Second Ave. N. near Denny Way, 1957

People love free parking. So rather than try to fight existing homeowners about the issue, I propose we give them what they want.

Background

Seattle has a history of listening to neighbors before making any changes or allowing new buildings. We have a design review process for larger buildings, where the community is allowed to comment and a design review board can require changes to a proposed building in exchange for relaxing certain requirements. We have parking minimums, especially in residential areas. Politicians have scaled back the type of housing you can build, added strict requirements to micro-housing, stepped back from proposing corner stores, and have made many other changes under pressure from existing homeowners.

In fact, 65% of Seattle has been saved for single-family homes while you can only build multi-family housing (apartments, condos, even townhouses) on just 11% of our land. Why do existing homeowners resist any rule that allows more people to live here, as well as fight many projects that fully comply with the law? There are many reasons, but I propose the main one is parking.

There are many real effects of new dense housing near existing homes.  On the positive side these include more demand for local retail, a better chance of getting new transit service, a more active sidewalk, more neighbors to interact with if you choose, and more children for your children to play with.  The negative impacts include more traffic, loss of views, less sunlight (assuming the building is directly adjacent to yours), and less free parking*.
Neighbors that fight development don’t often own up to the lack of parking as their motivation, but in my experience it’s a strong motivator. And this is understandable — fair or not, most every single-family home comes with a few subsidized free car storage spaces at the curb. True, they don’t belong to that homeowner, but they certainly benefit from those spaces. Adding neighbors can take this valuable amenity away.

Proposal

Let’s choose our battles, and just agree to lose this one. Let’s take every non-restricted, non-metered parking space in the city and hand them to the existing landowners in the form of a parking permit. Tie these permits to the block that property is on, and base the number of permits on the amount of curb space available in front of their home. Charge a small annual fee to both administer this program and pay for maintaining this pavement and for some transit. Set up a parking spot trading system where residents can sell or lease their permit to others. Those without permits can only park for a limited time, which could be set based on demand.
Sure, this is unfair to future residents that don’t get a parking permit. But removing this incentive to fight development could launch us forward into providing more homes. Neighbors might start to see the benefits of density and not just the negatives.
In addition, this would place a price on parking. Not directly, but through the trading market. Those that would consider giving up their cars would now have a financial incentive to do so. Those that really need to drive and park on the street will have a market to buy that right.
* Perhaps less school space as well, but over time that evens out as we have more people to tax for this and other infrastructure. There’s also an argument to be made that higher density brings higher crime, but I dispute that claim.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. I agree completely with this approach. We should get rid of the parking requirements for all development at the same time. Some buildings will be built with it, but a lot won’t. This will enable much cheaper construction, which will enable a lot more affordable apartments (especially ADUs).

    I would say that parking as well as preservation are the two biggest obstacles to more construction. People want the old houses preserved. This is where liberalizing the ADU laws and the laws with regards to the number of people allowed in a house would really help things. You would be way more likely to preserve a house in that environment. Right now there is so much pressure to build on the few spots where building is allowed that nice old houses are torn down. Allowing ADUs or more people in the other neighborhoods would lead to more conversions of houses — even in houses where they allow bigger buildings.

  2. It’s an absurd entitlement to offer and I question if it’s legal. I think the City also issues more permits than there are spaces in some of their existing zones, so not everyone today with a permit even has a space. Does someone have to have a permit to “turn in” if they build a driveway? It’s an idea that sounds good only until you think about it.

    If the parking is full and no one can find a space, the city should use price to create available spaces.

    • Those are great questions.

      Is it legal? I’d argue we’re doing it now. This is just an extension of the Restricted Parking Zone across the city. I can’t park on my street for more than 2 hours without a permit. One difference is the idea of a permit trading system – something I don’t see a legal issue with. The other is a limit on the number of spaces per block. I’m not sure I see a legal problem with this, but I’m open to the discussion.

      “Does someone have to have a permit to “turn in” if they build a driveway?” Yes. Curb cuts are pretty harmful – they add another pedestrian-car interaction and take a parking space while often only providing one parking space. You should at least have a permit for the curb you’re taking up with your curb cut.

      “If the parking is full and no one can find a space, the city should use price to create available spaces.” I absolutely agree that pricing parking is one of the most fair ways to allocate who gets a space. But there are at least two problems with this. The first is politics – I’m not quite sure how you convince the electorate to put parking meters on every block in the city. The second is that you haven’t removed the incentive to fight growth. If you have free parking now because of lack of demand and someone builds an apartment complex across the street, you’ll soon have to pay to get that same spot using a pay-for-space system. The natural reaction to the existing residents would be to fight that growth.

  3. Coming from a Portland urbanist’s context, I’m in near-total agreement. A similar variation that I heard recently: do this, but then whenever someone lets their permit lapse rather than selling it, the city reclaims ownership of that parking right and eliminates it. (Maybe this would only be used in certain neighborhoods.) This leads to a gradual transition away from on-street parking that would ease the addition of dedicated transit lanes, bike lanes, pedestrianized streets, street seats, etc.

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