Much Ado About Parking

Today in the Twittersphere, @SeaBikeBlog jumped on Knute Berger for his whiney screed titled “Will Public Parking Go Extinct In Seattle.” If it wasn’t obvious from the melodramatic title, Berger bemoaned the loss of parking spaces, which he linked to new bike lanes, streetcar lines and traffic calming measures. The Seattle Bike Blog called him “out of touch” and pointed folks to their own article demonstrating Seattle has too much parking. It’s a great piece with some jaw-dropping stats.

Your stereotypical parking whiner doesn't look like Knute Berger. But truly they come in all shapes and sizes. I've read Knute's book, "Pugetopolis" and he's can actually be insightful when not talking about parking. Photo by Joe Mabel.

Your stereotypical ‘we need more parking’ whiner doesn’t look like Knute Berger. But truly they come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve read Knute’s book, “Pugetopolis” and he can actually be insightful when not talking about parking. Photo by Joe Mabel.

For example, Seattle has 1,378 acres dedicated to on-street parking. That’s more than two square miles. This doesn’t even count off-street parking, such as parking lots, ramps, garages and driveways, which eats up even more space and apparently brings the total share of Seattle land dedicated to parking to somewhere between 10 and 20 percent.

This overwhelming sacrifice of land for parking cars has huge costs. Building parking is expensive. The land value of the average parking spot is at least $5000, and each car has at least 2.2 parking spots in the region, according to Alan Durning in “Park Place: Your Parking Costs More Than Your Car,” which the article cited. Thus, even a conservative estimate of the value of your car’s storage space ($11,000) is higher than average Blue Book re-sell value of your car (less than $8,000).

The cost of building a surface parking spot is significant: at least $3,000. Underground parking is exponentially more expensive to build. The article quoted Alan Durning from another parking article: “For one-bedroom apartments with two parking places, as is required in places including Bothell and Federal Way, Washington, as much as one-third of the rent may actually pay for parking.” In other words, an apartment building with no off-street parking would be as much as 33 percent cheaper than a building with 2 parkings spots per unit. So instead of paying $1,600, you might pay $1172 for a one bedroom in a parking free building. Of course, that’s only if the landlord didn’t try to increase their profit share, which is no guarantee at all. Regardless of landlord profit-seeking, a cheaper building means cheaper rents are possible.

My building charges $125 per month for an underground parking spot. Even that amount of money doesn’t come close to covering the actual cost of the spot. Excavating and building an underground parking spot typically costs $55,000 whereas a 550 square foot apartment might cost $60,000 to build (using Durning’s estimates). Yet the median one bedroom apartment costs $1600 in Seattle while the parking spot costs a tiny fraction of that. Since, the parking spot and the apartment cost a comparable amount to build but are rented at vastly different rates, tenants who don’t rent a parking spot are subsidizing tenants who do. The majority of the cost of parking is born not by the parking fee but by higher rents overall for all tenants. Parking costs are baked into the rents. Tenants without parking still ultimately pay for it in their rent.

Talking about parking sure helps me put the fury in “The Puget Sound and The Fury.” But, now that we’re furious, what can we do about it? Seattle has done some. in 2012, the Seattle City Council voted to relax parking restrictions 50% in areas within a quarter mile of frequent transit service (defined as 15 minute). Moreover, it eliminated parking requirements in areas zoned urban centers or urban villages.  However, that still leaves a lot of zones dealing with onerous parking mandates. (See talking about parking makes me sound like a libertarian.)

There is still an gigantic amount of inertia pushing builders to build parking. Why not do away with parking minimum requirements citywide? Some developers will still choose to build parking, but at least it will be a choice. Plus, it will free up developers to build affordable housing with no off-street parking in more areas. Parking maximums may even be necessary to snap developers out of their parking addicted ways and save them from their own stupidity of building too many parking spaces and needlessly driving up the cost of their building.

Seattle thinks of itself as progressive, eco-friendly, and car-light. In practice, the city has an enormous amount of parking, is still building tons more, and still asking non-car owners to bear many of the car storage costs. We are ruled by our paranoia—the paranoia of not having a parking spot readily available right when we need it, the fear a tenant (gasp!) might have to look outside their building to find a spot to rent or squat upon. We are not ruled by engineering a better future, one that would steer us away from car dependency. To paraphrase Heidegger, we are trapped in our Carness; the path we are on is paved. In our Carness, every destination is parking.

