Photo by John M on Flickr.

The city is full of cherry blossoms, and the media full of stories about parking tickets based on AAA Mid-Atlantic press releases. While eating up the juicy statistics AAA gets from FOIA requests, too many reporters also swallow AAA’s policy conclusions and don’t get other points of view.

The latest example is a story this morning in the Washington Post about how DC’s parking ticket revenue has decreased, thanks to new smartphone apps that help people park legally.

AAA’s John Townsend II says the number of tickets in DC is “a phenomenal pace to nearly three times the city’s estimated populace of 646,449 persons. That’s three parking tickets for every man, woman and child in the city.  It’s the upshot of high demand for far too few spaces and the confusing signage that bedevils drivers.”

Comparing the number of tickets to DC’s population is misleading, since DC’s daytime population is over one million. And over an entire year, far, far more people than 650,000 come to DC.

I don’t really disagree that the signage is confusing and could be a lot better. (Just look at these signs, which a ticket writer even misinterpreted and wrote an erroneous ticket).


Townsend and I would agree this is really confusing. Photos from the 800 block of 17th Street, NW.


But is this “the upshot of ... far too few spaces?”

A lot of people would disagree with that. The District is simply never going to be the kind of city where parking is extremely plentiful and cheap downtown. Some American cities are. Those cities tend to have large swaths of desolate downtown streetscapes in districts that are empty a lot of the time. Those spaces drag down the economic strength of many cities’ downtowns.

These “parking craters” can be so bad that that Streetsblog just ran a March Madness-style tournament to choose the worst downtown parking. DC is fortunate to have a thriving, mixed-use downtown without such gaping holes and a lot of transportation choices.

Some people drive and park. That’s fine. But it’s not physically possible to have a city with all of that activity and also enough space for everyone to bring a car which they park on the street or in a surface lot. This is simple geometry, since the cars are larger than the people. Underground parking isn’t cheap, and many people get tickets because they don’t want to shell out for the garage.

It’s not so easy to capture this in a sound bite as “people are getting tickets! Lots of them, OMG! That’s because we need more parking!” But it’s more true.

I hate tickets, too

I’m not pro-tickets. I don’t think the District should be counting on ticket revenue in its budget and am very happy that tickets are declining. It would be fantastic for technology to help people know how to park legally.

I got a ticket last year when I parked on the street around the corner from my house while we needed someone else to use our parking space. I came back a few days later and found that mere hours after I parked, a nearby building put up those “Emergency No Parking” signs for tree pruning, and the required 72 hours had elapsed. I was just about an hour too late to avoid not only getting a ticket but an extra fee for having my car towed one block away. Aargh!

It would have been terrific to have an app that could know my car location, check it against some open database of temporary and permanent parking restrictions, and notify me when my legal space is going to turn illegal. Maybe one day someone will build that.

Call these people!

Meanwhile, if reporters want to write a story about parking tickets, they should go ahead and cite AAA statistics all they want, but if they’re also going to print John Townsend’s opinion about how the District needs to revamp its built environment, how about also calling someone else?

Off the top of my head, there’s:

  • Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth
  • Marlene Berlin of the DC Pedestrian Advisory Council
  • Barbara McCann with the Complete Streets Coalition Correction: McCann has recently moved to US DOT, so she is probably not available for comment on AAA press releases.
  • Neha Bhatt with Smart Growth America
  • For anything about bicycling, Shane Farthing or Greg Billing at WABA


All would be great people to call for anything about parking or photo enforcement or to respond to pretty much any AAA press release, campaign, or gripe of the day.

I’d be happy to send any reporter these folks’ phone numbers. Just drop me a line.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. 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 here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.