Greater Greater Washington

Ask GGW: Do you have to pay to park here?

If signs say that you can park but must pay on one section of a street, while parking is illegal until 6:30 pm on another section, do you have to pay on that second section after 6:30?

The 800 block of 17th Street, NW has these parking signs along its length, in this order (plus another one farther to the left, at the corner, which isn't relevant here).

It's clear you can't ever park to the right of the rightmost sign (that's at the corner). It's also clear that between the left and middle signs (and to the left of the left sign), you can park from 9:30-4 on weekdays, but have to pay the meter.

You can also park after 6:30 pm in that zone, but have to pay. The 2-hour time limit doesn't apply, so you can park for 3½ hours, but have to pay $7 to do it.

But what about between the middle and right signs? You can't park from 7 am to 6:30 pm, and can stand only outside rush hours. Both restrictions expire at 6:30, but the "pay to park" rule seem to only apply left of the middle sign, since the middle sign has a leftward-pointing green arrow.

Drivers probably should have to pay in both zones after 6:30, since it would be a little silly to have half the block be free in the evenings while the other half is not, but at the moment, the signs don't seem to require that.

On a recent evening, a few drivers tried parking in the apparently-free zone, and an enforcement officer ticketed the 2 cars closest to the middle sign, but not the others, which is particularly odd.

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 


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DC has tons of these spaces (between middle and right signs), where it is prohibited to park during the day but completely free to park after 6:30pm (you can see folks idling in these spots on M Street at 6:20pm to get that jackpot). I've never seen any sign that said "Pay to Park Mon-Sat 6:30-10:00PM), which would be required for DC to ticket those folks parked from middle to righ signs; perhaps DC thinks that adds even more to the confusion and folks would end up parking there all day and try to pay the meter. Perhaps those folks nearest the middle sign got tickets for other reasons.

by Mony on Jan 31, 2013 10:38 am • linkreport

Often in DC, the areas that fall into this "pay?" gray area are loading zones in between rush hours.

I've never gotten a ticket in those spots, and you can often find open spaces as they tend to scare folks away, due to the sheer volume of signage.

by Jacques on Jan 31, 2013 10:42 am • linkreport

Always obey the most restrictive sign.


by fouzi on Jan 31, 2013 10:46 am • linkreport

On a recent evening, a few drivers tried parking in the apparently-free zone, and an enforcement officer gave the 2 cars closest to the middle sign tickets, but not the others, which is particularly odd.

"Apparently" is the key word in that sentence. When in doubt, pay the meter.

by Rob P on Jan 31, 2013 10:49 am • linkreport

If there are no endcap signs delineating the start and terminus of the regulations (as appears to be the case with the red/restrictive signs): the signing is legally inadequate & the area unenforceable. The green/permissive signs appear to be correct.

If that middle post had the endpoint red/restrictive signs to cap it: then while it'd take a touch of thought to work out all the signs: they *do* technically make sense.

Furthermore, as authority is legally delegated to the DOT to enact the regulations: DDOT must execute a Memorandum of Action (or something of similar intent) that establishes the regulations. If there is no such documentation (which will also delineate the start & end points) then it is again unenforceable, barring any applicable statutory regulations.

by Bossi on Jan 31, 2013 10:50 am • linkreport

Both of the green signs say pay to park.

I don't think the red sign is relevant to whether you have to pay or not. Just where the entrance is and basically saying don't park during the rush hour.

And I've never considered a half block. Especially if its a stand alone meter. I always assumed it covered the whole block. Besides since street parking is way underpriced I'd rather take the financial hit of a couple bucks than risk the ticket.

by drumz on Jan 31, 2013 10:51 am • linkreport

If DC just imposed a city-wide rule along the lines of "all free parking is limited to 2 hours during daylight hours," and then just painted the curbs everywhere that parking is always illegal, that would eliminate about 50% of the signs.

by Tom Veil on Jan 31, 2013 10:53 am • linkreport

@Tom Veil, Where would I put my car the other 22 hours a day?

by Tim Krepp on Jan 31, 2013 10:58 am • linkreport

While I wish GGW would apply its design makeover to the city parking, I also suspect this is about creating more pay parking.

This falls into the defensible category, and it will cost DC more to collect the money (through various appeals) than the ticket it worth. So I'd risk it. Bossi's anaylsis is basically correct.

Left unsaid is that the confusing parking rules are designed to be misinterpreted. That is the price for $100 million a year in parking fines.

by charlie on Jan 31, 2013 11:01 am • linkreport

If DC just imposed a city-wide rule along the lines of "all free parking is limited to 2 hours during daylight hours...

What about civil and nautical twilight?

by ChrisB on Jan 31, 2013 11:02 am • linkreport

Left unsaid is that the confusing parking rules are designed to be misinterpreted. That is the price for $100 million a year in parking fines.

Not really.

