The Parking Ramp: As Minnesotan as Hot Dish

The other day it was hotter than it should ever be in Minneapolis, and I needed my car for work. I drove downtown and parked in Ramp C to keep it out of the sun. Otherwise, I could have prepared a tater tot hot dish inside my car by the time I got back. This experience reminded me of just how Minnesotan parking ramps really are – as Minnesotan as grey ducks – something I only recently learned.

Ramp C, AKA C Ramp

Ramp C, AKA C Ramp

I grew up in Rochester, where I learned to use the phrase “parking ramp,” or ramp for short, to describe a multi-story structure used to store parked cars. I think it was the structure in downtown Rochester with the very tightly-designed extremely-steep circular exit ramp that solidified that definition in my mind. On our way home from the Kahler after Sunday brunch, it was a thrill/terror ride down that exit ramp in the back of the station wagon. What else would you possibly call the car holding building if you didn’t name it after this distinctive feature?

Parking Ramp?...or Death Spiral?

Parking Ramp?…or Death Spiral?

I moved to Indianapolis, IN for a few years – where I lived in the suburbs, got my drivers license, and parked my car in surface lots for three years. Vertical parking never came up. I didn’t have the occasion to use the phrase parking ramp, and if I did, I was talking to my Minnesotan family anyway.

In 2000, I moved to MI where I lived for 14 years. While attending Michigan State (Go Green!!), I am positive that the topic of parking cars in some kind of building came up at some point. I’m sure that I said “parking ramp” at some point while I was there, but not a single person ever said anything.

Can you believe I got this image on Pinterest?

The car habitrail of my misspent youth

As a young traffic engineer in Detroit, I was writing a report on the traffic impacts of a new, 1400-space parking ramp in Midtown. On review, a coworker universally struck out the phrase parking ramp and replaced it with parking structure. My takeaway? “Parking structure” is a more “technical” term than ramp, and that edit seemed fine to me. By the time, I was driving much more regularly, and I KNOW I called the buildings I parked my car in “parking ramps” while I was there on a regular basis and nobody ever said anything.

Back in MN, working on the Southwest LRT Final EIS document in 2014, I noticed that our style guide had the guidance NOT to use the phrase parking ramp, because it was a “local term.” Other members of the consultant team from around the country, including Wisconsin, confirmed that it was a super-weird Minnesotan thing to say.  One planner from Milwaukee told me, “I told my mom I’d pick her up from the Megabus stop at Ramp C and she said it sounded dangerous…she thought I meant that the bus stop was in the middle of a freeway interchange.”

After all this, I went home and asked my husband if I was the only one he’d ever heard say this. The man who, on our second date, drove my car in circles around the parking ramp for a local casino while I ran inside for an evening meeting with security about a traffic issue. The man with whom I had driven to and parked in dozens of parking ramps over our many-year relationship. His response, “Yeah, it’s totally weird. You’re the only one that I have ever heard say that and I never knew why.”

I was away from Minnesota for 14 years and NOBODY EVER TOLD ME I was the only person using this terminology. How embarrassing. But, I’m home now, and in the company of plenty of other parking ramp enthusiasts. My internet research has turned up zero information on why we say this when nobody else does. The term is not in Merriam-Webster OR in their online “open dictionary” – although I’ve tweeted them to ask about it, I’ll keep you updated. I did however, find Nick Magrino’s hilarious parking ramp speculation, including renderings of a parking ramp that would put all other structures and garages to shame.

Hannah Pritchard

About Hannah Pritchard

Hannah Pritchard is a pedestrian and bicycle engineer at MnDOT. Bicycle commuter, bassoonist, and cat enthusiast, Hannah has been part of the board since 2016.

27 thoughts on “The Parking Ramp: As Minnesotan as Hot Dish

  1. Mike Hicks

    I grew up in Byron and visited Rochester a lot, and that particular spiral/helix in your photo is exactly what I think of when I use the word “ramp” for parking structures. My family used that one quite a bit when I was very young, though they later started using the ones across the street (for the hotel and later the library) as they got built.

    1. Hannah PritchardHannah Pritchard Post author

      I was glad it was still there to be photographed for this article. Now that I’ve been old enough to drive for quite some time, I kind of want to go drive it myself – it always seemed REALLY REALLY claustrophobic to me when I was a kid.

