Posts about AAA
Hey reporters: There are good people you can call for stories about parking tickets in addition to just AAA
The city is full of cherry blossoms, and the media full of stories about parking tickets based on AAA Mid-Atlantic press releases. While eating up the juicy statistics AAA gets from FOIA requests, too many reporters also swallow AAA's policy conclusions and don't get other points of view.
The latest example is a story this morning in the Washington Post about how DC's parking ticket revenue has decreased, thanks to new smartphone apps that help people park legally.
AAA's John Townsend II says the number of tickets in DC is "a phenomenal pace to nearly three times the city's estimated populace of 646,449 persons. That's three parking tickets for every man, woman and child in the city. It's the upshot of high demand for far too few spaces and the confusing signage that bedevils drivers."
Comparing the number of tickets to DC's population is misleading, since DC's daytime population is over one million. And over an entire year, far, far more people than 650,000 come to DC.
I don't really disagree that the signage is confusing and could be a lot better. (Just look at these signs, which a ticket writer even misinterpreted and wrote an erroneous ticket).
But is this "the upshot of ... far too few spaces?"
A lot of people would disagree with that. The District is simply never going to be the kind of city where parking is extremely plentiful and cheap downtown. Some American cities are. Those cities tend to have large swaths of desolate downtown streetscapes in districts that are empty a lot of the time. Those spaces drag down the economic strength of many cities' downtowns.
These "parking craters" can be so bad that that Streetsblog just ran a March Madness-style tournament to choose the worst downtown parking. DC is fortunate to have a thriving, mixed-use downtown without such gaping holes and a lot of transportation choices.
Some people drive and park. That's fine. But it's not physically possible to have a city with all of that activity and also enough space for everyone to bring a car which they park on the street or in a surface lot. This is simple geometry, since the cars are larger than the people. Underground parking isn't cheap, and many people get tickets because they don't want to shell out for the garage.
It's not so easy to capture this in a sound bite as "people are getting tickets! Lots of them, OMG! That's because we need more parking!" But it's more true.
I hate tickets, too
I'm not pro-tickets. I don't think the District should be counting on ticket revenue in its budget and am very happy that tickets are declining. It would be fantastic for technology to help people know how to park legally.
I got a ticket last year when I parked on the street around the corner from my house while we needed someone else to use our parking space. I came back a few days later and found that mere hours after I parked, a nearby building put up those "Emergency No Parking" signs for tree pruning, and the required 72 hours had elapsed. I was just about an hour too late to avoid not only getting a ticket but an extra fee for having my car towed one block away. Aargh!
It would have been terrific to have an app that could know my car location, check it against some open database of temporary and permanent parking restrictions, and notify me when my legal space is going to turn illegal. Maybe one day someone will build that.
Call these people!
Meanwhile, if reporters want to write a story about parking tickets, they should go ahead and cite AAA statistics all they want, but if they're also going to print John Townsend's opinion about how the District needs to revamp its built environment, how about also calling someone else?
Off the top of my head, there's:
- Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth
- Marlene Berlin of the DC Pedestrian Advisory Council
Barbara McCann with the Complete Streets CoalitionCorrection: McCann has recently moved to US DOT, so she is probably not available for comment on AAA press releases.
- Neha Bhatt with Smart Growth America
- For anything about bicycling, Shane Farthing or Greg Billing at WABA
I'd be happy to send any reporter these folks' phone numbers. Just drop me a line.
We don't know yet if the DC Zoning Commission will go along with proposals to reduce parking minimum requirements, but some commissioners certainly seemed skeptical about a few arguments to keep the old rules from AAA Mid-Atlantic.
Many residents testified on the proposal at a hearing on Tuesday. So many people had signed up that there's an overflow hearing this coming Tuesday (and you can still sign up to speak!) 33 residents spoke in favor of reducing minimums, while only 7 opposed the reduction.
Many supporters echoed a theme about housing affordability. Since underground parking can add $30,000-50,000 per space to the cost of construction, that forces buildings that would provide more affordable market-rate or below-market units to charge more and/or create fewer units.
AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesperson John Townsend was one of the opponents, and he took issue with this approach. Earlier in the night, outside the hearing room, he personally apologized to me for the insulting remarks he made about me to Aaron Wiener of the Washington City Paper, which I accepted. He also said he wasn't going to be testifying, which is odd since he very quickly thereafter did.
