Photo by Wally Gobetz on Flickr.

We don’t know yet if the DC Zoning Commission will go along with proposals to reduce parking minimum requirements, but some commissioners certainly seemed skeptical about a few arguments to keep the old rules from AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Many residents testified on the proposal at a hearing on Tuesday. So many people had signed up that there’s an overflow hearing this coming Tuesday (and you can still sign up to speak!) 33 residents spoke in favor of reducing minimums, while only 7 opposed the reduction.

Many supporters echoed a theme about housing affordability. Since underground parking can add $30,000-50,000 per space to the cost of construction, that forces buildings that would provide more affordable market-rate or below-market units to charge more and/or create fewer units.

AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesperson John Townsend was one of the opponents, and he took issue with this approach. Earlier in the night, outside the hearing room, he personally apologized to me for the insulting remarks he made about me to Aaron Wiener of the Washington City Paper, which I accepted. He also said he wasn’t going to be testifying, which is odd since he very quickly thereafter did.

Townsend argued that reducing parking minimums would have “a deleterious impact, not only on the District and its residents and its businesses and its houses of worship, but its restaurants and its citizens.” He said that parking is a problem, and we know it is because DC wrote more than 1.8 million parking tickets last year, Townsend said, a practice he called “a hidden tax on people who only want to do one thing: to enjoy the nation’s capital.”

He also claimed that the affordability argument was a “myth,” and asked for empirical studies proving that reducing this cost actually cuts down on the cost of housing. Instead, he said, there is not enough parking and it’s too expensive. “It drives people out of this city. It makes housing more unaffordable,” he said, especially “the one-third of the population below the poverty line that has been edged out and edged out of the social fabric” of the city, as well as tourists.

Later, in response to questions, he also brought up the Washington area’s heavy traffic as another reason to believe there is a problem and mandate more parking in zoning.

Some members of the Zoning Commission, who will actually decide the zoning code, weren’t buying Townsend’s arguments. Dupont resident and Zoning Commission vice-chair Marcie Cohen talked about her own experience with housing finance.

Cohen: I almost thought you were arguing two sides of the coin. Basically, if we suffer the greatest gridlock in the country, then it seems to me you would want to encourage people to use alternative transits, and that the more parking you have, the more you are encouraging people to park in those spaces within buildings. ... You seem to be saying that we have a problem and the way to solve that problem is to add parking spaces. ...

I do believe, strongly, because I did finance for 20 years, housing throughout the country, that parking, especially underground parking, does contribute to the cost of housing.

Townsend: What I said was, where are the real world empirical studies that say that the developers will pass on the cost, the savings if you were to jettison the parking minimums? Where is the real-world, economically-based, research-based empirical studies that they will pass on these costs to homeowners? That, in our worldview, is not a reality.

Cohen: Yeah, we’ve heard from witnesses who are expert in this area, and my own experience, which I mentioned is over 20 years of financing housing, is it does happen. It’s passed along. I can’t cite a particular study except the testimony we’ve heard tonight plus my own experience in financing housing. And, in affordable housing, we attempt to reduce the requirements so that they won’t be burdened by these costs.

Peter May, the representative from the National Park Service and a Capitol Hill resident, grilled Townsend on some of his points. May also challenged Townsend on the argument that since we have a lot of traffic, we need more parking. “We have the worst gridlock in the country,” said Townsend. May replied, “So, if there are more parking spaces available, and theoretically it’s cheaper and easier to get parking, wouldn’t that increase gridlock?”

Ultimately, that led to an entertainingly barbed exchange. After Townsend cited a number of statistics on DC’s growth, May said, “So, uh, can you answer my question?”

Townsend: “I did answer your question.”

May: “No, you didn’t. I asked whether the availability of parking has an effect on gridlock, and you told me that there’s an increase in the number of people living in the District and the number of jobs.”

May also probed Townsend’s claim that DC’s high number of tickets relates to parking policy. People probably get tickets, May suggested, because they’re trying to avoid paying a higher garage rate, not necessarily because there’s no garage at all. It quickly became clear May wasn’t buying Townsend’s argument.

May: So, the people who are getting parking tickets here are all doing it because they can’t find another place to park? It’s not because they’re not willing to pay $25 to park?

Townsend: Yes, that’s what I’m saying. It’s symptomatic of the fact that you have a pernicious parking problem in the city already. That’s what it means.

May: I think you can look at the same set of facts and come to a different conclusion about why people are getting parking tickets. A lot of times people are getting parking tickets because they’re not willing to walk an extra block, or not willing to pay 25 bucks.

Townsend: “It comes down to whether we perceive that parking is a public good or a private good. And by that I mean, the city has a role to play in this and to make parking part of the social and economic fabric of the city.

This exchange actually illuminates a great deal about why AAA is advocating so hard on this issue. By one argument, why should it matter to them? They provide services to drivers (including at least 3 members of the Zoning Commission, as those members themselves noted at the hearing). However much parking there might be, those people who want or have to drive will probably want to sign up with some kind of towing and lockout protection service like AAA. Why alienate so many residents with their divisiveness?

But if you view parking as part of a culture clash, where car-owner culture is fighting for dominance within the city with non-car-owner culture (walking, biking, taking transit, using Zipcar and car2go and taxis and Uber), then the very idea of allowing more car-free residents doesn’t fit into that vision or might even seem like a threat.

For most of us, drivers and non-drivers alike, parking is a necessary evil. Cars will be a part of the transportation mix, and (until they become self-driving and need not park) there has to be space to store them near many of the homes and the jobs and the stores. But parking spaces drive up the cost of housing, create pedestrian dead zones, and otherwise interrupt the city’s historic, walkable character.

Lower car dependence isn’t really a serious business risk for AAA, since cars won’t be going away. But it’s certainly possible that, as the city grows, more and more residents have many available choices for transportation, and cars and parking become just one in the crowd. Alternately, AAA would like cars to be more than just a tool, but a part of our very soul, the “social and economic fabric” of the city.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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 in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.