On Monday, the Seattle City Council met to adopt a landmark citywide parking reform ordinance, which had been in the making for nearly two years. The ordinance builds upon reforms the city council made in 2012. Councilmember Rob Johnson, the prime sponsor of the legislation, and many of his colleagues highlighted the need for affordable housing as motivating their support since lower parking requirements would lower the cost of building housing.

“Fundamentally, I come to this because I believe it’s unfair for us to have a city where parking is abundant and free and housing is scarce and expensive, and I’m working hard to change that and that’s what this legislation is about,” Councilmember Johnson said.

The city council also moved an ordinance to end the practice of allowing employers to pay a sub-minimum wage to employees with disabilities. Both ordinances passed out the chamber and are expected to be signed into law by the mayor.

City Council Passes Landmark Parking Reforms

The parking reform ordinance is a very meaty piece of legislation touching on wide ranging aspects of off-street parking requirements. The adopted ordinance is somewhat different from the one originally introduced to the city council in the fall. The main differences come down to change in defining frequent transit service, bicycle parking policies, parking exemptions for affordable housing, parking distance, and incentivizing carshare parking exemptions.

During the city council meeting, Councilmember Lisa Herbold talked at length about her proposal to allow the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) to use conditioning authority under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) to mitigate for parking impacts within designated frequent transit service areas of urban centers when on-street parking exceeds or would exceed 85% utilization. Her proposal sought to adjust the priority of several parking mitigation measures (discussed below, allow for parking requirements where there might not be any, and require SDCI to develop a rule on how to assess parking impacts and mitigate them. The amendment, however, failed on a 6-2 vote. She had previously tried to pass a somewhat similar version of the amendment in the committee review process.

Functionally, the ordinance will do the following for vehicle parking regulations:

  • An earlier draft of what might change and qualify as "frequent transit service areas" under the new law. (City of Seattle)
    An earlier draft of what might change and qualify as “frequent transit service areas” under the new law. (City of Seattle)

    Flexible-use parking. “Flexible-use parking” will be added as an authorized use in denser residential zones (i.e., LR3, MR, and HR zones), virtually all Downtown and commercial zones, and some industrial zones. Extra parking spaces in new and existing developments could be leased or used in other nearby developments.

  • Unbundling parking. All new multifamily developments with rented or leased units will be required to unbundle the cost of off-street parking from a rented or leased unit. Commercial developments with 4,000 square feet of space or more will also be subject to the requirement. New rental agreements in existing developments will be further subject to requirements.
  • Park and ride facilities. New surface park and ride facilities in multifamily zones will only be permitted on existing surface parking sites outside of Station Area Overlay Districts, though they will now be allowed in the NC2 zone in addition to other commercial zone types. Otherwise, new park and ride facilities will need to be built in parking structures in higher density multifamily zones outside of Station Area Overlay Districts.
  • Affordable housing exemption. Affordable housing units (i.e., rent- and income-restricted units for households at or below 80 percent of the area median income) will be fully exempt from vehicle parking requirements.
  • Frequent transit service. The definition of “frequent transit service” will be significantly altered to mean a scheduled service serving a stop or station by a route that has headways at least meeting the following: 1) average headways of every 15 minutes in each direction with no hour having less than three scheduled trips per direction on weekdays between the hours of 6am and 7pm, which equates to 52 trips over the period; 2) average headways of every 30 minutes in each direction with no hour having less than one scheduled trip per direction on weekdays between the hours of 7pm and 12am, which equates to 10 trips over the period; and 3) average headways of every 30 minutes in each direction with no hour having less than one scheduled trip per direction on weekends between the hours of 6am and 12am, which equates to 36 trips over the period. This recognizes that people may be fine with lower frequencies during midday weekdays and weekends while living car-free or car-light lifestyles.
  • Frequent transit area. In relationship to “frequent transit service,” a new definition of “frequent transit service area” will be added to mean “an area within 1,320 feet walking distance of a bus stop served by a route with frequent transit service or an area within 2,640 feet walking distance of a rail transit station as shown on a map adopted by a Director’s rule.” The effect will increase the extent of frequent transit service areas, particularly around light rail and commuter rail stations where the parking reductions would be allowed up to a half-mile away. SDCI will be required to adopt a map, by rule, identifying areas that qualify for parking reductions under the frequent transit service definitions. Additionally, a definition of “frequent transit route” will also be added, which allows for the overlapping of routes that are co-scheduled on a common corridor to be considered in the calculation of frequent transit. The initial maps of frequent transit areas won’t change much, but as new frequent transit service is added, new areas could benefit from reduced parking requirements.
  • Fauntleroy exception. Properties zoned commercial or multifamily within a quarter-mile of the Fauntleroy ferry dock will not be eligible for reductions in off-street parking requirements even if they are in a frequent transit service area.
  • SEPA policy updates. Updates to environmental policies under the SEPA will better align with policy direction in the Comprehensive Plan.
  • Mobility mitigation. Subsidies for participation in a carsharing, bikesharing, or similar type of mobility program will be added as an option for parking impact mitigation under SEPA conditioning authority.
  • Reforming spillover mitigation. The scope of reduced densities under parking impact mitigation using SEPA conditioning authority will be limited to only non-residential development when it can be shown that reduced density would result in reduced parking spillover.

