Why do so many park the wrong way in Seattle?

Mary Mitchell, a supervisor for Seattle parking enforcement, says it's illegal ... but they don't get too worked up about it.
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By Ashley Gross

I just moved here from Chicago, and there’s one thing that has been bugging me – the way people park.

In some ways, Seattleites seem to really follow the rules. People don’t jaywalk, for instance. So why do so many people park on the wrong side of the street?

In my neighborhood in West Seattle, near Alki Beach, cars are parked higgledy-piggledy. Nose to nose, tail to tail. The streets are really narrow, and traffic runs in both directions, so I can understand the temptation to just zip into an empty spot, no matter which side of the street it’s on.

One way or two?

A typical street scene in Seattle neighborhoods.But having cars parked any which way makes it hard for me to figure out whether streets are one-way or two-way.

In Chicago, lots of residential streets are one-way. So my instinct is to figure that out by looking at the direction in which cars are parked. Here, when I look at a street and see a bunch of cars pointing in the wrong direction, I feel like I’ve slipped through the looking glass.

I did learn, from talking with Luke Korpi of the Seattle Department of Transportation, that the city leaves all those narrow streets two-way on purpose.

“That type of operation essentially forces drivers to drive responsibly and slowly,” he said.

But I think all those narrow, two-way streets are one reason why so many people park on the opposite side of the road.

Take what’s available

When I asked people near Alki Beach why they park the wrong way, they said parking in the neighborhood is scarce, so you have to take what you can get. No time for three-point turns – you might lose out on a spot.

I spoke with one woman getting into her smart car after picking up her son from school, and she said she also thought it was strange when she first moved here from Colorado.

Now she’s adopted the Seattle way – she parks on the wrong side of the street, too.

“Everybody here does it, and I’ve never seen anybody get a ticket for it,” she said.

I didn’t even know it was illegal, because so many people do it. But it is.

Why aren’t the tickets flying?

So why doesn’t the city enforce it? If people were blatantly breaking parking laws in Chicago, the city would see dollar signs. I’m not advocating a crackdown, but in times of tight budgets, I’m curious why Seattle doesn’t issue more tickets.

Just on one block near my apartment, the city of Seattle could have ticketed 13 cars at $47 a pop.

Mary Mitchell, field supervisor for the Seattle Department of Parking Enforcement, says they do – sometimes. On busy streets, like arterials, her officers will definitely ticket. She says they’ll always issue tickets if they think a car that’s parked the wrong way is really posing a hazard.

What surprises me, though, is that Mitchell is not dogmatic. On quiet, residential streets, Mitchell says she sees things in shades of gray.

“Streets where there’s not a lot of traffic, there’s no hazards that we can articulate, we’re not going to go in and just blanket it just because we can,” Mitchell said.

She says her officers sometimes leave courtesy notices on windshields to let drivers know that it is illegal to park on the wrong side of the road. But as for actual citations, she says she tells her officers to ask themselves, “How would you feel if you got this ticket?”

Bike hazards

Still, not everyone is happy with this live-and-let-live attitude. For bicycles, wrong-way parking can be a real hazard.

Al Jackson commutes by bike through the neighborhoods of West Seattle. He says cars often pull out right in front of him from the wrong direction, and the driver can’t see him coming.

“One lady asked me what it was that was so problematic about it,” Jackson said. “So I explained it to her, you can’t see what you’re doing. You came out right in front of me. Between your bumper and my bike, I’m going to lose.”

Parking enforcer Mitchell says when cyclists call the department to complain about wrong-way parkers, the city will leave notices on drivers’ windshields advising them it’s illegal, and if the problem persists, the city will issue tickets on residential streets.

Still, when I ask her why so many people park the wrong way, she says it’s just part of the culture.

“In Seattle, we are laidback, and so pulling over and just parking the wrong way, we’ll probably think it’s not really causing a hazard,” Mitchell said. “Welcome to Washington.”

Deeply ingrained

And just to show exactly how deeply engrained this instinct is here, Mary Mitchell herself, parking enforcement supervisor driving a parking enforcement vehicle, almost parked the wrong way when we stopped to take a picture.

Then she caught herself, laughed, and turned the car around to park on the correct side of the street.

Maybe one of these days, that instinct will lodge itself into my brain. But for now, I don’t have to worry about it, because our apartment has an off-street parking space.

So many people were parking the wrong way in Plano, Texas, the police there made a video: