SeaPark, Seattle’s dynamic pricing system for parking, does more with less $

October 31, 2013

In 2010, the Seattle Department of Transportation introduced dynamic pricing to its parking spaces under a scheme called SeaPark. With a top spend of just $1.2 million, it has managed to achieve its goal of a 70-85 percent occupancy rate during working hours in the city’s core commercial area.

Benefits of demand-responsive pricing for the public

Charging the right price for parking reduces the need to cruise for spaces. The stated goal of the Seattle Mayor and City Council is to achieve, on average, one or two spaces a block for shopper and visitor access. When SDOT rather than politicians began controlling meter rates, charging a variable rate between $1-$4 an hour, occupancy patterns began to change.

Pike Place Public Market, Seattle

Get in, get out: charging the right price for parking keeps spots open. Image by Dougtone.

Program pitfalls

SDOT uses occupancy data to set rates for spots. However, unlike San Francisco’s SFPark program, Seattle doesn’t have in-ground sensors, so it can only send employees to count vacant spaces annually. The data generated is not precise enough to set rates block-wise, but it is accurate enough to set prices by neighborhood.

As a result, SDOT can also adjust meters only once a year. It also has many early generation meters that crash when reprogrammed remotely, so employees have to physically go to all 2,100 meters to key in new commands.

There’s evidence that the top rate of $4 is too low. There are still many blocks which are fully occupied when pricing is at its peak, so a higher rate could free up some spots for newcomers. San Francisco, with a top rate of $6 an hour, and a more sophisticated street-parking system, has better results.

SeaPark still a winner

Still, Seattle has spent vastly less than San Francisco and has seen good results. (For comparison, the cost of administering SFPark’s 2008 pilot program alone was around $22 million.)  Some low-cost innovations have helped. Hard-to-miss “Value” signs at the edge of in-demand districts alert drivers about good parking deals. This way, drivers who are game to walk more to their destination can save money and park for a longer time.

Although priced parking is often perceived as driving up rates, in many neighborhoods in the city, rates have actually fallen, according to Mary Catherine Snyder, SDOT’s parking strategist. She says that the lesson is that cities don’t need a big parking program for a more efficient parking situation, just a small investment and a lot of focus.

Extending the program to include free parking, and issuing paid parking permits could reduce congestion even further. In Seattle, an astounding 97.5% of parking spots are free. Paid parking permits would be cheaper for the city to implement than setting up more costly meters.

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