Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

Parking has been called third rail of local politics, and for good reason. At a panel Wednesday on “Getting Parking Right,” Nelson\\Nygaard transportation planner Jeff Tumlin put it this way: “People hate the existing system, but they’ll also hate any changes you make to the rules. No matter what you do, people are going to be very upset with you.”

Sam Zimbabwe, planning director for the District Department of Transportation, was also on the panel. From the look on his face, he knows that has his work cut out for him as the agency tries to bring some measure of rationality to the city’s tangle of parking regulations.

We all want to be able to park wherever we want, for as long as we want, and we want it to be free. But we might as well wish for a world of free and infinitely available ice cream. We can’t have it, and we give up a lot by trying to get there.

Parking management is pro-driver

The parking problem is one of economics (real estate in the city is valuable and scarce) and geometry (cars take up a lot of space). It is not, Tumlin emphasized, a question of ideology. It’s not wrong to own a car, not wrong to drive, and it’s not wrong to want to park conveniently. But like all good things in life, convenient parking comes at a cost.

What we all want most of all is availability: We want parking to be there exactly where we need it and exactly when we need it.

The best way to get there, he said, is by pricing parking accurately. The “correct” price for parking in any given place is one that keeps a couple of spots per block open. In practice, that means around 85% of the capacity is used — not less, not more. A world with 85% utilization of parking is a world of parking karma for everyone. You can always park where you need to. It’s every driver’s dream come true — if, that is, you’re willing to pay for that spot’s true value.

Small pricing differences make a big difference

Does this mean that parking is just a luxury for the rich? Well, no.

One of the most interesting findings of San Francisco’s experiments with parking pricing, according to Tumlin, is that demand is extremely sensitive to location. Right on a main drag like Valencia Street, parking might cost $4.50 an hour. Just around the corner on a side street, it might cost $2.50. Just another block away, garage parking might be available for $1.00. As in every other facet of life, you can choose to save money by giving up a little convenience.

Much of DC’s policy discussion on parking management focuses on “transit zones” vs. everywhere else. But there are a lot of things that affect demand for parking. The availability of transit nearby is one, but it’s just one of many. How dense is the neighborhood? Are there theaters, restaurants, or other attractions? Are there offices nearby? Just as in San Francisco, demand changes dramatically from block to block, and it’s hard to say exactly where the demand is without measuring it empirically.

Thus far, data collection on DC’s parking pilots has been thin. There has been a very long lag between collecting any data and adjustments to meter rates, and the data DDOT collects is not very fine-grained.

If and when DDOT collects more and more data on driving and parking patterns, we’ll start to have a better understanding of the microgeography of parking demand. Hopefully this bring us closer to pricing that reflects observed real-world demand, instead of crude lines drawn on a map by politicians.

Payment mechanisms make a big difference

Much metered parking throughout the country still uses 1947 technology: You pay by feeding quarters into a metal contraption. Out of quarters? You’re out of luck.

There’s much better technology available today, and in this area DC has been out in front. According to Zimbabwe, 42% of DC parking transactions are paid by phone or using the Parkmobile app.

The friction of having inconvenient payment mechanisms — whether it’s machines that only take quarters, or single-block machines that you have to walk five minutes to get to — is more of an issue for people than cost. If you can make payment seamless, then people don’t care quite as much about the actual cost, and you have less resistance to increased rates.

My experience with the Parkmobile app has been that it’s like magic: You tell the app you’re parking, it already knows where you are, and has your credit card and license plate on file, so there’s nothing more to do.

Ultimately, license-plate recognition coupled with smartphone apps will eliminate all of the friction of payment. Tumlin suggested you could even agree to have the city just automatically send you a parking bill at the end of each month based on how long you’ve parked and where. 

Decriminalize parking now!

Another fascinating finding from San Francisco’s performance parking program is this: When you start charging the right price for parking, meter revenue goes up ... and revenue from parking citations goes down by almost the same amount.

And when you think about it, that’s exactly how it should be. Sometimes you don’t have enough quarters on you, or you underestimate how long you’ll need to park, and can’t get back to the meter. That shouldn’t make you a lawbreaker. In some neighborhoods, Tumlin pointed out, driving to dinner and movie is a criminal act, because there’s no provision at all for out-of-zone parking for more than two hours.

In fact, the whole two-hour exception doesn’t make any sense at all. If you’re parking for an hour, you should pay for an hour. And if you need to park for three hours or eight hours, you should be allowed to pay for it.

Keep it simple, and don’t play favorites

DC currently has a lot of parking programs. There’s ordinary metered parking in commercial areas. There’s a residential parking permit program and a pilot visitor parking pass program. There are pilot performance parking programs in a handful of neighborhoods.

Recent legislation looked at how to provide for contractor parking. City leaders are working with churches to resolve conflicts over church parking on Sundays. There have been proposals for special teacher parking and firefighter parking.

DDOT recently unveiled a Parking Action Agenda (PDF) that vows to review all of these different programs and propose reforms. We can start by no longer treating all these different categories as exceptional.

As Tumlin forcefully argued, it’s not the government’s business why you want to park. Are you shopping? Babysitting? Going to church? Commuting to the nearest metro stop? Redoing someone’s kitchen? Making a delivery? Visiting a friend? Out on a date? (As Tumlin asked, “And what if your date goes better than expected?”)

It shouldn’t be the government’s job to make value judgments about people’s reasons for parking. So let’s eliminate complexity and preferential treatment. You don’t need a contractor parking program; you don’t need a visitor parking program; you don’t need a church parking program. You just need accurate pricing so that people can pay a fair price to park wherever they want, for as long as they want.