My Edmonds News recently published a story from the Washington State Standard explaining Spokane’s recent decision to remove parking minimum requirements, and that the Washington State Legislature is considering this policy on the state level. I wanted to write to the people of Edmonds, my hometown, and voice my support for this policy.
While it sounds like a radical idea, many jurisdictions across the U.S., from small towns to large cities, have implemented such reforms and have since benefited from lower housing costs, more connected communities, and more vibrant local economies. And, most importantly, this simple yet innovative reform helps reduce reliance on car travel as a mode of transportation, while at the same time not reducing parking availability for those who must or want to drive. (I’d like to note that this argument does not include nixing accessible parking for those with disabilities, which of course should be provided).
I’d like to explain why. I know parking is a hot topic in Edmonds politics, but building consensus around this parking solution that sounds scary on its face could help our community move past the problem of parking for good.
Since the automobile began dominating American transportation, cities have required parking spaces for every kind of land use — residential, business, industrial and so on — assuming that every person (or at least most people) living in or visiting these places would drive. Despite the fact that nearly every city in America requires a specific number of parking spaces per development — depending on the square footage, number of dwelling units, etc. — there is no evidence that these metrics actually provide the right number of parking spots, according to a study by UCLA transportation researcher Donald Shoup. Simply put, urban planners made it up, and other cities copied them, and so on, until a network of parking minimum rules proliferated across the country, without any data supporting this policy (Shoup 1999).
This is bad news, because someone (businesses, renters, homeowners, taxpayers) pays for these parking spaces. I was astonished to find, as I researched these policies, how expensive it is to build a single parking space: a single spot can cost up to $10,000 for surface parking and up to $50,000 in a garage, depending on the value of the land (Strong Towns 2018), and yet the City of Edmonds requires business owners and homeowners to spend this money, even when extra parking is not needed or desired. For example, Edmonds requires retail stores to build one space for every 300 square feet, 1.2 parking spaces for a studio apartment, and three spaces for single-family homes with an accessory dwelling unit (Off-Street Parking Regulations 2023). Do these requirements really make sense in all cases? I would argue that the people paying for parking should decide how much to build or buy.
Parking minimums prevent residents and businesses from making the choice whether to spend this money. I think this is wrong. I grew up in downtown Edmonds, and my family moved here 20 years ago because it was affordable and walkable, and full of small-town charm. It made sense to purchase a home with parking spaces because of commuting needs. But Edmonds has made huge investments in pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure like sidewalks and bike lanes over my lifetime; what are these investments for if not to allow people to live and work car-free?
I love the idea of living without a car, but even though I could theoretically do so in Edmonds, I would have to pay for a parking spot costing thousands — these costs are passed onto renters and homeowners, increasing housing costs across the board. And not only does parking cost more, it takes up more space on valuable land, limiting the number of units that can be built on a lot, limiting both housing affordability and supply. As a 23-year-old fresh out of college, housing is unaffordable in Edmonds. No other young person I know from Edmonds has been able to stay here after graduating high school, at least not without living with their parents. And certainly not downtown. Parking reform is a simple way to address this problem, and many more.
Since parking reform policies started popping up around a decade ago, the cities that implemented them have seen positive, and anticlimactic, results. I think the best example is Fayetteville, Arkansas, also a fast-growing city seeking to retain its small-town charm. First: While many Edmonds residents may be concerned about this potential, removing parking minimums in Fayetteville did not reduce parking availability. When homebuilders and businesses chose how many parking spots they needed based on expected demand, they still provided enough parking for customers or homeowners. While the overall number of parking spaces decreased, there was never a shortage of parking. Traffic did not increase either. Also worth mentioning is that there was no reduction in home values for existing homes, but newly built homes were cheaper for buyers and renters because the number of parking spaces was not excessive. Second: removing parking minimum requirements lifted barriers to starting a business while also not preventing access by customers. Business owners could still provide parking, but they could decide how much they needed and what would be financially viable (Sightline Institute 2022).
Furthermore, there was no reduction in patronage. An article from the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank, highlights two business owners in Fayetteville who would have had to provide 30 parking spots in order to open up a restaurant in a large building. After the reform, however, they only needed to provide four, which, while much fewer than previously required, had no impact on their bottom line (Sightline 2022). Like Fayetteville, local business is the lifeblood of Edmonds. But we need to work to keep it that way. Parking requirements often give competitive edge to corporate chains, which can absorb the cost of parking much easier than small, unique, family-owned businesses (Strong Towns 2018).
This reform also provides cities the opportunity to build more pedestrian-friendly spaces, which in turn help businesses do better. A walkable downtown is part of the reason downtown Edmonds thrives (and it couldn’t have been developed with parking minimums in place, either); walkable places are places people gravitate toward, and the more people there are, the more money local businesses make. Many more people can fit on a sidewalk than in a parking space. Why would we provide more space for something which encourages fewer people to visit?
Finally, this reform would encourage more people to visit places like downtown, Firdale Village, Westgate, and Perrinville, without using a car to get there. Thankfully, Edmonds has both an ever-expanding network of high-quality pedestrian infrastructure, as well as a fantastic public transit service provided by Community Transit. Continued investment in these alternative transportation modes would allow more people to visit local businesses, decrease traffic and air pollution from cars, and help meet Edmonds’ climate goals.
Edmonds has indicated that it is serious about city-level climate action, but these promises mean nothing if the city continues to encourage auto-oriented development and force residents to rely on cars (which are even more expensive to own than building parking spaces). This will keep Edmonds from a real reduction in carbon emissions that all elected officials have indicated that they want to see. According to Edmonds’ climate action plan, 80% of Edmonds Greenhouse gasses come from transportation. To solve this enormous problem, we cannot rely on a transition to electric vehicles; we do not have time. Parking reform would help Edmonds meaningfully address greenhouse gas emissions without restricting car usage, while encouraging low- and zero-carbon transportation such as walking, biking and transit usage.
We have the policy tools we need to make Edmonds a more welcoming, sustainable and equitable community for the people who live here and who want to live here. If a city is unaffordable and exclusive, it by definition cannot be a welcoming and equitable community. Now and in the future, starting a business is and will be costly and a project only undertaken by those with strong financial backing, instead of simply anyone with a good idea. Parking reform, as I hope I have shown, is a simple, cost-free, and basically painless way to make our community work better for everyone by reducing costs for families and businesses across the board and reliance on polluting and costly vehicles while still providing parking to those who do need it.
— By Noal Leonetti
Noal Leonetti is an Edmonds-Woodway graduate who served a student representative on the Edmonds City Council in 2017-18.