Parking reform bill moves forward

This morning, the Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee held its sixth discussion of a bill to update the city’s code for off-street and bicycle parking, and it finally rolled up its sleeves and got to work: after passing several amendments, it voted to move the bill out of committee and on to the full Council for final approval.

The bill, inspired by a HALA recommendation, does several things:

  • it forces parking to be rented or leased separately from housing or commercial space in buildings above a certain size;
  • it allows for off-street private parking to be handled more flexibly, including allowing excess parking spaces in a residential building to be used as paid “flexible use” parking available to non-residents of the property;
  • it rewrites the definition of “frequent transit” as it applies to areas where the minimum parking requirements for new developments are removed (because of close proximity to frequent transit service);
  • it expands the distance that off-site parking can be from a use;
  • it adjusts parking requirements for affordable dwelling units;
  • it limits exceptions to maximum parking requirements.

The principle behind many of these changes lies in a book by Donald Shoup called The High Cost of Free Parking. Committee chair Rob Johnson, a self-described “Shoupista,”  cites the book’s conclusion that widespread availability of free parking encourages people to drive, and creating more free parking simply encourages more people to drive cars. “I really do believe,” Johnson said this morning, “that the current system of planning has resulted in widespread harm: environmental harm, economic harm, increased costs of housing, various public safety concerns, and that those existing off-street parking requirements have contributed to additional asphalt and that sort of auto-oriented dominance of the city. I believe that this will result in a more affordable, safer, and more environmentally friendly city.”

Not surprisingly, Council member Mike O’Brien shares Johnson’s (and Shoup’s) philosophy. As does Council member Lisa Herbold, though this morning as the three of them worked through a long list of proposed amendments she hedged on some specific points that concerned her in how it would affect Seattle residents (particularly those in her district).

Among the amendments they adopted this morning:

  • lowering the threshold for building size above which parking must be “unbundled” from 10,000 square feet to 4,000 square feet; Herbold supported it, but was concerned that it would lead to more on-street parking by people opting not to lease an unbundled parking space.
  • prohibiting car-share vehicles from being parked between the sidewalk and a building (previously car-share vehicles were the only vehicles allowed to do this). Johnson called this a matter of “good urban design.”
  • setting the maximum distance between and building and its off-site parking at 800 feet. This was a Herbold-sponsored amendment; the current code specifies 800 feet, but the bill as originally offered by the Mayor changed it to 1/4 mile (1,320 feet);
  • further tweaking the definition of “frequent transit service.” The Mayor’s bill delegated the definition to the Director of SDCI, but the Council members chose to write the definition into the code instead. The new definition uses an average across a day, but requires at least three trips every hour. For the purposes of permitting new development, the city will still need to update a map with areas that are currently within 1/4 mile of a frequent-transit bus route or 1/2 mile of a light rail station (a condition that might change every time Metro and Sound Transit update their bus routes and schedules);
  • removing the parking requirement for affordable housing units that are set aside as permanently affordable for people making less than 80% of the Annual Median Income (AMI). This doesn’t change the requirement for nursing homes or assisted living facilities. O’Brien voted for the amendment, but expressed concern that while nonprofit affordable housing developers will build the housing that meets the needs of the people they serve, the broader housing market may not do the same for low-income people using subsidies to pay their rent;
  • exempt the area near the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal from parking reductions, to help mitigate pressure on neighborhood parking from ferry riders and staff. This was another Herbold amendment, since the ferry terminal area is in her district. O’Brien opposed this amendment, preferring to reform the Restricted Parking Zone (RPZ) program in the area rather than add more parking.
  • for required bicycle parking, additionally requiring a variety of types of bike racks to support different kinds of bikes. Also allowing SDCI some flexibility with bike parking requirements at light rail stations based on local. And limiting the ability to provide off-site bicycle parking on “campus” sites;
  • Two amendments to relax bicycle parking requirements in cases where they seemed excessive: reducing the required ratio of bike parking spaces to residents when the total is above 50 spaces; and reducing the short-term bicycle parking ratio for multifamily developments from 1:5 to 1:20;
  • On the other hand, increasing the short-term bicycle parking requirement for entertainment venues from 5% of total occupancy to 8%.

There was one amendment that failed to pass: proposed by Herbold, it sought to rewrite part of the code dealing with SEPA analysis. The state’s SEPA law requires projects to evaluate impacts on parking for new developments, but the city’s code prohibits the city from requiring mitigation for parking impacts. Herbold’s amendment would have given SDCI some ability to require mitigation of impacts in urban villages with frequent transit service in locations where on-street parking utilization exceeds 85%. It would allow that mitigation to take several forms, including reducing RPZ permits. Nevertheless, Johnson and O’Brien toed the “no parking mitigation” line and refused to support her amendment. They didn’t even give her the courtesy (at least in the meeting) of telling her in advance that they wouldn’t support it, when she grudgingly supported some of their earlier parking amendments with the hope that they would support hers. Herbold noted that she believed a “one size fits all” approach that assumes all neighborhoods are alike was inappropriate. Ironically, Johnson and O’Brien were happy to embrace the need for parking rules to have per-neighborhood variations when it came to bicycle parking near light rail stations, but not for vehicle parking.

The amended bill passed out of committee on a 2-0 vote, with Herbold abstaining; she said that she planned to try her luck again with her SEPA mitigation amendment when the bill comes before the full Council in the hope that she can convince other Council members to support it. That won’t happen until April 2; because some of the amendments require an updated title for the bill, it must be re-introduced next Monday and can’t come up for a final vote until the following week.


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  1. I can’t believe Mike O’Brien and Rob Johnson get their philosophies from same place. It’s almost like they’re moving in lockstep.

  2. Ironically, Johnson and O’Brien were happy to embrace the need for parking rules to have per-neighborhood variations when it came to bicycle parking near light rail stations, but not for vehicle parking.

    Why is this ironic? What could possibly be “ironic” about supporting different policy approaches for bicycle storage and car storage?

    This is Alanis Morissette-level misuse of the term. Embarrassing.

    1. It’s ironic in the specific sense that Johnson and O’Brien believed per-neighborhood variations were acceptable for one kind of parking but not another. I suppose I could have said hypocritical, but I didn’t want to be that accusatory.

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