Street parking stock photo from barmalini/Shutterstock.

The Prince George’s County Council recently discussed legislation designed to better implement residential parking permits. The bill is a positive step towards better managing on-street parking for the county's growing communities and neighborhoods, but one challenge for any such legislation is addressing how residents perceive property rights, ownership of street space, and what’s “fair.”

The Council opted to hold this bill during the October 23, 2018 public hearing, but it may be discussed again at a later date. Generally, residential parking permits work by restricting who may store a vehicle on the street to only the people that live on that street or in that neighborhood. People who live on that street may obtain a permit for an annual fee.

Criticism for parking permits takes a few forms. First, some say homeowners should be able to park in front of their houses by right. Second, they argue parking permits aren’t really about fixing parking and rather are just another way to collect more fees. Third, homeowners already pay property taxes, so some feel it isn’t fair to make them pay again to park on their street. Fourth, some families own more cars than others, so any permit program is inherently unfair.

This debate is not limited to Prince George's. GGWash has extensively covered this issue, including DC's efforts to reform its residential parking permit system, which currently isn't effective at allocating scarce street spaces.

While these criticisms are common, they illustrate not only a misunderstanding about why residential parking permits are necessary and should be priced, but also the hold—both psychological and physical—that parking has on the development process.

For starters, parking is NOT a right

Homeowners have property rights, but those do not extend into the public street. The local government determines the best use for the street, and in many cases, that may be parking. In other cases, it may be for travel lanes or for fire-hydrant access, in which case on-street parking would be prohibited. The property owner does not determine the best use of the street.

Next, it would be impossible to balance a budget with the current parking fees. The proposed legislation recommended no charge for the first two permits and $25 for the third permit per household. If each of the 304,042 households in Prince George’s County purchased a third residential parking permit, it would make up less than one-fifth of one-percent of the County’s proposed FY 19 budget ($4,091,504,600).

For perspective, $25 biennially doesn’t even cover the cost of repaving a single parking space every 20 years.

Why is a parking permit program valuable?

Residential parking permit programs are valuable because the space needed to park all vehicles exceeds the actual amount of available on-street space in many neighborhoods. While this situation may not be common in the rural and less-dense communities of Prince George’s, it is increasingly common in urbanizing and inside-the-beltway neighborhoods.

This gets to the third and fourth points. Permitted streets mean people who do not live on that street will not be able to park on that street. It becomes easier to find on-street parking, because there are fewer people competing for those spaces.

Having a permit means a resident can park on their street without having to worry if space is available – that’s the value of a permit.

On-street parking in Mt. Rainier is well used. 

Why not have permits without fees?

The fee helps equate the amount of curb space that each household uses with a cost, which helps manage the curb space. Ideally, the fee would increase exponentially with each additional permit per household. The proposed bill recommended $0 for the first two permits, $25 for the third, and $50 for the fourth. (GGWash contributor Topher Matthews recommended DC adopt a similar structure back in 2010.)

If one household uses more curb space, it should cost more; more curb space for one household means less curb space for another household. If there is no fee, or if it is too low, individual households benefit by obtaining as many permits as possible, regardless of how many are needed.

Instead of charging a fee, the county could simply give out the same number of permits to each household. However, this could create situations where some households receive unneeded permits while others need more permits. That would create a natural “market” which would likely lead to permit costs being much more expensive, though also more reflective of the demand. So even without mandated fees, there would still be costs for permits.

Aren’t fees just another tax?

No. While home and condo owners directly pay property taxes and renters indirectly pay taxes through rents, those taxes are used for fire protection, schools, street maintenance, and more. The fee for a parking permit gives the permit holder something special. Some of the public street is reserved for their use; unlike fire protection, it is not for everyone in the county.

It’s possible to tie parking permits to paying taxes in the county, but this eliminates the key benefit of permits, the exclusivity. Permitted parking works because not everyone has access to the permits. If the number of people who have access to a permit increases, the competition for on-street spaces increases, which reduces the effectiveness of the program.

How much should the fees be?

The goal of residential parking permits is to ensure available parking for all permit holders. Ideally permits would cost an amount where the number of permits purchased does not exceed the number of spaces.

However, this is likely much more expensive than the proposed costs in Prince George’s County (especially since the first two permits are free). Other jurisdictions similarly underprice residential parking permits:

Prince George’s County

(as proposed in CB-15-2018)

Montgomery County, MD Washington, DC Arlington, VA
Cost for first permit Free $20 $35 $20
Cost for subsequent permits

Free for 2nd permit,

$25 for 3rd permit,

$50 for 4th and more

All residential permits are $20 All residential permits are $35

$20 for 2nd permit,

$50 for 3rd permit,

$250 for 4th and more

Renewal period Biennially Annually Annually Annually

Residential parking permits are an effective tool for managing parking, and part of that power comes from the annual costs. This bill is a good first step towards better managing on-street parking in the county. Hopefully it will be revisited soon.


Brian McEntee is this month’s sponsor for posts about Parking. Learn more »

Bryan Barnett-Woods is a transportation planner in Prince George’s County with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. In addition to bicycling and rowing, Bryan likes nothing more than a good walk in the city. He lives in Barney Circle with his wife and young son. The opinions expressed in this post represent Bryan’s opinions only and do not represent the opinions of his employer.