Charging for parking by the day, not by the month, is one of the most powerful tools that employers have to spur their employees not to drive alone to work. Spurred by state law, Seattle-area employers have seen big results in keeping cars off the road.
Back in 2008, when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation applied for permits to build its new, $500 million, boomerang-shaped headquarters across from Seattle Center, the city of Seattle had a few requirements.
To ease the impact of 1,200 new full-time employees in the area, the Gates Foundation could no longer offer free parking and it had to reduce the number of employees who drove alone to work.
At the time, nearly 90 percent of Gates Foundation employees drove alone. A year after the new headquarters opened in 2011, the number was 42 percent. Last year it was 34 percent.
Funded by the world’s richest man, the Gates Foundation has plenty of resources to devote to altering its employees’ commuting habits. All employees get free ORCA transit cards, there are immaculate locker rooms and bike-storage areas, and employees get a financial incentive — $3 a day — for choosing any alternative transportation.
But the single biggest factor in reducing solo car commuting, the Gates Foundation found, doesn’t cost the foundation or its employees any additional money and is easily replicable at workplaces that have fewer resources to devote to the issue.
No more monthly parking fees. Charge daily instead.
Every employee, from the CEO down, pays $12 a day to park in the Gates Foundation garage. Fees are capped at the neighborhood’s market rate — $120 a month. So, the first 10 days a month that an employee drives alone cost $12 each; every day the rest of the month is free.
Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.
But thinking about that daily rate, 12 bucks a day, rather than a monthly cost built into your budget, has a big impact on commuters.
The Gates Foundation has more than 700 parking spots, between its own garage and spaces it leases. On a typical day, fewer than half of them get used.
“Daily parking, it really is very impactful,” said Bree Moore, transportation administrator for the Gates Foundation.
When you pay a monthly fee, you’re really paying a big fee for the first day of parking and then every day after that is free.
“It’s actually an incentive to continue parking,” said Jonathan Hopkins, director of Commute Seattle, a nonprofit that contracts with the city to work with companies on how their employees commute. “If you charge daily, there’s always an incremental cost and you’re no longer trying to get the most value out of your $100 or $200 monthly charge.”
Pushed by state law
The city can play hardball with a company or in
stitution — like the Gates Foundation — when it wants to move into a new building. In other cases, the city doesn’t have nearly as much leverage, but it still works with companies, trying to cajole them into cutting down on solo driving.
A 1991 state law requires Seattle and other metro areas in Washington to adopt plans to reduce the number of commuting trips made by employees at large workplaces.
The state spends about $3 million a year on its Commute Trip Reduction program, which requires all companies with more than 100 employees who commute during normal hours to complete a biennial survey, cataloging how their employees get to work.
Companies also have to appoint a transportation coordinator and make a “good faith effort” to reduce solo car commutes by doing things like subsidizing ORCA cards, providing bike facilities and facilitating carpools and van pools.
The goal: To reduce the number of people driving alone to work, thus reducing the number of cars (and pollution and gridlock) on the roads.
“The state of Washington has actually led this effort nationally,” said Philip Winters, director of transportation demand management at the Center for Urban Transportation Research in Tampa, Florida. “They’re definitely well known for what they’ve done.”
Companies’ individual targets vary with their location. Big downtown employers are supposed to have fewer than 20 percent of employees driving to work alone. In South Seattle, the goal is less than 63 percent driving alone; around Northgate it’s 69 percent.
The city contracts with Commute Seattle to work with companies to develop plans making it easier for their employees to not drive to work.
There’s no penalty for companies not meeting their goals, but the program has been successful even if each individual company isn’t. Just 34 percent of Seattle commuters drove to work alone, according to the most recent data. That’s down from more than 38 percent in 2008. And, between 2005 and 2015, Seattle increased its rate of transit commuters and decreased its rate of solo drivers faster than any other major city, according to census data.
But the number of solo car commuters rises rapidly in other parts of King County. More than 80 percent of Federal Way commuters drove alone. The numbers are similar in Tukwila, Shoreline, Renton and Kirkland. Other than Seattle, the highest share of alternative commuters in King County is in Redmond, but, even there, more than 60 percent drive alone.
And in Seattle, only about half of participating companies — 124 out of 243 — are meeting their goals, according to Commute Seattle data. Fewer than that are improving their commuting numbers. Just 103 companies reported an improving rate of employees using alternative commutes between 2013 and 2015, according to the data, although an additional 45 did not have enough data to say if they’d improved or not.
The single most important factor in changing employees’ commuting habits is having an employer that cares about changing those habits, said Sohier Hall, the CEO of Luum, a Seattle-based company that makes software to help employers manage commuting programs.
In that, with the Commute Trip Reduction program, Seattle (and Washington) are already a step ahead of many areas, Hall said. Once an employer has bought in to caring how its employees commute, parking policy is most important, Hall said.
“Our soapbox is, A., charge for parking,” Hall said. “If you don’t, do. And, by the way, that’s how you can help fund your commute program. And, B., turn that monthly charge into a daily charge so it becomes a daily choice.”
After 30 years in Northgate, Delta Dental of Washington moved to South Lake Union in early June. In Northgate, nearly three-quarters of the company’s 200 employees had been driving to work by themselves.
At the new offices that wouldn’t be an option: The company is leasing only 80 parking spots at its new building. Delta Dental spent months before the move preparing — providing ORCA cards and setting up a system to help employees manage commutes, but also doing things as simple as teaching people who had never used transit how to ride the bus.
And they started charging, $15 a day, for parking.
“If you had a monthly parking spot, there’s no way you would randomly take the bus or do something else one day because that’s kind of a waste,” said Becky Masters, Delta Dental’s director of compensation and benefits. “It honestly has been such a surprisingly easy transition from a transportation perspective.”
After about two months at the new location, Delta Dental’s drive-alone rate has plunged to about 16 percent, Masters said, and more than half of those 80 parking spaces typically sit empty.
Last year, when the Seattle City Council approved Swedish Medical Center’s plans to double the size of its Cherry Hill campus, adding 1.4 million square feet of space and 1,000 employees, it included a caveat: Construction couldn’t begin until Swedish addressed traffic. The hospital’s drive-alone rate was 56 percent.
In October it launched a new commute program, trying to be more proactive in offering commuting options.
“Before, we would just say, there’s all these things you have available and then essentially just ring the dinner bell and say, ‘Come and get it,’ ” said Mark Melnyk, the hospital’s transportation coordinator. “That type of program isn’t going to be successful.”
So they scrapped monthly parking and started having more specific, detailed conversations with their employees, laying out commuting options.
“Before, it was choose your commute mode. If you take the bus the expectation was you’re going to take the bus, if you chose parking, the expectation was you’re going to be driving every day,” Melnyk said. “Now they can decide on a daily basis.”
Melnyk said they don’t yet have stats on how the changes have affected driving habits, but it’s worked well enough that they’re going to scrap monthly parking at their First Hill and Ballard campuses, as well as their corporate offices.
One place that continues to discourage deciding on a daily basis? The city of Seattle, which has a low drive-alone rate of about 16 percent despite charging a monthly rate — $320 — for parking at the Seattle Municipal Tower.
The waiting list for a spot in the tower’s garage — more than 100 names long — hasn’t moved in years.
“If you charge for monthly parking, people won’t get out of their cars,” said Moore, of the Gates Foundation. “They’ll be like ‘Hey, I paid my $350 a month.’ ”