You’re paying for parking

A few years ago, a building where I worked was facing a parking issue.

An area once filled with cheap surface lots had vanished, replaced by new housing, restaurants, offices and arts buildings. I remember a meeting where we all looked at a map of remaining parking lots in the area, wondering where people would put their cars.

The building appears to have the same number of parking spaces it ever did, but there are also bike racks out front. This makes sense, as there are designated bike routes everywhere nearby.

The building is a few short blocks from a Hiawatha (Blue Line) LRT station. A bunch of buses stop very nearby — including high-frequency routes that run all day and well into the evening.

There are Nice Ride bike-sharing stations and an HOURCAR car-sharing location within walking distance. I used to walk to work from downtown Minneapolis, about a mile. (I remember nights sparkling with snow and once seeing the carcass of a beaver.)

In short, options abound for getting there other than by driving, relieving the pressure to find a short-term place to leave a vehicle.

But, even if you get there using these other modes, you likely are still paying for parking. The several parking spaces outside the building where I used to work are free to the user. But, parking is expensive, whether it’s nominally free or not.

Surface parking spaces cost $3,000–$5,000 each to build, not counting the cost to maintain them (snow plowing, resurfacing, restriping, etc.), according to a report, “The Myth of Free Parking.”

Spaces in parking ramps, aka “structured parking,” can cost more than the car that is parked there, according to Donald Shoup, author of “The High Cost of Free Parking.” A recent Metropolitan Council estimate of the cost to provide 3,450 park-and-ride spaces (in a mix of surface lots and ramps) came in at $103 million, or $29,855 for each space.

At the other end of the spectrum, the estimated cost to purchase and install bicycle parking (at a rack that parks two bikes) is $150 to $300. A bicycle locker (also parking two bikes) costs $1,000 to $4,000, according to, a site funded by the Federal Highway Administration.

“Government, employers, retailers and others typically assume the financial cost of developing and maintaining parking,” according to “The Myth of Free Parking,” providing the following example.

A software company that provides its employees with free parking in an attached ramp pays for the spaces as part of the office rent, making parking part of overhead. Employees who arrive on bicycle or by walking or transit receive no benefit from the free parking. Similarly, if your block has free parking, you’re paying for it with your local property taxes, whether you park or not.

So, if you’re already paying for it, why not drive? Because 40 percent of all the trips we make — all the places we go — are within 2 miles or less. Many of these could be a pleasant walk (2 miles = 30 minutes) or easy bicycle ride away (2 miles = 10 minutes). And, consider this: every mile you drive adds nearly 1 pound of carbon monoxide to the atmosphere. Riding the bus cuts the emissions down to a fraction of driving alone.

While there certainly are times when driving makes sense (did you know HOURCAR has a truck in their fleet for sharing?), it’s healthier to choose other modes when you can. A British study found that, “for an individual, each additional kilometer walked per day is associated with a 4.8 percent reduction in the likelihood of obesity, whereas each additional hour spent in a car per day is associated with a 6 percent increase.”

Parking requirements that are set too high also drive up the cost of housing. The hit can be especially hard on affordable housing, where (one study found) costs rose by 12 percent when one space was required and by 24 percent for two. Such requirements can also hamper redevelopment. The building where I now work could not meet the City of St. Paul’s minimum parking requirement, so two floors have to be used for storage. At a time when people are driving less and turning to transit, bicycling and walking more, developers should be able to appropriately size the parking for the targeted market. And cities will benefit from higher tax revenue. Add the visual blight of parking lots and the run-off from parking lots that pollutes our waters and the cost of “free parking” gets even higher.

So, the next time you’re at a meeting and someone offers to validate parking, you might consider raising your hand to object. 

Hilary Reeves is communications director for Transit for Livable Communities.