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Posts about Performance Parking


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.


DDOT's newest performance parking program will be its best

In May, DDOT will launch its most robust performance parking experiment to date. The program, called ParkDC, will significantly change how people park in Gallery Place: the cost to park a car on some of downtown's most in-demand blocks will rise or drop according to demand.

Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

ParkDC's boundaries will stretch from 11th to 3rd and from E to H Streets Northwest.

Under the performance parking program, DDOT will use cameras and sensors to measure when parking spaces in the designated area are occupied and when they're empty.

Each quarter, the agency will measure that data against a target occupancy rate of 80-90% (or about one empty spot per block) and adjust how much it costs to park in a given spot accordingly. It's possible that prices will change more frequently after the first few quarters, and DDOT will assess ParkDC's overall impact sometime before the end of 2016.

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

Charging market rate for parking will make sure there are enough empty spots for people who need them while also eliminating an oversupply. That, in turn, will cut down on the congestion that comes from people driving around looking for somewhere to park.

ParkDC is based in part on the success of SFpark, which was introduced to several busy areas in central San Francisco in 2011. An evaluation of SFpark showed that the program made streets better for everyone, with 30% fewer miles driven, 23% fewer parking tickets, 22% less double parking, and 43% less time wasted looking for parking. The average price for parking even fell by 4%. Compared to control areas, buses ran faster and retail sales grew more.

The local business improvement district supports ParkDC: in its press release, businesses touted the project's ability to make parking "easier to locate" and cut down on double parking and drivers circling for spaces.

ParkDC will be DDOT's best parking effort to date

DDOT has tried pilots on Capitol Hill, H Street, and Columbia Heights. They were less successful than supporters hoped because DDOT did not have a cost-effective way to measure occupancy. It also didn't put forth a schedule for updating the meter rates, nor a timeframe for evaluating effectiveness.

For each of these pilot areas, DDOT only reported occupancy data publicly twice, and it hasn't changed prices in some places even when the data show they're either too crowded or empty.

ParkDC's real-time cameras and occupancy sensors, along with a pre-announced schedule, make the program smarter and more responsive.

According to Soumya Dey, DDOT's director of research and technology transfer, ParkDC will use a number of methods to gather occupancy data. A traditional "hockey puck," transaction data from the meters, historical data, cameras, and law enforcement data are all among the ways DDOT will know how many people park, and when, on each block. Dey said the hope is to use fewer embedded sensors, and to evaluate which method is most cost-effective.

Dey said that once the program is up and running, the public will be able to view spot occupancy in real time on DDOT's website or its app.


When you raise parking rates, the 'why' matters

Arlington County may raise its parking rates, which would make it easier to find space. It'd be a welcome change, but it may happen for the wrong reasons.

Photo by Niall Kennedy on Flickr.

At a budget work session last week, county staff floated the possibility of extending on-street marking meters' operating times by one hour and upping the hourly price by $.25. It's a move that's long-overdue in the county—even Leesburg, VA charges more.

The reason Arlington is considering the raise, though, is because it needs to close a budget gap. That sends a message that on-street meters are for collecting revenue when their real purpose is to regulate traffic and space.

Parking meters are for making sure there's somewhere to park

Parking meters came about in the 1930s as a way to make spaces in front of stores available to multiple people throughout the day. While meters provide revenue, their real benefit is that they ensure access as well as cut back on the congestion that comes from driving around to look for an open space.

Most downtowns have changed since the parking meter arrived. People used to go downtown for visits to the bank or pharmacy, which are open in daytime hours. Now, successful downtowns, like Clarendon and the 23rd Street strip in Crystal City, are destinations for evening entertainment. Parking demand really peaks around dinner time.

When parking meters stop running at 6 pm, they aren't doing their job. The most convenient parking is priced too low given its demand, and that means a dearth of available on-street spaces.

Failing to adapt meters to this shift in usage has caused a lot of problems for Arlington. Customers looking to quickly grab take-out or drop off dry cleaning have to waste time circling the block to look for a spot, which can lead to them double parking or taking their business elsewhere.

Also, drivers who are distractedly searching for parking are a danger to pedestrians.

If meter rates are set appropriately, garage spaces will end up being cheaper than metered spaces so more people will seek them out and see how much oversupply of garage parking we actually have.

