Photo by Diana Marsh on Flickr.

Last week, Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. introduced two bills to encourage diagonal (angled) parking. They sound like they’ll increase the amount of parking. But is that what we want?

Both bills would require DDOT to establish procedures for adding diagonal parking. One would let businesses on a street apply for diagonal parking if 60% agree. The other would let religious institutions apply for diagonal parking, but only on Sundays, and with approval from the area ANC.

Diagonal parking means more parking spaces, which most business owners think will increase customers. But how do people get there? Who comes there? And why are Thomas’ bills relevant?

DDOT already puts in angled parking in DC, but without a formal process. Requests usually come from Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), churches, ANCs, council­members, the Mayor’s office, or citizens. The requests go to DDOT’s Ward Planner, the Parking Specialist, or the Curbside Specialist. Several divisions discuss the idea based on the need, construction or other plans already in place, and, of course, traffic counts.

For businesses without a BID, this bills to establish a formal process could be helpful. For areas where double parking for churches often happens anyway, this might be a way to make some peace between neighbors and churches. If these requests are common, DDOT should have a formal policy.

When DDOT turns down requests, people usually aren’t satisfied. They go higher, to the Council or the Mayor, and the order comes down to put it in. Given that, why would DDOT ever say no to diagonal parking? Is DDOT anti-business? Is DDOT anti-church? Here are a couple of reasons.

  1. The street’s not wide enough. Parallel parking requires 7-9 feet, travel lanes are 10-12, and bike lanes are 5. Angled parking, depending on whether the angle is 45, 60, or 90, consumes 16-20 feet. Unless there’s an travel lane that isn’t needed, angled parking isn’t possible.
  2. The space is already being used. What’s occupying the space today? If vehicle counts are high enough, then the answer is traffic. If not, there might be a bike lane or a sidewalk widening planned. To install permanent diagonal parking, the city needs to decide if enough space can be taken out of the transportation network permanently during the week. This is not an easy decision. Once angled parking is installed, an act of Congress seems to be the only way to undo it.

On Sundays, traffic is likely not an issue. While at DDOT, planners recognized that permanent diagonal parking often kills the possibility for bike lanes on certain blocks (11th ST NW between Vermont and Q Streets, for example). Does it matter if the bike lanes are blocked on Sundays, since there’s so little traffic anyway? Can people on bikes simply use the travel lane? This might not be problematic on Sundays, but could be slippery slope to losing the integrity of bike lanes.

Now the broader question: Do we want more parking? It has generally been treated as good. But what else comes with more parking?

More traffic. It’s a fact (proven over and over and over) that more parking creates more traffic. But in a retail area that seems barren, isn’t more traffic a good thing? Maybe, but so is a good streetscape to make people want to shop there in the first place.

Diagonal parking has a traffic calming effect, but so to other techniques. After the protected bike lanes on 15th Street NW were installed, the number of vehicles driving over 20 mph over the speed limit decreased from 147 a day to 3 (a 98% reduction). Calmer traffic means people are driving slower, looking around more at businesses, and watching for cars exiting spaces. But it’s just one tool in the traffic calming toolbox.

Diagonal parking is just one way to address parking shortages. There are many ways to manage parking, from building a garage to alternating pricing and time limits at meters. A bill that calls out a single solution to an often complicated problem ties the hands of experts whose job it is to keep up with innovations and to understand limits of each one.

More parking means businesses tend to market to people driving in, not neighbors. When residents can walk, bike, take the bus or a taxi to businesses nearby, businesses will cater to them. But when people can drive to your neighborhood restaurant, the restaurant will start giving them what they want, not what you want.

That means more emphasis on parking and valets, and less on sidewalks, trees, benches, bike racks, and bike lanes. While more parking for businesses and churches seems like a good way to deal with struggling businesses and too many people driving in on Sundays, it enforces the idea that these aren’t really for neighbors.

More parking hurts the taxicab industry. Taxis are demand-responsive, on-demand transit. But the taxi system works best without congestion and when people aren’t driving themselves. Taxis are also a great way to get home from bars at 2am, when Metro is infrequent and people do not want to be driving.

Are Councilmember Thomas’ bills necessary? Do we need more permanent parking? If the honest intent of these bills is to issue procedures, and not simply to force DDOT to approve more diagonal parking, then they could have some benefit, but may not be necessary. But let us not forget that more parking often comes at the price of other aspects of city life we enjoy.

Chris Ziemann moved to Washington after a 7-week, multi-modal hitchhiking trip from Lisbon to Berlin. He has a masters degree in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina, and is currently working for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, promoting sustainable transportation in developing countries. Chris worked for almost four years with DDOT to improve the quality of life and equality of transportation options for residents and visitors.