The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts by Adam Lewis

A native Washingtonian, Adam currently resides in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland where he studied political science and he has a keen interest in local governance. 


Neighborhood-based prices could fix DC's residential parking

The District's one-size-fits-all approach to residential parking results in inefficient allocation of a scarce resource. Tailoring prices by neighborhood for the city's residential parking permit (RPP) program could make the system more responsive to the unique needs of individual communities.

Photo by slack13 on Flickr.

When DC introduced its RPP system in the 1970s, it was designed to ensure that residents had access to street parking in their neighborhoods. Residents could petition the city to enforce 2-hour only parking on their block with an exemption for vehicles issued a zone permit. The parking zones coincide with the boundaries set for each of the city's eight wards.

For more than 30 years, this parking permit regime has worked well to prevent commuters from parking on residential streets. However, the system was never designed to allocate scarce street spaces efficiently among neighborhood residents.

Today, over 200,000 vehicles are registered with the RPP program. In many neighborhoods where residential street parking is restricted, open spaces are still nearly impossible to find, especially at peak times. To fix these ongoing problems, DC should learn from the experiences of Seattle, Washington and set more granular prices for RPP stickers.

Data provided by the DMV reveal that over 70% of the nearly 280,000 vehicles registered in the District are part of the RPP program. An additional 3,255 reciprocity permits are issued to diplomats, military personnel, federal appointees, and temporary residents.

Of the total number of RPP permits issued, 75% are assigned to residents of wards 1, 2, 3, and 6. That probably comes as little surprise to residents of those wards who rely on street parking. The overly large parking boundaries do little to prevent same-ward drivers from parking far from their homes, and the low $15 annual cost per permit effectively encourages residents to keep their cars on the street.

Proposals to help alleviate parking woes have included longer enforcement hours, instituting resident-only parking (thus eliminating 2-hour parking for visitors), increasing the number of parking zones, and metering more street spaces near commercial areas. However, these fixes by themselves are merely band-aids.

The fact is that in much of the city there are just too many cars looking for too few spaces, yet changes to the RPP system appear to be near-impossible. Seemingly innocuous steps to alleviate parking demand, such as a proposal earlier this year to charge higher permit fees for multiple-vehicle households, draw intense opposition from some members of the council. What can break the deadlock?

Last year, the City of Seattle implemented a new parking system that increased the number of parking zones (they now have 40 such areas) and started charging households graduated permit fees based on the number of vehicles. But not all residents pay the same rate. Permit fees in each zone range from free to a maximum of $65 every two years in high-demand areas, more than double DC's rate.

The most opposition to DC's plan to charge higher multiple-vehicle permit fees came from representatives of wards that have the least number of RPP holders, which indicates that a one-size-fits-all approach may no longer be viable. Under a system akin to Seattle's, DC would be able to more subtly address the unique needs of individual neighborhoods.

Councilmembers, understandably, do not support higher fees for residents who are not contributing to the parking problems in other neighborhoods. This new proposed system may be more politically viable. Residents of wards without street parking problems would likely see no change to their current permits, and may even see a reduction in fees.

While parking rates would probably not change significantly in half the city's wards, parking-scarce neighborhoods would likely see higher graduated permit fees. Those rates should be priced to better reflect the actual demand for street parking to encourage car owners to find alternate spaces for their vehicles.

As a result, the demand for off-street spaces may rise and developers should be allowed to construct those additional spaces, if they so choose. The key is to find the natural equilibrium in parking demand, rather than keeping fees artificially low.

In order to efficiently price permit rates, the city needs a comprehensive count of the total number of zoned parking spaces. DDOT currently only tracks the total number of RPP blocks, rather than individual spaces. It may be possible to quickly complete this task by asking current parking enforcement officers to count the number of spaces as they work their beats. It would then be possible to better compare vehicle registrations and permits in a given area with the total number of available spaces.

