Non-NPS meters on the Mall. Photo by Jeremy Caesar on Flickr.
The National Park Service is proposing to add meters to areas of the National Mall and memorial parks where parking is currently free. With a thoughtful plan, meters should make it easier to find parking on the Mall and improve access to its important sites.
A few key steps can help the meter program be successful: setting meter rates and times based on demand, offering convenient payment options, helping people locate parking and transportation alternatives, and being transparent about how meter revenue is spent.
Embrace performance parking: Meter rates need not be the same everywhere on the Mall. In areas and at times where parking is widely available, there is little reason to charge for it. But in places and at times where parking is scarce, the Park Service should set prices to manage its availability by encouraging parking turnover and alternative modes of transportation.
The Park Service already seems to anticipate this to an extent. The proposal would only add meters in some areas of the Mall, not everywhere (for instance, not at Hains Point). Presumably, NPS has selected these areas because parking demand is highest there, although it would be helpful for the Park Service to confirm this.
Likewise, NPS says that the meter rate, and the days and hours that meters are in effect, will be “similar to DC’s parking rates adjacent to” the Mall area. That suggests that NPS will set Mall rates to be comparable to city meters nearby, but maybe slightly higher or lower based on demand. NPS also states that the times meters operate will include an evaluation of demand.
As with parking in other parts of the city, it may make sense for different areas of the Mall to charge different rates or operate for extended hours. To best manage the availability of parking, the Park Service should regularly review data from parking meters to determine whether rates and times should be adjusted.
Make it easy to pay: Drivers will be more willing to pay for parking if it’s simple to do so. The days of quarters-only parking meters are gone. Thankfully, NPS says it plans to use meters with multiple payment options. In addition, signage on the meters should clearly explain charges. The Park Service should also plan to ensure that meters are kept in working condition.
Help people find a spot: Helping drivers to locate a parking spot will reduce the sting of introducing fees. The Park Service should evaluate whether current signage could be more effective at directing drivers to parking areas. For instance, if a person can’t find an available spot in one parking area, is there a sign directing them to the next place to look? Perhaps meter data could even be used to provide real-time information about parking availability through a mobile website or app.
Furthermore, providing information about transportation options is a good way to encourage visitors to get to the Mall without needing to park. In addition to the planned Circulator bus service, the Mall is now home to several Capital Bikeshare stations.
The Park Service should be sure to publicize those options in its maps and websites and provide wayfinding tools on the ground. And in the longer term, NPS can support Metro’s proposal to add a Metrorail station in East Potomac Park by 2040.
Be transparent about revenue: The most important reason to meter public parking is to manage its availability. Generating revenue can be an additional bonus for the Park Service, but it should not be the overriding concern. Being transparent about meter revenue will help people trust that meters were installed for the right reasons, not just to squeeze visitors.
For instance, the Park Service says that meter revenue will help pay for Circulator service, but doesn’t say how much of the funds will go to that purpose or whether some of it might be spent elsewhere. The Park Service should annually disclose how much it raises from metered parking and explain what it does with those funds.
Street space in DC is scarce, especially around one of the city and nation’s biggest attractions. Done right, bringing parking meters to the National Mall will allow more people to visit and enjoy it.