Charging market rate for parking makes parking predictable

In his book The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup says the solution is performance parking. Performance parking is a system where parking's cost and enforcement hours match demand for spots in the given area. Adjusting prices will mean there's always one or two open spaces on every block.

San Francisco has a performance parking initiative that has shown remarkable benefits. DC is starting its own performance parking program, parkDC, in Chinatown and Penn Quarter.

Arlington's Master Transportation Plan calls for a pilot of performance parking, but the county has never put it into effect. That's likely due to concern over pushback from businesses, as many skate by on thin margins and are very concerned about the possibility of losing customers because of expensive parking. But in Seattle, expanded meter enforcement has actually resulted in more revenue for downtown restaurants.

When parking is more convenient and predictable, customers can head to businesses confident they won't have to waste time searching for a place to park.

To offset the perception that performance parking would harm a commercial district, Shoup recommends dedicating some or all of the revenue performance meters generate to investments in the surrounding area. In Arlington, funds could go toward landscaping, streetscape projects, special events, or perhaps replacing the tax that currently funds business improvement districts.

Regardless of how the board comes down on the proposal at hand, performance parking is long overdue in Arlington. The county should work with residents and the business community to make it happen. Underpriced on-street parking is too harmful to Arlington for it continue.

Billing parking as a revenue generator sends the wrong message

If Arlington does raise its parking meter rates, it should be clear about the purpose of the new charges. Simply raising meter rates as part of the budget discussion dumps parking policy in with political quagmires. It makes people think of metered parking as just another tax when, in reality, it's a tool for making efficient use of curb space and for creating a functioning market for convenient parking, which is in limited supply.

Pricing on-street parking properly is good for everybody. Everyone has times when they aren't in a hurry and would happily save a few bucks by parking in a less-convenient garage, and everyone has times when they're running late and would happily pay a premium for a spot that's quick and convenient. Right now we don't get to make that choice because the most convenient spaces are actually cheaper than the less convenient ones.

To answer the question "Do we need to raise meter rates?" you don't need to know whether you have a gap in the budget. You need to know whether there are spaces available on the street for somebody in a hurry. Raising rates as part of the budgeting process, along with not charging them at the busiest times, sends exactly the wrong message.

Michael Perkins contributed to this article.


When parking prices reflect demand, everybody wins

When San Francisco let parking prices fluctuate with demand, drivers found it easier and faster to find parking. The city maximized its valuable curb parking spaces and modestly sped up buses.

Image from SFMTA.

These are some of the results from a recently-released evaluation of SFpark, a pilot program that started in 2011 by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) with support from the Federal Highway Administration.

SFpark used a sophisticated system of electromagnetic sensors, networked parking meters, and databases to track the occupancy of 7,000 on-street spaces in seven pilot neighborhoods and 15 of the city's 20 SFMTA-operated garages.

It took less time to find parking

The project's "primary focus was to make it easier to find a parking space," with prices allowed to fluctuate such that on-street spaces met a target occupancy of 60-80% on weekdays between 9 am and 6 pm. (Project managers chose this target as it generally allows for one space on each block space to sit open and ready for a newly arriving vehicle). According to the evaluation report, the dynamic-pricing pilot areas met this occupancy target more often than control areas the report compared them to.

As a result, the time it took to find parking decreased in the pilot area from an average of 11 minutes and 36 seconds to 6 minutes and 36 seconds, a 43% decrease. By comparison, the control areas saw only a 13% decrease. As a result of the reduced circling, the total distance vehicles traveled in the pilot area decreased by 30%, which meant less greenhouse gas emissions.

Nobody benefits when drivers circle for parking, take up road space, release more pollutants, and (in some cases) block the street by double-parking.

In many places and times, parking prices declined

One might think that this all occurred because parking prices shot up, and in some cases they did. For example, side streets along the Fillmore Street retail corridor saw weekday hourly prices go from the old, city-wide rate of $2.00 to as a high as $4.50. However, the average hourly rate for parking on the street, across the whole pilot area, actually went down by 4%, from $2.69 to $2.58. How could this be?

