Why Do We Force Bars To Provide Parking?

Drinking and mandatory parking shouldn't mix.

The front page of the Seattle Times has a story about a driver convicted of drunk driving 12 times, now going on 13. It’s a tragic and horrifying story. It should also be an opportunity for broadening our analysis of the problem.

Serial drunk driving tends be treated as either a failure of the judicial system or as a problem of addiction, both of which are partially right. We might also take a closer look at the design of our cities, because they help create this kind of thing. If we’re going to sell alcohol widely — a notoriously powerful drug that impairs motor skill and judgment, and that is lethal in large quantities — then perhaps it’s not a great idea for us to require by law that alcohol purveyors provide parking. But we do.

Seattle legally mandates parking at bars. So does Portland. So does virtually every community in North America.* 

Let that sink in. We don’t let bar owners decide whether to provide parking for patrons or how much—we force them to do it and we spell out the quantities. And in most every community in the Northwest, it’s provided gratis for patrons. It’s probably the single best example of land use code that is clearly not in the public interest, and yet it is nearly ubiquitous.

Luckily, reform is easy. All you need is a black magic marker in the hands of your city council. Here’s how the proceedings might go:

Council president: “Please turn to the section of the land use code on “parking minimums at drinking establishments.” 

[sound of paper rustling]

Council president: “Okay, strike that section out. Next order of business?”

Or if we wanted to get really serious about discouraging drunk driving, we might add something back into the code: a prohibition against providing parking at bars.


I don’t want to be accused of hiding the ball, so here’s the rest of the story. There are an array of factors that can reduce or eliminate the number of parking spaces required at bars. Existing land uses are grandfathered in, and so are existing buildings in many cases. Historic preservation zones overlay other zoning codes, as do pedestrian zones, and so on. In a few instances, bicycle racks can actually substitute for a portion of the spaces. Still, the basic rule is the same in both Seattle and Portland: bars must provide 1 parking space per 250 square feet of floor space.

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  1. Lee says:

    Yes! I’ve always wondered why MADD hasn’t caught on to this issue.

  2. Steve says:

    Eric, please explain how local governments mandate that bar owners don’t charge for parking. A requirement for off-street parking is not the same as a prohibition on paid parking. It’s false to say that local governments “legally mandate free parking at bars.”Otherwise, your point is well-taken. Parking, and not just for eating and drinking establishments, warrants reform.

  3. Eric de Place says:

    Ugh. It looks like I got carried away, Steve, and I slightly over-wrote that bit. The post is revised.

  4. patrick barber says:

    Eric, I’ve often thought the same thing. what about requirements in the opposite direction: requiring bars to be within 100 feet of a bus or train stop, or some kind of collective effort on a neighborhood basis to provide taxi rides for patrons?

  5. NewcastleGrrl says:

    Many establishments that sell alcohol also serve food or provide other types of entertainment, such as billiards, dancing or live music. Does the author suggest that those members of the public who frequent these establishments who don’t have a problem with alcohol should not have opportunity to visit these establishments and enjoy convenient parking on site? With a disabled family member, restaurants with parking are the preferred option. I’m about as liberal as they come, but it seems to me the responsibility of monitoring ones alcohol consumption lies with the individual consuming it, and in the case of restaurants and bars the person serving it. Removal of parking is more a kin to punishing the rest of us for the criminal actions of others.

  6. Eric de Place says:

    Newcastlegrrl,The basic idea is a pretty modest proposal: that the government should stop forcing drinking establishments to provide parking. If bars would like to provide parking, they would be welcome to.As for going further and prohibiting parking at bars, I think there’s a robust discussion to be had about where and when that would be appropriate. One element to include in that discussion is that alcohol-impaired drivers pose a significant threat to public safety. As a result, we may need to take preventative measures that in some ways impinge on other citizens. It depends on what’s more annoying to citizens—scarcer parking at drinking establishments or an elevated risk of drunk driving?

  7. Barbara Christensen says:

    Thanks so much, Eric, for keeping this topic going. As someone who has lost a brother to a drunk driver, this kind of ludicrous regulation makes me want to yell at people. :) I know millions of people manage to go to bars and not drink and drive, but to make public policy that encourages driving to establishments whose soul purpose is alcohol consumption is a sad state of affairs.

  8. skye says:

    While I agree totally with the greater points of removing parking minimums, and reducing drunk driving, I unfortunately think this article doesn’t make a logical connection.First, it doesn’t even mention designated drivers. Just because there’s parking at a bar doesn’t mean people will drink and drive. This isn’t a full solution – and structural change is crucial too – but it’s odd to leave out DDs.Second, removing parking in front of bars doesn’t mean people can’t park nearby and walk to the bar. It’s slightly more of a hassle, which will probably change a couple peoples’ habits – a good thing. But I still drive to Cap Hill and spend 15 minutes trying to park … because it’s still way easier than trying to take a bus from Fremont/Wallingford. A better solution: better & safer transit (+ bike) options.

  9. Andrew says:

    Skye,the point of the article is not to remove the parking, but to remove the requirement to provide parking at a drinking establishment. (as is currently stipulated by many municipal bylaws). The establishment can then provide the parking if they’re customers demand/require it. I would think another outcome of the reduced parking establishments is lower costs for the patrons. Everyone pays for free parking, whether you use it or not.

  10. Chaz says:

    I am not a fan of off-street surface parking, but as a person familiar with parking standards I would say that parking requirement is for people who visit but don’t drink, drink in moderation, designated drivers, and employees or owners of the establishment.

  11. civiletti says:

    Although driving drunk is certainly a hazard, Oregon, at least, gives out DUI citations to bicyclists as well.And, of course, neighbors would complain of bar patrons taking up on-street parking spots.Nothing’s simple.

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