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What would "sanity" in parking look like?

Councilmember Jack Evans said on TBD NewsTalk today that he planned to propose a rollback of parking meter charges on weeknights and Saturdays, saying, "I'm going to introduce legislation at our next meeting that brings us all back to sanity."

Photo by Mr. T in DC.

TBD reports that Evans has identified a source of funding, but is keeping mum so Councilmembers don't try to use that funding to pay for other priorities. Still, any bill would have to go through a hearing, where many bills come out looking quite different than when they went in. This could be a great opportunity to debate what, exactly, DC's parking policy should look like.

Parking isn't perfect now. Some of the complaints are fair, like the people who have a hard time mustering 16 quarters for two hours. But if I drive Greater Greater Wife (whose mobility is limited at the moment) to an orthopedist's appointment and can't find a street space, we have to pay $10 for just an hour at a garage.

$2 an hour in the meter is a huge steal, but only if we have the quarters. That's why DDOT, thankfully, is trying a bunch of parking technologies.

If Evans does want to "bring us back to sanity," what would good legislation look like?

  • It could specify that where multispace meter data shows that street spaces are below 80% occupancy, the rates at those spaces should be lowered.
  • It could specify that a separate measurement should be done on Saturdays, and Saturday rates either lowered or eliminated if spaces are below 80% occupancy on Saturdays.
  • It could require that any meters over $1 an hour provide alternative payment, like credit cards or pay by phone, by a certain date. We probably shouldn't have ever raised those rates until alternative payment was available. But now that we have, if DDOT plans to pick a winning technology from its pilots and install those meters more widely, it'd be silly to lower rates for a few months. The legislation could give a deadline, like one year, to replace those meters, or the rates have to go back down.
  • It could require that in areas where meters charge in the evenings, people be able to refill the meter without having to physically be present, such as by cell phone. This is because restaurants have been complaining that people have to leave the restaurant to feed the meter and often skip dessert. If the new technology lets them simply pay another buck or two to stick around longer, that shouldn't be such a problem.
What legislation shouldn't do is continue the one-size-fits-all approach of setting parking policy that we've gotten as a result of budgets driving parking rates. Rates may need to go down in some areas, but not all, just as they could go up in some areas but not all.

It's not ideal for the DC Council to be setting parking rates. Even now, the Budget Support Act each year contains detailed lists of which blocks are in the "premium demand zone" and other rate issues. Parking rates should be set through some sort of administrative process, not legislation.

At the same time, DDOT has sadly not demonstrated effective stewardship of parking issues during the past two years. In response to my criticisms, Gabe Klein said they do now have a parking plan. I hope DDOT is getting close to releasing that plan for public debate, because otherwise there's the real danger that parking policy will get decided for them, and probably more clumsily.

And meanwhile, don't forget to take DDOT's survey to help them pick a technology. I've heard from a few people that the type they have on U Street are extremely confusing, though I haven't tried them myself. Let's make sure DDOT has all the information to make wise choices.

Update: I've added new information from TBD and revised the second paragraph based on it.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 two children in Dupont Circle. 


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I love the new parking rates, especially on weekend nights. I've never had an easier time finding a spot. For a few hours, its much cheaper to park on street than a garage.

I drive up to where I am going, take out my bag of quarters and I'm in business. No more circling around looking for spots. It's great!

by PFJ on Sep 22, 2010 2:08 pm • linkreport

The DDoT parking survey link is broken.

by davidj on Sep 22, 2010 2:11 pm • linkreport

Fixed, thanks.

by David Alpert on Sep 22, 2010 2:12 pm • linkreport

Your analysis on the legislative process is accurate except that you failed to mention that the Council often passes laws on an emergency basis which only requires one vote by the full Council and no hearings or markups.

by Bill J on Sep 22, 2010 2:20 pm • linkreport

The hard part in any government rule making is drawing the line.

Why 80% Why not 85% Why not 65% of nights and 75% on weekend?

I think the better policy would be to abolish the evening and weekend rates, and if there is truly a problem on a block, re-introduce for that block.

Look, I get your point that having "professionals" set parking prices looks good. But it is important revenue, and as long as DC is relying on parking (and parking fines) for $150 million a year in revenue, the politicians are going to want to get their fingers wet.

by charlie on Sep 22, 2010 2:24 pm • linkreport

I'm with David on this 100%. $2/hour is a steal in a big city, and parking spaces should be priced to correspond to demand.