Combined with other proposed actions to reduce the size of the city's parking zones and heightened enforcement, tailoring prices for each community, as Seattle has done, may be the best way to efficiently allocate a scarce public resource among residents.


Neighbors oppose redevelopment of Dupont parking lot

The First Baptist Church of Washington proposes to build a 9-story, 228-unit apartment building on the site of its surface parking lot at the corner of 17th and O Streets, NW. Some nearby residents object to the plans due to concerns over noise, parking, and the specter of the project becoming a student dormitory.

The existing site. Photo by the author.

The site is one of the last remaining surface parking lots in the Dupont neighborhood. Building apartments would improve neighborhood walkability, increase the city's scarce rental inventory, and provide needed revenue for the church to continue its charitable activities.

The main hurdles for the project before development can proceed are endorsement by the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 2B), approval by the Historic Preservation Review Board, and acquisition of a zoning variance needed for a portion of the lot.

Proposed building. Image by Keener-Squire Properties.

The property is currently split between two zones. The portion of the lot facing 17th Street, NW is zoned to allow 90-foot buildings. The remainder of the lot is zoned for 65- 70-foot buildings. The project will need a zoning variance in order to build to the 90-foot limit allowed for buildings on 17th Street. Even with that variance, the proposal only calls for half the density permitted by zoning.

Most of the surrounding buildings are around 90 feet tall, so this proposal fits nicely with the established neighborhood scale. The building design by architecture firm Eric Colbert and Associates has already been approved by the Dupont Circle Conservancy and garnered positive reactions from members of the ANC. Commissioner Mike Silverstein commented that the project's design fits nicely with the modern architecture of other nearby buildings.

Although it does not appear to be their main concern, project opponents have seized upon the height variance issue in order to stop the project as proposed.

Some residents who attended this month's ANC meeting were vocal in their opposition to the scope of the project. Fliers were distributed to meeting attendees that warned of noise, trash, and parking issues. Opponents' main concern seems to be that this development could become a "dorm" for undergraduate students and young people.

While it is true that the proposed building will consist of one-bedroom and efficiency units, 8% of which will be set aside as affordable housing, there is little chance the building will become a dorm. Property management company Keener-Squire reports that of the over 1,100 similar units they manage in the Dupont and Logan Circle neighborhoods, only about 2% are occupied by undergraduate students.

Johns Hopkins University does maintain a campus in an adjacent building, but it houses graduate programs attended primarily by part-time students who are unlikely to be living in the area specifically for school.

As for parking concerns, the new apartments will be located in one of the most walkable and transit-accessible areas of the city, mere blocks away from retail and the Metro. It is likely that few residents of the building will actually own a car. Regardless, the church will construct 93 underground parking spaces, 36 to replace those lost from the current lot plus 57 additional new spaces to comply with zoning requirements.

The most controversial issue may be a proposed rooftop common area. Residents are concerned about the noise a rooftop common might generate. This is a reasonable concern, but similar amenities have become a fairly common element of DC residential buildings, and there seems to be no particular reason why this specific rooftop deck should be disallowed.

Even so, both the developer and architect have said that they are willing to make changes to the rooftop area in order to abate as much noise as possible. The current design is partially enclosed, so perhaps there is opportunity to enclose more.

The full Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission has delayed a final vote on this proposal until after a special meeting of the Zoning, Preservation, and Development Committee to discuss the project. That meeting will take place at 7 pm on Tuesday, September 6, at the Hotel Dupont.

Correction: The article originally said the zoning provides for 65-foot buildings. However, while this is true for the basic zoning, the Inclusionary Zoning law increases the maximum height to 70 feet.


Is disability parking necessary at sites without parking?

New buildings near transit hubs can often be built without parking. But that can leave mobility-impaired visitors and employees with poor access. A new courthouse in Rockville, built without any parking, is drawing the ire of some for not including disability parking spaces.

Photo by bobfranklin on Flickr.

