Coupon Parking for Minneapolis and Saint Paul

Parking is a quintessentially local issue. There is nothing more local than wanting to park close to your destination, and caring about the parking spot in front of your house. Attend any meeting about new development in the Twin Cities, and the unique “parking issues” of a particular location will be related. Yet “parking issues” in the Twin Cities today are always about too many cars chasing scarce kerbside spaces.

Parking is also, to many Americans, a quintessentially American issue. Americans supposedly have a cultural affinity for cars that Canadians, Australians, and Europeans don’t have. Yet culture is nothing if not adaptation to law and policy over many years. American cities have required and provided free parking to a greater extent than similar cities abroad for several generations. It is unsurprising that Americans expect free and easy parking, after growing up with it.

Both tendencies can blind us what the Twin Cities can learn from similar cities abroad. Minneapolis and Saint Paul—like many cities in Europe, Australasia, and Canada that first boomed between 1870 and 1940—have large areas of moderate density housing served by small commercial nodes. Initially these nodes served locals on foot or off the street car. Now many of these commercial nodes host businesses drawing a driving public from further afield. With limited off-street parking, visitors to popular restaurants and yoga studios and parks search for kerbside spaces in residential streets. Both the cities also have several areas where residential neighborhoods are directly adjacent to large institutions like universities and hospitals, which generate substantial traffic from visitors, students, and staff.

These neighborhoods include Uptown, Loring Park, Como, Marcy-Holmes, Dinkytown, and Prospect Park in Minneapolis; and Grand Avenue, Selby Dale, Highland Park, and around Seven Corners in Saint Paul. Because of their mix of uses, these areas are all desirable for new residential and commercial construction. In all of these neighborhoods there are few opportunities to provide off-street parking without removing existing buildings, and on-street parking spaces are sometimes fiercely contested. In response parts of these neighborhoods have residential permit parking, restricting kerbside spots for residents’ exclusive use.

Residential permit parking is a poor solution to kerbside scarcity, effectively privatizing the public right of way for the benefit of adjacent residential property owners (in Minneapolis a permit costs a mere $25 a year). Permit parking pushes parking problems onto streets without permits, often slightly further away from businesses, and leads to more driving as people search for even scarcer kerbside spots. In some instances permit parking will lead people to change destinations or not travel at all, because of the perceived difficulty of finding parking spaces open to non-residents. Residential permit parking thus disadvantages businesses and other non-residential uses near streets where it applies.

The least worst way to minimize parking problems is to charge something for the privilege of occupying a kerbside parking space. In both downtowns, around the University of Minnesota, and in parts of Uptown, kerbside spaces are metered. We could put meters on the streets in the neighborhoods where kerbside spots are scarce. But meters are not that attractive, and come with a high capital cost (new meters cost Minneapolis $6.6 million between 2010 and 2012).

A simpler technology used in cities in Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand is “coupon parking”, sometimes known as “disc parking.” It is little used in the United States, but is used in Eugene, Oregon to charge for parking on residential streets near the University of Oregon football stadium.

Coupon parking starting sign.

A block of coupon parking zone begins near Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. Coupon parking can work even when people drive on the “wrong” side of the road.

Coupon parking zone ends.

Coupon parking zone ends sign in Wellington, New Zealand.

So, how does coupon parking work? It is often paired with residential permit parking, in an overlapping or adjacent fashion. Thus, as with permit parking blocks are designated as coupon parking areas with signs posted at regular intervals that drivers searching for kerbside spots will be able to see.

A driver using a coupon to park in a designated kerbside space places a dated piece of paper (the coupon or disk) in the windshield, showing they have paid to park in a coupon parking zone on that specific day. In this respect, coupon parking is just like the machine-based pay and display parking in use at Minneapolis parks.

Daily coupon ($7) in Wellington,  New Zealand.

Daily coupon ($7) in Wellington, New Zealand. Just scratch if off like a lottery ticket, and every entry wins a day of parking.

Monthly coupon ($120) in Wellington. Cheaper than contracted spots in a garage.

Monthly coupon ($120) in Wellington. Cheaper than contracted spots in a garage.

However, in many overseas cities with coupon parking, coupons can be purchased at convenience stores, supermarkets, gas stations, or directly from the city council. Physically the coupon is just like a scratch-off lottery ticket, with the parker scratching off the date they are paying for. In some cities coupons are available in weekly or monthly denominations, as well as daily coupons. When I lived in Wellington (New Zealand) where coupon parking was in effect, many people I knew kept a few coupons in the glovebox in case they needed one.

