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City council member Tom Rasmussen stopped by the council’s planning and land use committee this week to express his view that the city’s new parking recommendations—which would, among other things, continue to allow new developments to be built sans parking, while encouraging alternatives to driving such as carsharing, biking, and riding transit—might violate the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

The recommendations (all meeting materials available here) were based on a survey of 219 newly reviewed or permitted residential developments in parts of Seattle where no parking is required, which found that three-quarters of developers are choosing to build parking anyway, despite the fact that parking adds between $20,000 and $50,000 per space to the cost of new developments (or about $500 a month per unit in rent) and reduces the total number of units that can fit in a development. The market, not the government, determines whether a developer chooses to build parking.

The developments with parking comprised 16,600 units; only 2,400 units in the survey will have no parking, mostly in places with easy access to frequent transit such as Capitol Hill, the Central District, Ballard, and the U District. The rest will average 0.55 spaces per unit.

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A separate survey, King County’s “Right-Sized Parking” study, found that in Seattle, about 35 percent of parking spaces in multifamily buildings go unused, becoming, in planning committee chair Mike O’Brien’s words, “a wasted resource.”

Rasmussen and fellow density skeptic Nick Licata attempted to pick apart these findings by claiming they didn’t narrow in on Seattle (incorrect; the conclusions are based on Seattle parking vacancies only), or that they were too old (the survey data was from 2012, not 2002), or that they only took very dense neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and First Hill into account (wrong again—the survey spanned Seattle from Alki to the U District).

But Rasmussen’s main issue with the recommendations—which have gotten pushback from neighborhood residents concerned that, as Department of Planning and Development director Diane Sugimura wryly phrased it , “they are not able to park in front of their house”—is that development without parking will lead to “spillover parking” in nearby neighborhoods, the kind of adverse effect the city is supposed to avoid.

Rasmussen went on quite a tear about this point, lamenting that as the city grows, “people are saying [a street parking shortage is] causing tremendous congestion: ‘We can’t get to our church,’ ‘We can’t get to our home.’

“We’re hearing concerns from the community, and they’re saying that we’re not complying with the comprehensive plan. … So either we change the comprehensive plan and don’t address our commitment to the public about not having spillover parking, or we try to develop some information [about] if spillover parking is occurring, and that’s what I was expecting to see in this study.”

In fact, the city’s parking report concluded that “it is not likely that establishing new off-street parking requirements would have a noticeable effect on on-street parking in a number of areas because there is no mechanism to compel people to park off-street when on-street parking is much less expensive.”

Rasmussen also argued that parking requirements should be “very neighborhood-specific,” an idea that could effectively negate the city’s entire urban center/urban village strategy, and suggested that DPD and the Seattle Department of Transportation go back and study parking patterns in neighborhoods across the city over time, a huge assignment that would go far beyond the scope of the study on which the new parking recommendations were based.

Paolo Nunes-Ueno, SDOT’s Transit Division chief, said that while the city could go back and do that study, the ultimate issue, as the King County parking survey indicates, is that “although we can require parking to be included in a development, we can’t require people to park in that parking.”

The committee also briefly revisited the definition of “frequent transit service,” which, thanks to a hearing examiner’s ruling last year, is now much more rigidly defined. The definition matters because proximity to frequent transit is one of the criteria for eliminating parking minimums in an area, and under the new definition (15-minute headways on a specific route, rather than 15-minute average headways on routes going the same general direction) more developments will have to be built with parking.

Sugimura noted that the city doesn’t plan to implement any new parking rules until the end of the year, which O’Brien said was too long to wait before dealing with the frequent transit issue. He suggested that given the pace of new development and the Prop. 1 transit improvements coming to Seattle in September, the council should take up the definition much sooner. “It sounds like a pretty straightforward change, and one that has some pretty direct impacts on what’s going to happen in the city,” O’Brien said.

Other significant changes proposed in the recommendations include:

• Requiring new residential buildings to provide transit passes to residents. Although the exact details have to be worked out, according to the report, “actual costs of this type of program will be a small fraction of the cost of building new parking.”

