BY ELINA KOLSTAD
Years ago, my husband and I stayed with some family friends in Saint-Etienne in France. They live in an apartment built before the advent of car culture, so when they were going to show us some regional attractions, George walked a couple of blocks to the parking garage where they rent a parking place and then came back and picked us up. This is a common practice in many cities in Europe and even American cities like New York. Observing this practice was a part of the shift in perspective that allowed my husband and me to get rid of our car.
In the United States, we have formed certain cultural norms around parking that are pretty extreme. Some of these can be seen in Minneapolis, but they are most striking when you venture into the wild and strange world of the suburbs. In this environment you can encounter literally acres of parking in surface lots attached to strip malls. It’s appalling and horrible for the environment and human health. I am in the camp of people that believes the ordinances and laws encouraging or requiring this type of construction should be changed.
However, in Minneapolis, efforts against too much required parking have gone to a strange extreme. The zeitgeist of the moment in Minneapolis seems to be that parking is an evil that must be abolished at all costs. I think that many advocates see pedestrian-only zones in Europe as an example. But every pedestrian-only zone I’ve visited has parking facilities on the perimeter. In small towns, parking can consist of free lots with three-hour time limits, while larger towns and cities have inexpensive covered parking of various sizes.
There seems to be an idea that if off-street parking options are eliminated people will not own or drive cars anymore and that this will solve climate change by encouraging alternative modes of transportation such as walking or biking. This attitude is very strange to me on a number of levels.
First of all, if access to parking is THE thing preventing people from going car-free, why is it that the majority of advocates seem to still own cars? Couldn’t they just pretend they don’t have a place to park a car and get rid of theirs? Quite frankly, in Minnesota it will still be easier for most people to drive around for blocks to find an on-street parking space than it will be to take transit, walk, or bike to their destination. For many of our residents these modes of transit are not viable options, especially in our beautiful winter weather.
Second, all of the advocates seem to recognize that removal of off-street parking options will result in more congested on-street parking. On-street parking is more detrimental to the walking and biking experience than off-street parking is. Cars parked bumper to bumper and up to intersections greatly reduce visibility and therefore increase the danger faced by pedestrians and bicyclists at busy intersections.
Third, parking lots and garages could be a way to build out green infrastructure, such as electric car charging stations, and could generate renewable energy. The city could require parking garages to have a minimum number of electric charging stations, for example, as a percentage of the overall capacity of the lot. This will encourage electric car adoption, which will greatly reduce emissions. If new parking lots are also required to be built solar panel-ready, there is long-term potential for even greater environmental gains and could provide opportunity for community solar gardens such as that recently installed on the top deck of Ramp A in downtown Minneapolis. https://cooperativeenergyfutures.com/ramp-a-csg/
Finally, if we are preparing for a future with fewer cars and more biking, it would be fairly simple to convert a standard parking garage into covered parking for bicycles in the future. The city could actually increase an individual’s ability to go car-free immediately through code, by requiring bike storage and car-sharing facilities in new parking lots. For example, in Berkeley, Calif., “at least one car-share parking space must be designated in new residential developments that offer 11-30 private car parking spaces. Those providing 31-60 regular spaces must designate two car-share spaces, and developments with more than 60 regular spaces must designate three car-share spaces plus one additional for each successive increment of 60 regular spaces.” https://smartgrowthamerica.org/smarter-parking-codes-to-promote-smart-growth/
Parking is not inherently good or evil. Parking can be well designed or poorly designed and the impact of poor design can have serious long-term negative implications for communities. Simply eliminating off-street parking options reduces our ability to design parking options that will allow for true Complete Streets design and will not lead to any real environmental gains.