Seattle’s Growth: The Benefit of The Boom

Seattle is going through some growing pains—skyrocketing housing costs, changing neighborhood dynamics, snarling traffic congestion—but growth is essential nonetheless. Basically, Seattle is like a gangly young basketball player in the midst of a growth spurt: keep growing and he’ll be tall enough to make it to the NBA. His height would be an asset. Stop growing and he’ll never achieve his dream of making the NBA. He will be tall enough to hit his head on low doorways but not tall enough for his height to truly be an asset.

I, for one, say grow, Seattle, grow. And grow she shall—to a city a million people within forty years, if I was a betting man. I’m not championing growth just so we can brag about being a city of a million citizens. The real perk is population growth is greater tax base to fund the creation of a truly effective transit system and more transit users to put the system to good use and keep it in the black financially. More investment in the public realm will help undo the damage to the urban environment done by car infrastructure: gutting neighborhoods for highways, freeways, parking ramps and surface parking lots.

Our Self-Defeating Car Dependent Transit System

I-5 is a vital clogged artery into the city and a major consumer of valuable real estate. Photo by Long B. Nguyen.

I-5 is a vital clogged artery into the city and a major consumer of valuable real estate. Photo by Long B. Nguyen.

While the 20th century was the time of the automobile, the 21st century cannot continue down that highway for a number of reasons.

  • Climate change. Burning petroleum with our cars is a major contributor of greenhouse gasses. The sprawling land use patterns car culture encourages are also massively destructive to the environment and perpetuate the cycle.
  • Dwindling petroleum supplies. Even if we as society say ‘fuck the environment’ we will exhaust our petroleum supplies eventually. It would only be prudent to convert to a system without an expiration date.
  • Rare earth metals. Rare earth metals are, well, rare and we need them for the batteries for electric cars. We might not have enough of these metals to convert our whole fleet of cars to electric and the world’s supply is currently dominated by China. Extracting earth metals is also very damaging to the environment.
  • Equity. Cars are expensive and more and more Americans are finding they can’t afford them or don’t want to budget for them. High quality transit is essential to reducing poverty. This month, the New York Times reported, “In a large, continuing study of upward mobility based at Harvard, commuting time has emerged as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty.”
  • Highways = money sinks. Most cities struggle to fund the highways they already have. As cars become more fuel efficient, fuel tax revenues dwindle. States rely on the federal government to subsidy their highway departments but the  Federal Highway Trust Fund is out of money and Congress has balked at raising the federal gas tax and failed to find an alternative.

A 21st Century Transit System

Developer Gerding Edlen's recently submitted rendering for the Capitol Hill Link Light Rail Station shows a design that would help push us toward a 21st century transit system. Protected bicycle lanes, plenty of pedestrian space, green space and active retail fronts. It's all there.

Developer Gerding Edlen’s recently submitted rendering for the Capitol Hill Link Light Rail Station shows a design that would help push us toward a 21st century transit system. Protected bicycle lanes, plenty of pedestrian space, green space and active retail fronts. It’s all there.

What would a 21st century transit system entail? First and foremost, it would have to offer a real alternative to driving everywhere. Light rail is the mode that gets the most attention, but a 21st century could be based on buses (especially the hybrid electric buses Seattle uses). Whatever the mode, the essential element is grade separation in congested areas so buses, streetcars, and trains don’t get stuck in traffic congestion (like they do now in Seattle even with high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes). Transit times have to compete with driving times in order for significant mode shift. It can’t be agonizingly slow.

Another important element is building urban transit stops in a dense walkable area. Leaving a light rail station in a highway trench is a recipe for mediocrity. Integrating transit stops in the highest use areas, such as entertainment districts and residential and office high rises, allows them to maximize their potential and be even more effective at getting more people out of their cars. The urban transit line may be slower than if bee lined going along a freeway or through a industrial area but it serve many more people. Moreover, it will be able to offer higher frequency service which will make up for its slower speed since wait times have to be factored into the total time a commute takes.

