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exemption for North Minneapolis, but if you’re not familiar with the changes, the City has a website (albeit an out-of-date one) with the proposed language and some background that’s worth a read.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.

23 thoughts on “Minneapolis Parking Reform: The Cart, the Horse, or Something Else?

  1. David Greene

    Great post. It makes me wonder whether those opposed to the parking reform will fight against transit investment on the theory that that investment will lead to reduced off-street parking.

    1. Anders ImbodenAnders Imboden Post author

      That’d be awfully cynical. In any case, the standards in the ordinance (e.g., 15-minute midday headways) are accommodating enough to include most of the transit corridors of note in the city already, as we can see from the map. From my perspective, the big flaw is that the 1/2 mile buffer only applies to rail transit. I would argue the same standard should be applied to arterial BRT or anything else providing frequent, reliable all day service. But we can always fix the ordinance later — if and when arterial BRT is rolled out in Minneapolis.

  2. Casey

    If you look at the blue and yellow in the map above, think of all the areas that do not have much transit frequency. The city should attempt to improve service to these areas if they are serious about increasing density in the city and not just select neighborhoods.

    1. Peter Bajurny

      The areas in blue and yellow are the areas that are adjacent to frequent transit, as defined by the ordinance. Do you have a problem with that definition?

    2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Don’t worry, this is just a first step towards removing parking minimums city wide. So, hopefully the entire city will get the benefits of parking minimum elimination rather than just select neighborhoods.

    3. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer

      Are you saying we should spend scarce transit dollars to improve high-frequency bus access for rich, low-density neighborhoods in southwest Minneapolis?

      1. Casey

        North and Southeast are both undeserved low income areas that this city is not investing in. Stating the obvious.

        1. Wayne

          Yeah the entire east bank part of Mpls is way underserved with the half-frequency buses that we actually get. We have a single bus, the 10, that actually qualifies as high-frequency. It’s easy to forget that the ‘high-frequency’ 6 and 4 lines only cross the river half the time, providing pretty crappy service.

          What never made sense to me was that the 6 and 4 are timed to come through downtown and near-northeast at the same time … why not stagger them so even at half frequency you still get 15 minute headways if you don’t care which one you take?

    4. Anders ImbodenAnders Imboden Post author

      As part of its comprehensive plan, the City says that it wants to focus growth along transit corridors. In other words, a lot of those mostly-residential neighborhoods not served by frequent transit most likely will remain that way, while also retaining their lower density. I know there are those who would argue for blanket upzoning, as is being discussed in Seattle, but as far as I know there’s no policy basis for that (and accompanying transit service improvement) in Minneapolis at the moment.

  3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Turning visions and policy in to practice and reality is a difficult chore (and perhaps a bit of luck). Certainly the timing seems good with interest in driving on the wain and people much more interested in walking or riding bicycles.

    My question is what is to prevent someone with a car from taking advantage of the lower rent and then parking their car on a nearby street? Neighbors won’t like this and their complaints could result in abolishment of this policy and once a policy is abolished it takes a very long time to bring it back. That wouldn’t be good.

    Would an honor statement in a lease saying that they don’t own a car and that they won’t keep one nearby be enough?

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      What’s the big deal if people park on the street? Neighborhood incumbents shouldn’t/don’t have more of a right to street parking than neighborhood newcomers.

      If there’s a shortage of on-street parking, raise the price to the point at which there’s last-space-availability.

      Someone owning a car as part of a lease (assuming they don’t store their car inside their apartment) is irrelevant.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        I don’t disagree. However, if the newcomers are parking in local residential blocks that don’t currently have pay parking you’ll need to install pay systems (or switch to resident permit only). Neither of these will likely be very palatable to current residents. They’ll get up in arms, scream to their council folks, and TOD will develop a quite bad reputation and become politically unsavory.

        I agree with the goal but think that some care needs to be taken with implementation.

    2. Janne

      Walker, I don’t think it matters whether people are parking their cars on the streets or not. This policy isn’t about that. It’s about imposing the cost of structured parking (which is often unnecessary or excessive, especially in high-frequency-transit areas) on people who don’t have use for that parking. I think it’s silly for all Minneapolitans to have to pay to build and maintain unused on-street parking, too. If we’re going to have it there, it’s GOOD for it to be used. And, better than unused off-street parking.

      My favorite example is actually on my own block. In the last 10 years, I’ve seen two new parking lots built on the block. They required the addition of three curb cuts (which also means a reduction of six on-street parking spaces, loss of a PUBLIC good). They constructed a total of EIGHT off-street parking spaces.

      Why is this so silly? For a net increase of two parking spaces only usable by customers during limited business hours, the community pays the price of shifting six parking spaces that anyone could use whenever to six spaces usable only by customers only a few hours of the day those businesses are open, AND lost land that was previously inside commercial buildings, PLUS we created more dangerous sidewalks (by adding curb cuts).