Townsend argued that reducing parking minimums would have "a deleterious impact, not only on the District and its residents and its businesses and its houses of worship, but its restaurants and its citizens." He said that parking is a problem, and we know it is because DC wrote more than 1.8 million parking tickets last year, Townsend said, a practice he called "a hidden tax on people who only want to do one thing: to enjoy the nation's capital."
He also claimed that the affordability argument was a "myth," and asked for empirical studies proving that reducing this cost actually cuts down on the cost of housing. Instead, he said, there is not enough parking and it's too expensive. "It drives people out of this city. It makes housing more unaffordable," he said, especially "the one-third of the population below the poverty line that has been edged out and edged out of the social fabric" of the city, as well as tourists.
Later, in response to questions, he also brought up the Washington area's heavy traffic as another reason to believe there is a problem and mandate more parking in zoning.
Some members of the Zoning Commission, who will actually decide the zoning code, weren't buying Townsend's arguments. Dupont resident and Zoning Commission vice-chair Marcie Cohen talked about her own experience with housing finance.
Cohen: I almost thought you were arguing two sides of the coin. Basically, if we suffer the greatest gridlock in the country, then it seems to me you would want to encourage people to use alternative transits, and that the more parking you have, the more you are encouraging people to park in those spaces within buildings. ... You seem to be saying that we have a problem and the way to solve that problem is to add parking spaces. ...
I do believe, strongly, because I did finance for 20 years, housing throughout the country, that parking, especially underground parking, does contribute to the cost of housing.
Townsend: What I said was, where are the real world empirical studies that say that the developers will pass on the cost, the savings if you were to jettison the parking minimums? Where is the real-world, economically-based, research-based empirical studies that they will pass on these costs to homeowners? That, in our worldview, is not a reality.
Cohen: Yeah, we've heard from witnesses who are expert in this area, and my own experience, which I mentioned is over 20 years of financing housing, is it does happen. It's passed along. I can't cite a particular study except the testimony we've heard tonight plus my own experience in financing housing. And, in affordable housing, we attempt to reduce the requirements so that they won't be burdened by these costs.
Peter May, the representative from the National Park Service and a Capitol Hill resident, grilled Townsend on some of his points. May also challenged Townsend on the argument that since we have a lot of traffic, we need more parking. "We have the worst gridlock in the country," said Townsend. May replied, "So, if there are more parking spaces available, and theoretically it's cheaper and easier to get parking, wouldn't that increase gridlock?"
Ultimately, that led to an entertainingly barbed exchange. After Townsend cited a number of statistics on DC's growth, May said, "So, uh, can you answer my question?"
Townsend: "I did answer your question."
May: "No, you didn't. I asked whether the availability of parking has an effect on gridlock, and you told me that there's an increase in the number of people living in the District and the number of jobs."
May also probed Townsend's claim that DC's high number of tickets relates to parking policy. People probably get tickets, May suggested, because they're trying to avoid paying a higher garage rate, not necessarily because there's no garage at all. It quickly became clear May wasn't buying Townsend's argument.
May: So, the people who are getting parking tickets here are all doing it because they can't find another place to park? It's not because they're not willing to pay $25 to park?
Townsend: Yes, that's what I'm saying. It's symptomatic of the fact that you have a pernicious parking problem in the city already. That's what it means.
May: I think you can look at the same set of facts and come to a different conclusion about why people are getting parking tickets. A lot of times people are getting parking tickets because they're not willing to walk an extra block, or not willing to pay 25 bucks.
Townsend: "It comes down to whether we perceive that parking is a public good or a private good. And by that I mean, the city has a role to play in this and to make parking part of the social and economic fabric of the city.
This exchange actually illuminates a great deal about why AAA is advocating so hard on this issue. By one argument, why should it matter to them? They provide services to drivers (including at least 3 members of the Zoning Commission, as those members themselves noted at the hearing). However much parking there might be, those people who want or have to drive will probably want to sign up with some kind of towing and lockout protection service like AAA. Why alienate so many residents with their divisiveness?
But if you view parking as part of a culture clash, where car-owner culture is fighting for dominance within the city with non-car-owner culture (walking, biking, taking transit, using Zipcar and car2go and taxis and Uber), then the very idea of allowing more car-free residents doesn't fit into that vision or might even seem like a threat.
