Skip to content

Posts from the Sightline Institute Category


Is Your City a Great Place to Raise Kids? Could It Be?

Jennifer Langston of the Sightline Institute in Seattle has so far published eight articles in a series called Family-Friendly Cities. She shows that while Seattle has a lower share of the population under age 15 than the rest of the state of Washington, that gap is closing. The number of kids in Seattle is growing far faster than in the rest of the state.

Image: Sightline

Image: Sightline

“Whatever the underlying causes, the data certainly make intuitive sense, given the expectant parents I know searching for cribs that will fit in the closets of their Capitol Hill apartments and downtown daycares with open infant slots (harder to find than a magical unicorn!),” wrote Langston. “In my own Seattle neighborhood, the new elementary school that opened four years ago to handle our local baby boom filled up so fast that there’s now a lottery to get in.”

In fact, while all over the country, demographic factors — delayed fertility, lower birth rates, the silver tsunami — are raising the median age, Seattle is unusual in seeing the share of its population under 15 rise — and dramatically.

Image: Sightline

Image: Sightline

Read more…


Spot-Less: Why Parking Quotas Could Wither Away

This post is the 17th and final post in the series: Parking? Lots! Alan Durning is the executive director of the Sightline Institute. 

Parking reform may finally be coming. Here are eight reasons to hope for change soon:

Noah’s (P)ark. UCLA planning professor Donald Shoup, like a modern day Noah, has been carrying a new strategy for parking reform far and wide looking for dry land on which to release it. The three-step plan of action — charging market prices for curb spaces through performance pricing, rebating the proceeds to neighborhoods, and then eliminating off-street quotas—is now working in several cities: Old Pasadena and San Diego, for starters. Parts of it are working many other places: Austin, Redwood City, Ventura, San Francisco, Washington, DC, and the Northwest’s big cities, too. Each success breeds more, as localities copy good solutions from each other.

By flickr photographer , cc.

Photo: shutupyourface/flickr

Jurassic Park? Curb parking has long been an archaic, hunter-gatherer world with spotty enforcement and widespread cheating. But new technologies are dragging public parking out of prehistoric times and into the modern era. Smart parking meters, in-street sensors, parking-enforcement tools such as license-plate scanners, and apps for finding and paying for parking have opened up new possibilities for managing parking on the street. Cities can collect for and enforce parking charges even on quiet streets, and parkers can locate spots efficiently. All of this makes it much easier to charge for curb parking.

Spot Me. The same info-tech tools are making it possible for people to rent out their own parking spaces — a vast, distributed private market for parking spots. Dozens of new apps like Parkatmyhouse and Parkopedia are turning idle spaces into cash, allowing much fuller use of them and inverting their owners’ political motives. Owners of off-street spaces lose out from free on-street spaces and mandatory off-street spaces nearby. As parking space micro-entrepreneurs grow in numbers, and as they find their political voice, they will counteract parking territoriality.

Residents selling space on their property for parking near the Puyallup Fair, Washington. Photo: Dan O'Leary/flickr

Park’s Peak. As Clark Williams-Derry has pounded into our heads, driving and car ownership per person have long since peaked. Car-free and car-lite lifestyles are surging. In Seattle, 16 percent of households do not have private vehicles. In central Vancouver, BC, that number rises to 26 percent, and in greater Vancouver overall, 10 percent of households do not own cars. The new reality of dipping motorization is shaking conventional assumptions and arming critics of high parking quotas with new arguments.

Spot Check. Counting empty spaces seems elementary, but it’s only now becoming normal. King County’s Right-Size Parking project, for example, counted parked cars in the middle of the night at 200 apartment and condo buildings in and around Seattle, and it raised the data bar for parking studies off the ground, finally. Parking quotas have long been set based on groupthink and pathetically inadequate data. RSP shows that, at least in multifamily buildings, quotas radically overshoot actual parking. A similar study in Vancouver, BC, found the same thing. Such studies allow planners and developers to make the case against quotas, and they show others that checking spots is a good way to fight parking mandates.

