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Why is parking so terrible in Seattle? Take a look at Pike Place Market

Parking in Seattle could become a thing of the past.
Flickr Photo/James Callan (CC BY NC SA 2.0)/
File photo

Tired of circling the block looking for parking in Seattle? Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor and author of the book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” says the city can solve that problem by charging more.


Bill Radke interviewed Shoup in the wake of a study that reported Seattle drivers average 58 hours a year looking for parking — roughly the equivalent of a week and a half of work days. Shoup said if you want to know what’s wrong with parking in Seattle, just take a trip to Pike Place Market.


“It’s the only street in that part of Seattle where there are no parking meters,” he said. “It’s only two or three blocks long, and it really doesn’t go anywhere, but there are a lot of cars driving along. And I wondered, why were they driving along Pike Pace? And then I realized, well, it’s probably because they’re hunting for parking.”


That’s when Shoup decided to conduct a little experiment.


“I tested this by pulling the keys out of my pocket and going to the door of a parked car,” he said. “And every time I did that, the traffic stopped. The car was waiting to take the space.”


That’s because free parking is a problem, Shoup said.


“I think that if you want to know what it’s like when the parking is free, just go down to Pike Place and try this yourself,” he said. “See whether you can stop all the traffic just by pretending to unpark a car.”


He said the solution is to raise parking rates in areas where available parking spots are rare, and to lower rates in neighborhoods where there’s an abundance of empty spots. San Francisco and Los Angeles have both tried that strategy recently, and Shoup said the results are good.


“In San Francisco, there was a great fear that the prices would skyrocket, but they have a maximum of $6,” he said. “That’s one thing they did to make it politically possible. But in the first three years, I think 17 percent of all the meters went down to the minimum price of 25 cents an hour. And only six blocks ever hit the maximum of $6 an hour.”


He said the right price to charge is the price that allows every block to have one or two parking spots available at all times.


“If all the spaces are full, like at Pike Place, and people are always looking for parking, then I think the price is too low.”


Produced for the web by Amy Rolph.


Year started with KUOW: 1985 – 1986, 1991 – 2004, 2012