DC’s program of handing out free visitor parking passes will expand citywide, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) announced today. This isn’t, however, the result of thoughtful planning about how to fix problems with parking. Instead, the agency is slouching toward a messy parking policy because it can’t manage to develop a good one.

Residents in all neighborhoods, provided they live on a block with residential permit parking (RPP), will soon be able to go to a website to request a visitor placard. The resident can hand that placard, good for one year, to anyone, who can then display it in a car and park for free, for an unlimited length of time, within the immediate area.

DDOT has had such a system for several years in lower-density wards 3 and 4, plus the ballpark area of Ward 6, and more recently in Wards 1 and 5 and the Howard Theatre area of Ward 6. Meanwhile, other neighborhoods in DC, including my own Dupont Circle, opposed applying the same program to their areas.

A year ago, when DDOT last renewed and expanded the program, officials promised to put in place a more permanent system that was better tailored to neighborhoods’ varied needs. Quite simply, they failed. In fact, DDOT’s two parking managers, Angelo Rao and Damon Harvey, recently left the agency, and some people familiar with the situation say they were fired. Update: I was able to confirm that Harvey chose to leave DDOT (he now works fo ParkMobile in Atlanta), while Rao did not.

Rao told communities he knew he was under a deadline to find a better system by this fall; instead, he created none. The “parking think tanks” Rao and Harvey ran last winter, where residents weighed in about parking problems, have come to naught.

New program makes small tweaks, but could invite abuse

In prior years, DDOT mailed out (often with great fanfare in the press) placards to every household in the affected areas. This year, DDOT will require residents to affirmatively ask for a placard via a website. They’ll still be free and easy to get, but perhaps it will cut down on the number of placards out there.

The big question is whether people in the new neighborhoods will give away or sell their placards not to their own visitors, but to people who are commuting to an area. The whole point of the RPP program is to prevent commuters from parking on neighborhood streets.

With the program citywide, it will now encompass neighborhoods with large numbers of offices and residents, such as Georgetown, Logan Circle, and Mount Vernon Triangle. At a parking meeting, commissioners from Dupont Circle’s ANC 2B asked Harvey not to expand visitor passes to the neighborhood. Their fear was that it would lead to commuters parking on neighborhood streets, for free, all day.

My own neighbor, for instance, rents out a parking space behind his house to a commuter. Will people start selling their placards? Will that worsen the parking crunch? Will it undercut my neighbor’s ability to rent out his space?

Mount Pleasant ANC commissioner Jack McKay wrote in an email, “The purpose of RPP is simply to prevent commuters from using neighborhood streets as free all-day parking lots. So long as residents don’t hand their visitor passes over to neighborhood business employees, that purpose remains met. ... Mount Pleasant has had visitor parking passes since 2008. Abuse has been insignificant, and residents, many of whom who depend on household help and child care workers and day-nurse care, love the program.”

Harvey often claimed that he hadn’t seen much abuse, and said he monitored sites like Craigslist to stop people selling their placards. But will the temptation be too great in a neighborhood like Dupont, compared to Mount Pleasant, which doesn’t have large office buildings? (Plus, now that Harvey’s gone, will anyone be watching?)

Twitter user @pavethewhales wrote, “My block has guest passes, and they are horribly abused. Out of state cars parking every day. ... Without tying permits to individual homes, [there will be] no accountability whatsoever.”

If it becomes harder and harder to park in mixed-use areas, that might lead residents to request the other recent, haphazard parking change: dedicated resident-only parking on one side of every street. That might seem like a reasonable approach, but then will parking become too difficult for short-term visitors to local businesses? And what about residents who need to have more than one visitor at a time?

We need a better solution

Rao promised to develop a more sensible approach by this fall. He wasn’t the first. DDOT has only been mailing out visitor passes for a few years. When they started in Ward 4 and then Ward 3, officials at the time said this was an interim step, and they would replace it with a better program soon. But year after year, the agency has failed to fix this, and instead, has extended and expanded it more and more.

DDOT’s then-Director Gabe Klein suggested hiring a “parking czar” back in 2010. It took until 2012 to get one hired, Rao, but then Director Terry Bellamy moved parking out of the policy group and into the traffic operations group. Rao told me that bureaucratic struggles between operations and policy made it much more difficult for him to develop any kind of comprehensive strategy.

A good solution would likely incorporate some kind of pricing signal. In neighborhoods with low parking demand, like DC’s lowest-density areas away from neighborhood corridors, likely there is no reason to charge much for parking (and, in fact, perhaps not even a reason to limit parking to residents at all). In the highest-demand areas like Dupont Circle, meanwhile, placards shouldn’t be free.

One approach would be to set a price for the annual placard. A better approach would give people a “coupon booklet” of passes, each good for one day, that the resident can give to visitors. It would help keep a lid on overuse, and would also let a resident offer parking to 2, 3, or 10 people in the same day, if that’s necessary.

Anyone who uses up the booklet could buy a new one at some price — in low-demand areas, maybe a token administrative fee, and in high-demand areas, a higher amount that keeps a match between supply and demand.

Or maybe there are other good answers. What’s for sure is that we won’t reach a good policy by doing nothing, having individual councilmembers legislate changes for their wards, and slapping larger and larger band-aids on the problem.

Meanwhile, the more people get free passes, the harder it will be to build support for a better solution. Free passes help some people and hurt others. Those helped will fight fiercely not to lose the privilege or have to start paying, and can drown out those who benefit from a superior policy. Had DDOT set up a reasonable pricing-based system years ago, it would have been a lot easier. Is it even possible now?

Instead of moving forward, we’re still back at square one. There’s no public plan, not even anybody publicly in charge of parking, and an “interim” program metastasizes for another year.

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.