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.
Eric, what do you think of the evidence—taken for a drive most famously in the second Freakonomics book—that drunk walking is more dangerous than drunk driving? This doesn’t have a lot to do with parking minimums, which are definitely nuts, but as a pedestrian advocate, I do find it troubling and hard to refute.
Dangerous for whom? If I stagger home drunk, I’m only putting myself at risk.
Matthew: dangerous for whom? If a change in policy diverts people from a behaviour that is risky to others to one that is only risky for themselves, then it’s surely still a good thing.Eric: I see this as a symptom of a bigger problem: the assumption that land-use policies won’t change behaviour. If you assume that everyone’s going to drive anyway, then it’s clearly better for the neighbours to have adequate parking provided, but it’s an instance of the same flawed thinking that says we must always build more roads to solve traffic problems.
The Seattle link didn’t go to the specific ordinance. For those who are curious, it’s Section 23.54.015, specifically Table A.The 250 square foot rule is for all “eating and drinking establishments.”What I don’t understand is how the use of the facility comes into play at all. Buildings are created without specific uses in mind, and that’s when parking is allocated, right? If a bar or restaurant moves into a location without the minimum parking spaces, does it have to build them? That doesn’t make sense.I did find that there’s a table D in the same ordinance that allows parking waivers in pedestrian zones for the first 1500 square feet. That doesn’t answer my last question but does limit the minimum parking requirement for bars, possibly exempting the smallest bars from the requirement altogether.
@Cascadian -I’m not a planner, but I’ve worked in the industry. Buildings do establish uses as part of the permit process, so parking requirements would be based on those proposed uses. If somebody wanted to open a bar in a space that had an established use of retail, they would have to apply for a change of use and parking requirements would be reviewed/determined at that time. If they did not have enough existing parking for the use, they would need to find a way to provide it.
Matt the Engineer
Not only do bars have to provide parking, they have to provide 8x as much parking as car dealers (per sf)! At least they also require bike parking a bars (though that can’t be safe either). It’s also interesting that we require one parking space per floating home, as I would expect your property to all be under water.
Georgie Bright Kunkel
In Russia, the war devastated so much of the cities that when they rebuilt, they built factories and office buildings with housing near them. They can walk to work and to and from any bar.Russia has drinking problems and certainly this situation helps to keep drunks from driving.
I love the headline, thanks for writing about this!! With access lanes, each off-street parking space averages 300 sf. One space per 250 sf of floor space is in fact ‘more room for cars than for people’, even in Seattle. Responding to Cascadian: Yes, urban businesses that want to re-use an existing building must provide ample parking. If the potential owner of a new neighborhood business such as a restaurant or bar believes that many potential customers will walk and bike, they must prove this. Without spending tens of thousands of dollars for research and/or System Development Charges, the new business use is not permitted. This dooms many small commercial locations in historic buildings, and potential neighborhood businesses, unless the property owner acquires adjacent properties to demolish the adjacent (often historic) buildings for parking. This policy prevents large, sterile residential zones from being renovated into walkable mixed-use areas, because each potential business owner would need to overcome huge regulatory impediments, to provide residents with the nearby amenities that are essential for a walkable neighborhood. Portland is one of the few places in the US where some of the retail parking requirements are relaxed, if a frequent-service transit route is within 500 feet.
Eric de Place
Levin,When you say that each off-street parking space averages 300 sq ft are you including the space that’s external to the actual parking stall? (That is, the space for turning around, entering, and exiting.) I’ve been under the impression that fairly typical parking space is roughly 10 feet x 20 feet, so 200 sq ft in total. Am I mistaken?
As someone whose brother was killed by a drunk driver, this makes me a tad ticked, to be honest. In cities like Sea/PDX with such great transprotation options there is no need to drive home from a bar. Discouraging driving should be first and foremost for bar parking! Of course, I would like to discourage driving in all buildings in the city, but that’s a related but separate issue maybe. Sort of.
Living a few doors down from a pitcher-serving food place on Greenwood Avenue, I assure you that lack of onsite parking does not discourage drinking and driving. Further, the lack of parking congests the residential street with traffic, cars jockeying for the curb, litter, and unneighborly people. Regarding bicyling to bars, a cyclist can badly injure themself or someone else, and, in the state of Washington, can be cited with a DUI.
About the parking size, yes, I’m including the space to enter and exit, because it’s real estate whose sole purpose is to serve car parking. In a very few cases, at small retail establishments, cars drive over a wide curbcut and park in a narrow parking lot that only contains parking spaces. To exit, they back out directly into the street. But in most cases, most parking lots include “the space for turning around, entering, and exiting” on private property that has to come from somewhere. In a neighborhood that’s already developed, it usually comes from tearing down an adjacent building.
A friend of mine put his MA in city planning to good use recently when he decided to open a brewpub: he examined the zoning code and rezoned his site to a classification (one typically used downtown) that didn’t require any on-site parking before applying for the appropriate licenses.