The not-so-secret trick to cutting solo car commutes: Charge for parking by the day

Charging for parking by the day, not by the month, is one of the most powerful tools that employers have to spur their employees not to drive alone to work. Spurred by state law, Seattle-area employers have seen big results in keeping cars off the road.

Back in 2008, when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation applied for permits to build its new, $500 million, boomerang-shaped headquarters across from Seattle Center, the city of Seattle had a few requirements.

To ease the impact of 1,200 new full-time employees in the area, the Gates Foundation could no longer offer free parking and it had to reduce the number of employees who drove alone to work.

At the time, nearly 90 percent of Gates Foundation employees drove alone. A year after the new headquarters opened in 2011, the number was 42 percent. Last year it was 34 percent.

Funded by the world’s richest man, the Gates Foundation has plenty of resources to devote to altering its employees’ commuting habits. All employees get free ORCA transit cards, there are immaculate locker rooms and bike-storage areas, and employees get a financial incentive — $3 a day — for choosing any alternative transportation.

But the single biggest factor in reducing solo car commuting, the Gates Foundation found, doesn’t cost the foundation or its employees any additional money and is easily replicable at workplaces that have fewer resources to devote to the issue.

No more monthly parking fees. Charge daily instead.

Every employee, from the CEO down, pays $12 a day to park in the Gates Foundation garage. Fees are capped at the neighborhood’s market rate — $120 a month. So, the first 10 days a month that an employee drives alone cost $12 each; every day the rest of the month is free.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers…

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