Just as roadway demand exceeds roadway supply (leading to congestion) only at certain times and in certain places, parking demand only exceeds parking supply in certain times and at certain places. In fact, many of San Francisco's pilot-area blocks sat relatively empty when parking cost a flat rate ($2.00, $3.00, or $3.50 per hour, depending on location) because those blocks were not desirable. Now, with parking as low as $0.25 per hour in some locations (the minimum price allowed under the program), demand is distributed more evenly across space.

Also, SFpark introduced time sensitivity to parking charges, making it possible to fine tune pricing to match demand across the day and across weekdays and weekends. Over the time period studied, four of the pilot neighborhoods saw increases in average weekday on-street parking rates, while three actually saw overall decreases.

How San Francisco mastered the politics

Between the evaluation report, the program's technical documentation, an upcoming evaluation from FHWA, and the downloadable data sets that program managers routinely update, there is a lot of quantitative data that researchers, activists, policy-makers and citizens can study in great detail.

Yet stepping back from the quantitative results for a moment, it is important also to recognize and learn from the way in which SFMTA sold dynamic pricing to the public in the first place.

First, it launched SFpark as a pilot, a strategy that can lower the perceived stakes (and tensions) for everyone involved. Second, it set primary and secondary goals that would not only benefit the community at large (reduce greenhouse gases, reduce congestion), but also those drivers paying the variable rates (make it easier to find a spot, make it easier to pay, reduce the number of parking tickets). Third, SFpark made marketing (with graphic design quality not usually seen from a public agency), messaging, transparency, and outreach core parts of the program.

The SFpark overview video explains complex technology with easy-to-understand animations and narration. Image from SFMTA.

It is vitally important that other cities take similar approaches if they are to change parking policy because such policy stirs up strong emotions and political action.

Jeffrey Tumlin, of the transportation-consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard, creatively refers to America's relationship with parking as an "addiction," which vividly sums up how difficult it is to alter the status quo around those patches of pavement where we store our cars. Similarly, a recent primer on parking pricing from FHWA notes that innovative parking policy ideas will go nowhere without political and public support.

The results of the SFpark pilot evaluation provide a rich source of rigorously measured outcomes that planners can reference in policy documents and presentations around the United States. Yet if similar programs and their beneficial outcomes are to take hold throughout the country, officials will need to copy not only SFpark's substance but also its style.


Here are four ways to make parking meters on the National Mall a success

The National Park Service is proposing to add meters to areas of the National Mall and memorial parks where parking is currently free. With a thoughtful plan, meters should make it easier to find parking on the Mall and improve access to its important sites.

Non-NPS meters on the Mall. Photo by Jeremy Caesar on Flickr.

A few key steps can help the meter program be successful: setting meter rates and times based on demand, offering convenient payment options, helping people locate parking and transportation alternatives, and being transparent about how meter revenue is spent.

Embrace performance parking: Meter rates need not be the same everywhere on the Mall. In areas and at times where parking is widely available, there is little reason to charge for it. But in places and at times where parking is scarce, the Park Service should set prices to manage its availability by encouraging parking turnover and alternative modes of transportation.

The Park Service already seems to anticipate this to an extent. The proposal would only add meters in some areas of the Mall, not everywhere (for instance, not at Hains Point). Presumably, NPS has selected these areas because parking demand is highest there, although it would be helpful for the Park Service to confirm this.

Likewise, NPS says that the meter rate, and the days and hours that meters are in effect, will be "similar to DC's parking rates adjacent to" the Mall area. That suggests that NPS will set Mall rates to be comparable to city meters nearby, but maybe slightly higher or lower based on demand. NPS also states that the times meters operate will include an evaluation of demand.

As with parking in other parts of the city, it may make sense for different areas of the Mall to charge different rates or operate for extended hours. To best manage the availability of parking, the Park Service should regularly review data from parking meters to determine whether rates and times should be adjusted.

Make it easy to pay: Drivers will be more willing to pay for parking if it's simple to do so. The days of quarters-only parking meters are gone. Thankfully, NPS says it plans to use meters with multiple payment options. In addition, signage on the meters should clearly explain charges. The Park Service should also plan to ensure that meters are kept in working condition.

