While parking becomes increasingly difficult in our congested city, knowing which spots are legit — and which are ticket traps — is crucial.

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You’ve circled the block. No luck. Searching for on-street parking in Seattle is no task for the weak.

Finally, an open space a few hundred feet away looks promising. You drive up and investigate: Is it a trap for a parking ticket that everyone else avoided?

Cars can’t park within 5 feet of driveways, 15 feet of fire hydrants, 20 feet of crosswalks, or 30 feet of stop and yield signs, according to city rules. Too bad you left your yardstick at home.

“Why does Seattle seem to refuse to paint areas where you are not supposed to park red?” wrote David Wise, 71, of North Seattle. “Trying to guess the distance between your car and a fire hydrant or street corner is not always easy, and signs that say ‘No parking north or west of here’ can be confusing.”

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While parking becomes increasingly difficult in our congested city, knowing where it’s safe to park is important. Wise said that when driving to Green Lake for routine walks around the park, he often can’t tell where it’s legal to park.

Local municipalities decide for themselves how to designate where parking is allowed.

In terms of curb painting, Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) follows “a very specific Seattle Municipal Code,” spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said.

Under the ordinance, SDOT only uses red paint for areas where violators face towing if they park there.

Parking restrictions like those described by Wise don’t fall under that category. Parking too close to driveways, fire hydrants, crosswalks, stop or yield signs are roadway violations that put drivers at risk of fines — not trips to the impound lot.

For the crosswalk violation alone, officers issued nearly 15,600 tickets in 2015 and 2016 combined, an average of roughly 650 per month, Seattle Municipal Court records show. The fine for that offense is $124.

Also under Seattle’s “curb-marking” code, areas with red and yellow stripes indicate bus stops, while white or yellow paint designate loading or unloading zones for passengers, taxis or trucks. Those places have parking time limits that range from three to 30 minutes.

Home and business owners can use yellow paint, as well, to mark where people can’t park adjacent to driveways or alleys.

But legal DIY road painting stops there.

An image of red spray paint with the handwritten phrase, “TOW AWAY,” on a street outside a home, gained attention from Seattle Reddit users and local media this spring. TV news stories at the time described fake “no parking” signs popping up around the city.

SDOT investigates five to 10 complaints each month of unauthorized illegal tow-away signs, according to spokesman Norm Mah. After the department notifies property owners of illegal postings via a letter, they usually take down the signs, he said in an email.

You can report a fraudulent no-parking sign by taking a picture of it with your phone and submitting it through the city’s “Find It, Fix It” mobile app.

To notify the city about broken traffic signals or damaged signs, including those associated with parking, you can fill out a service-request form via the city’s website.

Beyond the general guidelines for street parking, remember that drivers must move their cars off a block for a while once the parking time limit there expires. No vehicle can remain parked longer than 72 hours on any given city street.

Overall, officers issued 472,126 parking tickets last year, according to Seattle Municipal Court records. That’s roughly 37,100 more than the total number of cars on Seattle streets as of 2015.

Report parking violations by calling the Seattle Police Department’s nonemergency phone number, 206-625-5011.

Got a question?

Last week, we tackled a reader’s question about requiring bike owners to pay a licensing fee like car owners do.

If you have a question or idea for Traffic Lab, send it to trafficlab@seattletimes.com. We may feature it in an upcoming column.