      Way better to have those spaces on the street, safer sidewalks, more tax base and commercial space, and two fewer parking spaces. Put those customers’ cars on my street. Yes please. (And if it were an apartment building, I’d say the same.)

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        I agree with the goal. But think about this. You’ve found a house you love on a good block. There’s an alley in the back with a single car garage. You and your spouse can’t quite go carless and you need two cars because of your job but after looking at the house many times you notice that there is always space available somewhere on the street. You also like to entertain gobs of writers from streets.mn once a month and some of them will drive.

        A few months after you move in this new TOD development goes up a couple of blocks away. You’re all for it. A year goes by, people have started moving in, and you’re noticing that parking is becoming more difficult. One night you get home late and find yourself having to park four blocks away. Not a biggie, but inconvenient. You notice that some of your favorite streets.mn writers are no longer coming to your monthly party because they had difficulty finding parking and as much as they’d like to use transit it doesn’t work for them from a time and scheduling standpoint. Your family is also complaining that coming to see you is a pain because they can’t find parking. And you just bought this house two years ago, still owe the bank a gob of money on it, and just put in a new kitchen because you like to entertain.

        I don’t know if that is reality or not but it’s quite plausible depending on the development and surrounding neighborhood.

        So, good goal but potential unintended (or intended?) consequences. If TOD developments go in with fewer parking spaces and lower rent for people that don’t need parking spaces and no negative impacts on surrounding communities then we’re in great shape. And I do think that’s possible. Is it highly probable though?

        If there is a significant negative impact on surrounding communities we need to plan to mitigate that somehow.

        BTW, your example of creating eight spots from six and causing cars to have to travel across the sidewalk made me cringe. Just plain nutty IMO.

        1. Monte Castleman

          Seems like the people that opened up businesses with the expectation of having parking on Cleveland. Maybe the moral is never count on on-street parking.

          1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

            Somewhat. I do think there’s a difference though. On Cleveland I think we’re talking fairly minimal impact in terms of the percent of spaces lost? More importantly though is that historically businesses gain from swapping car parking for protected bikeways. As well, the number of available spaces may actually increase if some of the current parkers convert to riding bicycles.

  4. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Can we just disconnect this cart and horse that never should have been connected in the first place?

    Parking minimums should go away because parking is a private good and requiring parking has significant negative consequences and opportunity costs. Full stop.

    We don’t require helicopter pads or airplane landing strips on new buildings. Why would we require parking? If people want parking, they will find a price at which they find value in paying for it and the market finds value in selling it to them.

    I really think we need to disconnect this cart and horse, parking and transit/density/whatevs, if we are truly going to move this discussion forward past this Friday.

    1. Wayne

      It doesn’t help that free street parking made people think it was a public good. We should probably do away with that too and make everyone pay for a permit or meter everything. Not being snarky, I actually think we should do this.

  5. Cad Kol

    We need actual regulation of parking, buildings especially residential are still being torn down for surface parking. Stop it. As discussed previously on streets.mn https://streets.mn/2014/10/03/friday-photo-a-norway-house-is-not-a-norway-home/, on Elliot and Franklin there is a proposal to tear down 1/2 block of multi family residential for a surface parking lot. I hope and expect the everyone who supported this ordinance to step up and say no to more surface parking in this location so near downtown, on several major bus routes, across from a taxi company, 1 block from a nice ride station, in a neighborhood with many car2go subscribers. Yet a month ago the council approved a brand new surface parking lot replacing a multi family dwelling 1 block from here behind Franklin bakery and next to the nice ride station. CM Lisa Bender tried to stop the surface parking (thank you) but the council overturned the planning commission.

    1. Peter Bajurny

      Don’t worry, I don’t think you’ll be able to find many, if any, commenters here who support replacing structures with parking lots.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        And didn’t Lisa Goodman file notice of intent to introduce regulations on non-Downtown parking lots in the next Council cycle? Sounds like we may soon have action on this.

  6. Archiapolis

    Walker, what you just described is many parts of Chicago. It’s just assumed and it is the norm. We just have to establish the new norm and then adjust. I DO think the urbanists are underplaying the impacts. Uptown is already experiencing this phenomenon where street parking is scarce. I know the reply will be, “Tough luck” and that is fine but it WILL happen that the “long time residents” will complain. Small scale example: Red Cow in SW. Successful restaurant with a tiny parking lot caused a great deal of street parking nearby and the “almost Edina” crowd FREAKED that people were parking on THEIR streets. The result: signage from Red Cow about neighbors, etc and city parking signage up and down the adjacent streets stating the parking rules.

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