Jonathan Hiskes’ question—“Tell me again why we mandate parking at bars?“—got me wondering about Northwest cities. I did some digging, and here’s what I found.

First the good news: we’re not as bad as Long Beach, California, where bars must provide more room for cars than for people. But now the bad news: our codes are not much better in this respect. Seattle and Portland—forward-looking cities when it comes to zoning—have laws on the books that bars must provide 1 parking space for each 250 square feet of floor space in the drinking establishment. (Seattle’s code here; Portland’s here.) And while I didn’t bother to comb through parking codes in other cities, my strong hunch is that you’d find similar requirements. Which is strange.

It seems to me that if we don’t want people to drive home from bars then, at minimum, we should not force bars to provide parking spaces on the property. Call me crazy.

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  • At the risk of making sweeping generalizations, I’m pretty sure that parking is for people who drive cars. And I’m also pretty sure that the core business model of bars is selling alcohol for consumption on the premises. Which means that our parking codes are basically encouraging people to drink and drive.

    Oh, and if you think that bar parking is for designated drivers, Jonathan points to a CDC study showing that there’s insufficient evidence to support designated driver programs. However, one thing that does work as an alternative to drinking and driving—and I can vouch for this—is walking. Taxis work well too. So do buses. Heck, bikes can do the trick, though I don’t necessarily recommend it.

    There’s a larger lesson here though, and it’s that “parking minimums” are nuts. Although they are a staple of land use codes in virtually every North American city, they produce all kinds of strange distortions and lousy outcomes.

    Fortunately, there is a solution: free market parking. We should stop forcing property owners to provide parking if they don’t want to. In fact, stripping parking minimums from the books would be a great free market reform that would make for solid public policy and better social outcomes.

    So I keep hoping that one of the Northwest’s free market think tanks—I’m looking at you Washington Policy Center and Cascade Policy Institute—will turn their attention to the essentially socialist parking policy that has taken root in every community. One good place to start, I suspect, would be mandatory parking at bars.

    Notes: For the purposes of this post, I omitted some of the arcane technical details of parking codes. In both Seattle and Portland (and, I suspect, in most other cities) there are an array of factors that can reduce or eliminate the required number of parking spaces required at bars. Existing land uses are grandfathered in, and so are existing buildings in many cases. Historic preservation zones overlay other zoning codes, as do pedestrian zones, and so on. In a few instances, bicycle racks can actually substitute for a portion of the parking spaces. Still, the basic rule is the same in both cities: bars must provide 1 parking space per 250 square feet of floor space—and that’s just not sound policy.

    Postscript: I just located Vancouver, Washington’s parking code here. Same deal as Sea and Pdx: 1 car space for every 250 square feet of space for humans.