Why The Fed’s Proposed Parking Garage Is Terrible For The Climate

As you might have heard, the Minneapolis branch of the Federal Reserve has proposed a new 800 space parking ramp in the North Loop. The ramp would replace an existing 300 space surface lot. Plans for the ramp, which you can view here, call for a structure of five stories on the northwestern side of the site, abutting the Cedar Lake Trail and the railroad tracks that carry freight and Northstar Commuter Rail. In order to improve the project’s chances of receiving its requested variances, the Fed has sought to be a good neighbor. In addition to the ramp, the site would be nicely landscaped, provide a pedestrian pathway to the river, and allow the Cedar Lake Trail to curve at it meets the river road, instead of hitting it at a T as it currently does.

I find this project to be plainly awful. I think the design is of low quality and I lament the lack of any other uses on this site. There are several parking ramp projects in the downtown that at least include some other additional use, from housing to offices, and one of those mixed office and parking projects nearby in the North Loop is designed in such a way that the parking levels would be easy to adapt into something else. These are at least somewhat defensible for that reason, while the proposed Fed ramp does not meet even this low bar. But above all, this project is infuriating for its lack of care about the climate. Bad design can be corrected, greenhouse gas emissions stay emitted.

The proposed ramp is an egregious piece of fossil fuel infrastructure, just like an oil pipeline, but proposed for central city land. The token amenities proposed with the plan are greenwashing, like an oil derrick with a solar panel attached. The City of Minneapolis is committed to reducing emissions by 80% by 2050. It just passed a comprehensive plan that explicitly mentions the city’s carbon-reduction goals. Allowing this project to proceed would be completely incompatible with the city’s own objectives—not to mention the reason behind those objections, the long-term health and safety of the public.

Supporting this project is a either a sign of ignorance, or of honest-to-goodness climate denialism. I accept that some people just don’t care, but I hope that all of the people in the former category can be inspired to write to the cityand their elected representatives to express their opposition.

Here’s why this project is so bad, in two parts:

1. More Parking Leads To More Driving…

Among transportation planning professionals, there is almost no dispute on this point. Research from 1992 showed that employer-subsidized parking resulted in significant increases in driving commutes (this is a link to a PDF download, don’t be alarmed, I’m not trying to give your computer a virus). A 2001 study found that travelers were responsive to increases in parking price or decreases in parking supply, changing their mode of travel or changing the time of their travel to adjust. A 2008 examination (later expanded upon in 2011) of neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens showed that whether or not a person had a private parking space at home was a significant factor in whether or not they drove to work. In 2014, researchers determined that providing free parking at work was the single most compelling transportation incentive that an employer could provide, but that absent that option, employees were far more likely to chose alternative modes of getting to work.

In 2016, a group of researchers with the University of Connecticut traced the strongest causal link yet between provision of parking and amount of driving. The researchers identified comparable mid-sized American cities, collected high-resolution aerial imagery from the 1950’s, 1980’s, and 2000’s, and estimated the amount of parking each city. They then compared the amounts of parking in each city with the trends of driving. The results showed a strong correlation between the amount of parking that was built and the amount of driving that occurred. The cities that built more parking experienced more driving.

Why does this occur? It’s due to induced demand. This principle, which also explains why adding more lanes to a highway doesn’t fix congestion, is maybe best explained as the idea that reducing the cost of something results in more people doing it. The cost can be a price, it can be time, or it can be frustration. If you know that there will be a parking space available for you at your destination, you will factor that into your decision of how to get there. But if you know that the nearest parking space to your destination might be three blocks away, and you have to find it, and you have to compete with others looking for the same thing, and you’ll have to have a bunch of quarters or your credit card handy to pay for it—you might reconsider.

In a Washington Post article about the 2016 study, Emily Badger gives a good personal example about how this works:

It is a firm principle in my household that we will not, under almost any circumstance, get in the car after sundown on Friday or Saturday night. We won’t pick you up at the airport, or drive to dinner at your house. We won’t just run out to the grocery store, or partake of social events unreachable by foot or bike, or a short Uber.

We live off H Street in Washington with its bars and restaurants and performing arts, and if we drive away in the evening, when we get back there will simply be nowhere to park. We would behave, no doubt, a lot differently if parking were not an issue. We would probably take more trips.

Scale up this logic, and it’s reasonable to think that parking on a much larger scale induces more driving across cities.

Minnesota gets a big demonstration of the effect of parking scarcity every year in late summer during the State Fair. Nearly two million people from around the state visit the fair, with a daily attendance record of over 260,000. There’s a big parking lot at the state fairgrounds, but it’s nowhere near big enough to accommodate crowds like that. So every year, hundreds of thousands of people who ordinarily drive the entire rest of the year instead meet up and take special buses to the fair and back. It’s the biggest public transit event in the state, it prevents massive amount of tailpipe emissions, and it happens because parking is scarce and so people find other ways to travel.

Workers at the Minneapolis Fed could find other ways to get to work as well. It’s a frequent gripe that transit service to the North Loop is not adequate, and that’s true. But the Fed is located on Hennepin Avenue, within shouting distance of the core CBD. Directly outside the building are stops for the 4, 6, 7, 11, 61 and 824 buses. Two blocks away are stops for the 14, 667, 672, and 674. A ten minute walk away is a light rail station, and within that radius are dozens of other buses. The Cedar Lake Trail runs behind the building, with connections to the River Road and Kenilworth Trail. Well within the lifetime of this ramp, light rail service will be extended to the southwest suburbs and maybe to the northwest as well, a BRT service to the southern suburbs will open, and multiple rapid bus lines will begin service with stops nearby.

