Density Does Not Have to Equal More Driving (and Less Parking)

I know a woman who lives on Hague Avenue in St. Paul, within two blocks of the frenetic intersection of Selby and Snelling. She parks her car in the driveway that runs alongside her house, by the “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here” sign in the front yard.

I asked her recently if she minded when a Chamber of Commerce event at nearby O’Gara’s promoted easy neighborhood parking. No, she is happy when cars line her residential street. “It means the businesses are doing well,” she said.

My friend is an optimist — and an anomaly — in the ongoing debate about parking in the Merriam Park neighborhood of St. Paul, where I live and work. Whether it was the Cleveland Avenue bike lanes in 2016, or the draft of the West Marshall Avenue Zoning Study that the City of St. Paul released this past May, any discussion of density or sharing the streets invariably elicits complaints about parking.

Many tax-paying homeowners believe they have the specific and legal right to park in front of their house. Some residents even post homemade “reserved” signs on the city-owned boulevard.

Homeowners especially dislike having college students or commuters crowd their streets. “People use Mac-Groveland as a park-and-ride lot for Metro Transit,” a resident who lives near an express line to downtown Minneapolis explained at a permit-parking meeting. To the obvious argument (“They’re public streets!”), he offered a quick comeback: Let the city lower its assessment for maintaining the roadway in front of his house.

Homeowners citywide will have a chance to weigh in this Wednesday, June 20, at 5:30 p.m., when the City Council holds a public hearing on its refurbished permit-parking zones.

Based on a public meeting last March at the University of St. Thomas — a frequently acknowledged source of parking problems, due primarily to the students who live in surrounding neighborhoods — permit parking alone won’t address the city’s parking challenges. “There is a limit to what permit parking can do,” city traffic engineer Elizabeth Stiffler said that evening.

Limited street space

“Parking is a privilege,” a city official told me in 2015, during the debate about the Cleveland Avenue bike lanes and the dozens of parking spaces it removed.

For some of my immediate neighbors — the father who is raising children in an alley house with no garage or off-street parking, the mother who grabs spots in front of her house so she can haul in groceries for her three teenage kids — the ability to park consistently in front of their houses is a right. “Or at least a courtesy,” says the woman, who lives across the street from a student duplex.

In a recent public meeting about the Marshall Avenue zoning study, which would allow for more density, parking came up frequently among the homeowners who span the avenue from Cretin to Snelling — a stretch that includes a number of registered student rentals in the city’s Student Housing Overlay District.

“There’s no talk about parking for this density,” a homeowner said.

Another said homeowners could ease parking challenges by using garages for their intended purpose. “Residents use their garages as storage facilities rather than car storage,” she said.

One participant asked whether the city is conducting a transportation analysis along with its zoning study. “We see a lot of frustrated drivers during rush hour on Marshall, and they take residential side streets at high speeds,” he said. “We cannot assume people will take public transportation.”

No, but we can help educate them to do it.

A false equation

More people (density) + more cars (driving) = more parking problems. People cite this equation as truth — as immutable as E = mc2 — at public meetings and in private conversations about density, permit parking and zoning laws.

“We have to accommodate an increasing population in an already built-up city,” city planner Kady Dadlez told a meeting of Union Park District Council’s Land Use and Economic Development committee last February.

Fair enough, but not everyone has to drive every day, certainly not those of us who are able bodied and who reasonably can walk, bike or bus to work. Rarely do we analyze or acknowledge the sure way to disrupt the density/driving equation —  by putting fewer cars on the road.

The answers to these questions will shape the quality of life in St. Paul (and, not incidentally, improve the environment):

  • How can more residents — including students — be enticed to use mass transit?
  • How can the city, employers and colleges or universities like St. Thomas (where I work) contribute to that cause?
  • How can creative solutions ease the pain?

I happened to be at a conference in Columbus, Ohio, on June 1, the day the city launched its Downtown C-Pass program, which gives workers unlimited and free access to the bus system. Yes, the $4.8 million program is expensive for employers; yes, it requires people to change their habits of convenience.

But with a population expected to double in 30 years, with air quality going down and commute times going up, the City of Columbus had to convince businesses and The Ohio State University, which anchors the area, to work together, said transit system chief executive Joanna Pinkerton.