The Catch: Money

Sound Transit is seeking $15 billion via a planned ballot initiative to fund a package of transit expansions, and given the metro-wide geographical scope of the projects, even $15 billion won’t be enough to connect all the important locations. There’s no way around it. Providing grade-separated transit is expensive. Seattle found out the hard way with Bertha that tunneling machines are expensive in the best of conditions and even more so when things go wrong.

Building elevated lines isn’t cheap either. Seattle infamously spent $125 million in a failed bid to expand the monorail system only to scuttle the project before anything had been built. Elevated train lines can be unsightly, particularly the mammoth concrete supports for Monorail. Monorail expansion seems highly unlikely after that massive failure. However, traditional elevated lines could be useful in sections where tunneling is impossible or simply too costly. For example, Ballard is one area where Sound Transit has brandied about the idea of elevating light rail lines.

Paying for all this is going to be a hardship, but a necessary one. The more residents Seattle has, the lighter the financial burden will be for each taxpayer. And that growth will mean greater density, which will make each transit stop more efficient and the whole system more financially sound. It’s also politically expedient that Seattle continue to grow faster than its suburbs so that Seattle increases its political leverage over them. Under the system we have with Sound Transit, ultimately we have to get the whole region to vote for the plan and, more importantly, to fund it.

How Much Can Seattle Grow?

Seattle has seen years of rapid growth, recently seeing a gain 18,000 in a one-year period. At that rate, Seattle would be at 1,000,000 in less than 20 years. However, 18,000/year does not seem to be a sustainable trend and likely has much to do with Amazon and other companies adding a ton of jobs that particular year. Local economies inevitably see slowdowns. Nonetheless, I think there’s a good case the City of Seattle’s official trend line—predicting a gain of 115,000 in 20 years—is too conservative.

Even with some cyclical slowdowns, I think Seattle’s tech sector is strong enough to keep churning out jobs at a high rate for a long time. Moreover, if Expedia moving its headquarters from suburban Bellevue to Seattle signals a trend, then we might also see a lot of consolidation of jobs to Seattle from across the whole metro area.

The Single Family Zone

As Seattle booms, easily developable lots will become scarcer. Eventually you must consider up-zoning and building in single-family home neighborhoods. Essentially much of the far north and far south of Seattle is suburban sprawl. It’s not very dense. Seattle will need to grow citywide if it’s going to grow at a healthy rate. It can’t just be downtown, Capitol Hill, and Ballard doing all the growing.

Seattle’s 83.87 square miles would be able to support 1,000,000 residents at an average population density of less than 12,000 people per square mile. Of course Seattle is still an industrial city with many acres dedicated to railyards, shipyards, container ports, factories and warehouses. Seattle is also a green city with a lot of parkland. These areas won’t see much if any residential development. Other areas will need to denser in compensation. Several neighborhoods are already much denser than 12,000 per square mile, but the majority of Seattle’s real estate is composed of single family homes at lower densities.

This preponderance of single-family home zoning and land use patterns across huge swaths of the city is a major obstacle to Seattle growing more populous. We are not talking about razing whole neighborhoods (nor would that be smart growth). However, we do need to grow and to up-zone where our transportation system can accommodate more citizens. Growing on the blocks along existing transit corridors seems to be the political consensus but that alone would not be enough. We need to up-zone not just at the immediate block, but also the next few blocks over to really capitalize on the transit investments and create an urban environment in more of the city. Additionally, we need to add more high frequency transit lines and protected bikeways and allow for growth along these corridors, too.

The Wallingford Example

Wallingford sidewalks overflow with shrubbery and flowers.

Wallingford sidewalks overflow with shrubbery and flowers.

I love Wallingford. Part of me would hate to see the neighborhood change since it’s so beautiful the way it is. The whole neighborhood can feel like a big park due to the spectacular and elaborate gardens and landscaping features many homeowners—or their professional gardeners—painstakingly maintain. However, to show you how serious I am, I’m going to describe ways to grow even in my own favorite neighborhood. As idyllic as those single-family homes are, Wallingford could stand to see some more multi-family units to become a more dynamic and dense neighborhood.

