Last week Seattle’s new Mayor, Michael McGinn reversed a city policy that prohibited commercial parking near rail transit stations and sparked a controversy. In some ways, it’s a hyper-local, even neighborhood-level, controversy but it also makes an interesting case study for parking policies in cities and towns all over Cascadia. Parking issues can be a third rail in local politics and leaders across the region often confront a similar problems in virtually every urbanized neighborhood in the Northwest: how to meet parking needs without undermining policies intended to reduce reliance on driving.

Development has slowed in Seattle and many other cities, so why not allow pay parking on surface lots (like a particular one in front of a Safeway) until demand for housing and building increases? Some worry that once parking is allowed, it will be very difficult to take it away. Also, more parking could mean more driving.

  • But what shouldn’t be lost in this local debate—or in the hundreds like it across the region—is that the problem is really more about land use, pricing and taxation than it is about where people store their cars. To understand why, we need to get into the weeds just a little bit.

    Here’s Sara Nikolic—a supporter of the parking prohibition that the mayor overturned—explaining the details:

    The vision for these station areas…is the conversion of an auto-dominated area of the city into pedestrian friendly, mixed-use neighborhood centers where people can easily access light rail by foot, bike or bus. Allowing park and ride facilities is not only a flagrant disregard for that vision, but would also make it more difficult to achieve.

    A commenter added, even more succinctly.

    The problem is that you’re looking at how to make driving in easier. The easier and faster you can drive into a city, the more sprawl you create since you can now live further away (with more land, for cheaper).

    In other words, while allowing parking near transit centers may seems like a good thing—a way to boost rail ridership—it may actually be counterproductive to the larger goal of creating compact walkable communities. It’s not the first time that our parking policies have run afoul of other public policy objectives.

    In fact, Eric de Place has blogged about how our parking policy is fundamentally in conflict with itself. On the one hand, cities want to encourage people to get out of their cars; and on the other hand, cities provide large amounts of free or very cheap storage for cars on public land along city streets.

    So while McGinn’s move may seem like an act of deregulation, it should be understood in the larger context of city parking policy, which continues to operate a fixed-price monopoly of sub-market-rate parking on public land. And allowing artificially cheap private parking adds to the problem.

    The other big problem here is zoning. Cities can be timid and incremental in creating the kind of building capacity that would allow for the development of true transit oriented communities (TOC), compact, busy and walkable neighborhoods centered around transit hubs. The political problems created by neighbors frightened by change too often have trumped what we know makes transit work: land use that creates compact development (You can find anything you ever wanted to know about why TOC matters for our region in Futurewise’s  TOC Blueprint.) If policymakers genuinely want walkable transit-oriented neighborhoods, we’ll have to encourage denser development through local zoning ordinances.

    Density is not a popular term, but it is a pretty straightforward concept. For transit to work there has to be a demand for it, and study after study has shown that higher density neighborhoods create a sustainable demand for transit (not to mention reduced car ownership, energy consumption, carbon emissions and vehicle miles traveled). Adding ‘park and ride’ lots has been shown to undermine, the benefits of density around transit stations. One look at this problem by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute found that “extensive Park & Ride facilities around transit stations tend to contradict efforts to create Transit Oriented Development. In some circumstances, Park & Ride facilities may encourage urban sprawl by reducing the cost of long distance commutes.”

    Taken together, the two policies—removing the prohibition on parking and failing to create bold land use policy that promotes TOC—Seattle is running the risk of turning light rail into yet another subsidy for an auto-dependent lifestyle. Allowing parking near transit might seem like “making it easier to use light rail” when in fact there’s good evidence that it’s just making it easier (and cheaper) to drive.

    What are the solutions cities can look to when considering allowing parking in exchange for riding transit? Here are a few important principles:

    • Adopt a coherent and comprehensive strategy on land use that will create vibrant compact communities that support transit. Allow more housing in transit areas (even if some neighbors complain). Use form-based or performance zoning around stations to more sustainably meet economic and neighborhood needs.
    • Explore policies like land value taxation  that make operating parking lots less economically viable than developing housing. Proponents of land value taxation argue that it would tend to make developing housing more financially feasible than running a parking lot.
    • Avoid intervening in the parking market to ‘solve parking problems.’ Let the market do that by establishing a price for parking based on supply and demand, including on any public land that is set aside for car storage. Resist urges to create more parking supply since less supply means higher prices.

    These aren’t politically easy things to do. But if they are pursued broadly and consistently they can result in better outcomes in the long run