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Red light cameras work. The Washington Post runs the same old attack on them anyway.

Red light cameras work, but articles saying they don't, based on more innuendo than fact, pop up in the press regularly. The latest example is from Washington Post "Tripping" blogger Frederick Kunkle.

This is a sculpture. There's no penalty for running these red lights. Image by Daniel Guimberteau on Flickr.

DC uses cameras around the city to catch people running red lights. The machines photograph the license plates of cars that run red lights, and a few weeks later the car owner gets a ticket in the mail. The city has 48 cameras set up, and issues thousands of tickets each year.

Proponents argue that the cameras effectively combat dangerous driving, reducing collisions and making streets safer for everyone. Others, while they may broadly agree that there's a need for better red light enforcement, voice concerns that range from whether or not the cameras work properly to people's ability to fight tickets in court to the claim that DC is too dependent on revenue from camera citations.

In a column on Tripping that went up last week, Kunkle mentions that the total number of tickets from red light cameras is down in DC (another way of putting this: fewer people are speeding running red lights), and that a majority of drivers happen to support DC's red light cameras. He also notes that almost all drivers agree that running a red light is a dangerous activity that needs to be curbed. Those two facts alone might be considered good news for many who want to see a government program prove to be popular and effective.

But as he continues, Kunkle spins these facts into negatives. The total number of tickets might be down, he says, but since DC's fines are higher than in Maryland the total amount of revenue collected is higher—a clear money grab by the District. And even though there is a lot of support for the cameras, Kunkle uses the term "slim majority" to hint that red light cameras may be more controversial than they actually are.

This is creating a scandal where there isn't one

Throughout the article, Kunkle quotes speculation from John Townsend of AAA Mid-Atlantic, including the thought that the city is playing "dirty pool" by having its yellow lights turn over extra quickly.

DC has not simply shortened its yellow light times, and a look at the big picture makes it clear that there's no money grab happening here. Last year, DDOT changed the timing of hundreds of stop lights across the city, but that included every phase of the light, including pedestrian signals. That's something DDOT needs to do as it works on the incredibly complex issue of creating traffic flow that gives everyone what they want.

Still, even with the lack of evidence, Kunkle fuels the thought that nefarious traffic engineers are out there shortening yellow lights so more people run reds.

Another claim from Townsend that Kunkle leans on is the notion that most red light tickets are somehow erroneously issued for drivers "who stopped beyond on [sic] the intersection threshold line or beyond the stop line but who never crossed the intersection"—as if stopping late and possibly blocking the crosswalk at the intersection are not serious problems in and of themselves.

The fact that different jurisdictions do not always have the same fines should not be a shock. But rule number one in bad traffic camera journalism, it seems, says that you cannot talk about fines unless you openly wonder whether or not the cameras are there for safety or for revenue. Send the message that cameras are there solely for revenue, and you can help ensure that people focus on simply removing the cameras rather than think about ways to improve safety at intersections.

Kunkle is gracious enough to suggest that city's motivations could be about revenue and safety, but the "really makes you think" rhetorical device used across the column is clearly aimed at getting people ready to expect a scandal despite a lack of any evidence.

Traffic safety measures shouldn't turn into us vs. them affairs

Its disheartening to see columnists like Kunkle twist neutral or positive facts into bad things. All it does is play into the narrative about a "war on cars" that tries to shut down any proposal or idea that even loosely appears to treat driving as an equal part of the transportation landscape rather than the primary and superior way to get around.

Worse, these kinds of arguments divert attention away from improving the city's camera program for everyone, drivers included. Even red light camera proponents have ideas to improve them to help ensure they're more effective and fair. For example, our own David Alpert has argued that raising DC's camera fines is the wrong approach to traffic safety—instead, the solution is lower but more frequent citations. Casting red light cameras as evil from the get-go limits conversations about how to make them better.

Insinuations that cameras are about revenue rather than safety, or spinning neutral facts into bad news, do little to inform people about an issue that is important to just about everyone. Once a driver who is under the "threat" of a traffic ticket parks their car and has to cross the street to their final destination, they benefit from safe streets just as much as the next person. The Post should do better.

Correction: This post originally said fewer tickets means fewer people speeding. It meant to say fewer tickets means fewer people running red lights.


How downtown parking is like your smartphone

Would you rather pay $27 a month or $2.50 a month for your phone? A lower price means more dollars in your pocket, right? But what if one of those were an iPhone and the other a flip phone?

Photo by Mitch Barrie on Flickr.

We're buying smartphones in droves even though they cost 10 times as much as the flip phones of old. Clearly, there's more to these decisions than price.

