Abolishing Parking Minimums Is Not Anti-Children

The Seattle Times editorial board worries a proposal to relax parking minimums will hurt families, but they're getting it backward.

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Allow me to join the chorus of befuddlement at this Seattle Times editorial railing against a proposal to eliminate the city's minimum parking requirements for new developments located within a quarter-mile of mass transit. The plan, informed by a series of recommendations crafted by a roundtable group convened by Mayor Mike McGinn, would allow the market to determine how much parking gets included in, say, a new apartment building that's served by several bus lines. Here's how the Times editorial board interpreted the proposal:

The proposal is part of a package to lighten regulations that discourage investment and development. Seattle is a highly regulated city, sometimes to the detriment of reasonable development, and generally this package of reforms is good. But to allow the spread of housing without parking is utopian and anti-family.

It is utopian to think that many people will abandon their cars. A few will, but the vast majority who can afford market-priced housing in Seattle will have a motor vehicle, now and always. If they have a vehicle, they will park it — somewhere.

Not just utopian, but anti-family! Oh my.

Erica Barnett and Matt Yglesias have already neatly summarized why letting developers build the number of parking spaces their customers actually want instead of forcing them to build unnecessary spots in no way prevents any real demand for parking from being met. "All the proposal does is give developers some flexibility to provide less parking in cases where the demand for one parking space per unit isn’t there—something the ordinarily pro-free-market Times should be willing to get behind," writes Barnett.

But what about that anti-family charge? The implication here is that families with young children, a demographic group every major city should want to accommodate, have to own cars in order to safely transport their kids to the places where kids need to go. If the city doesn't make sure its downtown apartment and condo buildings include lots of parking, then families won't want to live downtown, the logic follows.

This isn't the first time I've heard this argument, and it won't be the last. So it's worth unpacking a couple of the key assumptions underlying this point of view.

We already know that Millennials are purchasing fewer cars and driving less often than the generation that came before them. Not only are they opting out of car ownership, they're choosing to live in walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods in order to make that option more feasible. Defenders of suburban-style development like Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin would argue that these young people just don't understand how their lives and desires are going to change once they start families. Single-family, detached homes with a quarter acre of land and two cars in the garage are suddenly going to look a lot better to all these idealistic, bicycle riding twenty-somethings once the reality of parenthood sets in.

Kotkin and Cox also worry that developers and city planners rushing to meet the youth-driven demand for denser housing options that don't necessarily include parking are shooting themselves in the foot. Here's Kotkin writing for Forbes.com back in February:

Millennials, the generation born between 1983 and 2003, are often described by urban boosters as unwilling to live in their parent’s suburban “McMansions.” Yet according to a survey by Frank Magid and Associates, a large plurality define their “ideal place to live” when they get older to be in the suburbs, even more than their boomer parents.

Ninety-five million millennials will be entering the housing market in the next decade, and they will do much to shape the contours of the future housing market. Right now many millennials lack the wherewithal to either buy a house or pay the rent. But that doesn’t mean they will be anxious to stay tenants in small places as they gain some income, marry, start a family and simply begin to yearn for a somewhat more private, less harried life.


What's funny about these assumptions is their total lack of faith in the free market. Abolishing parking minimums someplace like downtown Seattle doesn't mean that young parents with their hearts set on buying a single-family home with a yard will somehow be forced to live instead in a too-small condo with no parking. It means that a different set of young parents who do want to rely less on an automobile, whether by taking mass transit (kids ride the bus too!) or walking or car-sharing or some combination of all three, might be better able to afford to buy their first home because the developers who built it weren't forced to charge them extra for a parking space they don't want or need.

This seems to me to be the key misunderstanding of the Seattle Times editorial board. Keeping parking minimums in place doesn't encourage today's struggling young families to choose to live in the city center, it punishes them by artificially inflating downtown real estate prices via excessive amounts of parking.

Top image: JuliusKielaitis / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Sommer Mathis is editor of CityLab. Previously she spent five years editing and reporting on the D.C. metro area at DCist.com and TBD.com.