(This post was first published at Publicola.)
By Tim Burgess and Mike O’Brien
If you’re like us, when you’re not on your scooter or bike you’re often frustrated trying to find on-street parking when running errands, shopping or dining out, particularly on Capitol Hill or downtown in the late afternoon and evening. Like us, you probably also want to pay as little as possible for parking. Available and cheap parking would seem to be the answer, but unfortunately in Seattle there is often more demand than there is supply. When it comes to on-street parking, we have to choose between available and cheap.
Historically, Seattle has done what most cities do: focus on providing cheap on-street parking.
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 get a spot – you can be late to your appointment or meeting and spend 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 Councilmembers, we wondered if city parking policies could be changed to improve the likelihood that drivers could find an open space when trying to park in neighborhood business districts by instead focusing the policy on availability.
Over the past six weeks, we have worked collaboratively with the Mayor to reshape city on-street parking policy to focus on specific and measurable outcomes. Our refined proposal will help retail businesses, provide consistent parking availability, and cut congestion and greenhouse gas emissions by reducing 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 this Friday), then 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 per block face throughout the day.
If approved, this policy will shift us from a revenue orientation to a specific policy outcome based on managing on-street parking to ensure availability.
Before rates can be adjusted, SDOT will complete the first of what will be annual citywide parking occupancy studies. 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 rates to be better tailored 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 new areas such as Belltown, Waterfront, Downtown Core, Pioneer Square, International District and so forth.
In addition to the annual study, SDOT will conduct monthly samplings 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 day-part period (e.g., morning, afternoon, evening, night) within the neighborhood parking areas. Variable rates by day-part 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 likely increase. Conversely, if there are more than one or two open spaces per block face for a consistent period of time, rates will likely fall.
To be clear, 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 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 revenue generation to the achievement of 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.
(Tim Burgess and Mike O’Brien are members of the Seattle City Council.)