If you live in Seattle, or drive a car, or patronize small neighborhood businesses, or want to see more affordable housing, neighborhood parking requirements affect you.

In the next two months, the city council will take up Mayor Greg Nickels's proposal to modestly reduce the amount of parking developers are required to build when they put in new residential or commercial developments in neighborhood business districts. Currently, developers have to create one parking space for every 200–350 square feet of commercial space (more for restaurants; less for stores), and one space for every 1–1.25 residents in new residential buildings (the bigger the building, the more parking is required). The new proposal would reduce those requirements to one space for every 250–500 square feet of commercial space, and one space for every housing unit regardless of building size.

Because each new parking space costs tens of thousands of dollars, developers have a financial incentive to build fewer spaces. And because readily available parking creates an incentive to drive—something the city's comprehensive plan does not support—the city council has a political incentive to encourage them to do so. (The current parking requirements were cooked up in the '80s, and are based on a national model that emphasizes single-occupancy auto commuting.) Affordable-housing advocates also argue that the fewer parking spaces developers have to build, the less expensive housing will be.

At a packed forum on the new requirements at city hall last Tuesday, April 11, business owners, neighborhood advocates, and planning experts debated whether the new minimums were too low, too high, or just right. Greg Hill, a Wallingford resident and longtime spokesman for the more-parking camp, argued that lower parking requirements and more expensive parking would lead to "spillover parking" in neighborhoods and decimate thriving business districts. "On-street parking is a valuable public resource," Hill insisted. "[There are] too many cars and not enough parking spaces." But others, including Greenwood neighborhood activist and Sierra Club member Mike McGinn and San Francisco planning consultant Jeff Tumlin, argued that adding more parking would be a prescription for auto dependence and gentrification. "Do we solve the problem of spillover parking by mandating an ever-increasing supply of parking for new businesses?" McGinn asked. "I think that's a fool's errand."

The mayor's proposed new parking requirements would be, at best, a conservative step in the right direction. Because the mayor's legislation merely lowers the requirements to meet existing demand, it does nothing to encourage alternatives to driving. Urban Planning and Development Committee Chair Peter Steinbrueck said he would consider lowering the requirements further when the legislation comes in front of his committee next month. At the forum, Tumlin even argued for ditching minimum parking requirements altogether, instead setting parking maximums and allowing developers, if they wished, to build no parking at all. (Maximums would set a ceiling on how much parking developers can build, instead of a floor, as in Seattle's model.) "The debate in San Francisco is not about having minimum parking requirements," Tumlin said. "It's about how low the maximum should be.

Seattle may not be ready for a progressive, San Francisco–style parking maximum, but if the council really wants to discourage driving (and abide by the mayor's commitment to meet or exceed Kyoto standards), the council might want to consider cutting the minimum requirements further, and reducing the amount of "free" parking throughout the city. No one likes to pay for parking. But the fact is, parking is never free: Someone—the government, business owners, developers, or drivers—has to pay for it. Why not the people who use the parking?