“It will take a fundamental shift in thinking among the business community and at Ohio State,” Pinkerton said at the International Town & Gown Association conference. The university “no longer is building parking and has a goal to be car-less by 2050,” she explained. Employers are training their white-collar employees about “mode choices,” health benefits and the “emergency ride home” program.

If Ohio can find a new solution to the density/driving equation, surely the more progressive Twin Cities can do the same.

About Amy Gage

Amy Gage is director of neighborhood relations at the University of St. Thomas and a member of the Union Park District Council board. A former journalist, she writes a blog about women at midlife: https://themiddlestages.com

25 thoughts on “Density Does Not Have to Equal More Driving (and Less Parking)

  1. Micheal Foley

    I still find it odd that so much public space is dedicated to the storage of private property.

    1. Daniel Hartigkingledion

      Thanks for hitting the nail on the head here.

      Why should the city fund parking spaces for people wealthy enough to own their own homes! This is reverse welfare at its worst. If you own a house and need a parking space, you are in a position to pay for one. Or else, just make do like all the plebians who aren’t blessed with a single family home in the city.

      Side note: If you aren’t allowed to pave a parking patch onto your own property, then you should probably take a look at why the zoning code prevents you from doing that, and perhaps assess the utility of restrictive zoning in the first place…

  2. Melissa WenzelMelissa Wenzel

    The Saint Paul Bike Coalition is sponsoring a “bikes mean business” Cleveland Ave bike ride on Tuesday, June 19, to highlight the appreciation and use of bicyclists on Cleveland Ave.

    https://www.facebook.com/events/245618065999802/

    Very obviously local residents have the right to drive on the road near/in front of their house. They do not have the right to guaranteed parking in front of their house.

    With rare exceptions, I’m surprised by how many people do not use their alley parking/driveway/garage. It’s not my fault if one’s garage is unusable do to stuff accumulated that they probably don’t even want.

    I have always highly encouraged visitors to my Saint Paul house to use our driveway, even though street parking is plentiful in our neighborhood (SE part of Saint Paul, almost in Woodbury/Maplewood).

    I sure wish people would use their driveways/garages on any road that has a bike lane, especially in the winter.

    1. Monte Castleman

      I suspect there’s an overlap between “People that hate alleys” and “People that choose to live in the city anyway”.

      How easy and expensive is it to knock down a single car garage and fit 2-3 cars off-street on a typical Minneapolis lot, maybe building a two car garage and a parking space?

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        The biggest challenge we had in doing it was getting Xcel to move a support wire for the utility pole that was blocking where the entrance to the new garage was going to go. Taking down the old garage and getting the new one built was not difficult, if not cheap.

  3. Janne

    These conversations so often erase the existing and significant number of neighbors who do not own a car. I’ve lived in a dense neighborhood and I’ve never owned a car. Many, many of my neighbors also live car-free, many by choice.

    Recognizing that we are already here and offer an example of just how possible it is to live in Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhoods without a car is part of shifting the expectations about who live sin our communities, what is possible, how we can welcome more people into our existing communities — and very importantly, how we can build housing more affordably.

  4. Trent

    Density advocates who would like to see more affordable housing built without the expense of off street parking cite availability of street parking as a justification. Then those same people like thecommentor above will then condemn the idea of storing your private vehicle on public property for free when it’s time to build a bike lane as justification to take away the parking they earlier used as raitionale for dense development .

    1. Christa MosengChris Moseng

      Sparsity advocates seem to argue from the premise that nothing can decrease car dependency, which of course is a hallmark of car-dependent density.

      Making parking more expensive (less overabundant) is the stick, complete neighborhoods and adequate alternative modes of transportation are the carrot. Yeah, when you ignore the latter, it looks like an incomplete approach.

      Looking at policies through a lens where the ratio of cars to people is a constant is neither responsible nor virtuous.

  5. Monte Castleman

    My observation is that there’s a lot of single car garages in the city. Is the point that people shouldn’t buy a house like that (counting on on-street parking) if they have more than one car? Or live in the city if they have more than two cars, considering how scarce anything more than a double is?