• Loosening the definition of “frequent transit service,” as discussed, plus eliminating the current requirement that developers perform detailed transit service calculations for every individual development.

• Allowing residents to share parking spaces with people who don’t live in the building, a common practice in other cities that Seattle currently does not allow.

• Standardizing what counts as “bike parking” and creating minimum bike parking requirements, which, as Licata noted with some incredulity*, do not exist yet in the city.

• Implementing demand management for residential parking zone permits, which give residents of congested neighborhoods exclusive access to long-term on-street parking; these permits are currently very cheap ($65 or less for two years) and widespread, as households are allowed multiple permits. In this case, demand management would probably consist of easing back on the city’s extremely permissive permit requirements, and/or increasing the cost to park on the street in high-demand areas, although actually charging people market rent to use public street space for private car storage would probably be considered beyond the pale. 

Not on the table, but potentially on the horizon, are solutions like parking maximums, making it easier to allow tenants to rent an apartment without renting a parking space, and subsidizing transit discounts for transit. Great ideas, but here’s a counterproposal: Why not make unbundling mandatory, so that residents know exactly how much of their rent is apartment and how much is car storage, and get rid of parking minimums across the city?

* I’m asterisking this one because Licata acted equally dumbfounded about the fact that there was no minimum bike parking requirement for microhousing, of which he was not a fan, as a preface to suggesting expensive new bike parking at those developments.

41 Replies to “Seattle’s Parking Proposals are Reality-Size”

  1. I’m tired of these two [ad hom].

    An additional $500 per month in rent for a parking spot that you may not need is an incredible obstacle to affordability for our lower income residents. This city shouldn’t just be for rich techies. If we want a more diverse city with a mix of people and backgrounds, then we have to allow for a mix of lifestyles. Living without a car is one such lifestyle, and it is one way that our lower income families can really reduce expenses and save time by living in the city closer to work.

    1. The calculation looks suspect. $500 per month would pay off the space in three or eight years. I think “normal” rents are based on the 10-15 year price of a comparable condo, and the building’s financing is based on a 20-year payback. My building’s parking is $200; I haven’t heard of anything higher than that and it’s hard to believe the market would bear it.

      1. Yes, where’s the evidence that the same unit without parking would cost $500 less.

      2. @MO,

        I can’t speak for Erica’s or STB’s numbers, bur even $200 is a lot when you are low income and trying to make ends meet. People should have the option of living without a car without being forced to still pay these sorts of penalties.

      3. I assumed it was the unbundled rate. If it’s bundled into the rent, well you can’t tell how much is parking and how much is other things (or no things). The rent isn’t really based on the cost but on the highest they can charge and still get somebody to sign the lease. But from the tenant’s perspective, the parking space adds more “value”, but how much is it worth to them compared to an equivalent unit without bundled parking? But there may be no equivalent unit without bundled parking to compare it to.

      4. The calculation is based off of a study done by the City of Portland and referenced in Seattle planning documents. You can find it here: The study includes as costs not only the construction and maintenance of parking, but also the fact that parking reduces the number of units that could otherwise be built on a site. The study assumes a small-ish site that would force an inefficient parking garage or lot, but also considers other scenarios that cost less.

  2. “Requiring new residential buildings to provide transit passes to residents. Although the exact details have to be worked out, according to the report, “actual costs of this type of program will be a small fraction of the cost of building new parking.””

    I’m not sure it would be a small fraction. Smaller, yes, but transit passes for each resident would start to add up. Thinking of my building, there are ~60 parking spaces and ~140 residents. At $500/month per space, the parking costs $30,000/month. However, parking fees are ~$175/month and the garage is full, which reduces the net cost to $19,500/month. 140 transit passes at $99/month is almost $14,000 (if you exclude the 60 drivers, it would be $8000). Maybe Metro would give some volume discount, but we’re still talking about many thousands of dollars per month.