For most of us, drivers and non-drivers alike, parking is a necessary evil. Cars will be a part of the transportation mix, and (until they become self-driving and need not park) there has to be space to store them near many of the homes and the jobs and the stores. But parking spaces drive up the cost of housing, create pedestrian dead zones, and otherwise interrupt the city's historic, walkable character.
Lower car dependence isn't really a serious business risk for AAA, since cars won't be going away. But it's certainly possible that, as the city grows, more and more residents have many available choices for transportation, and cars and parking become just one in the crowd. Alternately, AAA would like cars to be more than just a tool, but a part of our very soul, the "social and economic fabric" of the city.
AAA Mid-Atlantic just posted the following statement on Twitter:
The remarks attributed to John Townsend reported in the City Paper article are inappropriate, and in no way representative of AAA Mid-Atlantic's views. Mr. Townsend apologizes for comments attributed to him that were offensive.Read the original story and the Greater Greater Washington team's comments.
It was never Mr. Townsend's intention to be insulting and agrees that there is absolutely no place in the public discourse for personal attacks.
That said, Mr. Townsend believes that many of the statements were presented out of context and mischaracterize the discussion.
Update: DCist's Martin Austermuhle figured out the missing context. For example,
I think he's developmentally retarded, and I use 'retarded' in the French way, meaning that he's late. He's late to development meetings, that's what I'm trying to say.Update 2: Reporter Aaron Wiener defends the context of the quotations and gives even more examples of insults from Townsend: "He also called [David Alpert] 'reptilian,' 'pedantic,' and 'childlike,' and suggested he had a 'Napoleonic complex.'"
This week's Washington City Paper cover story quoted AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend calling Greater Greater Washington editor David Alpert "retarded" and a "ninny," and comparing Greater Greater Washington to the Ku Klux Klan.
Many other reporters, people on Twitter, and residents generally have clearly stated in response what should of course go without saying, that such personal attacks are beyond the pale.
Some may get the sense that there is personal animosity between Townsend and the team here at Greater Greater Washington. At least on our end, nothing could be further from the truth. We simply disagree with many of his policy positions and his incendiary rhetoric.
Spirited argument is important in public policy, but it should not cross into insults. When it does, that has a chilling effect on open discourse. Fostering an inclusive conversation about the shape of our region is the purpose of this site, but discourse must be civil to be truly open. That's why our comment policy here on Greater Greater Washington prohibits invective like this. In our articles, we try hard to avoid crossing this line, and are disappointed when we or others do, intentionally or inadvertently.
The "war on cars" frame unnecessarily pits drivers against cyclists and pedestrians instead of working together for positive solutions. The City Paper article, by Aaron Wiener, does a good job of debunking that, and is worth reading for much more than the insults it quotes.
When pressed, Townsend told Wiener he wants to back away from the "war on cars."
"I regret the rhetoric sometimes," he says. "Because I think that when you use that type of language, it shuts down communication with people who disagree."We hope Townsend, his colleagues, and their superiors also regret the things he said about David and Greater Greater Washington. We look forward to the day when AAA ceases using antagonistic language and begins working toward safety, mobility, and harmony among all road users.
In the meantime, residents do have a choice when purchasing towing, insurance, and travel discounts. Better World Club is one company that offers many of the same benefits as AAA, but without the disdain.
In the budget released today, Mayor Gray has allocated money to keep many traffic camera fines, which DC recently lowered, from automatically rising again. He will also propose raising fines a tiny bit for moderate speeding and considerably for major speeding.
Last year, Councilmembers Tommy Wells, Mary Cheh, and Marion Barry introduced a bill to lower fines for speeding up to 20 mph over the limit, for blocking the box, turning right on red without stopping, and other violations. This responded to public sentiment that fines were too high and that camera tickets were an unfair cash cow for the District.
The original bill reduced fines to $50 for speeding up to 20 mph but left high fines ($200-250) for more speeding, on the logic that such egregious speeding is really reckless and clearly intentional. Phil Mendelson, however, pushed to modify the bill to use a linear scale instead of one with a sudden jump.
To lower the fines cost money, and the Council didn't find enough money to lower all speed fines. Instead, the fine for speeding 11-15 mph over the limit only dropped from $100 to $92. It would have made more sense to use the limited funds to drop the lower-speed fines first instead of the higher-speed ones, but that's not what happened.
They also only allocated money in the current fiscal year. Unless this budget said otherwise, the fines would have automatically jumped back up on October 1. Mayor Gray indeed allocated money to keep many of the lower fines, including ones for infractions besides speeding.
