Skip to main content

Should Seattle declare war on parking to fight climate change?

Make no mistake: The rising cost and declining amount of on-street parking downtown are part of a much bigger plan to reduce Seattle's carbon footprint.

"There's a really direct connection between what we're trying to do on the transit front, and even the parking front, and the city's climate change goals,” said Andrew Glass Hastings, the Transit and Mobility director for the city of Seattle.

On-street rates have hit $5 an hour in some parts of downtown Seattle. On top of higher parking prices, drivers now have to vie for fewer spots. Each spot the city removes makes more room on the streets for commuters and shoppers.

"Instead of storing a private automobile in that public right of way all day,” Hastings said, “we're now able to use it in a way where potentially thousands of people are getting on and off a bus.”

More people are now taking mass transit, and that's in part due to higher parking prices. When you make parking more expensive, fewer people can afford it.

There's tension at the heart of city policy between creating more transit mobility (and saving the environment) and keeping costs down for low-wage workers.

Parking prices are a burden for workers like Worknesh Lakew, who has to get to work at around 5 a.m. for her job as a server at the Seattle Hilton, where she's worked for nearly two decades. There’s no bus at that hour, so she has to make the drive from Kent (where she was forced to move after getting priced out of the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle).

The commute is a big expense: There's gas and insurance. And there’s also the cost of parking, which keeps going up – in Lakew's case, double in recent years.

Lakew said the cost, which is partly subsidized by her employer, is still a major burden for her and for most of her co-workers. She said Seattle’s on-street city parking prices are completely out-of-reach.

Nevertheless, transportation and cars are still the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Seattle. Under its current climate action plan, Seattle needs to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from transportation 15 times faster than it's currently doing.

Does that mean instead of keeping parking prices more affordable, more radical changes are needed?

In Oslo, Norway, for example, they're taking the concept one step further by phasing out on-street parking in their downtown core altogether.

Olso's Mayor Marianne Borgen said fewer cars could mean Oslo, "will have more space for pedestrians, for children, for bicyclists and we will also reduce the pollution that we have in the air."

University of Washington traffic engineer Mark Hallenbeck is adamant that Seattle should not go down the same road as Oslo.

"Removing parking might have an environmental benefit, but the backlash from it might be so bad,” he said, that drivers will be up in arms, and they'll punish elected officials for it.

But Hallenback admits there may be a case for phasing out on-street parking in parts of Seattle, if it means a better future with more options and more transit mobility.

"Do I get bus lanes, bus rapid transit that actually moves and isn't stuck?" he asks, "you'll get way more people in the bus because people can zoom through the city on that bus."

In other words, fewer on-street parking spaces could make it a lot easier for everyone to get around, including drivers. And it would get Seattle closer to actually keeping its promises when it comes to climate change.

Why you can trust KUOW