The Washington Post's style section looked at DC parking last week through the eyes of one area artist:
Maggie O’Neill designs restaurants, a job that often has her flitting between several downtown DC locales. At some point, she says, she realized that she could actually take some time to put her car somewhere legal and safe, or she could simply disregard the impact that illegal parking can have on others, and be on her way.
Which was more important? she asked herself — keeping the roads and crosswalks and bus stops clear, or a few minutes of her time? Clearly, the answer was the latter.
So, she parked. Recklessly. Brazenly. And naturally, the city tried to get her to stop, though with fines that were evidently not sufficient to change her behavior. Rather than remind her that cars just parked anywhere make the roads more congested and less safe, the brightly colored paper flapping under her wiper blades instead began to look like something else to O’Neill, who is also an artist.
They looked a little like cherry blossoms, which have long been a motif in her work.
Now O’Neill has embarked on a project to celebrate her scofflaw status. She wants to create an immersive space filled with papery blossoms, each petal folded from the glossy pink reminders that she doesn't think where she puts her car affects anyone else.
She believes she’ll need 800,000 tickets for a project on the scale she envisions. She confesses that she has maybe 400. She's hoping that many, many more Washingtonians will celebrate the small fines they get for blocking traffic or crosswalks, or taking up short-term parking spaces for a long time so someone else can't use them. And by extolling this project, this reporter and the Washington Post style section are encouraging that as well.
“I have gotten my car towed,” O’Neill says, no hint of shame in her voice, because she doesn't realize that cars are usually only towed in DC when they are a real safety hazard or interfering with needed utility work. “And I’ve gone down and asked, ‘Can someone tell me how I can celebrate this further'?”
“They were like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’”
As you might guess, that's not the actual article. It's close, but the main difference is that neither O'Neill nor style writer Lavanya Ramanathan give any acknowledgement that maybe parking illegally, regularly, “brazenly” has a downside. (Okay, Ramanthan does also say “recklessly,” but that's about the only word in the whole piece that's negative about improper parking.)
Instead, Ramanathan uses her vividly descriptive style writer prose not to ponder why O'Neill's parking spaces could be illegal, but simply to attack tickets. “In many ways, the parking ticket is as much a fixture of Washington culture as the cherry blossom,” she writes. “For most Washingtonians with cars, they feel almost karmically inevitable. Also, they are a scourge.”
Parking rules usually involve safety or keeping traffic moving
I don't know exactly where or how O'Neill was parking illegally. But it's rare that the District has curbside spaces that don't allow parking without some reason. If it's a bus stop, the bus needs it. If it's a loading zone, then delivery trucks need it (and if they can't park in loading zones, as they often can't or don't, they block traffic).
There are spaces at most corners, but DC doesn't allow parking very close to corners for a good reason: visibility. Drivers need to be able to see the crossing roadway and, most of all, pedestrians.
There have to be parking laws for a reason, but Ramanathan simply makes it seem like parking laws are a killjoy. Ramanathan cites some seemingly more trivial offenses, like failing to display the registration (I did that once, and my reaction was to be annoyed at myself, knowing that there's a good reason the city needs to make people keep registrations current) or failing to turn the wheels (do people really get tickets for that in DC? But really, cars on hills with wheels the wrong way can roll down the hill and kill people).
Ramanathan does not list examples of people double-parked, blocking traffic, or blocking bike lanes, forcing people on bikes to merge into fast-moving traffic which can be very harrowing, or blocking fire hydrants, which can be extremely dangerous in case of a fire.
If we break a law we know we shouldn't and get caught, “that doesn't mean we don't feel rage,” she writes. We do feel rage, but it would be responsible of the Post to remind us to channel some of that rage at ourselves for doing things we shouldn't have.
I don't want to be a humorless art non-appreciator, but could you imagine the Post profiling an equivalent art project about shoplifting, where the artist even offers to pay someone's shoplifting fine in order to get them to donate items they stole from area stores? O'Neill is “offering to pay off one lucky person’s parking tickets” to get enough for her project. Or wage theft? Or domestic abuse? Enforcement against those are the worst!
For her other work depicting cherry blossoms, the National Cherry Blossom festival “named her its official artist,” Ramanathan reports, which meant widespread exposure on festival swag for her blossom art. And:
Additionally, festival organizers asked her whether she had any additional artistic flourishes to contribute. She told them about her parking tickets.
“My first reaction was, ‘This is very smart,’ ” says Lillian Iversen, senior director of events and marketing for the National Cherry Blossom Festival. “As a resident, I’ve definitely walked up to my car and seen that pink ticket.”
Are you out of your mind?
Parking for people like O'Neill could work better, and everyone knows it
For people whose job involves “flitting between several locales,” parking can indeed be frustrating if said locales are far enough apart that driving is necessary. If they're really all in downtown DC, a restaurant designer could easily park in one garage and walk, take Capital Bikeshare or dockless bikeshare or dockless scootershare, buses, or ride-hailing.