Help people find a spot: Helping drivers to locate a parking spot will reduce the sting of introducing fees. The Park Service should evaluate whether current signage could be more effective at directing drivers to parking areas. For instance, if a person can't find an available spot in one parking area, is there a sign directing them to the next place to look? Perhaps meter data could even be used to provide real-time information about parking availability through a mobile website or app.

Furthermore, providing information about transportation options is a good way to encourage visitors to get to the Mall without needing to park. In addition to the planned Circulator bus service, the Mall is now home to several Capital Bikeshare stations.

The Park Service should be sure to publicize those options in its maps and websites and provide wayfinding tools on the ground. And in the longer term, NPS can support Metro's proposal to add a Metrorail station in East Potomac Park by 2040.

Be transparent about revenue: The most important reason to meter public parking is to manage its availability. Generating revenue can be an additional bonus for the Park Service, but it should not be the overriding concern. Being transparent about meter revenue will help people trust that meters were installed for the right reasons, not just to squeeze visitors.

For instance, the Park Service says that meter revenue will help pay for Circulator service, but doesn't say how much of the funds will go to that purpose or whether some of it might be spent elsewhere. The Park Service should annually disclose how much it raises from metered parking and explain what it does with those funds.

Street space in DC is scarce, especially around one of the city and nation's biggest attractions. Done right, bringing parking meters to the National Mall will allow more people to visit and enjoy it.


Topic of the week: Greater Greater 2024

Wednesday marks the start of 2014, but what about further into the future? We asked our contributors what they hope to be writing and reading about on Greater Greater Washington in 10 years.

Photo by Joe on Flickr.

Dan Reed: I'd like to write about how the region's ethnic enclaves, from Langley Park to Annandale, have become the new hot spots, drawing investment from around the globe as the cool kids finally realize there's a big world outside DC, and it's got much better food. Meanwhile, the Rockville Metro station gets renamed "Chinatown."

Jim Titus: I hope to read that that Metropolitan AME complains about DDOT's insensitivity to churches, while the city makes excuses. Church officials complain that CaBi needs to completely empty its 60-bike dock early on Sundays, to prevent the dock from exceeding capacity at the 11:00 AM service.

But DDOT says the real problem is that the new "trikeshare" three-wheelers used by most elderly parishioners each take up two spaces. Church officials concede that the dock never fills at the 7:45 service, which is generally attended by younger members.

Michael Perkins: Goal for the next five years is for DC to take the experience in San Francisco to heart and get serious about managing their curbside parking. Adjust hours and prices to ensure people can find a space if they're willing to pay what it's worth.

Ben Ross: Construction of a new Metro line through downtown DC, and new rail lines in the suburbs. And a reorientation of the Montgomery and Prince George's transportation departments, like DC and Arlington, to operate urban complete streets rather than suburban highways.

Canaan Merchant: 1) Hopefully I'll be reading about construction on a number of new transit lines. 2) Hopefully we'll see so many people on bikes that we'll need to discuss how to handle bicycle congestion. 3) How the city has adapted under new buildings that have broken the current height limit. 4) What the city has planned for an RFK site that is now focused on providing new housing/retail for the city and not more stadiums and parking lots. 5) How the Columbia Pike streetcar has aided in transforming the corridor and led to calls for streetcar expansion throughout Northern Virginia.

Chad Maddox: How the region has successfully absorbed many more residents while simultaneously managing to keep housing relatively affordable. Also, how the District has become a national model for its efforts to eliminate concentrated poverty and residential segregation in its borders.

Tracey Johnstone: That better coordination among local transit agencies, combined with the implementation of free transfer among subway, light rail, bus, and streetcar increased transit usage by over 25%.

Adam Froehlig: In a controversial effort to address chronic bike congestion on the MVT and the 14th St Bridge path, NPS and DDOT implement all-electronic bicycle tolls. A local bike commuter is quoted in the news as saying it will force him to switch to driving while another complains that the revenues will go to the private collector and WMATA instead of to path and bridge repairs.

And after years of false starts, the District finally implements a mileage tax. The effort is seen as a colossal failure as non-DC-registered cars are exempt and the elimination of the gas tax prompts Maryland drivers to suddenly flood DC streets such as Benning Road and Georgia Ave to take advantage of the cheaper DC gas.

