Denny Triangle by plainurban / Flickr.

Seattle could be on the cusp of better parking solutions. After a year of studying policy options, the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) released a set of preliminary recommendations yesterday to address residential parking demand across the city. For instance, new development in areas with great transit service could be required to provide transit passes instead of onsite parking. Meanwhile, the City may look at how new developments could share parking among a number of buildings to maximize utilization.

Last year, the Mayor and City Council directed DPD and SDOT to conduct a thorough review of the City’s policies on parking regulations, parking management, and other transportation programs. The Mayor wants to ensure that policies and proposed recommendations alleviate traffic congestion while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, creating more affordable housing options, harnessing the City’s multimodal transportation system, and providing increased flexibility in parking requirements. Mayor Murray summarized why the preliminary recommendations are so important:

Seattle is experiencing tremendous growth as our economy continues to expand and add tens of thousands of new jobs. It is our challenge to do more to ensure Seattle is affordable and livable for current and future residents. To do this, we can’t rely on the parking strategies of the 1950’s. Instead, we must pursue innovative policies that will give residents more transportation choices and smartly manage our current parking supply.

The initial research by DPD and SDOT reveals some very interesting findings on parking:

  • Since 2012, 76% of new development has provided some level of parking in areas where parking is not required. The average ratio of parking spaces to units stands at 0.55. However, 52 of 219 projects have forgone parking altogether, which represents about 12% of the units constructed over the period (2,400 units out of 19,000 units).
  • Most development with reduced parking ratios or no parking is focused around areas with frequent transit service, such as the University District, Ballard, and Capitol Hill.
  • Parking construction costs can range from $20,000 to $50,000 per parking stall. In a case study from Portland, Oregon, onsite parking could add up to $500 per month in rent for a standard apartment.
  • Local studies like that of the Right Size Parking review by King County show that parking is almost universally over supplied, contributing to unnecessary additional housing costs.
  • New parking apps and other technologies (like E-Park) can help match people with available off-street parking options that work for them and maximize parking capacity.

So what are the recommendations? A few of the initial ones include:

  • A requirement for bus passes in new residential development in urban centers, urban villages, and areas served well by transit, carshare services, and bikeshare services;
  • Tossing out code that creates barriers to utilizing existing parking better;
  • Modifying regulations so that bike parking is better included in new development and develop guidance for locating bikeshare facilities on private property;
  • Taking a comprehensive look at the Restricted Parking Zone program to identify and develop strategies to manage demand;
  • Create policies to push new development toward shared parking garages among different buildings in neighborhoods, including garage designs; and
  • Promoting a variety of transit options while ensuring the entire city is well served by transit.

The Mayor’s recommendations are somewhat at odds with a recent letter sent by Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, Chair of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, appealing to fellow council members on citywide parking policies. In his letter, Rasmussen brings up an appeal to the DPD Director’s Rule 11-2012 regarding the lack of parking requirements in areas served by frequent transit as the genesis of his request. Rasmussen describes at length the appellant’s challenge to the Director’s Rule, a background of the Council’s 2010 legislation on reducing parking requirements around frequent transit service, citing various Comprehensive Plan parking policies and goals, and offering his thoughts on where the Council should go with new policy and code changes.

Rasmussen emphasized his support for existing city parking policies, but appeared to be more swayed by the concerns of incumbent residents over their perceived challenges of using on-street parking saying: “I strongly support our policies encouraging increased pedestrian, bicycle, and transit use. But again, that policy must be balanced with accounting for local conditions where on-street parking congestion is at its worst.” The Councilmember attempted to soften his agenda for revising City regulations by stating his support for policy planks like transit passes and carsharing memberships, but his big policy proposal would repeal much of the City’s progress on parking best practice. Rasmussen wrote that:

It may be worth re-examining the 2010 decision in the same legislation to eliminate the DPD Director’s authority under SEPA to condition a residential project for parking impacts when the project is located in an urban village with frequent transit service. If restored, discretion provided to the DPD Director could help mitigate parking impacts in specific areas where parking spillover from a project would be expected to have more severe impacts compared to other areas of the city.

Under Rasmussen’s policy proposal, SEPA could be used as an instrument to unnecessarily condition development applications, either by choice of DPD or under request/appeal by neighbors, to provide parking or higher parking ratios as “mitigation.” Rasmussen’s letter is well timed in light of the DPD and SDOT recommendations. There’s no doubt that we will hear more about the policy debates headed for full public review this year.

In fact, the Mayor wants to have a final set of recommendations on parking-related policies ready by the end of this year, which may dovetail well with some future recommendations by the Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Committee. In the interim, DPD and SDOT will transmit their preliminary findings and recommendations to the City Council for review and input, and prepare a draft ordinance, subject to environmental review (SEPA).

Editor’s Note: Statistics in this article have been updated.

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Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.