We make decisions based on value, not just cost. But on a pair of transportation issues, we're hearing rhetoric that tries to obscure this issues. It's coming from groups of people more concerned with swaying public opinion than informing the public. The first one is tolls on Interstate 66 in Virginia; the second, DC's new parking pilot for the Chinatown area.

Continue reading my latest column in the Washington Post. Also, the Post editorial board agrees with me on parking; in an editorial, the editors liken the experience of circling for downtown parking to the long gas lines during the 1970s energy crisis. Meanwhile, Michael Hamilton argues the rates should vary even more than DDOT plans to do.


It'll soon be easier to find a parking space in Chinatown

It can be tough to drive in DC—there's congestion, motorcades, and "parking signs harder to decipher than CIA code—that is, if you can find an open spot." DC can't do much about motorcades, but a new pilot program will help drivers find places to park and even cut down on congestion, though recent news coverage has sown confusion.

This parking pilot will make spaces easier to find than unicorns. Photo of D Street NW from Google Maps; unicorn image from Shutterstock.

There's no free lunch, to be sure; an easy-to-find spot will cost somewhat more than a spot today. However, if you try to park on the street in the Gallery Place/Chinatown area of DC today at a busy time, you might be circling for 20 or 30 minutes. This program will make parking much more predictable and less stressful.

What's this parking pilot?

DC is running an experiment, called ParkDC, based on a successful pilot in San Francisco and similar programs elsewhere. There, as here, parking on the street is extremely difficult to find at busy times, but is far, far cheaper than in a garage.

Because of this, people end up circling for 10, 20, 30 minutes looking for the elusive cheap space, and in doing so, add considerably to traffic congestion, not to mention getting frustrated.

People who need to run a quick errand or drop something off can't park, and since garages generally gear their pricing toward all-day or all-evening parkers, it's very pricey to park for a very short time.

The solution is obvious, at least if you're an economist: Price parking according to supply and demand. Raise the price when demand is high, and drop it when it's low.

This encourages people who want to park for a long time to use a garage, while giving people who need quicker and shorter parking a chance. Reduce the circling and speed up traffic for everyone.

A map of where ParkDC will go into effect. Image from DDOT.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is running this as an experiment, with money from the Federal Highway Administration, to see if it's possible to accurately gauge the number of free spaces without having to install sensors in the ground (as San Francisco did), and whether changing the rates affects the availability of parking. After the pilot, DDOT could decide to continue the program or try something different instead.

I heard parking could cost $8 an hour. Is that right?

A highly-sensationalized article over the weekend in the Washington Post called this a sort of "surge pricing" for parking, like Uber's much-maligned surprise ride hailing rates, and said the rates could reach $8 an hour. Reporter Faiz Siddiqui wrote,

[Y]ou could be paying $8 an hour to park in Chinatown-Penn Quarter at peak times.

You read that right. $8. An hour.

This is only accurate in the same sense that the subscription price for the Washington Post digital edition *could* rise to $600 a year (also quadrupling its current price). It's possible, but it's very unlikely you would actually pay that.

This number is just a cap

Where did this $8 an hour figure come from? Siddiqui doesn't give a source for the number in the article, except in quoting AAA's John Townsend, who has consistently opposed market pricing for parking.

In fact, the $8 an hour is a cap in the legislation authorizing a parking pilot program. DDOT can adjust rates on its own, but only up to a maximum of $8 an hour.

The legislation which caps the rates at $8 also limits price changes to 50¢ a month or $1.50 a quarter. Right now the rates are $2 per hour. That means that the rates could, in the spring, rise to $3.50, then maybe $5, and so on. At the absolute maximum, it could hit $8 in a year.

But in San Francisco, many rates decreased. Even if a few, super-popular blocks do eventually hit $8 an hour, it's almost certain that other blocks will not. You'll be able to park a little farther from your destination to save money if you want to.

The rates will rise only where demand warrants it

DDOT will decide whether and how to change rates based on data. Recently, the spots in this zone, from E to H, 5th to 11th Streets NW, switched to "pay by space." Instead of getting a printed receipt at a kiosk to put in the dashboard, parkers enter a space number on the kiosk, or enter the same number into the Parkmobile app.

Infographic of the new pay-by-space system from DDOT.

This means DDOT will have much more detailed data on how many spaces are filled at what times of the day. In January and February, DDOT will evaluate the data and recommend changes to pricing. If a block is more than about 85% full during most of a block of time, the price in that area during that time period will go up; if it's less full, the price will go down.

If rates rise in a certain area during a certain time but that deters enough people from parking there that the block stays mostly empty, the rates would go back down.

