Chapter 23.54 Quantity and Design Standards for Access and Off-Street Parking

Parking has been called, in a strange mixed metaphor, the “third rail” of Seattle politics. As I mentioned, I think of parking as more of a defining opportunity. The dissonance between what we think is factual and what we feel gives us a chance to make some defining choices. Seattle’s land use code is built on the idea that the City should intervene on where people store their cars, how many car storage spaces should be required, and how big those car storage spaces should be.

The code (23. 54) divides car storage into non-residential, residential, and institutional zones. Each zone has requirements. For example, the non-residential entertainment use has this requirement:

B.3. Entertainment Uses, general, except as noted below (1) For public assembly areas: 1 space for each 8 fixed seats, or 1 space for each 100 square feet of public assembly area not containing fixed seats

Here’s the requirement for a multifamily use:

L. Multifamily residential uses within the University of Washington parking impact area shown on Map A for 23.54.015(1) 1 space per dwelling unit for dwelling units with fewer than two bedrooms; plus 1.5 spaces per dwelling units with 2 or more bedrooms; plus .25 spaces per bedroom for dwelling units with 3 or more bedrooms

Institutional uses have their own requirements:

I. Libraries (1) (6) 1 space for each 80 square feet of floor area of all auditoria and public meeting rooms; plus 1 space for each 500 square feet of floor area, excluding auditoria and public meeting rooms

In each case there is an attempt to require parking on some kind of estimate of demand. But it’s kind of arbitrary isn’t it. What about 500 square feet of library space means that it will generate the demand for one parking space. The answer is nothing. You’d do just as well to require a parking space for every 20,000 pages of printed material.

In many ways, the same is true for all the requirements based on use: they have almost nothing to do with what drives parking demand. Frankly, I don’t know what drives parking demand. If I did I guess I’d be running a parking lot empire.

The code also lays out how big the spots should be.

1. Residential Uses.

a. When five or fewer parking spaces are provided, the minimum required size of a parking space shall be for a medium car, as described in subsection A2 of this Section 23.54.030, except as provided in subsection 23.54.030.B.1.d.

What is a “medium car?” How do we know just how big all those cars needing storage will be? Again, the attempt is to somehow figure out what might be reasonable, make a requirement, and the leave some escape hatches and exemptions as needed.

What is a medium sized car?

All this is pretty reasonable in some ways. There are parking experts and I would guess that if I was to build 100 units of housing it would be reasonable that each unit would need about 1.5 units of car storage. Some people drive, some people don’t. Some people might have more than one car. Let’s just say 1.5 and call it good.

But the problem is that none of this corresponds to parking reality. Why not count all the cars in Seattle and then mandate that many spots citywide? Maybe we need more than that or less. I can’t think of any other product and service that is so heavily regulated and by standards that don’t seem to correspond to how the market actually works. Taxi cabs are probably up there.

Two more things, curb cuts and loading spaces. Curb cuts matter a lot. They matter because they are the way that cars and trucks get in and out of a lot. They also present a hazard to pedestrians.

This also seems a stretch. How does one determine how many curb cuts make sense? Projects are so different and configured in such unique ways, how can the City sensibly regulate these with such an arbitrary scheme?

And lastly, loading zones. One of the things that popped into my mind is the classic opening of the movie Airplane, where the two announcers talking about loading and unloading at the airport get into an argument.

“Listen Betty, don’t start up with your ‘white zone’ shit again.” If only the parking section of the code was as entertaining.

Don’t take my snarking about parking as a critique of the good folks at DPD or even at City Council. How does one regulate parking? How exactly should the City determine where people should park, for how long, how big the spots are, and how many curb cuts there should be? The answer ends up being a guess.

That’s why I go back to my philosophical post. Why not just get out of the business of regulating parking all together? Remove all regulations and just let people have a go at it? Imagine if the City just let private property owners decide how much parking to offer or whether to offer parking at all. Some might over build their parking. That would lower prices. Others might realize that parking is expensive to build and manage and they’d rather use their money and land for something else more lucrative.

