Seattle Advances Shared Parking

On April 13, Mayor Durkan signed into law an omnibus neighborhood parking reform package. This package included some important steps to support shared parking, policy changes that Capitol Hill Housing and the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict have been advocating for since 2014.  While these changes are important, they have gotten less attention than some of the more controversial parts of the package.  Here’s a recap of shared parking, what will change with the new legislation, and what we still need to do to make shared parking common practice.

What is shared parking?

Shared parking is an umbrella term for a set of parking management strategies that use parking more efficiently through sharing spaces. The simplest form of shared parking refers to allowing non-tenants (people who don’t live or work in a building) to rent assigned spaces on a monthly basis in a building’s garage. More complex systems involve making spaces unassigned and sharing between users that need parking at different times of day or days of the week. All forms of shared parking achieve more efficient use of limited parking spaces. However, the more complex systems, with more different types of users, are capable of greater efficiency and can dramatically reduce the number of parking spaces needed.

Why is shared parking a good thing?

  • Parking is expensive and makes housing expensive. The Victoria Transport Institute, a leading local think tank on parking, estimates that underground parking in Seattle costs between $33,000 and $46,000 per space to build.
  • Lots of spaces go unused, but they are hard to access. King County Metro’s Right Size Parking study looked at 46,420 residential parking stalls across the county and found that 26 percent of spaces were empty in the middle of the night.
  • Use what we have before building more. We are stuck with the parking we’ve already built, but shared parking can help correct for this oversupply as we continue to grow.
  • Shared parking makes infill development more cost-competitive over sprawl. Infill projects rely on expensive underground parking spaces, while develop on the urban edge, where land costs are cheaper, have the space for cheaper surface parking. By reducing the number of spaces needed, shared parking benefits infill projects the most. Infill projects protect our farms and natural spaces, require less infrastructure investment, and help provide existing neighborhoods with the density to support high frequency transit.
  • Prevent circling for scarce on-street parking by opening up access to off-street parking. In some neighborhoods on-street parking is very full and streets are clogged with drivers looking for an available space. Providing easier access to off-street parking can reduce circling and congestion.

How is the City of Seattle encouraging shared parking?

The parking reform package includes two new strategies that promote shared parking. It more formally legalizes sharing by creating a new category of flexible use parking and it requires new garages be designed for sharing.

Legalizing Sharing

In the past Seattle permitted two types of parking – accessory use and principal use. Accessory use parking was attached to a specific use, such as an office, a retail store, or an apartment building.  Only users of this related primary use could use the accessory parking.  In contrast, principal use parking was a category for a stand along garage or surface lot.  Principal use parking could be used by anyone.  However, many areas of the city banned principal use parking.  There was no acknowledgement of parking facilities integrated into a building, but serving different types of users within the nearby walkshed.

The new code changes this in a few different ways.

  • Replaces “principal use parking” with “flexible-use parking.”
  • Outside of downtown, allows flexible use parking in most places where previously principal use parking was not allowed
  • Inside downtown, allows flexible use parking as a conditional use with staff approval
  • Lets more kinds of accessory use parking be made available to the public
  • Lets more kinds of accessory use parking be converted to more kinds of flexible use parking
  • Permits the use of flexible use parking facilities by park and ride users for the first time, in some areas
  • Eliminates parking requirements in more areas
  • Extends the walking distance within which required parking must be provided

You may notice that there are a lot of caveats implied in these changes. We would have preferred a simple change allowing short and long-term public access to all parking.  Still, taken together, these changes will radically increase the flexibility in the use of our city’s parking stock.

Designing Garages for Sharing

Many garages, especially in small and medium-sized apartment buildings, are not designed with sharing in mind. In many cases, the only pedestrian access to the garage requires walking through a private, secured residential hallway.  Not surprisingly, granting access to this portion of the building can make some tenants uneasy about sharing the garage.  To address this problem in new buildings, Seattle will require direct pedestrian connections between the garage and the street.

Some developers have already started using this approach. The image below shows a recent garage design with direct pedestrian street access.  A small door on the left provides a pedestrian only access point that does not require walking in a car lane and can be accessed with a key fob or code throughout the day.  A separate key is required for access to the residential lobby.

Signage clearly identifies the pedestrian access point for the garage.

A simpler pedestrian garage access configuration is shown (below left) with the pedestrian door immediately adjacent to a closed garage door. Many older garages already have these doors for evacuation.  The doors can be retrofitted with their own key or code access to be accessible from the outside.  This design can provide a lower cost option for some garages.

These designs can help developers avoid situations like the one below right, where the only pedestrian option is to walk in the drive lane, down a steep pedestrian ramp, or enter through the residential lobby.

More Work to Do – Parking Taxes

Unfortunately, parking taxes remain a major barrier to shared parking. The Washington State and Seattle tax codes directly penalize the essential ingredients for shared parking: unassigned spaces and multiple users.

Since 2007, Seattle has exercised its authority to impose a commercial parking tax. That tax, now at 12.5 percent[1], is levied on top of the general sales tax, 10.1 percent in Seattle in 2018[2], for a combined tax of 22.6 percent on commercial parking revenue. While many assume that this tax is applied uniformly to all parking, that is not the case. Parking that is reserved for only one user for 30 days or more (most parking today) is considered real property and therefore exempt from the tax. However, as soon as that parking is shared with someone else, the tax is triggered.

In focus groups held by CHH in 2014, property managers expressed strong concerns about the financial impact of being subject to the tax. Property managers liked that shared parking has the potential to add revenue through new users paying for time when spaces otherwise sit empty.  However, because of the tax, revenues would need to increase by 29.2 percent to break even.  Property managers have communicated that such a high threshold for new revenue is prohibitive, especially in the context of uncertainty around adopting an unfamiliar management practice.


Taxes aside, Seattle has shown a real commitment to innovative parking policies, including shared parking.  It is through many incremental changes like these that we will begin to tackle the big challenges of affordability and climate change.  As Councilmember O’Brien stated during the final Council vote, “We need to commit as a community to taking actions to fight climate change locally. We’re going to have to take hundreds of actions like this one today. These are hard actions because they require each of us to slightly change the way we live in our communities.