Downtown Parking: Supply is Up, Demand is Down.

The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) has released the results of their most recent parking inventory for the region (Excel file with methodology here). The numbers for Downtown tell a particularly important story, one that will need to be repeated over and over in the coming years.

In short, don’t let anyone tell you, ever, that Downtown doesn’t have enough parking. There are now over 78,000 parking stalls in Downtown Seattle (using the broader ‘Center City’ definition of downtown). Over 4,000 new stalls have been built since 2010.

Yet even with the significant job and housing growth seen in the last 3 years, 2,000-3,000 fewer cars per day are parking Downtown than in 2010. Commute Seattle reported earlier this year that drive-alone commuting is at a record low of 34%. Overall downtown parking occupancy rates range from 50-70%, far lower than the 80+% the city aims for in on street parking. Though our building codes mandate ever more parking (with limited exceptions), supply exceeds demand, and this imbalance is slowly accelerating thanks to overbuilding.

PSRC Parking 1Much more below the fold.
PSRC Parking 2


So when we inevitably hear that fully implementing the Bicycle Master Plan downtown will take away too much parking, perhaps a few hundred spaces, we need to be able to leverage the fact that there are 30,000 currently unused spaces elsewhere Downtown. We can make Downtown safe for bikes without damaging vehicle access.

Or consider the Center City Connector (1st Avenue Streetcar). The mixed-traffic option would remove 97 parking spaces, while the exclusive option would remove 144. Remember, too, that the exclusive option costs less to build, less to operate, and would have significantly better ridership. When we have 30,000 spaces unused, and the difference between a questionable transit project and a great transit project is 47 parking spaces, the choice should be crystal clear.  We can make even surface transit through Downtown fast, frequent, and reliable without damaging vehicle access.

In summary, we have a huge surplus of parking. We can give lanes to streetcars and bikes and buses and still have a huge surplus. If there’s a perception of a parking scarcity, or off-street parking is perceived as overly expensive and/or confusing to navigate, those are all problems that call for better marketing, utilization, and education, not wasting valuable urban land on unneeded supply.

This is great data that makes our case for more human-centered uses of the public Right of Way. Once this last generation of mega garages gets built (Amazon and Hedreen et al), maybe we can finally stop building more parking and instead build more of the amenities that make Downtown accessible, usable, and enjoyable for all. Can you imagine what the impacts to affordability might be if every project didn’t start by digging a 6-story hole in the ground?


  1. Lack Thereof says

    Downtown Seattle is extremely car-friendly, and there is no danger of that changing any time soon.

  2. Sam says

    The only thing is, the city doesn’t see paid street parking spaces as a negative. They see them as miniature money printing presses, giving the city almost $5000 per space per year in fines and revenue.

    • Mike Orr says

      So Sam, since you are benevolent and rich as well as wise, could you please drive downtown frequently and park so that we’ll have more money to save Metro with? If you get bored spending all day downtown, you can try the Link Excuses of the Week or take a bus to another neighborhood, and come back to your car when you’re done.

    • Sam says

      I can understand why some may want those street spaces to be repurposed, but do they have a plan on how to replace the revenue they produce?

      • djw says

        I can understand why some may want those street spaces to be repurposed, but do they have a plan on how to replace the revenue they produce?

        Per the linked discussion, the exclusive ROW option, which costs 47 more parking spots than the mixed use option, is estimated to cost 2 million dollars less per year to operate. That’s a lot more revenue than those 47 parking spots are going to generate.

    • Sam says

      What problem is the Center City Connector an answer to again? North/South downtown travel? Don’t we already have that now in the form of hundreds of buses that travel up and down 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th Aves, and the DSTT? Rail fetishists cry “duplication of service!” if there’s a bus route with a half mile of “precious,” and demand that they be eliminated. But if it’s a rail line duplicating bus routes, they declare that it’s not duplicating anything, it’s offering an improved mode of transportation.

      • David Lawson says

        It is duplicative. It will be great for tourists, but not all that useful for locals. For tourists, it will immediately be the legible way of traveling between Pioneer Square, the Market, and the retail core, particularly if the city wises up and uses Pine Street. The DSTT is not at all intuitive for those in the Market or Pioneer Square; in Pioneer Square, you have to walk through a couple of very seedy blocks to access it.

        My feeling on it is that it would be a nice thing to have once a real transit infrastructure is built, but that for now the money should somehow be thrown into the BUILD ALL THE TUNNELS pot. (Easier said than done given that this is a city project and ST is the BUILD ALL THE TUNNELS agency.)

