Minneapolis Buses

Minneapolis Parking Reform: The Cart, the Horse, or Something Else?

This Friday, the Minneapolis City Council will likely adopt new ordinance language that reduces or eliminates minimum parking requirements for multi-family development near high-frequency transit stops. I won’t provide a full summary of the new policy here, or the controversy surrounding a potential exemption for North Minneapolis, but if you’re not familiar with the changes, the City has a website (albeit an out-of-date one) with the proposed language and some background that’s worth a read.

One of the most interesting aspects of this parking reform is that it will provide a market incentive (or eliminate a disincentive) for truly transit-oriented development. Along almost a dozen major transportation corridors in Minneapolis, prospective tenants or owners will–if the market obliges–be able to live in new housing developments without having to pay, even indirectly, for a parking space. It’s a tenet of contemporary urban planning that we need to give people access to transportation alternatives; this reform helps connect that concept to housing, which, naturally, is intimately linked to how we choose to get to work, go shopping, or visit friends and family.

The Minneapolis City Council is going to wipe that smug look off your face.

The Minneapolis City Council is going to wipe that smug look off your face, pal.

The big question, of course, is how developers will respond in practice. Eliminating or reducing parking minimums doesn’t mean off-street parking is banned, and given financiers’ preferences, “car culture,” and Minneapolis’ (or MetroTransit’s) anemic investments in local transit service in the city, it’s an open question whether developers will take advantage of this change at any meaningful scale.

This gets at an interesting point, though: the Minneapolis parking reform does not just impact areas around light rail transit (LRT) or planned streetcar stops, and opts instead to use transit frequency as the primary variable…

(Bravo to that — what good is transit if you can’t get to where you’re going, when you want to go there?)

… even though Minneapolis has an official policy to invest in streetcars, with their sense of permanence, unique vehicle and customer experience, and ability to catalyze and organize development. So says the almost eight-year-old Minneapolis Streetcar Feasibility Study (PDF). To me, this line of reasoning is a collection of false axioms that are hopefully fading away after years of critiques — I always liked this “service before technology” piece by Jarrett Walker, and also appreciated Yonah Freemark’s recent call for mobility before economic development in streetcar planning.

It’s a little unfair to pick on an aging policy document that was adopted by a previous Council and asymmetrically implemented to date, but given that streetcar planning is continuing along Nicollet-Central, West Broadway, and the Midtown Corridor, and we continue to find a way forward on regional LRT lines through parks, it’s exciting that this Minneapolis City Council has opted to treat buses and trains almost equally in the eyes of this zoning reform. (They’re not treated exactly the same in the proposed ordinance, but close enough for our purposes today.)

Map of areas affected by the proposed parking changes (courtesy of the City of Minneapolis).

Map of areas affected by the proposed parking changes (courtesy of the City of Minneapolis).

Okay, so what is this all getting at? It makes sense that if we invest in public transit in a given area with the hope of producing economic development or empowering people to reduce auto dependence, that we must also ensure the relevant regulations–especially zoning–are conducive to that development. Right? And we maybe could use that logic to say that changing parking requirements without corresponding investments already being in place is putting the cart before the horse. Those investments might be new LRT stops, streetcars, arterial bus rapid transit (BRT), enhanced bus service, or whatever. For the most part, they’re still on the drawing board.

But I say that’s the beauty of it. In this case, there is no clear, explicit, hit-you-over-the-head connection between the parking reform and any specific investment. It’s not about LRT, it’s not about streetcars, it’s not about buses. It implicitly acknowledges that transit is first and foremost about access — to work, school, the store, and other basic needs. And instead of trying to mold the connection between a specific technology and housing, it instead recognizes that the most sustainable form of growth is one that keeps people easily connected to the services and destinations that define their day-to-day lives. Frequent transit service is the linchpin of that kind of growth.

And since we all enjoy the art of speculation, I ask: what do you think will be the short- and long-term effects of this parking reform? And what other changes are needed to help create a city where not relying on a car is an easy choice to make for all kinds of people?

Anders Imboden

About Anders Imboden

Anders Imboden works in sustainable transport and environmental policy. Now living in Vientiane, Laos, he was born and raised in Uptown Minneapolis.