Parking Policy Pickle

[ Editor’s note: HAC is pleased to publish the following post by Sara Nikolic, Co-Director at Futurewise ]

The City’s no park-and-ride policy around light rail stations has long been contentious, and this past week the controversy  heated  up when several SE Seattle businesses were ordered to stop selling spots to commuters in their underutilized surface lots near the stations.  Yesterday, Mayor McGinn responded by imposing a 30-day moratorium on enforcement of the policy.

On the surface, the policy strikes many people as silly—or worse, counter to the goal of encouraging more people to take transit. After all, the dense and pedestrian-friendly transit-oriented communities that many expected to sprout up in advance of light rail have yet to materialize, and alternative modes of station access are underfunded, insufficient, and in some cases, unsafe.

And it’s true that if the goal is to maximize ridership in the short term, then the City should encourage parking at every station.  The park-and-riders would come, and the trains would be fuller.  

But unfortunately, pursuing that myopic goal would torpedo the long-term, transformative potential of the light rail investment.  The vision for these station areas—as articulated in the 2001 station area plans, and on track to be upheld in the neighborhood plan updates currently underway in three light rail station area neighborhoods—is the conversion of an auto-dominated area of the city into pedestrian friendly, mixed-use neighborhood centers where people can easily access light rail by foot, bike or bus. Allowing park and ride facilities is not only a flagrant disregard for that vision, but would also make it more difficult to achieve for two key reasons:

  1. In many cases, these surface lots are the very properties that the city hopes will redevelop to help create more dense and pedestrian-friendly transit-oriented communities. Allowing income generation from retaining the surface lots will delay the necessary tipping point at which it becomes profitable to redevelop the properties.
  2. Surface lots are hostile to pedestrians. They are unpleasant to walk along, and in poor lighting or with heavy traffic, can also be unsafe. Encouraging more cars to enter and leave these lots during peak commuting times, when people may be accessing the station by foot or bicycle, will only exacerbate safety issues.

But wouldn’t it be okay if the policy change is only temporary, as McGinn proposed?  Maybe.  But the difficulty of taking away something after it has been granted cannot be underestimated.  For instance, how would it be decided when was the optimum time for the parking ban to be reinstated? 

What’s needed here is patience. We will likely have to wait for the next development cycle before much building happens in the SE Seattle station areas, and they will remain less than ideal in the near term.  Because while the City had the vision in advance of light rail to implement policies that discourage auto-oriented uses, it unfortunately didn’t commit to the kind of meaningful public investment that would have catalyzed the creation of real transit-oriented communities.

The current economic slowdown presents a great opportunity for the City to make those investments out ahead of the next wave of development.  And that would entail addressing the very concerns that SE Seattle residents have raised for years: improvements to pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, economic development, crime and safety, school funding.

But now is not the time to backpedal on policy and accept band-aid fixes that will ultimately hold back progress towards establishing the walkable, mixed-use communities that make so much sense for high-capacity transit station areas.

The consequences of banning park and ride lots in station areas are not unintended.  The policy resulted from a thorough planning process, and its goal is long-term progress. Nothing has changed between 2001 and now that justifies abandoning that important long-term vision.

79 Responses to “Parking Policy Pickle”

  1. Alex Steffen

    “That allows people to drive-in and either take the train or enjoy the new walkable areas”

    Most truly walkable places are truly walkable in part precisely because there are many fewer cars moving through them than the average low-density American development (or even medium-low density Seattle neighborhood). If you want to make the station areas walkable, you want to reduce the flow of car traffic through them, and slow down the cars on the roads.

  2. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    @51, the most walkable Seattle urban centers, such as Capitol Hill or the U-District, have a huge number of cars, but they move at relatively safe, low speeds.

    I still don’t buy the Rainer Valley pay-lot ban. It’s already very cheap to park downtown; even if your employer doesn’t provide free parking, there are pay lots everywhere, not to mention street parking if you can get it. The land bankers have other income (such as Clise/Westin), and it takes a very desperate organization like the Seattle Times to consider selling off employee parking lots.

    The posts about it here and elsewhere have done a great job cataloging the potential downsides, but what about the upsides to getting people on transit?
    Why ban pay lots in the Rainer Valley but not all urban centers, where all the arguments apply equally? I completely support a ban on free public park-and-rides, though. I actually thought that was the ban until this blew up.

  3. nador

    @47 Alex, glad to see you learned to cut-n-paste. Unfortunately, you are missing the point of what I posted with regards to your original comment. You said: “The main utility of fixed transit is to encourage land use changes…”

    Yet I remembered during the light rail votes, the argument was all about traffic congestion relief. A quick look on the ST website brought me to the information that I copy-n-pasted. Those were some of the key arguments for light rail in response to the question: “What are the advantages of light rail as a transit mode?”

    My point is, ST obviously does not consider TOD as it’s main purpose. If they did it would be listed. Nice that they support the idea of TOD and created a committee as your post from 1997 points out, but you are not acknowledging the fact that ST does embrace people driving to link stations to commute.

    Get ST to strip from their site any support of commuters driving to stations (Sounder/Link/Bus) and then you can state that it is all about TOD.

    You have a dog in the fight, it’s how you make your living. I don’t, but it is of interest to me as it should be to everyone – it is our world after all. (hopefully you don’t have real dogs either since they are worse than 2 suv’s?!?!)

  4. dan bertolet

    Note to everyone: the “dogs worse than SUVs” myth has been debunked:

  5. dan bertolet

    Chuck Wolfe’s take on it:

  6. Bill B

    @Sara- “…is the conversion of an auto-dominated area of the city into pedestrian friendly, mixed-use neighborhood”

    @51 “Most truly walkable places are truly walkable in part precisely because there are many fewer cars moving through them…you want to reduce the flow of car traffic through them, and slow down the cars on the roads.”

