Friday, April 19, 2013

Street Seats, and Why You Won't Find Them Downtown

Last summer the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) launched a successful pilot project to convert on-street parking spaces in the city’s most densely populated urban centers (including Downtown, the Pearl District, and Lloyd Center) to temporary spaces that could be used for dining and recreational activities. The program, known as Street Seats, allows business owners to pay a permit fee to cover the cost of the parking space and in return, the business would be allotted the extra space to serve diners curbside during Portland’s ideal summer weather [3].

Many saw the program as a win for residents, business, and PBOT alike. The Street Seats pilot program saw immediate success with three Street Seats areas in front of popular dining destinations. After the pilot program ended, a survey conducted by PBOT concluded that 90% of Portland businesses saw Street Seats as “good for business…and had a positive impact on street vitality" [2].

Figure 1: Mississippi Pizza's Street Seats Project (Source: City of Portland)

As the sun comes out and summer draws closer, PBOT once again plans to roll out the Street Seats program. Thirty-two applications are already being processed and an additional 3,500-metered spaces are up for grabs for the permitting process [1]. But there’s a catch. If you want to apply for a permit in the Downtown Core, think again, because according to PBOT’s 2013 Street Seats guidelines, much of downtown is exempt from the program.

Figure 2: The Area of Downtown Exempt from the Program (Courtesty:

With some of the highest density and foot traffic in Portland, why is the downtown core exempt from the program? All fingers point toward the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), a group that wields significant influence in guiding policy, particularly in regards to parking issues in the downtown business district. PBA fought aggressively against the Street Seats program in the Downtown Core, arguing that Portland is reliant on its limited public parking and that businesses downtown depend on the availability of parking spaces to serve motorists eager to spend money. In PBA’s eyes, any decrease in parking spaces would in turn hurt business [2].

While it is unlikely for PBOT to overturn the downtown core exemption in time for summer, this brings up the roles of business guiding transportation policy. Street Seats is a glaring example of how business groups (and other groups, for that matter) can negatively impact transportation land use by promoting an autocentric atmosphere. The Downtown Core will be missing out on the added benefits and business that the Pearl District, Lloyd Center and other areas of the city that will profit from the additional seating. In the future, I hope this case of the 2013 summer Street Seats is a lesson learned for PBOT, PBA, and the individuals that make up the city of Portland’s downtown that chose to put usable public space over parking.

Thanks to Josh Capps for reviewing this post.

[1] Bike Portland article
[2] Oregonian article
[3] PBOT Street Seats program


  1. Personally, if I came all the way downtown to have a meal, I would care much more about being able to be seated in a timely manner than parking in front of the restaurant.

    I think that this exemption area is a poor decision, as it is the perfect place for this program. Parking should not be an issue because there are at least a dozen large parking garages spread throughout this exempted section of town. On-street parking is not nearly as valuable as making restaurants and other businesses visible to those walking by.

    Do you have any information what happens to bicycle traffic in areas where the street seating is using parking spaces? I would be interested to know how this program actually affects the flow of traffic and the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians/diners.

    1. Glen, you beat me to the punch. The topic of Portland’s downtown parking garages were one of the first items that came to my mind as well. I also could not believe what a tremendously shortsighted decision this was for downtown Portland business owners. In fact, it had me wondering who the members of the PBA are? A quick peek at the website shows a robust board of directors that entails prominent leaders from property development and management companies to financial institutions. Also on this list are owners of parking lots within the downtown area. Think this has anything to do with their passionate decision to nix the Street Seats program? I’m betting so. In fact, the area that is exempt from the program has 5 of the 6 SmartPark locations within it ( The only SmartPark location that is not within the boundaries is the NW Natio and Davis location, which is reported to have plenty of space left, presumably because of it’s distant location in relation to the center of the city. Smart Park also boasts “nearly 4,000 public spaces” and “the lowest short-term hourly rates.”

      So, armed with this information, one could argue that there is more than enough parking available in the downtown core, so why fight over scraps when it could be used for more revenue generation?

      Anyone care to play devil’s advocate?

    2. About a year ago I was charged with performing a municipal parking ratio analysis for all cities within the Metro region. As part of the research I had to perform interviews with planning staff and economic development staff for many of the region’s cities. What came up, over and over, was how under educated the typical business owner was/is to the role of parking and business. Many city staff regularly found that local businesses owners felt strongly that there was never enough parking for their customers. This in the face of several parking studies, local and regional, that parking is on average no more than 40% at capacity.

      Local business regularly expressed the need for more “front row parking.” Owners were concerned that if they didn’t have more parking directly in front of their businesses than they wouldn’t capture enough foot traffic. Rather ironic that more car parking will bring foot traffic.

      Through the course of my research I found that most municipal planning staffers felt strongly that we have far too much parking. However, many business owners feel strongly that there is never enough parking. What might help is some type of parking education program to help business owners and citizens understand the actual costs of parking, rather than the perceived loss of business due to a “lack” of parking.

  2. I know that some PBA members came out after the fact in support of the plan (including the Portland Art Museum). At ay rate, it wasn't a unanimous decision. One of the PBA's arguments was (horizontal) equity based. The argument was that only certain businesses would benefit from street seats while all would share the bill in terms of lost downtown parking.

    I agree with the great points above regarding excess parking capacity downtown and was surprised when the PBA came out against the program. I think the businesses that wouldn't participate would still benefit from a livelier street scene. What we really need downtown are wider sidewalks, but all of that old-timey parallel parking's in the way!


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