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.