    Sadly the Mt Baker station has Rainier Ave running right past it. I recall there is something like 35,000 auto trips per day running past there.

    And unless all the thousands of NEW units of housing that will be built there have NO PARKING spaces, you’ll be most likely be adding thousands of more trips per day there as well.

    Its as if we are creating a small city with a freeway already bisecting it – its a bad place to create a quiet pedestrian oriented community.

  7. Bill B

    @49 “Groups like Futurewise understand the immense effort it takes to make even the smallest dent in the mountain of policy that has been designed and implemented over decades to support a society based on cars.”

    Our region’s economy is based on air travel, high technology and the military. The carbon footprint and environmental impacts of these sectors is vast, growing and externalized.

    Seattle’s city budget won’t balance now because we have stopped growing – i.e. we are not economically sustainable without development fees.

    Seems to me Futurewise is missing where the change really needs to be.

    Short of that they are really only spurring on development and growth. Something that their partners in the Quality Growth Alliance need.

    That is to say, what we are really talking about is the sustainability of the development (and transit building) industry.

  8. Sara Nikolic

    Bill B @ 57

    Futurewise’s involvement in Quality Growth Alliance has raised a lot of eyebrows, and understandably so – it’s definitely a group of odd bedfellows, and there are a lot of areas of disagreement among us. But we all agree (although from different perspectives and for different reasons, perhaps) that promoting infill development in mixed-use centers and transit hubs is a good thing, and Futurewise is happy to have the opportunity to work along side those varied groups to that end.

    However, Bill, if you are going to bring up our partnerships, I want to make sure you don’t leave out some of our other ones.

    We have a strong partnership with the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance, and worked side by side with them last year on HB 1490, which would have allowed inclusionary zoning to ensure that new station area development included housing for low and moderate income individuals and families. A few of our QGA partners strongly opposed the affordability provisions in the legislation, but we felt (and still do) that they are vital protections for neighborhoods throughout the region that may experience a good deal of (re)development in the coming decades.

    We also are members of the Washington Environmental Priorities Coalition, made up of two dozen statewide environmental and conservation organizations. We are working with that partnership in Olympia this year to protect core state environmental funding, including clean drinking water and toxic clean-up programs.

    We are partnering with Smart Growth America, Transportation Choices Coalition, Washington PIRG, Sierra Club, Cascade Bicycle Club, and others, on a multi-year campaign to increase funding for local transit agencies.

    We are working with a group of citizens, and local and state organizations in Kittitas County to prevent the de-designation of tens of thousands of acres of forest and resource lands in the Upper Teaneway. And we have field staff working on similar efforts in Snohomish, Spokane and Whatcom counties.

    We are partnering with state agencies and local planning departments on the first-ever updates to Shoreline Master Plans. We have a full-time shoreline planner that provides technical assistance to local jurisdictions as they begin their multi-year updates.

    And we are the lead organization working in Olympia every year to stave off roll-backs to the environmental protections and the citizen appeal process of the Growth Management Act.

    On the surface Futurewise might seem like a tough organization to figure out – we collaborate with a wide array of organizations and interests, and we work on a range of land use issues from the local to federal level. But ultimately, our goal is to ensure that growth happens in a way that is both environmentally and socially sustainable, protecting our natural resources and building healthy communities for future generations. And sometimes that means we are fighting development, while other times we are promoting it. It is not always popular work, but it is critically important – and I am honored to have the opportunity to work here.

  9. Sara Nikolic

    Bill B @ 57

    And one more quick thing. Yes, there are other big fish to fry on carbon emissions. There are also a host of other issues that impact growth and environmental protection, such as birth rates, public health, crime and public safety, school funding, to name a few. These are all important issues, in a world full of important causes to take up. But as an organization, Futurewise has 20 years experience advocating for responsible land use and transportation policy. That is our field of expertise. It’s a piece of the broader puzzle, but it is a pretty important one – so that is where we focus.

  10. Chuck Wolfe

    Bill, I would add that the Quality Growth Alliance is a fairly even mix of “development”, “conservation”, “environmental”, “academic” and “governmental” members. Frankly, I think over-labeling in this way does the prospect of of advancing common interests a disservice…this stuff is often mired in shades of gray…

    And many thanks to Dan for the link @55.

  11. Bill B

    @ Sara and Chuck –
    my point was that Seattle and the region at large are inherently wired to be unsustainable: our City government is wired for growth; our regional industries markedly add to the global carbon footprint.

    Changing land use policies around station areas may make a dent in a portion of our population’s carbon emissions, but arguably that is a population we are planning to ADD to the region, and not solving the problem of people here today (hence what many feel is the pragmatism of park and ride at undeveloped lots).

    Without radical shifts in what we do and how we do it, we will not achieve what hopefully we all believe needs to be done.

    So my statements still stand – what you are advocating for is upzoning land to add people (to justify the expense of our light rail) with the larger beneficiary being the development and real estate industries (and the light rail industry as well).

    And until there is advocacy for things like capping the number of cars in the city, changing building codes to require things like gray water systems or LEED, moving away from single use zone restrictions, or requiring impact fees for infrastructure improvements (like sewer treatment and transit), [ETC!], its really just business as usual for those industries – and more net unsustainable growth for the City and the region.

    And sadly, Futurewise is just part of that machine, good intentions and ‘balanced’ partnerships not withstanding.

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