This spot's reserved for Flexcar? Not exactly

In Seattle, there is no legal basis for the hometown car-sharing company to reserve spots on public streets.
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At REI in Seattle, a spot "reserved" on a public street for car-sharing.

In Seattle, there is no legal basis for the hometown car-sharing company to reserve spots on public streets.

Seattle-based Flexcar, now merging with Cambridge, Mass.-based Zipcar, has generally enjoyed happy relations with local governments here and elsewhere. So much so that in some respects, laws have not kept pace with accommodations made at public expense.

Take those roughly two-dozen curbside spaces around town that don't mention Flexcar by name but limit parking to "carshare" vehicles. Such spots, on public streets, represent fewer than 10 percent of the company's more than 300 reserved parking spaces, because the lion's share of Flexcars are parked on private property. Still, the street spaces are in prized locations in Belltown, Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, and First Hill, among other places.

One of the most high-profile is the space in front of the REI flagship store at Yale Avenue North and John Street. Like the other city-designated car-share locations, it's marked with a black-and-white sign and white-painted curb. Presumably, only a Flexcar can park there. But in fact, Seattle Police have no legal basis to cite anyone who parks in car-share spots.

The spaces were established several years ago by the Seattle Department of Transportation as part of a larger effort to reduce congestion and encourage mass transit. Mike Estey, SDOT's manager of parking operations and traffic permits, recalls that the city rebuffed Flexcar's attempts to put its name on the signs, each of which cost the city roughly $125. The city, he said, wanted to leave the door open in case other car-share companies emerged.

Meantime, no one thought to update the Seattle Municipal Code to define car-share spots and who may park in them. By contrast, there are provisions for, among others, carpool vehicles, taxis, commercial vehicles, and passenger loading zones.

The fact there is no legal basis for restricting parking in car-share spots hasn't stopped Flexcar from trying to get "violators" towed. Flexcar spokesman John Williams said he believed private car owners who use car-share only parking spots should be towed, as can happen when drivers ignore Flexcar reserved-parking spots on private property. When Flexcar members have contacted the company to report that a curbside spot is occupied by someone else, Flexcar has in turn contacted police to get the "poacher" towed. But SPD's hands are tied.

"There's nothing to hang the ticket on," explained Chris Carpenter, acting manager of SPD's parking enforcement unit. "There's no legal definition of what a 'car share' is."

Estey of SDOT acknowledges the problem. "We haven't gotten a ton of complaints [about violators], but we're trying to do some catch-up," he said. "We need to do a little work with our municipal code because it's not as clear as it probably needs to be. We need to make sure the folks in SPD have what they need to enforce [restricted car-share parking] if we continue to believe it makes sense to provide some level of on-street support of car sharing."

The city's curbside street parking partnership is among many relationships Flexcar and Zipcar have with other municipalities here and elsewhere to help individuals own fewer cars. Locally, for example, under a recently renewed three-year deal with Flexcar, King County Metro kicks in up to $100,000 annually in marketing and provides the company free office space in a county-owned building at Fourth Avenue and Yesler Street, according to Ref Lindmark, a Metro transportation planner.

Flexcar was established in 1999, Lindmark noted, in response to the county's request for proposals to establish a regional car-sharing system. "We contracted with what's called Flexcar today," he said. "We didn't know what car sharing looked like."

The county did not want to run the program and figured the private sector historically has demonstrated the wherewithal "to get significant capital to actually operate these things," Lindmark said. The King County Prosecuting Attorney's office reviewed the proposal, he said.

Asked how the arrangement squares with a state law that bans the gifting of public funds to private individuals or organizations, King County senior deputy prosecuting attorney Pete Ramels, who oversees transportation issues, said Metro's contribution to Flexcar is a part of an exchange, and not a freebie to a for-profit company.

The money and office space the county provides Flexcar, he said, "is part of an overall contract where the county pays money in exchange for specific services. The goal of the contract in overall terms is to increase transit ridership." In exchange for the money and office space, Flexcar provides services "in areas where the county seeks to grow transit ridership, and they also provide coordinated marketing showing how Flexcar and transit complement each other. You can sell transit ridership by explaining you don't need a car when you have Flexcar available."

In addition, Ramels noted, in exchange for its contribution, the county is obliged under the law to receive only "legally supportable consideration," which is not the same as receiving full compensation.

Flexcar's Williams said that since it started in King County, the company's roughly 20,000 Seattle-area members, who have access to 350 vehicles (including about 100 hybrids), have cut the level of carbon-dioxide emissions by several million pounds as a result of less driving. The program has also reduced congestion by reducing the number of cars on the street, he said. The University of Washington also partners with Flexcar, providing marketing support as well as a dozen parking spots around the Seattle campus – spaces that are reserved in Flexcar's name. Josh Kavanagh, UW's director of transportation services, values the package the university gives Flexcar at $26,000. Kavanagh contended that faculty, students, and staff benefit to the tune of $56,000 a year in the form of discounted rates, for what the U asserts is a $30,000-a-year net public benefit.

Oh, and if you dare park in a UW campus slot reserved for Flexcar, expect to find a lawfully issued ticket upon your return.


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