Parking Policy in Seattle Gets Less Bad

Downtown Seattle
Downtown Seattle

Photograph by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images.

Americans believe in market capitalism, not Soviet-style central planning. Except when it comes to what we do with our land, in which case almost every developed acre in the United States is subject to detailed and hyper-prescriptive central planning about the provision of parking spaces. But while the USSR at least had the good sense to limit itself to Five-Year Plans, in America’s cities in suburbs the tendency is for parking plans to just linger for decades. So it’s excellent news that Seattle is expanding the scope of land that will be exempt from parking minimums and reducing minimums in large swathes of the city:

[Councilman Richard] Conlin said about 5,670 acres of the city currently have no minimum parking requirement for residential development. He said the new legislation adds about 540 acres. The required minimum would be reduced by 50 percent for an additional 2,590 acres with frequent transit service.

Conlin argued that the legislation in no way prohibits developers from building parking spaces in new buildings, but rather leaves the number up to market demand rather than “an arbitrary city minimum.”

Conlin’s sound point at the end there, however, does highlight how cramped and narrow the scope of parking reform over the past few years has been. The conceit is generally that cities should identify some particular swathes of land—downtown or downtown-adjacent, near frequent mass transit, whatever—where it seems like parking demand may be low, and then use those places as test cases for less planning. The real change in attitudes that we require is to recognize that there’s no need for parking minimums even where demand for parking is high.

In my years I’ve been to a lot of people’s houses. Every single one of them—without exception—has featured at least one chair. People seem to like chairs. But to the best of my knowledge these houses don’t have chairs in them because houses require the presence of chairs. Rather the chairs are there because people want chairs. Unfettered markets have many flaws, but the thing that they’re really, really good at is ensuring that a given town has exactly as many chairs as its residents want to pay for. Parking is similar. If people want to park somewhere, a free market will provide parking. You just might need to pay for it. Either explicitly as leased parking or implicitly as the cost of the space is bundled in with the cost of a condo. Regulatory minimums are not a way of ensuring “adequate” parking, they’re a way of ensuring that there’s more parking than people are actually willing to pay for. Which would be great if excessive parking had positive externalities, but instead it has negative ones—contributing to excess air pollution, traffic congestion, and public health ills.