Seattle’s parking reforms

By Rayla Bellis

The Seattle City Council passed a number of parking reforms earlier this month to further support the city’s ongoing efforts to become less car-oriented, advance local climate change goals, and reduce housing costs in the city. Seattle is one of many cities to recognize that its parking regulations are outdated, but one of relatively few to take major steps toward reform.

Seattle’s parking reform package, which passed seven to one, contains a number of proposed changes:

  • Residential and commercial spaces above a certain size would be required to offer parking spaces separately from rent, with a goal of decreasing the cost to rent without a car;
  • Bike parking requirements would increase, and buildings would be allowed to provide a greater number of spots for car sharing in certain areas;
  • Residential and commercial building owners could rent out excess parking to people who do not live or work in the building; and
  • More areas of the city would be classified as “near frequent transit service,” (due to an update in the definition of “frequent”), meaning that developers will be able to build housing in those areas without providing off-street parking.

The last bullet above was particularly controversial leading up to the vote, with some residents and councilors concerned about the loss of public parking in the city. Some critics of the reforms have argued that while the city may be moving toward a less car-focused culture, it still has substantial parking needs, and those needs will only grow as the city grows. The Seattle Times reported last August that the number of cars in Seattle is growing just as quickly as its population.

The Council has acknowledged that the decision was a challenging one, but necessary. Councilor Mike O’Brien stated, “You all have elected a Council that is committed to doing climate work.” Noting that this means more than just opposing pipelines, he argued, “We also as a community have to take actions to change our impact on the environment right here locally… these are hard actions because they require each of us to change the way we live in our communities.”

Beyond the environmental benefits, supporters hope the reduced parking requirements will decrease the cost to develop in the city, which they hope will help combat the growing rental costs Seattle residents face. A recent study from King County Metro indicated that about one-third of residential off-street parking is unused, and those spaces generally cost between $30,000 and $50,000 per stall to build. Reducing the requirements to build off-street parking, in combination with the city’s move to unbundle parking from rent, could help make renting in the city more affordable. A study conducted by researchers at UCLA last year found that parking costs the average renter an additional $1,700 per year nationwide, and for the average carless renter, the extra cost of unused parking is $621 per year.

Supporters hope the reforms will lead to better use of existing off-street parking in the city and fewer new off-street stalls constructed in the future. Other cities looking to modernize their parking requirements can learn from Seattle’s approach. SSTI also offers several resources for cities looking to change parking requirements, including a webinar last year on how to approach citywide parking demand studies and Urban Parking: Rational Policy Approaches for Cities and Towns, a report developed with the Mayors Innovation Project.

Rayla Bellis is a Program Manager at SSTI.