Seattle parking meter, SDOT

When I read the headline “Parking fees drive diners away” in Seattle’s largest car-loving paper, I expected some sort of evidence to back this claim up. But it turned out to be an opinion piece without adding any facts to the debate. Skimming past the usual logical but flawed argument of higher parking rates = fewer customers, I came to the final argument. That employees are having to pay more for street parking.

For those who must drive, the additional two hours of paid parking require them to spend another $6 to $8 per shift. This amount is not trivial to our employees.

Let me be very clear: street parking in retail areas is not for workers. It is not for residents. It is for retail customers.  If your business relies on a substantial amount of business from people that drive, parking space that’s less than a block from your business is very valuable resource. The greater number of people you can get in and out of that space within a day will directly translate into more business for you. Having your employees parking in those spaces the entire time they’re working in your restaurant is a terrible idea. Charging for parking encourages people to move their cars quickly. Charging more than private lots encourages people to park in private lots if they need to park for a long amount of time. If your employees are encouraged to switch to a private lot, this is good for your business.

60 Replies to “Dear Seattle Restaurants: You’re Doing it Wrong”

    1. It is for everyone, but a smart business owner will instruct their employees to park elsewhere so patrons can park close. Do Wal Mart employees take up all of the front spots in the parking lot? No, they park at the back to make room for lazy customers.

      1. LOL@Kirkland (I’m constantly doing that). Just a typical example of our region doing something that broadly makes sense (using street parking in a retail-heavy area for retail customers) in a stupid and draconian way. Just use time limits or parking meters as appropriate for street parking, and have other lots or garages with monthly or quarterly permits available for downtown Kirkland workers. That’s how the Chicago suburb I grew up in does it, and that town (Elmhurst) has commuter train parking downtown, too, which adds even more pressure on all-day parking (Kirkland, served by buses, can locate its P&Rs on the periphery).

      1. I believe that’s the argument. Regardless of race, creed, color, income or effort there should be equal access.

    2. I think there’s a huge logical flaw in Matt’s argument: for this argument to make sense you have to assume street parking is always full, which is usually not true.

      In fact, that was one of the main reasons to raise parking rates: to help ensure there is parking available.

      So basically, Matt is either 1) wrong that employees are occupying these spots and precluding patrons, 2) wrong that higher parking fees free parking spots, or 3) agreeing with the guys who wrote the article in a snarky way which is frankly unproductive in my mind.

      1. Higher rates and longer hours are absolutely designed to allow for some vacancy in street parking. But that’s exactly what this article was complaining about – employees can’t afford to park on the street anymore.

        Great! That’s the whole point! These vacant spots don’t come from nowhere. They come from those drivers that place the lowest value on street parking. In the case of employees that will be at work for 8 hours, the value of having a 30 second walk is now balanced with a higher rate for that convenient parking. The incentive should push them into a private lot. And those spots that used to not be vacant – where a customer would circle for 20 minutes and finally find a place blocks away or at a private lot – is now vacant and waiting for them. Problem solved.

      2. Yes, that’s what I meant by “argeeing … in a snarky way which is frankly unproductive.”

        A less snarky post might have said “it’s unfortunate that there are lack of alternatives for people working late at night but the system is working as it was designed. More parking available should mean more diners and more money for the restaurants and their workers”, and not “you’re doing it wrong and you’re employees are making ‘terrible’ decisions by wanting to park on the street”

      3. But I’m not agreeing with them in the slightest. Their employees were making rational decisions based on the system at the time. I don’t know what decisions their employees are making now, since the claim is they can’t afford to park on the street. Whatever new solution they’ve come to, that’s likely still a rational decision.

        We’ve changed the system, which changes people’s choices. For the restaurants to argue that the new system makes their employees park somewhere else, so they want the old system back is arguing against their own interests. I’m just pointing that out to them.

      4. You’re either agreeing with them or you are making a very flawed argument (much of their piece is focused around parking being “pay” till 8 now). That’s why I said “logical flaw”.

        Saying “rational” doesn’t make your argument logically sound.

        Follow me here, you clearly posit these two points:

        1) Higher parking rates discourage parking duration.

        2) This must reduce it below zero in some cases (in fact, this the crux of your argument below the quote, business owners should want this reduction).

