Garage-less Capitol Hill mansion, courtesy of Google Streetview.
Garage-less Capitol Hill mansion, courtesy of Google Streetview.

Seattle is in the midst of a massive change toward a dense, car-free city, but this cultural shift hasn’t come without some pinches in the form of high parking demand. The demand has struck a chord with many incumbent residents who resent the perceived challenges that it can pose on their daily lives. Whenever a new project is proposed, the first thing on the minds of many is parking. You’ll hear the residents’ constant refrain: “Will this new mixed-use building have ‘adequate’ parking?” More often than not, the answer isn’t to their liking.

It wasn’t always like this. In its bygone eras, Seattle was a city of people walking, biking, and taking transit (much like it is today!), where homes, businesses, and apartments were built without any parking. Take a walk down almost any Capitol Hill street and you will see even the most prestigious of manor houses without a parking garage in sight. Even after the mass proliferation of the car, people got by with placing their cars on the street in front of their residence or place of business. But somewhere in time, this understanding of the new urban environment broke down. Suddenly, parking was a necessity for any new development.

The Contradiction

Though they rile against it in new developments, residents rarely complain about the complete lack of onsite parking in older business districts like that of Phinney Ridge. Locals are fine with people parking on Phinney Ave and the surrounding streets; they expect it. There’s a common understanding that many people patronizing these districts are from the area, which means that the person parking nearby is just your neighbor (you can’t be mad at your neighbor!) Chances are that plenty more residents will simply come by foot or bike.

Limited on-street parking for Phinney Ridge, courtesy of Google Streetview.
Limited on-street parking for Phinney Ridge, courtesy of Google Streetview.

You also never hear single-family residents come out against other single-family neighbors. Tens of thousands of residences in Seattle have absolutely no off-street parking spaces. Tens of thousands more merely have a single-car garage–often an eternal resting place for that once-used kayak and table saw. Yet storage of the vehicles has to go someplace, and that’s always the street.

It’s conceivable that a “normal” family of four (two parents and two high school-aged children) in Seattle could have four cars, each taking up to 20 feet of linear on-street space. Add in the occasional guest, and you’re talking about a “need” for 100 feet of linear on-street parking space per residence. Of course, with the average single-family lot frontage ranging between 50 and 75 feet, there’s no way that any block could meet that kind of demand. That’s why some residents have taken to constructing their own garages or coming up with creative ways to manage their parking needs. Often, this simply means going “car-lite”: accommodating one’s life to the prevailing market conditions of scarce parking.

It’s also conceivable that a family chooses to not own a car. In Seattle, there are plenty of properties that could meet their desire to live car-free whether in older apartments or single-family homes. Their neighbors wouldn’t begrudge them for that. More than likely, they would applaud them! Not because being car-free is cool, but simply because it means less competition for on-street parking.

The Broken Logic

For all of the complaints about lack of parking in new developments, there are many good reasons to restrict parking as much as possible. For one, parking increases the cost of units and lease space dramatically. In structured facilities like that of mixed-use buildings, it can come at a premium of over $60,000 per parking stall. That ultimately gets passed onto future residents and tenants. It also reduces the amount of space that could be allocated to a variety of uses on the same site. But more fundamentally, it directly induces people to be car-oriented. When people are encouraged to own or use a car, they will almost always do so. This, by extension, puts pressure in other locales to absorb the increased demand for parking–usually on-street–and congesting roads; it doesn’t reduce it. This is a losing outcome for incumbent residents who are so impassioned to get the cars off of the street.

Historic Capitol Hill apartment with no parking, courtesy of Google Streetview.
Historic Capitol Hill apartment with no parking, courtesy of Google Streetview.

Of course, it can’t be understated that incumbent residents see a place as they bought it. When residents move in, they assume a place will likely be the same twenty years from thence. Change is a scary thing because it comes with unknowns. And, looking solely through lens of their own values and lifestyle, it can be hard for them to conceive the bigger picture and how others likely won’t make the same choices as them. In that sense, it is understandable that residents would be very concerned about new developments with low or no parking ratios. But even that seems like an overly generous assessment.

Ultimately, there appears to be a broken logic that incumbent residents have yet to rectify. They consistently come out to public meetings and say that any new development has to have ample parking. Yet, old development (including their own) can continue without any intervention or requirement for off-street parking. From a reasoned standpoint, that seems neither fair nor consistent.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for promoting sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He advocates for smart policies, regulations, and implementation programs that enhance urban environments by committing to quality design, accommodating growth, providing a diversity of housing choices, and adequately providing public services. Stephen primarily writes about land use and transportation issues.

