Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

As the District debates changing the way it distributes parking permits, Councilmember Anita Bonds is surveying DC residents about their experiences with on-street parking. But if we really want to understand how parking works, the Council needs to ask the right questions.

Previously, District residents could purchase ward-restricted residential parking permits (RPPs) to park on their street and automatically receive visitor parking permits (VPPs) for their guests. The city was going to require residents to apply for a VPP, but after public outcry, the DC Council decided to keep the existing arrangement.

While it’s good to know what people think about the current parking program, it’s important that a poll strive to be very clear about it’s aims while avoiding unnecessary or potentially misleading questions. Bonds’ survey conflates issues about parking in general with the specifics of the current permitting process.

The poll begins by asking whether you live in a single-family house or an apartment, how many automobiles are in your household, and whether you own a bike, scooter, or motorbike. The questions also ask if you use on-street parking and if the street you live on has ward-restricted parking. These are good questions to ask to begin to learn how many people would be affected by any changes to on-street parking.

Then the survey begins asking broader questions about parking. Question 7 asks if the respondent “feels” that “businesses, corner markets, churches, or other non-profits interfere with your ability to find adequate street parking near your home?”

The way someone feels about parking isn’t an objective measurement. Feelings can mean many things to many people, and can be interpreted differently by each survey taker. Someone may be okay with parking 2 or 3 blocks away from their home, while another person may feel like that anytime they have to park in front of their neighbor’s door instead of their own is asking too much.

Question 6 asks if respondents feel that there is enough parking for them and their neighbors on their block. But “enough” parking means different things to different people? It’s hard to know what the value of parking is unless we have a quantifiable standard. A good follow up question would be to ask someone to estimate how far they park from their house 75% of time.

While businesses, corner markets, churches, and other non-profits may take up a lot of parking, they also aren’t the only things that affect parking on a block. Your neighbors obviously affect your parking as well. The survey should ask respondents how many garages are on their block, whether they normally see the same cars day after day, or if their neighbors have alternative parking arrangements. These questions help create a more complete picture and allow us to understand what factors influence the way people “feel” about their parking situation.

The next few questions focus on the specifics of VPP and whether survey takers have used the current system. It’s important to know what people think of the current system before taking any changes into account.

Question 14 simply asks if respondents believe in eliminating parking minimums in new developments. There are two issues with this. One is that the broad question of how to allocate street parking in the District is totally separate from how the city should handle VPP. And second, the proposal to eliminate parking minimums in new development is now limited to downtown. The Office of Planning (OP) has backed off eliminating parking minimums outside of the downtown area.

This question can lead people to assume that there is a policy in the works that doesn’t actually exist. Bonds may be better served by having a separate poll about RPP as a whole or simply taking time to explain that different solutions may exist for resident and visitor parking.

While the survey is about the availability of parking in different neighborhoods, the survey totally ignores the price of parking, which has a huge impact on its availability. Right now, the price of a RPP is just $35 a year. That covers the administrative costs of the program, but it doesn’t reflect the value of the land a parking space consumes or the external impacts on that block, the city, and the region as a whole.

Bonds or anyone else on the council shouldn’t ignore this element. Most people wouldn’t like the prospect of paying more for something, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have to pay a fair price for parking.

However, there is one question that the survey gets right. The final question allows survey takers to say whatever they wish about any parking issue in the District. So if you do support the elimination of parking minimums for new development, or believe that residential and visitor parking permits should be overhauled, you can let Councilmember Bonds know.