    This also wouldn’t benefit residents who work for employers that already provide free transit passes (such as Amazon, Microsoft, and the federal government, among others). Nor would it help the least-loved yet most efficient commuters – walkers and cyclists – who may be paying higher rent to live nearer to their workplaces. Their rent would increase up to $99/month for a transit pass they would value at much less.

    Finally, given that we’re seeing mostly higher-end construction, cost is not the reason new residents are not riding transit. They have plenty of money.

    1. The passes would be subsidized and, I believe, bought in bulk, so they wouldn’t cost $99 a month. And you’re not factoring in the fact that if those 60 or so spaces weren’t there, there would be more room for apartments, which means more revenue, in your building.

      1. If they were to apply Passport rates to residential properties across the board, they’d range from $29/pp/month (“Seattle Neighborhoods”, UDistrict), $38/month (First Hill), $40 (SLU, Queen Anne), $55 (Seattle CBD),and $56 (Belltown). So the discount off of the standard $99 retail rate for a $2.75 pass would be anywhere from to 40-70% off. A pretty significant discount.

      2. Well, at least in my building the parking garage is underground. Those apartments would be 20 feet deep. So I don’t think they would exist.

        Zach – those prices are the new contract rates. The renewal rates are a lot higher (e.g. $63 for First Hill, $48 for the neighborhoods).

      3. Alex – But there would be a huge upfront capital cost savings for them. Also as an operating cost these passes would be tax deductible, unlike the cost of parking.

        So the renewal rates are only 40-50% discount, Zach’s point still stands.

      4. Denver Neigborhood Ecopass

        “Neighborhood EcoPass is a discounted pass purchased by neighborhoods inside the RTD district for all of its residents. Residents are issued an EcoPass smart card valid for up to one year of unlimited rides on all Local, Express, and Regional bus and light rail service.”

        So it’s like the U-Pass. If everyone in a neighborhood agrees to buy it, the cost can go down quite a bit, to $50 or $20. We really should have this widespread in Seattle neighborhoods.

      5. It is interesting in concept, but in execution, what problem is this trying to solve?

        Will it stop the building parking garages? Sorry, but high-income people are more likely to want cars. Developers want high-income tenants. Garages will be built and cars will be purchased. Giving away $1200 worth of transit passes in no way makes cars less attractive. You’d need to ban parking entirely or make it massively taxed (like 3-5x) to do that.

        Will it increase ridership by making transit less expensive? Doubtful. This presumes the barrier to using transit is price. For high-income renters in Seattle, I don’t think that is true. $99/month is very affordable already for someone earning $100,000 or more and paying $2000-$3000 in rent. Many already get discounted passes from work. Low-income residents now have a discounted fare. There are many reasons why someone does not use transit for commuting. Price is way down the list.

        Will it give Metro more money? Yes, but not in every situation. Metro gets $99 from me, but it would be $63 on the Passport rate, a loss of $432/year in revenue. Metro would gain revenue from selling two passes to the same person (1 via home, 1 via employer), but I don’t think that is good policy. Employers might question the value of the Passport program if employees get another transit pass from home.

        Will it increase rents? Certainly. The rental market is very tight. The extra costs would be easily passed through by landlords. If you don’t commute (e.g. retired, unemployed, stay-at-home parent, work from home) even a discounted pass is probably a bad deal. If you walk or bike (or drive) to work, a transit pass is also less valuable.

      6. “What problem is this trying to solve?”

        Making transit less expensive for frequent riders, more attractive for potential semi-frequent riders, and helping level the paying field between transit and driving.

        “but high-income people are more likely to want cars… $99/month is very affordable already for someone earning $100,000 or more and paying $2000-$3000 in rent. Many already get discounted passes from work. Low-income residents now have a discounted fare.”

        Who cares about high-income people? They may drive more than others but we can’t do anything about that. Any financial disincentive would be insignificant to them. But I don’t make $100,000 and I pay the full $99 for my pass. I also don’t pay $2000-3000 rent, and most people don’t yet. There’s a lot of people between the low-income cutoff and $100,000 salaries.

