Morning Crank: Adapting Parking Policies for the Next 50 Years

Dark gray: No parking minimum. Light gray: No parking minimum within 1/4 mile of frequent transit service. Orange: Multifamily and commercial areas with reduced parking requirements. Green dots: Bus stops along frequent transit corridors.

1. The city council continues to debate legislation that makes modest changes to the current rules regulating parking in new buildings, with West Seattle city council member Lisa Herbold continuing to lead the charge against changes to the code that might impact drivers in her district by increasing the walk between their cars and their homes. The updates would, among other changes, change the definition of “frequent transit service”—a direct response to a group of Phinney Ridge homeowners challenging a development on Greenwood Avenue that is directly on a major bus route. The homeowners claim that because the route’s actual schedule varies at rush hour due to traffic, the area doesn’t actually have frequent transit service.

Additionally, the legislation would:

• Allow “flexible-use parking,” which would allow shared parking between buildings (for example, if one apartment building had empty spaces during the day, a retail building without parking next door might rent some of those spaces for their customers.)

• In developments where parking is required, allow that parking to be up to a quarter-mile away from the building (up from 800 feet), in keeping with the definition of accessible transit  as all areas within a quarter-mile of a bus stop served by frequent transit.

• Require landlords to charge for parking separately from rent, to “unbundle” the cost of parking from the cost of a unit.

• Reduce parking requirements for some large institutions and affordable-housing providers.

• Require more bike parking in new developments.

Herbold, who previously argued that the city’s studies showing a low level of car ownership among renters in dense areas don’t account for areas like her district, where most people drive, made the case Tuesday that the city should open up developments where parking is not required to challenges under the State Environmental Policy Act, which are generally intended to mitigate the environmental impact of proposals, not their impact on convenient car use. If SEPA analysis determined that there wasn’t “enough” parking in an area, the city could take a number of actions, including—Herbold suggested—denying residential parking zone permits, which are currently available to all residents of the city, to the tenants in that building. (Herbold pointed out that her proposal would also apply to people buying new condos, but the fact is that the overwhelming majority of new units in Seattle are apartments, not condos).

Herbold also argued that the proposal to allow parking a quarter-mile away from new buildings that are required to have parking could discriminate against elderly people, for whom, she said, “I’ve seen estimates that an acceptable walking distance” is between 300 and 600 feet. “We talk about Seattle wanting to be an age-friendly city, and I’m just concerned that the proposed change to a quarter mile does not serve the needs of that aging population.”  A few minutes later, though, she undermined her case by saying that if the quarter-mile rule for car parking passed, she would propose that developers be allowed to move their mandatory bike parking up to a quarter-mile away; after all, she argued, if a quarter-mile is the rule for cars, shouldn’t it be the rule for cyclists, too? Council member Mike O’Brien pointed out that cars and bikes have very different impacts and serve different purposes; instead of “trying to pretend that cars and bikes are identical and have the same impacts,” he said, the city should adopt bike parking requirements that actually work for bike riders—and encourage cycling, which is already official city policy.

2. If Herbold’s RPZ idea sounds familiar, that’s because it has been proposed loudly and often by homeowner activists , who see it as a kind of “gotcha” that will demonstrate that people who move into buildings without parking actually own cars and plan to park them on the street. Taking away their ability to park on the street serves as both a punishment meted exclusively against renters in new buildings (on behalf of homeowners and incumbent renters who own cars) and a targeted I-told-you-so.

RPZ restrictions were one of many proposals to stick it to developers and renters during a rowdy meeting of the Phinney Ridge Community Council Monday night. Staffers from the Seattle Department of Transportation, the Department of Construction and Inspections, and council member Rob Johnson’s office came to present the legislation and ask questions, but the “Q&A” devolved into a shouting match before it even began.

SDCI’s Gordon Clowers, Johnson staffer Spencer Williams, and SDOT staffer Mary Catherine Snyder only made it through a few minutes of their presentation before members of the crowd—mostly white, mostly gray-haired—began pelting them with rhetorical questions. “Have you considered shift workers who might work at night” in your parking vacancy studies, one woman wanted to know.  (Yes). “If you say, ‘You can’t lock your door'”—a reference to shared parking, which would allow shared use of parking garages—”and there’s a whole lot of break-ins, who fixes it?” (That’s a question for the landlord.) “If most neighborhoods are facing growth and most people are looking for on-street parking, there’s eventually going to be such a rat race of parking demand, looking for that last free spot, that it’s not going to be viable.” (Not a question).

I sat and listened as a woman behind me stage-whispered, “SO WRONG. SO WRONG. SO WRONG” while Williams explained that people living in subsidized housing are less likely to own cars, and I watched as people shouted him down when he tried to explain the rationale behind allowing buses that sometimes arrive every 16 minutes to count as “frequent transit service” for the purposes of parking policy.  I heard a dozen people start yelling in unison when Williams was insufficiently surprised that 1,700 apartment units are in the pipeline along the 5 bus route from Shoreline to Fremont (“That’s been part of our growth strategy since the 1990s”), and I listened as grown adults screamed “Bullshit!” when Clowers said the city wasn’t trying to force people out of their cars and when a different person told Clowers he was full of, again, “bullshit,” because “you can interrupt us but we can’t interrupt you.”