This means that the only way rates could hit $8 an hour during any timeframe is if so many people want to park there so badly that they actually will pay $8 an hour.

$8 an hour might not be so high for short-term parkers

Paying $24 to park for a 3-hour dinner sounds kind of steep, but you're unlikely to ever pay it. That's because you can easily pay much less for off-street parking today. Many restaurants have valet parking which is much less, and there are a lot of garages in the area where you can park for $10-15 for three hours on a Saturday.

Garage pricing for 7-10 pm on Saturday, November 14 from BestParking.

(One standout exception to the general price range is the Verizon Center garage, at $40-60 for the evening shown in the image above; there's a Wizards-Magic game that night so people ought to be able to apparate in anyway. Seriously, though, that price shows that there are some people who want to pay really high rates, and they might be able to park right in front of the restaurant; everyone else can use the valet for half as much and still feel like first class.)

Townsend banks on a certain expectation in people's minds that parking is supposed to be really cheap. Townsend says,

For a lot of people of certain needs, it means to go out for your anniversary dinner in Chinatown, you pay a babysitter $12 an hour and now you're going to pay $8 to park in that area, because it's going to be evening hours when it's high demand. Those people will probably do it once or twice and say, "You know what? It's not worth it." So why go?

Instead of going to Disney World, instead of going to SeaWorld, you take your kids to DC. It's the nation's capital. You get gouged.

It's interesting to hear how $8 (again, which won't be the actual parking rate) is gouging compared to Disney World, which right now costs $91-105 per person to go to only one of the theme parks for one day.

If you're having an anniversary dinner in the Penn Quarter, you probably expect at least $100 for a bill including a bottle of wine. Tourists to DC seem happy to pay for tickets to the Spy Museum, which can run up to $75 for a family of four.

And if you don't want to pay for parking, this is the area of the city best served by alternatives, from Metro to countless buses, not to mention Capital Bikeshare, Uber and Lyft, Zipcar, car2go, and much more. Nobody has to drive, and those who want to won't have to pay $8 an hour unless they really, really want to.

Photo by marcovdz on Flickr.

This is not "surge pricing"

Analogies to Uber's "surge pricing" miss the mark. What generally bothers people about the Uber pricing is not that the price is higher; it's a taxi, after all, and often the price is quite low. (Some say too low for the drivers to make a living, but that's another discussion.)

Rather, what rankles many people is that the surge pricing is a surprise. You might plan to take an Uber and then suddenly find it's twice the price. (Don't forget to try Lyft.) Or Metro breaks down and Uber is surging to 8x.

DC's parking pilot will not surprise anyone. Rates will only change after robust public notification, and each time block in the day will have the same price every day until DDOT revises rates. There will be maps of the pricing online, and DDOT is working on an app as well.

Ideally, one day there could even be digital signs in the high-demand parking areas: "Want cheaper parking? Go over to _____." They could point people to cheaper blocks or to garages. Maybe the parking garage operators can even get together to help make those happen.

Both programs take advantage of principles of economics, but no, "surge pricing" is not coming to a parking meter near you.

The ability to count on more easily finding a space, however, is. That will save drivers a lot of headaches.


Which local news sources did good actual reporting on the bad Texas A&M traffic study?

Every two years, a research institute at Texas A&M comes out with a flawed report on traffic. Each time, other transportation analysts debunk it. But most reporters breathlessly regurgitate quotes from author Tim Lomax every time without doing any actual reporting of their own. How did our local reporters fare this year?

Interview photo from Shutterstock.

The Texas Transportation Institute's "Urban Mobility Study" takes a "searching under the streetlight" approach of looking at some data they get from INRIX and extrapolating that into shoddy conclusions. Victoria Transportation Policy Institute researcher Todd Litman, Joe Cortright of City Observatory, and locally, the Coalition for Smarter Growth have all rebutted the study's many flaws.

But Lomax knows that the press just eats up this "we're #1 in traffic" or "commuters waste 3 days per year in traffic" or whatever. When his report is about to come out, he goes on a press blitz, and hundreds of news outlets write up his non-peer-reviewed study (543, at last count via Google News).

Some of our local reporters just packaged Lomax's quotes and numbers into an unquestioning bundle of clickbait. Others took a moment to ask a few more questions or even wrote critical articles. Here's how they stacked up.

The "not fooled for a minute" crowd

  • WAMU. Martin di Caro, one of the region's best transportation reporters, focused his story around criticisms of the study, especially the Coalition for Smarter Growth's. Di Caro also actually asked study author Tim Lomax about the critiques.

