Curb Real Estate

A Guide to Passing the Seattle Parking Test

Nose-to-nose cars. Faded curb colors. RPZs. Here’s how to navigate the chaos of finding spots in this town.

By Benjamin Cassidy

When a parking spot in Capitol Hill was listed for $50,000 in 2022, the internet wondered: bad deal—or steal?

Such is the demand for curb real estate in one of the city’s densest neighborhoods, a notoriously difficult place to nab a spot in a city full of them. In 2017, a study found that Seattle drivers spent an average of 58 hours per year searching for parking. Only commuters in New York, LA, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, wasted more time circling.

Of course, we’re not the same city we were five years ago. Three percent of surveyed weekday commuters worked remotely back then, according to Commute Seattle. Last year, that number was 46 percent. 

But when we do throw on hard pants, it often means we’re about to get in a car. The same proportion of locals—25 percent—drove or motorcycled to work in both 2017 and 2021.

While the pandemic may have temporarily halted street parking fares and the 72-hour rule, both are now back with a vengeance as downtown visitation has crept up. The e-bike boom and rise of scooters mean many locals are finding new ways to get around Seattle without a car. But the city’s movement away from the greenhouse gas emissions of a car-centric culture has only progressed in fits and starts. Many communities are still waiting on light rail to reach their area. In the meantime, it’s in everyone’s best interest for drivers to find spots faster. Here’s how.

The Written and Unwritten Rules of Parking in Seattle

On-Street Parking

Where do you pay for street parking in Seattle?

Pretty much everywhere in the downtown neighborhoods of Belltown, Denny Regrade, First Hill, Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square, South Lake Union, and the Waterfront. Blocks in lower Uptown, east Capitol Hill, and the University District also charge, as well as isolated blocks in the Central District (by Swedish Cherry Hill), Greenlake, Roosevelt, and Ballard. If you’re in South Seattle or West Seattle, you’re in luck; spots are free in those swaths of the city.

When do you pay for said street parking?

Hours vary by block, but paid parking usually starts at 8am and lasts into the evening—5pm, 6pm, 8pm, or 10pm.

Are there any exceptions?

Holidays (New Year’s Day, MLK Day, Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Juneteenth, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas) and Sundays are free…except near Climate Pledge Arena, where rates are still in play on days when crowds of at least 10,000 are expected. Here’s a running list of those events that affect parking in Uptown.

How much does it cost to park on the street?

Per the Seattle Municipal Code, the city must set prices that deter enough people from parking to maintain one or two open spaces on every block during paid parking hours. SDOT updates its rates accordingly. In 2022, it plans to do so three times. As of this writing, prices range from 50 cents to $3 per hour, depending on the neighborhood and time of day.

How do you pay?

Pay stations accept coins as well as credit and debit cards. But many people just download PayByPhone, a free app. Just be sure to enter the correct location number, which is always on the same side of the street (not around the corner). Also, proofread that license plate, and don’t fret if you forgot to leave a receipt on the dash; enforcement is all digitized.

How long can you park for?

The paid parking signs that read “2 Hours Max,” or the time-limited ones that are free for, say, one hour, are straightforward enough. But it’s easy to miss that there’s no time limit after 5pm in paid spots. And nowhere will you find a sign that tells you about the 72-hour rule.

Uh, what’s the 72-hour rule?

In Seattle, a car cannot be parked on the same city street for more than three straight days. Warnings, citations, and even tows can ensue. The law has been controversial during the housing crisis, and it’s not always enforced. But more than a few unwitting drivers have undoubtedly experienced Dude, Where’s My Car moments over the years after returning from vacation. Yes, this means you’ll need to find a spot off-street or a helpful neighbor to move it while you’re gone. Just be glad it’s not 24 hours like it used to be.

Off-Street Parking

Street parking sounds too stressful. What are some other options?

If you’re set on driving, public parking lots and garages—700 of them—are all over, though concentrated, naturally, in the city’s densest areas. Hourly rates are a moving target, but let’s just say there’s a reason why people circle for those on-street spots.

How hard is it to find off-street parking spaces?

Not too hard on weekdays in the commercial core (the shopping and business center of the city, as well as the Waterfront)—about two-thirds of spaces were unoccupied in 2021, and even in the Before Times, a little under a third of a garage was generally free. Weekends are usually less crowded, though sports games and concerts complicate matters. If you’re on the hunt: Downtown Seattle Association maps out your options in the city’s core, and SpotHero can help you find and book some spaces off the grid.

How much will it cost to park off-street?

Location, location, location, but generally somewhere between $10 and $16 for two hours in the commercial core, and somewhere north of $30 for 24-hour or overnight parking. The Waterfront’s priciest. Also, if you’re heading to Climate Pledge Arena: Amazon’s garages in South Lake Union are free on weekends and after 4pm on weekdays.

