Photo by WSDOT on Flickr.

Many AAA members would be surprised to learn that their roadside assistance fees also go to fund a vigorous pro-asphalt, anti-environment lobbying effort. Now, the organization is also spending members’ money to advocate for antiquated car-centric urban policies that will keep DC’s transportation options firmly mired in the 1950s.

In last week’s Washington Post, upper Northwest activist Sue Hemberger and AAA lobbyist Lon Anderson argued against reforming the policy of government-mandated parking lots, which is a relic of America’s misguided transportation planning approach of 60 years ago.

How many of the organization’s 50 million cardholders know that their money has been spent to oppose the Clean Air Act, safety standards, airbags, mass transit, bike lanes, speed limits, and fines for running red lights? Now we can add zoning to the list of positions AAA has taken without talking to members who just want to get a tow if their car breaks down.

Parking minimums are a terrible idea for many reasons. Start with the fact that they simply don’t work.

You can force a housing developer to build parking spaces, but you can’t force a renter to rent them. It costs anywhere from $100-$300 per month to park in a garage, but only $35 per year for a residential curbside parking permit. Which would you choose? We’ve had parking minimums for decades, but the problem of spillover parking is still with us — because it costs so much less to park on public land than it does on private land.

And parking minimums come with unintended consequences, the worst of which is that they make housing unaffordable.

Forcing a developer to build unwanted parking makes it more expensive to build, by as much as $30,000-$40,000 per unit.  That cost is passed on to tenants, whether they know it or not. 

More broadly, the District’s crisis of unaffordable housing has its roots in a shortage of housing supply. Between DC’s geography, the Height Act, and the zoning map, real estate for residential development is scarce. Parking minimums require that much of that space to be devoted to parking lots and garages instead of housing, they limit the overall size of buildings, and they make some projects altogether unfeasible. Less housing supply leads to higher prices.

So what we have is a very aggressive affordable housing policy for cars that is at cross-purposes with affordable housing for people.

In a city that is growing, we’ll always have more and more demand for lots of goods: More demand for parking, schools, police, transit infrastructure, and drinking water. At the same time, the newcomers create economic benefits for lots of people. Yes, housing developers benefit, but so does anyone else who is in a position to sell them goods and services: local merchants, tax accountants, construction workers, interior designers, waiters. Local employers also benefit from a broader pool of talent.

Of all those people who benefit from DC’s population growth, why should we single out the housing developer and penalize them with what amounts to a hidden tax, just because they’re satisfying the new residents’ need for housing?. 

DC’s most beloved neighborhoods were built before parking minimums were in place. If any given street in Dupont Circle, Shaw, or Georgetown burned down today, it would be illegal to rebuild it as is — every building would need to be accompanied by a parking lot or garage, destroying the beauty and walkability that define the character of our older neighborhoods.

The zoning excesses of the 1950s and 1960s were reckless experiments, and their unintended consequences — from the oceanic parking lots and strip malls of Rockville Pike to the megablocks of Southwest DC — are plain for all to see. Today’s zoning reforms take a small step towards undoing that damage.

None of this is to say that residential parking scarcity is not a real problem.

But it’s only a problem because we act as if curbside space were abundant and valueless. The District gives away the right to park on public land for practically free (9.6 cents per day, to be exact).

When you underprice something valuable, you can be assured that it will be overconsumed.

If I have an old car that I no longer need, I have no incentive to get rid of it when I can store it on the street at public expense. If I have a garage, I have no reason to use it to store my car when I can use it to store my bikes and tools and junk. If I’m deciding whether my household needs one more car, the cost of storage doesn’t enter my factor into my decision — but it should.

The city is currently exploring ways to price parking more accurately, neighborhood by neighborhood.

As the population of the city grows, the cost of residential parking should reflect its growth in value. This will cause demand to fall naturally, because residents have incentives to own fewer cars or get them off the street. And it will allow supply to increase naturally, because the private sector will have an incentive to create parking where it’s needed.

Oh, and by the way: If you prefer your roadside assistance without a side order of retrograde lobbying, there are lots of options out there. Do a web search for “AAA alternatives.” My family has switched to Better World Club, which — in a nice touch — provides emergency service for bikes as well as cars.

Herb Caudill lives in Cleveland Park with his wife, Lynne, and two young boys. He has lived in DC since 1995; he taught math as a Peace Corps volunteer in West and Central Africa, and currently runs DevResults, a web-based mapping and data management tool for foreign aid projects.