Posts about National Zoo
The National Zoo plans to close its popular Kids' Farm this summer because of budget cuts. Instead of hastily shutting down a popular educational venue, the Zoo could pay for it by increasing parking revenue by just 10 percent through the recommendations of its own reports.
The Kids' Farm is very popular. Unofficial estimates by the zoo calculate that almost 30% of zoo visitors enjoy the Kids' Farm annually. Given that 2.3 million people visited the zoo in 2010, this translates into 600,000 patrons. That's about the same attendance as the Hirshhorn Museum.
The Smithsonian itself has written reports on the need to improve the zoo's parking management. Parking lots frequently fill up in peak months, forcing families with cars packed with kids to abandon zoo trips on beautiful spring days.
Though closing the Kids' Farm would save the zoo $250,000 per year, the zoo would also lose the food, gift and parking revenue from families that have lost their favorite exhibit. When promoting the zoo as a venue for corporate and family events, the zoo touts the Picnic Pavilion's proximity to the Kids' Farm and even shows a farm animal photo. Clearly the Kids' Farm is a major attraction and revenue generator for the zoo.
Here is how the parking lot could save the Kids' Farm.
Although many visitors receive free parking as Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) members, parking is big business for the zoo. FONZ, which manages zoo parking and concessions, collected nearly $2.6 million in parking revenue according to its 2008 tax filing. Assuming a typical daily cost of $16, over 161,000 drivers paid to park at the zoo that year.
Payments for zoo parking produce more revenue than FONZ memberships, member classes, and group tours combined. Proper management of this revenue stream enables FONZ to support its own operations and its annual cash grant of over $1.7 million to the National Zoo.
The National Zoo Deputy Director, recognizing how the zoo relies on FONZ, asked the Smithsonian's Inspector General to evaluate FONZ's revenue operations "to determine whether FONZ is managing the Zoo's revenue operations in the most efficient and profitable manner."
In August 2007, the IG made 16 recommendations "to strengthen FONZ's revenue operations" and restricting the free parking benefit was one of them.
OIG identified groups that received free parking: zoo employees; FONZ employees, members and volunteers; vendors; and special event guests. The report found that "up to 30 percent of the vehicles parked in the Zoo lots [900 spaces] did not pay parking fees," and that "free employee parking at the Zoo should be restricted."
Currently, free parking is the first item listed under Benefits of Volunteering with FONZ. Unfortunately, there are no programs like transit benefits or carpools listed to help minimize volunteer parking during peak periods when visitors may abandon their trips due to full parking lots.
The OIG reviewed the FONZ benefits by noting, "In comparison to its peers, about 40,000 FONZ members enjoy the lowest annual household membership dues, do not pay admission, and receive unlimited free parking."
As a proud FONZ member, I currently enjoy FONZ benefits including free parking and animal crackers for the kids.
OIG suggested some minor modification to the free parking benefits during peak periods:
Offering unlimited free parking during the off-peak months and limiting free parking to perhaps one or two visits during peak months (with reduced rate parking for additional visits) would be a good way to provide a valued member benefit while also increasing parking revenues.These suggestions would retain nearly all of the FONZ member benefits by only adjusting parking benefits during peak periods. Lowering the likelihood of full parking lots during peak periods benefits all zoogoers. Nobody likes to skip a zoo trip because there was nowhere to park.
Since the 2007 report, maximum parking rates have increased to $20 per day. Signs at the zoo indicate that member free parking is now limited to three hours, yet the member page still promotes all-day free parking.
The National Zoo Facilities Master Plan (2008) reiterates the need to limit employee parking. It recommends that the zoo explore "satellite/partnership" locations for employee parking. This would free spaces for visitors, many of whom pay for parking, thereby increasing parking revenue.
Saving the Kids' Farm is not impossible. In fact, there's already a Facebook Group advocating on its behalf. The zoo states that it "would need to find a generous sponsor who could provide a revenue stream of approximately $250,000 per year."
With much of the parking located near the Kids' Farm, the zoo could even legitimately add signs noting that the parking changes saved the Kids' Farm.