Who lords over these parking lots?

Century-old Diamond Parking owns more than a third of the city’s public lots, and many more across the rest of the West and Canada. Ace ParkingRepublic Parking, and Impark are some other common owners. Proceed with caution; though uneventful experiences rarely make the review sites, Yelp horror stories are still unnervingly easy to find for parking lots and garages across the city. Keep those receipts.


Is That Legal?

Can you dodge time limit restrictions by leaving a space for a minute before returning?

Nope. And you can’t even snag a spot on the same block. The Seattle Municipal Code wasn’t born yesterday: “No person shall move and repark a vehicle on either side of a street within the same block in order to avoid a parking time limit regulation specified for either side of the street in that particular block.” In free, time-limited spaces, returning to the same block that day is technically prohibited. Historically, parking enforcement uses chalk to track these maneuvers.

Can you block your own driveway?

Negative. City law is onto that one, too.

What about the part of the sidewalk below a driveway?

No, even though you’ll see it from time to time.

Can you park the wrong way?

Apparently not. Drive up many congested streets and you’ll see cars parked tail to tail or nose to nose, but it’s technically illegal: “No person shall stop, stand or park a vehicle on that portion of any street or alley lawfully set aside for the parking of vehicles or movement of traffic in the direction opposite to that which the parked vehicle faces.”

How close can you park to…

A fire hydrant? Fifteen feet. A crosswalk? Twenty feet. A stop or yield sign? Thirty feet. Really. Per SDOT, pulling in any closer “blocks other drivers’ view of oncoming traffic and people crossing the street.”

What Does This Curb Color Mean?

White: This tow-away zone’s either a three-minute passenger load/unload area or reserved for police and fire department workers. Don’t unpack your apartment here. Drivers should stay in their cars.

Yellow: Ah, 30 minutes of loading or unloading bliss—unless you’re in a truck-only area, where tows are possible from the jump unless it’s Sunday or a holiday. Commercial vehicles and taxis also have their own designated yellow areas, but you may see this curb color most often next to driveways—city law says you can’t park within five feet on either side. Or by the Priority Pickup Zones for food and retail hauls that were first installed during the pandemic.

Red: A tow-away zone you don’t want to mess with.

Alternating red and yellow: A bus zone. Don’t park here for even a second, lest you incur the honking wrath of a King County Metro driver—and dozens of side-eyes from pedestrians nearby.

A Primer for All the Permits

Disabled parking permits: Out-of-state or international versions of them are treated the same as our in-state ones, which allow holders to park for free on the street for at least four hours (some signs will state a four-hour limit). The 72-hour rule and load zone rules still apply to vehicles with these plates or placards. Need one? Secure one here or by calling 360-902-3770.

Restricted parking zone permits: If you live in one of the city’s dozens of restricted parking areas—where homes are near hospitals, transit stations, or other commuter magnets—you can buy freedom from the time limits of on-street parking. In the few RPZs that overlap with paid street parking, you can also forgo parking fees, but only when the RPZ number is posted on a sign. Business can also snag these permits for employees. Here’s how to get one.

Carpool permits: There aren’t many of them, and they’re pricey. Sharing rides with neighbors and coworkers may have been more sought-after pre-pandemic, when work schedules were less all over the place.

Car sharing zones: Your rented ride is all the proof you need to snag spots reserved for Zipcar or other car sharing companies. Some free-floating services allow you to drop off a car in paid parking areas, restricted parking zones, and time-limited spaces for free. Check the fine print, of course.

What Happens If You Get Ticketed or Towed

How much does a parking ticket cost in Seattle?

Most infractions will cost you $47, but some mean a fine of hundreds of dollars.

How do you respond to a parking ticket?

Three options: pay the fine, try to explain yourself (in person or in writing) for a lower penalty, or plead your innocence via a contested hearing. Pick a route within 15 days to avoid a late fee.

How many unpaid parking tickets get you towed?

Four. But you’ll get the boot before you get towed.

The what?

The city will apply a wheel-locking contraption—a boot—to cars with four unpaid parking tickets. You then have 48 weekday hours to pay what you owe, or at least set up a payment plan. If you don’t, the vehicle will get towed and impounded. Your license may also be suspended.

How do you find an impounded car in the sprawling metropolis of Seattle?

In a private lot, there should be signs with the tow company’s phone number posted. But if you were parked on the street, just type in the license plate information here, or call Lincoln Towing at 206-364-2000. Here’s info on what it will cost to get your car back (there are maximums in place for private impounds). Don’t delay. After 15 days in impound, the city can auction off your vehicle.

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