The Simple, Serious, Affordable Way to Address Parking in Downtown St. Louis

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No more parking studies or sustainability plans. No more BRT Band-Aids or streetcar fantasies. No more consultants paid to tell the city and select business owners what they want to hear. We know what needs to be done downtown, all that remains is to convince ourselves that we can change. We can reset the table downtown for a more vibrant future in three simple, affordable steps:

1) return all downtown streets to two-way
2) place on-street parking on all blocks 24/7
3) implement smart parking technology

Parking is a vexing problem for cities, right? St. Louisans love to drive, right? We simply won’t go somewhere if there isn’t easy parking, right? Maybe, maybe not. Many don’t want this to be true, including myself. As a couple hundred people heard this past week at the John Norquist presentation on the value of flexible street design, congestion isn’t just traffic, but also with money. Our most congested streets (not highways) are often our most prosperous (think Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, Delmar in The Loop, the CWE’s Euclid and Washington Avenue downtown).

To a large degree, the statements about parking above are true today, and more importantly, they are perceived to be true, by businesses, employers, developers and residents. We might as well accept them as fact, because they must be addressed. So parking can be difficult, confusing and unpredictable. It’s true for locals (I visit downtown frequently and will never remember which streets are one-way, and in which direction), but much more so for visitors.

{just a snapshot of one-way streets in STL’s CBD surrounding parking garages}

STL CBD street grid
{the St. Louis CBD: two-way streets in green, one-way in red}

One way this challenge can be addressed it to build so many parking options that one is generally assured to stumble upon a place to park. This is what St. Louis has done and continues to do. Downtown is literally built to accomodate a 100-year parking event, such as when the Cardinals and Rams are both playing and one of the many downtown festivals is in full swing. In fact, even then parking garages fail to fill. And yet, even with the extordinary effort to overbuild parking, it’s estimated that 30% of traffic in central business districts is caused by vehicles searching for parking.

{the top of the Stadium West parking garage, adjacent to Busch Stadium, during game 2 of the 2011 World Series – photo by Steve Patterson}

The other way to address the challenge is to make existing parking more efficient. There’s no need for St. Louis to reinvent the wheel here. Cities such as San Francisco and Indianapolis are implementing smart parking technology. In each city, censors detect when an on-street parking space is available and monitor parking garages. Drivers can view available parking in real-time on their computer or dedicated phone app.

{a screenshot of real-time street parking availability in San Francisco}

New parking meters allow drivers to pay via credit card, or using their phone, but the best feature is dynamic pricing. One major goal of the San Francisco effort is to ensure that one parking space is generally available on each block, and that blocks rarely used attract more vehicles. To accomplish this, parking rates are automatically adjusted based on use. This is a boon to business owners, as it helps assure predictable parking access to customers and speeds parking turnover.

To make smart parking work, all downtown streets should be returned to two-way traffic flow. All of them. It doesn’t matter much if your phone tells you there’s an open parking spot two blocks to your left if one-way streets create a confusing maze between here and there. Street parking should be available on all downtown streets. The absence of such parking on the eastern blocks of Washington Avenue, for example, is bewildering and detrimental to the social and commercial life of the street.

{why are we still paying at meters like the one on the right?}

These are simple solutions, can be implemented quickly and are quite inexpensive in the context of the development of yet another parking garage. So why aren’t these ideas being implemented? Because ideas not first endorsed by downtown power interests rarely find support and no one speaks loudly for the larger interests of the city and its residents. Get these three points accomplished and then the city can plan from a position of stength. Then added investments can be built upon an effective planning basis.

Instead, the following scenario is playing out: the $500M+ Arch grounds renovation is handed over to an unaccountable non-profit. City streets are closed and re-routed. It’s decided to demolish one of the few profit centers for our Metro transit agency (the Arch garage). Other interests then insist that parking be replaced. At what cost? Perhaps $40K per space. We don’t even know how much parking exists downtown, or how efficiently it is utilized.