Neil Flanagan: I'd like to hear Montgomery officials getting anxious about how successful Prince George's Smart Growth program has been. That it's putting pressure on DC to drop rents, but won't someone think about the historic Greenbelt gas station that's going under?

Also, "Daddy, what's a Millenial?"


How to fix parking: Price it right, and don't play favorites

Parking has been called third rail of local politics, and for good reason. At a panel Wednesday on "Getting Parking Right," Nelson\Nygaard transportation planner Jeff Tumlin put it this way: "People hate the existing system, but they'll also hate any changes you make to the rules. No matter what you do, people are going to be very upset with you."

Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

Sam Zimbabwe, planning director for the District Department of Transportation, was also on the panel. From the look on his face, he knows that has his work cut out for him as the agency tries to bring some measure of rationality to the city's tangle of parking regulations.

We all want to be able to park wherever we want, for as long as we want, and we want it to be free. But we might as well wish for a world of free and infinitely available ice cream. We can't have it, and we give up a lot by trying to get there.

Parking management is pro-driver

The parking problem is one of economics (real estate in the city is valuable and scarce) and geometry (cars take up a lot of space). It is not, Tumlin emphasized, a question of ideology. It's not wrong to own a car, not wrong to drive, and it's not wrong to want to park conveniently. But like all good things in life, convenient parking comes at a cost.

What we all want most of all is availability: We want parking to be there exactly where we need it and exactly when we need it.

The best way to get there, he said, is by pricing parking accurately. The "correct" price for parking in any given place is one that keeps a couple of spots per block open. In practice, that means around 85% of the capacity is used—not less, not more. A world with 85% utilization of parking is a world of parking karma for everyone. You can always park where you need to. It's every driver's dream come true—if, that is, you're willing to pay for that spot's true value.

Small pricing differences make a big difference

Does this mean that parking is just a luxury for the rich? Well, no.

One of the most interesting findings of San Francisco's experiments with parking pricing, according to Tumlin, is that demand is extremely sensitive to location. Right on a main drag like Valencia Street, parking might cost $4.50 an hour. Just around the corner on a side street, it might cost $2.50. Just another block away, garage parking might be available for $1.00. As in every other facet of life, you can choose to save money by giving up a little convenience.

Much of DC's policy discussion on parking management focuses on "transit zones" vs. everywhere else. But there are a lot of things that affect demand for parking. The availability of transit nearby is one, but it's just one of many. How dense is the neighborhood? Are there theaters, restaurants, or other attractions? Are there offices nearby? Just as in San Francisco, demand changes dramatically from block to block, and it's hard to say exactly where the demand is without measuring it empirically.

Thus far, data collection on DC's parking pilots has been thin. There has been a very long lag between collecting any data and adjustments to meter rates, and the data DDOT collects is not very fine-grained.

If and when DDOT collects more and more data on driving and parking patterns, we'll start to have a better understanding of the microgeography of parking demand. Hopefully this bring us closer to pricing that reflects observed real-world demand, instead of crude lines drawn on a map by politicians.

Payment mechanisms make a big difference

Much metered parking throughout the country still uses 1947 technology: You pay by feeding quarters into a metal contraption. Out of quarters? You're out of luck.

There's much better technology available today, and in this area DC has been out in front. According to Zimbabwe, 42% of DC parking transactions are paid by phone or using the Parkmobile app.

The friction of having inconvenient payment mechanisms—whether it's machines that only take quarters, or single-block machines that you have to walk five minutes to get to—is more of an issue for people than cost. If you can make payment seamless, then people don't care quite as much about the actual cost, and you have less resistance to increased rates.

My experience with the Parkmobile app has been that it's like magic: You tell the app you're parking, it already knows where you are, and has your credit card and license plate on file, so there's nothing more to do.

Ultimately, license-plate recognition coupled with smartphone apps will eliminate all of the friction of payment. Tumlin suggested you could even agree to have the city just automatically send you a parking bill at the end of each month based on how long you've parked and where.

Decriminalize parking now!

Another fascinating finding from San Francisco's performance parking program is this: When you start charging the right price for parking, meter revenue goes up ... and revenue from parking citations goes down by almost the same amount.