But let's say they are a little more far-flung than that and maybe she has to carry a trunk full of samples around. There are plenty of people whose jobs legitimately might need them to drive from place to place.
For those folks, parking in DC can be frustrating. Most garages have pricing like $15 for one hour, $18 for two hours, $20 all day. If you need to park at five places for 15 minutes each, that can be $75 right there. Not cheap.
There's some on-street metered parking, but in most places, it's just about always full, and one could circle for half an hour before finding a spot.
So, I can actually understand why O'Neill might decide that parking illegally and risking a $30 ticket, or the occasional tow, is more economical (if one isn't considering the societal impacts).
The solution isn't to lionize lawbreaking, but to fix it. We know the solution: performance parking.
What is performance parking?
Performance parking is a policy, described in a weighty but well-known book The High Cost of Free Parking by UCLA professor Donald Shoup, where cities set their meter rates at the level which keeps about 15% of spaces free at any time.
While people might pay more to park, they can know a space is available where they need one. Someone like O'Neill, then, could be assured of the ability to park near the restaurant she's going into, and close enough to carry heavy items from her trunk if that's what she does.
San Francisco now does this through their program called SFPark. DC has a pilot performance parking program, ParkDC, operating right now in Chinatown/Penn Quarter, and a variant of the policy near the ballpark. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is considering expanding performance parking. Big factors in whether they do are the reactions it would elicit from other drivers & parkers, the press, and elected officials who hear parking complaints day in and day out.
Or change other parking laws. Ramanathan reports the account of one Brightwood driver who got tickets “the time she returned to K Street near North Capitol and realized her car had gone missing. When she finally found it, it had a ticket for being parked in a no-parking zone, another for being towed, and one final, deeply enraging one for not paying the meter in the spot where the city had decided to leave her car.”
Don't park in a no parking zone. But, I agree the thing about getting a ticket for being towed to an illegal spot is pouring salt on a wound and probably unnecessary.
O'Neill could turn her artistic attention to finding creative ways to support this effort, and Ramanathan could use her strong prose to the same end. Of course, that may be harder than feeding into the easy tropes that “they” are trying to make it harder to park out of a desire to stick it to drivers.
“It’s impossible not to visualize Officers Gill or Stubbs or Wright as proxies for The Man, gleeful as they tuck the slick slips onto cars.”
“It’s crazy,” says O’Neill. “They’re vigilant.”
Tickets aren't just about revenue
A worse trope Ramanathan repeats is the idea that parking tickets are just a revenue grab for the city. AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesperson John Townsend, the only person outside the DC government besides frustrated drivers quoted in the article, has often pushed this narrative. Ironically though, in this case, Ramanathan kept trying to put words in his mouth, but he didn't want to go where she was hoping:
An estimated 1.3 million tickets were issued in 2017, according to District data compiled by AAA Mid-Atlantic. That’s approximately two tickets for every man, woman and child in the city.
The number of parking tickets issued in Washington has actually been declining by a couple hundred thousand a year for the past several years, thanks to technology such as payment apps as well as clearer signage. But “for a city our size, it’s just really . . .” says John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA, stopping himself, looking for the right word.
A pervasive scam?
“I think it’s extraordinarily high,” he says.
Meanwhile, at a new late-night pick-up and drop-off zone near Connecticut Avenue nightclubs, drivers are regularly parking in the zone anyway, DDOT officials say. When confronted, they ask how much the ticket is, hear it's $30, and say “I'll just take the ticket” rather than go to a $24 garage two blocks away.
Do these drivers, whose parking behavior leads taxis and ride-hail vehicles to stop in the middle of the road, clogging it up, then turn around and complain about the “pink scourge” and donate the tickets to the righteous O'Neill? Do they feel better about themselves from reading this article in the Post? If the ticket fine increased, what would the Post say?
Here's an idea for an art project O'Neill could work on: channel her creativity toward finding ways to teach people not to park in the loading zone. I'd love to see a profile on that effort, and it could really do a lot of good for society instead of glorifying unsafe parking.
"They" don't want to confuse you
“You feel like their signs are so confusing, that they want to confuse you,” [Ambar Saeed of Silver Spring] tells O'Neill and Ramanathan as she donates some of her tickets.
Never mind that, as we just learned above, better signs are contributing to a decrease in tickets. This unnamed "they" care so much about making the signs less confusing, they have a survey out specifically to ask people about different, potentially better signs than the so-called "christmas tree" stack of red and green parking signs. Take it! And if Ramanathan had talked to DDOT, maybe "they" would have told her about it.
Anywhere, here are some of the mysterious "they" who make the parking rules. I know for a fact that "they" are extremely conscientious people who are trying to help traffic move, buses and taxis and rile-hails pick up passengers, and keep everyone safe on the roads. I meet with them regularly and we talk about how to do just that.
These folks have some style. I'd like to nominate them for a future profile in the Post style section about what it's like to try to make parking work while just about everyone complains about it.-->