Seattle puts parking in the right place

Seattle’s dynamic parking program is making sure that drivers can always find a spot.

While San Francisco has attracted the most attention for its state-of-the-art dynamic parking program, Seattle has implemented a similar – though far less advanced system – to ensure that drivers in the city never have to circle a block in search of a parking spot.

The program works on a very simple premise: ensure that drivers always have a place to park. It does so by raising parking prices in high-demand areas and lowering prices in areas where demand is low.

Launched in 2010, the Seattle program aims to reduce traffic congestion caused by drivers circling busy city streets looking for parking and guarantees 1-2 available parking spaces for every city block. Rates for the city’s 12,500 on-street parking spaces vary from $1 to $4 an hour and are reset once a year – far less by comparison to San Francisco where prices range from $1 to $6 an hour and adjust every six weeks. Seattle’s parking rates are also adjusted for whole neighbourhoods rather than individual blocks, as they are in San Francisco.

Even though the Seattle program is crude technologically – program employees perform manual street surveys to determine capacity – its success is significant. On Monday through Saturday – when prices are in effect for parking – the program has largely met its target of ensuring an average of 1-2 free spaces per block. But on Sundays, according to one analysis, availability once again becomes a problem with many neighbourhoods near or over capacity for parking.

When prices are in effect, drivers – who don’t mind walking a few blocks – have been effectively directed to areas where parking rates are cheaper. This means less time spent searching.

The program overall has not resulted in higher parking prices for the majority of road users either. One strategist for the Seattle Department of Transportation said recently that in many neighbourhoods prices had dropped. A report on the program after its first year of operation noted that 60% of parking spaces would post a decrease in rates in the second year.

The success of these efforts in both Seattle and San Francisco show that dynamic parking rates better serve consumers, making it easier to shop and work in busy parts of town, and ensures lowered rates for most drivers when they do find a spot. 

Like San Francisco and other cities that have implemented dynamic parking policies, Seattle’s parking program uses the power of pricing to efficiently allocate space, rather than set fees irrespective of demand and location.

Brady Yauch is an economist and Executive Director of the Consumer Policy Institute (CPI). You can reach Brady by email at: bradyyauch (at) consumerpolicyinstitute.org or at (416) 964-9223 ext 236.

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