And when you think about it, that's exactly how it should be. Sometimes you don't have enough quarters on you, or you underestimate how long you'll need to park, and can't get back to the meter. That shouldn't make you a lawbreaker. In some neighborhoods, Tumlin pointed out, driving to dinner and movie is a criminal act, because there's no provision at all for out-of-zone parking for more than two hours.

In fact, the whole two-hour exception doesn't make any sense at all. If you're parking for an hour, you should pay for an hour. And if you need to park for three hours or eight hours, you should be allowed to pay for it.

Keep it simple, and don't play favorites

DC currently has a lot of parking programs. There's ordinary metered parking in commercial areas. There's a residential parking permit program and a pilot visitor parking pass program. There are pilot performance parking programs in a handful of neighborhoods.

Recent legislation looked at how to provide for contractor parking. City leaders are working with churches to resolve conflicts over church parking on Sundays. There have been proposals for special teacher parking and firefighter parking.

DDOT recently unveiled a Parking Action Agenda (PDF) that vows to review all of these different programs and propose reforms. We can start by no longer treating all these different categories as exceptional.

As Tumlin forcefully argued, it's not the government's business why you want to park. Are you shopping? Babysitting? Going to church? Commuting to the nearest metro stop? Redoing someone's kitchen? Making a delivery? Visiting a friend? Out on a date? (As Tumlin asked, "And what if your date goes better than expected?")

It shouldn't be the government's job to make value judgments about people's reasons for parking. So let's eliminate complexity and preferential treatment. You don't need a contractor parking program; you don't need a visitor parking program; you don't need a church parking program. You just need accurate pricing so that people can pay a fair price to park wherever they want, for as long as they want.


On the calendar: Parking! Walking! Bicycling! Controversy!

Whether you care about parking, bicycling, walking, or all three, in DC, Maryland, or Virginia, there are some important events coming up, from a parking meeting tonight in Georgetown to a forum on upcounty Montgomery pedestrian safety to a bike rally in Richmond.

Photo by HogueLikeWoah on Flickr.

Talk parking in Georgetown: Tonight (Wednesday, January 16) is a Georgetown community meeting about parking. Topher Mathews reports Georgetown is likely to get some form of performance parking, but before it does, leaders want to hear from residents about their parking needs and desires. The meeting starts at 6:30 at Hardy Middle School.

Make walkable neighborhoods for everyone: Many DC neighborhoods like H Street are becoming desirable, walkable places, but also increasingly unaffordable for many. How can we ensure these places serve everyone, including long-time residents, rather than one small segment of the population?

The Coalition for Smarter Growth, the most influential smart growth group in the Washington region, organized a panel with Chris Leinberger of Brookings, David Bowers from Enterprise Community Partners, and the DC Fiscal Policy Institute's Ed Lazere. It's Tuesday, January 22, 6:30-8:30 (with some refreshments beginning at 6) at NCPC, 401 9th St NW, suite 500 North. RSVP here.

Talk pedestrians in upcounty: After a spate of pedestrian injuries and deaths in upcounty Montgomery, the Action Committee for Transit put together a forum on pedestrian safety at the Germantown Public Library, 2-4 pm on Saturday, January 26. Barbara McCann from the National Complete Streets Coalition will talk about the area's pedestrian safety problems and possible solutions.

Support biking in DC, Maryland: WABA is inviting folks to its offices on Wednesday, January 23 to talk about bicycle planning in DC and Maryland. The MoveDC initiative and a transportation planning process in Maryland will be collecting a lot of public input.

Stop by WABA's offices in Adams Morgan, 2599 Ontario Road NW, between 5:30 and 9:30 to talk with WABA staff and fellow cycling advocates about how to best weigh in during these processes and what to say when you do.

Support biking in Virginia: In the Commonwealth, the biggest bicycling issues are in the state legislature, where advocates are pushing for 6 specific bills that will make roads safer for cyclists. They are organizing a Bicycling Action Day in Richmond on Tuesday, January 29, starting at 10:30 at the "compass" plaza at Virginia Commonwealth University, followed by a bicycle ride to the state capitol for a rally.

Zoning update! And don't forget the Ward 4 zoning update information session, 6:30 tonight (again, Wednesday—sorry daily email readers) at Takoma Education Campus.

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