Sightline Institute has a new report out entitled “Who Pays for Parking?” Among the findings:

Seattle-area apartment developers build far more parking than their tenants need. Across all developments in our sample, 37 percent of parking spots remained empty during the night, the time of peak demand for residential parking. Every development had nighttime parking vacancies, and four developments had more than twice as many parking spots as parked cars.

Many tenants don’t own cars. On average, the developments in our sample had 20 percent more occupied apartments than occupied parking spaces—a rock- bottom estimate for the share of apartments whose tenants don’t park on-site. In all, 21 of the 23 developments had more occupied apartments than parked cars.

Multifamily developments lose money on parking. No development in our sample was able to recover enough parking fees to recover the full estimated costs of building, operating, and maintaining on-site parking facilities.

Car-free tenants still pay for parking. Landlords’ losses on parking—calculated as the difference between total parking costs and total parking fees collected from tenants—add up to roughly 15 percent of monthly rents in our sample, or $246 per month for each occupied apartment. Because landlords typically recoup these losses through apartment rents, all tenants—even those who don’t own cars—pay a substantial hidden fee for parking as part of their monthly rents.

As the report states, there are multiple reasons for the parking oversupply, from city regulations to developer cautiousness.  And it’s far from clear that, if mandated parking were to go away, rents would drop 15% across the city.  Nonetheless, this study does a great service in confirming what many suspect: city codes mandate too much parking in order to pacify anxious neighbors, but many spots end up going unused, making housing more expensive.

Many years ago, I was searching for some commercial real estate for an entertainment venue. My memory’s a bit hazy, but I recall DPD telling me that, to meet the parking requirements, I could make an agreement with a neighboring property where the parking was in use at different times. So, for example, a church that’s only used on Sunday mornings could make an agreement with a nightclub that’s only open in the evenings to “double count” parking spots towards both venues’ requirements.

Going forward, it’s clear we need to reduce parking requirements.  Once that’s done, it would be interesting to see a similar double-count model applied to multi-family housing.  For example, if a 100-unit building has 37 unused spaces, then a 37-unit building could be constructed next-door, with an agreement that the tenants of the second building could lease spots in the first building and not have to build expensive – and redundant – underground parking. The result would be cheaper housing for everyone and a more equitable distribution of parking costs.

30 Replies to “Too Much Parking”

  1. Or… no mandated parking requirements, and let the market (and developers) choose the appropriate # of spots. I don’t know what purpose the regulation serve — it’s not exactly like developers would build no parking, since the %age of people who do want parking will still need it (and choose to rent where it’s available).

    1. +1

      There appears to be no public benefit justification for parking minimums. Maximums make more sense.

      1. The purpose of parking minimums in residential areas is to prevent “magpie parking” where people without their own parking spaces park their cars in places they shouldn’t, blocking commercial access at best and sidewalks at worst.

        Now, what causes this problem? People who buy cars without buying parking spaces.

        As a result, perhaps the correct solution is rather obvious.

        Require, as a prerequisite for *car registration*, that the person registering the car provides proof that they’ve got an owned or leased parking space. In rural areas, proof of ownership or leasing of property with a driveway will do.

        This would get rid of these “magpie parkers”, which would largely eliminate the public support for parking minimums.

        Of course, there are a bunch of existing magpie parkers using curbside spaces next to their houses. We’d probably have to immediately lease those spaces to them at a nominal fee in order to get the proposal passed. They win because they now “own” a space.

        This seems like perhaps the best route. It reverses the way in which parking developed, by eliminating the abuse of people just abandoning their locked cars on the public streets overnight — which was illegal pretty much everywhere in the 19th century. It was people getting away with this which caused the institution of parking minimums in the first place.

        If rules need to be changed to allow existing apartment-building parking to be privately leased/sold, those rules should be changed too.

      2. What do people think of this idea? I realize it might require implementation at the state level. But it seems like it would be the “cleanest” solution to the worry which caused parking minimums to be implemented in the first place.