On August 1, Montgomery County celebrated the opening of a brand new judicial center in Rockville. The $81 million, 167,000 square foot facility features nine court chambers, four hearing rooms, and zero on-site parking.

Local developers and governments finally discovered that new projects in downtown areas can be wildly successful even without large amounts of new parking. However, not including new parking in a project can have the side-effect of reducing the availability of designated spaces for individuals with disabilities.

This new judicial center is exactly the type of project that should not require additional parking. The courthouse is located at Rockville Town Center, blocks away from the Rockville Metro and MARC commuter train. In addition, over a dozen bus lines serve the area. Court employees and visitors who decide to drive may park in any of the public garages and lots located within blocks of the building.

However, despite the many transportation options in the area, a recent Examiner article claims that the courthouse could be "nearly impossible to reach" for an individual who uses a wheelchair. Montgomery County resident Brigette Woods claims that the "hilly surroundings" would make it too difficult to reach the courthouse and is considering filing suit against the county and state for failing to provide on-site parking.

Even though Montgomery County made the right decision in keeping the courthouse in Rockville Town Center, planners should sympathize with people like Ms. Woods. Greater Greater Washington has often noted both the many benefits and drawbacks of public transportation for disabled patrons.

While it is unlikely that Rockville's "hilly" terrain is too difficult to navigate, there are many people with canes, crutches, or heart conditions who have difficulty walking even a few blocks, especially in extreme heat or snow. For these people, taking transit may simply not be an option, which leaves them to rely on their private vehicles or expensive MetroAccess service.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that spaces be reserved for persons with disabilities only if a building offers parking. In this case, no additional disability spaces are legally necessary, but some spaces should still be made available. That might not require building new spaces, but instead designating some on-street spaces or ones in a nearby garage.

In the area around the Rockville courthouse and similar places such as Judiciary Square in downtown Washington, there is plenty of parking closest to the courthouse. It just happens to be reserved almost exclusively for police cars or other permitted vehicles. I am willing to bet that many people simply use those nearby spaces as free parking while persons with disabilities are forced to park farther way.

Of course, some people who don't have disabilities have been known to abuse parking placards, and parking enforcement should be vigilant to protect against this.

In areas where nearby spaces are at a premium, converting some of the closest on-street or reserved parking to metered disability spaces might go a long way to addressing the needs of individuals with disabilities.


How much federal money does DC actually get?

Opponents of DC budget autonomy often cite Congressional funding for the city's budget as justification of federal meddling in DC affairs. But it turns out several states rely on federal largesse even more than the District.

Photo by zzzack on Flickr.

A Congressional appropriations subcommittee recently passed a $637 million payment to the District that includes a number of provisions detailing how the city can and cannot spend money.

That bill will now make its way to the House appropriations committee, and then to the entire House and Senate for final passage. At each stage members of Congress may offer amendments to further restrict the District's authority in matters such as needle exchange, abortion, and gun control.

Many members of Congress believe it is their duty to micromanage the District's local budget. Representative Darrel Issa of California, who chairs the House committee that is primarily responsible for the District, has said that Congress has an obligation to oversee how DC spends its money because "federal taxpayer dollars fund a large portion of the District's budget."

Many people readily agree with that statement. It seems to make sense. Of course the federal government pays for the operations of the federal district. This argument is also often cited by opponents of DC voting rights, who say that DC residents shouldn't have a vote in Congress because they are recipients of so much federal government largesse.

Given these facts, it seems prudent to question just exactly what percentage of the District's budget is paid using federal funds. What exactly qualifies as a "large portion"? 50%? 75%?

Not even close. Federal funds in fact make up only about 25% of the District's local budget.

Of course, having the feds pick up the tab for one-quarter of the city government's expenditures is nothing to sneeze at. Certainly that represents a greater percentage of the local budget than any other state government, right?


