There’s no better measure of our perverse relationship with cars than the fact that nearly every city and town in North America has laws requiring drinking establishments to provide parking, and yet roadside memorials to victims of drunk driving are mostly illegal. A single year of alcohol-impaired driving kills more Americans than the last decade of war has, but our land use codes practically encourage driving home from taverns. Bar owners can be held legally liable for their patrons who imbibe too much, but our laws force owners to offer parking for their customers.

Can we stop the madness?

In this post, we take a look at how Northwest municipalities deal with parking at drinking establishments. Who gets it wrong, and who gets it (almost) right? The answers may surprise you. At the end, I’ll explain how easy it would be to fix the problem.

Let’s start with the laggards.

Despite its vaunted reputation for sustainable urbanism, Vancouver, BC may have among the worst parking mandates in the region (code, p. 9). Calculated based on the amount of floor space open to the public, the baseline requirement for businesses that sell liquor for on-site consumption is 1 parking space per 60 square feet (5.6 square metres).

Given that a typical parking space somewhere in the range of 170 square feet, and that the smallest parking space Vancouver allows is 148 square feet, it means that in many cases Vancouver bars must provide nearly three times more space for cars than for drinkers. Factor in the non-stall parts of a parking lot and the multiple is higher yet.

Vancouver’s “cabarets” that sell liquor must provide 1 for each 100 square feet (9.3 square metres). The city’s “neigbourhood grocery stores” need not provide any parking at all, but “neighbourhood pubs” must, by law, provide 1 per 200 square feet (18.6 square meters). Even designated “detoxification centres” are required to house 1 parking space per 300 square feet.

Vancouver’s parking laws seem almost directly at odds with British Columbia’s toughest-in-the-region alcohol-impaired driving enforcement. As of late 2010, police can impound vehicles and fine drivers who register a 0.05 blood alcohol level or higher, as compared to the usual criminal level of 0.08. Much to its credit, BC’s new enforcement provisions seem to be substantially reducing alcohol-related fatalities. Yet even so, drinking and driving is still killing more than 4 residents of BC each month, on average.

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  • In fairness, it’s important to note that Vancouver requires substantially less parking in many of the city’s core urban neighborhoods. Still, where they do apply, the stipulated minimums are substantially higher than most other Northwest municipalities.

    Vancouver is in the same league as some of the Northwest’s other worst offenders like Hillsboro, Oregon, which requires 1 spot per 65 square feet (code, section 84), and Medford, Oregon, which requires 1 spot per 55 square feet (code, 10.743). Tacoma sets up a parking minimum that works out to an average of 1 stall per 100 square feet (though there are more lenient regulations for certain zoning districts) (code 13.06.510, p. 157). Moses Lake, Washington also uses the 1-to-100 ratio (code 18.54.020, p.2). Beaverton does the same thing (code 60.30): its pubs must set aside about twice as much space for cars as for the actual patrons. My favorite brewery‘s hometown, Bend, doubles that, mandating 1 parking space per 200 square feet of floor area (code, starting page 258), which is still a lot of parking.

    Not that Vancouver’s peers are to be lionized. Neither bastion of beer and bicycling, Portland (code 33.266.110, p. 5) and Seattle (code 23.54.015, Table A), address bar parking very well either. Both set a baseline parking requirement for drinking establishments at 1 per 250 square feet of floor area.

    I should mention that both Portland and Seattle have parking rules so labyrinthine that I won’t even try to explain them fully in this blog post. For example, Seattle’s baseline of 1-to-250 does not apply in pedestrian or rail station “overlay” areas, nor does it apply downtown. And, like Portland, it can be reduced or waived in some circumstances, such as by providing bicycle parking or with proximity to transit. Yet the underlying assumption is still on the books: bars in Portland and Seattle are legally obligated to provide almost as much on-site parking as they set aside for customers.

    That 1-to-250 ratio turns out to be a pretty standard formulation. Among the places that we examined for this blog post, it is shared by Vancouver, Wash. (code 20.945.070), Pendleton, Oregon (ordinance 3250, section 119, p41), Salem (code 133.100, p. 9), and Spokane (code).

    Setting parking requirements based on floor area is a bit odd because the formulas can inflate the amount of parking required by counting areas that aren’t for customer use. (Think about places with large kitchens or areas for brewing equipment.) One of the things Vancouver, BC does right is to set its standards based on the floor area designated for public use. Yet a more sensible approach might be pegging the number of stalls to the number of occupants. Victoria(code, p. 6) mandates 1 parking space for every 3 seats at “neighbourhood pubs,” and 1 space per 5 seats at “eating and drinking establishments.” (Why Victoria requires more parking for pubs than eateries is a mystery.) Similarly, Sandpoint, Idaho (code 9.5.17) requires 1 stall for every 3 patrons that are allowed by the maximum legal occupancy at taverns and nightclubs. (Update 7/25: Please see Sandpoint Planning Director, Jeremy Grimm’s comment below for a more thorough accounting Sandpoint’s parking rules.) In Eugene (code 9.6410, p. 347), the parking code uses a more nuanced calculation toward the same end: 1 per 66 square feet of seating floor area plus 1 for each 440 square feet of non-seating floor area.

    The best city we studied for sane bar parking? Arguably, it’s Boise (code, p. 2). Idaho’s capitol city has a 4-tiered treatment of parking requirements, yet even Boise’s most onerous “general” version—1 per 300 square feet of floor area—mandates less parking than the commonplace 1-per-250 standard used by Portland, Seattle and so many other places. That’s what makes it the winner. And it only gets better from there. Depending on its location, a pub in Boise may be required to provide only 0.66 spaces per 300 square feet, or just 0.45, or even none at all.

    As I’ve pointed out, Boise isn’t alone in removing parking minimums in certain designated zones. Vancouver does it for neighborhood grocery stores; Seattle does it for community gardens. The key, though, is to seize on that basic concept—freeing private property owners from the legal burden to use their land for parking instead of profits—and expand it to drinking establishments everywhere.

    It’s really not hard. You just need the number zero. That’s how you make sustainability legal when it comes to bar parking. You find that section in your city’s land use code where it regulates parking minimums. You take a black magic marker, cross out what’s there, and then write in the word “none.” It’s that easy.

    And it could be even easier. In the US, at least, the problem might be solved efficiently at the state level. Because local jurisdictions have government authority only as a condition of state approval, it should be possible for the legislature to make it illegal for municipalities to force parking minimums on bar owners. (Nota bene: I am not saying that parking at bars should be illegal; I’m saying that it should be illegal for cities to force bars to provide it.)

    Mandatory parking at drinking establishments is surely one of the most obvious ways that  well-meaning regulations can run at cross purposes to our values. Bar parking mandates are not a reflection of our insincerity about reducing drunk driving, but rather a revealing example of our outdated zoning practices that encourage driving by forcing private property owners to devote portions of their land to car storage. These zoning codes are, for the most part, still on the books around the Northwest, and they prevent the region from growing into a place that’s safer, fairer, and more affordable. Later on, in Sightline’s Making Sustainability Legal series, we’ll turn our attention to some of the other ways that minimum parking requirements distort our communities and our values.

    Huge thanks to Pam MacRae who did most of the heavy lifting on research for this post.

    Sightline’s Making Sustainability Legal project identifies specific regulatory barriers to affordable, green solutions. If you’ve come across such an obstacle, please let us know by writing Eric (at) Sightline (dot) org.