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.

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