Greater Greater Washington

For parking reform, ask better questions

As the District debates changing the way it distributes parking permits, Councilmember Anita Bonds is surveying DC residents about their experiences with on-street parking. But if we really want to understand how parking works, the Council needs to ask the right questions.


Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

Previously, District residents could purchase ward-restricted residential parking permits (RPPs) to park on their street and automatically receive visitor parking permits (VPPs) for their guests. The city was going to require residents to apply for a VPP, but after public outcry, the DC Council decided to keep the existing arrangement.

While it's good to know what people think about the current parking program, it's important that a poll strive to be very clear about it's aims while avoiding unnecessary or potentially misleading questions. Bonds' survey conflates issues about parking in general with the specifics of the current permitting process.

The poll begins by asking whether you live in a single-family house or an apartment, how many automobiles are in your household, and whether you own a bike, scooter, or motorbike. The questions also ask if you use on-street parking and if the street you live on has ward-restricted parking. These are good questions to ask to begin to learn how many people would be affected by any changes to on-street parking.

Then the survey begins asking broader questions about parking. Question 7 asks if the respondent "feels" that "businesses, corner markets, churches, or other non-profits interfere with your ability to find adequate street parking near your home?"

The way someone feels about parking isn't an objective measurement. Feelings can mean many things to many people, and can be interpreted differently by each survey taker. Someone may be okay with parking 2 or 3 blocks away from their home, while another person may feel like that anytime they have to park in front of their neighbor's door instead of their own is asking too much.

Question 6 asks if respondents feel that there is enough parking for them and their neighbors on their block. But "enough" parking means different things to different people? It's hard to know what the value of parking is unless we have a quantifiable standard. A good follow up question would be to ask someone to estimate how far they park from their house 75% of time.

While businesses, corner markets, churches, and other non-profits may take up a lot of parking, they also aren't the only things that affect parking on a block. Your neighbors obviously affect your parking as well. The survey should ask respondents how many garages are on their block, whether they normally see the same cars day after day, or if their neighbors have alternative parking arrangements. These questions help create a more complete picture and allow us to understand what factors influence the way people "feel" about their parking situation.

The next few questions focus on the specifics of VPP and whether survey takers have used the current system. It's important to know what people think of the current system before taking any changes into account.

Question 14 simply asks if respondents believe in eliminating parking minimums in new developments. There are two issues with this. One is that the broad question of how to allocate street parking in the District is totally separate from how the city should handle VPP. And second, the proposal to eliminate parking minimums in new development is now limited to downtown. The Office of Planning (OP) has backed off eliminating parking minimums outside of the downtown area.

This question can lead people to assume that there is a policy in the works that doesn't actually exist. Bonds may be better served by having a separate poll about RPP as a whole or simply taking time to explain that different solutions may exist for resident and visitor parking.

While the survey is about the availability of parking in different neighborhoods, the survey totally ignores the price of parking, which has a huge impact on its availability. Right now, the price of a RPP is just $35 a year. That covers the administrative costs of the program, but it doesn't reflect the value of the land a parking space consumes or the external impacts on that block, the city, and the region as a whole.

Bonds or anyone else on the council shouldn't ignore this element. Most people wouldn't like the prospect of paying more for something, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't have to pay a fair price for parking.

However, there is one question that the survey gets right. The final question allows survey takers to say whatever they wish about any parking issue in the District. So if you do support the elimination of parking minimums for new development, or believe that residential and visitor parking permits should be overhauled, you can let Councilmember Bonds know.

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Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Falls Church.  

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Thanks for the heads up!

by BTA on Oct 7, 2013 3:30 pm • linkreport

I don't think I'll ever understand GGW's crusade against parking minimums for new developments. What if we had abundant low-cost underground parking throughout the District, but virtually NO street parking? That would leave a heckuva lot more space for bike lanes, streetcars, and buses...

by Eponymous on Oct 7, 2013 3:38 pm • linkreport

Where are all those cars gonna park? The parking minimums thing is for residential buildings, which don't exactly provide low-cost parking to the neighborhood because 80% of the time the spaces are filled with residents' cars.