Hoarding 16 quarters to park for 2 hours, on the other hand, is absurd. At the very least, DDOT should get Pay-by-phone implemented as quickly as is humanly possible, given that the infrastructure requirements for it are extremely minimal.

(And, speaking of DDOT's purported overarching technology plan, wouldn't it be cool if the new parking kiosks also sold bus passes, or somehow integrated into the CaBi system?)

by andrew on Sep 22, 2010 2:36 pm • linkreport

If you ever wonder why the Democrats can be so ineffectual sometimes, meditate on this: a Democratic president introduced the Susan B. Anthony dollar 30 years ago, but his party failed to get the country's parking meters to accept them.

Ponder that as you fish your pockets for quarters.

by Omri on Sep 22, 2010 2:39 pm • linkreport

@Charlie: 85% is the standard where you can expect to see one empty space on every block, about one out of seven cars. Higher than 85% (for example, if you set the target at 95%), the blocks can completely fill quite easily, and it's hard to tell between a block that's just full for the moment, and one that's completely saturated with tons of people circling to park. Lower than 80% and you don't gain much benefit in terms of promoting parking availability (there's little need to have more than one parking space available on every block), and you're starting to drive people away from parking.

You want to price parking so that it's easily available (there is a parking space on every block) but not so high that the spaces go unused. 85% is a good target.

by Michael Perkins on Sep 22, 2010 2:45 pm • linkreport

@MichaelPerkins: Can you please provide a quote where there has been a stody that 85% in the magic figure?

This is what I find:

"Only trial and error will reveal the right price for curb parking. Initially, if all the curb spaces are always occupied, a city might periodically raise the meter rate by 25-cent increments until occupancy at some hours is about 85 percent. If spaces are still full during other hours, the city could continue to nudge meter rates upward during those times until the occupancy is about 85 percent all day. We can call this balance between the varying demand for parking and the fixed supply of curb spaces the Goldilocks Principle of parking prices: the price is too high if too many spaces are vacant, and too low if no spaces are vacant. When only a few spaces are vacant, the price is just right, and everyone will see that curb parking is both well used and readily available."

Strangly, the academic text this popular article is based from I can find no reference to the 85% or the "Goldilocks" principle.

So I can't track it back to a footnote.

One would ask: if you accept that Shoupian principle, then why is DA going for 80%

by charlie on Sep 22, 2010 2:55 pm • linkreport

Some of the questions on the DDOT parking survey are pretty idiotic. Which payment option would you recommend to a friend? Believe it or not, I rarely find myself in a situation where I'm recommending parking-meter payment options to friends. Which payment option would you not use again? I didn't realize I got to pick and choose; generally, you have to use the payment options offered on the block where you're trying to park.

by Herschel on Sep 22, 2010 3:01 pm • linkreport

$2 per hour is a steal. 25-cents for 7.5 minutes is a steal.

$2 per sound sounds like a steal. 25-cents for 7.5 minutes sounds like a rip-off.

Can DDOT change the way street parking prices are framed? It seems like a significant issue.

by Rob on Sep 22, 2010 3:08 pm • linkreport

God. what a bunch of cowards we have elected. Let the rates ride and tell the whiners to put a sock in it. The system is working just as it should. Eventually everyone will learn to deal. Just like with the bag tax, everyone pissed and moaned, but it has worked wonders and nobody complains anymore.

by Anon on Sep 22, 2010 3:29 pm • linkreport

Shouldn't a transit advocate be riding metro/bus instead of driving his/her car? Or are cars only bad when driven by people in the suburbs, who need to get on board with the car-free future?

by cars cars cars on Sep 22, 2010 3:34 pm • linkreport

"everyone pissed and moaned, but it has worked wonders and nobody complains anymore."

Hey, Michelle, welcome to GGW!

by charlie on Sep 22, 2010 3:36 pm • linkreport

I went to that DDOT link, and it made me very afraid.

These things concern me greatly.

"By the end of 2010, based on your feedback.."
"Please take a moment to fill out the short survey below"

Never mind that the survey is the usual drivel written by people who don't know how to write surveys.

In what world should policy ON ANYTHING be decided by the results of an online survey that is by definition self-selected, and whose respondents probably bear very little in common with people who park at meters?

Governments really need to stop having online surveys at all. Even if it's just a PR effort and they are all chuckling over the results with no intention of taking them seriously, it makes you look bad, except to those who already love you and can say "but they did a survey!"

If you actually want to know what people think, then do a real survey.

If you don't, then please don't pretend that the responses to this survey have any more bearing on the prevailing opinion of the populace then the opinions of commenters at GGW.