Full parking lots disappoint visitors. A closed Kids' Farm will disappoint visitors. The National Zoo can solve both of these problems by promptly acting on its own parking observations. There is no need to send our cows, pigs, goats and donkeys out to pasture for the sake of free parking.
Any avid "zoogoer" will tell you that becoming a Friend of the National Zoo (FONZ) is a no-brainer. For car owners, one perk stands out among the generous benefits: free parking.
A quick cost-benefit analysis shows why drivers appreciate the free parking benefit, in particular. Up to three hours of parking in the zoo lots would cost $15 according to the recently revised parking rates.
A household, for example, pays $60 tax-deductible dues per year. Even in the unlikely case that the family exclusively joined the for the free parking, the break-even would be four trips at the most. Four trips in a year is nothing for folks who love to visit our zoo.
Drivers receive free parking. For those who travel to the zoo by transit, bike, or foot, what kind of perk could the National Zoo offer that would create equally compelling reason to join?
The discounts on food and souvenirs are nice. And there's the not-so-widely-publicized free bag of animal crackers for members' children at the customer service/stroller rental kiosks. All of these benefits, a cool magazine and supporting the zoo accrue to members whether someone uses the zoo parking lots or not.
Increasing visitor traffic arriving by means other than car would help the zoo, even beyond the increase in people able to enjoy and appreciate the animals. More foot traffic at the exhibits would drive additional concession revenue. Heavy vehicle congestion on busy days often causes the zoo to use its finite police force to direct traffic. Full parking lots lead to long waits in idling cars, unsatisfied visitors who decide to leave rather than wait and increased attempts to park on nearby neighborhood streets.
A FONZ member benefits program for non-drivers would need to be compelling for visitors and easy for the zoo to administer. It also would need to make financial sense to the zoo, with the new benefits costing the same if not less per member visit than the costs of offering free parking. (This posting will not examine the costs of free parking, as it has been covered and debated in other postings.)
Bus/Rail: Could the zoo and Metro develop a way to provide discounts on Metro Rail or Metro Bus trips when FONZ members visit the zoo?
Bike: Could the zoo permit the setup of Capital BikeShare locations with special incentives for FONZ members when they dock a bike at the zoo? Could the zoo, in partnership with local bike shops, purchase discount gift cards for distribution to zoo members who park their own bike in a designated area at the zoo for at least a certain amount of time?
Walk: Could the zoo provide additional FONZ member benefits for those who walk to the zoo from their neighborhood or hotel?
Car: Could the zoo modify existing free parking benefits to encourage families or friends with multiple memberships to carpool instead of each using their free parking with a separate vehicle?
Understandably, it's easy for the zoo to provide free parking. It's a well established process in use by recreational facilities and malls around the world. It's easy to verify whether someone arrived by car. (However, as the January 1, 2011 change in parking rates from unlimited to "up to three hours" shows, a site needs to ensure that the free parking is not abused.)
Transit, bike, or foot benefits for zoo members would take some analysis and integration by the zoo and potential partners such as Metro and Capital Bikeshare. These new benefits would not be free, though neither is the existing parking benefit truly free.
How could the National Zoo could provide these or other innovative benefits for FONZ members who arrive by transit, bike or foot?
Tourists often reach the National Zoo by Metro to the Connecticut Avenue entrance. But many local residents walk or bike to the east side gate off Harvard Street from Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, or nearby neighborhoods. Begninning this spring, they have been turned away, as the Zoo closed all east side entrances due to construction.
At the Harvard Street bridge, a sign directs visitors to the Connecticut Avenue entrance. While this detour may inconvenience someone in a car, it forces a nearly 1.5-mile walk for pedestrians. Rather than walking back through Adams Morgan, people began walking down the dirt shoulder of an off-ramp and crossing Beach Drive to enter the Zoo.
Rather than finding a way to accommodate pedestrians, the National Park Service put up a temporary fence to prevent people from walking on the shoulder. This resulted in people simply walking on the actual onramp, resulting in an even more dangerous situation. ABC 7 News reported on this matter earlier in the month.