We could enforce time limits via price, but lots of people react poorly to that idea. So we add 2 hour time limits. Then we extend meter hours into the evening (which makes sense, because parking spaces are oversubscribed at those times), but people don't like the two hour limit because that doesn't work for dinner and a movie or something like that - so then you need another exception to the rules.

The signs are confusing because the regulations are confusing. They are not confusing because of some desire for them to be misinterpreted, they are confusing because each tweak is designed to appeal to a particular group.

Want to simplify? Just use price to encourage turnover instead of time limits.

Want to simplify some more? Get rid of the rush-hour restrictions. Either make it a travel lane or a parking lane 100% of the time.

Of course, each one of those choices involves weighing the trade-offs.

by Alex B. on Jan 31, 2013 11:07 am • linkreport

Time limit restrictions I usually understand, what is never clear to me is when the meters are actually in effect, and whether I actually have to pay or not, and from when and until when. I don't drive and park that often, maybe once a month. Last night I was on a block in Capitol Hill from about 6 to 8, and I suspect I probably overpaid and didn't need to pay for the full time I was there.

I am also new to Park Mobile, and there was in incident last month where the application would not let me enter time/pay, but according to the sign I was within the timeframe to be able to park there. I just chanced it that time.

by spookiness on Jan 31, 2013 11:19 am • linkreport

I've found it's wise to err on the side of caution. If you have the Parkmobile app, just try to pay for the time you'll be there, and it will typically only allow you to pay for as long as you are required.

by Ron on Jan 31, 2013 11:26 am • linkreport

It should all be metered (or restricted) parking there all the time anyway except weekends. Maybe they see some benefit to having a mix of paid and free parking during certain hours that we don't? Of course anyone driving to that area which is so well served by transit and cabs is just lazy in my book, so I don't really care if they're ticketed or not. Maybe DC takes in more revenue via ticketing by having crazy rules?

by Alan B. on Jan 31, 2013 11:31 am • linkreport

As Alex B said, the problem isn't that the parking restrictions are designed to be misinterpreted, it's that auto users demand both quick and easy travel AND convenient parking when they get to destinations. So you end up having to open lanes to travel for rush hours, and use them for parking at certain hours, but leave space for entrances, etc. There are about 8 states that this block can be in throughout the week, so yeah it takes a lot of signage to convey that.

I work around here and know this block well. In this case, the "confusing" element here is the building entrance which for some reason has to be dedicated as a drop-off zone. As far as I know this is just an office building, not a hotel or anything, so I don't know why it is deserving of a reserved drop-off zone on weekdays.

by MLD on Jan 31, 2013 11:34 am • linkreport

The confusing thing is that DDOT recently adopted a policy that unlinks the time limits from the "pay to park" concept. It used to be that anywhere you had to pay to park you had a time-limit, usually 2 hours. Now you have times during which there's a time limit and other times during which there is a fee, and it all gets very confusing.

In the olden days, the time limit was enforced by the meter, that only went up to the number of minutes/hours you were allowed to park. It was generally understood (but poorly communicated) that when the meter was up, you also had to move your car. Smart meters and multi-space meters have unlinked the time-limits from the pay periods.

The green signs above don't tell you that you don't have to pay after 10 PM or at all on Sundays. Why not? Real estate on the sign?

Perhaps the signs need to be more explicit, with a top section for when you can park and for how long, and a bottom section for when you have to pay.

I'm also confounded by the single- or bi-directional arrows above the words "Pay to Park" which I think should be pointing me to the multi-space meter and not showing me the bounds of the enforcement zone.

by recyclist on Jan 31, 2013 11:47 am • linkreport

Aside from the apparent need for motorists to have a personal regulatory lawyer interpret the often conflicting parking restrictions, there's another reason to clean signage up: it clutters the streetscape and in some cases can obstruct sight lines. Go almost anywhere around Washington -- from major arterials to residential side streets -- and there's just too much visual pollution from too many street signs. Many have literally been placed one on top of the other over the years without much thought, and many are superfluous. (Example: No parking snow emergency route on streets that are no parking any time!). I've heard that too many signs can distract and overwhelm drivers such that they don't pay much atttention to any of them. Many other US cities seem to have simpler, fewer and more understandable signs, so it shouldn't be too difficult for DDOT/DPW to "reinvent the wheel." There would clearly costs to simplifying and removing surplus signage but the result, I believe, will be a more transparent rules and a safer and more attractive streetscape.

by Bob on Jan 31, 2013 11:47 am • linkreport

Alan B: Transit is not always an option for everybody.

by Ron on Jan 31, 2013 11:48 am • linkreport

stop giving out the free parking spots!!

by Mike A on Jan 31, 2013 12:01 pm • linkreport

Signs could be simpler (or at least have more info), but then often you would have to make a different sign for every block. And then that would cost a lot more than using standardized signs.