Online surveys are useless. Any survey that is conducted without a sample and written without knowledge of surveys is useless.

by Jamie on Sep 22, 2010 3:39 pm • linkreport

These sound great, but I'd add one more: if the data show that spaces are more than 85% utilized, then the price should go up. There are many places in the city where parking is tremendously underpriced.

by Rob on Sep 22, 2010 3:55 pm • linkreport

All great points, but in this post-Fenty world, we're going to soon find out what good being "right" will do. When you have Evans basing his approach on how "angry" people are, and you have the future mayor having said he thinks rates are outrageous, who's left to stand up for Shoupian ideals? Wells, maybe? Don't look for anything but cars-first from the rest of his colleagues.

The Gray mayoralty will be a huge leap of faith for urbanists. And we're about to take that jump.

by Reid on Sep 22, 2010 4:07 pm • linkreport

I'd think it'd be interesting to see rates which vary over time, perhaps $xx for the first 30 min, $xx per additional time increment up to ~2-3 hrs, $xx for more increments up to perhaps 5-8 hrs, and then another $xx/hr set for longer-term parking.

Each one might be variably priced to reflect varying types of demand/uses, perhaps cheaper for short-term among high turnover areas such as takeaway/retail/valets; or gear it toward 1-2 hrs restaurants; or 2-4 hr movie theaters; or 8-10 hrs workers; or longer-term residential.

just a preliminary idea to offer as fodder; not one I've thought through much yet.

by Bossi on Sep 22, 2010 4:08 pm • linkreport

I have to echo what Jamie said about the DDOT survey. Taking this survey caused me to lose respect for the people who run the parking program at DDOT. It will produce absolutely meaningless results. If DDOT can't figure out how to run a functional parking demand management system, then it needs to be transferred to some other department that can do it. And they should not be creating surveys. That is clearly outside their zone of competence.

Captcha: should maketax

by Stanton Park on Sep 22, 2010 4:25 pm • linkreport

The 80% occupancy target assumes that the optimal amount of parking exists overall. Let's say street parking in an area is below 80% because there's a wealth of cheap off-street surface parking in the area. >80% doesn't mean the street parking is too cheap -- it means we should do something more useful with the surface lot.

by Gavin on Sep 22, 2010 4:56 pm • linkreport

Evans and most of the rest of the Council are (Maybe I should try to come off as diplomatic here. Naaaah!) bought-and-paid-for by the parking lot barons. Good luck trying to get the Council to properly compare/contrast lot rates to metered parking rates.

And whenever they need some money for a pet program, they increase the number ticket writers for a period to collect funds designated to that program.

by Rob Halligan on Sep 22, 2010 6:29 pm • linkreport

@cars cars
Actually a proposal like this would encourage more walking and mass transit as higher prices would drive (no pun intended) people to look at other means of alternative transportation.

by Canaan on Sep 22, 2010 7:10 pm • linkreport

DDOT can't come up with a survey, yet people think they'll be able to run a streetcar program?


At least with a Gray regime, it's pretty clear that neither Gabe Klein nor the streetcar program will be a part of it.

by Fritz on Sep 22, 2010 8:18 pm • linkreport


Can't say I've heard any word yet on whether Klein is going to be kept on board or not, but so far general indications seem to be that he will be... and similarly I haven't heard anything from either the Fenty nor Gray campaigns which was against the streetcar program. Perhaps I'm just behind on the news... where have you heard otherwise?

by Bossi on Sep 22, 2010 8:26 pm • linkreport

I keep a roll of quarters and a roll of $1 coins in my car...16 quarters really isn't that annoying, and four $1 coins is even less cumbersome. If I choose to park at a meter instead of taking the bus/metro/bike or parking in a garage, then it is my responsibility to keep change on me. It isn't as if I don't know how much it costs!

by Dina on Sep 22, 2010 9:57 pm • linkreport

@charlie: 85% is not really a "magic" number, it's just the number that works in practice. It's not super precise, for a number of reasons. First, it wouldn't make sense for the policy to be written that DDOT had to raise prices at 85.1% and reduce prices at 84.9%. There's going to be a tolerance band around the 85% target, say 80-90%, or even wider when you're first starting out and learning the ropes.

The other reason it can't be precise is that when it comes to filling up a block, cars are actually pretty large chunks of the overall capacity. If there's a block that will hold 8 cars, then each one is 12.5% of the overall capacity, so you can't get to 85% exactly.

