How can it be a problem if something is free? It turns out, free and subsidized parking is a problem because it is often only free or subsidized for the person doing the parking and everyone else pays for it.

Two common types of parking in Seattle include:

1. Curb parking

2. Privately owned spaces or garages

A lot of curb parking is zoned. This means you can buy a permit and park in certain areas for virtually as long as you like. People without a zone permit can park in the area for a limited time, but their parking is often free.

In the latter situation, parking is free. In the former case, parking isn’t completely free. Everyone with a permit has to pay for that permit. But what most people don’t realize is that the permit is hugely subsidized. To illustrate, imagine you had to pay the meter rate to park for a year rather than the one-time zone fee. A zone permit in the Capitol Hill neighborhood at 10th Avenue East between Harrison and Republican (shown on the map below) costs $65 a year.

SDOT   Restricted Parking Zone Program  RPZ   Capitol Hill

The next street to the west is Broadway and does not have zone parking. The meter rate is variable but currently shown as $3.00 an hour by the city of Seattle.

Seattle Department of Transportation  Seattle Parking Map

At $3.00 an hour, this rate would translate to nearly $26,280 a year.

This isn’t a completely fair comparison, but it does begin to illustrate the extent to which curb parking permits are subsidized. A fairer illustration might compare a private lot to curb parking. For instance, my building charges $150 a month for a parking space, or $1,800 a year. That’s more than 27 times the cost of a zone permit. This raises a question, why is there such a large difference in price?

As it turns out, parking costs a lot. Parking costs include direct costs such as paving streets, as well as issuing and enforcing permits. Indirect costs are even bigger. These costs include longer commutes, more money spent on gas, congested traffic, loss of green space, car crashes, poor air quality and much more.

Perhaps the most important indirect cost from free parking is increased housing cost. Free and subsidized parking affects housing costs tremendously. Most research indicates (read this book, or this Sightline report on Seattle parking) that private parking spaces in buildings can’t recover their costs because people choose not to pay for parking when they can get it for free. Instead, owners recover this cost by charging more for rent. In fact, the Sightline study in Seattle showed parking accounted for 15% of total rent, or $243 a month on average. That is a huge additional cost for housing!

But don’t we need parking?

I’m not advocating to get rid of all parking. There will always be parking in Seattle and that is good. We should get rid of free parking though. When our options are between free parking and lower rent, the choice should be clear. Currently we live in a city in which the government subsidizes the costs of parking much more than, and to the detriment of, housing costs. If you also believe that lower housing costs should be a higher priority than parking, it’s necessary to end support for free and subsidized parking.