The front page of the Seattle Times has a story about a driver convicted of drunk driving 12 times, now going on 13. It’s a tragic and horrifying story. It should also be an opportunity for broadening our analysis of the problem.

Serial drunk driving tends be treated as either a failure of the judicial system or as a problem of addiction, both of which are partially right. We might also take a closer look at the design of our cities, because they help create this kind of thing. If we’re going to sell alcohol widely — a notoriously powerful drug that impairs motor skill and judgment, and that is lethal in large quantities — then perhaps it’s not a great idea for us to require by law that alcohol purveyors provide parking. But we do.

Seattle legally mandates parking at bars. So does Portland. So does virtually every community in North America.* 

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  • Let that sink in. We don’t let bar owners decide whether to provide parking for patrons or how much—we force them to do it and we spell out the quantities. And in most every community in the Northwest, it’s provided gratis for patrons. It’s probably the single best example of land use code that is clearly not in the public interest, and yet it is nearly ubiquitous.

    Luckily, reform is easy. All you need is a black magic marker in the hands of your city council. Here’s how the proceedings might go:

    Council president: “Please turn to the section of the land use code on “parking minimums at drinking establishments.” 

    [sound of paper rustling]

    Council president: “Okay, strike that section out. Next order of business?”

    Or if we wanted to get really serious about discouraging drunk driving, we might add something back into the code: a prohibition against providing parking at bars.


    I don’t want to be accused of hiding the ball, so here’s the rest of the story. There are an array of factors that can reduce or eliminate the 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 spaces. Still, the basic rule is the same in both Seattle and Portland: bars must provide 1 parking space per 250 square feet of floor space.