        The U-Pass is paying for several frequent and peak routes in the U-District that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Imagine if other neighborhoods came into a similar program, there would be more money for more bus service, and anybody could ride them not just the residents, just like anybody can take the 65 and 197. It would be smaller-scale of course, since any building or block or residential neighborhood doesn’t have 50,000 students and staff on its own. But it would be an incremental improvement.

        There’s a city in eastern Europe that decided to buy transit passes in bulk for all its residents. That would be the ultimate result in the opposite direction of our individuals-and-employers-buy-passes system. I’m not saying it’s necessarily better but it’s worth keeping an open mind about. Of course Europe doesn’t have the problem of smelly homeless people riding around in circles all day whenever buses are free, but that’s because they have other places to go and more services, ahem.

        “Employers might question the value of the Passport program if employees get another transit pass from home.”

        How much does that matter? I’m not familiar with the details of the Passport program since I’ve never been in it. The employer is looking at the aggregate tax benefit, not at how many employees use the pass. An unused pass counts as zero rides per month to Metro, which means Metro will give the employer a lower aggregate rate.

        Finally, a general thought. Isn’t employer-based transit passes kind of like employer-based health insurance? It leaves a lot of people out: those who work for non-participating companies, small companies, self-employed, and unemployed. And in the case of transit, out-of-state companies who have only a few employees in the state. Their headquarters may be in a less transit-using city so they don’t see transit benefits as important, or they may have too few people in Seattle to make it worthwhile to participate in Passport.

      7. Also, if the pass costs $50 a month, that equals 9 one-zone round trips a month. That’s just two trips a week plus one trip. Many people can do that or a bit more and find the pass worth it even if they don’t commute five days a week on the bus. Especially since a pass is not just a way to save a buck; it gives predictability to your month-to-month travel expenses; avoids the dilemma of deciding whether a single trip is worth the price; and avoids the problem of forgetting you ran out of money in your e-purse and don’t have enough cash. And for Metro, if the person is not commuting five days a week, they’re not taking space on crowded peak buses so they’re not costing Metro.

      8. Mike, appreciate the discussion.

        The reason I care about high-income people is that for the purposes of this concept, it would apply specifically to new construction. In Seattle, new construction is mostly higher-end apartments that are rented by higher-income people.

        They don’t care if the transit pass is $99, $63, or free (loads of Amazon and UW employees drive to work even though they get subsidized transit passes and have to pay for parking). Transit is always cheaper than car ownership. Making transit even cheaper isn’t going to convince car owners to give up their vehicles. That’s why it won’t change the demand for garage parking. You’d need to jack up the cost of car ownership so high that it was no longer attractive even for high income people.

      9. Cost isn’t the only reason people do or don’t take transit. Many people have moderate feelings about the environment, the social environment on the bus, the ability to read a book or sleep on the bus, etc. One little incentive could be enough to make them start taking the bus or use it for a few more trips.

      10. Also, the impact of one building or even a hundred buildings offering transit passes will be minimal to Metro and employers. It would have to be a much larger scale make an aggregate difference. A large percentage of employees or residents won’t change their transit/driving habits with the pass: they’ll continue to commute as they already do, by transit or car or other. If an entire building has transit passes, then either they work at a variety of employers so the impact on one employer is little, or most of them work at the large tech companies where they’re also only a small percent.

  3. One reason I would be a terrible politician: I couldn’t pretend to take seriously someone who thinks its reasonable for force other people to spend thousands of dollars on an amenity they don’t want or need, in order to preserve their entirely imaginary easement right to store their car on the most convenient chuck of government land near their property.

  4. Something I’ve been mulling over is the practice of allowing parking passes for residents of apartments that were intentionally built without parking because they are in transit overlay areas, and possibly disallowing this practice. On the one hand, changing the policy would encourage the use of transit and prevent car owners from making the city subsidize their auto storage. It also has the benefit of possibly pacifying neighbors who are concerned about parking impacts of development. On the other hand, I’m concerned such a policy would come off as anti-development or anti-apartment dwellers. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be an across- the-board policy–maybe it could be a form of concessions so that developers could apply to exceed maximum height limits.