The 85% comes from policy goals. The first goal is to ensure a reduction in cruising for parking, by making one space available on every block. You can assume that blocks are about 8-10 cars long, or about 200 feet, so that's one car out of every 8-10, or somewhere between 82-90% full.

Another goal is being able to measure what's happening with some semblance of accuracy. You're not going to be able to sample continuously, at least with the meter technology DC has deployed to most of their 10,000 meters. You're going to do sampling surveys and assume you've gotten kind of an average. If you set your goal higher, like 95% occupancy, and set an action band of 90-100%, then if you survey and see the block 100% full, it's hard to tell whether you're seeing blocks that are just barely hitting 100%, or they've hit 100% and there are a bunch of people cruising around waiting for spaces to fill up. If you're just hitting 100% but there aren't people waiting, then you're ok for pricing per your policy. With a target of 95%, it's hard to tell whether you've hit the target or not.

At a lower target of 85%, you can see the blocks are almost but not completely full, and you can be reasonably assured that people aren't cruising for parking.

If you drop below 85% as your target, there isn't any policy goal that's being met by continuing to increase your prices. The problem of cruising for parking has been eliminated by ensuring one space per block, but ensuring an additional space doesn't do much more good.

So the goal is to ensure people don't drive around looking for parking. That ends up meaning you try to keep one space out of every 7-10 empty, which is about 85%, plus or minus a bit. It's a sound policy, it's not impossible to follow and it gets the job done.

The thing is, I haven't heard any rational alternative for how to set parking meter prices, other than something like political fiat or whenever it's needed to balance the budget.

by Michael Perkins on Sep 22, 2010 10:18 pm • linkreport

@MichaelPerkins; thanks for the thoughtful answer.

As I said before, the hard part is always drawing the line.

From what I call tell from Dr. Shoup's papers, it sounds very similar to what you laid out. The 85% is coming from traffic engineers, who find that that you need 15% of space empty to create "ingress and egress" (whatever that means)

But this is what I find interesting:

1. The 15% empty spaces on a block come from traffic engineers, who are looking what is the ideal mix of parking spaces for getting cars in and out.

2. The Shoupian literature, from what I can trace back, and that is cursory, starts to use this figure when discussing street parking and cruising. That is, to prevent people circling around and looking for additional street parking.

3. But there is a disconnect that I see between price setting to prevent "cruising" and price setting for optimal street parking. They are actually two different goals, but using 85% as your target is mistake when looking at how to use street parking.

There is a couple minor points that I see, namely the studies that set out the 15% figure were done in the 1970s, and cars were very different then: larger, no power steering, different turning radius, etc. and perhaps that figure ha changed.

Now I agree, the alternative - a block by block understanding of parking demand -- is way to granular for a city to understand. And maybe the answer is just set a parking price that doesn't cause people to scream.

by charlie on Sep 22, 2010 10:38 pm • linkreport

Want to bring "sanity" back to parking in the District? Only one thing needs to be done- go back to clearly lined/marked individual spaces, regardless of whether the spaces have an individual meter, regardless of how the parking is paid for. The art of parking properly has been lost, and so spaces and revenue are being lost to the inept parking skills of today's average driver.

by Kevinm on Sep 23, 2010 6:52 am • linkreport

I disagree that the hard part is drawing the line. it appears that logic, Shoup, and traffic engineers agree that 85% is an appropriate number, and I haven't seen any other competing number that has been logically defended.

Creating ingress and egress is just a fancy way of saying that you want a a space available waiting so that someone can pull in, rather than blocking traffic while waiting for someone to pull out. That's often the case when parking is completely full.

I'm not sure I understand the difference between your two stated goals for parking.

Regarding the changes between cars in the 1970s and today, are you trying to argue that because cars are more maneuverable now, that it is no longer a good idea to have a parking space available when people are looking for one? That seems like kind of a stretch. If you're arguing that the right target is now 87% instead of 85%, I think we are done arguing because as I said, youre not managing this down to the last decimal place anyway.

As far as a block by block of demand, yes, the city is not going to be able to figure out that there are this many restaurant, and that many doctors offices, and this law firm, and figure out the elasticity of each , and come up with the demand curve. But DDOT has shown that they can measure parking occupancy on a block by block basis, and the fact that we have different meter rates on different blocks shows that the prices are adjustable on a block by block basis.

Since it is possible to measure parking occupancy, and there is a target occupancy that's agreed on by traffic engineers, parking economists, and logical reasoning, and the meter rates cam be adjusted on a block by block basis, is there a reason not to do this?

