Photo by slack13 on Flickr.

The District’s one-size-fits-all approach to residential parking results in inefficient allocation of a scarce resource. Tailoring prices by neighborhood for the city’s residential parking permit (RPP) program could make the system more responsive to the unique needs of individual communities.

When DC introduced its RPP system in the 1970s, it was designed to ensure that residents had access to street parking in their neighborhoods. Residents could petition the city to enforce 2-hour only parking on their block with an exemption for vehicles issued a zone permit. The parking zones coincide with the boundaries set for each of the city’s eight wards.

For more than 30 years, this parking permit regime has worked well to prevent commuters from parking on residential streets. However, the system was never designed to allocate scarce street spaces efficiently among neighborhood residents.

Today, over 200,000 vehicles are registered with the RPP program. In many neighborhoods where residential street parking is restricted, open spaces are still nearly impossible to find, especially at peak times. To fix these ongoing problems, DC should learn from the experiences of Seattle, Washington and set more granular prices for RPP stickers.

Data provided by the DMV reveal that over 70% of the nearly 280,000 vehicles registered in the District are part of the RPP program. An additional 3,255 reciprocity permits are issued to diplomats, military personnel, federal appointees, and temporary residents.

Of the total number of RPP permits issued, 75% are assigned to residents of wards 1, 2, 3, and 6. That probably comes as little surprise to residents of those wards who rely on street parking. The overly large parking boundaries do little to prevent same-ward drivers from parking far from their homes, and the low $15 annual cost per permit effectively encourages residents to keep their cars on the street.

Proposals to help alleviate parking woes have included longer enforcement hours, instituting resident-only parking (thus eliminating 2-hour parking for visitors), increasing the number of parking zones, and metering more street spaces near commercial areas. However, these fixes by themselves are merely band-aids.

The fact is that in much of the city there are just too many cars looking for too few spaces, yet changes to the RPP system appear to be near-impossible. Seemingly innocuous steps to alleviate parking demand, such as a proposal earlier this year to charge higher permit fees for multiple-vehicle households, draw intense opposition from some members of the council. What can break the deadlock?

Last year, the City of Seattle implemented a new parking system that increased the number of parking zones (they now have 40 such areas) and started charging households graduated permit fees based on the number of vehicles. But not all residents pay the same rate. Permit fees in each zone range from free to a maximum of $65 every two years in high-demand areas, more than double DC’s rate.

The most opposition to DC’s plan to charge higher multiple-vehicle permit fees came from representatives of wards that have the least number of RPP holders, which indicates that a one-size-fits-all approach may no longer be viable. Under a system akin to Seattle’s, DC would be able to more subtly address the unique needs of individual neighborhoods.

Councilmembers, understandably, do not support higher fees for residents who are not contributing to the parking problems in other neighborhoods. This new proposed system may be more politically viable. Residents of wards without street parking problems would likely see no change to their current permits, and may even see a reduction in fees.

While parking rates would probably not change significantly in half the city’s wards, parking-scarce neighborhoods would likely see higher graduated permit fees. Those rates should be priced to better reflect the actual demand for street parking to encourage car owners to find alternate spaces for their vehicles.

As a result, the demand for off-street spaces may rise and developers should be allowed to construct those additional spaces, if they so choose. The key is to find the natural equilibrium in parking demand, rather than keeping fees artificially low.

In order to efficiently price permit rates, the city needs a comprehensive count of the total number of zoned parking spaces. DDOT currently only tracks the total number of RPP blocks, rather than individual spaces. It may be possible to quickly complete this task by asking current parking enforcement officers to count the number of spaces as they work their beats. It would then be possible to better compare vehicle registrations and permits in a given area with the total number of available spaces.

Combined with other proposed actions to reduce the size of the city’s parking zones and heightened enforcement, tailoring prices for each community, as Seattle has done, may be the best way to efficiently allocate a scarce public resource among residents.

A native Washingtonian, Adam currently resides in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland where he studied political science and he has a keen interest in local governance.

Mitch Wander first arrived in Washington, DC over 25 years ago as a US House of Representatives page while in high school. An avid promoter of DC living, Mitch has lived in wards 1, 2, 3, and 6. He and his wife are proud DC Public School parents. He serves as an officer in the US Army Reserve.