Buses, bicycles, even microparks are competing for the curbsides of Seattle, where the city is outgrowing 20th-century traditions of on-street parking.
Last month, crews painted a green bicycle lane on Seattle’s Roosevelt Way Northeast near the University Bridge, and took out 27 parking spaces.
Over in Belltown, a series of right-turn pockets, to prevent turning cars from delaying buses that go straight ahead, eliminated 42 parking spots.
A future streetcar on First Avenue and bus rapid transit on Madison Street could remove hundreds more, mostly in front of businesses.
Bit by bit, with a changing population that demands quicker bus service and safer bike lanes, this cramped city is weaning itself from the 20th-century tradition of street parking.
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Even a few tiny parks, where people sit among tables and trees, are taking priority over a place to store the car.
The push to improve mobility and livability leaves less room for cars along the curb. The quick drive to the dry cleaner, the five-minute run to the minimart, having a friend pick you up outside your apartment — simple parts of a daily routine all have become harder, sometimes impossible.
Lois Horn, 91, lost the three-minute load zone in front of her condo when the Roosevelt bike lane went in. She now walks four blocks to a hotel, wearing a clip-on red flasher in a crosswalk, when her family comes to pick her up.
“When I die, and my furniture needs to be moved out, they won’t have a place to park,” Horn said.
Seattle is the nation’s fastest-growing big city, with a population of 652,000 and virtually no room to add street lanes.
The balancing act among users is sensitive enoughfor the Seattle Department of Transportation to perform a downtown curb-space study, to prepare for the block-by-block struggles ahead.
“What’s different now from 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, is cities are recognizing there are much broader needs than parking cars,” said city transportation director Scott Kubly. “You look at cities across the country, San Francisco, New York, D.C., Chicago. Houston put in a two-way protected bikeway through downtown Houston. Pittsburgh is doing it, Memphis is doing it.”
The choices we’re making
If driversrounding the block for a parking space think the government is conspiring against them, that’s only partly true. In many cases, government is giving the people what they want.
Voters in November approved money for new bus hours. The Cascade Bicycle Club, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, Feet First and other groups demand calmer streets.
A 2012 survey for the business-supported nonprofit Commute Seattle found that four-fifths of downtown commuters and half in South Lake Union don’t drive alone to work — and those figures are expected to rise in a follow-up survey to be released next week.
Just before the November transit vote, Seattle officials promised that a “yes” vote would deliver an easier bus trip to South Lake Union — including a RapidRide extension from West Seattle. That probably requires squeezing a bus lane into Westlake Avenue North, or thereabouts.
Public outreach has just begun on an $87 million Madison Street bus-rapid-transit line on First Hill, which would wipe out a yet-to-be-determined number of parking stalls, to make travel easier for 14,000 daily bus riders.
Other choices loom, not yet on government maps.
King County Executive Dow Constantine, a lifelong West Seattle resident, is paying attention to the occasional traffic jams on upper Avalon Way Southwest, a major bus route where parking still exists on the right side of the road.
The pressure will grow, as some 1,540 housing units are under construction within two blocks of the RapidRide Line, the website Seattle in Progress shows — not to mention growth on Route 21 from High Point and two smaller lines.
A bus lane or new signals might be needed, Constantine said.
“We can’t be prisoners of decisions that were made in the past to deal with past conditions,” he said. “We have to look at the assets we have, look forward and be flexible.”
The new First Hill Streetcar, mostly on Broadway and South Jackson Street, removed 270 spaces — or about two-thirds of the total — to create bike lanes and right-turn lanes. Parking remains on both sides of Broadway along Seattle Central College, though that causes a bottleneck.
The City Council has decided that a future downtown streetcar must run in its own lane, which would eliminate 136 midday parking spaces and five all-day spaces, on First Avenue and adjoining streets.
But that move wouldn’t be controversial, predicted Jessica Szelag, executive director of the business-funded nonprofit Commute Seattle.
