Atlantic Cities
Charts

How Seattle Transformed Parking Without Spending a Fortune

How Seattle Transformed Parking Without Spending a Fortune
Shutterstock

The most sophisticated street-parking system in the United States, and perhaps the world, is in San Francisco. SFpark uses demand-responsive pricing to adjust the rates of city street meters and garages in eight major neighborhoods, ensuring that spots are always available. The program uses a matrix of street sensors to inform drivers using the SFpark app of space vacancy and prices in real time.

Of course, not every city can get a $20 million federal grant to implement such a system, as San Francisco did. Those places seeking a more affordable model might want to look a bit north to Seattle, where the city has established SeaPark. While less technologically advanced than SFpark, the SeaPark program still responds to parking demand across the city with notable efficiency — and for a fraction of the cost.

"Seattle is really showing how cities, often with existing equipment and a little hard work, can do demand-responsive pricing," says Jay Primus, manager of SFpark. "It's not as sophisticated, but it's such a big step in the right direction."

Before SeaPark went into effect, Seattle charged a flat, one-size-fits-all rate for parking in its various downtown business districts, just as many cities do across the country. But a thorough study of the parking landscape conducted a few years back showed that not every area behaved like the others. Different neighborhoods had different demands.

With SeaPark, the city prices parking in different districts based on need, in an effort to ensure at least one or two spaces remain open throughout the day. Officials collect parking data every year and change parking rates — which range from $1 to $4 an hour — on a per-neighborhood basis when basic availability goals aren't being met. Not only does this provide visitors and shoppers better access to city businesses, it also reduces street congestion in crowded commercial areas.

The system lacks the block-by-block precision and real-time responsiveness of SFpark. Even defenders of the program believe the city should aim for more frequent and diverse rate changes. Then again, the city has never spent more than $1.2 million a year for basic operations, says parking strategist Mary Catherine Snyder of the Seattle Department of Transportation.

"It's not as fine-grained as what might happen in San Francisco or Los Angeles, but it's better than what we used to do," Snyder says.

Despite its limited funding, SeaPark remains an impressive system. Take street parking in the commercial core. As of April 2013, SeaPark just about hit its target occupancy of 70 to 85 percent during normal business hours:

And here's how things look block-by-block:

The target color is orange, while red indicates blocks with too much occupancy. The prevalence of red reflects the system's lack of geographical refinement. Still, as Alan Durning of the Sightline Institute recently pointed out, you can see how effective the system is overall by comparing the weekday occupancy situation to Sundays, when curb parking is free:

Seattle has also found low-cost ways to direct drivers to various blocks. Large green "VALUE" signs placed at the edge of popular districts show people where they can park for longer and cheaper — creating options for travelers who don't mind walking a little farther to pay a little less. While the city lacks an official parking app, it makes parking data available to third-party app vendors like Parkopedia.

SeaPark is also more evidence that, contrary to popular belief, the point of priced parking is not to squeeze city drivers for every penny. In many neighborhoods, rates have gone down since the program began, says Snyder. (San Francisco has found the same thing: one recent study of SFpark determined that the city "adjusted prices without increasing them overall"; Primus says meters were down 18 cents an hour last he checked.)

The lesson, says Synder, is that cities don't need to have a big parking program to create a more efficient parking situation. Rather, metros just need a little money, a lot of focus — and an admission that things may never be perfect. "I don't know that there's any silver bullets out there," she says. "It is on-street parking."

Chart [PDF] and maps [PDF] courtesy of the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Top image: anderm/Shutterstock.com

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

Join the Discussion