      1. Monte Castleman

        I certainly wouldn’t, because I wouldn’t want my car left outside where it would be vulnerable to criminals and get coated with ice every winter morning, hailed on, have to parallel park and find someplace to put it during snow emergencies, etc. But obviously other people do or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Do we want to pass an ordinance saying that you can’t have more cars than garage space?

        1. Trent

          No, my point was simply that you can’t point to abundant off street parking as a rationalle to eliminate it in housing developments, and then eliminate that same parking to put in a bike lane. Or at least you shouldn’t.

          1. Christa MosengChris Moseng

            You’re conflating eliminating parking *minimums* with eliminating parking. There can still be parking—just at a quantity the market deems appropriate.

        2. Justin

          People move into neighborhoods with ample on-street parking and expect that it will always be there for them and their 2-3 cars.

    1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

      The first house we bought was 1557 Hague Ave. As it turns out it’s one of the homes O’Gara’s will demolish to build their proposal.

      When we bought 1557 there was no garage and there was no driveway. We had to park on Hague and three times a week compete with the crowds who came for the bands. I never had to park on another block.

      Still, we removed the retaining wall that stretched across our front and half of our neighbor’s front and installed a driveway. We parked our cars on the driveway and could fit a visitor’s car there too. We were going to build a garage next but we sold to locate closer our jobs in the western suburbs.

    2. jeffk

      If it’s so important to someone, they could build a bigger garage on their private property.

      Me, I live in a one can household where we are provided no off-street parking at all. In a neighborhood where my neighbors assure me that our parking problems have reached emergency levels. I’ve never once parked more than twenty feet from my house – in six years.

      I have a suspicion that somehow life will go on for these poor parking-starved citizens.

      1. Frank Phelan

        My guess is if they can’t park right in front of their house every time, it’s an emergency.

        I live on a block of mostly 1940’s homes. The lots are 50′ wide, generous by urban standards, and nearly all homes have double garages (in the alley). Plus, the other side of the street a parkway, with no houses. So we have plenty of on street parking available. My kids have always gotten uppity about people parking in front of our house. That’s when I tell them we don’t own the street since we don’t live in North Oaks.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          One day I ran a quick errand and came home to find cars parked in front of our house, so I parked in front of the neighbors house. He happened to be out front working on his truck or something and offered to move his vehicle so I could park in front of my house. Which was nice and neighborly and all, but weird to me as why would I care (especially as I was just making a quick drop-off an heading out again, but of course he didn’t know that)?

  6. Cobo R

    One thing that people forget on this site is that most of the jobs in the Twin cities are in the suburbs. According to the met council Minneapolis has -324,00 and St Paul has ~182,000 jobs. The metro area as a whole has 1.7 million jobs, so ~1.2 million jobs (70%) are in the suburbs.

    I love public transit but in the suburbs it ranges from OK to Bad. Suburb to suburb, and city to suburb transit is spotty at best. Most of the people I know who live in the city work in the suburbs, and most of the people I know who live in the suburbs work in the suburbs.

    But while density is getting increased in the cities and inner suburbs, employment is just as scattered as ever. So while better transit would be (is) awesome we will need somewhere to park our cars for a while.

    1. Christa MosengChris Moseng

      The fact that parking is so ample there isn’t a market price for parking in most of the city suggests there is way too much. I’ve got two spots in an underground garage. I’m renting one out and the other is sitting empty.

      Parking minimums that put NO constraint on car ownership induce car ownership and driving. Reduce the minimums and people start to look at other options.

      Maybe that won’t be you, because you must work in the suburbs, but maybe it is your neighbor, who will then rent out their spot. Everyone gets what they need and pays an appropriate price for it.

      1. Cobo R

        Fair enough, I’m ok with changing some of the dynamics and letting the market decide. But I’m not convinced that it will solve more problems than it will cause.

        Right now it appears that the trend is that the city is gaining lots of people and relatively few new jobs (yes there are more jobs, it just doesn’t appear to be at the same rate as population growth).

        I just think its a dynamic that needs more visibility, because most new jobs appear to be popping up in the suburbs, even downtown employment has been pretty flat for the last ~20 years.

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