The ordinance will also greatly update bicycle requirements:

  • Increased bike requirements. Generally, the long-term and short-term bicycle requirements will be increased for nearly all uses to better achieve national best practices.
  • Consolidation. Bicycle requirements in several sections of the Land Use Code will be consolidated to the parking chapter and become more consistent in application.
  • Rounding. Bicycle parking requirements will always be rounded up to the next whole number for long-term bicycle parking while short-term bicycle parking will be be rounded up to the next whole even number.
  • Design standards. Performance standards will be improved by requiring “highly visible” bicycle parking, encouraging convenience for users, and implementation of theft deterrence in design. A future rule by the Seattle Department of Transportation will provide added specificity to address bicycle parking design. Specifically, it will address secured facilities and placement of long-term bicycle parking (e.g., things like bicycle locker rooms, cages, or individual lockers), sufficient lighting for bicycle parking areas and access routes to them, reasonable pedestrian and bicycle access to long-term bicycle parking facilities, access separated from motorized vehicle entry and exit points, signage to provide wayfinding to bicycle parking facilities, ease of access to long-term bicycle parking without having to carry a bicycle using stairs, and a variety of bike rack types to be used for long-term bicycle parking facilities.
  • Better weather protection. Long-term bicycle parking will need to be fully protected from the elements.
  • Commuter shower facilities. For new office buildings with more than 100,000 square feet of space, bicycle commuter shower facilities will be required. Space dedicated for this use will be exempt from floor area ratio calculations.
  • Bicycle valet. At major spectator events, short-term bicycle parking will need to be provided equal to 8% of the maximum building capacity for the use unless an operator provides bicycle valet services approved through a Transportation Management Program. In such cases, the bicycle valet service must provide temporary secured storage. Long-term bicycle parking will need to be provided at one space per 10,000 square feet of theater or spectator sports facility use, similar to what is proposed for other entertainment uses.
  • Off-site bicycle parking for non-residential uses. Except for certain non-residential uses, all bicycle parking will be required on-site. For a non-residential development designed as a campus development, off-site parking may be authorized up to 600 feet from the site of the non-residential use requiring bicycle parking.
  • Reduced bicycle parking ratio for residential development. A reduction in bicycle parking ratios will be available to multifamily developments when the number of required bicycle parking spaces exceeds 50. For bicycle parking required above 50 spaces, a developer will only need to provide three quarters the ratio. So for instance, if a residential development would ordinarily need to provide 58 spaces, it would actually be eligible for a reduction to 56 spaces. Overall, the bicycle requirements will increase for congregate and multifamily residential development despite the reduction.
  • Bicycle requirements at light rail facilities. SDCI will be required develop a discretionary process to allow modifications to bicycle parking requirements for light rail facilities, which will entail developing code amendments. Bew light rail stations would need to provide a long-term and short-term bike parking spaces at certain percentages equal to peak morning ridership. Recognizing that not all stations are created equal, the discretionary process might adjust that number from station to station to better match demand.
  • Incentive for bicycle parking. New office and manufacturing developments will be able to trade up to 20% of required vehicle parking for bicycle parking. For every one vehicle parking space eliminated, a developer will be required to provide two bicycle parking spaces.

Earlier proposals like increasing off-street parking distances from a use up to a quarter-mile and encouraging a limited number of carsharing parking spaces in front setbacks didn’t make the cut.

Councilmembers Wax Poetic on Parking Reform

Before passing the ordinance, several councilmembers weighed in on the importance of the changes.

“Ultimately for me, this is about how we work to create more affordable housing throughout this city,” said Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda. “In front of us is an opportunity, I believe, to reduce the cost of housing, especially near frequent transit hubs.”

“We’ve really strong competing good goals,” said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw. “We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for neighbors to get around, we’re also recognizing the affordable housing.”

Councilmember Mike O’Brien spoke on the legislation in terms of how it fits in with the framework to combat climate change.

“I want to highlight that this is a city that is committed to climate change,” he said. “We embrace the commitment to be carbon neutral by 2050. We embrace work to fight arctic drilling. We embrace work to fight pipelines. The work on climate we’re doing and protection of free on-street parking are mutually exclusive. We cannot do both of those and make those a top priority.” He continued saying: “This bill is going to pass today, and the reason it’s going to pass, or one of the reasons is its going to pass, is because you all have elected a council that is committed to doing climate work.”

Rounding out the discussion, Councilmember Johnson referenced other cities like London and Mexico City that have gone much further and capped off-street parking, essentially banning new vehicle parking spaces in certain areas. He also said that parking requirements aren’t generally going away outside of frequent transit service areas. He described the legislation as “sensible.”

The bill passed passed 7-1 with Councilmember Herbold the only one opposing it. “My vote today is not against a prior council’s removal of parking minimums in 2012, though I’m going to vote against this legislation,” she said. “It is instead a vote against expanding these parking minimums without first evaluating existing policies without consideration of the social justice impacts on low-income folks who need their vehicles and without accepting a very modest amendment.” The parking reform law should come into force in May.

PLUZ Committee Moves Parking Reform

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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.