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Seattle City Council passes suite of parking reforms

The legislation aims for more flexibility around parking—including the flexibility to not build any at all in some cases

Juan Antonio Garcia Jimenez/Getty Images

In a seven-one vote today, the Seattle City Council passed a large package of parking reforms. Among the 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 of rent alone. Bike parking requirements would increase. Potential car-share parking could increase. A new classification of parking would make it easier for property owners to rent out parking spaces to people that don’t live or work in a certain building, ideally decreasing parking vacancy and offering up a few more parking options to people who need to park in dense areas.

But one of the more contentious aspects of the legislation, evidenced by a brigade of public testimony lamenting limited access to public, on-street parking, includes clarifying the definition of “frequent transit service” to scheduled transit service—expanding the area where projects would not be required to build off-street parking.

The potential loss of public parking raised eyebrows even among city councilors. An amendment by Lisa Herbold, which would have allowed the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections to make use of the State Environmental Policy Act to mitigate some parking issues, failed in a two-seven vote. Herbold ultimately voted against the legislation.

Those concerns didn’t prevent the package from passing, though. Councilor Mike O’Brien acknowledged that the decision to vote “yes” was difficult. “You all have elected a Council that is committed to doing climate work,” said O’Brien, noting that it means more than just opposing pipelines. “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.”

“We can’t expect to absorb 70 cars per day and expect to have clean air,” said City Councilor Rob Johnson, who introduced this version of the legislation—although it’s been in the works before he was elected.

Despite car commutes taking a nosedive, Seattleites still tend to own cars; back in August, the Seattle Times reported that Seattle’s car population is growing just as fast as its human population—so while many are choosing to ditch a car on a daily commute, car ownership is something Seattleites still cling to.

Aside from encouraging Seattle residents to ditch car ownership, decreasing parking requirements, the theory goes, could decrease the cost of development—which could decrease the cost of the homes in the building. Building parking is expensive, with a single parking stall adding between $20,000 and $50,000 to total project cost. That, combined with unbundling parking from rent, takes aim at Seattle’s increasingly unaffordable rental costs.

While some, including Herbold, raised concerns that these changes could disproportionately affect low-income residents—especially those using their cars for supplemental income through services like Instacart or Postmates—data also implies that lower-income households are less likely to own a car, although it’s hard to pinpoint exactly. Currently, just over a quarter of current renter households in Seattle do not own a car, compared to just 5 percent of homeowning households—and data from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies shows that median homeowner income is nearly double that of median renter income in the Seattle metro. Car ownership also tends to increase in higher-income neighborhoods in Seattle.

“Seattle Council Bill 119221 aims to ensure that only drivers will have to pay for parking, which seems fair,” said Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking, who was cited by both Johnson and Herbold during discussion, in a statement following the bill’s passage. “People who cannot afford a car or choose not to own a car should not have to pay anything for parking. If drivers don’t pay for their parking, someone else has to pay for it, and that someone is everyone. But a city where everyone happily pays for everyone else’s free parking is a fool’s paradise.”

This article has been updated to include a statement from Donald Shoup;