35 COMMENTS

  1. Great post Stephen, you brought up a couple of points I hadn’t thought of in this argument. It’s a little ridiculous how hypocritical some folks can be when it comes to parking.

  2. So the real question is how do we fix it? You won’t change the human desire to keep the free stuff we already have (free parking) without sharing it. Therefore you’ll always have “NIMBYs” blocking development really because they’re afraid of losing their free spots.

    I say we just lose the fight and give them what they want. Expand our residential parking permit system throughout the city, and give existing residents the right to several permits (based on the amount of street frontage of their property). Charge an annual fee, and if it ever isn’t renewed it’s available for someone else to obtain. Perhaps even allow permits to be sold to neighbors.

    What you get with this system is an instant loss of incentive to fight for free parking. They’d have the right to their free(ish) parking forever if they want, and no amount of construction can take it away. You’d also have a small new source of tax revenue for improving streets. Yes, it’s a giant give-away to existing residents, but it could result in a big win for development in the long run.

    • I agree. That makes the most sense. Some might see it as unfair, but the current system is unfair, and it is unfair to the same people. Right now, the renters pay for parking (whether they want it or not). All renters pay (since the cost of producing parking pushes up the cost of all rent). But owners don’t. Your approach would work the same way, but not force anyone to pay for parking. I think it is better, and more just.

    • Would people adding a curb cut for private parking…. pay the cost of the lost street parking in perpetuity? Complicated. (Also realistic.)

  3. The key insight here is that incumbent homeowners see a neighborhood as being the way they bought it. This creates a lot of disconnect with the planners, developers, business owners, and even sometimes elected officials, who see the neighborhood and the city changing. I’m not sure how to bridge that gap.

    • I think articles like this help. This is a very liberal city (we elected a socialist). It is a very green city. But plenty of people don’t see our current zoning laws as being anti-liberal or anti-environment. I think most people haven’t thought about it much. Read the various comments from various stories and there are plenty of people who just don’t understand supply and demand, or how regulation plays a part in it. Somehow the high rents are caused solely by greedy landlords or developers. It is sad, really. But lots of people don’t think analytically, even though the city is full of very educated people (I suppose they only focus on their one area of expertise).

      From a policy standpoint, I would start by leveling with people. Zoning is a trade-off. Every restriction you make costs a renter. But that doesn’t mean you support ending all restrictions. Again, it is a trade-off. I don’t want a forty story building going up next to me. I get that. But once folks realize that there is a trade-off, we can start talking about solutions that make a lot of sense.

      I think we should focus on two areas: ADU/DADU and low rise zones. This is where most people live, and this is where we have the greatest potential for meeting the need for affordable housing. Our ADU/DADU laws need to be more liberal. They are more restrictive than either Portland or Vancouver. We should catch up to Vancouver, if not exceed it. That would be the first thing.

      Second, I would get rid of parking requirements for low rise zones. This is probably where the parking requirement hits the hardest. If you build a six story building, you will probably add some parking anyway, regardless of the zoning laws. But with a low rise, it is completely different. The parking requirement greatly increases the cost of what would otherwise be a pretty cheap building. I like Matt’s suggestion mentioned below. Giving current residents a parking permit, but new residents have to wait. That is more fair, and simply better for everyone.

  4. Great post. I agree with all of your points. Zoning is generally a trade-off. But of all the trade-offs I would like to change, parking is the one I would simply eliminate. You have a right to housing, but not a right to free parking. Besides, the way that parking is paid for is grossly unfair. This only applies to new buildings. This pushes up the cost of construction, which is then applied to *all* renters. Meanwhile, owners don’t pay. So basically, we are asking those who rent to pay for parking, whether they want it or not. If we really think that we need more parking, then the city as a whole should pay for it. Have a parking levy, and pay for the construction of new parking lots (or garages) in every community. This could easily be coordinated with new construction (you would simply add new parking to a planned new development). At least that would be fair. This is not.

    One of the crazy things about the parking requirement is that it runs counter to the other common requests of zoning, such as:

    1) Reducing congestion. Lots of people oppose new density because they fear the extra congestion. Parking requirements simply encourage that.

    2) Ugly buildings. Plenty of people complain about new building being built, and how ugly they are. Parking plays a big part in that. If think if you asked anyone in the city what their favorite buildings are, almost all of them lack parking.

    3) Preservation of old buildings. One of the ways you can retain the value of your house and add density it to build a little cottage out back, or add a basement apartment. In low rise zones, you can just convert your house into a multi-unit apartment. But in all cases, you need to add parking. This partly explains why these ADU/DADU or conversions are so rare here, despite the really high rent we are experiencing. Without the addition, rent keeps getting higher, and developers are more inclined to buy anything and turn it into a big apartment. So down goes the old house, and up goes a new apartment building (complete with parking).

