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Thousands of public parking spaces in Bethesda and Silver Spring sit empty every day

Ask someone about driving in Bethesda or Silver Spring on a weekend night and he or she will give you a mouthful: "There's nowhere to park!" But as those communities have grown, their parking demands have actually gotten lower. On an average day, thousands of spaces there sit empty.

Montgomery's downtowns have lots of empty parking spaces. Image by the author using data from MCDOT.

This Friday, transportation planner Tom Brown and I will talk about parking and placemaking at Makeover Montgomery II, a conference about strategies for urbanizing suburban communities organized by the Montgomery County Planning Department and the University of Maryland. In 2011, Brown led a team at Nelson\Nygaard, where I now work, that recommended ways Montgomery County could better use its parking to promote and strengthen its downtowns.

Montgomery County has had its own municipal parking authority since the 1940s. A 1952 spread in the Washington Post's "Silver Spring Advertiser" section boasted, "Look at all the parking space!" in downtown. But downtown Silver Spring couldn't match the sea of free parking at new suburban malls like Wheaton Plaza, and it began to languish.

1952 Washington Post article about all the parking in Silver Spring.

Many communities around the country faced the same story, especially older suburban communities that have more in common with revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods than in greenfield developments on the fringe. Yet these older suburban communities often have the power of place: unique, local shops and businesses, walkable streets, and vibrant public spaces. Today, people will eagerly deal with the hassle of parking to visit places like this and, increasingly, to live in them.

When Silver Spring started competing on place, not parking, it started to take off as an urban destination for the entire region. And a funny thing happened: as more homes and offices and shops were built around the Metro station, filling downtown's gaps and vacant lots, the demand for parking actually decreased.

According to the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, the demand for parking in Silver Spring actually peaked in the early 1980s, when it had fewer residents and jobs. Today, a majority of downtown residents get to work without a car. Over 40% of downtown's 9500 parking spaces are vacant all the time.

Realizing that its parking policies needed to reflect how people actually got around in its downtowns, county officials asked Nelson\Nygaard to offer suggestions. The resulting Montgomery County Parking Policy Study recommended reducing or eliminating parking requirements in urban areas, since there was already a glut of parking spaces, and finding ways to direct drivers to underused lots and garages.

Focusing on people, not cars, makes downtown a more attractive place to go. Photo by the author.

Officials are starting to take the advice. Last year, the county passed a new zoning code that still mandates parking in new developments near transit stations, but requires far fewer spaces than it does for more suburban, car-dependent areas. That will conserve land and reduce building costs, as structured parking garages are very expensive to build lowering the barrier for potential residents and businesses who want to come here.

Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation has introduced demand-based pricing in Bethesda, setting higher rates for on-street parking spaces and lowering them in garages to encourage drivers to park there instead. This frees up on-street spaces for drivers staying for brief periods; reduces circling for a space, which causes congestion; and sends a message to drivers that they'll be able to find a space.

People will choose to live, work, and hang out in Montgomery County's downtowns not because it's easy to park there, but because they're great places to be. Some parking will be necessary, but these places will thrive if our community leaders focus on urban design and create complete streets that welcome everyone who already comes to Silver Spring or Bethesda by foot, bike, or transit.

Makeover Montgomery II runs from this Thursday through Saturday at the Silver Spring Civic Building in downtown Silver Spring. We'll be part of a panel discussion this Friday afternoon at 1:45 pm. For more information or to register, visit the conference website.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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When someone asks for driving directions on Google maps into Silver Spring or Bethesda, along with traffic information, pop up the number and location of empty parking spaces in public lots.

by BenK on May 6, 2014 2:37 pm • linkreport

Dan, this post has some great data. Is there any chance you can get the vacancy rate averages for the peak that occurred in the 80s?

by Navid Roshan on May 6, 2014 2:46 pm • linkreport

Parking in Bethesda on a Saturday can be annoying, but I've still generally been able to find garage spots with no trouble. Same goes for Silver Spring, but only at the two garages closest to the Ellsworth shopping area - if you go a few blocks away, you'll have a nice big empty garage to yourself. I prefer the ones across Wayne from the Discovery Building - always get a spot on the first floor lulz

by Nick on May 6, 2014 2:49 pm • linkreport

While I still hold firm to the belief that public parking should be available in urban areas, I also feel that surface parking lots are the absolute biggest waste of urban space. Besides being eyesores and completely inefficient economically speaking, they also contribute to the urban "heat island" effect. Parking in urban areas should be structured, either above or below ground. Fortunately most of the surface lots in Silver Spring are being/have been redeveloped.