Eventually the Zoo established a shuttle bus to take visitors from the Harvard Street gate around to Connecticut Avenue. The bus service, however, is infrequent and not a solution for pedestrians. On at least one recent weekend, the Park Serivce stationed police to keep pedestrians off the ramp. This past weekend, a reader reports that a jogger was struck by a car while crossing Beach Drive at this spot.
While the inconvenience is only temporary, it calls into question the Zoo's interest in being a good neighbor to those on the east side of the park. By closing the Harvard Street bridge, the Zoo not only cut off pedestrian access, but also to the jogging and bike trail.
The bike lane on Harvard Street directs cyclists to use the Zoo's bridge to connect to the trail in Rock Creek, but even under normal conditions that bridge is closed whenever the Zoo is closed. As a result, residents on the east side of the park must go all the way through Adams Morgan and cross Rock Creek via Calvert Street. The other option is going north to Klingle Road, and then going across via Porter Street.
Adding a connection somewhere in the middle, that is not dependent on Zoo hours, would solve this problem. Reader John C. suggests a bike and pedestrian bridge connecting Mount Pleasant to Jewett Road, a street that travels the perimeter of the Zoo. Jewett Road currently has no pedestrian access, and is only open during Zoo hours. A bike and jogging path alongside Jewett Road would let pedestrians and cyclists easily travel from Mount Pleasant to the Rock Creek Trail, or to the businesses on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park. This would involve cooperation from the Zoo, but would prove a great benefit to the community.
A possible location for a pedestrian bridge connecting Jewett Road to Mount Pleasant (via Kenyon Street, for example).
The east side gate to the Zoo is only 0.7 miles from the Columbia Heights Metro, and is within walking distance of many growing neighborhoods. The Zoo should take more interest in encouraging people who live nearby to visit by foot.
Presently, the DC Circulator advertises that it goes to the zoo, via its stop in Woodley Park. Interestingly enough, the Circulator's westbound stop at 16th and Columbia is only 0.5 miles from the eastern gate, while the stop at Woodley Park is 0.4 miles from the main gate on Connecticut. There are plenty of options out there to make the Zoo more a part of neighborhoods both to the east and the west.
After hearing about the closure of the Harvard Street bridge, Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) asked Zoo officials about the construction project, and if the end result would be more pedestrian friendly. The Zoo responded noting the addition of the shuttle bus service, as well as the temporary signage at the closed bridge.
Debra Nauta-Rodriguez, the acting executive officer of the Zoo, has promised Graham a further response to these concerns.
The giant anteater statue in front of the Small Mammal House at the National Zoo has been at that location since it was unveiled on March 25, 1938. The historic image captures the moment shortly after that unveiling. The bronze statue is six feet long and three feet high. The participants at the unveiling are identified (from left to right) as sculptor Edwin Springweiler, Dr. Alexander Wetmore of the Smithsonian Institution (who unveiled the sculpture), Head Keeper William Blackburn, and Dr. William M. Mann, Director of the National Zoological Park.
Between 1926 and today, the entrance to the National Zoo has changed considerably.
When the plan to revamp the National Zoo was unveiled in 1963, it aroused controversy (see below), causing the Smithsonian to reevaluate the plan prior to seeking approval from the Fine Arts Commission. Nonetheless, the major change of eliminating the roadways from the main entrance and moving the vehicle entrance to the northwest was retained and implemented, resulting in the plan that is familiar to visitors today.
Historic image from the National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress.
The National Zoo recently won approval for a new Master Plan containing an aerial tram, to transport visitors around the Zoo, and a new parking garage, to consolidate parking and free up some space for exhibits. Unfortunately, while they say they want to encourage people to ride transit to the Zoo, its plan still sounds like a suburban zoo's car-oriented plan with a few transit bones thrown in.
The Zoo's preferred alternative, according to the NCPC staff report, would have more than doubled visitor parking spaces from 628 to 1,497. NCPC rejected a proposed 300-space garage off Connecticut Avenue, but the Zoo will still end up with 1,119 visitor spaces, for a 78% increase.
