could end inefficient cruising for parking, but maybe at the expense of more collisions from distracted driving. 

Such a system, however, could ease the way to "performance pricing" of parking similar to congestion pricing of freeway lanes on Twin Cities Interstate Hwys. 394 and 35W, where tolls vary with the level of demand. That's a path to the Shoup model of curbside parking priced so that a few spaces are always available, theoretically minimizing cruising even without mobile information access.

Shoup disciple Alan During of the Sightline Institute says an actual market for parking is needed to end "a ruinous vicious cycle" of free on-street parking that "ensures the supply is flooded ... so it makes no sense to charge for it." 

But enough of this mind-boggling theorizing. Let's get back to Fisher's simple suggestion, which could reduce the long-term opportunity costs of structured parking. This stuff tends to crop up in heavily trafficked areas where demand for commercial, office or residential redevelopment may become stronger. In such places, paid parking garages, at least given our current transportation regime, are a much better alternative to surface lots or, worst of all, unpriced curbside parking.

That's why the Ryan Cos. US Inc.'s proposed $400 million development around the new Vikings stadium on the Metrodome site in Minneapolis includes a 1,328-space parking ramp. It could serve both NFL fans a few days a year and office workers at other times, a shared parking scheme that can reduce distances between destinations and enhance walkability, according to Virginia transportation blogger James A. Bacon.

It's interesting, though, that while one parking garage is on the drawing board, another in St. Paul's Lowertown is being remade for people, not cars. The Rayette Building, which began life in 1909 as a factory/warehouse and later was repurposed to stash 300 autos, is being transformed by Sherman Associates into 88 apartments scheduled to open in mid-2014, giving us a real-world, private enterprise test of Fisher's brainchild.

Meanwhile, more parking is disappearing to make way for the nearby Lowertown Ballpark under construction for the St. Paul Saints. City officials have scrambled to accommodate farmers market customers and Market House condominium residents, but are still seeking a long-term solution. Thousands of spaces, however, remain within blocks of the area, and next year's launch of light-rail service to the Union Depot has the potential to reduce parking demand. The Metropolitan Council announced this week that Green Line trains will begin running by early July, in time for the Baseball All-Star Game at Target Field in Minneapolis.

"We're going to have not enough parking and too many people, as opposed to what we have now, which is too much parking and not enough people," Lowertown restaurant owner Lenny Russo told Minnesota Public Radio. "It's a good problem to have, but we obviously need to manage the growth."

MPR also reported that Minneapolis officials see the Vikings stadium development as an opportunity to reduce the sea of surface lots that now circle the Metrodome. "Usually when you overbuild parking, people park," city planner Beth Elliott said. "Just like when you build wider freeways, you fill them, because people drive more. But if you make parking and driving just a little bit more difficult, and you give people plenty of other options, for taking transit, or walking or biking to their job, they'll say, 'We don't need a car.' "

It will take a lot more of those options than our transit-starved area has now to get many folks to say that. But each autocentric limitation and multimodal improvement increases the chances that an inveterate motorist will say, "I don't need a car -- for this trip."

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