CityFixer

Seattle to Buildings: Give Tenants Transit Passes, Not Parking Spots

The city’s new proposal represents a smart step toward reduced car reliance.

Image Oran Viriyincy / Flickr
Oran Viriyincy / Flickr

After decades of telling residential developers to build a minimum amount of parking for tenants, smart cities are now looking for ways to discourage the creation of unnecessary spaces. That’s because while some people enjoy the amenity of a personal spot, residential parking also makes housing less affordable (by jacking up rents to defray the cost of building a garage or a lot) and makes traffic more awful (by encouraging commuters to drive to work). It's a small win for a large loss.

Seattle is among the U.S. metros working hard to change the situation. Years ago it eliminated a rule requiring developers to build parking for new buildings located in downtown or transit-friendly areas. That policy has produced mixed returns; some housing developments provide no parking for tenants, while some still build nearly a spot per person, leading to just over half a space per unit, on average:

Seattle Department of Planning and Development

A new idea, presented recently to the city council, would take that parking policy a step further by requiring developers to offer new tenants a suite of alternative transport options. So instead of getting a parking spot, a resident might get a transit pass or a bike-share membership instead—a trade that, over time, should reduce parking demand and promote car-free living. Here's the basic gist of the proposed "residential transportation options program," via the city's planning department:

Require bus passes for new residential developments in center city neighborhoods and other areas frequently served by transit, along with car share memberships, bike share memberships, or similar services.

The new program would be a great fit with the city's larger shift away from car reliance. Only about 31 percent of Seattle residents now drive to work alone, thanks in part to Washington state's car commute reduction initiative. Locals recently passed a massive transit package that should expand bus service to the tune of $45 million a year. Recent regulations for ride-hail providers, such as Uber, signal a desire to work alongside micro-transit services to ensure a public benefit. The city also implemented a celebrated program to reduce transit fares for low-income riders.

Equity certainly seems to be a core motivation behind the "residential transportation options program." Noting that parking spaces often cost anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 to build, planning officials believe those savings can be passed along to tenants through lower rents. The city estimates the cost of the new program to be "a small fraction of the cost of building new parking." Officials continue:

Transit and other mobility choices should be available and convenient throughout the city. Otherwise people are left without options, or they will choose driving despite higher monetary costs, due to time savings. This most dramatically impacts lower‐income households.

Some developers will no doubt still choose to build parking spots. But the city hopes to constrain the impact of that choice by amending the parking code to promote more "shared" parking facilities (i.e., lots or garages used by multiple buildings) with the ultimate goal of getting the supply of parking closer in line with the true demand. If the plan succeeds, there should be enough parking for drivers, less congestion on city streets, and lower rents for tenants—a little something for everyone.

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