City Hall

How the City Got It Wrong on Parking

By Erica C. Barnett February 1, 2011

Two weeks ago, the city rolled out new parking meter rates that were higher in nine neighborhoods, lower in four, and the same in six. The goal, city transportation planners said, was to reach an optimal one or two open spaces per block---a level at which drivers can find a spot easily, but where a large number of spaces aren't sitting empty.

Ten days later, they changed their minds. Backing off from the initial proposal, the Seattle Department of Transportation rolled out a whole new rate plan that actually decreases rates in 11 neighborhoods, keeps rates the same in six, and raises rates in just four parts of the center city.

What happened? Did businesses successfully pressure the city council---a majority of whose members are up for reelection this year---to cave and reduce the rates? Nope. The real story is a convoluted tale involving miscommunication, an excessively literal interpretation of the council's mandate of "one or two spaces per block," and a plan that was rolled out before council and mayoral staff had fully vetted and interpreted the transportation department's conclusions.

"When [SDOT] first presented the study, which was done exceptionally well, their first application of the study's findings was not as accurate as we had hoped and we asked them to do it again," says city council member Tim Burgess. WHEN Burgess, along with his colleague Mike O'Brien, proposed shifting the city's parking strategy from a revenue-based model to one aimed at one or two empty spaces per block. "It was very important for me to maintain fidelity to one or two spaces per block," Burgess says.

Starting with that goal, SDOT measured the number of spaces that were empty on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood, and even block-by-block, basis. Because some neighborhoods have longer blocks, though, the percentage of cars that would get the city to one or two spaces available per block varied sharply depending on where SDOT was measuring. For example, a block with five spaces where two spaces were free would be 60 percent occupied, while a block with 14 spaces with two spaces free would be 86 percent occupied. Under SDOT's original calculation, those blocks both counted as meeting the council's standard.

"Since there are some neighborhoods where there as a few as five spaces per block and some close to 10 or 12, that's initially how we landed in that 60 to 80 percent range," SDOT parking manager Mike Estey says.

Making matters worse, SDOT assumed the ideal level was two empty spaces per block, not one, throwing the percentage of empty spaces that triggered higher parking rates even lower.

The result was that the city's initial range of acceptable occupancy started at 58 and hit the ceiling at 71 percent. Under 58 percent, rates would go down; between 58 and 71, they would stay the same; and above 71 percent, they would go up. Using those thresholds, it looked like many neighborhoods were already at peak occupancy, and thus needed higher parking rates.

"SDOT originally was doing their analysis literally around one or two empty spaces per block," O'Brien says. "But what do you do if you have a block with a couple of driveways and a fire hydrant? That might be one or two spaces open per block" and trigger higher parking rates even if the block across the street is empty.

The low bottom threshold for higher parking rates, predictably, infuriated neighborhoods like Pioneer Square, where blocks of parking often sit empty (especially off busy First Avenue). Why should neighborhoods where less than two-thirds of spaces are full have to accept higher parking rates?, they asked.

City council staff wondered the same thing. Working with the mayor's office, they pored over the data again and figured out where SDOT had gone wrong. Using a universal, citywide average of seven spaces per block, staffers came up with a higher range of 71 to 86 percent of spaces full. The new range did trigger higher parking rates in four neighborhoods, but it also lowered rates in four---a change O'Brien says may be unprecedented in city history.

The lower rates come at a cost: $3.5 million less in parking-meter revenues than the city assumed it would have in its 2011 budget. Did SDOT base the new rates on the revenues that were assumed in the budget, despite the council's "one to two spaces per block" policy?

"We were aware that we had a specific revenue target, but that did not drive our decisions," Estey says.

That revenue won't come directly from SDOT, but it could affect the agency's bottom line---and its ability to fund things like accelerated pothole repairs, which Mayor Mike McGinn has made a centerpiece of his transportation policy.
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