I agree with the author that Bethesda and Silver Spring have a glut of parking. Part of the reason for the glut is an imbalance of demand. Some neighborhoods in downtown Bethesda for instance (Bethesda Row) have more parking demand than spaces, while Woodmont Triangle has a ridiculous number of half empty multi-story garages and lots. Also, a number of the public garages are decades old and some have even deemed structurally deficient (especially in SS).

btw cool photo of dtown Silver Spring in 1952. I really appreciate "then & now" pictures, especially for inner beltway communities in the DC suburbs which have transformed immensely over just a few decades.

by King Terrapin on May 6, 2014 2:53 pm • linkreport

The airport signs stating how many spaces are left at various parking lots are quite helpful. Clearly Bethesda and Silver Spring need something like that, perhaps along with a rate differential.

by JimT on May 6, 2014 3:03 pm • linkreport

Ask someone about driving in Bethesda or Silver Spring on a weekend night and he or she will give you a mouthful: "There's nowhere to park!"

People say that? I thought it was universally acknowledged that Bethesda is the easiest downtown to park at in the region. Even if you want to go to Bethesda Row, you can always park legally at Bethesda Elementary in the evenings which is only a 5 min walk away and you don't have to deal with a garage.

by Falls Church on May 6, 2014 3:15 pm • linkreport

When most people complain about parking, they mean free parking, atleast in my experience. They just want people to build them millions of dollars worth of parking garages, and not have to pay a dime... is that so much to ask?

by Navid Roshan on May 6, 2014 3:32 pm • linkreport

"There's nowhere to park!"

within a block.

by Jasper on May 6, 2014 3:32 pm • linkreport

Downtown Bethesda (Bethesda Row area) is becoming an outdoor version of a shopping mall, especially with a Pottery Barn coming in at the new building going up on Lot 31. It may be a destination for the region, but it's becoming less of a destination for those within a couple of miles, as local retail and restaurants are replaced by chains.

by mocoer on May 6, 2014 3:42 pm • linkreport

I've never had a problem with parking in Silver Spring. I did used to have trouble finding spots in Bethesda, but not that much... On top of that I have never spoken to anyone who has had trouble parking in Silver Spring.

by BK on May 6, 2014 4:20 pm • linkreport

I always joke that Silver Spring is the land of parking garages. Maybe I’ll do a “Parking Garages of Silver Sring” calendar. There are so many. They are almost all hideous and not properly screened, and there are a ton of empty spots — even at night (except for the one garage on Wayne Ave.).

The public parking garage in South Silver Spring was so under utiilized that the county essentially gave it to Discovery Communications for free. Some of the garages need to be sold and redeveloped into something more useful for the community. A parking garage could be placed underground, beneath these builidings, but it’s a shame that we have so much government-owened unsized parking.

by Patrick Thornton on May 6, 2014 9:47 pm • linkreport

Well, at least the largely condemned public garage along Colesville is being sold to and redeveloped by United Therapeutics. As far as I know, the county isn't requiring the redevelopment include public parking spaces to make up for the lost garage (which is commonly what the county requires).

by jag on May 6, 2014 11:53 pm • linkreport

The St. Elmo/Cordell Avenue garage is often at capacity. But many folks don't seem to know about the DelRay/Auburn Avenue garage that is just one block away, which typically has plenty of free spaces.

Bethesda Row and the west end of Bethesda Avenue (Crab House, Penang, etc.) have more challenges - just the Bethesda Ave./Elm Street Garage, and no parking in the adjacent Edgemoor neighborhood at all. But if you're willing to walk from the east side of Wisconsin, there are a number of lightly-patronized lots there.

Also, there is the free Bethesda Circulator, on which you can ride from several other parking area.

by Frank IBC on May 7, 2014 7:08 am • linkreport

@Frank IBC

I don't blame the folks in Edgemoor one bit for getting street parking restrictions. Who wants their neighborhood (and an otherwise quiet one at that) to become the free parking lot for, as another writer put it, a destination outdoor mall? Let patrons pay for parking, take Metro or walk. Besides, what Bethesda has done is a good template for denser development elsewhere It shows how you can put density in close proximity to quiet, SFH residential neighborhoods without harming their character. DC, for one, should take note.

by Alf on May 7, 2014 8:19 am • linkreport

We really need to charge for parking on weekends in the Bethesda Elm Garage. I've just about given up on Saturdays and Sundays because it's nuts and takes FOREVER to find a spot with everyone waiting, blocking rows etc. Demand is obviously there, so the charge needs to be commensurate. This may not be true with the other garages, but it certainly is for Bethesda-Elm.

On the weekend's I've taken to parking in the Elm St. Garage - yeah, you'll have to pay, but the couple of bucks is well worth the time/aggravation. I actually think it's pretty funny how people will trawl the public garage for 20-30 min to save $5 on parking, then go right outside and blow $200 on a North Face Jacket, $500 on an Ipad, and $5 on a Dolcetti Gelato (which, btw is fantastic and worth every penny).

by Mike on May 7, 2014 9:27 am • linkreport

I can't speak for Silver Spring but parking in Bethesda was always a pain. I'd love to know where all these open spots were; probably in areas that were farther away from the areas where you wanted to go.

by Fitz on May 7, 2014 10:02 am • linkreport

I don't drive but will often be in the car while my friend parks in Bethesda or Silver Spring. I have yet to experience one occassiona (nights and weekends mind you) that we didnt find a spot in a garage within 2-3 minutes.