The only one I know of is that the effort to measure and change is not worth the benefits. I argue that it is worth it.

by Michael Perkins on Sep 23, 2010 7:39 am • linkreport

When you're talking about an off-street garage, like at Metro, you can set a higher target like 95%, mostly because the people searching for a space are not blocking other traffic, and because people are used to filling a garage from the bottom up (or for underground, from the top down), so they know where the more likely empty spaces are going to be (further from ground level).

Also because parking garages tend to be dozens or hundreds of spaces, 95% ends up being a few spaces open, rather than on a block of 8 cars where one space empty is about 85%.

by Michael Perkins on Sep 23, 2010 8:04 am • linkreport

I'm not following the restaurant's problem. Do that many people really spend 2 hours before desert? And in those cases, is it really that hard for one member of the party to go back and feed the meter (leaving aside whether it is legal)? If so, I would rather simply extend the duration of meters to 3 hours after 6:30, rather than have people pay remotely. That way, the city captures a bit more money from the high rollers (whom would conservatively pay for the 3 hours) without giving them additional options not available to all.

by Jim on Sep 23, 2010 8:46 am • linkreport

Not that I imagine Omri is back, but his/her argument lacks a basic understanding of the separation of powers. This ain't the Soviet Union.

Also, can we stop it with the noting of a supposedly ironic or serendipitous Captcha? Just go ahead and tell us what you ate for breakfast instead. It's about as interesting....

by Josh S on Sep 23, 2010 9:50 am • linkreport

@Rob Halligan - shouldn't the parking lot barons be in favor of higher rates on the street? If I don't have 16 quarters, I have to go to a lot. Also, if the rates on the street are higher, the rates in the garage don't seem so bad.

by urbanette on Sep 23, 2010 11:24 am • linkreport

People who keep a roll of quarters in their car? Are you getting a kickback from the windshield repair industry? Because, that's a cardinal rule of parking in DC! Don't leave money in your car.

by mtp on Sep 23, 2010 6:43 pm • linkreport

Nobody talks about how many nickles it would take to pay for an hour.

So why pull out the 16 quarter number?

There's this other coin, almost the same exact size as the quarter, but worth 4 times as much. It works pretty well at making payments.

by JJJ on Sep 24, 2010 1:40 am • linkreport

@JJJ: Except DC parking meters don't take them, and the dollar coin is not in common circulation. I ask for them with my change and very few cashiers have them.

And it's 1.5 minutes per nickel, if anyone's keeping score :)

by Michael Perkins on Sep 24, 2010 8:20 am • linkreport

It is extremely easy to retrofit any vending machine, including meters, to take the dollar coin. And are you sure all the meters dont take them? They may just lack the label. Ive worked in the vending industry, and 99% of machines built after 1980 are built to accept dollar coins. If your office machine doesnt, when you see the maintenance person servicing it, tell them to trigger the dollar coin switch. On the other hand, very few take the half-dollar.

And while you may not get the coins in change, every bank will have $25 rolls available.

by JJJ on Sep 24, 2010 6:56 pm • linkreport

Most of DC's parking meters are ancient, and look it. They have horrible failure rates, to the point that the Examiner got a good shot in on them last year. I've tried to jam a dollar coin in the slot, but the slots are too small. DC is replacing parking meters with multispace or IPS rather than retrofit the old meters.

Bank of America at least refuses to give dollar coins in exchange for cash if you don't have an account, even if you just got done paying them an ATM fee for withdrawing money.

Dollar coins are not going to be in general circulation until the bill goes away. Huge status quo bias.

Thankfully, Arlington's meters take dollar coins. Well, except for the private ones at Market Common, those will accept your dollar coin but don't give any time. Learned that the hard way.

by Michael Perkins on Sep 24, 2010 11:15 pm • linkreport

Ive never had a problem buying a roll of dollar coins from BoA or Citibank. I have accounts in both, but never have been asked to prove it. Ditto with quarters.

I have been asked if I have an account when Ive asked for a roll of half-dollars, which is acceptable because those are usually kept in the safe.

by JJJ on Sep 25, 2010 5:36 pm • linkreport

@ mtp--If I didn't keep money in my car, the price would be moot. I wouldn't have coins for meters at all, regardless of the denomination

@ Michael Perkins--It is true that many of the older meters don't take $1 coins (which is why I still keep quarters--or I wouldn't bother). However, the multi-meters all do, as do the meters with the new solar heads that are being tested.

@JJJ--Ditto: I've never had anyone tell me "no," that they won't sell me a roll of quarters or a roll of dollars

by Dina on Sep 25, 2010 7:24 pm • linkreport

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