The US Census Bureau calculates the total federal funds transferred to state and local governments, and the total revenues collected in each state. The latest available figures (2008) reveal that Mississippi leads the nation with 35% of its combined state and local budget revenue coming from the federal government. Louisiana is a close second at 34%, followed by New Mexico and South Dakota at 27% each.

The District government receives the same percentage of federal funds as Alabama, Montana, Vermont, and West Virginia. In all, 8 states receive as much or more aid than the District. The complete list can be found below.

StateTotal state &
local revenues
Federal fundsPercent
All dollar figures in billions.

Clearly, multiple other states receive a larger percentage of their budget from Congress without any of the oversight that accompanies DC's role as capital city.

Mr. Issa may ultimately be right that Congress has the authority and responsibility to exercise a higher level of oversight regarding the District, but if so it is not because of the false belief that the local government is funded to the hilt with federal dollars.


Pedestrian safety ads feature damage to cars, not people

With dozens of people struck by cars every month in the District, pedestrian and bicycle safety is a serious concern. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) has introduced a new street safety campaign for 2011 with the intent of addressing inter-modal accidents.

Image from StreetSmart.

However, the new ads from the Street Smart public safety program that are now appearing on area billboards and bus shelters send the wrong message. In the ads, a damaged car is shown after what appears to be an accident with a pedestrian or bicyclist, both of which are proportionally much larger.

Images from StreetSmart.

The ads feature several warnings, such as "Get Real...Wait for the Walk" to "Watch for Bicyclists When Turning." But the defining feature in each image is that the car, not the pedestrian or cyclist, is the only injured party during a crash.

Image from StreetSmart.

Previous ad campaigns from the MWCOG have been particularly noteworthy. One launched in 2008 depicts a car violently hitting a person on foot. The ads were clearly meant to shock both drivers and pedestrians into being more aware of their surroundings in order to avoid collisions; they were so effective that I still remember them now, several years later.

The new ads, on the other hand, remind me of times as a kid when I accidentally fell while walking. My dad would ask, jokingly, if the sidewalk was hurt in the fall, which took my mind off a skinned knee or bruised arm. While I was just fine after a minor stumble, pedestrians and bicyclists hit by vehicles are not often so lucky.

Everyone should follow traffic safety laws, but the idea that it's only the car that gets damaged in a pedestrian accident defies logic. MWCOG's Street Smart program is an important one, and this iteration of ads could be substantially less effective than what the council has produced in the past.

Correction: The ads as listed on the StreetSmart website have yellow borders reading "A Giant Pedestrian (or Bicycle) Safety Problem." Several people pointed out that this should be considered part of the creative. I've updated the images to include that, and also show both versions of the pedestrian and bicycle ads with different taglines.


Capital Bikeshare introduces new 5-day pass

Capital Bikeshare has quietly added a new rental option: a 5-day pass, priced at $15. A formal launch is expected in connection with the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which begins March 26.

Photo by alykat on Flickr.

The pass appears in Capital Bikeshare's rental agreement (PDF), which it recently updated, and DDOT spokesman John Lisle confirmed that the 5-day pass is indeed now available to users.

Currently, Capital Bikeshare advertises only three pricing options: a 24-hour pass for $5, a 30-day membership for $25, and an annual membership for $75. The addition of this new pass is a great way to make Capital Bikeshare appealing to more visitors at the start of DC's tourist season.

Other bike-sharing systems, including Paris' Vélib', currently offer 5-day passes (PDF) in addition to 24-hour and annual memberships. Vélib's pricing scheme makes sense without the 30-day option. Tourists are not often in town for a month, and people who live here would likely find the annual membership to be a greater value, though having an extra membership level available certainly isn't a negative.

Even though the launch of the 5-day pass is intended to coincide with the National Cherry Blossom Festival, the closest Capital Bikeshare users can get to the Tidal Basin is the rental station at 12th Street and Independence Avenue, SW. This is due to the National Park Service's exclusive vendor arrangement with Guest Services, Inc. (GSI), which currently prohibits Capital Bikeshare stations on NPS property.

