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Diagonal parking: Does this quick fix get us what we want?

Last week, Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. introduced two bills to encourage diagonal (angled) parking. They sound like they'll increase the amount of parking. But is that what we want?

Photo by Diana Marsh on Flickr.

Both bills would require DDOT to establish procedures for adding diagonal parking. One would let businesses on a street apply for diagonal parking if 60% agree. The other would let religious institutions apply for diagonal parking, but only on Sundays, and with approval from the area ANC.

Diagonal parking means more parking spaces, which most business owners think will increase customers. But how do people get there? Who comes there? And why are Thomas' bills relevant?

DDOT already puts in angled parking in DC, but without a formal process. Requests usually come from Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), churches, ANCs, council­members, the Mayor's office, or citizens. The requests go to DDOT's Ward Planner, the Parking Specialist, or the Curbside Specialist. Several divisions discuss the idea based on the need, construction or other plans already in place, and, of course, traffic counts.

For businesses without a BID, this bills to establish a formal process could be helpful. For areas where double parking for churches often happens anyway, this might be a way to make some peace between neighbors and churches. If these requests are common, DDOT should have a formal policy.

When DDOT turns down requests, people usually aren't satisfied. They go higher, to the Council or the Mayor, and the order comes down to put it in. Given that, why would DDOT ever say no to diagonal parking? Is DDOT anti-business? Is DDOT anti-church? Here are a couple of reasons.

  1. The street's not wide enough. Parallel parking requires 7-9 feet, travel lanes are 10-12, and bike lanes are 5. Angled parking, depending on whether the angle is 45, 60, or 90, consumes 16-20 feet. Unless there's an travel lane that isn't needed, angled parking isn't possible.
  2. The space is already being used. What's occupying the space today? If vehicle counts are high enough, then the answer is traffic. If not, there might be a bike lane or a sidewalk widening planned. To install permanent diagonal parking, the city needs to decide if enough space can be taken out of the transportation network permanently during the week. This is not an easy decision. Once angled parking is installed, an act of Congress seems to be the only way to undo it.
On Sundays, traffic is likely not an issue. While at DDOT, planners recognized that permanent diagonal parking often kills the possibility for bike lanes on certain blocks (11th ST NW between Vermont and Q Streets, for example). Does it matter if the bike lanes are blocked on Sundays, since there's so little traffic anyway? Can people on bikes simply use the travel lane? This might not be problematic on Sundays, but could be slippery slope to losing the integrity of bike lanes.

Now the broader question: Do we want more parking? It has generally been treated as good. But what else comes with more parking?

More traffic. It's a fact (proven over and over and over) that more parking creates more traffic. But in a retail area that seems barren, isn't more traffic a good thing? Maybe, but so is a good streetscape to make people want to shop there in the first place.

Diagonal parking has a traffic calming effect, but so to other techniques. After the protected bike lanes on 15th Street NW were installed, the number of vehicles driving over 20 mph over the speed limit decreased from 147 a day to 3 (a 98% reduction). Calmer traffic means people are driving slower, looking around more at businesses, and watching for cars exiting spaces. But it's just one tool in the traffic calming toolbox.

Diagonal parking is just one way to address parking shortages. There are many ways to manage parking, from building a garage to alternating pricing and time limits at meters. A bill that calls out a single solution to an often complicated problem ties the hands of experts whose job it is to keep up with innovations and to understand limits of each one.

More parking means businesses tend to market to people driving in, not neighbors. When residents can walk, bike, take the bus or a taxi to businesses nearby, businesses will cater to them. But when people can drive to your neighborhood restaurant, the restaurant will start giving them what they want, not what you want.

That means more emphasis on parking and valets, and less on sidewalks, trees, benches, bike racks, and bike lanes. While more parking for businesses and churches seems like a good way to deal with struggling businesses and too many people driving in on Sundays, it enforces the idea that these aren't really for neighbors.

More parking hurts the taxicab industry. Taxis are demand-responsive, on-demand transit. But the taxi system works best without congestion and when people aren't driving themselves. Taxis are also a great way to get home from bars at 2am, when Metro is infrequent and people do not want to be driving.

Are Councilmember Thomas' bills necessary? Do we need more permanent parking? If the honest intent of these bills is to issue procedures, and not simply to force DDOT to approve more diagonal parking, then they could have some benefit, but may not be necessary. But let us not forget that more parking often comes at the price of other aspects of city life we enjoy.

Chris Ziemann moved to Washington after a 7-week, multi-modal hitchhiking trip from Lisbon to Berlin. He has a masters degree in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina, and is currently working for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, promoting sustainable transportation in developing countries. Chris worked for almost four years with DDOT to improve the quality of life and equality of transportation options for residents and visitors. 