  5. If you had cars half the size, you would have twice the parking. Without an affordable national mass transportation infrastructure, what are average people going to do when these no-car, parking ‘solutions’ make it too difficult/expensive to take vacations to all of the great destinations in America? How are people going to experience the history of our country?
    Your ‘solutions’ are urban centered, leaving those in the far suburbs to pay ever increasing prices for parking, which don’t affect the urban-transit set, because no city is putting in a light rail or bus line anywhere near the place they have to live because the city is too expensive.

    • Please keep in mind that no one is advocating for the elimination of parking, we are only pointing out that it is not priced appropriately. We agree that this view is ‘urban-centered.’ After all the solutions we advocate for are meant for cities and there are different concerns and policies that are good for rural and suburban communities.

      In regards to making cities too expensive, you are describing the expense of someone living in the suburbs and driving into the city. This sounds to me like you are saying the suburbs would become more expensive. That seems appropriate. Virtually free parking in cities is a subsidy for suburban living, paid for by inhabitants of central cities. This is wrong on many levels.

      It is very easy to rent a car and travel anywhere in this country. In fact, doing this a few times a year would be much cheaper than owning a car, even if parking was much more expensive.

      Lastly, I reject the idea that ‘average’ Americans must own cars. Yes, most Americans own cars but owning a car is a choice connected to how we subsidize lifestyles in this country and people who don’t own cars aren’t any less American. One of the critical ways we can help middle and low income Americans is to drastically change transportation subsidies. We are doing no favors to ‘average’ Americans when we prioritize and subsidize parking over housing in our urban areas.

      Thanks for reading the blog. I hope you keep reading and continue to engage in thoughtful responses to why our urban transportation and housing is so broken.

  6. “Seattle is in the midst of a massive change toward a dense, car-free city,…” Surely you jest about the car-free part. Maybe you addressed this further down, but your opening line is so silly I stopped reading.

    • I found that sentence to be ridiculous as well (talk about hyperbole) but the rest of the article is quite reasonable.

        • Yeah, I know, but your opening sentence suggested a more radical article than was written. Seattle is in the midst of a massive change toward a dense city with a lot more people living without cars. [that’s the way I would have phrased it]

          But we are nowhere near being car-free (very few cities are, really). Frankly, I would be thrilled if we could just be a city where most people felt they didn’t need a car for getting around within the city (there are plenty of cities like that). That would be a dramatic change — but I think we are getting there. But even if the combination of better light rail and bus service achieves that, I think a lot of people will own cars just so they can get to the mountains. We are a really, really long ways away from being able to get to the rural areas without a car I’m afraid (Europe we ain’t).

          • I just returned from a trip to Italy. I saw exactly one car-free city — Venice. Rome has almost no off-street parking (visible to a tourist) and automobiles everywhere. Great public transit is everywhere, residential neighborhoods have mini-cars parked everywhere, including on the sidewalks and on street corners blocking crosswalks.

            European cities are not the urban nirvana Seattle urbanists like to believe.

          • Even cities with great public transit have cars. If anyone thinks otherwise, they will be disappointed (as you say). But cities with good public transportation (New York, Toronto, Paris, Washington D. C.) make it possible to live comfortably without a car. If you ask most people, I think most would say that Seattle isn’t in that category. I’ve heard folks actually say that when discussing where to live (e. g. “We could live in D. C., or New York or San Fransisco. We thought about Seattle, but you need a car there”). That’s just a rough estimate of course (some would say that we are there already, while there are plenty of places in New York where a car would be mighty handy) but I think it fair to say.

          • With the availability of Cars2Go and Zip Cars, some close-in Seattle neighborhoods could accommodate a non-auto-owning household — especially one without children or elderly parents across town who need help quickly.

          • Yes, but I guess I wouldn’t call that car-free. For example, I know a guy in Fremont who ended up buying a car because trips to Northgate were too much of a hassle. These aren’t obscure neighborhoods (Fremont and Northgate) but if you feel like you need to rent a car to get from one place to the other, then the city needs a lot of work with regards to public transportation.

          • Being free of car ownership would be huge; only a zealot would say never use a car at all (be actually “car-free”). Consolidate your errands and shopping trips (Northgate, and Costco) into one a week, and a Zip Car works fine. Family vacation to a national park? Rent a minivan from Enterprise (works great; i’ve done it myself).

          • Once a week trip to the doctor (Northgate) become pretty expensive if you have to rent a car every week. There is a difference between that and taking the occasional cab or renting a car on a vacation. People who live in the cites I mentioned (New York, Toronto, Paris, San Francisco) fall into the latter category. People in Seattle fall mostly in the first (although the numbers are changing).