Read more…


Parking Break: What Cities Gain When They Lose Parking Quotas

This is the season climax, the culmination, the big reveal.

Previously on Parking? Lots!

Cities mandate off-street parking (guided only by junk science and groupthink). They do it in fear of territorial neighbors who want “their” curb spaces left alone. Our communities suffer horribly as a result. Information technology is shaking things up, though, and cities can now charge for curb spaces more easily. They can also share the proceeds with neighborhoods. Doing that breaks the vicious political circle that perpetuates parking quotas.

Photo: Dunwich Type, flickr

The final step — here’s the reveal — is so simple it’s anti-climactic. (Sorry.) Once they’ve metered the curb and bought off neighborhoods, cities can just ditch parking quotas: scratch them out and turn the page.

There’s never been a good policy reason for minimum parking requirements. Their political rationale — preventing spillover parking — disappears when street parking is no longer free. Then, developers can figure out for themselves how much car storage to provide, just as they decide how many dishwashers, light fixtures, and bay windows to install. The market, a spot market, emerges.

What’s not anti-climactic — and what’s the focus of this episode — is the encouraging degree to which cities are already taking this step. A few are reducing or outright scrapping off-street parking quotas, and many are writing exceptions to them.

Read more…


There’s a (Parking) Place for Us

This post is #14 in the Sightline series, Parking? Lots! Alan Durning is the executive director of Sightline.

There are places in this world the savvy traveler would never drive with any hope of finding street parking: Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, for example, or just about anywhere in downtown Los Angeles.

Parking meter in San Francisco.

Parking meter at Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco. Photo credit: Juli D’aniello

That’s what you might think, anyway. If you actually drive to Fisherman’s Wharf today, though, you will have no problem finding a curb spot. A space will offer itself on each nearby block, if you’re willing to pay for it. The same goes for downtown LA.

These two cities plus Washington, DC, and a handful of others are experimenting with an approach to parking called “performance pricing.” Rather than dictating a flat meter rate citywide, their councils have set a performance goal: one or two empty spaces per block. They’ve instructed parking functionaries to charge what people are willing to pay, to use information technology to nudge meter rates up or down so that whatever block we citizens drive to, there will always be — with apologies to West Side Story lyricist Stephen Sondheim — a place for us.

The goal of this new philosophy is to untangle the snare of economic weirdness that afflicts curb parking. Charging the right prices ends the epidemic of cruising for parking and the resulting ills. It allocates street spaces in ways that help neighborhoods, favoring carpoolers, for example, who can divide the cost of a curb space among themselves. This brings more customers per slot. Performance pricing also tilts toward short-term visitors who will turn over the space quickly: buyers, not window shoppers; diners, not waiters. In contrast, long-term parkers and people driving alone are likely to park elsewhere or arrive by transit, bike, or foot.

Yet performance pricing reaches further still. Parking politics is a Gordian Knot: visceral territoriality about free or underpriced curb parking, intense political pressure for abundant off-street parking quotas, and a resulting cascade of absurd and pernicious consequences—consequences that make parking quotas a hidden bane of cities. Performance pricing is the first of three essential steps for cutting the knot. (The second and third will be the topics of the next articles.)

A Time and Place for Us

San Francisco’s performance pricing pilot SFPark, the world’s most advanced, is illustrative. The city won an $18 million federal grant to install hockey-puck-sized, in-street sensors under 7,000 curb spaces — one quarter of its metered slots. It also upgraded to smart parking meters that feed data to the city. Car navigation systems and parking apps, including the city’s own SFPark, tap it and inform would-be parkers.

The data feed and the smart meters have let the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority adjust rates remotely, block by block, every six weeks since April 2011. Prices range from 25¢ to $6 an hour on normal days, and adjustments come in increments of no more than 25¢ upward or 50¢ downward per period.

Read more…


Alan Durning on Reasons to Be Optimistic About Parking Reform

We hope you enjoyed part one of our Q&A with Alan Durning, which we published yesterday. Durning is publishing a series of articles on his blog at the Sightline Institute — where he serves as executive director — about the ways that underpriced parking drives up rents, eats up space, and makes no sense.

