Some Thoughts on Permit Parking in Saint Paul

Day By Day Café on West 7th Street.

After years of administering a complex and largely self-policed permit parking system, Saint Paul hired a consultant to do a study of the topic and might be making a few changes. And yet, it seems to me that these policy changes are too little and probably won’t make much difference to anyone to help achieve city transportation goals or reduce onerous burdens on police and administrative staff.

If you’re not familiar with the parking permit situation, in some neighborhoods of Saint Paul, only people with a resident permit can park their car on the public street. Most of these areas are around the University of Saint Thomas, the University of Minnesota, or the Xcel Center, and historically the rules for all these small areas have shifted microscopically block by block

In other areas where parking demand is increasing, neighbors sometimes begin to demand permit parking zones. For most of those homeowners or renters, they seem like “free” policy changes that reserve access to the street. And yet permit parking comes at a cost to others who might be parking on or using the street, and at a cost to the city for administering and enforcing the area. Sometimes those costs are very palpable, as in the recent case of a proposed permit zone near West 7th Street and Grand Avenue.

Here’s the story from the City Pages:

Little Bohemia and Day by Day are caught up in a battle over parking. Events downtown, employees at the nearby hospital, and the rising popularity of the neighborhood have been putting the squeeze on parking spots. This year, the residents on the southeast side of West Seventh Street — right by Ekbom’s cafe — petitioned to designate their side streets as resident permit only parking.

Ekbom only found out about this about three weeks ago, he says. Since then, he’s been trying to ask people to revoke their signatures. His customers need access to that parking. He’s also worried that if the south side of West Seventh pulls this off, nothing would stop the north side from doing the same when all the customers are suddenly siphoned there.

“It’s up in the air who would be able to survive without parking,” he says. “If I don’t stop it here, we might have to relocate or close.”

Ekbom is asking for a compromise. Instead of exclusively permit parking, he wants folks without a permit to be able to park for two hours. He’s been in communication with the city’s public works department, and they’ve offered a compromise of their own: One block can be two-hour parking, while three or four become permit-only.

“I’ll take what I can get, but nevertheless, we’re losing a huge chunk of parking,” Ekbom says. “That little spot is not going to be enough for four or five businesses.”

This story captures well the trade-offs of permit parking. For a homeowner, it might seem like a great idea. For a nearby business, it’s a disaster. Meanwhile, for the city, it’s an expense and burden that has very little benefit other than increasing convenience for some (people living on a street) at the expense of many others (people visiting the street). Finally, two-hour or one-hour parking zones are an enforcement nightmare that come at great expense to the taxpayer.

Three Recommendations

I’ve been looking at the city’s study of these permit parking areas for a while now, and wanted to share some of my thoughts.To my mind the key issues:

1) Enforceability

The proud, the very few…

I have heard repeatedly that there are only and handful of parking enforcement officers in the entire city, not all of whom are on duty at any given time. In effect, SPPD does not have capacity to enforce these parking areas with any regularity. This is especially true for time-limited parking areas, which require an officer to come back repeatedly and “mark” a car and then check on it within a certain time frame.

An aside: this is why parking meters are such a great policy tool. They are straightforward to understand, increasingly easy to use, and efficient to enforce. The SPPD understands this, even if many business owners or customers do not.

According to the SPPD, the “time limited” zones are basically a joke. Though having time-limited zones seems like a nice compromise (as in the case on West 7th above), these areas are not good policy. They rely almost wholly on complaints or self-policing, and will exacerbate inequality around the city. The city should either make permit parking areas easily enforceable (you need a permit to park) or people should not have a permit zone. Saint Paul should not be pretending there is a working system in place when there is not.

Even if they did have the capacity, enforcing permit parking is a big expense for Saint Paul. To my mind, it is important to weigh the priorities and costs of this kind of policing budget item. Given other challenges faced by the City and the Police Department, is this what we should spend limited resources on?

Additionally, the more complex the different areas, the more bureaucratic overhead. City staff are overworked as is, and I do not think that tasking someone with administering dozens of slightly different permit parking areas is the best use of limited staffing hours.

2) Pricing of permits

Q: What is the correct price for permits to justify city expense? How many cars should each household be allowed to have?

Adjusting for inflation, the cost of permits is lower today that it was in 1980, even with the new doubled fee. To my mind, the cost of parking permits should be far higher than the current proposal. For example, a recent study that tried to place a value on an on-street public parking spot came up with a dollar a day, for the city of Minneapolis.

Here’s the quote from David Levinson’s blogpost on the topic:

Consider a typical suburban residential neighborhood with `free’ parking in front of houses. The land is valued at $1,000 per m². Each house requires one parking space out front, and parking is permitted 24 h per day. Conservatively, a car takes 10 m² when parked (the road is the access lane, we consider that separately). It would cost $10,000 for the land owner to purchase the land equivalent of the parked car. The annual rent on that would be $400 (at 4% interest).

In this example $400 is how much the car owner should pay annually  to their municipality for a permit to park their car to cover the cost of land (not the cost of infrastructure, or any other costs of roads and mobility, just the cost of land). This is a bit more than $1/day (more precisely $1.095/day). In more expensive neighborhoods, this would be higher, in less expensive neighborhoods, lower.

For Minneapolis, I have previously estimated about 220,000 on-street spaces. At $400/space per year, this would raise $88,000,000 per year, a not inconsiderable share of the city’s $1.3B annual budget. Instead it is mostly given away free.

$400 a year is the ballpark for what a permit should cost. If Saint Paul wants to subsidize police-guarded resident-only parking on the public street, they could cut that in half I suppose. It would still be almost ten times the proposed fee.

Additionally, fees should escalate (double?) with each additional car.

3) Overall impact on transportation

Construction for the Pizza Luce parking lot on Selby tore down an existing building.

The important thing about these policies is that, from the city’s perspective, things look different than from the perspective of an individual resident. For an individual, there is seemingly no “cost” to this kind of proposal, but at a municipal larger scale, the cost is significant.

The costs primarily comes in the forms of enforcement and overhead costs, opportunity costs, and displacement. Having permit zones means off-street parking must be built somewhere else, especially for businesses. As you probably know, parking is one of the least productive and lowest tax-base land uses a city can have. Not to mention that parking spaces are expensive to build, a cost that comes out of the bottom line of Saint Paul businesses, small and large. (Average cost, $8-35K depending on site specifics; at the extreme end, the city’s RiverCentre proposal is north of $50K per spot.)

In general, it is not good policy to restrict, underuse, or essentially “give away” on-street parking space that the city pays to create and maintain. While it might seem “free”, it is not; as the Public Works budget will show. On top of this, the city “pays” the cost by passing the expense of parking onto institutions and businesses, essentially a hidden tax. It also makes parking in Saint Paul into more of a hassle, reducing the likelihood that people will visit and increasing demand for expensive alternatives like large ramps built at city or institutional expense.

For these reasons, these kinds of restrictive areas should be treated with great scrutiny. I would urge crafting a policy that makes the costs and enforcement realities of these policies clear and transparent to Saint Paul residents.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.