          • One afternoon a week in a Zip car has to be cheaper than owning a car, unless maybe it’s a total beater. Yes, good transit access is best, but it will be ages before Seattle has a viable all-destinations transit system. And few of us will still be around when that happens.

          • I’m not sure it will be ages. Northgate Link will make a huge difference (assuming bus routes change accordingly). That would mean that a trip from Lake City to Fremont is fairly quick (a frequent bus, followed by the train, followed by a frequent bus). If we built Ballard to UW light rail, along with another bus tunnel (http://seattletransitblog.com/2015/02/18/westside-seattle-transit-tunnel/) I think you would cover most of the city. That could happen fairly quickly (ten years or so). The next step (in my opinion) would be to build a subway replacing the Metro 8 (from the Central Area through South Lake Union to the waterfront). That would pretty much do it (again, assuming decent bus routes). That would make Seattle similar to Vancouver BC, which has over three times the transit ridership that we do, and is third in North America (per capita).

            Good point about Zip Car, but I think there is an important distinction. The people of the cities I mentioned can get around just fine without renting cars (they have for a very long time). But if you include car rentals, then just about everyone everywhere in America has adequate transit — just take the bus or train to work, and rent a car when you need it. Speaking to most people I’ve known that have gone without cars (and now own them) — it is the combination. An occasional trip to the mountains along with the regular trip across town make owning a car appealing. It is very hard to deal with the latter, but dealing with the former could be handled in a few years if things go right.

          • Whether or not someone ‘needs’ to own a car is remarkably subjective. There are certainly many people who do need a car. But most people fall somewhere on the spectrum of car ownership making their current lifestyle a little to a lot more convenient. This is not the same as needing to own a car.

            I personally know many people who live very comfortably and happily in Seattle without a car. These people include parents, hiking and camping enthusiasts, hipsters, the young, the elderly and much more. These people have chosen to forgo car ownership and often change their lifestyle based on this choice. Nearly anyone could make this choice which means most people within Seattle city limits could live without a car.

            With that said, I’ll be the first to say it is silly to expect people to make the choice to change their lifestyle. Personally, I want to expand the number of lifestyles that are convenient without owning a car. But I still chafe a little at the assertion that people ‘need’ to own a car.

          • Right, it is completely subjective. I’m sure there are objective ways to measure it (trip time to common destinations) but they get very complicated very quickly (what exactly is a “common destination”). You’ll notice I didn’t state that you “needed” a car in Seattle, only that unlike a lot of cities, it is difficult to live comfortably without one. Of course, a lot depends on where you live and what your lifestyle is (if you lived downtown, I would imagine you can get by just fine without a car).

            Food, clothing, shelter and good medical care are in a different category than a car (although in some places one is dependent on the other).

    • Perhaps you’re reading too much into the phrasing. The point was car ownership rates are decreasing in the city at a rapid pace on a per capita basis. Car-lite might have been a better choice to describe that.

      Also, check the digs and just get to your point in the future.

      • My comment was not merely a dig. Your opening line should entice readers in, not put them off. Writing 101 stuff.

        One useful tool for handling parking in new MF structures would be to require separate rents for the unit and for parking, rather than bundling them into one (higher rent w/”free” parking). Tenants only pay for off street spaces if they want them. If they have no car or don’t mind the daily hunt for on-street parking, they don’t pay to rent a parking space.

        Another rarely discussed problem is all the parking in those new “urbanist” towers in downtown/South Lake Union. Each one has several layers of parking for several hundred commuter automobiles. We need to stop fixating on residential parking; let’s take a broader view. Downtown Portland once had a fixed maximum number of parking spaces it allowed, based on what the street system could handle at rush hour. The old downtown Seattle zoning code had a maximum number of spaces allowed (per 1000 sq. ft.) but I expect that’s gone away.

        • Yeah, we get the criticism. I think the author has noted it.

          Anyway, your other ideas are reasonable, but I think we should just start with the simple stuff. Just remove parking clauses from zoning laws. Let the market decide. Builders still might piss off urbanists (by building unnecessary parking) but that is not nearly as bad as being forced to build parking. By forcing the construction of parking, each renter is paying more for an amenity they might not use.

        • Your point before was well taken. And as I noted, it may have been an oversight. I can’t reasonably assume what will or will not be off putting or disagreeable to readers. If I tried to account for that, I’d never publish a thing.

          In any case, your thoughts on parking are definitely good ones. A formal set of proposals on that might be worth exploring more and sharing.

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