When my wife and I moved back to the Midwest after nearly a decade on the West Coast, we chose Grand Avenue. We chose it for a number of reasons, but first and foremost was the walkability. We didn’t own a car during our eight years in San Francisco, and we became accustomed to the freedom and independence that provided. Granted, we understood our car-free lifestyle was not long for the world when we returned to the fairly car-dominated Twin Cities, but we knew we could hold off the inevitable a bit by choosing our housing location well. We picked a beautiful apartment in a four-story brick building at Grand and Lexington and couldn’t have found a better spot to ignite our love-affair with Saint Paul.
I mention all this because of the recent news that Saint Paul is exploring parking meters at various business areas around the city, with Grand Avenue being chosen for the first pilot project. However, as expected, business owners and area residents are not pleased with the prospect of being charged for something that is currently free to drivers. I say free to drivers because there is actually a High Cost of Free Parking and free-to-drivers parking is bad for everyone. In an interesting aside, the first parking meter was actually created and installed by a business owner to promote parking turn-over in downtown Oklahoma City.
Grand Avenue is unique and a regional commercial draw in spite of its free parking, not because of it. Free parking with little turn over induces circling for open spots and double parking, which makes the street unsafe for all road users. As someone who often rides a bicycle, walks, or transits to and around Grand Ave, worrying about drivers hunting down spots or trying to squeeze into one that is probably too small is stressful and frankly dangerous.
I also have a hard time believing that $2 to $4 for parking is really going to force people to stay away from Grand Ave. A nice dinner at Salut or Brasa could run a couple upwards of $60 before drinks so the parking costs are negligible on an evening out. This brings up the issue of promoting driving to drinking establishments and parking minimums for liquor licenses. The general manager at the Wild Onion is on record being against adding meters, which really raises the question about what mode of travel people use when imbibing and what role the city plays in those choices. On a more general business note, cyclists and pedestrians have been shown to spend more per month than drivers at local businesses because, while they spend less per visit, they visit more often. Making a street more inviting to pedestrians, which I’d argue Grand Ave already is very inviting, has a higher return for businesses than putting cars before people.
In the end, we moved to Saint Paul because we love the small business nodes that dot our neighborhoods. We fell in love with Grand Avenue and bought a house in Macalester-Groveland specifically so we can easily walk, bike, and take transit to all the amazing unique amenities. Let’s believe in ourselves, our city, and our shared future. Let’s take steps to make our city work better for all modes. While I am empathetic to the concerns of business owners and change is always difficult, I see an amazing city coming into its own and the future is bright.