Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Comments at a DDOT “parking summit” last night gave a glimpse into the diverse range of attitudes about parking in the District: almost everyone wants more readily available, free parking for people like them.

Some who spoke were residents who wanted more available and free parking on their local streets. Some people with disabilities wanted to have more available spaces but not have to pay for parking at meters, as they don’t today. (Right around the same time, the DC Council narrowly defeated the new red top meter program, which means people with disabled placards will continue to park for free.)

A large fraction of the attendees worship at DC churches, and argued that especially because of their service to the community, they deserve more privileges to park for free on DC streets. Many represented churches in the Logan Circle area, which recently reserved one side of the street for residential permit holders 7 days a week.

While demanding unlimited free parking isn’t really fair, the Logan Circle churches have some reasonable gripes. A few months ago, Councilmember Jack Evans suggested to the Logan Circle ANC that they try this parking change; the ANC approved the plan and DDOT put it into place. The churches, evidently, weren’t part of that discussion.

This is a simple matter of allocating a scarce resource. Before, the policy on Sundays was to allocate the spaces to whomever showed up first or circled around long enough to find a space. Now, it privileges residents at the expense of churchgoers or shoppers or others. Maybe that’s a better policy, maybe not, but we all need to acknowledge that it’s a tradeoff; when one group gets more privileges, another loses them.

Pricing has to be part of the equation

One participant, Emily from Adams Morgan, pointed out that the current political system favors residents, though not for any sound policy reason. She was one of the handful of people who pushed for a market-based pricing approach. There’s still a way to go to sell this to the church folks, however; many were grumbling and shaking her heads when Emily, or anyone else, suggested that a solution to church parking is to stop having it all be free.

But that’s ultimately what we have to do. Richard Layman pointed the finger for parking problems at the way most District parking policies assume parking should be free. Thus, the argument always revolves around whether to give one group free parking or another, rather than to use tools like pricing to manage demand.

He took aim at the sentiment that because people pay for RPP stickers, they have already paid their share. “You think you’re paying for parking, but you’re not paying squat,” he said. Angelo Rao, DDOT’s parking manager, also suggested RPP rates are too low, noting that the current sticker costs only 9.6¢ per day.

Several people, including outgoing southern Woodley Park ANC commissioner Anne-Marie Bairstow, new northern Woodley Park ANC commissioner Gwendolyn Bole, and Friendship Heights ANC commissioner Tom Quinn, all asked for smaller RPP zones.

Bairstow said the current visitor pass program, which automatically mailed out passes to every household, is flawed; she has neighbors who have driveways and garages and still got the passes, so they just gave them to friends from outside Ward 3 or even outside the District, who then use Woodley Park as a park-and-ride.

What’s the answer for churches?

Smaller zones and higher RPP prices are policies that should clearly be part of any solution; the only obstacle is politics. The church issue is trickier. I’ve been pushing for a system where residents buy annual passes, as they do today but at a higher rate, for their immediate areas, and anyone else can buy daily passes, maybe at varying rates based on public policy.

Instead of the current visitor placards, give each resident a “booklet” of free day passes to use for contractors, nannies, dinner parties, or whatever else, and let them purchase more booklets if needed. For a church that really contributes meaningfully to its community (many do, some don’t), we could give the church even more booklets, enough to provide for a large proportion of their parking need, but perhaps not all.

There needs to be some incentive for the churches and neighborhoods to work together in a partnership. Churchgoers can reduce their parking load to some extent, such as by organizing carpools. In some neighborhoods, there are empty office garages; if enough people were willing to pay to park in them, they could open on Sundays. But the church community has to be willing to figure out how to accommodate some of their demand in other ways.

The booklets could form an incentive to do this, if DDOT could manage the total numbers of booklets and passes it gives out so that the total demand doesn’t vastly exceed supply. Or, economists might say, just give the church money and let them buy however many booklets they need, though that could be legally tricky.

The summit did bring this fundamental tension into clear relief. Lots of people want the spaces. There aren’t enough. Someone has to divvy them up in some way. A program of letting anyone park for free doesn’t work, and the complex patchwork of restrictions and limits that DDOT has been moving toward doesn’t really work either.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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.