And that’s all there really is to it on a technological level, making it relatively easy to price kerbside parking without investing in expensive meters. Slap up some signs, print some coupons, distribute them, and kerbside parking is no longer free in areas with excess demand and the associated conflicts over whose moral claim to a kerbside spot is greater.

The politics of establishing coupon parking in Minneapolis and Saint Paul neighborhoods are, of course, a little trickier. Most importantly, new ordinances establishing the program may have to be passed. Both cities already have provisions in existing residential parking ordinances for temporary visitors’ passes, but these have to be purchased by the property owner. Coupons would be available on a wider basis for visitors to any type of property. Decisions about where to have coupon parking zones and how much to charge per day are partly technical (where are kerbside spots often fully occupied?), but also inherently political by changing who benefits from access to the public right of way.

The benefits to the wider public would be making kerbside parking easier to find. Giving away kerbside spots for free in areas of high demand often leads people to cling to parking spaces, even when turnover and thus open spots would benefit everyone. In Wellington, coupon parking was introduced in areas near universities and hospitals that often saw a flood of people searching for kerbside spots in the early morning, and then staying all day. Coupon parking reduced some of these problems, so that it was possible for people arriving later in the day to find spots (in big cities we are never going to solve parking problems to everyone’s satisfaction, so I blanch at saying anything will “solve” problems).

What about benefits for local residents? By pricing kerbside parking in areas of high demand coupon parking could reduce pressure to privatize kerbside spaces by establishing residents’ only critical parking areas. Neighborhoods that demand “critical parking” restrictions are at some level very selfish, claiming the public right of way for their own car storage needs. But at another level they correctly identify that they live in an area of high demand for kerbside spaces. Coupon parking in conjunction with annual permits for residents would help balance the demands for kerbside spaces in several Twin Cities neighborhoods, and keep the public streets open for all to park on. For a small price.

By raising real money coupon parking is also an opportunity to create parking benefit districts in Minneapolis and Saint Paul neighborhoods. Money from the coupons could be returned to neighborhood associations or local business associations to spend on improvements to the public streetscape and other neighborhood amenities.

The introduction of coupon parking would also be an opportunity to re-consider the absurdly low prices Minneapolis and Saint Paul charge for residential permit parking ($25/year and $10/year respectively). It is unlikely that these charges even cover the costs of administration and erecting signs. Both cities should consider charging $500 annually for residential parking permits. Compared to the cost of a garage or the daily rate for coupons, $500 is an absolute bargain. Politically it would be difficult to move from the current low prices. A compromise solution would be to charge existing residents the current rates at their existing residence, but a person getting a permit in a new location (or their first permit) would be charged the higher rates. If prices can’t be reformed, more limits should be set on the number of permits allowed per household. Minneapolis, for example, allows each member of the household to have two permits. In comparable cities in Australasia and Canada, cities limit the entire household to two vehicles.

How much to charge for daily coupons? When I have discussed this idea in Prospect Park, several neighbors have astutely noted that students park in the neighborhood and walk to campus to avoid paying the $4 rate for single occupancy cars at the U carpool lots, and have suggested a $4 daily charge for coupons would eliminate the attraction of neighborhood parking. A similar calculus applies in other neighborhoods adjacent to the U. To keep coupon parking simple (crucial for public acceptance) a uniform charge across the city is appropriate. Whether it’s $4 or $5 or $3, the crucial step is that people are no longer getting kerbside spaces for free. Having to pay something, having to pay anything, reminds people that parking is not free, and that realization can nudge people to take alternative modes or carpool.

It’s a simple idea, it’s worked overseas in cities of similar density and land-use patterns. And now is the time to contact your council member and mayor, and suggest we try it here.

(Photo credit: Nigel S. Roberts)

Evan Roberts

About Evan Roberts

Evan Roberts is an Assistant Professor of Population Studies and the History of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches and researches demography, labor and urban issues. He counts it as a successful week if he has run more miles than he has driven. Connect on twitter @evanrobertsnz or now Mastodon

10 thoughts on “Coupon Parking for Minneapolis and Saint Paul

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    This is a great idea. They key should be to make these coupons dynamically priced based on supply, so that areas with few vacancies (i.e. Dinkytown) might be more expensive than areas with many vacancies.

