Photo by Niall Kennedy on Flickr.

Arlington County may raise its parking rates, which would make it easier to find space. It’d be a welcome change, but it may happen for the wrong reasons.

At a budget work session last week, county staff floated the possibility of extending on-street marking meters’ operating times by one hour and upping the hourly price by $.25. It’s a move that’s long-overdue in the county— even Leesburg, VA charges more.

The reason Arlington is considering the raise, though, is because it needs to close a budget gap. That sends a message that on-street meters are for collecting revenue when their real purpose is to regulate traffic and space.

Parking meters are for making sure there’s somewhere to park

Parking meters came about in the 1930s as a way to make spaces in front of stores available to multiple people throughout the day. While meters provide revenue, their real benefit is that they ensure access as well as cut back on the congestion that comes from driving around to look for an open space.

Most downtowns have changed since the parking meter arrived. People used to go downtown for visits to the bank or pharmacy, which are open in daytime hours. Now, successful downtowns, like Clarendon and the 23rd Street strip in Crystal City, are destinations for evening entertainment. Parking demand really peaks around dinner time.

When parking meters stop running at 6 pm, they aren’t doing their job. The most convenient parking is priced too low given its demand, and that means a dearth of available on-street spaces.

Failing to adapt meters to this shift in usage has caused a lot of problems for Arlington. Customers looking to quickly grab take-out or drop off dry cleaning have to waste time circling the block to look for a spot, which can lead to them double parking or taking their business elsewhere.

Also, drivers who are distractedly searching for parking are a danger to pedestrians.

If meter rates are set appropriately, garage spaces will end up being cheaper than metered spaces so more people will seek them out and see how much oversupply of garage parking we actually have.

Charging market rate for parking makes parking predictable

In his book The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup says the solution is performance parking. Performance parking is a system where parking’s cost and enforcement hours match demand for spots in the given area. Adjusting prices will mean there’s always one or two open spaces on every block.

San Francisco has a performance parking initiative that has shown remarkable benefits. DC is starting its own performance parking program, parkDC, in Chinatown and Penn Quarter.

Arlington’s Master Transportation Plan calls for a pilot of performance parking, but the county has never put it into effect. That’s likely due to concern over pushback from businesses, as many skate by on thin margins and are very concerned about the possibility of losing customers because of expensive parking. But in Seattle, expanded meter enforcement has actually resulted in more revenue for downtown restaurants.

When parking is more convenient and predictable, customers can head to businesses confident they won’t have to waste time searching for a place to park.

To offset the perception that performance parking would harm a commercial district, Shoup recommends dedicating some or all of the revenue performance meters generate to investments in the surrounding area. In Arlington, funds could go toward landscaping, streetscape projects, special events, or perhaps replacing the tax that currently funds business improvement districts.

Regardless of how the board comes down on the proposal at hand, performance parking is long overdue in Arlington. The county should work with residents and the business community to make it happen. Underpriced on-street parking is too harmful to Arlington for it continue.

Billing parking as a revenue generator sends the wrong message

If Arlington does raise its parking meter rates, it should be clear about the purpose of the new charges. Simply raising meter rates as part of the budget discussion dumps parking policy in with political quagmires. It makes people think of metered parking as just another tax when, in reality, it’s a tool for making efficient use of curb space and for creating a functioning market for convenient parking, which is in limited supply.

Pricing on-street parking properly is good for everybody.  Everyone has times when they aren’t in a hurry and would happily save a few bucks by parking in a less-convenient garage, and everyone has times when they’re running late and would happily pay a premium for a spot that’s quick and convenient. Right now we don’t get to make that choice because the most convenient spaces are actually cheaper than the less convenient ones.

To answer the question “Do we need to raise meter rates?” you don’t need to know whether you have a gap in the budget. You need to know whether there are spaces available on the street for somebody in a hurry. Raising rates as part of the budgeting process, along with not charging them at the busiest times, sends exactly the wrong message.

Michael Perkins contributed to this article.