Today, Zoo director John Berry appeared on the Kojo Nnamdi show. I called in to ask why the Master Plan focused so heavily on adding parking instead of encouraging transit. Berry said that there's not much new parking, since the new spaces mostly replace those being lost, and that the Zoo wants to equally promote driving and transit. Unless the NCPC staff report and the Office of Planning's analysis are way off the mark, their intentions may be good, but their actions fall short.
The plan makes the curious statement that,
The addition of the new underground parking structure .... would add additional parking ... but the carry capacity of the National Zoo is more determined by the physical space of the facilities and its amenities. As a result, [the alternative] is not anticipated to increase vehicular trips ... and therefore, emissions levels would be same.This sounds a lot like NPS's bizarre assertion in its Rock Creek plan that closing Beach Drive at off-peak times would have no effect on air quality. Assuming that more parking won't increase vehicular trips because of the Zoo's overall capacity only makes sense if everyone drives to the Zoo. And they don't.
As Berry was replying to my question, Kojo jumped in, talking about families of seven he's seen struggling with strollers and screaming children, as a reason to need parking. I agree with Kojo that some families do need parking. But most families do not have five children. Many families absolutely could take the Metro, or park elsewhere (like the underutilized DC USA garage). Many families who should be able to use the Zoo (including some families of seven) don't own cars. Many families take the NYC Subway to the Bronx Zoo, even some families of seven.
Just because some people need parking doesn't mean everyone needs or wants parking. Yet Berry seems to assume as much. For example, earlier in the show he said that becoming a Zoo member pays for itself in only two trips to the Zoo, because members get free parking. What a bad policy! Once someone joins the Zoo, there's little incentive not to drive, and it effectively makes membership quite a bit more expensive for those who don't need to drive to the Zoo. How about a lower, non-free-parking membership rate?
The Zoo is taking some other meaningful TDM steps. According to the NCPC staff report, the Zoo has agreed to create outdoor bike parking for visitors at both ends, indoor bike parking for staff, a bike lane along North Road, and to create a SmartBike location when DC expands that program. They will also improve the signs from Metro stations helping visitors walk to the Zoo or find the shuttle buses.
On the other hand, the plan calls for a pedestrian walkway over North Road from the parking garage, and new MUTCD-compliant street signs. The EIS and NCPC's staff report call these pedestrian improvements. While the bridge may take pedestrians away from the road, it'll only speed up traffic, making the new bike lane less safe. And will these new signs just make North Road feel more car-oriented?
We're lucky to have a world-class zoo and, best of all, one so close to the Metro. It's too bad that Zoo officials say they want to encourage non-auto use (and probably genuinely do mean it), but then plan their facilities around outdated traffic concepts like skybridges and the belief that the number of people who drive has nothing to do with the amount, or price, of parking.
Bianchi had the cleverest idea of all: instead of building parking at the Zoo, let's use that garage and run a free shuttle (or aerial tram) the 0.8 miles to the zoo (which would have the added benefit of enabling visitors to use the Green Line in addition to the Red). I'm sure the shuttle would cost less than the parking (above-ground garages cost $25-30,000 per space and over $30 per space per month for maintenance).
The National Zoo will propose an aerial tram and 1,428 new parking spaces, according to the Examiner (via DCist). The tram will connect all of the Zoo's entrances, of which only one is near Metro and half a mile away. Meanwhile, they will construct a new entrance near the Small Mammal House for a huge new parking lot.
Why not connect the tram to a new entrance near Calvert Street or Woodley Road? Zachary Schrag writes that the Zoo considered a Calvert entrance when Metro was constructed, but dropped the idea. That area is a stone's throw from the Woodley Metro station.
The Examiner article quotes Adams Morgan and Woodley Park community activists as being concerned about parking. What better way to reduce the need to drive to the Zoo than to connect the new tram to Metro? Right now, there's insufficient parking around the Zoo and desire to park on neighborhood streets. Sounds just like the ballpark. Rather than build seas of parking, they upgraded Metro accessibility and set up residential parking restrictions to stop fans from parking in the neighborhoods. And it worked. We should do the same here.
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