        We already require all kinds of things as prerequisites for registration, including insurance (in most states). Why not require proof that you have a place to store the car at night?

      3. It’s not clear to me what the issue is. Is the problem that streets in commercial areas are getting full of residents parking? In that case, those spots need to be paid parking.

        If a street is full, then that means it’s priced too low, not that we need to invent more parking (or create other artificial constraints in the supply chain).

      4. I believe Tokyo does not allow you to buy a car without providing the government with proof of a place to park it. I have heard of the rule being abused. For example, someone might spend a few hundred dollars to temporarily lease a parking space for the few months, to allow him/herself to buy the car, then cancel the parking lease and rely on free or underpriced street parking, from then on out. In order to prevent such abuses, proof of parking should be required to maintain your car registration every year, not just on a one-time basis when the car is purchased.

        In the case of Seattle, even ignoring the fact that state law probably prohibits cities from imposing rules like this, you would have to figure out what to do with all the neighborhoods where nearly all homes lack driveways and nearly everyone relies on street parking.

  2. For any who wish to get their nerd on about this topic, go take a look at the King County Right Size Parking project, which was the source of the data analyzed in the Sightline report:

    As described in the doc linked below, our top recommendation is for a “market-based” approach, which means removing minimums and letting the market determine the amount of parking built. The main reason municipalities shy away from this approach is concerns about parking spillover.

    1. I agree completely. Let the market decide.

      I realize there are trade-offs. That is the nature of zoning. But it is pretty hard to defend the need for more parking when it adds to traffic congestion as well as the high cost of rent. Both of these, but especially the cost of housing, are a bigger problem in this area. You have no right to parking, but everyone has the right to life, liberty and property. Right now, thousands in this area can’t afford to rent property (let alone buy) because it is too expensive.

      Building more apartment units will help. But without a change in the zoning laws, it will only help a little. Every builder has to do the math to determine whether an apartment is worth building. If the expected rent is very high, then just about any apartment is worth building. If the expected rent is low, then building something only makes sense if it is cheap to do so. Absent a bubble, this keeps rents high. But if construction costs drop, then new apartments will be built, and downward pressure will be placed on all apartment buildings. There are many ways that construction costs could drop. Labor or raw materials could become cheaper. Regulations could be simpler, thus reducing the white collar costs. By eliminating parking requirement, you dramatically reduce the cost of construction. This is one of the few ways in which we can get rent costs under control in this city. We should embrace this approach.

    1. Love it. Those vast, empty parking structures could safely be used as soccer fields on the busiest shopping days of the year.

  3. The new 16 story tower on University and Western could use Harbor Step’s empty spaces instead of building 3 whole floors of new parking. Does anyone know how many empty spaces are in HS? Plus, the Watermark lot has capacity another half block away. Eliminating the need for underground lots will make waterfront housing more affordable to construct because the water table is so low there.

  4. This study isn’t a silver bullet though. Concerned neighbors will say that the price of the unbundled parking pushed tenants to park on the street, which wasn’t counted. They can cite the Portland study that did indeed show this trend.

  5. What does this terrible parking minimum policy say to me? DPD and City Council still support poor policy that makes Seattle more expensive and caters to squeaky wheel single-family homeowners and irrational fear-mongering (not to mention special interests– taxi anyone?)

    I think this discussion reveals a deeper problem in Seattle DPD and City Council practices and policies– that there is no real resolution nor any real commitment to support affordable housing in this city.

    Supporting parking minimums, frowning over apodment type housing, weak discussion around zoning density close to light rail stations, overly complicated zoning code with huge amounts of rules and regulations, draconian permitting processes, and huge penalties to developers for building at higher density to pay for subsidized housing are all enormous barriers to providing more affordable housing in Seattle. And I’m sure my 3-minute list is missing plenty.
    It’s difficult and expensive to develop in Seattle. It’s getting harder too, which unquestionably makes development more expensive, period. The more the city council and DPD listen to the loud-voiced single family homeowners, special interests and other groups that have the money to organize and show up, clamoring over losing the “character” of their neighborhoods, the poor and less-advantaged of Seattle lose out.

