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.

Amy Gage

About Amy Gage

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Amy Gage is managing editor of Streets.mn. A former journalist, she writes a blog about women and aging (themiddlestages.com) and is executive director of Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County.