Listening to the Phinney Ridge homeowners in the room, you would think that Seattle is a city where it’s impossible for anyone to get around without a car, where no one takes the bus because they’re all too full anyway, where the local transit agency fabricates bus schedules from whole cloth, and where parking policy is made without consideration for “working-class” residents with work trucks and delivery vehicles. If I hadn’t known that I was sitting in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city, in a roomful of homeowners motivated not by altruism but by the desire to park their cars near their houses, I would think Seattle was in the middle of a class war between elitist city policymakers and paycheck-to-paycheck laborers getting screwed over by policies designed to crush working-class renters.

But that isn’t what’s happening here. Instead, the city is starting to make progress toward adapting its parking policies for the next 50 years, when driving alone in privately owned cars will become the exception, not the rule. It’s hard to see the future when the present is all that’s in front of you—if you and all the people you know own cars, it’s easy to imagine that everyone else does, too, and will for the foreseeable future. Policy makers, and elected officials, are supposed to look beyond the next few years and think about how people who haven’t even arrived in the city yet will want to live 20 years from now, especially when crafting land-use policies that will have implications for decades. It’s a shame when otherwise progressive elected officials can’t see beyond the immediate self-serving demands (for ample, free, convenient parking; for laws preserving single-family neighborhoods) of their current constituents.

3. In an example of the kind of inconveniences transit riders are frequently subjected to, King County Metro will relocate its Route 4—a lifeline route that serves downtown, Harborview and Swedish Hospital, Garfield High School, and the Central District down to Judkins Park—for a year, moving the line four blocks to Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. S. in the Central District. That’s inconvenient enough, but Metro is adding an extra wrinkle: Bus riders will also be forced to transfer to a different bus at 21st and Jefferson, making an already slow route that is frequently delayed even slower. Metro says they had to add the transfer because there aren’t enough diesel hybrid buses to run along the route, which is on wires until it gets to 23rd and Jefferson, on weekdays. In response to my tweet about this yesterday, Metro said that “to minimize the inconvenience, hybrids will serve the entire route on weekends, when hybrids are more available than during the w[ee]k.” I have asked why hybrids couldn’t be made “more available” for this route, given that riders will already face a year-long route change; they said they’d get back to me later today.

Last year, the agency dead-ended the route at 21st Ave. and Jefferson Street, forcing people headed south to transfer to the Route 48 bus two blocks away.

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8 thoughts on “Morning Crank: Adapting Parking Policies for the Next 50 Years

  1. Pingback: Claim: Affordable and Family Housing Proposal Would "Cause Irreparable harm to the Entire Phinney Ridge Neighborhood if | The C Is for crank

  2. That Phinney session sounds like a JuNO meeting here in WS. Which is why I don’t go to community meetings anymore, but sent along an email to Herbold (based on your Twitter coverage) that I was disappointed with her “advocacy” for our neighborhood on this very topic. Thanks for your reporting!

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  4. My dear crank,
    Your bias is showing. It appears that you are OK with council members looking out into the far future to serve constituents who are not here yet and whom they may never represent, but those same electeds should ignore the citizens they were elected to serve who sit in front of them today. What part of a representative government do you not understand? The majority of Seattle renters and homeowners have cars and will continue to for many decades. Why should renters not also have a place to park their cars or are you suggesting that homeowners have less right to park on the street than renters?

    Your last paragraph about the bad transit services is a curious juxtaposition but it points out a big problem with linking land use to bus routes over which the city has no authority. Metro can make changes that eliminate “frequent transit” service or any service at all.

    • >> The majority of Seattle renters and homeowners have cars and will continue to for many decades.

      Even if that is true (and there is no reason to believe it is) that doesn’t change the dynamic. Why should renters (and people who don’t own property) pay for parking? Either let the market decide or have everyone pay for it.

      I think folks forget — or don’t realize — that when you require parking, someone has to pay for it. It pushes up the cost of building new apartments, which in turn pushes up the cost of *all* rental property. This seems obvious to small business owners (who think in those terms) but a lot of people don’t really think it through. If you have increased demand for apples, but it costs a lot more to plant more trees, then all apples (even the ones that come from the old trees) are more expensive.

      Think of it like a parking tax, but one only paid by renters. That seems horribly unfair, given that owning a car is less a necessity than a place to live. If you really think parking is a necessity — a reasonable argument to make — then we should all pay for it.

  5. Thank you for continuing to provide coherent, on-the-ground reporting on issues like this. Also, thank you for sitting through agonizing meetings like this and providing context and recap so I don’t have to! You have a new Patreon supporter starting today.

  6. For the record, the north-end meeting you mention wasn’t the week’s only community group presentation of the parking legislation. SDCI was at the Southwest District Council last night. No shouting, no hostility. Most of the questions were about how the flexible-parking proposal would work. Story later today.

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