Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Carless in Saint Paul

Last night I was on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. It's an almost-five-mile-long commercial corridor where houses share space with colleges and hundreds of small businesses. There are a few national chains (Pottery Barn, Chipotle, Anthropologie), but they're greatly outnumbered by stores from small, local chains and unique shops and restaurants.

As I drove past the the Anthropologie store, it seemed odd to me that it was located on a city street instead of in a shopping mall. A customer who wanted to go there as well as another shop a mile down the road would have to use a car to get from one to the next, finding a place to park each time. It made me think that organizing businesses along a street was inefficient, and for a second I understood why people go to shopping malls, where they can park once and walk to everything else.

But then my mind went into fantasy mode, and instead of cars, Grand Avenue became a thoroughfare used only by street cars (or buses) and bikes. The street cars were running super-frequently, like one to three minutes apart, so that when I was done visiting a store, I could hop a ride however far down the street I needed to go, then get off. And get back on again later, or go back in the other direction.

In the fantasy, the street car was no-charge. People could enter or exit through either door, with no waiting to get on as riders found change or produced their prepaid cards. The street cars traveled down the street more smoothly without having to wait so long at boarding, and usage was up because it was so easy to board. And no fares meant no collection infrastructure to pay for, either.

How much does the average car owner spend on the car, gas, and insurance each year, anyway? One recent estimate put it at almost $9,000 (compact cars, not surprisingly, are more economical -- just $6,735). If half the population of the Twin Cities owns a car (not an unreasonable estimate), that means we're spending at least $9 billion dollars a year collectively, compared to the current Metro Transit budget of about $435 million. Plus, how much do we spend on maintaining roads for the number of vehicles pounding them?

Also gone from my fantasy Grand Avenue were all of the parked cars, including the parking infrastructure they require. The sidewalks were wider because the street could be narrowed, leaving more room for outside seating. The parking garage at Victoria and Grand and the strip parking lots near Milton and Grand was filled with more retail or more housing. (There's a reason they call it the high cost of free parking.) And there would be no need to zone great businesses like Cupcake out of existence along the street, either.

I went home and slept on it, and in the morning the Star Tribune presented me with a story about the blight of surface parking lots in downtown Minneapolis. In the eastern half of downtown, surface lots and parking ramps easily take up half of the real estate. (Star Tribune map here.) And there are plenty of lots and ramps on the other side of downtown as well.

Here's a list of free public transit success stories, some in the U.S., and others from around the world. What would it take to make this happen here, and everywhere?

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