City Hall

Meter Rates Should Be Based on Data, Not Guesswork

By Tim Burgess and Mike OBrien November 11, 2010

If you’re like us, when you’re not riding your scooter or bike, you’re often frustrated when trying to find on-street parking while running errands, shopping or dining out---particularly in crowded neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and downtown. Also like us, you probably would prefer to pay as little as possible for parking. Unfortunately, in Seattle, there is often more demand than there is supply. When it comes to on-street parking, we have to choose between readily available and cheap.

Historically, Seattle has done what most cities do: Focus on keeping on-street parking as cheap as possible. The result is the on-street parking lottery: You cross your fingers and hope for a spot, drive around the block three or four times, and if you still don’t have the winning ticket, you either head into a garage, or cancel your trip and move on.

This parking lottery creates a number of problems, including uncertainty and congestion. We know how great it feels when you win the lottery and get a spot, but it can be very frustrating when you don’t---you may be late to your appointment or meeting, or end up spending more than you were prepared to spend. This uncertainty can lead to people avoiding an area completely – how many times have you decided to skip an event out of fear of not being able to find parking?

As city council members, we wondered if city parking policies could be changed to make it easier for drivers to find an open space when trying to park in neighborhood business districts by focusing our parking policy on availability, not cost.

Over the past six weeks, we have worked collaboratively with Mayor Mike McGinn to reshape city on-street parking policy to focus on specific and measurable outcomes. Our refined proposal (which includes increasing the ceiling on meter rates to $4.00 from $2.50) will help businesses, provide consistent parking availability, and cut congestion and greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the number of cars cruising for open parking spaces.

The basic premise of our new policy is to ensure that visitors to neighborhood business districts, including downtown, will be able to find a parking spot near their destination. If the council adopts this new policy (we vote tomorrow), the director of the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will be instructed to set on-street parking meter rates to maintain approximately one or two open spaces on each side of every metered block throughout the day.

Before rates can be adjusted, SDOT will complete the first of what will be an annual citywide parking occupancy study. The study will help SDOT divide current paid parking areas into smaller neighborhood segments based on retail business and parking patterns. This division will result in more distinct parking areas and will allow SDOT to tailor rates to neighborhood needs. For example, the current downtown area, which today is considered one zone for purposes of meter rates, may be sub-divided, resulting in different rates for specific areas such as Belltown, Waterfront, Downtown Core, Pioneer Square, International District and so forth.

In addition to the annual study, SDOT will do a monthly sampling of occupancy in each of the neighborhood parking areas at various times of day.

The annual studies, along with the monthly samplings, will eventually lead—probably in 2012—to variable rates by time of day (e.g., morning, afternoon, evening, night) within the neighborhood parking areas. Variable, time-based rates are important for those areas that have different patterns of use depending on the time of day.

This new data and outcome-driven parking policy means that meter rates will rise and fall with market demand. Or, to put it another way, if parking is consistently hard to find, rates will probably increase. Conversely, if there are more than one or two open spaces per block face for a consistent period, rates will probably fall.

Of course, we need to recognize that even though parking spots will be available, in some areas they will be more expensive than they are today. At some income levels, people will be priced out of the on-street parking market. That’s why we must increase our efforts to make affordable and convenient alternatives, such as transit, available so our business districts remain accessible to everyone.

If the council adopts this approach on Friday, it will be the first time our city has established a measurable policy outcome for parking management. As a result, our focus will shift from generating revenues to achieving a desired outcome. In our opinion, this data-driven management policy is good for retail businesses, good for traffic management, and good for our environment.
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