The green signs above don't tell you that you don't have to pay after 10 PM or at all on Sundays. Why not? Real estate on the sign?
Yes, space on the sign. The understanding is that time periods not mentioned in signs are "unenforced" so you can park for free.

by MLD on Jan 31, 2013 12:07 pm • linkreport

I can usually interpret the signage, though I have had multiple issues with the post-6:30pm no time limit. I have had both single and multi-space meters not let me add more than 2 hours of time. Has anyone else experienced that? I don't use ParkMobile, so I don't know if that has the same issues.

by kstne on Jan 31, 2013 12:12 pm • linkreport

Ron you want to give an example where transit couldnt serve someone to that location?

by Alan B. on Jan 31, 2013 12:15 pm • linkreport

Is this where I can complain about the new "Enhanced RPP" program that's effectively making it impossible for non-residents to park around the city? It seems to be spreading like wildfire.

What's so important about restricting parking during daylight hours anyway?

by andrew on Jan 31, 2013 12:20 pm • linkreport

Just as with the traffic cameras, DC makes a lot of money on parking tickets.

Making them clearer would diminish revenue.

by Tom Coumaris on Jan 31, 2013 12:26 pm • linkreport

As Bossi points out, a technical and accurate reading of the signs definitely indicates that there is a half-block of free parking after 6:30pm. The misalignment between what the signs say, what the city meant for them to say, and what gets enforced is probably due more to incompetence than purposeful obfuscation.

It should all be metered (or restricted) parking there all the time anyway except weekends.

That area is pretty empty at night time. They could probably make it free starting at 8pm without having the parking oversubscribed. Certainly, there are large pockets of unused parking by 10pm.

by Falls Church on Jan 31, 2013 1:09 pm • linkreport

I hate that signs never talk about the missing hours.

Between 10pm and 9:30am what happens? Is parking free and unlimited? Is parking banned?

If youre not from town, you dont know.

by JJJJ on Jan 31, 2013 1:15 pm • linkreport

@Tim KRepp:
Where would I put my car the other 22 hours a day?
You could always pay for parking, rather than expecting to be able to use public streets for that purpose for free. But since it's obviously important to you to have your car parked in DC at all times, you'd be willing to pay for it, right?

by Gray's in the Fields on Jan 31, 2013 1:26 pm • linkreport

Between 10pm and 9:30am what happens? Is parking free and unlimited? Is parking banned?

If youre not from town, you dont know.

Well 7-9:30AM is rush hour as indicated by the red sign. There should be another red sign at the other end of the block.

Otherwise, there's no sign saying that you can't park, so you can park. Pretty sure a lack of signage = ok to park pretty much everywhere, not just in DC.

by MLD on Jan 31, 2013 1:42 pm • linkreport

RE: clutter on the parking signs

Pentagram recently redesigned New York City's parking signs (

I don't park in DC and therefore don't really pay attention to the signs, but I thought this might be interesting to some.

by Eli on Jan 31, 2013 1:52 pm • linkreport

When people propose ever more byzantine parking limits, I think of collections of signs like these.

by Rich on Jan 31, 2013 1:57 pm • linkreport

My wife today just pointed out to me that the Parkmobile app is designed to prohibit you from paying for parking in a particular zone when it isn't allowed. If, for example, you pull up to a spot at 4:25 and rush hour no standing states at 4:30, it will only let you buy 5 minutes.

Sounds like they could take it a step further by having a part of the app explicitly summarizing the regulations for a particular zone at a particular time, and maybe make it accessible for people who chose to then pay the meter or buy a ticket from the sidewalk machine.

by Paul on Jan 31, 2013 2:16 pm • linkreport

@Gray's in the Fields. Well, I already do pay for it with the RPP. I'd be fine if that went up. I'm completely fine using price to ration a scarce good such as parking. But the scarcity of parking is radically different in say, Dupont Circle, as compared to my comparatively quiet neck of the woods in Hill East.

I don't think parking on a residential street, especially when I pay for something called a "Residential Parking Permit" is an unreasonable expectation.

by Tim Krepp on Jan 31, 2013 2:29 pm • linkreport

There's two separate issues:

First, can you park here (and a sub-question, for how long)? Answer - obey the most restrictive sign. I have a handful of spots I generally know will be vacant on a Saturday because of confusing signs - works out great for me, less so for others less familiar with the rules.

Second, do you have to pay? Answer: My general rule is if there's a meter, you have to look at the signs to determine whether you're in the window for which payment is required. If there's no meter, you don't have to pay. That may change with the advent of Parkmobile, but it hasn't yet.

Of course, if it's Sunday, do whatever the hell you want.

by dcd on Jan 31, 2013 5:08 pm • linkreport

DC can not change the sign, because they are federally mandated signs. Nevertheless, they are horribly confusing. I usually can not figure it out. However, this is not only a DC problem. Old Town is just as confusing with different restrictions at virtually every block.

by Jasper on Jan 31, 2013 8:46 pm • linkreport

There should be a limit of up to 12 different types of zones (parking restrictions). Each should have a clear sign.

by davidj on Feb 1, 2013 8:37 am • linkreport

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