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I have often believed that you could use Diagonal Parking on streets like Pennsylvania Avenue on Capitol Hill on Saturdays and Sundays. This would increase the parking supply for businesses on a commercial corridor and calm traffic. Sure it would induce driving, but the space is available. With the new variable pricing, you could generate significant revenue on a corridor like that which could be reinvested to build cycle tracks on Pennsylvania Avenue and other bike/ped/transit/streetscape improvements. Best part is the conversion would cost next to nothing.

Of course some thinking would be required for bus stops, but that is solvable.

by Joe on Mar 28, 2011 1:37 pm • linkreport

Only diagonal parking for religious institutions on Sunday? Anybody see a church-state problem there?

by Steve S. on Mar 28, 2011 1:42 pm • linkreport

@Steve S.
DC has always had a church-state problem. Double parking and parking in bikes lanes is tacitly authorized on Sundays. Just the way it is here. Elected officials are scared of rocking the churchie boat and potentially losing votes next election cycle.

by ontarioroader on Mar 28, 2011 1:46 pm • linkreport

What if I'm on a street that turns into diagonal parking every Sunday for some church? Do I get a ticket if I don't wake up before church service starts to re-park my car diagonally? Then when church ends, do I have to re-park my car regularly?

by ErikD on Mar 28, 2011 1:47 pm • linkreport

I take issue with the author's claim that "On Sundays, traffic is likely not an issue."

In my area (near Mt. Vernon Square), there's plenty of traffic on Sundays. Indeed, traffic is often as bad on a Sunday as it is during weekday rush hour, partly because some streets lose a lane because of church parking (either legal parking or illegal parking that never gets ticketed). The last thing they should do is to go even further that direction.

This city bends over backwards to do whatever churches want. And I'm sick of it.

by Rob on Mar 28, 2011 1:47 pm • linkreport

couldn't the church parking issue be resolved with shuttle buses?

where are the people coming in from?

maybe there could be some parking just out of the city at RFK on one side... maybe somewhere near Silver Spring on the other

the group prayers could start as the buses roll to the church building itself!

by gwadzilla on Mar 28, 2011 1:54 pm • linkreport

I think diagonal parking is often a fantastic idea, especially in car-centered areas of the city. In an ideal world getting to those places would be easy by means other than the car, but that's simply not the case sometimes. I'd rather keep this tool in the box and formalize the process for neighbors to apply for it. For the record, though, it doesn't take an act of Congress to rid a street of diagonal parking; just look at the 18th Street renovations.

My problem with Thomas's bill is that it assumes religious services happen on Sundays, rather than throughout the weekend. Making it faith-neutral would be good, limiting it to "primary worship times outside the rush hour" or something similar. And, to address Steve S.'s concern, it's not a church-state problem because it's not advocating anything. Rather, it provides a tool to accomodate an organization that has large parking needs on a regular, expected schedule.

by OctaviusIII on Mar 28, 2011 1:55 pm • linkreport

Again, this is an illustration of how the failure, not having a Master transportation plan, leads the #$%^&*() City Council to try to legislate transportation policy at the drop of a hat.

Frankly, I have no problem with working out transportation management plans for churches, because I'd rather that than a church buying housing only to tear it down for a parking lot used a few hours/week. (This happened on the 800 block of 7th St. NE, and two 1876 frame houses came down as a result.)

But Council has no business doing this kind of stuff. It should be rational and fair and orderly.

by Richard Layman on Mar 28, 2011 1:55 pm • linkreport

And this is happening when diagonal parking is being taken off of 18th St NW? Actually, diagonal parking is more disruptive and less efficient for traffic control than parallel parking. A great many large churches in DC are close to transit. the church that regularly ties up traffic on RI Ave near the Home Depot is a good example. So are the churches near the Mt Vernon Square stop on the Yellow/Green Line and the many churches near DuPont Circle. Churches reflect the city's historic pattern of development, which was built around transit. let them use that infrastructure rather than granting them more. If they move to the suburbs, many of their buildings would be prime candidates for creative reuse.

by Rich on Mar 28, 2011 2:02 pm • linkreport

For the record, I'm a regular attender at a church on 8th & H NW, live across the street from the UHOP on 6th & M NW (gold dome), and don't drive. My church lost its parking at the Convention Center lot this past weekend thanks to construction, but we've done our best to find lots around the area that can accomodate some of our congregants but strongly encourage people to take Metro. And no, we're not dead weight - typicall about 10-20% of the church goes out to eat after services.