However, the administration proposes to set the fine for 11-15 mph and 16-20 mph over both at $100, said budget director Eric Goulet, and also raise the fine for speeding over 20 mph to
$250 $200 and over 25 mph to $300. This is actually the same fine schedule Gray previously proposed when the Council was debating lowering fines.
Fines for running red lights did not go down in the last bill. That's in part because AAA's John Townsend actually argued in the task force for maintaining higher red light fines, though he's since started spewing press releases complaining about them, despite his earlier stance.
Here is a table of the old fines, what Cheh and Wells proposed, what passed in the final bill both as the authorized level and the actual level that got funding, and what Gray is proposing for 2014.
|Speeding 1-10 mph (not enforced)||$75||$50||$50||$50||$50|
|Speeding 11-15 mph||$125||$50||$75||$92||$100|
|Speeding 16-20 mph||$150||$50||$100||$100||$100|
|Speeding 21-25 mph||$200||$200||$150||$150||$200|
|Speeding 26-30 mph||$250||$250||$250||$250||$300|
|Running red light||$150||$150||$150||$150||$150|
|Blocking the box||$100||$50||$50||$50||$50|
|Not stopping at stop sign||$100||$50||$50||$50||$50|
|Not yielding to pedestrian in crosswalk||$250||$50||$75||$75||$75|
|Not stopping before right on red||$100||$50||$50||$50||$50|
|Right on red when prohibited||$100||$50||$50||$50||$50
The Budget Support Act is not yet available, so all of the information here is based on my conversation with Goulet, and I am checking to confirm their proposal for the never-enforced 1-10 mph violation and whether not yielding to a pedestrian is $50 or $75. I will update the post when that is available. Update: After talking to Goulet, I have updated the table and added a row for speeding 26-30 mph, whose fine will be rising from $250 to $300 as well.
I originally pushed for even lower fines from cameras, on the logic that the fine should just be high enough to deter speeding or other behaviors, and that it could buy peace. Unfortunately, we really don't have good evidence about what deters speeding. Also, AAA has stepped up the pace of camera complaints and attack press releases, so it's become clear that there's no partner for peace over there.
Therefore, Gray's proposal is a reasonable position. It keeps some of the formerly most egregious fines down and should deter some of the most reckless behavior.
It's not waging any kind of "war on drivers," but if AAA is going to claim there is one even after DC leaders make a good faith effort to address the group's concerns, DC may as well prioritize making neighborhoods safe for residents by adding cameras and maintaining fines.
Something astounding has happened: A news story about speed camera tickets actually discusses whether or not they deter drivers from speeding, one of the acts which makes roads unsafe.
Mark Segraves dug up some information on whether drivers get more repeat tickets at DC or Maryland cameras:
Segraves got data from DC, Montgomery, and Prince George's about the percentage of drivers who get multiple tickets, out of all the drivers who get a ticket from the cameras. Ticketed drivers are twice as likely to have multiple tickets in the Maryland counties, and 20 times as likely to have 5 or 10 tickets.
What would cause this discrepancy?
This could be because the fines were much higher in DC in Maryland (they decreased in DC thanks the last year's camera bill). It could be that the lower fines mean people are less worried about getting caught. Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker thinks that's true. Anecdotally, I've heard from other drivers who say they're much more afraid of speeding in DC.
It also could be that different groups of drivers get tickets in each jurisdiction. John Townsend of AAA (who can sound entirely reasonable when he tries) thinks that the Maryland cameras are in neighborhoods where the same drivers ply the roads day after day. A possible counter-argument is that drivers who live nearby know where the cameras are, so they shouldn't get tickets.
Another possibility is that DC gets more tourists, who come in, speed, get a ticket, and then aren't around to get more. Martin Austermuhle muses that perhaps Maryland drivers are just worse.
One way to better analyze these possibilities would be to break the data down by state. Are DC drivers re-offending at the same rate on DC cameras as Maryland drivers on Maryland cameras? Are Maryland drivers (most of whom do commute) getting more or fewer tickets on DC cameras than the DC drivers do?
Or, to investigate Townsend's claim, what about just the DC cameras that are in neighborhoods? AAA mostly complains about the ones on freeways, but the most serious safety problems are where major streets cut through neighborhoods. Do people get multiple tickets at higher rates on those DC cameras?