Suffice it to say, the situation you envision isn't really possible.

by MLD on Oct 7, 2013 3:49 pm • linkreport

Well the main argument is that building underground parking is expensive which is passed on in the form of rent and stops people from selling vehicles they dont need. It's hard to prove in theory I suppose unless you build two identical buildings next to eachother one with parking and one without. I prefer the idea of required developer contributions to a transportation trust fund in lieu of providing parking on site. If there is a demand for parking, then developers will build parking.

by BTA on Oct 7, 2013 4:01 pm • linkreport

Well, for the parking to be cheap it would definitely have to be abundant. So much that there wouldn't be any competition for most of the spots. But then we'd be spending a lot of money on parking that wouldn't be used. We could spend a lot of that money on bike lanes and transit.

by drumz on Oct 7, 2013 4:08 pm • linkreport

What is GGW's beef about RPP and other parking minima: from what I've read over the last few years, its because its a huge subsidy to cars and car drivers that makes life in DC especially worse for those who are not driving, and especially those who don't own cars. You pay thousands for an extra room, but the city gives away a room-sized plot of land for $35.

by SJE on Oct 7, 2013 4:53 pm • linkreport

So you discourage questions that seek non-objective information whereas you praise an open ended prompt allowing for residents share their wishes?

What question should have been included?

by Non LTR on Oct 7, 2013 5:24 pm • linkreport

It's not the questions are non objective are bad it's that the non objective questions don't really reveal anything. It's great to know how people feel about parking. Based on just that, it's hard to come up with solutions though without knowing more about what the feelings are.

by Canaan on Oct 7, 2013 5:37 pm • linkreport

It's why I recommend master planning. When Council jumps in on transportation issues without solid planning already in place, they usually f* it up. Then again, we don't have a good master plan in place for transportation. And the recent "Parking Think Tank" didn't produce a document comparable to a parking and curb space management master plan element.

cf. taxis, handicapped spaces, Kwame Brown's proposal for a toll on the 14th St. bridge, Michael Brown's proposal for a parking exemption for funerals, just about anything council has done with regard to "Performance Parking", disabled parking permit reform, Harry Thomas' proposal for a property tax credit for gas stations, etc.

Of course, parking is the third rail of local politics, and the Williams Administration attempted serious reform about 11 years ago, and got crushed in response.

I argue having a planning process first, even if it takes a long time, broadens the range of possibilities. It won't produce unanimity, but it will at least make the discussion process public.

by Richard Layman on Oct 7, 2013 7:07 pm • linkreport

Is there a parking problem in DC? Huh. I've lived here 20 years and never really noticed. I guess ignorance is bliss. It certainly seems to be in this case, given the anger and the passion I see in the comments and discussion from the parking obsessed.

(Maybe I'll invite Bonds to come by my house and gaze in amazement at my off-street parking spot that is currently occupied by a huge pile of mulch!)

by rg on Oct 8, 2013 7:49 am • linkreport

@ rg -this is not against you and maybe you don't use on-street parking at all, but what you describe-using your private off-street parking for something other than parking is something a lot of people do and then they go ahead and park their car on the street b/c the RPP in so cheap -- even in places where parking is scarce -- .

by Tina on Oct 8, 2013 8:43 am • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

The real problem is the RPP system itself, as its based on DC's eight wards. Which geographic is huge, so that means if you have RPP on the block in which you live, the RPP system entitles you to park anywhere in that Ward/RPP zone.

Now Officials with DPW, DMV, and lame as City Council all know this and if asked will even admit to it in private, but no one will go on the public record stating that this is the major issue with the RPP/Ward zone system.

The reason is this would require them to spend those Officials with DPW, DMV, and lame as City Council to change a failed system that would upset their constituents whom have grown accustomed to their RPP/Ward zone system enabling them to park anywhere within that Ward in which they live.

The solution is to limit the size of the RPP zone, to lets say a ANC sub-zone in that Ward and provide a overlay for residents within that Ward. For example, I live in Ward 4 and within Ward 4 there are 5 sub-zones (4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, and 3/4G(not enough time or space to explain that one)). So after the changes the parking would be structured to look something like this..

Unlimited parking for residents within each defined sub-zone (ie. 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, and 3/4G).
4 Hour parking for all other Ward 4 residents that live outside that sub-zone.
2 Hour parking for for all others

Define limits to the days of the week and times could still be applied as needed per neighborhood.

Solution.... Next Problem..

by Jeff on Oct 8, 2013 10:01 am • linkreport

Having a planning process in place sure seems like a good idea. But I wonder how many urban planners really understand how to determine parking requirements. Or even know where parking requirements come from?

by dcjwalkr on Oct 8, 2013 10:11 am • linkreport

It's true that I don't live in the district and that's why I didn't take the survey. But as someone interested in parking policy generally I think it's better to have a wide pool of ideas.