    One criticism has been that the study's summary talks about delay to residents, when really it's just about car commuters. Lomax acknowledged that he doesn't have good data on transit, bicycling, or walking, but argues it's unfair to criticize the study for leaving pieces out even though Lomax spins his own data into sensational statements and suggests policy conclusions.

  • WTOP. Ari Ashe, who was around the last time this came up and apparently remembers the controversy, skipped the bandwagon (though WTOP ran the Associated Press's press-release-rewrite version) and instead wrote a good story with CSG's rebuttal and comments by Falls Church Vice Mayor Dave Snyder.

The "used some actual shoe leather" crowd

  • NBC4. While the lead-in by the anchor sensationalizes the "we're #1 in traffic!!!!!" angle, Tom Sherwood mostly uses this story as an opportunity to talk to people around the region, including Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, about solutions that include transit, bicycling, and more as well as roads. He also interviewed me. The CSG press release came out a little later, and the NBC4 web version of the story now includes quotes from that as well.

The "second draft is the best" crowd

  • Washingtonian 2.0. Posted just after this article initially went live, Ben Freed's take criticizes the report and also points out weak spots in what Tim Lomax told Martin di Caro. Freed's article also possibly has the best headline of the bunch: "Driving in Washington Is Bad. So Is That Study That Says How Bad It Is."

The "phoned it in" crowd

  • WUSA9: USA Today's national article was pretty terrible. And USA Today appears first on the byline for WUSA9's article. Lomax speaks, these outlets transcribe.

  • Washingtonian 1.0. The writing is clever—82 hours is enough time to watch Orange Is the New Black twice. Cute, if only it were based on valid data. Update: Washingtonian has followed up with another article, above.

  • Washington City Paper. We miss you, Aaron Wiener. The lack of a regular Housing Complex reporter covering planning and transportation is evident in the City Paper's unremarkable summary of the report.

    It's most disappointing because this is our alt-weekly that often finds an irreverent take on issues, questions conventional wisdom, and looks at the world through the city dweller's lens. I don't expect better from WUSA9, but do from these great folks who do so much excellent reporting (like the fantastic exposé on Metro's PR-spin-efforts after the January smoke death incident).

    Also, the City Paper's headline for the TTI study, "D.C. Most Congested U.S. City for Drivers, Report Finds," commits the cardinal sin of conflating DC with the whole region; as Tom Sherwood noted, the traffic analysis is about the whole region, not the District itself.

The "fool me twice" crowd

  • Washington Post. Ashley Halsey III has seen this story before. In fact, he's written it three times before, in 2009, 2011, and 2013.

    Halsey has had ample time to see the criticisms that people have leveled at the study every time it comes out. He even quoted more other people for context in 2009 and 2011, but stopped in 2013, and this year's article again simply recited Lomax's claims with no critical eye at all.

The "are there even humans here?" crowd

  • Fauquier Times. This "news source" appears in Google News, but its article on the issue is just a straight-up reprint of the AAA Mid-Atlantic press release (which, not surprisingly, argues that the solution to the traffic reported in the study is spending more money on roads).


The war on Dana Milbank's car

"DC doesn't deserve self-rule until it... lets Dana Milbank break traffic laws." That's the message from the Washington Post's columnist today.

The idea that DC might be entitled to govern its own affairs, but only if it shapes up in some way that happens to appeal to the writer, is a sadly common refrain from political commentators. Though governors of many states have been actually convicted of corruption—most recently, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell for allegedly selling his influence to a dietary supplement maker in exchange for personal gifts—many say the District doesn't deserve autonomy because there's a campaign finance investigation into our mayor. (Or because Ward 8 votes for Marion Barry.)

Today's Milbank column is a new low in this trope, even compared to the one he wrote last year where he objected to budget autonomy because the city was making all taxis switch to a uniform red paint job.

Apparently, Dana Milbank has been breaking a number of traffic laws, such as not fully stopping at a stop sign, or not fully stopping before turning right on red. He admits he's broken these rules, but rather than suggesting they be changed, he calls efforts to enforce them a "startling abuse of power," an "appalling overreach," and "like a banana republic."

The column is also a new low in the tired "war on cars" meme, which keeps popping up for one reason: Representatives of AAA Mid-Atlantic, the region's local branch of the national auto club, repeat it every chance they get. And with good reason: it gets quoted. It revs people who drive aggressively, but think they're being safe, into a frenzy of blaming the government for daring to suggest that their behavior might be dangerous.