This new membership option, aimed at casual and visiting riders, is necessary for Capital Bikeshare to continue its growth and momentum. Letting residents and visitors rent and drop off bikes on NPS property would be the best way to encourage more people to give Capital Bikeshare a try, but the new 5-day pass is a welcome start.


Being outside a state has its advantages

Residents and officials in the District of Columbia often lay a number of the city's problems on the fact that DC is not a state nor located in one.

Photo by zeul on Flickr.

Many cities have large state governments that can help pick up the tab for various social welfare programs, education funding, and transportation costs, among other public expenses. The District, on the other hand, is left to fund all public services that a state would typically provide all while trying to squeeze as much revenue as possible from an already stressed tax base.

Further complicating the situation, the federal government does not provide the District a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to help offset lost revenue on the 40% of DC's property that is tax exempt. Congress also prohibits the District from charging income taxes on the 500,000 non-residents who work in DC, a privilege regular states enjoy. This creates what DC Appleseed calls a "structural deficit."

While this does put the District at a disadvantage, it isn't totally up the creek when it comes to paying for certain state-level services. Even though Congress doesn't provide a direct PILOT to the DC government, the federal government does pay for the costs of the District's criminal justice and prison system, provides a larger share of Medicaid funding, and the District is eligible for federal grants that would typically only be available to states.

In addition, since the District collects all revenue from sales, income, and property taxes as well as municipal bonds, DC has far more flexibility in how to fund government projects and services than neighboring counties and cities. The lion's share of local revenue available to our neighboring jurisdictions is typically derived from property taxes. That constrains counties as they try to find ways to pay for teachers, police, and civil servants.

It's for these reasons that I always wonder if the District is better off than many other jurisdictions, even despite living under the shadow of Congress and despite the fiscal challenges. With the possible exception of Native American reservations, no other municipality in the country has near-total authority over all levels of local government.

Though Congress seems to enjoy interfering in purely local affairs, especially hot-button political issues, Senators and Representatives largely leave the District alone in the day-to-day operation of the city, exactly as intended by the Home Rule Act. Many state legislatures meddle even more, like New York's which denied New York City the right to even install cameras on its buses.

Nowhere can the benefits of the District's singular authority be better witnessed than in the city's transportation plans. Thanks to DDOT's authority over most aspects of transportation planning, the city has instituted a number of new projects at a breakneck pace. More bike lanes? Done. Express buses and priority corridors? Sure thing. Pedestrian safety enhancements? Intermodal transportation hubs? First in the nation to have bike sharing? Yes, yes, and yes.

Even the District's most controversial new transportation project, the 37-mile streetcar network, has been made more streamlined with only one level of government to approve and oversee construction of the new system. The District's comparatively small 13-member legislature (the 550,000 residents of Wyoming have a whopping 90 state representatives and senators) creates a local government with the potential to be very responsive to the demands of residents across the entire city. Just look at what GGW and other transportation activists were able to do in a few hours to save streetcar funding.

As stories emerge about the disconnect in priorities between our neighboring local jurisdictions and their respective state governments, the District benefits by having only a single level of local government to make decisions. The residents of Montgomery and Prince George's counties had to beg Annapolis to provide more funds for WMATA and ensure support for long-stalled infrastructure projects like the Purple Line. And, as recently reported, the state government in Richmond initiated a power grab to take away one of the last remaining vestiges of local government in Northern Virginia by demanding half the Commonwealth's seats on the WMATA Board of Directors.

If Washington were located in either state, residents might have been left waiting for decades before we saw even a single streetcar, expanded bike sharing service, or other necessary infrastructure projects due to competing state priorities. Does the District's fiscal situation have serious deficiencies? Yes. However, Washington's unique municipal government is perfect for advancing the type of progressive, forward-thinking projects in transportation, urban design, and economic development that could become a model for the rest of the nation.

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