On the plus side, Wallingford’s single-family homes are built close together in a walkable grid. Thus, the neighborhood manages to fit more than 11,000 people per square mile. reports Wallingford had a population of 17,848 people on 1.506 square miles in what appeared to be the year 2008 (Note: the City considers Tangletown a part of Wallingford for statistical purposes). It’s likely the population has grown significantly since 2008 given the high number of housing units recently added. These new apartment buildings as well as the old ones that dot Wallingford are mostly along Stone Way or Aurora Avenue at its western fringe, and along 34th Street or Pacific Street on its southern extreme, and along 56th Street near its murky northern border. The big exceptions to that pattern are the apartment buildings along 45th Street in the heart of Wallingford as well as a few along Wallingford Avenue. Other than that, single-family homes and slightly denser row houses or town homes abound. Even one block off 45th Street the single-family home pattern persists.

Box-y fugly townhomes like  these don't do developers any favors as they try to get more projects approved in Wallingford. Better bring your A game. Not this boring block of blah. ... I mean were they going for parking ramp chic?

Box-y fugly townhomes like these don’t do developers any favors as they try to get more projects approved in Wallingford. Better bring your A game. Not this boring block of blah. … I mean were they going for parking ramp chic?

Zoning for and encouraging apartment buildings along 46th Street and 44th Street would help put more people in this business packed, transit-served corridor. This patterns seems to have already been zoned and partially implemented within a few blocks of Stone Way and Aurora/SR-99. We need to implement it on other thoroughfares, too. Wallingford is too valuable of a neighborhood to let stagnate. It’s close to the University. It’s abuts both Green Lake and Lake Union. It already has solid bus service, and I think it’s likely to be served by light rail within a decade thanks to the increasing popularity of the Ballard Spur Light Rail. Let’s build. The construction cranes are already hovering about sites along the Stone Way, 45th Street, and 34th Street. Let’s welcome them to a few more streets.

Sound Transit and Seattle’s Suburban Hangers-On

Both Seattle and my former home of Minneapolis are trying to expand their transit networks. Both metros are running into road blocks convincing their citizens, and especially their suburban citizens, to fund and agree upon on the projects. To try to understand the transit dilemma, let’s talk about growth patterns in the Seattle area.

Seattle Growth Engine

Seattle has been one of the fastest growing cities in the nation in the past few years. It is also growing faster than its suburbs. Gene Balk with the Seattle Times reported, “From July 1, 2012 to July 1, 2013, Seattle grew by 2.8 percent — the highest rate among the 50 most-populous U.S. cities. Seattle added nearly 18,000 residents in the one-year period, bringing its population to about 652,000.” That growth indicates the strength of Seattle’s job market and is tied to the strong tech boom Seattle is experiencing. In fact, a few folks are predicting the Emerald City will surpass San Francisco as tech capital of the US (partly due to cheaper commercial real estate.)

This Stuart Isett really captures Amazon's growth in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle.

This Stuart Isett really captures Amazon’s growth in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle.

Amazon, the poster child of the Seattle tech boom, is constructing a new mega-campus in South Lake Union (possibly revitalizing a neighborhood I called a crotch-like in my last post and making it a destination—or at least giving it a new reason to be avoided.) Amazon rival and Chinese e-commerce behemoth Alibaba is planning to make its North American headquarters in Seattle. Amazon, the largest internet based retailer in the US and #49 on the Fortune 500 list of companies by revenue, is still dwarfed by Alibaba in total sales worldwide. Expedia is moving to Seattle from Bellevue, Washington. And of course there’s still the burnt coffee empire of Starbucks scorching its way to #208 on the Fortune 500 list.

Even though Amazon is the poster child, Boeing is still the top private sector employer in the Seattle metro even after the aerospace behemoth moved its corporate headquarters to Chicago in a move many Seattlites deemed a betrayal after so many years of corporate handouts to prop up Boeing (local writer Knute Berger called Boeing a “corporate welfare pig extraordinaire.”) Seattle used to essentially be a company town of Boeing. Luckily, the local economy is now more diversified. Boeing at Fortune’s #30 would still be behind Issaquah based retail giant Costco at #19. Microsoft (#35) has yet to put up offices in Seattle proper, instead keeping its headquarters in Redmond, eighteen miles to the east. Redmond sits at the northern tip of Lake Sammamish, while Issaquah is at the southern end of this 7-mile long ribbon lake. That’s one Fortune 500-y lake.

