DC is now the latest city and the first major East Coast metropolis to implement performance parking pricing as recommended by the prophet of parking, Professor Donald Shoup. Legislation passed yesterday by the DC Council sets up two performance parking pilot programs, near the ballpark and in Columbia Heights.

The bill is really four bills in one: Tommy Wells’ plan for the ballpark and Eastern Market, Jim Graham’s derivative plan for Columbia Heights, and two other Graham ideas: an Adams Morgan taxi zone and a Mount Pleasant visitor parking program. The resident parking program is a bad idea in Mount Pleasant just as it is in Cleveland Park. But the rest of the bill is mostly well designed and will provide a good opportunity to test Shoup’s ideas in DC.

This pilot will only run for two years, and will not remove any resident privileges to park for free in any areas. DDOT can set rates, but the Council is the only body that can add new zones.

Shoupism in summary

First, a quick review of Shoup’s principles: when parking is free, demand exceeds supply, and people have to cruise around and around looking for scarce parking spaces. This is annoying for the people and bad for the environment. The solution is to set an appropriate price for parking that creates about 15% availability on average. That way, if someone wants to or needs to drive, they can find a space quickly, while other people will take the train or bus, reducing the number of cars. Rob Goodspeed has a great summary of Shoup’s book.

The second, and very significant, argument Shoup makes is that the city must dedicate the revenue from parking to the local neighborhood. This was key to making local businesses happy with the higher cost of parking. In Pasadena, the city first tried setting higher meter rates and keeping the money for its transportation fund, which merchants hated. But when the money was earmarked to improve the streets, sidewalks, tree grates, lampposts, etc. in the neighborhood, it became hugely popular.

The Wells plan: ballpark and Capitol Hill

Wells’ part of the bill sets up two zones: one between 12th St SW and 10th St SE south of the freeway, and another north of the freeway from South Capitol and Washington Ave to 11th St SE (up to East Capitol). The second one could perhaps be called the Eastern Market zone (though the bill does not). DDOT (“The Mayor,” as the law says, but that means DDOT) shall set parking rates to generate 10-20% curbside availability—exactly what Shoup recommends.

Best of all, 80% of the revenue after set-up expenses and meter maintenance “shall be used solely for the purpose of non-automobile transportation improvements” in the ballpark/Capitol hill zone. The bill gives examples of improvements, including better bus and train signage, “real-time schedule displays,” bus lanes, and “electronic fare payment technologies”; better and safer sidewalks and streetscapes; and bike facilities including bike lanes, racks and signs.

The bill also includes some loopholes. For example, no curb parking that is already paid parking shall go up in price in the Eastern Market zone. This can only mean some spaces may continue to be underpriced, encouraging scarcity and more cruising to find a space in those areas. I suspect this was for political reasons. Also, the fees can’t be charged on DC or Federal holidays, meaning there will be random Mondays with baseball games and parking nightmares.

The fees also may not go up more than 50 cents per month or be changed more than once per month. It’s not clear if the fees can vary within the day. Minimizing the increases may be prudent to cushion outrage over big changes, but might also lead to shortages if the price ends up too low and can’t be raised.

The Graham plan: Columbia Heights

The Columbia Heights zone covers Harvard St to Monroe St, from 11th to 16th—quite a bit smaller than the ballpark zone. It matches most of the good provisions of the ballpark zone. The entire section about dedicating revenue to non-car improvements like transit, pedestrian, and bike facilities applies to this zone as well.

On the other hand, the language of this section shows that Graham is much less confident in Shoup’s principles or in DDOT’s decisionmaking than Wells. The language about 10-20% availability is missing, and it caps fees at $2 per hour—likely not sufficient in all cases. The ballpark zone allows DDOT to set fines as needed “to dissuade illegal parking,” but in the Columbia Heights zone, the Council reviews the fines. The Columbia Heights zone also requires DDOT to only issue warnings during the first 30 days, versus the broader spectrum of enforment options available in the ballpark district.

Adams Morgan taxi zone

Unrelated to parking, the bill also sets up a taxi zone on 18th Street between Kalorama and Columbia. In this zone, taxis may not pick up passengers except at taxi stands between 9 pm and 4 am, seven days a week. Two taxi stands will be established.

This sounds like a good idea. Taxi stands reduce taxi cruising and stop the need for people to compete for taxis or walk several blocks to get past all the other people looking for taxis.

Mount Pleasant visitor parking

Mount Pleasant is a fairly dense neighborhood, with more people than on-street spaces if everyone had a car. Fortunately, it’s close to the Columbia Heights Metro and has a high-frequency bus, the #42, which goes downtown via Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle.

That’s why it’s a little baffling that at the same time he is instituting performance pricing for parking east of 16th Street, Graham is expanding free parking west of 16th by creating visitor parking passes. Everyone with a resident sticker will get a placard which they can give to a friend, family member, nanny, housecleaner, or commuter from Maryland.

There are surely valid needs for a permit; for example, people who have home health care need to let their caregivers park. However, it also means some people will sell the permits to others who drive in from Maryland and park only two blocks from the Columbia Heights Metro. It will also encourage more driving to Mount Pleasant by people who have a choice between taking the bus or Metro and driving. Currently, driving is actually cheaper.

There’s a better way: performance pricing. If every street in Mount Pleasant had performance-priced meters, then anyone from a friend to an employee could always park for sure. In the middle of the day on blocks not on the main commercial street, where parking is plentiful, the 15% vacancy rule would mean that prices would be free, since free is enough to ensure some availability. On busier blocks or at busier times, the price might be a few dollars. And people with disabilities or special medical needs could receive examptions.

By giving away more free parking, Graham is only further entrenching the popular perception that parking is something that should always be free. Another giveaway moves in the wrong direction, creating more of a parking shortage. Graham should read Shoup’s book and listen to Tommy Wells.


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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.