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There is a remarkable front-page piece in the Times today rather unsubtly titled “Parking around Seattle may get worse as city planners favor transit.” My first thought was Seattle was taking away street parking for transit lanes (Ha!) but in fact it’s just eliminating parking minimums in certain areas.

I was all set to write a takedown but Erica Barnett at PubliCola seems to have covered the main points. Apparently a top-down command-and-control economy is the only way to save local business, especially since local auto shops are worthy of protection but “developers” are something to be fought.

Like many political issues, I think this gets rather unfortunately wrapped up in identity politics. Urbanists try to discourage driving, partly for environmental reasons, partly for aesthetic ones, and partly because car dependence is simply unworkable at a certain level of density. Admittedly, among some there’s an added sense of “screw’em if they refuse to stop driving.” The other side opposes these measures, thanks to a combination of fear of losing their current quasi-free, low-effort car access, the abrasion of the less tactful urbanist edge, and a general sense that their lifestyle is being labeled as immoral.  That said, the impact is likely to be either beneficial or small. Either people will switch from driving, in which case we’ve just created affordable housing with few negative externalities, or people won’t, in which case the market will demand parking in accordance with the old minimum.

Anyhow, I think moral condemnation of people’s choices isn’t helpful. Except for those of us who are simply too poor to consume anything, most of us have at least some indulgences that have significant environmental consequences. Some of us drive the SUV when there’s a suitable express bus, some of us eat lots of meat, and some of us fly all over the place for leisure. I’ve been searching for a syntax that says “it would be good public policy to stop encouraging people to do these things” without the added connotation of “people who do that thing are morally wrong.”

22 Replies to “The Parking Minimum in Seattle”

  1. One notion is to accurately price the true costs of the decisions we make, and the activities we partake in, so that we can all make better decisions.

    That, and recognize that just about any individual transportation decision can make sense in context. Sometimes riding the bus is the best decision, sometimes jumping in a car is the best decision.

    I’d be careful describing someone choosing a driving centric lifestyle as picking a “quasi-free” choice, when stepping on Sounder or Central Link is heavily subsidized as well.

    1. I was referring to the actual user costs of driving, like gas, and maintenance, not subsidy.

  2. Maybe I’m too close to this, working for a contractor who works for developers, but this is less about creating scarcity and more about letting the developers build what they think their tenants will want. If the developer looks around and sees that similar buildings are actually using x amount of parking, that’s what they’ll build.

    Developers don’t have any incentive to underbuild parking…they rely on that parking to rent their apartments.

    The exception is good too. Some developers target renters who don’t have cars, generally in the really close-in areas or the U-District. That’s a great way to provide more affordable housing, and not force your renters to subsidize parking they won’t use.

    1. Yep, with apologies to Donald Shoup, even if we stop mandating free ice cream a lot of places provide it anyway.

      In my opinion the real winner in removing these parking requirements are the low-income housing developers, whose projects don’t need much parking but whose clients have the most to gain from good transit access.

  3. Martin,
    I agree with you that it is unhelpful to label people’s choices as immoral, generally, but when it comes to transportation issues this seems to only exist within the minds of the opposition to non-automobile modes. Outside of a rare commentator on a blog or a guy in a bar, I don’t see anyone making an argument that car-owners are immoral or need to be screwed over. Are there any people with real audiences or real power saying this? Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems to me like you are fighting against the same straw-man the opposition invented.

    1. Well I’m partly speaking to the “rare commentator on a blog, but it’s not so much what people are saying, but what the subjects are hearing.

    2. I would say it’s immoral for car drivers to impose externalized costs on everyone. However, there is very little a car owner can do individually to properly pay for these costs. The line has to be drawn where a driver places undue costs on others, by driving recklessly or wastefully, or who summarily dismisses the problems imposed by car dependence.

  4. The article is so typical, unfortunately, of the Times’ bias against any effort that can be construed as anti-car. Look at how they frame the issue: not one of deregulation helping to spur inner city construction (jobs/homes/business!) but one of negative effects (parking scarcity).

    1. I am especially disappointed with the Times and their pro-car bias on this one. They spent a lot of print talking about the owner of a car repair shop and the inconvenience of having to enforce that his parking lot is for customers only.

      The article completely ignores all the benefits of removing parking requirements – there is not one mention of just how much a parking space costs and how much you could save on buying a home without parking, nor does the article mention that the shear space taken up by surface parking makes destinations further apart, and therefore less walkable.

      We should be talking about parking requirements by emphasizing the burden of forcing business to build a parking lot bigger than their store itself, in order to be allowed to operate, not in terms of unlimited free parking everywhere being something that everyone is entitled to.

      1. “… there is not one mention of just how much a parking space costs …”

        This is particularly frustrating. When I mention the cost of the Bellevue Library’s new parking garage to neighbors I get a blank stare. I am pretty sure they don’t believe me even though the numbers involved are widely available and pretty simple to calculate.

  5. What transit can do is create an equilibrium of density.

    So, anywhere along the LINK or Sounder corridors, you can have some commercial and residential density.

    Thus there is no need to make everyone cram into the few square miles of downtown.

    Given ample free parking at the train stations, people can drive to the transit corridor, and then work and eat anywhere along it.

    Thus the “city” becomes a line, rather than a point.

    1. Real cities tend to be “node-oriented”, with high-densities around transport hubs and major transfer stations, and lesser-but-still-highish densities around ordinary rail stations and following rail lines and major roads.

