Parking in Alexandria's Potomac Yard Center. Image by Google Maps.

Alexandria has way too much parking. That's the conclusion from a city task force that actually counted how many parking spots are available around the city, and measured how much they're being used.

About 10 percent of the land in the city of Alexandria is devoted to parking, the result of 50 years of zoning that has required parking whenever new development came along. A lot of parking might not necessarily seem like a bad thing if it were being used, but the study also found that most lots were not even close to full.

The task force members, comprised of residents, developers and city leaders, also surveyed people patronizing businesses in Alexandria. They found that most were not driving their own vehicles to the city's hotels and restaurants, but rather prefer taking transit or using ride hailing like Taxis or Uber. As a result, a lot of parking space owners are leasing out their spots to others.

This reality stands in stark contrast to the current zoning rules, which can require at least one parking spot per table at restaurants and one parking space per room in hotels.

Now the city is considering what to do with this information. Some of the recommendations from the study would include exemptions for small businesses from providing any new parking. That wouldn't be a big change, since most requests to waive parking minimum requirements in projects across the city have already been granted.

Parking in Old Town Alexandria. Image by Adam Fagen licensed under Creative Commons.

Here's what's happening in other cities

Alexandria is just the latest example, but all over the region we're finding that the usual ideas about parking (i.e. we always need more of it) aren't really proving true.

In DC, DDOT is still testing a new parking pilot that raised prices at some parking meters in Gallery Place. While the price jumps grabbed headlines, little attention was paid to the fact that prices actually fell on a number of blocks because the spots were not being used enough.

Another example from DC is the garage at DCUSA. When the stores were built there, decision makers insisted on a big garage to accommodate all the shoppers who would presumably drive to Target or Best Buy. However, the reality turned out to be quite different at both DCUSA and at a number of apartment buildings built in the area. Most residents are renting out their parking spots to others, even if they bothered to purchase a spot at all.

That is also playing out today when it comes to the debate over whether or not DC should finance more parking at Union Market on top of what is already projected. Most parking policies are encouraging more parking to satisfy a shrinking number of people driving to visit places.

Parking problems are usually management problems

All of this may seem bizarre to someone who may regularly find it hard to park in Alexandria today, and large amounts of parking in West End may be cold comfort to someone looking for a spot in Old Town. However, this usually has to do with how parking is managed, rather than actual lack of parking spots.

Unfortunately, much of what drives parking policy is based on conjecture and conventional wisdom, rather than actual evidence. For example, off-street spots are more abundant but can be hard to access because of a lack of information, or because of policies that discourage people from parking and then continuing by foot, bike, or transit.

Competition for on-street spots can be fierce, but that is often because of how the city decides to manage those spots. Often parking spaces would be better put to use to help speed up transit or help provide safe routes for cycling.

Parking concerns can be a deciding factor in whether or not a project is built or stalls somewhere along the approval process. That's frustrating enough as is, but it is even worse when the parking that is built is underused, and the actual causes to an area's parking problems are ignored.

Here's what that means for Alexandria

In Alexandria, that means that projects to make cycling safer might not happen, nor will attempts to turn some blocks of King Street to pedestrian-only. We also lose opportunities for people to live in Alexandria because buildings are shortened and redesigned over parking fears.

What is surprising is not that we have excessive amounts of little-used parking, but that we still have so much trouble doing anything to change that.