More car parking means more business, and taking away parking means taking away profits. Parking brings in customers to stores and downtown areas, and makes it more convenient for people to shop and buy more when they do. Free parking is guaranteed to promote business, sales and thriving downtowns, despite the overhead costs.
But is it? Does it? I, backed by a multitude of research, evidence, and common sense, say no.
As a local college student, I have witnessed the effects of plentiful parking firsthand. I’ve spent nights running through the parking lots around an eerily empty downtown St. Paul, searching for bus stops along streets with cars whizzing by . Is this how we want our downtown to feel? I know I am more attracted to busy, walkable areas with convenient public transit. I don’t need or own a car, and most of the students I know bike or take transit in lieu of driving. Vast stretches of parking, metered or free, do nothing to improve my local business or downtown experience; in fact, they detract from it.
Offering free parking lots only leads to expensive, large deserts of wasted space, both the public as well as the business owner. These expanses take over shopping areas and downtowns, contributing to sprawl and making it more difficult to complete daily trips with anything but a car. In Saint Paul, a local transportation planner mapped and photographed off-street parking lots and garages and found 29,000 spots with low occupancy rates, ranging from 30 to 74 percent . And a survey that examined 27 US districts where parking was thought to be scarce instead found that on average, parking supply exceeded demand by 65 percent. In my four years here as a student, I have never seen parking lots approach capacity. Instead, they usually serve as open space for shortcuts to avoid busy streets when I bike into and around downtown. Cities like St. Paul around the country continue to transform their urban spaces into expansive dead zones, making it more “convenient” to travel into downtown while at the same time eliminating room for the dynamic attractions that lure people there in the first place.
Parking is expensive as well, as many studies and articles have discussed– each space can cost between $15,000 and $25,000 to construct — and parking requirements costs the public hundreds of billions of dollars per year. Roughly 99% of all parking is free, due to these public subsidies, and this pushes the average cost of driving way down. But the financial burden of this convenient and plentiful storage space, shouldered by all, only benefits those of us behind the wheel. And are those benefits worth it? A review of 16 different studies in the U.S. and Europe between 1927 and 2001 found that cars searching for free parking contribute over 8 percent of total traffic, adding to congestion as well as the noise and air pollution that harms public health and the environment.
Instead of contributing to this system of inequality, businesses, especially those that offer free parking, should help to more evenly distribute the cost to require the people behind the wheel and in the parking space pay their rightful share. The Twin Cities’ Bicycle Benefits program, launched by the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition and St. Paul Women on Bikes, offers a discount to bicyclists at nearly 80 local businesses. This is a good start, but in my opinion, providing discounts and incentives not only to bicyclists, but also to pedestrians and public transit users as well would more effectively reduce parking demand, open up dead space for more efficient and dynamic use, and save everyone money . While I aim to bike for the majority of my local trips, sometimes walking or public transit is a safer or more practical choice. Knowing that I could still receive a discount as any kind of alternative commuter would certainly increase my loyalty and positive word-of-mouth to other students and friends alike.
In addition to reducing costs on cyclists and transit users, local businesses should focus on encouraging bicycle infrastructure near their property in place of more parking spaces. Far from limiting accessibility, bike racks and bike lanes bring in more customers: for example, after New York City installed the first protected bike lane in the country on 8th and 9th Avenues, there was a 49% increase in sales, and similar phenomena have occurred in Colorado and other places. Customers on bicycles have been shown to spend more than customers who arrive by car; instead of rushing by at high speeds, cyclists move at a more leisurely pace where specials, bargains, and shop windows can catch their eye and result in more frequent stops and more impulse decisions . I know I am more likely to stop into a bakery, craft store, or any number of places that jump out at me while I am cycling, especially if I can see a convenient bike rack; I have gone on many rides with friends that included impromptu ice cream snacks, or even picking up something at CVS, Kowalski’s, or the cute new gift shop on the corner. So instead of further skewing the cost inequality and investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in vast empty lots, businesses should pay $150-500 for a bicycle rack, encourage bike lanes outside their doors, and watch their profits grow.
There are plentiful local opportunities to implement these ideas. The new Whole Foods at Snelling and Selby in St. Paul would have been an exemplary choice for alternative transit incentives, but none exist; in addition, aside from the two lines of bike racks, free parking is plentiful next to the giant supermarket, occupying space that could have been used for more local businesses . I routinely walk to the Kowalski’s on Grand that is undergoing construction, and would be delighted to find more bike parking to counter the two enormous adjacent lots, in addition to a reward for walking instead of driving to pick up some groceries. To be sure, future business projects should take advantage of the public comment period to gauge local interest in these kinds of developments and act accordingly.
Free parking is an expense that is unevenly and unfairly distributed, causing many problems while solving comparatively few. Incentivizing all kinds of alternative transportation would go a long way towards a more livable St. Paul and more livable America. I know I would be more likely to spend time downtown or patronize local businesses if there was more bike infrastructure or rewards for utilizing alternative transportation. This is an opportunity we should seize, not ignore, to promote transportation cycling in our city and reap the environmental, social, and economic benefits .
Written by Clara Friedman. Clara graduated from Macalester College in 2016 with a major in Biology major. Always active outdoors, her interest in biking and transportation was sparked by a cross-country bike tour last year. You can find her rowing on the Mississippi, making bicycle-related prints in the studio, and growing basil.