Photo by slack13 on Flickr.

Last Thursday, the Washington Post reported that as part of his final effort to close the city’s budget gap, Adrian Fenty is considering doubling the fee for residential parking passes. This is not a bad idea, but a better one would be to raise RPP fees for the 2nd and 3rd car.

We charge a laughably small fee for street parking: $15 a year. Only in the world of cars is it considered reasonable that private individuals are able to squat their personal property on 180 square feet of public property and only pay 4 cents a day.

Doubling it does seem like a quick and easy way to raise revenues while spreading the pain pretty thin. But it would be a failed opportunity. Before we consider raising the fee for households with one car, we ought to raise it for houses with two cars, and raising it even more for houses with three or more cars.

See how this would play out in a parking-challenged neighborhood like Georgetown: According to the 2000 Census, there are roughly 4,936 cars in Georgetown. There are only 4,640 households in Georgetown. Of those households here’s how the car ownership breaks down:

  • 20% of households have no car
  • 57% of households have one car
  • 23% of households have more than one car

You might think that since only 23% of households have multiple cars, they can’t be causing much of the parking shortage. But that’s wrong. Almost half (46%) of cars in Georgetown are owned by households that own more than one car.

If every household with more than one car got rid of just one car (keep in mind some households have five cars), there would be 1,200 fewer cars in Georgetown, a drop of 21%. If even just half the multi-car households got rid of just one car, there’d be 528 fewer cars in Georgetown, an 11% drop. That means more parking spaces for others and less traffic.

To flip it around: how many more cars would be in Georgetown if every no-car or one-car household followed the model of multi-car households? 7,164, an increase of 46%. There is simply not enough parking to accommodate that, and, besides, our streets would be completely gridlocked.

Essentially, these multi-car households are taking more than their “fair share” of street space and can do so simply because the majority of people don’t do it. Moreover, they only pay an extra $15 per car to do it. (Yes, registration costs $72 a year, but everyone pays that regardless of whether they’re entitled to a Residential Parking Permit or not). That’s not right.

Thus, before we raise everyone’s permit costs, we should focus on the multi-car households first. For discussion purposes, lets consider this structure: $15 for the first car, $30 for the second, $45 for the third, and so on. How does this add up?

If we simply doubled the rate for everyone we’d generate roughly $148,000 in fees from Georgetown car owners. If we went with my proposal, we’d generate $197,000 in fees. If in adopting these higher fees we caused every multi-car household to give up one car, we’d still generate $163,000 in fees from Georgetown.

By adopting this fee structure, we’d raise more money for the city and possibly lower the number of cars on the street, thus decreasing traffic and improving parking availability. And moreover it would simply be a more fair way of allocating a scarce public resource.

Some may argue that this is unfair to households that simply have to have more than one car. Such households probably do exist. But I doubt it’s the majority of multi-car households. Many have more than one car simply because it’s so cheap to keep two cars. Moreover, we’re still only talking about a fee of one tank of gas a year. If there is one major flaw in this proposal, it’s that it doesn’t raise the fees high enough to actually affect behavior. But for now, at least, it would point us in the right direction and, of course, help close the budget gap too.

Last week the Zoning Commission lobbed this exact proposal to Karina Ricks of DDOT. Ricks responded that it would be difficult to administer right now since they do not have great records distinguishing different households at the same address. Thus a basement apartment appears as the same address, and would be charged more. Additionally, when people move they don’t always update their car’s registration promptly, meaning the new occupant would pay more.

My solution to this problem would be to charge a higher fee for all cars appearing to be at a multi-car household. Therefore instead of charging $30 for the second car, the city would charge $22.50 for each. This would motivate the car owners to update the city’s records. Pitting car owners against the bureaucratic record-keeping machine is unfortunate, but again, we are only talking about an extra $7.50 a year.

Ultimately I believe we will have to make 2nd and 3rd RPPs much more expensive, but fixing the record-keeping systems would be a prerequisite to such a change. Until then, a modest increase in fee rate for those households that put a larger burden on our roads is the least we should do.

Cross-posted at Georgetown Metropolitan.

Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and daughter in Georgetown.