      • Aleks says

        It’s also an accessibility upgrade. Let’s say that you want to get from Pine to James, and you have two kids in a stroller, or a bunch of luggage. It’s a schlep to get down to the DSTT, and there won’t be any room for you on a bus. A streetcar, with wide aisles and level boarding, will be a huge help.

      • Sam says

        Still, in the end, you are taking away something that gives revenue to the city’s general fund (parking spaces), and replacing it with something that eats up revenue.

  3. Urbanist [ad hom] says

    And yet the number of Seattle households with no cars, 16%, has remained the same for the past decade. You’d think that, if cars were being abandoned, the percentage of households in Seattle with cars would’ve changed. Michael McGinn, Seattle’s worst mayor ever, tried to lie about that issue a couple years ago, but it turned out that the same percentage — 16% — of households was without a car in 2010 as in 2000.
    And then there’s Seattle’s bike commuter projections, which once called for 9% of the commuters to be commuting via bicycle by now. Alas, it’s unchanged at 3%.

    • Eric says

      Cars aren’t being abandoned, but they are being parked downtown less frequently. One thing our transit system does pretty well is getting people downtown. With parking rates and traffic being what they are, it’s hardly surprising that a significant fraction of people traveling downtown would do so via public transit.

      One thing our transit system doesn’t do very well is supporting trips that neither start nor end downtown. Since most people need to take such trips fairly often, they aren’t willing to get rid of their cars.

      • RossB says

        The number of cars people have is a stupid measurement of the driving people do, and really off topic.

        I have two cars. I hardly ever park downtown. I just take the bus. The only time I drive downtown is when my wife is with me, and doesn’t want to take the bus. This is usually when there is something going on in the evening. By the way, I find it pretty easy to find parking in those instances. But in general, driving downtown is usually pretty silly — if it was just up to me, I would never drive downtown. But I’m not getting rid of my cars, either. I use them to go to the mountains. It will be a long time before we solve that problem and get good public transportation to the trail heads.

      • David Lawson says

        Yep. My wife and I have two cars between us. But mine gets driven maybe once a week and sits in the garage the rest of the time. Hers, on the other hand, is driven every day.

      • asdf says

        The aggregate number of owned cars matters a great deal when you are talking about residential parking. For downtown parking, though, as long as people continue to leave their cars at home, it’s mostly irrelevant.

    • Wes says

      Actually cycling is up to 4.1%. 4.1% isn’t a lot, but it’s a significant increase over 3%. This makes me question your numbers about car ownership too. I wouldn’t be surprised if around 16% of homes are still carless. However, I would not be surprised if the percentage of houses that went from 2 to 1 or 3 to 2 cars increased a lot. Also people are driving their cars less and that’s a fact.

      • Zach Shaner says

        The 3.3% figure for bike commuting is for Downtown commutes only, which is up 18% from the 2.8% bike commute rate in the 2010 survey. Multiplied across the estimated 202,000 Downtown employees, there were approximately 5,600 Downtown bike commuters in 2010, and 6,600 in 2012. Yet rounding has caused this growth to be reported as “unchanged since 2010 at 3%”, which is inaccurate.

      • djw says

        This makes me question your numbers about car ownership too.

        I was poking around the 2010 census a few weeks ago and checked this; it is accurate. the percentage of car free households is identical from 2000 to 2010. Note that doesn’t tell us that the number of cars per capita isn’t declining–it could well be that more households have fewer cars–but I don’t think the census data tells us that. (I could be mistaken, though).

    • Matt says

      As the other commentators noted, you are way off in many regards. My gf and I own a car that we use on the weekends to get to the mountains. We bike and bus everywhere around the city and for our daily commutes. Moreover, Seattle is one of the richest cities in the nation. With all of the outdoor options beyond the city limits that are inaccessible by public transit, why wouldn’t someone own a car when you can easily afford it? And bike ridership is way up and it’s the fastest growing mode of transportation by far. 4.1% might not seem significant but it’s one of the highest in the country and will only expand as we add more infrastructure.

    • John Bailo says

      A friend of mine took his car downtown, put money in the meter, and put the sticker on the front windshield. He got a large ticket, because you are supposed to put the ticket on the side window.

      Was he at fault? Yes. But does that take the taste out of wanting to go downtown when there’s increasingly a choice of good and even fine restaurants in the suburbs surrounding Seattle. Yes.

  4. Ryan says

    I managed a few parking garages downtown recently. It got to be tough trying to fill spaces. Getting monthly parkers in at ever-increasing rates was difficult, interesting to see why.