Shout out to Renton for taking on this massive Boeing factory and incorporating it into is suburban sprawl fabric. Renton is also home of IKEA in Washington. They just love them some warehouses. Photo by Jelson25.

Shout out to Renton for taking on this massive Boeing factory and incorporating it into is suburban sprawl fabric. Renton is also home of IKEA in Washington. They just love them some warehouses. Photo by Jelson25.

Rounding out Seattle’s contributions to the Fortune 500 we have Nordstrom’s at #227 and freight forwarder Expediters International of Washington at #428, while suburb Federal Way hosts forest products company Weyerhaeuser at #363 and Bellevue is home to truck manufacturer Paccar at #168. All those big businesses have been driving Seattle’s growth, but small businesses are doing their part, too. The presence of Amazon and Microsoft has helped turn the area into an incubator for tech startups.

The Booming City

Seattle outpacing its suburbs in growth is pretty remarkable. The dominant pattern in the US since at least the end of WWII has been suburbs have been growing faster than cities.  Many cities actually shrunk significantly in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s after seeing neighborhoods gutted for freeway construction, buildings leveled for parking lots, and their factories shuttered as corporations outsourced industrial jobs. The Freeway Boom ignited by Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was a catalyst for suburban flight as was growing racial tensions of the civil rights era. We are finally starting to see that pattern shift. Even in this era of increased interest in urban living, most suburbs continue to chug along growing faster than the cities they surround. Seattle and a few other particularly booming cities across the nation are breaking that trend. The suburbs and satellite cities of Seattle are stilling growing pretty well in their own right.

Tacoma: The Less Booming City

Historically, Seattle’s regional nemesis was Tacoma, thirty miles to the south. Like Seattle, Tacoma is a major seaport and rail terminal. Tacoma earned the ire of Seattle founders when in 1884 it managed to become the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad instead of Seattle. Apparently, the rail tycoon plotting the line to Seattle went bust, delaying the connection to Seattle. The Tacoma terminus situation only lasted three years, but, during that time, they really rubbed it in Seattle’s face. Tacoma kept the short line to Seattle in dismal shape, sending just one train per day. Seattle got its shit together and made itself the terminus in 1887 but the rivalry continued.

Tacoma is even closer to Mount Rainier, which is also a frequent photo backdrop here.  Photo credit to USGS/Cascades Volcano Observatory.

Tacoma is even closer to Mount Rainier, which is also a frequent photo backdrop here. Photo credit to USGS/Cascades Volcano Observatory.

Tacoma, a city of more than 200,000 people, is an urban center in its own right. Still, it partially functions as a satellite city to Seattle given its proximity to Seattle and cheaper real estate. A commuter train and express bus line makes the daily commute between Tacoma and Seattle more bearable than some other satellite cities. Tacoma has kept its industrial and working class character more than its larger neighbor to the north and is a bit more diverse too.

Bellevue: A Soulless Paradise

Bellevue is the next largest city in the Seattle metro area with about 135,000 residents, and the booming suburb has largely taken on the rival role with Seattle in recent years and drawn even more ire than Tacoma. Bellevue invites teasing if not outright disdain with its quintessentially snobby and elitist attitude despite a bland suburban character flirting with soullessness. Due east of Seattle, Bellevue was a sleepy little backwater of about 1,200 souls when a floating pontoon bridge was completed in 1940 to span Lake Washington and open all that empty space up for development. A second floating bridge was opened in 1963 to carry Route 520 to Bellevue and ‘burbs beyond. By 1970, this little boomburb that could had boomed its way to a population of more than 61,000.

Bellevue, a city for cars and their operators. Props to Jelson25 for getting in a plane, taking that photo, and putting it on Wikipedia Commons.

Bellevue, a city for cars and their operators. Props to Jelson25 for getting in a plane, taking that photo, and putting it on Wikipedia Commons.

Bellevue boasts its own downtown skyline, which granted does contain a handful of respectable high rises up to the city imposed height limit of 450 feet. However, all that steel and glass hasn’t translated into much culture, and its retail and restaurant scene is still in the suburban mall mode and dominated by chains. Many authorities such as CNNMoney and USA Today, however, rate Bellevue one of the safest and best cities to live and launch a business in the country: a veritable suburban oasis! With a median household income of $88,000!

