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Commuter Parking at Seattle’s Light Rail Stations

Feb 02, 2010

by Matt Roewe, AIA, LEED AP
VIA’s Director of Mixed use and Major Projects

There has been a lot of discussion and debate lately regarding Mayor McGinn’s proposal to suspend the enforcement of a Seattle ordinance that prevents all-day paid parking near light-rail stations. Citizens are looking at the underutilized areas at these stations and now pressuring the mayor to change this policy. I have been discussing this in house at VIA with our planning and urban design team, as well as with my fellow planning commissioners. The Seattle Planning Commission is writing a letter to City Council and the Mayor with our thoughts on this. Look for that in the next week. Meanwhile, my personal thoughts are summarized here.

Not allowing park and rides in urban station areas is a generally a good policy 
Parking, especially when it is free and used all day by commuters, tends to become an issue that encourages driving as a habit, and works against good place-making and sustainable living strategies. However, some short term flexibility is worth considering while we dig our way out of this down economy.

The new light rail system needs more ridership support
I have heard that dally train boardings are underperforming expectations. So, until more capacity/density can be established within walking distance (rezoned and built), interim strategies should be explored. Significant responsive development may take 10 to 25 years to come to fruition in some station area locations. Even some station areas with unrealized commercial development on Vancouver’s high capacity transit system (Skytrain) are still well behind the ridership targets after 25 years. Meanwhile, existing lots here in Seattle sit underutilized during the work day.

The mayor’s proposal targets only existing parking lots, so the notion of establishing parking as a new single use is off the table
The benefit is that nobody will be tearing down a building to make a parking lot or stand-alone parking structure. The key is to incrementally take away the parking lots that exist now by establishing a penalty or tax for using them for all day commuter parking. Initially, there would be a small tax per stall within the station area, but it could be ratcheted up every year to make that use less viable. I equate this to the Darwin-like evolutionary process of getting people out of their cars and into a more urbanized, walkable lifestyle. It won’t happen overnight. Some areas will happen sooner than others, so a one size policy should not be applied at every station area.

I’ll also point out that the City and Sound Transit need to continue to work closely with Metro to improve bus integration service and frequency east/west to the alignment and in loops around the greater station area neighborhoods. Many high capacity transit station areas in other cities have 40 to 50% or more of the LRT ridership start or end with a connecting bus. This effectively will reduce the need for parking in the station area and give the whole neighborhood more reasons to evolve into a vibrant, walkable, better connected and less car dependent place.

Another critical issue is significant transit supportive rezoning has not yet taken place
Up-zones bring value to properties and bring more reason to owners to sell or consolidate smaller properties for higher and better uses than one story strip malls or surface parking. Of course this needs to be done sensitively to preserve historic structures and neighborhood character and keep local businesses and affordable housing in the equation (amenity based incentive zoning, which is a huge topic we won’t address here). Up-zones would do more to eventually make surface parking economically undesirable. New development should also be encouraged to consider shared parking strategies with transit commuters for approximately 25 to 30% of their structured parking that may otherwise sit empty during the work day.

Parking is a resource and an asset that can be utilized and manipulated under the right circumstance to get the results desired. Every neighborhood/station area plan needs a well conceived parking strategy that is incremental and flexible. As Graham McGarva (Principal at VIA) often says: “…inside every car is at least one pedestrian that shops and supports the station area and the transit system.” Station area retailers (in this context) need the short term street parking to support their businesses, but all day commuter parking may not be all that helpful for them. Incrementally, a neighborhood can eventually wean itself from their dependency on cars. Until a critical mass of residents and workers exists and better bus/bike cross integration is established, a car dependant area will need to transition slowly to reduce the parking ratios and take away stalls. It took 20 years to remove parking lots in downtown Copenhagen. It never would have been accomplished if they tried to do it all at once.

I suggest that current parking uses be allowed to provide all day commuter parking for one year as an accessory use with a modest tax. After that, start imposing a greater tax that gets more aggressive every year. Also allow the possibility to re-visit the tax increase each year at each station area in response to economic and development realities. Meanwhile, we need to work on the up-zones, do more planning and bus integration.

I hope the banking system frees up capital and loosens lending restrictions soon so that this parking use discussion will be a brief footnote in the transformation of Seattle’s new station areas. Then we can all get back to sensitively infilling and appropriately redeveloping these fine grain communities into livable, walkable places. Meanwhile, let’s support the systems ridership and not underutilize an existing parking resource.

Image Credit: Rainier Valley Post

4 Comments

  1. It is worth mentioning that this “underutilized space” such as the parking lot on Ranier S and S Edmunds where they host the Columbia City Farmers Market, is considering giving the farmer’s market the boot to make way for permanent light rail parking when they overhaul the the Columbia Plaza site. Currently, in the off season of the market, Diamond parking has bought up the site and is charging 38$ a day. The lot still remains empty.

  2. Matt,
    Excellent post, informative and solution oriented, I very much enjoyed reading it and I did read it twice.
    What makes it even more interesting is the comments made by Atrem and your reply which further explain your points.

    I don’t know Seattle and I have no clear idea of how the transit system works in the urban area of it but I have couple notes that I wanted to share with you

    You worte:
    “The key is to incrementally take away the parking lots that exist now by establishing a penalty or tax for using them for all day commuter parking.”
    “I’ll also point out that the City and Sound Transit need to continue to work closely with Metro to improve bus integration service and frequency east/west to the alignment and in loops around the greater station area neighborhoods.”

