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Nathaniel Hood

He writes about transportation and planning.

How to respond when someone complains 'There's no parking'

"OMG! There is NO parking!" - Concerned Citizen

I wish I had a bus ticket for every time I heard someone say this. Unless you're Manhattan or San Francisco, it is fair to say you don't have a parking problem. I take that back. You do have a parking problem -- there’s too much of it.

Here is a quick how-to guide on dealing with those who claim your city or town lacks adequate parking.

Step 1. Understand perception

The easiest and most time-effective way of convincing your opposition is to have them acknowledge that the perception of parking availability is different than the reality. People come to the conclusion of parking scarcity for a good reason; many live elsewhere and only visit the city during peak periods or special events.

The mindset is beautifully captured by a recent Twitter exchange. I asserted that our downtown does not have a parking problem, and a person responded by complaining that parking for his dinner at an upscale restaurant was an unreasonable $20 (the timing coincided with a professional baseball game on a beautiful weekend night). He was forced to choose between paying $20 or walking from somewhere near the interstate (which happens to be about 5 blocks).

This person likely visits from the suburbs once every other month, and each visit is likely for an event or dinner on a weekend night. They are not present when spaces sit vacant 90 percent of the time. When someone complains there's no parking in your neigbhorhood, I recommend politely asking them if they'd be willing to drive and park on a Sunday afternoon, Tuesday evening or Friday morning.

Now, before you start rapidly Tweeting links about Donald Shoup (such as this, this and this), I recommend the next step ...

Step 2. Map parking supply

Load up Google Maps in your favorite web browser, search for your local area, and do a screen capture. Paste the image into MS Paint or a similar program. Start highlighting the open surface parking lots and parking garage structures. I recommend downloading Google Earth for this task.

Don't spend a lot of time doing this. If you know your downtown, it should be straight-forward. Be honest, but don't nit-pick; This isn't a scientific peer-reviewed study. Here is a map of downtown St. Paul (created in 2013, slightly outdated):

Creating a visual can be shocking. The above blue spaces represents only off-street surface parking lots and parking garages; but do not highlight on-street or underground parking. Also, they represent only, to the best of my knowledge, available public parking. There are a few more small parking lots but Google limited me to 75 shapes per map.

Make this map and share it on social media and e-mail it to your local Council Member.

Step 3. Document unused supply

Walk around your selected area during normal conditions and take photos. And by normal conditions, I mean you shouldn't document supply during a Rolling Stones concert, nor should you snap photos at 4 a.m. on Monday morning.

I did this in St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood. I decided upon an early Thursday evening and a Saturday mid-afternoon. I figured these times would capture both commuter parking during the weekday and out-of-town visitors on the weekend (photo collage available here).

Optional upgrade: convert images into black and white to maximize effect. However, most American downtowns don't need the extra help. Here is an example from June of 2015:

It is at this point where you may be called out as cherry-picking locations. Hence, I encourage you to be fair and also document areas that have cars parked, such as this.

As a final bit of advice, make sure to also snap photos of people out and about. Here is a block of sidewalk cafes during the same time frame, such as this photo taken on Saturday afternoon.


Step 4. Use yourself as a case study


Do it yourself advocacy is as simple as parking. I recommend getting a cheap dashboard camera (or mounting your phone) and recording yourself trying to park. I did this and here are the results on YouTube. I called it a challenge. It was anything but. As expected, parking was simple.


The rules: Drive to the contested area, take the same route everyday, park as close as possible to most congested spot, and park for free (yes, $0).


To quickly summarize, my findings for the “Challenge”:


  • Furthest distance: 610 feet away
  • Closest distance: During three of the trips, I found a spot directly on the park
  • Cost: I never once paid for parking (note: I did pay for gas)
  • Shortest time spent finding a spot: 2 minutes and 15 seconds
  • Longest time spent finding a spot: 3 minutes and 41 seconds

All of the times included waiting at stop lights. To enhance enjoyment, I added a soundtrack and sped up the video to 2x. Now, this is not an academic study. I merely sought out to prove that, under current conditions, a person can drive into Lowertown and park with relative ease and do it for free. I also wanted to mention that I’m keenly aware of the limitations of this challenge (e.g.; time of day, workweek, etc.).

