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The Fight Over Parking Minimums in Seattle

The Fight Over Parking Minimums in Seattle

Most people love free parking, so it’s no surprise why there is a controversy when urban planners want to build less. In Seattle, former mayor Mike McGinn lost his campaign for reelection, with his parking policies as a major factor. Some went as far as to call it a “war on cars,” and some alluded

Most people love free parking, so it's no surprise why there is a controversy when urban planners want to build less. In Seattle, former mayor Mike McGinn lost his campaign for reelection, with his parking policies as a major factor. Some went as far as to call it a “war on cars,” and some alluded to the powerful “bike lobby” pushing their weight around. Of course no such thing exists, although the reflective vests probably stand out at town hall meetings.  Modest changes to parking minimums are definitely overdue, but changes should depend on the needs of each particular area.

Seattle is a changing and diverse place, so it wouldn’t make sense to have universal rules for parking spots. For example, only 29.5% of households on Capitol Hill own cars, or 41.5% in South Lake Union. And these are not just bedroom communities for suburban jobs; many choose to live there to be within walking distance to work. As Seattle’s growth plan involves dense urban centers, increased housing supply, and growing transit communities, parking minimums would be a major hindrance to these goals.

Empty Parking Lot Seattle, Washington

When the zoning code requires developers to build spaces with each unit, this can be costly (estimated at about $30,000 per space). Opponents argue that this cost is passed on to tenants and is a barrier to the building of smaller, affordable units. But if developing small apartments without parking is cheap, how can we be sure that the savings will be passed on to the consumer? Also, couldn’t a tenant rent out their parking space if they do not own a car? Is there any more room on the street for parking?  Clearly, there is a saturation point, which varies in each neighborhood, all evidence that we need a balanced approach to parking minimums.

However, for office or retail land-uses, getting on-site parking out of the way makes both economic and design sense. Buildings surrounded by parking lots prevent the possibility of dense, walkable areas. Add to that the high cost of construction and valuable land, and you have a major misallocation of resources. Unlike many major cities, Seattle has been smart to combat this through shared parking structures, and demand-sensitive curb pricing techniques. This keeps a certain percentage of spaces open, cutting down on the traffic and pollution caused by cars circling the block for parking. A demand-based pricing system also makes economic sense, because costs are less subsidized and revenues go to benefit the neighborhood.

So is Seattle moving away from cars? Some examples indicate that it is, such as a 283-room hotel in South Lake Union proposed with zero parking. Recently, city council reduced parking minimums by 50 percent within a quarter mile of transit.  Millennials are showing less interest in owning an automobile, and more on living near work.

Parking in front of apartment building Seattle, Washington

But let’s end the narrative that there is a “war on cars.”  It wasn’t too bold of mayor McGinn to let parking spaces take a back seat to larger policy objectives. With modest trimming to parking minimums in dense areas, developments will still choose to offer parking if it’s in demand, while allowing alternatives for those that don’t own cars. Still, there are caveats to giving developers too much freedom to build without parking. Like most issues, it’s best to consider the context, and find the answer somewhere in the middle.

Does your city fight over parking minimums?

Credits: Images by Colin Poff. Data Linked to Sources

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Colin Poff is a recent graduate from Western Washington University where he studied Political Science and Economics. He currently interns at the City of Redmond, where he is providing research and analysis for the long-range planning department. Whi...

  • Interesting article Colin. It’s funny that even in a progressive city like Seattle, people still get all worked up over parking. But I agree with you, it doesn’t make any sense. The war on cars argument is something we see all over the country, but does more transit and less parking really constitute a war on cars after 60 years of development tailored specifically to the automobile?

    Also, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that if you reduce parking, or make it more costly, people will choose other ways to get to the places they want to go. It’s a matter of convenience, if people know it’ll be a hassle to drive, they’ll take the train, or the bus, or the RapidRide (which is awesome), or even walk or bike. Conversely, oversupplying parking will result in more people driving, and the transit investments the city is making will go under utilized. Here in DC we’re actually looking to create exactly what you spoke of, a way of making sure parking minimums are flexible and tailored to the context of a specific development. Let’s hope Seattle stays the course.

  • Colin Poff


    Thank you for your comment!

    Although Seattle is a progressive city like you said, people have trouble adjusting to the fact that population growth requires denser, transit neighborhoods. Parking minimums are particularly touchy for some reason.

    My point is that no one is saying that owning an automobile should be difficult. But parking minimums that can’t adapt just don’t make sense in light of larger policy objectives…modest changes should be welcomed.

    Like you mentioned about DC, flexibility and context are the name of the game.

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