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Seattle Goes Decidedly Low-Tech In Setting Parking Rates

KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols
Scott Lee of the transportation data company Idax surveys parked cars next to Westlake Avenue North

In a city known for tech wizards, you might expect parking costs to depend on huge data sets collected electronically in real time. You’d be wrong.

Seattle finds just the right algorithm in the old-fashioned way: It counts cars once a year in a survey.

With new parking rates expected to take effect this fall, the city’s trying to make more spaces available by raising rates where there’s more demand.

That’s why Idax employee Scott Lee was out counting cars on Westlake Avenue North this week.

“And this one’s tinted, so I usually like to kind of come up to take a look,” Lee said. “And see, there’s nothing in there – so that’s just a paid. That’s paid as well … paid …”

The city says it has to count cars by hand because the electronic parking meters don’t account for everyone who’s parking there. People with disability permits and people parking Car-to-Go cars, for example, don’t have to pay at a meter.

[asset-images[{"caption": "City of Seattle Senior Transportation Planner Jonathan Williams", "fid": "117422", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201505/john_williams_0.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]
Jonathan Williams manages the parking survey for the city. He says it tries not to change parking rates too frequently.

“But if we raise the rates where it’s really full, maybe one or two people who could ride together or take transit would choose a different mode,” he said. “That would free up a space.”

Williams says the city sometimes lowers rates, too – to help direct people to neighborhoods where parking is underutilized.

Following a similar survey last year, rates rose in Pike-Pine and Chinatown-International District, but fell in Ballard and Belltown.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Ken Monaghan sells yachts by the shore of Lake Union. If you come down to his office, he'll hop in your car and help you find a parking spot.", "fid": "117420", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201505/ken_monaghan.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]

The parking struggle has big implications for businesses. Things get uncomfortable when customers arrive at JK3 Yachts on the western shore of Lake Union, because they have to compete for street parking with construction workers, tech workers and the people who live in apartments up the hill.

Ken Monaghan, one of the yacht salespeople at JK3, said he tries to help clients feel taken care of as they look for space.

“I mean it’s easier for us to just say, 'Let us know when you come by. And just send us a text or call, and we’ll come out and get you, or we’ll jump in with you. Or you can take my parking spot.' Whatever you gotta do,” Monaghan said.

“It feels a little bit like you’re in high school and it’s like ‘who’s got the prime parking space.’”