    1. I actually like the idea of saying that RPZ parking permits are for residents of existing buildings, not new buildings. This would allow new buildings to be built without parking without diluting the value of the parking permits for existing residents. While such rules would result in developers building more parking than they would if their residents were entitled to street permits like everyone else, the total amount of parking would still likely be much less than a traditional system of requiring parking.

      More important, a system like this is market based, allowing those who actually have to bear the cost of building parking to decide how much to build, rather than city planners. This is much better than a series of patchwork rules about the definition of 15-minute transit service.

  5. “In fact, the city’s parking report concluded that “it is not likely that establishing new off-street parking requirements would have a noticeable effect on on-street parking in a number of areas because there is no mechanism to compel people to park off-street when on-street parking is much less expensive.””

    This is the most crucial (and not-often-enough-raised) point of the parking report and this piece. If off-street parking is still priced, its requirement and construction will do very little to relieve pressure for on-street parking. If the off-street parking is made free, then the cost will be shared by all of a new development’s tenants, even those who don’t use the parking. Keeping parking minimums high to relieve pressure on street parking is not the obvious solution the council members seem to think it is.

    1. I think the worst case for everyone of allowing builders to build whatever parking they see fit, is that people will actually use the parking, overwhelming the capacity of the roads in the area. Look at South Lake Union: all of the buildings have tons of underground parking, but traffic is at a near standstill during any sort of peak time. There’s buildings being built in my neighborhood of Wallingford that are parking-free, but do I really want more traffic on 45th St?

      What we really need is something akin to a cap & trade system for parking in a given area. If roads are over-stressed, new residents without cars are welcome, but new residents with cars better be eliminating a car for each car they bring to the area.

      Perhaps there can some sort of provision for lightly-used vehicles, which stay parked most of the time (my Subaru only accumulated ~2800 miles on it, last year, including a trip to Spokane).

      1. I agree. You could also give out on street parking permits to existing neighbors only. This might seem unfair (why only current residents?) but compared to the existing system, it is much better. I would rather see new residents be left without those permits then left without an affordable apartment. I could see variations on that. Maybe the permit is renewed each year — fail to renew and it goes into the pot (where a lottery would then exist for new permits). Or maybe allow the owners to rent out the permit — that way the permit is basically a bonus for the home owner. This would give the owners an incentive to encourage density as well as hard to find parking (like the home owners in Puyallup who rent out a spot on their yard for the fair). When the house gets sold, the permit then goes into the pot — or just gets transferred to the home owner. Again, this all seems unfair, but so too is the existing system, which is basically telling people they can’t build what they want on their own property, even though it is perfectly safe.

      2. The problem I have with these sorts of permit schemes is that they create some sort of private value out of a public asset. Kind of like how liquor licenses and taxi medallions have become absurdly valuable in certain cities.

        Honestly, crowded street parking is a pretty good incentive itself to get rid of your car. And you don’t need to create some system to manage it – just let people fend for themselves. Some will find it to be too difficult and give up.

      3. The private-value-out-of-the-public-asset thing is there anyway. The whole premise of parking requirements is to support that premise, while making it not-too-obvious that that’s what’s going on. (e.g. instead of outrightly forbidding residents of new construction to park on the street, make them build so much parking off-street that nobody who lives there would ever want to park on-street).

  6. The homeowners who worry about not being able to park in front of their houses if apartments built nearby without adequate off-street parking, why are they even worried about parking on the street? Surely, their homes must have adequate off-street parking.

    1. I’ve often wondered that. I do know a few people who lack garages, but I would guess that most people are folks who have too much stuff in their garage, or too many cars to fit there. So they park on the street.

      1. Ross B, I can verify that. From what I see when I deliver things to residences in Queen Anne and Magnolia is that most people who have garages do not use them to park their cars. I cannot count how many times I have delivered furniture or other heavy items to someones garage where there is no space for a car.

    2. They addressed this a bit in the discussion, noting that many people choose to use their garages and driveways for other purposes; Nunes-Ueno, for example, noted that he keeps his bike collection in the garage and parks his car on the street.

