Circling a city block looking for a parking spot is a frustrating urban ritual, one that the city hopes to reduce with new parking meter technology that could start popping up on Seattle's streets next year.
Earlier this week, the City Council's Transportation Committee approved a plan that would involve replacing and retrofitting the city's 2,200 parking pay stations. One major reason for the project, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation, is simply that many of the existing stations are getting old. But by updating the kiosks with newer "smart" technology, the city will also be able to set higher or lower rates for parking depending on the demand for spaces in different neighborhoods at different times of the day.
"A lot of the pay stations out there right now are like having a 10-year-old cell phone," said Mike Estey, manager for parking operations and traffic permits for SDOT. For example, adjusting rates involves sending a person to each kiosk to install new programming. That process could be done remotely, from an office, with the new machines the city is planning to buy. The new pay stations should also be able to process transactions faster and will also not suck in credit cards the way the current machines do, reducing the risk the cards will get stuck — or forgotten.
"Another thing we're talking about doing is going to time-of-day pricing," Estey said. "It helps to make sure there's either one or two spots available per block."
Parking rates in neighborhoods south of the Lake Washington Ship Canal through fall 2014. Map: SDOT
Donald Shoup, a professor at University of California Los Angeles, pioneered much of the economics research that has spurred cities to begin experimenting with parking rates that vary depending on time-of-day and occupancy. Los Angeles and San Francisco are among the places that have implemented these sorts of programs on some streets.
Shoup's basic argument is simple enough. If parking prices are too high, spots go unused. This is detrimental to businesses that depend on curbside parking for their customers, and also reduces the flow of meter revenue into government coffers.
On the other hand, if prices are too low, spots fill up and people are more inclined to stay parked for longer periods of time. Meanwhile, drivers seeking the underpriced spaces cruise around, wasting time and fuel and causing congestion as well as pollution.
Set the right price for parking, based on the demand in a given place, at a specific time, and like Estey said, there will always be one or two spots available per block. Or so the theory goes. What happens when this idea is put into practice?
"The thing that surprised me in both San Francisco and Los Angeles is that the average price of parking fell after they started the time-of-day prices because so many meters had been overpriced in the morning," Shoup said during an interview this week. "More prices fell than rose. Many people had never expected that. They assumed it was just a way to jack up pricing."
Another phenomenon that surfaced in San Francisco was sharp differences in demand between blocks that were close to one another.
Before the city's SFpark program began, a busy block might have no spots available, while a nearby block might have had three open spaces. When the program went into effect, prices starting going up on the full blocks and started falling on the under-occupied blocks.
In an article published last fall, Shoup and another researcher discussed how motorists shifted toward the cheaper and once-underused parking spaces.
"Some blocks just happened to be way more popular than others," Shoup said. He added: "It allows people who really want to, to save money if they are willing to walk further."
Prices on some blocks dropped to 25 cents per hour. According to figures provided by Paul Rose, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the average decline in hourly parking prices was about 11 cents. And the amount of time that that parking space occupancy rates were in the city's targeted range — 60 to 80 percent in use — increased by 31 percent in the areas with demand-based prices. Rose said policy makers are currently deciding whether to expand the program citywide.
A parking pay station in the University District/Bill Lucia
In some ways, Seattle's new plan is less complex than the programs underway in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Both of those cities installed parking space sensors to provide real-time occupancy data. But, at the end of a two-year pilot program, the batteries in San Francisco's sensors were dying so they are no longer being used, according to SFMTA's Rose. SDOT's Estey said there is no plan to put sensors in place here because of the expense and because the city does not want to have to maintain markings or signs that designate individual parking spots.
The fluctuating prices under consideration here are also fairly basic compared to San Francisco's block-by-block rates. Parking prices in Seattle already differ by neighborhood. The only immediate change with the smart meters would be that rates would jump up at certain times of day.
SDOT has discussed installing the pay stations in Pioneer Square first, according to Estey. Had the stations been acquired this year, the department's parking rate information for summer and fall of 2014 proposed two different sets of variable rates for the neighborhood, one for its "core" and another for the "edge." The hourly core rate for 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. would have been $3.00 per hour. It would have gone up to $4.00 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For the edge of the neighborhood, the morning rate would have been $2.50 and the afternoon rate $3.50.
During the morning in the Pioneer Square core area, parking space occupancy rates are around 53 percent, according to SDOT figures published earlier this year. In the afternoon, the rate rises to 96 percent. Among the areas with the highest occupancy rates in the city are the Pike and Pine Street corridor between 11th Avenue and Interstate 5 and, during evening hours, the area around Northwest Market Street and 22nd Avenue Northwest in Ballard.
Assuming the full Council gives SDOT the go-ahead to upgrade the pay stations, the new ones would be installed during 2015 and 2016. Of the 2,200 machines, SDOT plans to replace 1,500 and retrofit 700 for a price of about $10 million, not including installation and operating costs. Seattle parking meter revenue in 2012 totaled $36.6 million, according to this year's city budget.
Manufactured by San Diego-based IPS Group, Inc., the new pay stations will be solar powered and would also have alphanumeric keyboards that could eventually allow motorists to punch in their license plate number to pay.
Switching the machines to pay-by-plate would eliminate the need for the receipts motorists currently have to stick on their vehicle windows and could also allow for pricing based on vehicle-size or emissions. The city already has a service that lets people pay for parking over the phone, or with a smartphone app, by entering their vehicle's license plate number.
Estey said that, in the near term, there are no plans to convert the machines over to pay-by-plate mode and that no discussions are underway about pricing based on vehicle characteristics.
On the east side of First Avenue South, near Yesler Way, on Thursday, Troy Grugett was packing boxes into the back of a van parked curbside at a metered space. A consultant for Integrated Living Solutions, a company that installs audio-video, security and lighting systems in Seattle, he is no stranger to the city's pay stations.
"Some of them are buggy," Grugett said. "I almost walked away from one the other day thinking it wasn't working." As he did the pay station spitted out his receipt.
Asked if he would be willing to pay more for parking if it meant spaces would open up, he said, "It makes it easier on us, but it makes expenses go up. It's a huge business expense." He noted that parking costs ultimately get passed along to the company's customers.
Grugett also said that in situations where he cannot find a garage with enough height clearance for his van, or when he is trying to get close to a location where he is working, no matter what happens with street parking rates, he would find a spot and pay. "I don't have a choice."