Parking at Janney Elementary School. Image by Tom Quinn used with permission.

The District is doing a great job at modernizing school campuses across the city, but one constraint that schools in dense areas like DC have is limited land. Nowhere is that conflict more unfortunate than the competition between parking spaces for staff and play space for kids. Many of DC’s elementary and middle schools have both fewer parking spaces than a work site of their size would often have, and less play space per student than experts recommend (75 square feet per child).

Local school and government officials found a creative solution

A fair number of schools avoid this problem altogether  by sharing space with recreation centers that have fields and playgrounds that the school can use. However, examples of small campuses with far more space for parking lots than play space are easy to find across the District. There are even ongoing cases with school renovations where parking space is slated to grow, while play space will shrink (Maury Elementary School is one that will be a subject of a future post).

Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Capitol Hill was going through a modernization in 2012, and the school community wanted to deliver a full-sized athletic field as part of the project. However, a significant portion of the school grounds was being used as a parking lot for employees.

Aeriel view of the site plan for Stuart-Hobson Middle School, showing a space-intensive parking lot. Image by Stuart Hobson Middle School.

District Department of Transportation (DDOT), DC Public Schools (DCPS), and the Department of General Services (DGS) arranged a sensible compromise: they would reserve the spaces immediately bordering the school for faculty and staff from 7:30 am to 4 pm. The spaces used were previously designated for the residential parking permit (RPP) holders.

In this otherwise residential area, a large number of RPP holders aren’t present during the day, instead taking their vehicles all over the region for work and errands. By the time they get home around 5 or 6 pm, the school staff have left those spaces. It works well due to the temporal needs of teachers and residents, which are nearly inverse.

The biggest benefit? Stuart-Hobson got a full sized athletic field.

Current view of Stuart-Hobson Middle School, showing the new athletic field. Image made with Google Maps.

It isn’t all sunshine and roses, of course. The residents who are closest to this zone feel aggrieved since nearly every space close to their homes is occupied during the day, forcing them to park a block or two away during those hours. The faculty has also claimed that there aren’t enough spaces for everyone, and when they park outside the school zone they risk receiving parking tickets.

We could turn this good solution into policy

This triumph of sensible government planning shows it’s possible to satisfy nearly everybody with a workable solution. Inspired by the parking reconfiguration at Stuart-Hobson, advocates (myself included) worked with Ward 6 Councilman Charles Allen to develop the Daytime School Parking Zone Amendment Act. If passed, this law would allow staff parking and playspace to better coexist by using on-street parking during the day to make the most of our constrained urban campus sites.

When developing ideas for the Daytime School Parking Zone Amendment Act, we were cognizant of some of the known issues at Stuart-Hobson and wanted to make a better system that would work well at schools citywide. Here’s what the bill would do as it is currently drafted:

  • Allows the Mayor to establish a school parking zone for any public or charter school. The zone can be what the Mayor’s agents (DDOT or DCPS) decide, but likely it would be a three-block radius from the school where teachers can park in existing RPP zones. An ANC may also request that the Mayor create a school parking zone.
     
  • The local ANC considers the zone and sends its position to the Mayor. This is an important local check and balance. By law, the views of ANCs are given “great weight” in matters they are designated to review. This can also serve as the forum for the community to deliberate the tradeoffs.
     
  • Should the school parking zone be established, the Mayor will formalize the zone via DDOT amending existing signage (perhaps with an inconspicuous sticker) and issue passes to school employees through DCPS. The Department of Public Works would be in charge of enforcement.
     
  • An important, but controversial element of the law: DDOT (or perhaps the DC Council directly) will set a price for school parking zone passes.
     
  • Funds collected from selling passes will be used to administer the program, and go into a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) fund at the same school from which fees were raised. Other teachers who don’t drive to school would be eligible to receive these TDM funds to offset the cost of transit or biking to work.
     
  • Parking minimums that currently exist for DCPS schools would be rescinded, since there would now be a pathway to satisfy parking demand by sharing on-street spaces.

The key benefit of the law is that it recognizes that on-street parking is a shareable resource, and that there is a managed way to allow use by both residents and school faculty with minimum tension. There were a few iterations from the system currently in place at Stuart-Hobson Middle School. The key one is that instead of designating specific spaces where only school faculty can park, the system is set up as a much larger zone where both RPP and school zone users can park, but no one is guaranteed a specific space.

