*** Ack! Please see the coda at the bottom of this post. ***

If I were a sociologist I would examine the deeply irrational beliefs people having about parking. I’m serious. Start talking about meter rates or extending pay hours and you can pretty much throw logic right out the window.

Exhibit A is last week’s Seattle Times story on restaurants in the Chinatown/International District. Owners allege that business is down since metered parking was extended from 6 pm to 8 pm:

Restaurant owners and community leaders in the Chinatown International District say business is down by as much as 50 percent because of the change.

Down by 50 percent! That’s shocking. It’s the sort of number that someone might want to verify.

How might I do that? To start with, I’d look for the big city-wide picture, perhaps by examining taxable retail sales from restaurants in Seattle compared to King County as a whole. Starting in August 2011, Seattle extended parking hours in several center-city neighborhoods until 8 pm. The city also raised rates in a few of those locations, though not in Chinatown. That means we can get a sense of the effects of the parking policy by examining quarter-over-quarter sales between 2010 and 2011.

So what happened to restaurant sales after the parking change?

Seattle restaurant’s sales grew strongly—with growth in the city outperforming the county—for the third quarter of 2011, the most recent for which data are available. That’s according to the state’s Department of Revenue. It’s publicly available information.

But when it comes to parking, the numbers are a lot less fun than unsupported anecdotes. Like this one:

  • Seattle’s most recognizable chef, Tom Douglas, who noted that dining out is a discretionary expense and that the city was about to tack on an additional $5 to $8 to the cost of a meal.

    “I thought it was going to be a big problem for customers and staff, and I think we’ve seen that,” said Douglas, who runs 10 restaurants downtown and in South Lake Union. Douglas said he couldn’t cite a specific dollar amount or percent of decline, but he said the city’s stated goal and the goal of restaurants are at odds.

    “More empty spaces means fewer customers,” Douglas said. “It makes me crazy.”

    Perhaps the reason Douglas couldn’t cite a number is that, in truth, Seattle restaurant sales shot up 5.7 percent from the third quarter of 2010 to the third quarter of 2011, when the new parking rates and hours went into effect. Of course, Douglas’ restaurants may have had different mileage, but it’s hard to believe he’s struggling: Doulgas opened 3 new restaurants last year, all in the South Lake Union neighborhood where on-street parking is metered and time-restricted.

    Now, let’s take a closer look at the Chinatown/ID neighborhood. Here’s what the article says:

    At the Sea Garden Seafood Restaurant on Seventh Avenue, which specializes in fresh fish and crab, owner Alice Chan said the dinner rush used to begin when the parking meters stopped at 6 p.m.

    “Now people don’t come until 8, and there aren’t as many,” she said. “Business has dropped a lot.”

    But that’s not what the numbers say.

    Sightline asked for and received aggregated B&O sample data for a sampling of prominent restaurants in the Chinatown/ID neighborhood. How did these establishments really do?

    From Q3 2010 to Q3 2011, sales increased by 1.9 percent. Then, in the fourth quarter of 2011—by which time the longer paid parking hours were fully in effect—gross receipts shot up a whopping 5 percent compared to the fourth quarter of 2010, before the parking change. In fact, the end of 2011—the era of extended meter hours—was a period of banner reciepts for these establishments.

    Sure, there are plenty of caveats one should include. First and foremost, we’ll need more time and we’ll need to see more detailed data. Only then can we begin to accurately evaluate how local businesses have really done since the parking changes.

    But I will say that the preliminary results should not be surprising. The alteration of meter rates and hours appears to be increasing access to local businesses just as it was intended to do. In the case of Chinatown, for example, one effect of extending metered parking hours will be to reduce the tendency of sports fans to do what I’ve done countless times: park on the street for free at 6 pm and walk a couple of blocks to the Mariners or Sounders game. That kind of behavior often occupies all the available street parking in the lower part of the Chinatown/ID neighborhood, making parking unavailable to restaurant patrons.

    Extend metered hours by a bit and it turns out that economically rational sports fans find another place to stash the car, or they find a different way to the game. And that sort of thing seems to be precisely what’s happening. Not that rationality should ever enter our discussions of parking.

    ***

    Clarifying notes: First, I want to make clear that I did not intend this post as an attack on Chinatown/ID business owners. Rather, I meant it as a call to inject more rational discussion—informed by numerical data and evidence—when we talk about parking policy. I was hoping to move the discussion beyond anecdotal reports from business owners who did not like the parking policy in the first place.

    Second, I’ll say it again: we need data, more time, and a more thorough investigation to find out the true impact of the parking policy changes.

    Finally, I wish I’d been clearer about one thing in the first draft of this post. In the second half of the post, I reported on some aggregated sample data that I received. I think it provides an important perspective, but because it is aggregated sample data I can’t say for certain how closely it corresponds to the experiences of other establishments in the neighborhood. I have submitted public records requests to obtain more data, and I will report on what I learn.