A reader asked in the comments yesterday whether performance pricing could actually lead to more driving — a question that I also asked at the end of the interview. Durning responded in the comments, but his thinking on the subject is more fleshed out here — along with his thoughts on the political calculus of parking policy, how cruising drivers can be a menace to cyclists, and reasons to be optimistic about the future.

Sometimes the revolution in transportation reform looks like this. Photo: ArsTechnica

Tanya Snyder: Free and abundant parking gives drivers an incredible incentive to drive, because they can just put their vehicle wherever they want and they won’t have to pay for it. But even with all the ways parking policies incentivize driving, it’s still not enough to fill all the spaces developers are building. You are still counting all these empty spaces. Considering the cost that goes into building those spaces, why is it taking so long for cities and developers to say, “Oh, we’re doing this completely wrong; we’re losing tons of money.” You’d think the bottom line would have translated a long time ago into a correction of this. Why has that not happened?

Alan Durning: I’ve thought about that a lot and that’s why I started the series with “Who Parked in My Spot?!” to describe the intensity of territoriality that residents feel about free on-street parking. Business owners feel a similar protectiveness of free on-street parking for their customers. So you look around city, and there’s no neighborhood where there isn’t intense, visceral political pressure for lots of free parking.

So that’s the political fuel that perpetuates the whole system. Local elected officials are not passionate about parking. No one goes into politics or runs for elected office because they want to change parking policy.

Developers hate parking requirements but because all the developers in the city have to obey the same rules, they can usually pass the cost on to the tenants or to the buyers. So the loser in this is always the person who’s moving into a building. Those people don’t have a say. All the actors in this process are responding rationally to the incentives that they face.

TS: And it’s the people who are losing the most that have no way to respond.

AD: Right. So [parking requirements are] the perfect political solution to the problem. That’s why it hasn’t been fixed — because from a political perspective, it’s not a problem. It’s a solution.

But [if a city implements Donald Shoup’s recommendation to charge for street parking and rebate some of the meter revenue to the neighborhood] some residents in the neighborhood will switch sides. And now you have a situation where politicians have to choose, have to lead. And it doesn’t take that many people switching sides until the political dynamic is all scrambled and new things become possible.

Read more…


Alan Durning on the “Ruinous, Vicious Circle” of Underpriced Parking

Many people have been inspired by UCLA Professor Donald Shoup’s epic takedown of American parking policy, but few have turned that newfound passion into the kind of scholarship Alan Durning has produced on the issue. The executive director of the Pacific Northwest’s sustainability think tank, Sightline Institute, has now published 12 installments in a series called “Parking? Lots!” — and there’s more coming.

Sightline Institute's Alan Durning has discovered more reasons to eliminate parking minimums than even you knew existed. Photo: Olympic Photo Group/Flickr

Each installment examines the parking beast from a different angle — the territorial rage people feel when others park in front of their house, the conviction of some drivers that they have special parking “karma” that lets them find the best spaces — and the profound damage that overabundant parking wreaks on cities.

Durning wanted to make Shoup’s writing more accessible to a mainstream audience, capture some aspects that Shoup’s book left out, and tailor the message to a Cascadia audience. He especially hoped to capture the attention of urban planners and council members in small and mid-sized cities where the latest innovations in transportation policy might not already be implemented or even understood.

We’ve re-printed one of our favorites from the series, Apartment Blockers, an in-depth exploration of what parking minimum have to do with the fact that The Rent Is Too Damn High.

Durning and I spoke at length last week. Here are some of the many highlights of our conversation. We’ll run some more tomorrow.

Tanya Snyder: Where are the places that are really getting parking right?

Alan Durning: The city of Seattle and the city of Portland are both pretty darn good. Both have eliminated off-street minimums for multi-family buildings in much of the cities, though Portland has now back-tracked a little bit and created a very small parking minimum again. Seattle is doing a low-tech, crude version of performance pricing, which is where you vary the price of meters in order to ensure that there’s always one or two spaces on each block, and that’s supposed to eliminate cruising for parking. And that starts to approximate market pricing for parking. So, in the Northwest, those are the two leaders.