      1. My garage is full of crap, but I have a driveway. When we had 2 cars, one sat on the street for months at a time.

    3. Some of them don’t, in some neighborhoods. Most of them prefer to use the portion of their property designed for car storage to store other things. This is perfectly rational, as one’s car is the only kind of property most people have that the city government will provide free or heavily subsidized convenient storage space for. It’s also not a remotely reasonable demand, but it’s one that, were it not for this bizarre, unjustified sense of entitlement being sufficiently widespread such that catering to it can be a political necessity.

  7. Another great article Erica. Like you said, the obvious answer is to simply get rid of parking minimums. This is a simple proposal that would be very controversial. That is why, like the $15 minimum wage initiative (that was proposed but never went to the ballot) it would make a lot of sense to propose it.

    As it stands now, most of the city has no idea about parking minimums, just as most have no idea what the state minimum wage is. Nor do they consider the advantages and disadvantages (again, like the minimum wage issue). So the debate that would follow an initiative would lead people to consider the facts and consider the advantages and disadvantages of our current laws.

    By forcing developers to add parking (beyond what the market requires) you do the following (by my estimation):

    1) Increase the cost of rent.
    2) Increase the odds that the developer will build something ugly.
    3) Increase congestion.

    But by adding parking, you:

    1) Make it easier to find on street parking.
    2) Decrease the cost of private lot parking.

    The parking requirement probably has its biggest impact on the cheapest properties. If you build a set of townhouses, parking takes up a good chunk of the property. If you build an ADU, parking is a huge requirement, relative to the construction cost (which might be as simple as putting in a new door). But if the building is large, then parking is a smaller cost per unit.

    I would love to see someone propose an initiative for ending parking requirements. Even it it doesn’t pass, it would hopefully end up sparking a discussion that then leads to a compromise (as the $15 an hour minimum wage did).

  8. Managing new development parking requirements is sadly something that Seattle has generally regulated on a site-by-site basis — based on an area’s immediate demand reality. Perhaps we should be looking regulatory needs on a district (say 4×4 block square) basis? I can see how it may make sense for a neighborhood to have completely parking-free blocks and consolidate the parking demand on an adjacent block. It would also be easier for restaurants who depend on nearby parking for patrons who don’t live near transit or can’t walk to sponsor a consolidated strategy. I’m thinking some sort of “transferable parking requirement” system or bank? I’m not sure how something like that could work. Still, trying to incrementally shoe-horn parking spaces on small parcels is expensive to do.

  9. Good recap. Interesting that there are two peaks in the chart. I’d be interested to know if this is for regulatory reasons, or if the market is segmenting itself.

    1. That peak, along with the bars to the left and right, represents the fact that there is a large portion of housing being built with around one parking space per unit, despite the fact that there is no minimum parking requirement, which suggests that the market is still recognizing a certain demand for parking among a certain group of renters/buyers, and building accordingly.

    2. It’s not just “the market”. Lenders are skittish about financing a building with little parking and impose their own minimums. Even if Seattle urban culture is ready for 0% or 0.33% parking, Wall Street financiers are more used to suburban settings and Los Angeles-like settings and assume more parking is needed or the units won’t rent. It’s like the Ballard neighbors complaining about apodments. “16 people won’t have a car? That’s impossible, of course they will each have a car. And park it in the street in my space.”

      1. Yes, let’s please drop “the market” shorthand as if that was the objective answer. Parking requirements are coming from lenders looking to minimize risk, not the people who will live in the buildings (many of whom care more about affordability than car storage).

  10. Rather than see parking free units rent jacked up to cover transit passes I’d prefer to purchase that seperately. If I can get it through my employer or at a discounted rate from my landlord – great.

    Main point here is I’d like to see things forced to be unbundled. If I don’t need parking I don’t want to pay for it & if I don’t need a transit pass I don’t want to pay for it.

    1. I would enthusiastically agree, except that bus passes are significantly cheaper when purchased in bulk. Even with that, I still agree, though more cautiously.

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