Your point about the size of zones has been brought up before and I think any comprehensive reform would include a serious look at the size of te zones. So let CM Bonds know.

by Canaan on Oct 8, 2013 10:25 am • linkreport

I don't live in the District either, but work, shop and play here, and take pretty much all modes of transport.

by SJE on Oct 8, 2013 12:29 pm • linkreport

What do you mean "where parking requirements come from"? It's based on regulations which are arrived at based on perceived need. There is no such thing as an objective parking requirement.

by BTA on Oct 8, 2013 12:36 pm • linkreport

I was a planner. I know where they came from. From a social engineering vision of 70 years ago, where it was believed that if we jsut mapped out and calculated ratios of urban activities, we could create better cities. We've learned since that social engineering is much harder than simply issuing diktats, and we've learned that often, the market really is the best mechanism for allocating resources to urban activities, in the absence of a clear market failure.

Their time is gone, if they ever made sense.

by Crickey7 on Oct 8, 2013 1:43 pm • linkreport

"abundant low-cost underground parking" is a contradiction in terms. Even when building underground parking at the time of construction costs about $50,000 per space. To pay for that requires a stack of quarters 1,150' high: twice as high as the Washington Monument, higher than all but 5 skyscrapers in America.

To make such underground parking truly "abundant" would probably require several levels of parking underneath the entire city. How would that ever get built? (Isn't there a historic city in Eastern Europe that rebuilt its war-flattened city center with parking?)

by Payton on Oct 8, 2013 1:51 pm • linkreport

To clarify -- I don't use any parking, off-street or on-street. I don't own a car. I agree 100% that cheap RPP is a huge part of the problem. But DC pols don't have the courage to implement market pricing. Can't blame them given how visceral, emotional and illogical people are about car storage.

by rg on Oct 8, 2013 1:58 pm • linkreport

I'm passionate about parking, and have a couple thoughts to share for your consideration.

My wife, who's a lot smarter than I am, suggested once that DC install meters in the residential areas as well--same rules (tailored to demand) as all the other metered areas--but with a code/chip/permit/widget that residents could use to prove they'd paid for an RPP for that area that year. I'd definitely pay more for that. Of course, I don't know if it would solve some of the other parking issues addressed above, but I bet it would help with congestion in Dupont, Georgetown, Adams Morgan, and Eastern Market/Barracks Row.

I suppose the problem of a potentially vibrant trade in re-use of the code or widget would be there, but maybe could be prevented by restricting its use to one household in some way?

Anyway, I have the misfortune of owning a car in DC and having no other option to get to work. I live in Dupont and pay over 200 bucks a month for someone else's spot behind their house because the alternative is parking on the street. Can't do that because by the time I get home from work, there are a large number of VA and MD plates which have materialized on the street so their owners can avail themselves of the fine living in my neighborhood.

If I had to pay $200 a year to ensure I had a space on the street within a couple blocks of where I live every evening, I would still consider it a deal. Every time I read that DC is imposing more restrictions/charges on metered parking while failing to address residential parking, I know it's only going to push more visitors to spend more time trolling through my block looking for the evening free stuff, which conveniently begins right around dinner time. Yay.

by bedouinmick on Oct 9, 2013 7:09 am • linkreport

@bedouinmick, One of the things I love about this blog is reading sentences like this, "I'm passionate about parking"

I can see how your idea would work in some places, but meters a re very expensive and ugly. I think reformed RPP with good enforcement would work too. Remember the Barry years? Parking enforcement was aggressive (and often dishonest. Bogus tickets that were commonplace).

Reformed and tailored RPP with expanded hours to evenings and weekends for Parking enforcement officers would help a lot too.

My microcosm of parking insanity is the two hour RPP M-F only 3 blocks from the zoo. Its impossible for a resident or a residents visitor/paid worker to find street parking on weekends 9-5 May-Oct.

by Tina on Oct 9, 2013 8:39 am • linkreport

Cost benefit wise I cant see rolling out city wide meters, most areas just arent dense enough and there isnt enough turnover to merit it. Perhaps one problem is there isn't enough structured parking for visitors outside of CBD but I feel like the oft mentioned issue with overparking at DCUSA goes against that theory. Smart meters are good downtown but raising the RPP up to the $50 a month range is probably a more long term solution.

by BTA on Oct 9, 2013 8:48 am • linkreport

@bedouinmick: I'm not sure what problem more meters would be trying to solve. It seems like the issue is a lack of enforcement outside of 8-6ish. Wouldn't the same enforcement issue remain with meters, too?

I agree with @tina:

@bedouinmick, One of the things I love about this blog is reading sentences like this, "I'm passionate about parking"
But it's interesting that even people here find it hard to imagine RPP prices getting remotely close to market prices. You state that you pay over $2400 a year for a parking space, and would be willing to consider paying $200 a year for an RPP that always ensured you'd have a spot. These numbers are . . . not very close.

by Gray on Oct 9, 2013 8:59 am • linkreport

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