        You use these to reason:

        3) This new system is good because now you can have more customers, ie, your employees shouldn’t have been parking there from 6-8pm anyway.

        This is true if and only if:

        4) Parking was often/always full from 6-8pm before (if there was available street parking available before, then freeing new street parking doesn’t get you anything as a business owner)

        — and —

        5) The “fullness” of parking is not reduced by increasing the parking cost from 6-8 pm (which seems contradictory of 2))

        So you are either agreeing with them or your argument is not logically sound.
        It’s just an untested assumption that now there might be a few more available spots between 6-8 pm, so this means businesses are going to get a couple of more customers during that window.

        Further, if parking isn’t for residents or employees, why is it free after 8 pm?

      5. 1. Yes.
        2. Yes.
        3. Yes.
        4. Yes.
        5. What? No. Higher turnover increases business. Removing non-customers increases business. You can have the spots full of residents, employees, or lawn furniture and it won’t help business at all. Reducing “fullness” also increases convenience for potential customers, as they now don’t have to spend time circling.

      6. Okay, so now I think you didn’t read their piece. They are arguing about specific window 6-8 pm. I don’t know about you, but I usually can’t park, get out, go to a restaurant, get seated, order, eat, pay, etc. in less than the majority of that window, probably all or maybe even more than all.

        So “turnover” isn’t a serious argument.

        I don’t disagree with you (I suspect you may be correct), but your logic is shitty, and you are basically making taking a bunch of untested assumptions (4,5 and now it sounds like you seem to be saying that customers are more willing to pay the $8 than employees are? But that the guy just said the employees are paying the higher rate??!?! etc.) about how this works and saying those guys are wrong because their untested assumptions lack “evidence”. But you have no evidence, and an increasingly long list of assumptions, some of which are contradictory, and some obviously can reduce to absurdity (at some price, no one, even “customers” will pay for any duration).

        You can’t have it both ways, and in this case, the way you want it is not self-consistent. I have a serious hate on about bad arguments.

      7. “‘turnover’ isn’t a serious argument.”

        Of course it is. It isn’t just restaurant customers that park on the street. And restaurant customers don’t always dine only from 6-8. And those cars that are already parked on the street around 6 certainly are less likely to be restaurant customers. In fact, apparently a large number of those parked on the street at this time are employees. Every employee’s car removed from the front of a business could have been a customer’s car.

      8. It isn’t just restaurant customers that park on the street. And restaurant customers don’t always dine only from 6-8.

        But this is only about the 6-8pm time… You’re talking about something completely different from what the Times piece was about!

        You are still assuming that charging at that time is going to drive away employees but not customers… And why do you believe this? Where’s your evidence for that? It’s just hand-waving.

      9. No I’m not. What happens at 5 strongly affects what happens at 6.

        I have a general anecdotal question for you. Do you park in these areas often in the evening? I found 6:30 the toughest time to find a parking spot all day. People parking at 5 knew they could just pay for an hour and park there all night. This included eaters, but also anyone from residents to bar goers to people attending theatre events. It’s a strategy that I used myself many times.

      10. We’re clearly not going to see eye-to-eye on this. Personally, I have trouble with someone saying a piece lacks evidence and then argue without evidence, with huge logical problems, and with obvious counter-arguments. If you can’t definitively show that employees are the ones who stopped parking instead of customers, your argument has no merit above theirs.

        So why trash it? Why not say, “that’s one possibility, here’s another” instead of saying “This is how it works” and vigourously ignore the flaws.

      11. Isn’t their entire complaint that employees can’t afford to park on the street?

      12. That’s what you read from this?

        Expecting our employees to simply take the bus at that hour is not always a reasonable option. For those who must drive, the additional two hours of paid parking require them to spend another $6 to $8 per shift. This amount is not trivial to our employees.

        Okay, I’m done. You won’t even offer a thought exercise explaining how the marginal propensity to pay for street parking is higher for “customers” than it is for “employees”, other than assuming that employees are too poor to afford it.

        And you say the times pieces is the weak one!

      13. Sure, having low wages would certainly be a factor. Also the length of stay – if an employee works from noon until 8pm that’s a hefty price for parking. The point is that it doesn’t matter the reason. Setting the price such that there’s always a free spot on the block removes the perception that parking is hard to find and the pain of having to circle. This price also encourages churn.

