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Parking Reform: Part 2

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Parking management can be a tricky issue for most local governments. In the shift away from requiring too much off-street parking for social, economic, and environmental reasons, what tools can local governments use to better manage existing parking but also rightsize future supply?

While Part 1 of this blog series looked at how a local government can evaluate parking needs, Part 2 focuses on how a jurisdiction can better manage its parking supply.

Parking Management Examples

In his book, the High Cost of Free Parking, UCLA Professor Donald Shoup makes the case that the right number of spaces available when looking for parking should be exactly one. If there are more than one, this means land is being unnecessarily consumed by parking. If there are no spaces, cities should charge (or charge more) for public parking and invest in transportation options.

Parking management strategies can help maximize use of existing supply and reduce parking demand. According to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (see their Parking Management publication), cost-effective parking management approaches can reduce parking requirements by as much as 40% when compared with more conventional standards, like high minimum parking requirements.

Some of the more common and effective strategies, like reduced or eliminated parking minimums, parking maximums, parking pricing, and shared parking, are discussed in greater detail below. Any of these can be used alone or in conjunction with each other to produce even more benefits.

Reducing or Eliminating Parking Minimums

Historically, most communities have regulated parking through parking minimums, which means developers must include a minimum number of parking spaces with any new project. Often these numbers are set so high that spaces go unused, but the pavement remains and takes up space that could include other uses. To mitigate these impacts, many cities have reformed their parking regulations to require fewer off-street spaces or to eliminate this requirement altogether, allowing project applicants to determine how many spaces, if any, are needed based on a parking study.

Both California and Oregon have recently passed laws limiting a city’s ability to impose parking minimums for development in certain areas. In California, through Assembly Bill No. 2097, cities are no longer able to impose parking minimums for housing, retail, or commercial developments that sit within a half mile of major public transit stops. In Oregon, as part of the Climate-Friendly and Equitable Communities rules, minimums no longer apply within a half-mile of relatively frequent transit for homes of 750 square feet or less and for homes meeting affordability targets for the state’s eight largest metro areas.

Washington State requires or allows reductions in some instances:

  • Parking minimums are capped for certain types of housing units that are within one-quarter mile of certain transit stops (RCW 36.70A.620),
  • Off-street parking can’t be required for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) within one-quarter mile of major transit strops (RCW 36.70A.698), and
  • Parking reductions are included as part of affordable housing incentive programs (RCW 36.70A.540).

Bellevue adopted Ordinance 6589 in 2021 to comply with RCWs 36.70A.620 and 36.70A.698. These ordinances establish lower minimum residential parking requirements for certain housing developments in areas with frequent transit service and eliminate minimum requirements for ADUs within one-quarter mile of a frequent transit stop. Expanding on this concept, Vancouver (Table 20.945.070-2) doesn’t require a minimum number of off-street spaces for ADUs.

Some cities have provided reductions in certain areas — like downtowns, urban villages, or transit corridors — for quite some time. Bellingham's Downtown Parking District is exempt from parking requirements (20.37.540) and parking requirements may be waived for other areas within the downtown and other urban villages, for ADUs (20.10.036) and in other circumstances (20.12.010). In Bonney Lake (18.22.100) the minimum number of spaces in the Downtown Core, Downtown Mixed Use, and Transit-Oriented Development Overlay Districts are reduced by 50%. Olympia is contemplating reducing minimums for residential uses, including for multi-family development near frequent transit routes, a recommendation found in its Housing Action Plan.

Factors like travel demand, on-street parking, and transportation options can help not only assess whether off-street parking is needed for a project or area — and if so, how much — but also point to any actions that can help reduce traffic. Everett (19.34.025) requires a transportation demand management (TDM) plan along with parking reductions for multi-family development. The TDM plan must determine the anticipated travel demand for the project and how this demand will be met on or off site through shared parking, bicycle parking, and accommodations for transportation options. Walla Walla (20.126.025) is one example of a city that requires a minimum number of bicycle parking spaces as well as location and design standards.

Parking Maximums

Parking maximums are another way to combat the build-out of too much unused parking. Maximums establish an upper limit on parking supply and can reduce the size of lots, promote compact development, and reduce stormwater runoff and greenhouse gas emissions. Similar to the process for reducing or eliminating parking minimums, setting maximums requires an analysis of travel demand and transportation options. There is little room for error with maximums — if the limits are too high, the spaces won’t get used; if they are too low, it causes spillover into neighboring areas (residential parking permits and transportation options can help mitigate this).

