Local View: In Duluth, transforming downtown doesn't have to mean driving downtown

From the column: "There are many ways to encourage vibrancy without further accommodating private cars and the need for their expensive storage."

A bicyclist shares the road with vehicle traffic in downtown Duluth.
2015 News Tribune file photo

I have appreciated the News Tribune’s coverage of downtown public safety, including the Oct. 13 news story about a forum sponsored by the Duluth Downtown Task Force (“ How curb appeal can improve public safety in downtown Duluth ”) and the more-recent Feb. 6 editorial (Our View: “ Downtown rebound slowly but encouragingly beginning ”).

Targeted revitalization of a business district — as is now occurring in the Lincoln Park Craft District, for example — can enhance neighborhood public safety by the ongoing presence of business patrons, workers, and neighborhood residents. Urban activist Jane Jacobs observed in her groundbreaking book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” that traditional urban-development patterns, especially those encouraging a diversity of uses within public spaces, increase the number of “eyes on the street,” which in turn helps to foster and sustain a community’s public safety.

While encouraged by the Downtown Task Force’s objective of bringing more people into downtown Duluth, I was disappointed in a statement made by Mayor Emily Larson that, "I love when it goes from concerns about safety to concerns about we don't have enough parking because so many people are coming here." While the mayor’s comment in the Oct. 13 News Tribune story may have seemed an innocuous reflection of what some Duluthians may consider a laudable outcome, it struck me as a misunderstanding of the key ingredients needed to make downtown Duluth a vibrant and safe environment.

Specifically, I strongly disagree with the assumption that increasing downtown economic activity depends on more car traffic and increased parking. Such a relationship is not the actual experience of cities that follow Jane Jacobs’ guidance. Instead, leaders of the most successful cities understand that as economic activity and vibrancy increase, more efficient and inclusive transportation modes are needed. The assumption that we should expect, encourage, and/or accommodate private cars over transit and non-motorized modes of transportation to revitalize and improve our downtown’s safety ignores the detrimental impact that such policies can have — and have had — on downtown Duluth.

There are many ways to encourage vibrancy without further accommodating private cars and the need for their expensive storage. For example, parking in downtown Duluth — and everywhere in Duluth, for that matter — should be priced appropriately. As another urban planning pioneer, Donald Shoup, emphasized in his book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” underpriced parking encourages the ownership and use of cars; distorts land-use policies; skews travel choices away from public transit, carpooling, cycling, and walking; and ultimately contributes to the decay of our urban cores. Prioritizing space for cars limits productive neighborhood development, replacing space that would have traditionally contained businesses, services, and homes, with parking.


Charging an appropriate price for parking — and eliminating the requirement for minimum amounts of parking in new developments — allows market forces and the needs of all of the city’s residents, not just those who own cars, to determine the direction and pathway for downtown revitalization. If the revenues collected from downtown parking fees are reinvested in improved downtown streetscapes, increased bicycle infrastructure, subsidized mass transit, improved four-season mobility, and other amenities of broad benefit, a virtuous circle can be created that ultimately decreases the need to drive downtown, thereby lessening the need for parking. As recent studies have shown, not only do these improvements create a more pleasant and accessible downtown, they also improve business for retailers.

Discouraging commuting by car also helps to accomplish what should be the long-term vision for downtown: its transformation into a neighborhood of its own, where people want to live, work, and socialize. With the rise of remote work, we need people downtown, and the more that people of all economic strata reside in downtown Duluth, the better the environment will be for businesses that cater to those residents — including restaurants, cafes, grocery stores, pharmacies, entertainment venues, and the like. As noted by Jane Jacobs, each of those residents provides “eyes on the street” that are likely to be at least as effective as a Clean and Safe Team in monitoring and improving public safety in our downtown.

While we will never completely rid our cities of cars, I look forward to the day when I hear the mayor say, “I love when it goes from concerns about safety to concerns about not having enough bus capacity, and the bike lanes are always too crowded.”

David Roise of Duluth and Menlo Park, California, is a patent attorney, bike and pedestrian advocate, and homeowner in the Congdon neighborhood. He is a supporter of the group We Walk in Duluth, which advocates for safe and accessible policies for biking and walking.

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David Roise

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