City Hall

Seattle Times Thinks Drivers Are Cheap, Stupid

By Erica C. Barnett February 3, 2011

As we've reported, after initially considering parking rates that would be higher in nine neighborhoods, the city relented, reducing rates in five of those neighborhoods and keeping the new rates---between $3.50 and $5 an hour---in four.

That still wasn't enough for the Seattle Times. In an editorial opposing the new rates today, the Times argue that the new rates are "too high" and "too confusing."

Here's just some of what the Times editorial gets wrong.

• The editorial---cherrypicking just four center-city neighborhoods---complains that with rates going up to $4, Seattle will have "rates among the highest in the nation." Additionally, the Times ignores the fact that rates are actually going down in 11 neighborhoods, and staying the same in another seven, meaning that 73 percent of the city's metered parking will be cheaper or stay the same. And other cities, including San Francisco, are currently considering rate increases much higher than Seattle's.

• Playing transportation engineer, the Times editorial board argues that the city's goal in setting new rates---one or two open spaces per block---is "too rigid." Instead, they think a goal of three to four spaces per block would be about right, since "people walk." Drivers, in other words, will just park in a cheaper spot farther away and walk to their destination.

In the Times' corner, you have an arbitrary assessment from a group of non-experts. In the city's, you have this stuff called data. According to parking guru Donald Shoup, a UCLA urban planning professor whose research on parking was the basis for the city's study, the optimal level of parking occupancy that based on his research, the optimal level of parking occupancy is 85 percent---which works out, on average (because blocks are different lengths) to about one or two open spaces per block. "Optimal" means that most spaces are occupied, but drivers can find a vacant space; people won't have to cruise for parking, polluting the air and causing congestion; and higher prices when demand is higher encourages rapid parking turnover.

As for the Times' glib gotcha, "people walk"? Yes, they do---which is why the city did its parking assessment by neighborhood, not block by block. The model assumes that some block faces---say, in front of the Whole Foods on 65th and Roosevelt---will always be full, but that parking will be available two or three blocks away. "One to two spaces per block" is an average, not a literal block-by-block count, something the Times editorial writers would know if they'd read their paper's own reporting.

• Next, the Times argues that the rates are too high because they're based on "peak usage." That's not exactly true: SDOT did use "peak hour usage," but they did so for three separate periods every day by neighborhood, so that the top three hours out of ten they studied (10 am to 8 pm) are the actual basis for the new rates. That makes sense: If rates are close to 100 percent on First Hill between 10 am and 11 am, for example, it makes sense to make it possible to find a place to park by nudging rates a little higher. Next year, the cit plans to fine-tune the new rates even further, creating rates that change by time of day. Somehow, though, I doubt that will satisfy the Times.

In a weird twist of logic, the Times writes that because "parking should be simple," the city should make parking at its Pacific Place garage free for the first hour. Huh? Not to mention the fact that that garage is actually losing money, in part because it costs $5 or $7 less per hour than competing private garages nearby.

• Finally, the Times argues that the new rates are too "confusing," and that "parking should be simple." I'm not sure where the Times was when the city set different rates for different neighborhoods years ago, but there's nothing new or especially "confusing" about making parking more expensive in Fremont, say, than downtown Seattle. I guess extending rates until 8 pm in some neighborhoods will take getting used to, but  unlike the Times, I don't think drivers are so dumb that they can't read signs.
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