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.