This feature adds tremendous flexibility and other benefits. DCPS and charter school employees live all over the region, and there are a host of things related to housing affordability, transit access, personal preference, tour of duty, and work location that mean there will certainly be some portion of employees driving to school. Since they could be coming from all points of the compass, as they approach the school from their direction of origin, they’re likely to choose the first parking spot they see within the parking zone, since there is no guarantee of a space. This distributes the parking demand so no one block is too overly burdened with providing all the school parking — which was what was getting complaints at Stuart-Hobson.

Parking takes up a lot of space at Monument Academy Public Charter School. Image made with Google Maps.

In addition, the school faculty will walk a short distance to the school from where they park or from the closest transit stop if they utilize TDM. This means more adults crossing the streets at times when children are present, communicating with their presence to speeding commuters to slow down now that school is in session.

A morning parking survey at my children’s school, Maury Elementary School, revealed that starting at 6 am, RPP spaces start opening up, and by 7 am when faculty start arriving, 65 spaces were available within the three-block radius. There were 126 spaces by 8:30 am when most staff would need to be at school.

For reference, the current parking lot has 20 (plus two 2 ADA) spaces, with usually 30 cars parked in it. That means only a fraction of the available parking in the immediate area would be occupied by faculty.

There are some complications

The bill was the subject of a hearing in September and had many supporters testify to its benefits. However, DDOT testified tepidly on the bill at a few key points:

  • The agency believes more teachers should take transit, bike and walk, and available on-street parking would be an incentive in the wrong direction.
     
  • DDOT believes creating special classes of users for curbside parking would be a slippery slope, and if this went forward, the Council wouldn’t be able to say “no” to future special-class users.
     
  • A lot of the features in the bill would add administrative burden to the agency with no guarantee of new resources to do these jobs (such as the TDM program).
     
  • The zoning code cannot be altered with this legislative process.

Another issue comes from the DCPS contract with their teachers union. A clause in that contract says that where DCPS can provide parking, it will do so free of charge for teachers. While no one wants to burden DC’s hard working teachers, a price signal is an important management tool for limited commodities like parking. Without one, we encourage teachers to drive and put them at a financial disadvantage if they instead choose to take transit or bike, which don’t have overt subsidies.

Kids need safe places to play. Image by Jamelle Bouie licensed under Creative Commons.

Further, the RPP rate is $35 per year, and I suspect giving new users a right to use it for nothing would cause an uproar. Some suggest a parking rate commensurate with transit costs, $4 - $5 per day, while others have suggested zero dollars. Perhaps a rate of $10 per month could have the effect of managing the demand on parking while not being overly burdensome on teachers. By comparison, a space in a downtown garage is $285 per month.

Nonetheless, this is a good policy

While these complications are real and need to be worked out, the benefits from this bill are enormous and directly affect DCPS school kids who frequently lack playspace amenities common in the suburbs, like sports fields and green space. Adequate space and time to play improves social-emotional and cognitive development; research shows that schools without adequate recess and playtime have greater discipline challenges leading to lower achievement levels. Further, things like shared community gardens, fields, and playgrounds that are open to the public after school hours become community spaces that are valuable to all neighbors.

There is another way to have playspace and parking — that’s building parking structures. While we have the ability to do this it should be literally the last resort, and should not be done until some form of shared on-street parking is tried. The Janney Elementary School's 50-space garage cost $2.4 million and the 26-space parking garage at Murch Elementary cost $3.25 million. That’s $49,000 - $125,000 per space!" These garages might not even satisfy all the demand that exists at the school to park.

From the standpoint of the taxpayer, it makes all the sense in the world to try and manage a shared on-street system — even if it causes some headaches — rather than pay that amount for parking spaces.

This bill (full text here) is currently in the queue waiting to go to a markup at the Committee on Transportation and the Environment. This is the stage where amendments are offered and considered by the five members of the committee. If you’d like to see this law pass, contact Committee Chair Mary Cheh, or Councilmembers Jack Evans, Brandon Todd, Kenyan McDuffie, and Charles Allen to tell them you’d like the DC Council to see this through.

Correction: The school zone start time is 7:30 am, not 8 am.

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Will Handsfield is the transportation director for the Georgetown Business Improvement District, and has worked on transportation projects in Los Angeles, Denver, and the metropolitan Washington region. Will bike commutes and lives with his wife and three children in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Capitol Hill.