  2. Dana DeMasterDanaD

    So, do other people say parking garage? Parking structure seems really formal.

    Recently I learned that the word “gotten” is almost exclusive to Minnesota and the Midwest. I had thought it was just bad grammar – like a poor choice over “have” or a past tense of “got.” I learned, however, that gotten is not an English word – it’s from Old Norse! The Norse word “gettenn” or “geta” means “to obtain or reach.” So, my Lutheran farmer relatives are not using bad English when they say, “He’s gotten those bars from the kitchen.” They are just giving a nod to our Norwegian forbearers.

    1. robsk

      Growing up in northern WI with the closest “parking structure” 60 miles away in Duluth, I too have only known them as parking ramps. The northern WI dialect is closer to MN than to Milwaukee.

      I’m okay with “gotten”. “Boughten” still sounds wrong to me … and it is a common word.

  3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I have a friend from DC who said the same thing about our weird term “ramp”. Yes in other cities it’s “garage” or “structure” or even “deck.”

  4. Novacek

    Yeah, I’ve been lurking on this site for a while, and from a Texan, it sounded really weird and it took me forever to figure out what you all were referring to 🙂

    Thought at first it was parking underneath highway on-ramps.

    1. Dean

      Downtown Cedar Falls, IA has this unique meandering street design, with angle parking on alternating sides for half block increments. They refer to it, this stretch of main street, as The Parkade.

      1. Scott

        The Parkade is really cool. It’s also very old. It was installed almost 30 years ago. Much ahead of its time. I had a beer on the Parkade, with the guy who designed the Parkade. It was supposed to slow traffic, create extra outdoor pedestrian space out of a very wide Main Street, and help revive downtown Cedar Falls. I would argue it worked, but it took a couple of decades longer than anybody imagined.

    2. John Charles Wilson

      “Parkade” for a parking ramp is primarily Canadian, IIRC. In the US, Rochester, Minnesota, is the only place I’ve ever seen that word used. (The infamous “Damon Parkade” just west of the Mayo Clinic.)

  5. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

    For some etymology, see the Dictionary of American Regional English:

    which says:
    parking ramp n Also ramp

    1 An open paved area for parking cars. [Cf OED3 ramp n5 4 “orig. U.S. The level, paved area at an airport used for the loading, unloading, manoeuvring, etc., of aircraft; the apron” 1930→]
    1937 Galveston Daily News (TX) 23 Apr 5/2, Request was granted Frank Hadcock for the Piggly Wiggly Co. to arrange a six-foot parking ramp and ten-foot sidewalk on the southwest corner of 18th and J. 1942 Capital Times (Madison WI) 21 Aug [6]/5 (, A car driven by Walter Fontaine . . was involved in a minor collision with one driven by Don Larson when the former backed out of a parking ramp on W. Conant st. 1947 Oakland Tribune (CA) 20 Sept 12/3, [Advt:] Light Industrial Lot 35×115; concrete block building; 66×32 with 80-foot concrete parking ramp. 1949 Eve. Independent (Massillon OH) 4 June 10/5, The Rubber City Kennel club will hold its ninth annual dog show Sunday on the parking ramp of O’Neil’s store at Akron. 1955 Kenosha Eve. News (WI) 5 Oct [13]/1 (, [Caption:] The above photo shows a “ready to roll” modern-day truck parked on the ramp in front of the new No. 5 fire station.