Maximums can be set without parking minimums but can also be paired with minimums. Seattle (23.54.015), one of the early adopters of maximums in the state, sets limits for the Stadium Transition Area Overlay District, most commercial zones, commercial uses in multi-family zones, and downtown zones. Ferndale (18.76.070) includes maximums in addition to minimums for several uses, like restaurants, hotels, retail, grocery stores, shopping centers, daycare sites, and professional offices. Redmond (20D.130.10-020) also sets both maximums and minimums for uses in several zones, like neighborhood commercial, general commercial, business park, and residential uses in all the downtown districts.

Maximum parking standards were enacted a few years ago in neighboring Oregon. In 2019, the state passed House Bill 2001, which set maximums on the number of off-street parking spaces to make it easier to build missing middle housing. Portland (33.266.115) has long enacted maximums, which vary by use and location. For example, the code states "higher maximums are appropriate in areas that are more than 1/4 mile walk from a frequently served bus stop or more than a 1/2 mile walk from a frequently served transit station.”

Parking Pricing

While minimums and maximums generally pertain to future off-site parking areas, parking pricing refers to direct charges for using a parking space and can help better manage existing on- and off-street parking supply. Pricing can be used to reduce vehicle traffic and parking problems, recover parking facility costs, and/or generate revenue for other purposes. When used in conjunction with other parking management strategies, like shared parking and signage to provide better information to drivers, it can produce even more benefits.

One common approach is to use performance-based parking pricing, or active parking management, to communicate parking information and adjust pricing by time and location based on demand. For example, Seattle has a performance-based parking pricing program that sets on-street parking rates and hours of operation based on data to achieve a goal of one to two spaces available per block. According to its website, “This means that visitors and shoppers can find a parking spot more easily, with less time spent driving around circling in traffic.” Spokane has an on-street parking map that shows the locations of the two-hour, four-hour, and all day on-street parking spaces that require payment within its Downtown Paid Parking Zone.

Parking pricing also includes strategies like unbundling parking from rent and parking cash outs. Unbundling parking, which detaches the cost of parking from the cost of renting or owning a home, allows buyers to pay for parking only if they need it. Parking cash outs and transportation allowances provide a set amount of money to employees each day they choose not to drive to work. Everett (19.34.080) includes parking cash-out programs or unbundled parking/market-rate pricing as part of a menu of transportation demand strategies that can be included with TDM plans when required.

Shared Parking

Shared or joint parking means that two or more uses share a parking facility. Under the right circumstances, this type of flexibility eliminates the need for each use to have its own parking spaces. For example, a bank that’s primarily open during weekday hours could share space with a nearby restaurant or bar.

In Lynnwood (21.18.900), cumulative parking requirements for mixed-use occupancies or shared facilities may be reduced when it can be shown that peak parking for the various uses occurs at different times of the day, week, or year. Parking reductions are determined through either a parking demand summary showing calculation of parking occupancy rates, or a parking demand analysis that includes a survey. In Burlington (17.85.070), shared parking is allowed between two or more uses to satisfy all or a portion of the minimum off-street parking requirements for certain uses.

Cities that allow shared parking often require a shared parking application and agreement by the subject parties. The purpose of Issaquah's (18.09.070(C)) shared parking regulations is to:

efficiently use parking facilities for more than one (1) use, specifically whose prime hours or operation do not overlap… [and] decrease the amount of parking provided for a specific use by sharing adjacent underutilized parking facilities.

While a shared parking contract is required by the City of Issaquah as part of this program, this contract may be altered if the arrangement between parties is not working out.

Additional Resources

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Lisa Pool

Lisa Pool joined MRSC in June 2021. Most recently, she served as a senior planner for Bellingham. In this role, she primarily focused on long-range planning projects, including the city’s comprehensive plan and new housing regulations. Prior to moving to Bellingham, she worked on regional sustainability and transportation issues for a metropolitan planning organization and conducted development review for cities and counties in the Midwest.

Lisa holds a Bachelor of Arts in environmental policy and a Master of Urban Planning, both from the University of Kansas in Lawrence. She has been a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners since 2009.