The UHOP has its problems with noise, especially in awkward hours (waking up to a brass band outside the window at Memorial Day is highly unpleasant), but the parking seems to be necessary for their church. I see a lot of grandmothers, large families and such hanging out around after services, and I always appreciate coming home late to see some folks still hanging around. For about one block in each direction crime is substantially lower that it should be given the area, and I think their eyes on the street are to thank.

by OctaviusIII on Mar 28, 2011 2:05 pm • linkreport

I live near Barracks Row, and the diagonal parking sorta works there, but I can see it being a problem elsewhere. People tend to have a difficult time with it, including me...swinging out into traffic in the oncoming lane to back in can be problematic.

I'm tired of the churches too (and this comes from a churchgoer). The parallel parking in my neighborhood is completely taken (and then some with people double parking and parking in illegal spots) on Sundays by these dinky denominationless churches, and it seems like all of the cars are from Maryland. I don't really understand why they can't have their churches where they live. Is there something special about having it in DC? Has Maryland banned churches? This is a huge pet peeve of mine.

by plangal on Mar 28, 2011 2:14 pm • linkreport

I have long advocated for diagonal parking on 6th st NW between Rhode Island and New York avenues. 2 narrow traffic lanes cause unsafe rally car like behavior, making life on the street very precarious. Properly timed lights and designated left turn lanes could move one lane just as efficiently as the 2 current narrow lanes. Can the Council add a provision for residents of a neighborhood to ask for diagonal parking even if it just on one side?

6th street was studied as part of the Mt Vernon Square Transportation Project, could we get traffic numbers for 6th from that?

by Chris R on Mar 28, 2011 2:33 pm • linkreport

(See the M-street is too wide thread)

Putting angle parking on M Street SE would appears to solve many problems -- it will narrow the street and slow traffic, it will add more foot traffic, and it will add parking to a neighborhood that doe not have enough. It will not cost very much, and it can be done quickly, while the M Street redesign is being done and its funding is worked out.

by goldfish on Mar 28, 2011 2:35 pm • linkreport

The fixation with ending Sunday church parking is beyond unreasonable. It completely undermines whatever else the complainer has to say about urbanism, because their position shows an utter lack of awareness for some basic cultural and historical parts of our city. What are you doing Sunday morning that is so important that you're life is disrupted by people (most likely minorities) parking their cars on the street anway? It's this kind of fake outrage and me-first BS that poisons the rest of the urbanist cause. Pick something a little bit less popular to go after. Shame shame shame.

by aaa on Mar 28, 2011 3:44 pm • linkreport

"The fixation with ending Sunday church parking is beyond unreasonable."

That's just a silly statement. No one wants to "end" Sunday church parking. Rather, it would be nice to see the church-goers on Sundays, a vast majority of whom drive in from Maryland, obey D.C. parking laws.

I've never understood the way the city cowers in the face of these churches. If they would do 15 minutes of research, they would find that congregations of most of these problem churches are 90 percent Marylanders.

by Anon on Mar 28, 2011 4:06 pm • linkreport

Thanks for this informative piece. A bill that perpetuates the notion that vehicle parking is always the highest use of space needs to be rethought. 18th St in Adams Morgan is in the process of widening its hopelessly narrow sidewalks and shifting angle parking to parallel. That's a good example of finally realizing the streetscape for people is more important than a few additional parking spaces for cars. Sometimes angle parking is a good way to narrow an overly wide street. But ensuring quality bicycle accommodations should be given higher priority in most cases, over simply expanding the unregulated supply of parking.

by ccort on Mar 28, 2011 4:08 pm • linkreport

@Anon: I'd actually go a step further than that. I would like to have church-goers obey the law, as you say. But I'd also like it if the laws were set up fairly, instead of discriminating in favor of churches.

by Rob on Mar 28, 2011 4:19 pm • linkreport

"The fixation with ending Sunday church parking is beyond unreasonable. It completely undermines whatever else the complainer has to say about urbanism, because their position shows an utter lack of awareness for some basic cultural and historical parts of our city."

Yes, the "ignore the laws of DC if you are a church or church member" history and culture.

Weird that I would not want to be blocked in to a legal parking spot by 2 rows of illegal parking by non-residents of my neighborhood. SHOCKING! Can I got to MD and block their driveway for 5 hours?!?

"What are you doing Sunday morning that is so important that you're life is disrupted"
What is so important that their life is NOT disrupted by their illegal activity?
Ever had your car blocked in for hours - totally changing all your plans for the day? Ever had to tell your friends and their children that you cannot take them hiking like you said you would, because your car is double-blocked by god's people?

