Seattle is about to embark on a new age of market-based pricing for parking, ultimately charging more on the busiest blocks at the busiest times, and less at times when there tend to be extra spaces available.

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Until now, Seattle drivers have known that, if they could wriggle their way to an open curb, parking fees would be relatively inexpensive and straightforward.

But one of city government’s New Year’s resolutions is to embark on a new age of market-based pricing, ultimately charging more on the busiest blocks at the busiest times, and less at times when extra spaces tend to be available.

Seattle officials hope variable fees will inspire a quicker turnover of precious parking spaces, boosting commerce and reducing carbon burning. In some U.S. urban neighborhoods, as much as 30 percent of all traffic is caused by people who circle the blocks looking for an opening.

“It helps reduce the traffic congestion, of people finding a spot,” said Mary Catherine Snyder, parking strategist for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).

Market-based prices largely are based on the work of UCLA professor Donald Shoup, author of “The High Cost of Free Parking,” who has earned a cult following among green activists and urban planners. His research suggests an ideal occupancy of 85 percent for curbside spaces, a figure often cited by Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.

Shoup lauded Seattle as the first U.S. city to declare, as a core principle, that there should be “one or two parking spaces” available per block.

San Francisco, Los Angeles and Redwood City, Calif., as well as Washington, D.C., and New York, already are trying variable pricing in certain neighborhoods.

Parking is a cash cow for Seattle, bringing in $70 million this year, through lot taxes, meter income and revenue from about 500,000 citations. That revenue protected the transportation budget from severe cuts during this recession.

“If it’s going to make more parking available, I’m for it,” said Mike Hodgkins, pulling up at Seattle Central Community College about 3:30 p.m. on a recent afternoon, just before night-school commuters arrive and contend for spaces. “If it’s just to raise revenue, I’m against it.”

Across town in Ballard, people were rushing in a downpour to and from their cars on Northwest Market Street, where Tony Beam pulled up to meet his diving-school classmates for dinner at a Mexican restaurant.

“It’s all about money,” Beam said, hearing about the city proposal.

Beam said he doesn’t mind the current rate there of $2 per hour. “It’s one of those things. You come down here and you do what you gotta do to take care of what you’ve gotta take care of,” he said. To dissuade him, he said, fees would have to reach $5 per hour.

Driver Peter Sherwin, of Eastlake, who is a trolley-bus supporter and former monorail campaigner, agrees it’s a play for cash. “Let’s be honest,” he said. “There hasn’t been a public outcry for dynamic pricing.”

Slow steps in 2011

The top rate in Seattle will increase this spring to $4, to help a struggling city budget. McGinn has suggested some downtown spaces could fetch $6 to $7, if the city demanded full market value.

The City Council’s 2011 budget also would extend paid parking through 8 p.m. and launch a “smart boot” project to immobilize vehicles with at least four unpaid parking tickets.

But first, SDOT will publish its data on parking trends in mid-January, then take several weeks to reprogram meters to reflect new neighborhood-level rates.

So, instead of the existing five rates, there could be a dozen or more combinations.

By 2012, the city could customize rates block by block and add the next variable — changing by time of day. The strategy would resemble the new Highway 520 bridge tolls next spring, which in the morning peak are proposed to be $3.50 each way, but a trip at night would cost only $1.10.

Portland business stakeholders balked at a similar proposal last year, but the Rose City soon will experiment with “progressive” rates near Portland State University, said Ellis McCoy, Portland parking manager. The first hour would cost $1.50, followed by rising rates in the second and third hours.

Seattle promises to introduce new rates gradually.

“I don’t think we want to make this system so complex it’s unusable,” said Mike Estey, city traffic-control manager. “You shouldn’t need a manual or a textbook. It has to be easy for folks.”

One possibility is to charge fees deep into the night for the Belltown and Pioneer Square entertainment districts — something Vancouver, B.C., is trying in a theater district until 10 p.m. Another is premium prices for ballgames in Sodo — Washington, D.C., charges up to $8 per hour outside Nationals Stadium. Burgess insists that, because the goal is to make streets and spaces more efficient, it would even be acceptable if market prices reduced the city’s earnings.

High technology

Streetline Networks, based in San Francisco, has developed in-street magnetic sensors that detect when a car is parked. Data is transmitted to a relay system mounted in a pay station, then sent to a central control hub.

During an interview in Seattle’s Central District, Streetline rep Paul Toliver pulled out his iPad and tapped his map of Hollywood. Red and green showed filled and open spots. Parking officers can see exact spots where cars are sitting overtime, and head out to write tickets. The firm just announced an iPhone app that can send real-time price and space updates to motorists.

Streetline CEO Zia Yusuf has called the system “a significant revenue opportunity for cities, for not much additional cost for infrastructure.” A city might typically pay $30 per space per month for Streetline, Toliver said.

Seattle has about 12,000 pay spaces.

Among competitors, Parking Carma and Vehicle Sense offer car-detection products, and Parking Carma also offers online lot and garage reservations for consumers.

Seattle Councilman Tim Burgess says he doesn’t want to spend as much on technology as San Francisco, which is using a $20 million federal grant and $5 million in local funds. Prices there are adjusted monthly. Seattle could reap nearly as much benefit just by watching trends and making reasonable tweaks without buying all the sensors, he said.

Another question is information overload.

Travelers already are learning to use ORCA transit fare cards, the coming Highway 520 bridge tolls and variable-speed signs on Interstate 5. Future drivers might memorize parking-rate tables, or look for updates on a smartphone or navigation devices — hopefully not while in motion.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is waging a crusade against distracted driving, while at the same time funding new-age parking trials. A spokeswoman said federal dollars aren’t paying for the phone software.

“Secretary LaHood believes that when you get behind the wheel, you should put your phone away and keep your focus on the task of driving.”

If the plans work, Shoup said, spaces always should be available, so it would be sufficient to check the local parking website before leaving home. An SFPark video claims a looser parking supply will help drivers notice pedestrians and bicycles, instead of seeking out open curbs.

It should be technically possible to change rates every few minutes. That would resemble Highway 167 high-occupancy toll lanes, where prices continuously shift in a range from 50 cents to $9 if a solo driver wants to pay for faster travel in the carpool lane. But even Shoup says that’s a decade away.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

Meter history
Parking rates per hour in central Seattle, for two-hour meters. In recent years, rates have been lower for certain neighborhoods outside downtown.
Year Hourly rate
1969 10 cents
1970 20 cents
1977 25 cents
1981 60 cents
1990 $1
1993 $1.50
1994 $1
2004 $1.50
2009 $2.50
2011 $4*
* Assumed in city budget.

Sources: Seattle Parking Study by Marni Heffron, 2002;

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