Commuter Parking at Seattle's Light Rail Stations

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