Follow these three easy steps (and one difficult, time-consuming step involving video) to start combating the perception of a shortage of parking supply in your downtown or neighborhood. These won't solve anything overnight, but act as a visual display of advocacy that people can relate to.

Good luck!

A quick shameless plug: I started a brief weekly musing about local news, culture, urban development, transportation and entertainment. Each "newsletter" includes 2 paragraphs and 1 recommendation. You can sign up here

For cyclists, Snelling Av. is a route with an identity crisis

Snelling Avenue is a must-see landmark in St. Paul.

By “must-see,” I mean it’s unavoidable. It is an inevitable monster and, at some point, you’ll need to combat the seemingly endless hordes of fast-moving car traffic.

I decided to fight that traffic from south to north, through the entire City of St. Paul.

At it’s farthest point south, near my house in Highland Park, Snelling is a modest tree-lined, two-lane street that quickly transforms into a school zone. Traffic moves slowly until you cross Montreal. The lanes then widen and the speed increases. That is, until you hit the patchwork of local businesses situated on late-streetcar and early-suburban commercial nodes around Randolph.

The slight hill makes the ride enjoyable, and car traffic isn’t overwhelming. It’s not comforting, but at this point I’m not fearing for my life. That last part is important when designing spaces for bikes.

Moving northbound, the intersection of Snelling and Randolph feels urban; buildings hug the wide sidewalks and apartments are above the shops. The further northward I go, the heavier flow of traffic makes the area a biker’s nightmare even during quietest weekend hours.

What to do with these types of roads is contentious. The city of St. Paul and DOT often seems like they’re at odds. Is it a highway or is it a city street? While residential property owners would certainly benefit from reduced traffic, the business owners like it – especially if they are fortunate enough to have off-street parking. It’s a blend of urban meets suburban meets pedestrians meets highway meets potential bike lane. It tries to appease everyone, but successfully appeases no one.

From Randolph heading north, Snelling has single-family homes until St. Clair. Macalaster College’s green median turns the avenue into a three block stretch akin to Summit Avenue. This looks nice, for a short period, but quickly converts back. Despite good effort, the median that was designed to help students across tightens the space and makes me feel on-guard. Speeding cars pass on my left and I debate jumping onto the sidewalk.

North of Summit you’ll find strip malls, a Buffalo Wild Wings, a gas station, and a hodgepodge of light industrial until you hit I-94 and University Avenue. Anyone who has driven this section of Snelling knows that congestion is the norm. But not today. I-94 construction has closed the intersection to cars and the silence is oddly beautiful. I picked up my bike and just walked right over. It’s a beautiful feeling to have control over a space that would otherwise be inhospitable.

Snelling from University Avenue north to Hamline University is medium-density lined with small businesses and multifamily dwellings. This stretch of road works, kind of. It accommodates pedestrians, businesses, buses, and cars. It’s noisy and chaotic, but it works. If Hamline University were to follow in Macalaster’s footsteps and spruce up the median, it could go a long way.

It’s always astonished me that the city hasn’t done more north of University Avenue; little improvements could go a long way. The congestion oddly acts as a safety buffer, too. The slow-moving traffic ensured that any possible collision would occur at less than 5 miles per hour. It is here that I feel refuge.

I stopped my ride near the Midway Motel, glanced over the bridge to the Minnesota State fairgrounds, and figured that it’d be best to ride the sidewalk from here on out. And that is what I did; relegated to the margin as cars whizzed past at unknown speeds. At this very moment, anyone on a bike becomes a second-class citizen.

I can’t help but think that Snelling is emblematic of the transition we’re making from car culture into something else. It’s urban. It’s suburban. It’s a highway. Snelling Avenue is a lot of things. It just depends where you are.  The problem with Snelling is that it’s a little bit of everything, but doesn’t do any of those things particularly well.

Snelling doesn’t work as a highway; but as long as it tries to sometimes act like a highway, it won’t be able to act like a city street either. If it turns into a street city (with a median, narrower traffic lanes and bike lanes), what will happen to adjacent alternative routes? When congestion occurs on your traditional street grid, people have options. They’ll take Fairview or Hamline or Lexington. Will these roads become more congested and less desirable? Will it reduce traffic demand or move it elsewhere?

The answer isn’t clear. But, what is clear is that I wasn’t biking back on Snelling. I found another way.