Parking Validation: What If I Don’t Drive?

Two block-long parking ramps stand along Fifth Avenue South in Downtown Minneapolis. Photo: Unknown

You’ve probably been offered parking validation, as I have, at restaurants, grocery stores — even the county Human Services office where I receive benefits (while working three jobs and freelancing on the side). 

But what if, like me, you don’t have a car? Which of these places will validate your visiting them by riding transit, biking, walking or scootering? This conversation came up recently on Twitter, when Julia Curran wrote about her experience asking businesses, hospitals and county entities about how (or whether) they support people who arrive by means other than driving. 

So I decided to do some research. I reached out to Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka and Dakota counties, as well as hospitals and businesses that I found to validate parking (thanks to the commenters of NUMTOT-Twin Cities) to understand how they treat people who visit their businesses by different modes. The hospitals I contacted — Hennepin County Medical Center and hospitals operated by HealthPartners — declined to comment for this story. However, representatives from three of the four counties, as well as some businesses, did get back to me. 

County Support for Folks Who Don’t Drive

I live in Hennepin County. Every time I visit a county office to manage my benefits, I am always offered parking validation, despite having either biked or taken transit. 

I never thought to ask for tokens at the county office before. Inspired by Julia, that’s exactly what I did on my last visit. And I got them, even though I was told that they weren’t intended for clients like me. Both the staff, as well as Laura Hoffman, policy aide for County Commissioner Marion Greene (District 3), told me that tokens are reserved for those who need to “meet immediate, urgent needs in limited situations, and are intended to assist in the resolution of temporary situations.”

What if someone — probably you — needs to visit the county offices for other purposes? I reached out to the offices of commissioners Irene Fernando (District 2), Greene and Angela Conley (District 4), who all represent a slice of Minneapolis. Each commissioner has their own budget and, as a result, their own policy to support those conducting business with them without driving. 

Commissioner Greene’s office offers parking validation for visitors, “although it is not required to do so,” Hoffman said. This year, the District 3 office has also begun offering bus tokens to reimburse folks who traveled using public transportation. Akhi Menawat, communications and policy aide for Commissioner Fernando, said their office does the same thing. 

Commissioner Conley does not offer the benefit but is considering it. In an e-mail forwarded by Policy Aide Cacje Henderson, the commissioner wrote: “You do bring up an interesting point that I have actually considered — how to reimburse those visiting by transit or other means. We need to explore a mechanism, much like the policy we have around parking validation, so we have checks and balances.”

In the meantime, Conley tries to meet with her constituents where they are based. “I know coming downtown can be challenging,” she said, “whatever mode you use to get here. That’s why I spend so much time in my district, meeting folks where they’re at.” Conley also strives to be accessible by phone, e-mail and social media. 

Ramsey County provides bus tokens upon request for those receiving social services, in addition to the free parking already available at all of their sites. People who are volunteering or meeting with county commissioners or the county manager “can get their parking paid for/bus tokens on a pre-approval basis,” said communications associate Valerie Hsu. However, “commissioners do not generally give out bus tokens or pay for parking,” she said.

Dakota County does more. On September 10, 2019, Dakota County started DakotaLink, a six-month pilot program that provides free transportation services three times a day for people interfacing with the judicial or human services systems. It connects the judicial center in Hastings to bus hubs at Signal Hills Shopping Center in West St. Paul and the Cedar Grove Transit Station in Eagan. From there, users can transfer to Metro Transit to continue to the service centers in Apple Valley or West St. Paul. Dakota County Transportation Coordinator Robyn Bernardy said that ridership is increasing. “In the first four weeks of service, we had 46 riders total, but in the last couple of weeks, our ridership has increased to an average of six riders each day,” she said.  In addition, each facility has bike racks. 

Anoka County did not respond to requests for comment.

For Some Businesses, the Car Remains King

Target, Trader Joe’s and Lakes & Legends are among the many businesses that offer parking validation, according to members of NUMTOT-Twin Cities (New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens). That doesn’t mean those businesses incentivize their customers to visit by other means. 

For years, the Target on Nicollet Mall has offered one-hour free parking validation when you make a purchase of $20 or more. When I asked Target officials whether they planned to provide validation for transit users and people who walk — specifically for the Nicollet Mall location — they did not respond. The downtown location does have bike racks. 