by BTA on May 7, 2014 11:03 am • linkreport

FYI my friend would always park at the Woodmont Ave/Rugby lane garage. It's a reasonable walk or circulator ride to "downtown".

by BTA on May 7, 2014 11:06 am • linkreport

Parking at the northern end of downtown Bethesda seemed to be easier but there was a few occasions where I couldn't find a space in the parking garage at Cordell and Old George. Parking at the southern end of downtown Bethesda was a different story. The parking garage next to Bethesda Row was always a pain.

by Fitz on May 7, 2014 11:29 am • linkreport

Not from Bethesda, I find parking in Bethesda can be a pain. But it sounds like it is more a lack of information than an actual lack of parking.

It sounds like garages need a way to get the number of free spaces out on to the internet

by Bill Smith on May 7, 2014 11:49 am • linkreport

Having to walk a little to your free parking doesn't mean it's not there though. In fact I think the ideal situation would reserve valuable space downtown for other uses or at least charge more for it allowing people willing to pay more for the convenience to do so.

by BTA on May 7, 2014 12:14 pm • linkreport

@ "Ask someone about driving in Bethesda or Silver Spring on a weekend night and he or she will give you a mouthful: 'There's nowhere to park!'"

That's pure rubbish. Ask me, and I'll say, I always find free and easy parking at the Cameron St garage!

by Burd on May 7, 2014 12:20 pm • linkreport

"People will choose to live, work, and hang out in Montgomery County's downtowns not because it's easy to park there, but because they're great places to be."

More like they are great places to be with sufficient parking, which gives them an edge over traveling into DC.

by Steve D. on May 7, 2014 12:31 pm • linkreport

BTA wrote: Having to walk a little to your free parking doesn't mean it's not there though. In fact I think the ideal situation would reserve valuable space downtown for other uses or at least charge more for it allowing people willing to pay more for the convenience to do so.

The premise of the article was that people who complain about parking in downtown Bethesda or Silver Spring are wrong because of the spare capacity in the areas, but that doesn't mean that parking isn't less difficult, especially near retail and restaurants. There are some areas in downtown Bethesda where it is difficult and time consuming to park. The southern end of downtown Bethesda sometimes took 15 minutes from the time I started looking for a spot; sometimes the parking garage was full. The northern end is less troublesome, but as I noted earlier, even that area can be problematic.

There was a few occasions where all I wanted was a sandwich from Cornucopia (I miss that place) and I spent an extra 5-7 minutes simply trying to find a parking space. Was that a huge burden? No. Annoying and seemed time consuming at the time? Absolutely.

There's probably parking areas that could be better used in downtown, they're just not near where people want to use as a means of going to retail and restaurants.

by Fitz on May 7, 2014 2:09 pm • linkreport

One comment about Bethesda - it's great for walkers, but getting in/out of the Metro with those in wheelchairs is tricky and infuriating.
Infuriating is having an elevator at the station that goes up to the hotel but which doesn't go down to the Metro level, just almost.. walkers have a escalator right in front to the Metro, but wheelchair users are without an obvious, easy route down. They got to go find some roundabout route which honestly I looked and couldn't find, and who thought putting an elevator in the Metro station that doesn't go down to the Metro level for the disabled was okay, anyway? The design seems a bit heartless, and disappointing in what is mostly a very accessible, nice, busable part of the city and nice looking station.

by asffa on May 7, 2014 2:19 pm • linkreport

What is failed to mention is that the parking lot districts have been wildly profitable for Montgomery County. The Bethesda district is basically funding the Lot 31 garage at no cost to county taxpayers. The parking lots subsidize urban district services in the three business districts like trash cans street sweeping and security.

However there are issues of underutilized capacity. Poor signage. And aging facilities. But the valuable real estate is also an asset and these lots allow developers to not build parking spaces in their developments by law (even though most refuse and build anyways). Dynamic pricing and encouraging redevelopment of the surface lots is a way to maximize this amazing asset for benefit of the taxpayers

by Cyrus on May 7, 2014 2:21 pm • linkreport


I generally agree with your concern on the Bethesda Elm garage. I've been there on weekends and agree that it's nuts. I think they should charge at least a small amount ($0.50 OR $1/hr?) to discourage the over demand for that garage which is in the heart of the south Bethesda activity at Bethesda Row. The current level of demand for that garage at no charge is inefficient. I think a small charge would make a big difference to smooth the experience and encourage either walking/transit or using other garages.

by GP Steve on May 7, 2014 3:48 pm • linkreport

I never found parking in Silver Spring hard. You may have to park on the fifth level of the parking garage, but there is plenty of parking once you know the area. It's not street level parking, but it's also not hard to find. I cannot see why anybody is complaining.
In terms of bethesda, it may be on the other side of the universe for me. I just do not go there very often.

by CC on May 8, 2014 1:14 pm • linkreport

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