  5. Frank says

    Matt – please stop blaming Seattle’s zoning rules for requiring parking downtown… “Though our building codes mandate ever more parking (with limited exceptions)”

    Seattle’s downtown zoning requires no parking for new uses, and in fact has a parking maximum of 1 space per 1,000 sf for office uses. Seattle (DPD) has also eliminated parking requirements for most new uses in urban villages, urban centers and transit station areas.

    Overbuilding of parking may still be a problem, but it’s being done because of decisions of private owner/developers, not parking mandates.

  6. asdf says

    One interesting dynamic in the argument that on-street spaces are not necessary due to the surplus in off-street spaces is Car2Go. As a Car2Go member, off-street spaces are currently useless to me, and only on-street spaces matter (and even then, only the subset of on-street parking spaces that allows parking during rush hour).

    That being said, I strongly support the idea of converting on-street parking downtown into space for bikes and transit. This would presumably force Car2Go to lease some off-street spaces, and probably, drive up prices, but it’s still worth it. If Car2Go turns to the private sector for downtown parking, the amount of money it pays the city for user of metered parking should decrease.

  7. Rob says

    Obviously demand is way down, since rates are way way up. The question is always – how to distinguish between the short term parking that provides access to retail, meetings and tourists downtown, vs. the commuters we think of parking in those spots. I’ve always felt that the commuter parking issue is driven in part by the fact that someone other than the commuter is providing the parking space as an employee perk, and those commuters are then totally price-insensitive. But obviously higher long-term parking is one of the bigger drivers of transit use for those of us not living in the economic stratosphere, and that’s a good thing.

    I think the challenge is in differentiating that problem from the need to make downtown accessible for all of its non-commuting challenges. Retail is key to making downtown a 24-hour destination, and tourism is part of its identity and economic health. It concerns me a little to see blanket statements about parking that don’t make that distinction.

  8. mic says

    Matthew makes the best case I’ve read to date for why street parking is a luxury to a few at the expense of the many. The numbers and facts are irrefutable.
    Not only do parked cars along busy arterials take up a valuable travel lane, but there impact to adjoining lane(s), degrades the functionality of those lanes by quite a bit. Why on earth would buses ‘split the lanes’ along Rainier if traveling within a couple of feet of parked cars was routinely safe? No, it is dangerous, not knowing when the next door will pop open in your face, so the smart drivers turn two travel lanes into one.
    Cyclist getting face planted on a swinging door is even worse. Tinted glass all around these days eliminates being able to see if anyone is in the car.
    Waiting on someone to practice their parallel parking skills is just more time wasted on the many by the few.
    If shop owners are so dependent on a couple of public parking spaces in front of their business, then they should shoulder that burden and purchase several hundred square feet of off street parking. Supply will meet that demand – but as Matthew has pointed out, the supply is there in spades.
    Good Research and great writing.

    • Cinesea says

      Parking on arterials…that’s what has upset me so much about the re-do of Mercer. Damn parking on each side of each direction!! What the hell for???

  9. Jeik says

    Wow. I’ve been following Alan Durning’s blogs on parking, but I had no idea the evidence was so clear (or even collected)!

  10. KyleK says

    Great post. Pretty hard to justify building more parking when supply outstrips demand by 2x.

    In most of the downtown core, minimum requirements are not the issue: Builders and lenders who us out-of-date models to determine how much parking to build are. The way Seattle can fight that is by lowering the parking maximums per unit/office sq feet.

    I’ve heard the pro-parking crowd claim that parking is a fungible resource (people can always rent out their spaces if they don’t need them!). If so, the argument could be made (easily) that there is enough supply already for A LOT of unparked residential in the downtown core. We just need to find the developers and lenders who are willing to take the leap.

  11. eddiew says

    the PSRC has been collecting and publicizing the parking data for a long time. See:
    the deep bore and First Hill Streetcar projects also led to the loss of hundreds of parallel parking stalls. note that the piece shows overall data for a wide area. micro markets may be parked out. it depends on how well they are priced. parking prices have risen faster than inflation. driving in congested traffic is hassle. the AWV and the Mercer West projects have led to increased congestion as both the approaches to the core have been constrained. SR-520 tolling has made that approach more costly and some alternative approaches more congested with traffic diversion.

  12. matt says

    Try to park on capitol hill any day of the weekend, at any time.
    Not enough parking, not enough transit.

    • Brent says

      The parking is too cheap.

      You could also make the argument that there is pent-up demand for living in single-family mansionettes in Capitol Hill (and there is), but does that demand trump the pent-up demand for many more people to live there in an apartment, if that is what is available?

    • KyleK says

      Matt… I have no idea what you are talking about. I’m able to park in Capitol Hill during mega peak times without a problem, ever – just go to a pay garage or lot. Are you expecting there to be street parking?


You may want to read our comment policy.