Trader Joe’s opened in downtown Minneapolis a year ago and offers one-hour free parking validation. Like Target, however, Trader Joe’s didn’t respond to questions about providing validation for transit users and pedestrians. They do have bike parking. And one employee let me take a basket full of groceries out to my bike, pack my groceries into my panniers and return the basket to the store. 

Lakes & Legends Brewing will validate your parking at one of two nearby ramps if you purchase a drink. Employee Jason Ma says the brewpub does provide bike parking and discounts for those who live nearby but does not offer specific discounts for customers who visit by “bus, cab, rental bikes and scooters.”

On a recent shopping trip, a Trader Joe's employee let me take a basket full of groceries out to my bike so I could load up my groceries in my panniers. After I loaded up my groceries, I returned the basket to the store. October 27, 2019. Photo: Henry Pan

A Trader Joe’s employee let me take a basket full of groceries out to my bike so I could load my groceries in my panniers. Afterward, I returned the basket to the store. October 27, 2019. Photo: Henry Pan

Not All Businesses Want You to Drive

My research showed that more businesses validate those who bicycle than those who take transit. 

Seward Community Coop in Minneapolis administers Cycle Perks, a program that rewards customers with a card punch every time they cycle to the store. Once you receive 10 punches, you are entered into a monthly drawing, where you are eligible to win $50. In addition, 60 businesses in Minneapolis and 32 businesses in St. Paul participate in the Bicycle Benefits program. To receive discounts and goodies as part of the program, you need to buy a sticker, affix it to your helmet, bicycle to the business and show your helmet to the checkout person. You can do this at any participating Bicycle Benefits business. You can also join the Midtown Greenway Coalition.

I have found only one business in the Twin Cities that provides perks to transit riders. Butter Bakery Cafe, located on Nicollet Avenue and 37th Street in south Minneapolis, provides half-price drinks on Mondays for those who show a bus pass. (If you run a business that supports customers who ride transit, or are looking to do this but are running into challenges, please get in touch with me.)

Let’s Incentivize All Modes of Transportation

One of two cars involved in a crash on Hennepin Ave. between W 28th Street and the Uptown Transit Station. The vehicle was flipped over after it was broadsided by an oncoming car. August 9, 2019. Photo: Henry Pan

One of two cars involved in a crash on Hennepin Avenue between West 28th Street and the Uptown Transit Station. The vehicle was flipped over after an oncoming car broadsided it. August 9, 2019. Photo: Henry Pan

I understand why businesses and the county subsidize driving. Driving is expensive, and so is everything that comes with it: car registration, insurance, gas, maintenance. But people who live in areas poorly served by transit and who lack access to multimodal infrastructure often have to drive. I know a mother and son who live in Minneapolis, have chronic disabilities, special dietary needs and no recurring income, and they need a car to run their errands. 

But driving is also dangerous, for all of us. In 2018, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that on-road vehicles emit the second-highest amount of air pollution in the state. Folks who live along freeways — specifically Interstate 94 — are more likely to be hospitalized for asthma. Meanwhile, people are dying from the repeated mayhem that cars cause. 

As we approach climate catastrophe, let’s hope that more businesses — especially those that serve alcohol — do their part to encourage folks not to drive. Businesses that participate in Bicycle Benefits are leading the way. So is Butter Bakery.

Let’s remember and reward those who ride transit, walk or scooter to an establishment. People like me. Or Julia. People who don’t drive still need basic daily necessities: groceries, winter gear and the occasional drink with a friend or date from an online app.

Just like those who drive. 

H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏

About H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏

H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏 (pronouns: they/them/theirs) is a Minneapolis-based introverted freelance journalist who reports primarily on their lifelong passion: transportation issues. Find them on a bus of all types, the sidewalk, bike lane, hiking trail or perhaps the occasional carshare vehicle, camera and perhaps watercolor set or mushroom brush in tow, in your community or state or regional park regardless of season. If you can’t find them, they’re probably cooking, writing, curating an archive of wall art or brochures, playing board games, sewing or cuddling with their cat. Follow on Twitter: @h_pan3 or Instagram: @hpphmore or on BlueSky: hpan3 dot bsky dot social See bylines after March 2020 in Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Racket, Minnesota Reformer, Next City, The Guardian, Daily Yonder and MinnPost.

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