The places Donald Shoup talks about as having put it all together are part of Pasadena, California, of all places, and some places in San Diego. Some other cities are starting to do the whole package: 1) charging the right price for street parking, 2) rebating some of the meter revenue to the local neighborhoods — which is important because it creates political pressure to extend charging for parking — and 3) reducing off-street parking requirements. Redwood City, California; Austin, Texas — Mexico City is just getting started. Washington, DC, is doing some things.
Read more…


Apartment Blockers

Alan Durning is the executive director and founder of Sightline Institute, a think tank on sustainability issues in the Pacific Northwest. This article, originally posted on Sightline’s blog, is #9 in their series, “Parking? Lots!”

Have you ever watched the excavation that precedes a tall building? It seems to take forever. Then, when the digging is finally done, construction rockets upward in no time. For the past few months, I’ve been watching a crew excavate the site of a new condo tower on Seattle’s First Hill. It’s on a route I walk three times a week, so I’ve had a ring-side seat. And here’s the thing that finally dawned on me, after years of not really thinking about these holes in the urban ground: what’s all the excavation for? It’s for parking. Underground parking. In most cities and in most soil conditions, the giant holes are only there to satisfy off-street parking rules, and to do that, you need a deep, deep hole. A hole like this one.

At Eighth Ave. and Seneca St. in Seattle. Photo by Alan Durning

Digging these holes is astronomically expensive. They’re real-life money holes. The crew I’ve been watching has been laboring away for weeks, deploying enormous machinery and keeping a fleet of dump trucks in constant motion. They’ve undoubtedly spent millions of dollars removing rock and dirt. One Portland developer told me that each successive layer of excavation—each floor down in the garage—costs two to three times as much as the previous one.

Such costs are one reason housing is so expensive nowadays. A one-bedroom apartment in the city of Seattle rents for upwards of $1,300 on average. In Portland, rents are approaching $1,000 and, in Vancouver, BC, $1,400.

City requirements for off-street parking spaces jack up rents. They jack it up a lot at the bottom of the housing ladder. Proportionally speaking, the bigger the quota and the smaller the apartment, the larger the rent hike. For one-bedroom apartments with two parking places, as is required in places including Bothell and Federal Way, Washington, as much as one-third of the rent may actually pay for parking. A flotilla of studies supports that claim, and I’ll summarize them in this article, but first, a case study of residential real estate development may illuminate how critical parking is to the affordability of housing.

A Housing Dream (in which you are a developer)

Imagine you’re starting business as a developer of housing.

You take a loan from a bank and buy a city lot zoned multifamily. You sit down with your architect and start laying it out for apartments. The more apartments, the more housing you can provide, and the more money you can make. So the architect fills the lot with housing, right out to the city-required “set-back” boundaries near the edges of your property. She builds it as tall as the legal height limit for that zone too. You can erect 50 one-bedroom apartments, she announces, each of about 550 square feet. You do some figuring and realize you can earn a 7 percent return on investment while charging $800 a month in rent. That’s not a screamingly profitable venture, but it’ll do. And you’re sure that price will be popular with tenants, which will keep the building full. A schematic diagram of the development looks like this:
Read more…


The Long, Painful History of Terrible Parking Policy in One 71-Second Cartoon

If you haven’t been keeping up with Sightline Institute’s excellent series on the scourge of parking minimums, you’ve been missing out. They’ve posted 11 readable and informative articles on the subject. From here, Sightline is pivoting from problems to solutions, and we’ll be sharing their next few posts on Streetsblog, as well as re-posting some of the most revelatory moments from their series so far.

Here’s a quick way to get caught up: 71 seconds of cartoon-watching to understand how such bad decisions get made. It’s the depressingly simple story of how the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ hugely influential “Parking Generation” manual came to cover our country with parking.

If you’d like to take the long way, you can also read roughly the same story in just 1,025 words in the eighth installment of the “Parking? Lots!” series.