The email discussion on Cleveland Park’s list continues over whether to give residents free visitor parking passes, which they can give to out of town guests, nannies, contractors, or possibly sell to commuters, to park for free.

Quite simply, the demand for parking outstrips the supply. There is demand to park on neighborhood streets from residents, guests, domestic workers, business employees, and others, and not enough parking at all times. There is especially demand around the Metro stations, between people who want to park and ride at the station, people shopping at the stores there, local residents, employees, and so on.

We can increase the supply or decrease the demand. But when we insist on thinking that all parking should be free, basic economics teaches us that demand will always exceed supply with the price artificially set at zero. DC, and other cities, end up going through remarkable contortions to reduce demand through permits and restrictions, which always creates strange effects, like the nannies and contractors who can’t park at all, even when there is available parking, and even if they were willing to pay. Basic economics says markets are the main tool to fix these problems. As long as people think parking should always be free, we’re refusing to let a market evolve to solve this.

In the February 13th Northwest Current (page 11), Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh wrote an op-ed suggesting a guest parking permit program for her ward. Her basic reasons make sense:

A number of Ward 3 residents have contacted me about various scenarios in which guests to their homes have been unable to park without a local zone sticker. These scenarios include baby-sitters, housekeepers, contractors, medical-services providers and out-of-town guests. Having heard the understandable frustrations with city policies that make it difficult to have such visitors, I have been working to find a solution.

Unfortunately, Cheh’s solution would create as many problems as it would solve, further increasing the already-high demand for parking. This is what generated the lively discussion on the Cleveland Park list, with some residents suggesting reducing the numbers of streets eligible for residential parking permits (RPP), and others suggesting new, large, free garages: (I’m posting all quotes anonymously, since the list archives are only open to list members, though anyone can join the list.)

In addition to various proposals to limit demand—some of which, such as the DDOT visitor parking pilot, might actually increase demand—we should probably be turning our attention to the supply side of the equation. Is it conceivable that we could/would want to have public parking facilities, perhaps combined with a shuttle bus service, in or near the historic district? These could be multi-story parking structures, a la Bethesda, or underground, perhaps at prohibitive expense. (Or would this just bring additional demand in its wake?)

Yes, such a garage would indeed cost an enormous amount of money and increase parking demand as well. Underground parking spaces cost about $60,000 per space to construct, and above-ground spaces cost about $30,000. I doubt every resident of Cleveland Park would want to pay $30,000 right now to improve the parking situation, not to mention the ongoing shuttle bus cost, and it would be unfair for the whole city to have to underwrite more parking in that one neighborhood. But when people are so used to thinking of parking as something that should be free, it’s easy to forget that we’re paying for every space, it’s just that the costs are hidden and indirect. But we’re paying nonetheless.

After a lot of back-and-forth about whether to take away other people’s parking privileges or create more parking, someone chimed in with a voice of reason:

Maybe these visitor passes should NOT be free! I have lived in upper Northwest for over twenty years (the entire time on zoned streets)… If I had a nanny or housekeeper who required such a pass, I might be willing to pay for one—perhaps as much as a couple hundred a year. If every person who lives in an apartment building is going to get a visitors pass for free, there will be absolute parking chaos.

Parking experts like Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and others have been brainstorming a hybrid plan that combines some free parking with a market for parking. There are no details, but it could work something like this: Each resident gets a book of single-use day passes, say 25. Each pass can be scratched off with the date and placed on a car’s windshield, allowing that car to park all day in an RPP zone near the resident’s home (such as the holder’s ANC). 25 is enough for a contractor to work for a month, or a family member or housecleaner to visit twice a month. If more are needed, the resident can purchase them, with the revenue dedicated to improving the local neighborhood. And residents could sell their extra passes if they wished.

In this way, people can still accommodate the occasional visitor for free, but it also uses pricing to match supply and demand. Letting residents sell their passes makes it clear in everyone’s minds the opportunity cost of parking, and can help set the right price. By creating a cost to parking frequently, it encourages people to find alternatives when possible, reducing demand, but allows people to park if they need to for a reasonable price.

I’ll close with the most sensible Cleveland Park email of all:

Why don’t we encourage more public transportation/bike usage rather than increasing the amount of vehicular traffic on our already congested streets? There is more at stake than just creating an underground parking garage—clean air, clean water, sustainable development. Aren’t those as important if not more so than the convenience of parking? I know I am pro-environment (I ride my bike to work most days of the week, take mass transit when possible) but I think in the face of rapid climate change maybe we all need to shift our thinking even further?

Thank you, K.K.!

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.