Shame is for the ministers who do not preach against taking from their neighbors what is not theirs to take. Shame is for the christians who take from others. Shame is for the Council, who has looked away for 30 years, and now wishes to give a special pass to the christians who live in MD. Shame indeed.

by greent on Mar 28, 2011 4:22 pm • linkreport

I don't have any strong views on parking, except that I really don't like diagonal parking next to crosswalks because the vehicles -- especially SUVs, vans, etc. -- create a bigger, longer visual obstruction for pedestrians (and probably drivers, I'm guessing) than when they are parked "normally". You have to walk much further into the crosswalk and peek around and hope you haven't gone too far in doing so. Come down to Judiciary Square sometime and try the crosswalk that leads from the 4th & D exit over to MPD/DMV when there's a police van parked next to it and drivers are lunging from Indiana onto D. (Actually, I'd love to just ban any vehicle from parking next to crosswalks, but it's hard enough to get them to not park *in* the crosswalk.)

by Eileen on Mar 28, 2011 4:56 pm • linkreport

Kids? Hiking? Please. There are plenty of hiking spots in DC that don't require a car to get to, greent -- Theodore Roosevelt Island, Rock Creek Park, and Potomac Heritage Trail to name a few. Just admit that you really wanted to go to Ikea.

by aaa on Mar 28, 2011 4:56 pm • linkreport


The reason is irrelevant. What gives anyone the right to park someone in? And no, "god" and "going to church" are not acceptable answers.

by Alex B. on Mar 28, 2011 4:59 pm • linkreport

Jeez I hope aaa is just trolling. I don't care if churchgoers want to park next to a median or park in no-parking zones where it's safe to do so (i.e. not in front of fire hydrants) but blocking residents' cars in with double-parking is jerk behavior.

by MLD on Mar 28, 2011 5:05 pm • linkreport

Agreed with the rest on the jerkiness (and irony) of double-parking for church. Since churches are major stakeholders, could there be an informal agreement as part of this? Basically, say that we'll give you a formal process to apply for diagonal parking, but in return we'll start to crack down on illegal double parking. It's not the best solution (law is law!), but that should give some political cover to councilmembers, allowing MPD to go after churchgoers.

by OctaviusIII on Mar 28, 2011 6:09 pm • linkreport

In the late 1990s before DC was installing many new bike lanes, I know that Luther Place Memorial Church applied for diagonal parking on a street that was (at least according what people could measure) wide enough for diagonal parking on one block. I also know that the church never received an answer even though at least one person who was a city employee followed-up on the request on a regular basis for more than a year. The primary reason for the request was to help increase parking for a handful of elderly members. (Of course anyone could park there, but social norms among members are that you leave those spots for the elderly and disabled as much as possible.) Most of those members have died or become nursing home bound.

Adding diagonal parking now would cut out a bike line so it's a non-issue; the people who bike to church would block asking for it even if the city allowed it (which would be bad policy).

Granted services in the city have improved significantly since then, but I suspect that it has happened to others. There are currently some churches that have diagonal parking on Sundays approved and have for more than a decade. There are also some business districts like Barracks Row that have diagonal parking.

If DC is going to allow this anywhere for any reason, there should be a process and there should be a way to get an answer. It should not be something that appears to be randomly decided. I suspect what these bills are getting at is the lack the of any process that it observed on a regular basis.

by Kate on Mar 28, 2011 11:21 pm • linkreport

A related question is whether front-in or back-in diagonal parking would be safer. With front-in, a bicyclist can hopefully see the brake lights and know that there might be a hazard, but the driver is backing out blind. With back-in parking, the driver has much better sight lines, but the cyclist can not see brake lights. (Some people are terrible at back-in parking; but those drivers are even worse at parallel parking).

by Jim T on Mar 29, 2011 8:40 am • linkreport

There's an important distinction for the examples some people are using - the back-in angle parking on Barracks Row is marked and signed as such 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Thomas wants churches to be able to angle-park cars on one day a week on streets that are not designed, let alone marked or signed for such parking.

by Dave on Mar 29, 2011 9:58 am • linkreport

The city is way too accommodating about church parking in my opinion. When i lived in the 1300 block of Maryland Ave NE, whenever the church across the street had a wedding or a funeral, the regularly double parked both sides of Maryland for 3 blocks around, and never had anyone available to move cars, so that if one of us wanted to get out via car, we either had to wait, foten hours, or drive down the sidewalk.

As someone who has ridden a bike in the city for over a decade, the loss of a bike lane for diagonal parking is not a big deal to me, as i'm accustomed to riding in a regular lane. If there's going to be diagonal parking, i do think back-in is better than pull-in.

by dcseain on Mar 29, 2011 3:12 pm • linkreport

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