Despite growing congestion and some deep discounts for carpool parking, downtown Minneapolis commuters are not giving up their solo drives to work.
The number of carpoolers has declined at the three large city-run ABC Ramps near Target Center — despite the $20-a-month rate for carpoolers using Interstates 394 or 94 from the northern suburbs.
In 2016, just 804 registered carpools used the ABC Ramps that were built 30 years ago to reduce congestion on the freeways and downtown streets. That’s down from 1,253 in 2005 when carpooling hit its peak.
At the same time, the number of parking contracts issued to single-occupant vehicles using the ramps has soared, hitting a high mark of 3,070 in 2016.
Without change, getting around downtown will become increasingly more difficult, said Frank Douma, director of the State and Local Policy Program at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The school this week presented results of an 18-month parking study commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
With the region expected to add as many as 400,000 vehicles to the roads by the year 2030, according to Met Council figures, it’s important to get more people into shared vehicles, he said.
“People wish they didn’t have to drive alone,” Douma said when presenting the study’s findings. “More than 60 percent of people who drive alone say that it is not their ideal mode.”
Would more discounts work?
But they drive alone because Minneapolis still has relatively cheap parking rates for solo drivers, compared to other major cities. It’s also convenient. And many drivers receive employer-subsided benefits to pay parking fees and feel compelled to use them, he said.
The U’s study suggests offering the $20 rate for all carpools, regardless of where they originate. Right now, carpools traveling from the west or northwest Twin Cities using I-394 or I-94 can park in the ABC ramps for $20 a month. Other carpools pay $99 per month. Solo parkers pay $130 to $150 per month depending on the ramp.
“That could have a positive impact on congestion if expanded to all drivers, not just those on I-394 or 94 from the north,” Douma said.
Maybe, but this summer MnDOT announced a cut rate of $20 for carpoolers on I-35W to alleviate congestion during construction. Only 10 carpools have taken advantage of that deal, according to MnDOT.
Turning ramps into “hubs”
Getting commuters to change their habits could be a tough sell, but the U study has ideas for making that happen.
Transportation policymakers are exploring ways to transform the ABC Ramps into “mobility hubs” that would entice more people to stop driving alone by offering other modes of transportation, such as shared cars, bicycles and electric scooters.
Many of the pieces are in place. Two light-rail transit lines have arrived since the ramps opened.
So has the Northstar commuter rail line. Bus stops are already there.
The city now has new scooters and bike sharing. The challenge is how to best use ABC Ramps at 7th, 5th and 3rd streets to bring all those together in one spot.
Parking deals should change, the study advises. Carpool discounts should be available daily for those who only occasionally drive with others.
“We see that as so fundamental that we feel that should be implemented right away,” said consultant Paul Morris with SRF Consulting.
Commuters’ contracts also could combine parking and transit into one, offering rewards for carpoolers that would allow them to make parking reservations and earn credits for use on the MnPass lane or a Nice Ride bike.
In the next few weeks, Metro Transit will roll out a new app allowing people who are going in the same direction but who may not know each other to meet up and drive together. The app will allow travelers to find one-time or long-term travel partners, said spokesman John Komarek.
A similar feature is already available at metrotransit.org.
The next Seattle?
Officials hope mobility hubs could spark a culture change like that in Seattle. There, employers helped cut down on the number of solo drivers by heavily subsidizing transit passes, and voters bought in by approving a tax to expand the bus and light-rail system. Now just 25 percent of commuters traveling into downtown Seattle are driving alone during the peak hours of 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. Nearly half of downtown workers take transit and 10 percent use some sort of ride-share.
“We made the bus system a system of choice, not of last resort,” said Jonathan Hopkins, executive director of Commute Seattle.
Minneapolis has lost more than 5,500 parking stalls in 20 ramps and surface lots since 2014. More than 2,400 of those haven’t been replaced. Of the 60,000 parking spots downtown, approximately 20,000 are public off-street, 5,500 are on-street (metered) and 34,500 private off-street. The ABC Ramps have approximately 6,500 spaces.
With less parking, other modes of transportation will be needed to fill the gap, officials said.
“Options are growing for choice,” said Mary Morse Marti, executive director of Move Minneapolis, the organization designed to promote downtown commuting trips. “The idea that we have to use one mode of travel is becoming less and less valid. These are some really exciting ideas.”