I can’t think of  single good reason why the City is regulating parking. Can you? Revenue? To prevent total chaos? Help me out in the comments. I really want to know why we ought not just delete this entire chapter and allow the free market to have its way with parking. Perhaps we should drastically limit or “cap and trade” parking capacity. Those are interesting ideas, too. But at least the idea of gradually reducing free on street parking has a sustainable policy goal as an outcome. Managing parking supply and demand seems like a bad use of the our regulatory authority.

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4 Responses to Chapter 23.54 Quantity and Design Standards for Access and Off-Street Parking

  1. Matt the Engineer says:

    I don’t have a good reason, but I’ll bet I can guess why it exists: “If they build an apartment complex and a library next to me, I’ll never find parking in front of my house!”

    I think the multifamily U-District example is very intersting. A 100 unit building made up of 2-bedroom apartments would require 150 parking spots. A 100 unit building made up of 3-bedroom apartments would require 75 parking spots. Huh? Do 2-bedroom families statistically have twice as many cars than 3-bedroom famlies? Or is this some sort of incentive to build more 3-bedroom units, knowing you can save money by building less parking?

    I completely agree we should kill this part of the code. I have a feeling I’ll be in favor of removing a lot more sections of the code as you get to them.

  2. Eric says:

    Like Matt said, I believe the reason must be to keep newly constructed buildings from setting aside too little space on their property for parking, and thus flooding the nearby streets with cars that weren’t parking there before. A lot of older homes in Seattle (mine included) predate widespread car ownership and thus do not have a garage or driveway at all. Residents in these homes rely on the continued availability of street parking. I know a one-car garage would eat up most of my backyard, so I’m personally glad there is still enough space on my street to park. If, on the other hand, the house on the corner was torn down and replaced with a six-unit apartment building with no on-site parking, my block would become quite a bit more cramped.

    That said, I do think it makes sense to relax or remove this restriction going forward, especially in denser areas where the transit system is more frequent and not everyone will own 1.5 cars per two bedrooms. In general I believe in dictating a bit less through the building codes and letting the market have more of a role in what people decide to do with their property.

    Perhaps a good compromise would be to make overnight street parking in all residential areas available by permit only. Existing buildings would be “grandfathered in” and would be freely given some number of permits based on some metric (such as number of bedrooms, street frontage, etc.). New developments would not be allocated any permits by default; they would be expected to include enough parking for their residents on premises, where “enough” is determined by the builder’s assessment of his/her target market (putting in too many is costly and a waste of space; putting in too few turns away potential tenants).

    In the event that the number of permits given out to grandfathered buildings on a block (or small group of blocks) is less than the number of street parking spaces, the remaining permits could be sold at market rates. These permits would be available to residents of grandfathered buildings who own more cars than they “should,” and to residents of new buildings who own more cars than their builder planned for.

  3. Mark S Johnson says:

    @ M the E – The U-district is not the best example because the parking requirement has been waived for areas well served by transit in the multifamily code update. In areas where parking is still required, the requirement for 100 3-bedroom units would be 175 [(1.5+.25)/unit].

    On the general subject, I agree with the idea of getting as far away from regulating parking as possible in areas well served by transit. I think doing away with them outside of such areas would create an incentive to build in those places instead of in the centers and villages, and create demand for more transit dollars when we don’t have enough to do a decent job in many of the urban villages we have.

    But totally abandoning parking requirements would hurt one group more than most – the disabled. Many people who are disabled are capable of remaining independent because they can get close enough in a car to make a journey. If you have ever tried traveling by bus with a wheelchair or a walker, you would know that it’s no picnic. So I hope that is one aspect of the requirements I would hang onto.

    As to the arbitrary nature of these things, there is no doubt the the decisions are political. The starting point has been the ITE standards, which are based on empirical studies in a wide range of places in the US, and over a long period of time (including studies going back to eras of cheaper gas and massive highway investments- but that’s another issue).

    If you believe it’s inevitable that people will own cars, then you have to deal with parking. If you don’t require parking on-site you have to ask, should storing a car on a public right-of-way be considered an entitlement?

    • Matt the Engineer says:

      Regarding parking for the disabled, I’m torn on this issue. Mostly because I had a disabled friend that would always choose where he lived based on his disability. When he moved to Seattle he chose Belltown so that he could walk right outside and hop on the bus to work or to the grocery store.

      Perhaps a good compromise would be just leaving in the section about disabled parking in non-urban areas. But remove the rest of the parking code.

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