Was it wise to lower fines?
The task force Councilmembers Tommy Wells (ward 6) and Mary Cheh (ward 3) put together couldn't find convincing evidence one way or the other, so the councilmembers decided to lower the fines because of the political blowback. I argued at the time that AAA is orchestrating a lot of that blowback, so if they want to trade peace for lower fines, they'll have to follow through.
Townsend hasn't. Instead, they've sent out a stream of press releases attacking the cameras, and given lots of juicy quotes to the press. He's called cameras "the mother's milk of additional revenue" for government, even though DC lowered the fines.
Townsend even complained about red light cameras after arguing in the task force for keeping the fines high. He told Ashley Halsey III, "The District collects nearly two-thirds, a stunning 61.6 percent, of the [red-light camera] revenue total for the national capital area."
Let's debate the actual safety, not the fake anti-government frame
Maybe cameras won't work. Mount Pleasant ANC Commissioner Jack McKay doesn't think they do. MPD does, but doesn't have good enough data to really prove it. It would be great to have a real debate about what measures will and won't make streets safer.
That's not the debate we are having, however. Instead, AAA is using misdirection. They aren't saying the measures don't improve safety; they are saying the whole thing is a government conspiracy to squeeze money out of drivers. And the non-revenue elements like bike lanes are a "war on drivers" and an attempt to force people out of cars.
This is a pernicious theme because it plays right into the press's existing biases to cover stories as government vs. the people. AAA doesn't want to talk about the people who get hurt from drivers turning right without stopping; they want everyone to blame the evil gummint.
For some reason which escapes me, most reporters seem to eat it up. Halsey led off his story with the extremely biased line, "The lucrative battle to keep drivers in the District from running red lights seems to be achieving more profit than success." It's amazing that there had to be a letter to the editor to point out that illegal driving is more than a revenue issue, it's a safety issue.
Let's look at that success, seriously. A debate about the cameras based on safety would be welcome. There are plenty of angles for reporters to investigate that relate to the actual safety, or the appropriate level of fines. Mark Segraves has taken one step toward that. Will others follow?
Martin Austermuhle made a whimsical point on Twitter about this picture, a 1992 historical photograph DCist featured to celebrate the convention center's 10th birthday:
Martin wrote, "D.C., pre-war on cars. The place was motorist heaven."
This makes a real point. We've been hearing a lot about the "war on cars" lately as AAA, the car lobby organization, has been really pushing the theme hard in the press and outlets eager for controversy lap up the destructive rhetoric.
But let's not forget where we were. Not that long ago, much of DC had been shaped by a multi-decade "war on the city." Well-meaning urban renewal efforts tore out large swaths of the urban fabric to build things like the Southeast-Southwest Freeway and big parking lots, like the ones in the picture.
The 1958 zoning code that DC is currently trying to replace was a weapon in that war. Its author, Harold Lewis, wrote that the city's form was unable to adapt to a more car-oriented form and zoning must therefore compel it "for the salvation of the downtown area."
In 1950, the federal government decreed that places like Shaw, Southwest DC, and more were "obsolete" and had to be replaced with more car-oriented development patterns. The "obsolete" zones include the area in this picture; this was the result.
It's also worth remembering this era to understand the time when, as we discussed yesterday, very strong historic preservation protection was not only clearly necessary but absolutely urgent. The preservation plan quotes one resident saying "The next generation of preservation leaders is not there; where are the future activists?" Commenter drumz pointed out that there isn't really "an example in DC today of the same sort of large scale clearing that inspired the first preservation movement."
Nobody is trying to wage a war on cars. AAA is just pushing the idea because after their long and successful war on urban places, the trend is moving in the other direction. And anyone who lives in the Mount Vernon Triangle today instead of that 1992 wasteland is pretty glad it is.
Apparently, a major threat to the District looms on the horizon. "This is a very dangerous proposal," the warning recently went out. "We think it threatens the future of Washington."
Terrorists? Hurricanes? Flooding from climate change? Sequestration? Meteors? Nonexistent snow? A paucity of decent bagel shops?
No, the threat is that the District might get out of the business of micromanaging the size of apartment-building parking garages. Run for cover!
The group warning of this looming disaster? An organization that you might give money to yet disagree entirely with its often extreme lobbying agenda: AAA.
Continue reading an op-ed Matt Yglesias and I co-wrote in the Washington Post.
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