    2 A multi-story parking stucture. [Prob abbr for (parking) ramp garage, used from c1918 to distinguish parking structures in which cars were moved from floor to floor with ramps from those, common at the time, that used elevators] chiefly IA, MN, WI
    1933 Natl. Grocers Bulletin 20.4.30, One food establishment has built a parking ramp into the upper stories of the building, providing men to drive the cars up the ramps and to bring them down when the customers call for them. 1949 Winona Republican & Herald (MN) 7 Nov 3/2, One proposal under consideration is the construction of a 500-600 car multideck parking ramp. 1960 Daily Telegram (Eau Claire WI) 18 Jan 3/3, A car reported stolen from the top level of the municipal parking ramp . . was recovered 18 minutes later. . . Keith Jorgenson . . . said he parked it in the ramp about 4 p.m. 1976 Independent–Rec. (Helena MT) 1 Dec 1/3, Helena’s new parking ramp . . opened this morning. . . Tall vehicles, including most campers, cannot be parked in the ramp. 1977 Derrick (Oil City PA) 17 Feb 1/1, The elevators in the new parking ramp in downtown Oil City should be ready for use by March 15. . . In another report, the authority was told that 19,787 cars were parked in the ramp between November 25 and January 31. 1981 Daily Jrl. (Fergus Falls MN) 6 Oct 1/5, Plans to replace the condemned Barkley Hotel annex with a parking ramp moved one step forward at the Fergus Falls City Council session Monday evening. 1997 Gazette (Cedar Rapids IA) 25 Dec sec B 3/5, The items were found in the elevator area on the top floor of the ramp at Third Avenue and First Street SE. 2003 WI State Jrl. (Madison) 15 June sec D 5/4, The only place in the ramp a car is safe from this sort of bombardment is where birds can’t roost: the top floor. 2013–14 DARE Online Surv. WI Engl. (Qu. N7c, What do you call a large area or structure where you can park your car for a few hours?) 23 Infs, Parking ramp; 2 Infs, csWI, Ramp. [25 of 34 eligible Infs who responded to this question, from 9 of 13 represented target communities] 2015 DARE File—Internet MN, Mayo Clinic Hospital, Saint Marys Campus, has an underground parking ramp for patients and visitors. Ibid IA, Parking structures are “parking ramps” in my native and current home, Iowa, as well [as in MN].

    1. Hannah PritchardHannah Pritchard Post author

      “used from c1918 to distinguish parking structures in which cars were moved from floor to floor with ramps from those, common at the time, that used elevators] chiefly IA, MN, WI”

      THAT was the etymology I was looking for – thank you SO much. Also, a dictionary of regional english sounds really really useful. Especially for someone like me who works in many parts of the country.

  6. Dean

    Well, the weirdness extends at least a little beyond Minnesota. It it definitely the word of choice for these structures, where I grew up in Iowa. In my current home state, of California, I definitely get some weird confused looks when I use the term. I was briefly in the south. Also garnered some blank stares there.

    1. Rosa

      Iowan too, grew up saying parking ramp (not sure my home town even has one, though). Maybe we don’t count as having a real city though?

  7. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    As a Minneapolis native, I distinctly recall “parking ramp” being the normal verbage being used in my childhood. Never heard it anywhere else after I left.

    1. Matt Brillhart

      What do you hear out east? Primarily just “parking garage” or are there any peculiar localisms?

      1. Stephen Stofka

        As a Philadelphian, yeah, it’s pretty universally “parking garage”. I think I usually call the basement variant “underground garage”.

        Localisms and regionalisms are fun! “Tater tot hot dish” is another very Minnesotan thing to say. I’m parsing that as … some sort of casserole?

        1. Rosa

          yes. It’s tater tot casserole everywhere else. Or at least everywhere else people eat it.

  8. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Preferable, certainly, to parking lots, whether the ramp looks like a prison or resembles the Guggenheim Museum.

    Yesterday I had the unpleasant experience of driving through Ham Lake on Highway 65; there one sees big box stores and other businesses scattered along the landscape as if dropped at random from an airplane. And of course parking lots to go with the big boxes. It’s apparently a worse case scenario of land use.

  9. Matty LangMatty Lang

    As a child, I needed to take at least yearly trips to the Mayo Clinic/Hospital until I was about 18 and I’m pretty sure I remember that iconic death spiral parking garage.

    It’s true that I’ve been doing my part to use the proper terminology of parking garage in MN for a long time now. When I’m feeling especially frisky, I sometimes pull out my terrible British accent and use car park instead. It just sounds so pleasant.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I dropped “pop” when I moved to DC and refuse to go back. I rarely drink soda, so it doesn’t come up that often.

      I’m probably 50/50 on ramp/garage. Of course, I don’t drive that much either, so it also comes up less than it otherwise would.

  10. John

    “Duck, duck, grey duck” is the ultimate MN phrasing winner. It is exclusively Minnesotan as far as I can tell.

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