    Ironically the ones who have to deal with the madness, the developers, are demonized regardless of what they do, because they stand to make a profit. And who can blame them from building luxury condos, when the effort to build a luxury condo and a market-based “affordable” apartment is the same, the land costs the same, the hoops jumped through the same, the parking whiners the same, and the construction costs not that variable (yet the profits from a luxury condo are quite variable).

    I feel let down by the City Council. The situation is worsening, not improving. The $15/hour debate, while noble, is only going to further distract from the other real issues that could make Seattle more affordable in a probably more impactful manner, like good urban policy and making transit more accessible to people who can’t afford to own cars, or don’t have time to sit in an hour of traffic every time there’s an accident on I-5.

    1. Not everyone on the city council feels that way about density issues. Why, just the other day I was reading something from Conlin about how he was working with the mayor to get more density and … oh, wait, hmmm, yeah, I guess we’ll have to see if the new folks feel the same way about these issues or not.

      All jokes aside, I completely agree with you. The biggest crisis we have in this city is the high cost of housing. All zoning involves trade-offs. Getting rid of the parking minimum would be a cheap and easy trade-off (the right to shelter versus the right of neighbors to park on the street with less competition).

      1. Sure, half of them will only end up being accountable to the Lesser Seattle crowd, but that’s no reason to think they won’t do the right thing instead of whatever gets them re-elected by their parochial interests!

    2. A public service announcement from Lesser Seattle: “If you’re having trouble finding an apartment in Seattle that you can afford, we suggest trying Portland, Los Angeles, or Federal Way. Thank you for your attention.”

  6. “So, for example, a church that’s only used on Sunday mornings could make an agreement with a nightclub that’s only open in the evenings to “double count” parking spots towards both venues’ requirements.”

    Now that’s an interesting partnership!

  7. I’ve always felt development requirements require too much parking, and also that leases and rent should be decoupled from parking so people who don’t own cars don’t need to help pay for development costs they don’t use. But I think there’s a big distance between that position and the one currently adopted for urban villages – no parking requirement at all for multifamily buildings. To me, that crosses the line between progressive change into a giveaway to developers – dumping parking everyone knows will be required on the neighborhood. I’m actually sort of shocked that that happened without a lot of public attention (meaning, without me noticing). I knew that changes were being considered, but I thought there was a huge opportunity to reduce parking requirements before hitting the line where I might actually oppose it. I know I won’t get sympathy on this blog (because single family homeowners are retrograde) but I don’t see what benefit there is to tenants or neighbors to not requiring enough parking to meet demand – given sensible demand management efforts. At some point it’s just allowing an externality and a giveaway to the developer.

    1. It is not a give away to developers, its a gift of lower rents/cost to the new renters. Especially those without cars. If the neighborhood has parking challenges, then potential new renters can choose buildings with parking or renting from others if very convenient parking is their value. Other may not find it worth the cost. Parking lovers will migrate to secured parking and non-car folks to buildings without this unnecessary expense.

  8. I work in Alley 24 (and for the firm that designed it), the block across from the REI flagship. One half of the block is 6-story office/retail, the other half is 6-story multi-family residential. Parking only exists below the commercial property, but serves both halves of the block. There was a percentage that was double counted when applying for the permit. The largest parking loads here occur during the business day, as more people work in the office half than live in the residential half. It is rare that there is a shortage of parking, though there are a fair number of residential cars that remain in the garage during the day.

  9. Something I don’t see mentioned on here:

    When I lived in my condo building in upper Fremont, some parking spots were not used by the owner because of two reasons:

    1: Not enough storage space in their condo so they used their parking spot for ‘storage’ so they parked on the street.
    2: Their car(SUV/truck) was too big to fit into their spot so they parked on the street.

    In both scenarios, would that mean that the condo building had too many parking spots? How many other buidlings across the region have spots that are not used for vehicles but for other reasons, making on-street parking used more often for condo/apartment residents?

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