        I have a feeling the people most pushed off the street by the later hours will be residents, but if the person that is priced out of the block and into off street parking happens to be a customer, that’s ok too. The benefits remain the same.

  1. When I read the headline “Dear Seattle Restaurants: You’re Doing it Wrong” in Seattle’s largest transit blog, I expected some sort of evidence to back this claim up. But it turned out to be an opinion piece without adding any facts to the debate.

  2. I’m thinking a smart business owner will contact local lots and negotiate a good deal for their employees (after all, it’s guaranteed business for the lot, in some cases at low-demand times like late evenings). From chatting with employees I know a couple SLU restaurants do this.

    1. This is a tragedy of the commons problem though. If all business did this together, they would all share the costs but also the expenses. If a single business does it alone, they take all the cost but have to share the benefits with all of the other business.

      1. That’s not actually true. A single business can negotiate a rate for its employees, who would in turn demonstrate their bona fides by a validated card or some other instrument. Those benefits need not go to those businesses not part of the deal.

      2. @Ryan I don’t follow. The idea is that a business pays for off street parking for it’s employees, thus freeing up room for customers. Business have no way of managing this newly available on street parking. Employees at other companies or customers of other business could now use it.

    2. Certain downtown restaurants do this as well, according to my cousin.

      I think restaurant owners would be surprised to find what kind of deals parking operators would make to get guaranteed revenue at an off-peak time. Almost 100% fixed costs and perishable inventory is usually a recipe for some good deals.

  3. Maybe restaurant patrons should base their tip on how the waiter got to work or where he parks. At the end of the meal, casually ask the server how he gets to work, since parking is so difficult in the city. If he says he takes transit, tip 20%. If he says he parks in a parking lot, 15%. And if he parks on the street, maybe a 5% tip, and then complain to the manager.

    1. The entire point of Matt’s article is that if the waiter parks on the street, you (the theoretical you who drives to restaurants) aren’t a customer of the business, because *you* couldn’t find a parking spot, so you went somewhere else….

  4. With all those Early Bird specials in Seattle, you can basically get all workday parking for just about the price of two bus fares…plus have the convenience of a car if you’re coming in from Woodinville.

    It’s pretty obvious that given the pervasiveness of transit for getting to downtown, it’s a complete embarrassment that the low paid workers for whom all this infrastructure is designed for continue to choose a private automobile even if it’s operation takes away a fourth or more of their paychecks!!

    If you want people off the parking lots, you’re going to have to really disincentivise these early bird specials with lots of taxes.

    1. How about a minimum tax on all property, regardless of the density of the development. ie: a surface lot would be taxed the same as a one or two story office building. This would encourage infill development, be it parking garages, or additional commercial/residential buildings.

      1. How is a land value tax any different than what we currently have? The King County property assessment separates land value (highest value use of the land) and improvements. In the case of my primary residence virtually all of the value is in the dirt since until the bubble burst most people buying it would consider the “improvements” a liability with the associated cost of removal before a McMansion could be built. Where it’s not applied fairly is on commercial property which is a flaw, possible ingrained corruption, in our system of assessment.

      2. Um… it’s different because right now we tax improvements, and with a land-value tax we wouldn’t.

    2. Except that the garage fee is in addition to gas and maintenance costs, while the bus fare is instead of those costs.

  5. The whole idea of dedicating 28-50% of the street space on most arterials for parking is a total waste of good ROW. Most of the cars just sit there all day, while some are actually used for shopping.
    Now add to that, the fact that speeds are slower due to the careless parkers swinging their doors open without looking, or the number of accidents to cars and bikes for the same reason, and in areas like Rainier Ave, buses actually ‘split the two lanes’ for self preservation, then you wonder how anyone can allow this.
    If traffic is bogged down on an arterial on a regular basis, or accidents are high, the parking should be the first to get the boot. Business owners will figure it out. Rent parking, cater to transit riders, or move.
    “No Free Parks on This Ride”

    1. I see arguments for reserving space, even on arterials, for truck deliveries, short-term parking, taxi pickup/dropoff, handicapped access parking,…. but not for “regular” parking.

