Photo by squidpants on Flickr.

A solution to the chronic parking problems some Columbia Heights churchgoers face could be at hand. The Current reports (mammoth PDF) that the Washington Interfaith Network worked out a deal with the District government to let church patrons use the underfilled DC USA parking garage for a discount rate.

Columbia Heights has a lot of churches with many congregants who lived in the neighborhood long ago. Many have taken advantage of better economic circumstances for themselves, or the rising value of their property in Columbia Heights, to move to houses in the suburbs which they desired. Others were pushed out by rising rents. Many of these former residents still drive back to the old church on Sundays.

At the same time, the population of the neighborhood has swelled. That means much fiercer competition for limited parking spaces on the street. As the Current story explains, parking rules in the area are suspended on Sundays, but only until 2 pm, which is too early for many who want to stay longer at church.

During a citywide “parking summit,” members of many nearby church congregations asked DDOT for exemptions from the parking restrictions so they could continue to park for free, for unlimited lengths of time. Instead of more free parking, this deal will give churchgoers a $2 discount to park at the DC USA garage. The garage is never completely filled, as Target insisted on far more parking spaces than turned out to be necessary.

A key point here is that the churchgoers, who need parking, were willing to work out a deal with city officials without the promise of unlimited, unrestricted, free parking. In fact, the very fact that parking was not so available, thanks to greater demand and new restrictions, likely made people willing to think creatively.

It may indeed be worthwhile to subsidize, to some extent, parking for certain groups based on political necessity. What’s important is not to subsidize it to the point of being completely free. When people share in the cost of parking, they might choose to carpool, or ride transit if it’s available. They have a stake in keeping the total parking demand manageable. There’s a reason not to drive, and take up a scarce space, completely unnecessarily.

Not all neighborhoods have a big, underutilized garage, but there are other solutions as well. Some areas have office building or hotel garages which don’t fill up on Sundays, or other ways to procure some short-term parking. These can give churches an opportunity to satisfy their congregation’s legitimate parking needs.

But first, it takes a city not willing to succumb to the first temptation, to just give out free on-street parking willy-nilly and create problems for others. If leaders resist this, many opportunities open up to solve the parking needs for churches and many other organizations which have a real place in a community, but not the right to monopolize all parking to the exclusion of others.

Update:  negotiated with the city on behalf of the congregations to work out this deal.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. 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 here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.