    This is the main key in this debate, people needs alternatives to their cars and if the city doesn’t give them that alternative yet impose a tax or penalty for using cars that will result in people using cars most of the day instead of using them partly as they do right now as Atrem pointed out in her comment, so from a technical point of view the bus/transit services to/from the station should be essential to this plan and it is a necessary infrastructure for a better development. Does the city of Seattle doing anything on that front?

    “Up-zones bring value to properties and bring more reason to owners to sell or consolidate smaller properties”
    I agree with you that comprehensive plan of developing those sites is another necessity to be done and pushed by the city.
    I personally lean more toward not to consolidate smaller properties inside urban areas because I think the challenge that a smaller parcels has may result architecturally creative results that gives most of European cities and Tokyo their identities and charms and at the same time less area for parking and car uses.

    Thank you again for this great post Matt.

    Jihad

  3. Thanks for your thoughful response Artem.

    The condition in Seattle is that our LRT station areas need to get off on the right foot. They are mostly established neighborhoods and are not out at the edges of the system. My opinion is that they need to aspire to a more urban model, which excludes single use commuter parking, which is a suburban model. We do have a 600 stall surface park and ride lot, which is outside of the city in suburban Tukwila. It’s free and is devoid of urbanity and walkabilty to services or housing. But when it comes right down to it, there is no such thing as free parking as we subsidize it in other ways…health, cost pf freeways, habitat loss, water pollution, etc.

    Now if commuter parking was to be provided as part of a mixed-use strategy, then it may make sense, but this would be a shared parking strategy. For example, say a movie theater or residential tower on top of the garage could share parking with commuters and better utilize it all day. The River Rock Casino at Bridgeport in Richmond is also an example. Of course, the street side of an above grade garage would need to be clad in other uses so the garage is not forbidding. Also, that station accepts 20 bus routes to feed the ridership. In an industrial-airport location, a park and ride makes sense…especially when the casino helps pay for it.

    The real root of the desire to use park and rides is the lack of alternatives, such as circulator buses, good walking and biking routes. In an urban station area, this all has to be brought together in harmony to make better service and livability.

    So every station has its own criteria and circumstances that inform the parking solution. The ones we are addressing in inner Seattle lean more urban, which requires increased density and hence, help solve our growth issues and help provide more ridership. We can revisit the park and ride in two years if the economy doesn’t improve but right now, let’s target more of an urban outcome.

    Matt

  4. Hi Matt:

    Thank you for the great article. I agree with the general thrust of your argument: that park and ride facilities are tools which cities can ill-afford to underutilize, though I can’t say I agree with some of the underlying assumptions of the article, or parts of its logic. I see park and rides not as a temporary stop-gap measure, but an inevitable (and ultimately positive) accommodation arising out a set of constraints that is unlikely to change.

    A few disclaimers before I continue with my remarks:

    I am neither a planner nor an architect, just a concerned citizen;
    I base my views on what I know of Vancouver and its environs, not Seattle. Though I understand the two to be quite similar.

    Now, to begin with one of your quotes:

    “Not allowing park and rides in urban station areas is a generally a good policy
    Parking, especially when it is free and used all day by commuters, tends to become an issue that encourages driving as a habit, and works against good place-making and sustainable living strategies. However, some short term flexibility is worth considering while we dig our way out of this down economy.”

    The paragraph below the statement in bold is phrased as a prima facie evidence in the statement’s support, its validity a foregone conclusion. Whereas it appears to be contradicted by common sense. In the context of rapid transit, park and ride facilities have most utility in the SUB-urban areas (such as the one in Richmond BC, for example). Even in urban areas, they exist to accommodate those people who cannot conveniently access rapid transit, but wish to utilize it for at least part of their commute. Absent such facilities (or the ability to use the car only part way), many such people, myself included, would either be forced or elect to drive ALL the way, rather than part of the way. If the stated planning goal is to minimize car use, I don’t see how discouraging park and rides, there by forcing people into their cars for longer distances, can be “good policy.”

    Moreover, as technology moves closer to solving the fossil fuel challenge, and more and more downtown, and urban-core workers move into sub-urban areas, I don’t see how discouraging park and rides can be a sustainable practice. While walking, cycling and using public transit between destinations within the downtown core is a realistic goal, based on the distances involved in downtown cores, it most certainly isn’t for anyone who works downtown and lives, say in East Richmond, an area not directly serviced by rapid transit. We can’t build Skytrain lines to everywhere, and not adequately accommodating those areas not serviced by them is a mistake.

    I don’t think any amount of zoning and rezoning initiatives can solve the underlying problem that park and rides address so well: park and rides are not destinations, they are transitions that enable the use of public transport by those commuters who would not otherwise be able to utilize it. So long as our places of work are substantially removed from our residences, the need for park and rides will persist.

    On that basis I am a little puzzled by your reference to Copenhagen’s achievement of removing parking lots from its downtown core. As stated earlier, park and rides serve the suburbs, not downtown cores, so this aspirational reference appears to be irrelevant. Moreover, are there park and ride facilities in Denmark that facilitated this transition? Are they still in use?

    -Artem