Parking, Payment, and Business

The city of Bellingham is hosting a public hearing on October 25th to discuss the hourly prices of street parking, parking fines, and the introduction of pay stations in the Fairhaven Shopping District. The Bellingham City Council has long been investing time and money into whether increasing the price and volume of our metered spaces is needed, even going ahead and commissioning a study about the Fairhaven Shopping District and the Downtown Bellingham District.

The City Council is looking to finalize the steps to turn the long-debated ideas into plans of action. The meter pricing within Bellingham will be increased from $0.75 to $1.50 an hour, adjusting the hours from Monday-Friday 9 am-5 pm to Monday-Saturday 11 am-7 pm, and adding a new fine program that would up the cost to $41.00. Additionally, they are adding new metered spots in the Fairhaven Shopping District.


Fairhaven Shopping District

The 2011 study commissioned by the City of Bellingham covered four zones of the Fairhaven District. The task force applied the most concern to Zones 1 & 2, which included Fairhaven’s shopping center (commercial core) and the immediate surrounding area.

The study concluded that as an overall district, Fairhaven “should not be considered full as the use rate is less than 85 percent.” (FPTF, 14). However, when focusing on just Zone 1, the rate is consistently at its peak, staying at 94-97 percent capacity throughout the day. On-street parking is primarily underutilized two to three blocks outside the commercial core (Zone 1), sticking at around 50-60 percent.

Outlined in the study was a plan of implementing paid parking spaces to help prevent traffic and lack of accessibility problems. As discussed in the report, “Strategies for implementation when utilization rate reaches [a] maximum of 85 percent occupancy…” (FPTF, 16) is when paid on street parking will be introduced.

Although outside of Zone 1, the parking rarely rose above 60 percent occupancy. We know that Zone 1 is consistently reaching 94 percent occupancy rates during the day. Fairhaven has since then added multiple apartments and condominium buildings, and some projects are still on the way to completion. Additionally, the city of Bellingham has grown by over 13,000 people since the study was published.


Bellingham Rates Rise

Not only in Fairhaven, but everyone with metered parking in Bellingham will see the hourly parking rates rise from $0.75 to $1.50. A revamped fining system upped to $41.00, new payment hours of Monday – Saturday 11 am-7 pm, and a tire boot system for those who have multiple tickets and have missed their fine deadlines.

Anyone living in Whatcom County is familiar with the loop along Railroad Avenue during the weekends and evenings. With 85% utilization of street parking being reached in 2008, this idea of commuters “cruising” for opening parking spots not only adds traffic congestion and pollution to the area, but it deters other potential shoppers from utilizing the space because of these known problems. (Paid Parking Changes, City of Bellingham)

With the parking garages on Railroad and Commercial rarely reaching capacity, an incentive for people staying longer to utilize this off-street site would be increased metered parking. With the Commercial Street Parking Garage charging only $6.00 for an entire day of parking and located within two blocks of most of Downtown Bellingham, we could see a higher use rate in the coming future.

We have seen multiple steps of this plan already put into action, the most recent being in 2018 the city adding pay-by-phone and license plate recognition technology. Also, WWU has seen a 100% compliance rate for collecting fines because of their tire booting program, the same program the city is looking to incorporate into their plan.


Does this work? 

Will using a stricter system of repercussions involving a fee four times the current amount, make people follow the rules laid out for parking or completely avoid those areas?

The immediate reaction from most business owners when hearing that pay meters will be placed in front of their shops is that it will decrease business. Why would patrons pay to park at a shop when they could park for free and shop at a different store? Although understandable, looking at the data currently representing the districts, if free parking means spaces are never open, that also limits the number of people having access to any store.

Incentivizing shorter stays will help create turnover and parking availability. Not only will this help reduce the traffic right outside of business because people won’t have to spend as long searching for spots, it will also mean that more shoppers can have easy access to your business. Paying to park is a much smaller deterrent than avoiding areas because of how hard it is to find parking.

Another way that paid parking helps improve areas is that a portion of the revenue will be funded right back into the community. As stated by the city at Engage Bellingham, “The proposed changes will also result in additional financial support for enlivening and beautifying the business districts.”

A large component of whether paid parking will negatively affect business is to look at the direct competition. The largest shopping center in Bellingham is the Bellis Fair Mall, with over 13% vacancy and limited hours of operation. Also, state, and local mandates still affect how large corporations can run their stores. So many people are looking at other alternatives. However, parking is free, main brand stores still hold down large spaces of operation, and they have recently installed electric charging stations for vehicles.



There have been multiple examples of how paid parking has helped revive shopping districts; by creating less congestion, updating and beautifying the area, and providing more security funded by the meter’s revenue. The Downtown Partnership has said that “[T]he extra income will be used to reinvest in increased cleaning, landscaping and graffiti removal, economic development (business support, retail advocacy, downtown advocacy) and events, marketing, and promotions.” (Changes to Fees and Fines, Engage Bellingham) So they have identified the areas where any extra revenue will be spent.

With it being over 12 years since we have last seen a rise in rates, we could say that it is time to update the public support structure to our local businesses and our downtown district. Encouraging carpooling, off-street parking, or even walking/ biking to areas could make our shopping districts more accessible to our growing population. Managing the environment to best support the companies in the area is a long-overdue step in the right direction.




Auchincloss, A. h. (2016). Public parking fees and fines – sage journals. Retrieved October 16, 2021, from

Cities and the price of parking. City Observatory. (2016, October 8). Retrieved October 16, 2021, from

Changes to fees and fines. Engage Bellingham. (2021, October 8). Retrieved October 22, 2021, from

Manville, M., & Chatman, D. G. (2017, June 2). Market-priced parking in theory and Practice. ACCESS Magazine. Retrieved October 22, 2021, from

Paid parking changes. City of Bellingham. (2021, October 15). Retrieved October 22, 2021, from



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