The Fed is not building this ramp because there are no other options to accommodate the travel demand of their employees. They are almost certainly building the ramp because the organization’s leadership (who, are demographically more likely to drive) have a “windshield mentality.” They drive and park, and they hear complaints from their immediate staff about the costs of driving and parking. They don’t hear as many complaints about transit (and don’t consider why that makes sense—they don’t run the transit system!) But demand for parking is not a constant that must be met, it is a highly elastic variable that can be manipulated. Providing a lot more convenient parking is a choice, not an obligation, and the research shows unequivocally that it is certain to only increase the incidence of driving, to the detriment of the planet.

2. … And More Driving Leads To More Greenhouse Gas Emissions (Now, And In the Future)

I think most people understand quite clearly that cars emit greenhouse gases, and that’s a contributor to climate change. But what’s less well-known is are two things; the scale of the problem, and the limitations of new technologies in solving it.

First, transportation emissions have become the leading source of greenhouse gases in the United States, as well as in Minnesota. While emissions from other sectors, especially power generation, have fallen, emissions from increased transportation have significantly wiped out those savings. The same story is also true in Minnesota. No city, state, or country can meet their climate goals without reducing the emissions from the transportation sector, and that largely means reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) as much as possible, as soon as possible. In California, the state’s Air Resources Board estimates that means that to meet the state’s goals by 2030, every resident of the state must reduce their driving by 1.6 miles per day. That may sound small, but that adds up across a population. For many people that might represent one trip to the grocery store, but few people make that trip daily. Cutting out a solo driving commute is far more direct.

Second, while most people recognize the harm caused by our current fleet of cars, many often look towards electric vehicles (EVs) as a potential savior. It’s certainly true that EVs have a big role to play in a more sustainable future. But they are far from a panacea. For one, even optimistic estimates of their adoption expect that it will take decades for most of the cars in the world to turn over. This matters because, for one, we are not studying for a test in the future, we are taking that test right now. Carbon we put in the atmosphere today matters just as much as carbon we put in the atmosphere in ten years. While we’re waiting around for EVs to save us, we’ll cook the planet all the same.

But EVs have other impacts. For instance, every new electric car means more demand for electricity. While utilities are making remarkable progress at adding new renewable sources of energy, some of those gains are being swallowed up by new demand. This is all while demand for power to charge vehicles is a fraction of what it would be if every current car owner was plugged in. If rapid adoption of EVs forces utilities to keep coal plants in operation to meet all of that new demand, then the benefit to the climate from EVs will be massively diminished. Another issue is the emissions created by manufacturing. Electric cars will require batteries that use metals extracted in environmentally damaging ways, and will be produced through a global supply chain that is also a huge source of emissions. Some of the materials in new cars, especially plastics, are especially carbon-intensive to produce. Reducing driving right now might allow cars on the road today to last longer, which will slow adoption of EVs, but will come out as a net benefit because fewer cars will be manufactured.

What Can Be Done Instead?

The evidence is unequivocal that building more parking will result in more driving. The evidence is unequivocal that more driving will lead to more carbon emissions, both now and even in a more technologically advanced future. At this moment, readers can take action on this knowledge. They can write to the city and your elected official, demanding that they deny the variance requests to build this parking ramp, and act to prevent similar proposals from emerging in the future. All residents of Minneapolis should do this, but as always, neighbors of the project are given special consideration by officials, and so they should speak up the loudest. Any path forward starts with acknowledgement of the problem, and immediate action to address this imminent threat.

But let’s next imagine a world where the climate data prevails, and the Fed either withdraws the plan or the city rejects it. What should the Fed do to address the transportation concerns of their employees?

They can start with turning the budget for this project into more productive use. The proposed parking ramp would hold 800 spaces. The latest data suggests the cost to build a single structured parking space in Minneapolis is somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000. So let’s assume the cost of this ramp would be in the ballpark of $16 million. Remember that the current surface lot holds 300 cars, meaning that the project would result in a net gain of 500 spaces. That’s $32,000 per new space. What if the Fed took that amount and use it to pay 500 Federal Reserve employees to shift their commuting mode from a private car to something else? They could offer an incentive of $3,200 per year, to the first 500 employees who applied, for ten years. Or perhaps they could simply pay the full cost of transit passes for 500 employees. A monthly pass on Metro Transit at the rush hour fare costs $120/mo, or $1,440/year. The Fed could sustain this program for over twenty-two years at the current rate. (The Fed’s current transit subsidy is paltry compared to the subsidy they are planning on providing to drivers by building this ramp.)

The Fed could also juice their commuter incentive funds even further by selling the property or developing it themselves into a more lucrative use than a parking structure. This is a valuable parcel, adjacent to the river, in the North Loop, and close to the CBD. The parcel is large enough to accommodate multiple buildings and hundreds of homes, including some that could be occupied by Fed employees, who would then walk to work. Or the Fed could make even more money for Uncle Sam, by negotiating with another federal entity, the Post Office, to establish a joint parking strategy for all of their employees. The goal of such a strategy would be to eliminate the need for the post office’s ramp at the eastern corner of 1st St and Hennepin Ave, an even more valuable parcel than the one owned by the Fed. The construction of the Fed’s proposed ramp would become a far better proposition if it meant the demise of the Post Office ramp and its redevelopment as a residential tower, for instance.

I’d prefer that both parking areas be redeveloped and none of the spaces replaced, but let’s start by shooting for something better than this. There are far better options than the one proposed, which is quite near to the worst possible choice. That it was made by an organization of economists, who really ought to know better, makes it even more galling. But the positive side, I hope, is that there is an opportunity for the data to come out and the tradeoffs to be made clear. That necessitates smart, informed, and passionate people to make their voices heard on this project, change its trajectory away from fossil fuel infrastructure towards climate mitigation, and use its emergence as an impetus to make sure there are no more repeats.

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