Fix problems, don't attack all enforcement

That's not to say DC's camera system is perfect. A recent report from the District's Office of Inspector General exposed some real problems with the program. For example, sometimes officials couldn't tell which of multiple cars was speeding, and sometimes improperly decided which one would get a ticket. This shouldn't happen. Authorities need to be very confident they have the right car, and if they aren't, they shouldn't give a ticket. (According to police, these problems have already been fixed or are in the process of being fixed.)

However, Milbank isn't saying he's been the victim of any of these errors. He's not saying the law should be changed, but rather, not enforced. (He does allege some other instances where a ticket appeal was denied improperly—and if true, that's also wrong.)

The Post editorial board had a much more level-headed response to the IG report, writing, "The widespread and consistent enforcement of traffic laws made possible by photo enforcement has caused drivers to slow down in the District and obey the rules. While it is important to fine-tune the system to make it as fair and accurate as possible, suggestions to limit or curtail the program should be rejected."

Yes, safety is important

I agree with Milbank, AAA, and others that the camera program can target safety even better than it does. The strongest argument for enforcement is where pedestrians or cyclists are at risk. These vulnerable road users have little recourse against aggressive driving. There are many places in the District where people speed, turn right on red without looking, or just plain fail to yield around significant numbers of pedestrians. Residents of those neighborhoods can often tell you just where the bad spots are.

There should be lower fines, but more cameras, so that people know they're going to get caught doing something illegal, but each incident can be more minor. Criminology research has shown that more frequent enforcement with lower severity changes people's behavior more than random, occasional, high-severity punishment.

AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson alleges that not fully stopping at a stop sign or before turning right on red isn't a real safety issue. WTOP's Ari Ashe tried to research this, and found that crashes involving right turns on red aren't that frequent. However, the crashes that do occur tend to cause injuries.

AAA used to agree. During meetings of 2012 task force on cameras which DC Councilmembers Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells convened, AAA's John Townsend said the organization fully supported stop sign and red light cameras. "Complete cessation of movement" is the legal standard, and Townsend said they agreed with that. Now, that seems to have changed, and maybe slowing down mostly, but not entirely, is OK.

How do you stop unsafe right turns on red?

The problem is that it's hard to draw a line other than "actually stopping" that protects pedestrians. For speeding, our society has generally tolerated driving up to 10 mph over the limit, and now drivers come to expect that they have a 10 mph buffer. But the consequence is that even on residential streets with 30 mph speed limits, people feel justified driving 40. A pedestrian will survive a crash at 30 mph 70 percent of the time; at 40 mph, it's only 20 percent.

So should it be OK to turn right without stopping as long as you're going under 2 mph? 5? 10? When will we get to the point when whipping around the corner at moderate speed is considered acceptable (many already think it is), and if you hit a pedestrian, "I didn't see him" is enough to get off with no consequence?

Behaviors that drivers intuitively think are safe enough aren't necessarily. The challenge of a camera program is to convince a large group of people that something they've been doing for a long time is actually kind of dangerous. There's always going to be a gray zone of what is and isn't dangerous, but people are always going to want to push that envelope to excuse more behavior.

They'll insist that the program is about money, not safety, as many do. AAA will tell them it's not their fault. They'll craft biting turns of phrase to criticize the government, as Milbank did, or suggest DC doesn't deserve statehood because of it, or even argue that the District is "like the Soviet East" because locally-elected representatives passed laws and want more freedom from an overbearing central government—wait, what?

What's that about statehood?

But Milbank's statehood point is more apt than he likely realized. Even when Democrats held the White House, House of Representatives, and a supermajority in the Senate in 2009, they didn't pass statehood for DC, or even budget autonomy. Republicans talk about the value of local control, then legislate their values for District residents who have no say in the matter.

For some in the political classes, democracy is a great idea in theory, but when it comes to giving up one's own control, ideology often loses out. Milbank is pointing out a real reason DC will have a hard time winning more autonomy. It's not because the government is behaving badly. Rather, it's that for the people who hobnob with members of Congress, it's more convenient to have their friends calling the shots for the District—so they don't have to do something as pedestrian as drive carefully enough to protect pedestrians on the road.

Cross-posted at the Washington City Paper.


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.

Photo by John M on Flickr.

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).

Townsend and I would agree this is really confusing. Photos from the 800 block of 17th Street, NW.

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 Coalition Correction: 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
All would be great people to call for anything about parking or photo enforcement or to respond to pretty much any AAA press release, campaign, or gripe of the day.

I'd be happy to send any reporter these folks' phone numbers. Just drop me a line.


Zoning Commission grills AAA on parking minimums

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.

Photo by Wally Gobetz on Flickr.

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 "apologizes for comments," says taken "out of context"

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.

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.

Read the original story and the Greater Greater Washington team's comments.

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.'"
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