    Also, as you suggest, parking benefit districts are crucial. Some of the captured revenue needs to go to the local area, not into the city’s general fund, or businesses and neighbors will never support this kind of plan.

    1. Evan RobertsEvan Roberts Post author

      I agree that in theory Dinkytown would need higher prices than the eastern edge of Como, but I also struggle with how to make that work in practice and keep the system simple. Being able to use the same kind of coupon all over the city makes it a lot easier.

      I think a lot of the excess demand for kerbside spaces comes from the price of $0, and whatever uniform price was established for coupons would be an improvement on today’s situation.

      Differentially priced coupons (a Dinkytown coupon different than an Uptown coupon) could be done with pay-and-display machines. They would also make allocating money to the parking benefit districts easier. With a uniformly priced coupon used all over the city, there would have to be some kind of rough formula for allocating the revenue. A regular survey of how many vehicles had coupons in them in different areas would probably work pretty well.

  2. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

    I have the charts all drawn out for why this is a good idea… I just need a scanner and we’ll have a follow up soon.

    The coupons really should be going into all permit parking areas. It only makes sense to capture some of the benefit from the resources already been spent on creating the curbside parking, instead of making it entirely off limits to everyone from anywhere else. Best place to start using this is around the U of M and around Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, adding the capacity of parking would increase business around Marshall and Cleveland, but also around the west end of Grand.

  3. Tony HuntTony Hunt

    This seems a smart way to work with what is the culturally established norm. I must say, however, that I would rather try harder to penalize car-centric culture so as to incentivize pedestrian-friendly options. Or people could walk a bit farther for parking for frick’s sake.

  4. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    If these coupons can be bought anywhere and for a uniform price (either city-wide or a specific coupon to a neighborhood in need of demand management), how do they account for surge demand/pricing?

    Example, Girard Ave S at 32nd St (just south of Uptown) may be only 50% occupied at 11 AM on a weekday, or even on a Saturday before evening rush, yet full at other times. The coupons seem like a great technical solution in the sens that they’re easy to distribute and keep on hand, but also somewhat limiting.

    I’m also not clear if the cost of the new electronic meters is for the whole system or for the initial roll-out. They say the multi-space electronic machines cost $8,000 each, and 46 were required for the initial roll-out to serve 450 spaces, more meager (equipment only) cost of $368k. Seems the $6.6mil if for all 6,800 metered spaces in the city.

  5. Evan RobertsEvan Roberts Post author

    On the cost of the meters the Strib article suggests they installed 400 multi-space stations at a cost of $8,000 each, which adds up to $3.2 million. But then the other $3.4 million is a bit mysterious, as they suggest the new single space meters are “just” $450. $3.4 million would buy 7,555 of those. An error in the newspaper?! In any case, the capital and maintenance costs are higher with meters.

    But as you say, doing it via machines would allow prices to adjust somewhat dynamically. You’d probably want a machine on every block. At $8000/machine, and assuming for simplicity that prices would approximate 0 on weekends, you’d have 250 days/year of charging, and only need to recoup $32/day in the first year to pay for the machine.

    Seems like pay-and-display machines are the way to go?

  6. Realstreets

    I would like to see this implemented especially near Blue Line stations where currently permits are required in an effort to stop people from “park and riding” (which is another debate). Obviously this isn’t a solution to all parking issues but I think it accomplished the goal of having users of public parking actually pay for the parking. And stops residents from selfishly controlling the parking on an entire street.

  7. Heather Greene

    Thanks for posting this. This is a really interesting idea that I hope is implemented more in the U.S. Currently, in my neighborhood a number of residents are attempting to create a critical parking area. We are very close to Minnehaha Park in South Minneapolis and, in the summer, on Saturday and Sunday afternoons (and on weeknights if there are special park events), our street can get mostly full with visitors to the park. This angers some residents so they are attempting to restrict parking. There is no other reason (we all have garages in the alleyway–mostly 2-car) so we don’t need the on-street parking for ourselves. It is purely selfish and an attempt to decide who is allowed in our neighborhood. You mention the permit fees being far too low (I completely agree), I’d also note that the requirements for establishing critical parking in Mpls are extremely subjective and far too easy to meet. There is no real differentiation between an extremely dense area of multi-unit housing and single-family homes. If they get their way, I do hope something like this coupon program could be implemented eventually to at least take away a little of the privatization that occurs with permits.

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