{in addition to real-time online access, local and highway signs can point to parking}

Who is served by this hapharzard approach to the enormously impactful issue of parking? In what way does this lead St. Louis to a more sustainable, more financial robust future? It doesn’t – not for the park, not for nearby businesses, visitors or residents. There should be no new parking facilities built, with very few exceptions, until the three actions above have been completed. A project cost of $20M would be very nearly equal to the estimated cost to demolish the Arch parking garage and construct a new 700-space facility one block away.

parking_muni garage
{this 540-space garage with 10K sq ft of retail was built by the City of St. Louis for $12.7M in 2009}

{garages are proposed for nearly all residential development – here, at the Park Pacific}

San Francisco spent just $5M on their SFpark project, receiving another $18M from the Department of Transportation. It’s a brilliant investment. In St. Louis, instead, we’re being told that spending $57M on a highway lid and additional ramps and infrastructure is the key to enticing millions of additional visitors to come downtown. Another $20M is needed to tear down a parking garage and building a new one. A couple hundred million dollars more is proprosed for other downtown highway projects. Why do we disconnect our traffic, streets, economic and parking policies?

How is it possible that given those options, the city wouldn’t take a wider view of the parking issue, addressing 10,000 spaces or more across the central business district? How is it possible that a new garage (or surface parking lot) could be endorsed and promoted?

So how does SFpark work?

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  • Steve S.

    The biggest issue with your proposal is that two-way streets with bidirectional parking generally need to have a 36-40 ft. carriageway (and hence be 60 ft. wide to have a functional pedestrian realm). This can be tinkered with using a give-way paradigm, but that would require the street being relatively quiet to work; otherwise you’d get traffic tug-of-wars.

    If your carriageway is 30 ft. wide instead or thereabouts (that is, the street is 50 ft. wide) I’d suggest compromising by having parking on both sides of the street, and a clear alternating one-way system in the core, weakened to a give-way system if the street is quiet enough that it doesn’t create more problems than it solves.

    (For the record, I like give-way streets, but I understand their limitations).

    • Alex Ihnen

      I haven’t measured, but all east-west streets in the CBD (Locust, Olive, Chestnut and Pine are ~37ft wide and currently carry two lanes of traffic and have street parking on both sides. Two-way traffic would clearly work here. North-south, 11th through 6th all carry two lanes of traffic with parking on both sides and measure 36-38ft wide, then Broadway and 4th are much wider.

      • Steve S.

        Sounds good to me.

        Clarification: “Street” is the term for the public realm between lots; a “carriageway” is the specific part of the street that cars inhabit.

  • Daniel Layton

    I never understood parking in St. Louis. I grew up in Washington D.C., where in many cases I had to drive around for upwards of 20 minutes to find parking within 10 blocks of where I wanted to go. In downtown St. Louis it’s rare not to find street parking within one or two block of things, and of course you can pay to park in one of the lots or garages every ten feet. The idea of putting in more parking in St. Louis already didn’t make sense 20 years ago.

  • T-Leb

    Even people who work on the landing say they don’t need any additional parking… I mean, maybe I’m being insensitive to some folks, but, is there something wrong with walking a few blocks worst case?

  • Terence D

    Very good article. Nailed it.

  • George Washington


  • Joe S.

    Totally agree with you Alex! We need to advocate smarter parking technologies and on street parking as well. We really ought to be following what San Francisco’s efforts to address parking issues. Also, making two way streets is a great idea and another new addition should be bike lanes.

    • T-Leb


  • pat

    Why not submit this to RallySTL?

    • onecity

      +1. And extend it to eliminating ALL the stupid bollards and one ways THROUGHOUT the city.

  • Here, Here! Apparently our idea of smart parking is putting 3 concepts along 3 blocks of Grand a few years ago, confusing the crap out of everyone, and not implementing any of them. I don’t mind paying for metered spaces, I mind that our entire economy is based on electronic transfer of funds and I still have to look in the creases of my car seats for coins to park downtown.