Downtown parking garages are 40 percent vacant, she said, so there’s ample capacity. “Property managers are looking at this as an opportunity, by increasing the occupancy rates in the garages,” Szelag said.
In recent years, the city has raised the cost of street parking to approach the market rates in private garages.
Another business is making the most of curbside-parking shortages. Zirx, a new kind of valet service, sends black-jacketed employees into the streets around Amazon’s South Lake Union campus to hail drivers and take their cars to a nearby lot or garage. “Never Park Again,” the company beckons.
The effect on business
The city has decided to build five to seven miles per year of separated bicycle lanes, mainly to improve safety on busy streets.
Which brings us back to the University District, where 41 bicycle crashes have been reported over the past five years on Roosevelt, and the green lane is meant to improve safety.
“They’re really wonderful,” said Cora Sack, who coasted down Roosevelt to stop at UW Medicine. “The more bike lanes, the better. My route to work has no bike lanes, and traffic is very bad.”
She smiled despite squeezing her hand brakes to miss a weaving bus — a temporary design compromise that lets vehicles pull into the curbside loading zone, for one block.
Mike Brady, manager of Performance Cycle nearby, said the lane ought to encourage cyclists who aren’t comfortable around cars, including students from other states, and China, who buy his commuter bicycles each fall.
But the changes are making it harder for some businesses.
“It’s just a mess,” said Jacqueline Welch, office manager at Endodontic Associates of Seattle, at 43rd and Roosevelt. Nearly all the clients drive, but the business owns only four stalls in a basement, she said.
“The patients are complaining. There’s not overflow parking. They want to know what’s going on. There’s traffic backups.”
Based on complaints like Horn’s, the city will shift the road lanes later this year during a paving project, eliminate the left-side parking spaces, and restore parking to the right side of Roosevelt — forming a car cordon between bikes and moving traffic.
When the bikeway is extended another mile north next winter, Daisywagen auto-repair shop will lose a half-dozen curbside spots. Workers already move clients’ cars to side streets each morning, then squeeze them into Daisywagen’s small lot at day’s end, “like a game of Tetris,” said Candace Hopkins, office manager.
She notes that of those 41 Roosevelt Way bicycle crashes, only nine happened north of 45th Street.
“The bike lane that’s there serves its purpose,” she said.
It’s hard to know exactly how many parking spaces have been eliminated, but they include relatively few of the city’s 12,000 metered spaces, or the half-million spaces citywide.
“Parking is really an inefficient use of public space when you think about it rationally, logically, without emotion. You’re storing a personal item in the public right of way,” said Martha Roskowski, a vice president at Colorado-based People for Bikes, whose U.S. count shows 113 separated-bike-lane projects since 2012.
The nonprofit Pronto Cycle Share displaced 75 public parking spaces to install 23 in-street rental stations.
The city also reports 34 locations where a bicycle corral replaced automobile parking. That’s a boon to businesses like Stumptown Cafe next to Seattle University, where most customers ride or walk in.
The next wave to reduce street parking, if only in a few spots, is the effort to promote leisure on the roadside, especially on Capitol Hill and First Hill.
About 50 city parking stalls citywide were decorated with trees, furniture, mini-golf courses, libraries and even pianos in September, for the national PARKing Day. There are now five semi-permanent, privately funded parklets in place, and
The largest opened Dec. 3 alongside the Chromer Building, at Second Avenue and Pine Street, where a platform and red tables sit next to an Elysian brewpub.
Chromer Market owner Efrem Gonez said he worried about losing the drivers who stopped for snacks or smokes on their way to work.
But he’s trying to adapt. By late March, he plans to make smoothies and breakfast foods, to be savored at the red tables by neighbors, tourists or construction workers — assuming street people don’t loiter all day, he said.
If the parklet experiment fails, the city could order it torn out, extend the Second Avenue bike lane past the Chromer, and declare victory.