The great Georgetown bugaboo: Cars and parking
Last week's Georgetown ANC meeting touched on a near constant theme that weaves itself through just about every ANC 2E meeting: cars and parking. It is the received wisdom that parking is a scarce commodity in Georgetown that needs to be defended against all threats of a cut in supply or an increase in demand.
For instance, on Monday night a resident came to apply for permission to construct a basement exit to her house. The conversation soon turned to the number of square feet in the butler's pantry in the basement. What does that have to do with a basement exit? A basement with a kitchen and an exit could be turned into a completely separate basement apartment. And in the minds of Commissioners, and many residents, another apartment means another car and another car means one fewer parking spot.
This is how the great Georgetown bugaboo, cars and parking, guides many of the decisions of our elected officials.
But are they basing their decisions on a fair picture of the neighborhood or are they letting their own flawed perceptions and the voices of a loud minority guide them? The true picture of cars in Georgetown is much more complicated. The problem affects fewer residents than you'd think and the bulk of the problem come from the choices of surprisingly few. According to the 2000 census, there are 4,640 households in Georgetown (containing a total of 8,524 people). Guess how many of those 4,640 households have absolutely no car: 934. That's twenty percent.
That bears repeating. One out of every five households in Georgetown has no car. That probably comes as a surprise to the other four households, but obviously a good number of Georgetowners get by without the aid of a car. For reference, that percentage is well below that of a neighborhood like Dupont (where it's over 75%) but it's well above auto-dependent neighborhoods like Spring Valley (where it's only 3%).
Moreover, a third of all rental households have no car. If the property owner adds a new English basement apartment, there's a one in three chance that no new car will follow. That's still above fifty percent, but it's well below the certainty that the Commissioners would have you believe.
But the picture is more complicated than just houses with and houses without cars. Some households have more than one car. In Georgetown that number is 23%. That means there are only a handful more households with two or more cars than households with no cars.
And what effect do these multi-car households have on the overall population of cars? They represent 46% of all cars in Georgetown. Fewer than a quarter of the households take up half the parking spaces in Georgetown. (Yes, a minority of cars are parked off-street. But for every garage or alley there's a curb cut taking away up to three useable spots).
What if these multi-car households learned to live with just one car? The number of cars in Georgetown would fall by 25%. And if just half the multi-car households gave up just one car, there would be 529 fewer cars in Georgetown. We could then theoretically add over 700 new rental units before we got back to the same number of cars we have now.
We may already be moving towards the first part. The number of cars registered in the District fell 5.8% from 2005 to 2008 (during a time when the District population grew 1.7%) and perhaps some of that 5.8% came from Georgetown. (We'll have a better picture in 2010 or 2011 when we'll finally get census tract records from the last five years.)
Several issues arise from this disconnect between the perception and the reality of cars in Georgetown. When the ANC or other entities put parking paramount to all other issues, they are disregarding the interests of one in five Georgetown residents. How does the focus on parking affect non-drivers? When we don't let that basement get turned into a separate apartment because we're worried about another car hitting the street we're keeping another set of eyes off the street too. We're also keeping a customer out of neighborhood stores like Scheele's. Or a potential babysitter out of our rolodexes. Or just another neighbor to know. All because there's a sixty-six percent chance they may bring a car.
Moreover, these numbers show that the parking problem has less to do with the number of households and more to do with a small minority that chooses to have more than one car. So instead of browbeating a resident about the square footage of her butler's pantry, the ANC ought to be asking each applicant that comes before it "how many cars do you have and could you live with just one?"
We need to finally introduce some rationality to our discussions of cars and parking. We need to stop assuming that everyone drives and we need to realize that we're not all in this together equally. Some are taking more than what is sustainable, yet they may also be the ones making the loudest complaints. This is a crucial point. If every household followed the lead of the multi-car households, there would be 80% more cars on the street. That would be a crippling amount of cars.
Cross-posted at Georgetown Metropolitan.
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