      The densities and sizes of the above hubs/major-stations themselves tends to increase towards some sort of notional center, but that can be a lot broader than a single “downtown”, and there can be a lot of lesser densities within the web of transport links.

      Of course with a good transport network, the “web” can be sized so that few people need to drive at all.

      [E.g., Tokyo doesn’t really have a single “downtown”.]

      1. Sounds good to me.

        I agree…ideally it would be a 2-D network…not a line or point.

        And every node can have some density with lower density decreasing further way from the stations.

        Personal transit can be accomodated at the end nodes that give way to SFHs and cul de sacs.

        These funnel into wide avenues with flexible bus transit and flow into rail in a “web” as you say.

        Any node can be work, shopping, or entertainment.

        For example, you could put a new NBA basketball stadium in Renton and a hockey arena in Issaquah and the transit-web distributes it all.

    2. This sounds like the Los Angeles model. No high or low density, but medium density everywhere. And in LA, it’s mostly due to the uniform parking minimums. Needless to say, I would NOT want Seattle to turn into something like that, although I wouldn’t mind upzoning Kent and Renton to that level. Seattle’s entire history and development is more geared toward a New York and New England model than a Los Angeles model: it would be a shame to throw all that potential away.

  6. Correct me if I’m wrong but what the city is doing here is not so much pro-transit but less mandated “free” parking. They are merly stopping the requirement of parking for development. You could if you wanted put a parking garage anywhere in the city. The only thing that will come of this is less “free” parking.

  7. I live 2 blocks from this shop, and many of my neighbors use their garages for storage or workout rooms because there is so much available “free” street parking. I rarely have trouble finding a spot right in front of my home.

    In the article they’re complaining about a new retirement home with fewer parking places than residents, less than 3 blocks from frequent bus service. Call me crazy, but I don’t want to be reliant on a car when I’m retired. But I guess according to the Times we’re supposed to be driving until the day we die – sight, hearing, coordination, and reaction time be damned.

  8. The problem here is quite simply one of entitlement. People on some level understand that free parking is astoundingly convenient and can also be quite expensive to provide. Because they’re used to it, they’ve come to feel entitled to it, and now someone is threatening that entitlement. I personally think that this sense of entitlement is the real problem here, more so than any actual parking regulations or requirements or garages. It’s the mentality that they have a God-given right and that the rest of the world needs to go out of its way to accomodate them and their cars. This mentality is in some ways antithetical to the very idea of a city, where public space is inherently somewhat scarce and what it gets used for is always subject to a sort of negotiation between the various parties who want to use it.

    1. Well, the other problem is that if they have to pay to park in Seattle, they’ll shop elswehere while parking is free. Everyone does this, even most transit fans sometimes. If you’re with somebody in a car, or for some reason you have to take a car, or you’re with somebody who’s disabled and can’t ride a bus easily, it just doesn’t seem worth spending $2 or $10 to spend 15 minutes or an hour downtown or on the Ave, so you go to University Village or Northgate or Greenwood instead.

      1. I think your example works in many cases, but really doesn’t apply to downtown. It looks just as busy on Saturdays (when parking costs money) as on Sundays (when parking is free). The thing is, in both cases, it is a hassle to drive downtown (steep streets, heavy traffic and lots of pedestrians). Some will accept the hassle and drive downtown anyway (because it is worth it). Others will take the bus, because of the hassle and the expense. Like you mentioned, there are other folks that will simply go somewhere else.

        One example that I think is relevant is the U-District. My wife and I like to attend Husky basketball games. On those nights, one of will drive, and meet the other one in the U-District. We both grumbled about the extra cost of parking. Now, we either park in the free parking area (generally north of 50th) and walk over to the ave, or just pay the meter. I think this serves as a good example. We considered going somewhere else, where parking is free, but it really isn’t worth it. I think a lot of people complain about these sorts of things (just like they complain about bus fairs going up) but in the end, it’s just not a deal breaker.

      2. “Everyone does this…”???

        Why bother with mode split studies when you only need one perfect data point?

    2. I think it is simpler than that. People just want things the way they have always been, but somehow better. They like the added bars, restaurants, theaters and other amenities that comes from a growing city, but they don’t like the traffic, noise and yes, lack of parking.

      The problem is, the opponents of parking minimums haven’t done a great job in reaching out to these people. There is a trade-off with every development. In the case of parking minimums, it has made for really ugly architecture. I saw it decimate parts of Ballard in the 80s. Gone were the interesting houses, only to be replaced by cookie-cutter duplexes and quads. The only thing uglier than the buildings was the landscaping. Instead of the homemade landscaping, where each neighbor did their own thing, we have a rhody or two, with lots of concrete. Lots and lots of concrete. Why the concrete? For the mandated parking, of course. Parking wasn’t difficult when most of those buildings were being built. The developers didn’t put them in as a response to the market. They were put in only because the (zoning) law required it. It gave density a bad name in the minds of many residents, and that sort of attitude exists to this day.

      Going forward, folks like me (who want to get rid of parking minimums) should have a simple message. Less mandated parking leads to more affordable and much more attractive housing. For many people, that is a worthy trade-off.

      1. I like that. My argument to my neighbors has always been on the other benefits of density. Want more neighborhood businesses within walking distance? Want more frequent buses and maybe someday a streetcar? Then we need to stop wasting space on parking lots and limiting heights. More people and fewer cars means a more walkable neighborhood.

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