The Other ‘Burbs

The other suburbs of Seattle largely ring Lake Washington, spread out along the shores of the sound, and hug a few valleys snaking into the foothills of the Cascades. Renton (population 100,000) anchors the south end of Lake Washington. (It’s also possible to think of the coastal region from Olympia all the way to Vancouver, British Columbia as an extended metropolis—one containing upwards of 8 million people.) North of Bellevue, Kirkland (population 85,000) also kisses Lake Washington. East of Kirkland, Redmond has a population of about 58,000 and a Microsoft workforce of 33,000 so probably not too big of an unemployment problem. Collectively the suburbs east of Lake Washington are known as “The East Side.”

Twenty-five miles to the north is Everett, a sprawling suburb of 105,000, rounds out, more or less, the northern limits of the Seattle metro area. The state capital Olympia (population 50,000) sixty miles south of Seattle at the southern tip of the Puget Sound roughly delineates the southern limits. Undaunted by the Puget Sound, sprawl spills west, too, onto Bainbridge Island, Whidbey Island and Vashon Island and all the way to Bremerton and surrounding towns on the opposite side of the sound. Taking a ferry across the sound is quicker than driving around via the (Second) Tacoma Narrows Bridge. The first Tacoma Narrows Bridge, nicknamed Galloping Gertie for how it swayed in the wind, famously fell into the sound in 1940 after being open just four months. Forty mile-per-hour winds did her in, as this gnarly footage attests. And that segues beautifully with Seattle’s storied history of botched public works projects and our current transit funding impasse.


Barney Ellott was on hand with a Kodachrome camera to take footage of Galloping Gertie’s early demise on November 7, 1940.

History of Mega Project Addiction and Blunders

The most recent misstep when the tunnel boring machine dubbed Bertha (after Seattle’s first female mayor) broke down while attempting to dig a tunnel for SR-99 to replace the earlier blunder of erecting a viaduct in the midst of downtown (thereby separating downtown from the waterfront and eating up dozens of acres of valuable real estate.) Removing the obsolete viaduct is an admirable goal; although, many questioned the need for a tunnel, including me—belatedly. Just put a boulevard at street level. Motorists would have to go slower, but it’d be safer. And cheaper. The tunnel project was projected to cost $4.25 billion—before Bertha snarled to a halt.  And it wouldn’t have to be replaced every few decades to keep it from being earthquake fodder or collapse from its own weight. City officials are praying that Bertha will bore again and the tunnel will get finished without any more hiccups.

Bertha emerged from the hole it bored after a year long hibernation.

Bertha emerged from the hole it bored after a year long hibernation. Photo credit to AP Photo.

Before Bertha the state’s biggest mega project was the 520 Bridge Project projected to cost $4.1 billion—before massive cost overruns pushed it $4.65 billion and counting. Are you detecting a pattern yet? The problem this time was cracks and leaking in shoddily constructed pontoons supporting the new floating bridge spanning Lake Washington to Bellevue. But engineers said the first pontoon bridge was at the end of its functional life (apparently they only last 50 years) and was vulnerable to an earthquake or storm, so, get out your credit card; we need us a $4.65 billion bridge.  And they said light rail was expensive!

And that history of blunders is on people’s mind as Sound Transit plans to ask for $15 billion for a package of unspecified transit projects. I assume they are going to get more specific before they ask metro area voters to approve the ballot measure to the tax increases. But, as of this week, Sound Transit seems content with “we are just getting started” after the Seattle Transit Blog panned their conceptional “scenarios” as poorly prioritized. One big hole was that rail to Ballard wasn’t studied, which both I and the blog really like. Apparently, despite being a transit agency, Sound Transit hasn’t thought seriously about prioritizing transit improvements. I’ll dig into the specifics in a later post.

For now let’s just think about the hidden costs of suburban sprawl, the leaky 4-billion-dollar pontoon bridge to Bellevue, broken Bertha, and the fact that investing in mass transit might be safest, wisest investment of Seattle’s apparently easily squandered tax dollars.