Photo by Daquella manera on Flickr.

Vince Gray has made some urbanists nervous with statements criticizing recent meter fee increases and about rolling back later parking meter hours. Actually, he’s correct in recognizing the problems with recent parking policy changes, even if his recommendations don’t yet include some of the nuances and language that would satisfy parking experts.

What are the problems? Gray has said he’s hearing from small businesses that recent meter increases are keeping customers away. He’s also hearing from residents that the requirement to pay at meters into the evening is forcing people to leave restaurants in the middle of the meal to add quarters, or to decide to skip dessert entirely to the detriment of the restaurant.

These are fair criticisms. The last few round of parking rate increases were applied across the board in many neighborhoods without real regard for occupancy levels. The Mayor’s recommendation to raise rates to $3 an hour across most of Ward 2 was the worst, equally hitting areas where meters are nearly impossible to find at busy times, like M Street in Georgetown or U Street, and areas that aren’t really so full, as well as charging the same at low-demand midday times as the busiest Saturday nights.

Also, meters that require eight quarters for an hour are a huge hassle. Just look at the way people of all stripes complain about “7½ minutes for a quarter” but would find a $2 an hour parking garage an amazing steal. But having to keep stacks of quarters is a huge deterrent. To their credit, DDOT is aggressively testing new meter technology including credit card meters, pay by phone and pay by text message, but these aren’t yet available everywhere.

The problem is that parking changes are coming through the budget process instead of a more thoughtful DDOT parking policy analysis. They therefore appear to be chosen based on the revenue they would raise instead of whether they would better manage scarce curbside spaces or not.

But meanwhile, when DDOT does do a more detailed analysis, it’s been extremely gun-shy about making even the most evident changes. That’s created the paradoxical situation where in the zones the Council set up for parking experimentation, parking policy has stayed static for two years, while in all the other areas, it’s been changing rapidly.

Gray is right that the Fenty administration’s handling of parking has been poor, and created problems for some people. A policy that increases overall welfare but makes some people’s lives much more unpleasant is a political nonstarter.

Which is why, in a rare moment, I agree with Lance:

Now if DDOT had only waited to (gradually) raise the rates until after they’d already installed credit card accepting machines, there would have been hardly a complaint about higher fees. But of course, handling it in this way would have required some planning ... which as evidenced by the bikelanes and the streetcars, is not DDOT’s strong point.


I don’t think there’s been a problem with the planning for the H Street streetcar line, but sometimes there has been on bike lanes, and certainly on parking. If there’s one area where DDOT’s current quick-moving but less-planned approach doesn’t really fit the need, it’s on parking.

Parking is complex and sensitive for a lot of residents. There are ways to make residents’ lives better and help businesses too. But a one-size-fits-all approach is definitely not that way.

In downtown areas, there are plenty of people parking, many of whom park in off-street garages or valets for much higher rates. Therefore, the best policy approach is to keep charging late into the night, but to first install technology that lets people pay by credit card and add time by cell phone or text, or even better, pay when their car leaves (such as by license plate detection), just as a garage does.

In other neighborhoods, most likely daytime rates are too high, so lower the rates except on weekend nights. Or, if all spaces aren’t filling up even on weekends, lower those rates too. The real problem in many other neighborhoods, like mine, is that all the free RPP spaces get filled up by diners or employees. Therefore, DC should use pay by phone or other technologies to charge non-residents, again as long as the technology makes it easy to extend time without going back to the car.

In short, rates should go down in some places and at some times, but possibly up in some places and at some times. To do that, and to build support, DDOT needs to talk with residents and businesses and craft a suitable policy that avoids major flaws like the feeding-the-meter issue and avoids overcharging.

DC needs a plan — yes, a plan — to roll out parking improvements in areas where they will do the most good and build strong support. Pasadena’s performance parking was a smash hit with residents and businesses, and built support for more parking innovations. Performance parking has brought in revenue to the ballpark neighborhood, which is a key way performance parking builds support, but none in Columbia Heights because the rates were never adjusted.

DC’s performance parking pilot could have demonstrated how DDOT can sensitively adjust parking prices and craft other parking rules to increase turnover without causing damage, but instead, it ended up demonstrating how DDOT isn’t currently able to manage parking very effectively or very thoughtfully.

Unfortunately, we’re worse off now than two years ago in terms of parking, except around the ballpark. More residents are upset about parking meter rate changes and there isn’t a great success story to point to. No wonder people like Vince Gray are talking about rolling back the meter changes. They haven’t worked.

The irony is that despite Gray coming off as “appealing to the car lobby,” he’s actually right. The bigger irony is that he’s right and Fenty is wrong on this particular issue. He just hasn’t (yet) become an expert on parking policy.

My hope is that, if elected Mayor, after reappointing Gabe Klein he’d ask Gabe to hire that parking czar he’d been talking about, who start meeting with businesses and neighborhoods to craft a thoughtful plan to actually fix parking. It should absolutely address the very valid complaints Gray was relaying, but can raise some money for alternatives to driving and increase turnover to help businesses at the same time.

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.