  6. Seems to me that making people’s employment depend on finding street parking every shift guarantees you’ll have a high turnover due to constantly firing workers for being late.

    In addition to being more socially just, you might raise the quality of your work force by buying them parking somewhere close off-site. Or as many employers already do, buying ORCA cards for them.

    But since we’re talking about fairness, rights, and justice, I also think that our whole productive economy deserves-and requires- a transit system much better than what we have now.

    For me, as a worker, a motorist, and a general citizen, freedom and justice in this connection means that at the location where driving ceases to make sense, there’s a parking space close to a transit stop.

    And a frequent bus or streetcar to my destination, with traffic-signal pre-empt, using lanes now allotted to street parking and cars looking for it. Everybody will come out freedom, justice, and money ahead.

    Mark Dublin

    1. I don’t know about you, but I avoid using transit at 2am. The wait time is longer for the bus, and the street scene is not “safe” because there are so few normal people waiting for buses at that hour.

      And given a minimum wage job, a “free” ORCA card would be a huge benefit. I don’t know if small businesses get the same break on the cards that large one’s do, but they should. As it makes the cost of the card minimal for the business and the benefit huge for the employee.

      1. Businesses in the Seattle CBD, Belltown, the ID or downtown Bellevue can participate in the ORCA Business Passport program with as few as 5 employees. This results in a savings over at least 48% (depending on which zone the business is located in) over purchasing a $2.25 monthly pass.

        They’re obligated to pay it for all “benefits-eligible” employees, though, even if they don’t use it.

  7. I am surprised this is your take away from the article; I would have thought everyone here would have pointed out bus service sucks after 2 am and we should institute late-night drunk-buses or whatever.

    Personally, if parking is too expensive for the employees, then you need to pay them more, restaurant owners.

    1. “Pay employees more” which means raise the prices of food, which at a certain point causes patrons to choose to eat elsewhere. I don’t know what the exact ratio is but there is a cost point where there are diminishing returns.

      However being a progressive, I would rather restaurants paid their employees more, charged more for meals, and skipped the tip. Tipping is a stupid way to pay wages.

  8. “Charging for parking encourages people to move their cars quickly”

    Right which doesn’t work so well with evening dining. And as was noted by the complainers, their revenue is down, so something about the theory of having available parking by raising rates and limiting it to two hours will generate more customers is wrong when it is applied to restaurants and evening dining. Perhaps the city needs to have 3 hrs of parking from 5 to 8, at the same rate as two hours the rest of the day.

    After all if we price parking correctly it should be “not quite full”, and customers should not be making the choice that eating somewhere else is a better option.

    The biggest problem is that you can drive somewhere else and the externality of the parking cost is not in the meal. ie if you drive to Bell Sq and eat there, you are paying for parking because the cost of the meal has it built into it because the owner of the restaurant is paying for it. But if you drive to Madison Park, and park on a side street, that side street parking is free to you (as much as it’s factored into your already paid city taxes) and free to the restaurant owner because they aren’t charged a tax by the city for the number of customers who drove there.

    But really the complaint that the owners had is that transit doesn’t serve the dine out for dinner crowd well so they chose to drive. And the actual cost of driving is causing dinners to choose to eat elsewhere.

    Solution, all parking everywhere is metered? That for sure will get you un-elected in a hurry.

    1. The fundamental issue is a limited good. We’re not making any new street parking spaces, so these spaces will always be expensive enough (in time or money) that only a certain number of cars get to park there. But charge enough and at least the turnover goes up.

      I’d love to see data that’s beyond the preliminary anecdotal type that this hasn’t helped restaurants, but it just doesn’t exist yet. The argument that “people don’t like paying” is a bit obvious for my taste – they’ve been paying in time circling and money for meters up until now.

  9. Most large restaurants are subject to the Seattle Municipal Code parking regulations that require one off site parking space for every 250 feet of restaurant space. (Small businesses–less than 1500 sq. ft.–are generally exempt however.

    It would be a good idea for restaurant owners to encourage their employees to park in the off-site lot, but it’s hard to regulate where your employees park. Because restaurant employees are often not well paid, forced to work irregular hours and often getting off work at the hour when most of the public transport system is shutting down, I have a hard time begrudging them for using some of the city’s “free” parking. Walking or riding a bike at 2am is obviously more dangerous than it is at 5pm. Cabs can be expensive and hard to get on busy nights. Parking in a pay lot for 8+ hours is also a heavy burden for someone working a job that pays $9.04/hour. All things considered, I’d rather put the $8.00 parking burden on the patron than on the employee.

