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Seattle's New Parking Meters Smart Enough To Charge More At Peak Times

Seattle streets, seen from the 40th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower.
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols
'Parking cruisers,' people who circle downtown looking for a parking space, are more likely to find parking as rates rise to match demand, according to experts. Seattle's new meters, rolling out in 2015-2016, should bring us closer to demand-based pricing

Editor's note: The city of Seattle says it began Monday to install new parking meters with expanded features that make them more user-friendly. This report originally was published on Nov. 7, 2014. 

Seattle's new parking meters, scheduled to replace 2,200 outdated meters, are kind of a big deal. Their guts and brains are state of the art, with speedy cellular service, bigger screens and a numeric keypad capable of ingesting complex kinds of information, such as license plate numbers.

They can be reprogrammed over the cellular network and record additional data from external sensors (which may be purchased separately). But exactly how big a deal they are depends on how far the city of Seattle pushes them.

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The meters were chosen in part by ordinary Seattle drivers who tried models in a few test locations and sent their impressions to Seattle Department of Transportation. SDOT staff took the investigation further, considering how the manufacturers had responded to city and user complaints in other cities.

The "American Idol" style contest for parking meters came about because the old meters, many approaching their 10th birthday, were out of warranty and increasingly expensive to maintain.

On the way to the traffic meter press conference, I ran into Samuel Bejar, who had just paid for parking. “I just spent 45 minutes trying to find street parking, so it’s been a pretty tough today,” he said.

I know the feeling. I could have taken a bus or a Car2Go had I planned ahead. Yet today, I also found myself downtown, circling the streets, looking for an overlooked spot to fit my beat-up reporter’s car. And by circling blocks so many times, I tied up traffic for others.

Seattle’s trying to fix that problem. One of its most powerful tools will be the new parking meters.

“This technology gives us advantages in how we set rates,” said Mike Estey of Seattle’s Department of Transportation at the unveiling of the new meters.

According to the laws of supply and demand, changing rates more frequently should help by tying parking rates more closely to parking demand.

“So we are talking about moving to time-of-day rates starting next year when we install these new machines,” explained Estey. “In places where demand is lower in the mornings, we can lower the rates up until 11 o’clock. And then change the rate accordingly when the demand changes.”

Rates can move up too, though not higher than $4 an hour, a limit set by the City Council.

"Moneyballing" Parking Rates

All those parking meters will send data to the city. Once a year, the city will take a look at that data and decide what the new rates should be. The new rates will then be transmitted wirelessly to all the meters (the existing meters had to be reprogrammed manually, one meter at a time). But adjusting the parking rates once a year is not often enough for Alan Durning.

“We ought to be adjusting the price of parking at least every month or so,” he told me, standing in front of a row of parking meters on Union Street.

Durning’s with the Sightline Institute, an environmental think tank here in Seattle. He said when parking rates are allowed to float at levels below demand, those parking spaces quickly fill up. That results in more people cruising around, looking for parking.

“Cruising for street parking is a giant driver for all kinds of problems for the city. As much as a third of the cars on the street in popular neighborhoods, in popular time periods, are people cruising around looking for a place to park.” Durning said that burns more gas, slows buses and makes things more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists.

Seattle wants to cut down on parking cruisers too, but isn’t ready to change parking rates as frequently as Alan Durning wants. SDOT’s Mike Estey said there’s a limit to how much change in parking technology drivers will tolerate in a given year.

As for the meters’ capacity to ingest sensor data – indicating how many stalls are occupied so that parking rates can be adjusted in real time – Estey said San Francisco tried that and abandoned it. Even Durning agrees, saying you can get close enough to market pricing without sensors by adjusting parking rates periodically – though the two disagree on frequency.

There are a lot of brains in these new parking meters. And like the human brain, we’re only going to use a portion of their capacity. That doesn’t seem to bother SDOT’s Mike Estey. He’s seems happy with the simple fact that the new meters won’t eat your credit card.