  10. In a related note, as discussions occurred for the Rapid Ride Line to West Seattle, one of the biggest complaints against the bus lane on Avalon Way came from a body shop that seems to think it has the right to park cars on the street overnight and all day long instead of have them available for the neighboring businesses.

    Also, a good time to again point out a “smart” business like Seattle’s Best Coffee, which I believe is still offering a discount to customers who show their ORCA.

  11. Where are Seattle’s Bests located? I haven’t seen any near the light rail stations.

    1. There’s one on Westlake plaza at 4th and Pike, and one by the library at 4th and Spring.

  12. Remember that the changes to parking were designed both to open up spaces and to raise revenue. The Mayor’s original proposal was to charge for parking on Sundays too, but the City Council put the kibosh on that.

    So I don’t think it should be assumed that the street parking was full before the hours were extended. The setting of different rates in different neighborhoods was based on occupancy studies, but the rates don’t vary by time of day, even though demand very obviously does.

    It’s quite possible that on the average business is fine (as suggested by Sightline’s analysis) but restaurants in certain areas are hurting. Unfortunately as long as we keep talking in generalities we’re never going to get anywhere.

    1. From SDOT’s Performance-Based Pricing Study: “It is important to note that revenue collection is not a primary management goal. However, revenue generation is an outcome of good on-street parking management.”

      In SDOT’s recent blog post they describe the Council’s objective: “The City Council approved policy calls for parking spaces to be occupied between 65% and 83% of the time. Parking occupancy at 7:00 PM was measured [in the ID] at 78%, right in the target range of one to two open spaces. Data from our pay stations also shows transactions per day have been consistent in Chinatown/International District since September. This preliminary data is consistent with data we’ve seen in the other neighborhoods where parking was extended to 8 PM in 2011.”

      I agree we need real data, but that will take time for the “after” case – at least a year so we can compare to the “before” case. But there is great “before” data – check this out (massive PDF). Belltown North, for instance, has a peak occupancy rate of 100% that occurs around 9pm.

      Regarding time of day pricing, the older machines can’t handle time-of-day. Check out page 3 here. The older machines are starting to reach end-of-life in 2013, so there’s an opportunity plan for time-of-day.

      1. Okay, maybe I got it muddled in my brain with the proposal to ratchet up the Commercial Parking Tax, which was very much about raising revenue. They were being discussed around the same time.

  13. Matt – great article. I own a few restaurant/ bars in Capitol Hill/ Belltown, and I don’t mind the parking increases at all. Overall business is up since they went in, as is business between 6-8pm. I won’t argue that increase is due in total to the change in parking rules, but I don’t see where it has hurt.

    There are several more important issues restaurants should be worried about. First and foremost is how difficult the city makes it to build here. More residential, without street level retail, is great for neighborhoods (some street level retail is important, but not in EVERY building). Sidewalks, street lighting, street crime, graffiti, and public transit, are all very important issues that effect our businesses far more than marginal increases in parking rates and times.

    Agreed that they have sound reasoning in this article, it’s just that they don’t have data. And the data that does exist – the amount of B&O tax collected from restaurants, shows an increase in business since paid parking times were extended. And my personal experience in two different neighborhoods shows the same.

    PS – business organizations argue against every fee and tax increase, even when they are necessary to pay for the infrastructure we all rely on. We recently saw a sales tax DECREASE in Seattle, but I don’t hear any of them talking about how much that increased their business. Seems their arguments only work one way.

    1. “PS – business organizations argue against every fee and tax increase, even when they are necessary to pay for the infrastructure we all rely on. ”

      You’ve noticed that too, eh? It’s worth just ignoring “business organizations” when it comes to taxes and fees, because they have a total knee-jerk reaction which has absolutely nothing to do with reality. They’ve cried wolf so many times I just tune out Chamber of Commerce complaints about taxes. If there’s a genuine problem, someone other than a “business organization” had better raise it, because the “business organizations” have burned their credibility over the last 50 years.

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