- - Wednesday, May 8, 2019

A recent proposal to raise the city’s current $35 annual fee for an on-street residential parking permit to $50 has run into predictable opposition from those who protest that increasing the fee is regressive and unaffordable for many car-owning families.

However, cheap on-street parking has created a situation where its preservation effectively dictates a variety of local policies that make life more difficult for low-income denizens. Instead, we should charge a market rate for residents who own cars and park them on city streets — which would be well above $50 in most neighborhoods.

The current parking permit fee amounts to an enormous government subsidy for car owners: In Adams Morgan, for instance, the going rate for a reserved parking spot in a garage or parking lot is $250 a month, or $3,000 a year; over 100 times what people pay to leave their cars on the street. It is no exaggeration to say that this may be the biggest net subsidy that Washington, D.C. — or any government in the country — gives its residents.

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The low price of parking permits has — predictably — resulted in a large excess demand for on-street parking: The number of cars with permits in most Northwest neighborhoods greatly exceeds the number of legal parking spots. The keen competition for parking spots has engendered an unintended and perverse outcome in which the protection of people’s access to cheap on-street parking effectively determines various other neighborhood policies that are seemingly unrelated to parking.

For starters, the shortage of on-street residential parking spaces means that a large proportion of traffic in residential neighborhoods on weekday evenings consists of people cruising to find a parking spot — one urban planner estimated that on Thursday and Friday nights the majority of all automobiles on the road in Adams Morgan are simply looking for parking. The crawl for parking creates congestion, which in turn increases smog and carbon emissions, since cars stopped or crawling emit much more pollutants than those moving at a steady clip. What’s more, parking competition also reduces pedestrian safety — more than once I’ve nearly been clipped by a car darting to beat another driver to a parking spot.

It also leads to ridiculous uses of this scarce resource. For instance, a good proportion of cars on residential streets are, strictly, speaking, not being parked but rather stored, going untouched for weeks and months at a time. On the edge of Kalorama Park, for instance, is a car with a turtle-like shell mounted on its top; the car’s driver used it last summer for some environmental message, but since August it has not budged.

The vehicle next to it — a 1970s van painted in psychedelic colors — has not been driven in years: Its owner uses the vehicle for storage. It’s not the only vehicle serving as a storage container in our neighborhood.

But the biggest problem is that the excess demand for on-street parking has created a powerful lobby that zealously protects that right, and its availability. This lobby effectively advocates for things that effectively punish their low-income neighbors.

For instance, every new or rehabbed building in the neighborhood automatically faces a barrage of community opposition invariably demanding that the building be shorter, or set off farther from the street, or be diminished in some other way so that less people will live in it. These opponents invariably aver that these changes are necessary in order to preserve the character of the neighborhood or because there are constraints on the public services available (set aside the fact that our local school is under-enrolled and that our fire-EMT station does fewer runs than a decade ago).

However, the real reason for the opposition is that building more housing means having more families in the neighborhood, which begets more parking competition.

A few years ago our former city councilman, Jim Graham, announced he would oppose every development that turned a townhouse into condominiums in the name of preserving homes for families, for which he was roundly cheered. The problem with this rhetoric is that few families can afford a $2 million townhouse in Adams Morgan, but a renovated townhouse development — which usually involves expanding into the building’s parking lot — can create three or four separate apartments, each being large enough to accommodate a family and much less expensive than a townhouse. Since most of these families may own a car, and these rehabbed buildings leave no off-street parking, it means more cars being parked on the street. Hence the opposition.

The other problem for low-income residents — or anyone who takes mass transit — is that the parking shortage creates political pressure to protect every feasible parking spot in the neighborhood. While that may sound harmless, the conservation of any and all potential parking spots results in people legally squeezing cars into every nook and cranny of the street, including spots where they effectively impede buses.

For instance, the L2 bus heading downtown must invariably stop on Calvert Street before crossing Connecticut Avenue NW because the cars parked near the intersection force it to wait behind cars attempting to turn right, which can be forestalled by pedestrian traffic. At its stop on the other side of Connecticut, another handful of parked cars make it difficult for the bus to merge into traffic. These spots are, incidentally, directly in front of a parking garage.

Two stops later, when Lanier Place NW intersects with Calvert Road NW, the bus must invariably wait for at least one and often two red lights before entering traffic and advancing. While there is a lane directly in front of the bus stop that would allow it to simply proceed to the right turn lane onto Columbia Road NW, two parked cars invariably sit directly in front of the bus stop, precluding such a maneuver.

When the L2 bus returns to Connecticut Avenue NW and stops at Leroy Place, yet more parked cars block it from simply advancing in the right lane when it resumes until it crosses Florida Avenue NW, forcing the bus to — of course — wait for traffic to pause, which inevitably causes it to miss a green light on Florida Avenue.

In effect, we slow bus commutes through Adams Morgan by three to five minutes solely for the convenience of — literally — a dozen car owners.
The preservation of parking also prevents us from taking sensible steps to reduce congestion in the area. For instance, the confluence of Kalorama, 19th Street, Wyoming Avenue and Columbia Road creates three intersections very close to each other along Columbia Road — the main drag in Adams Morgan — that results in a congested and dangerous mix of cars every rush hour.

Someone recently offered a solution: We could close the nub of Kalorama Road that goes between Columbia Road and 19th Street and turn Kalorama Road into a one-way road between Columbia and 18th Street. Doing so would essentially remove an intersection and a stop sign 40 feet from a stoplight while also allowing the city to expand Kalorama Park across Kalorama Street to encompass a bereft traffic island triangle.

A simple fix that would concomitantly allow us to expand a park while reducing congestion would seem like a no-brainer, but vocal opposition quickly shut it down, since it would remove eight street parking spots.

The solution to our parking morass is simple: We should determine precisely how many on-street parking spaces we have in each neighborhood — after eliminating every single spot that potentially interferes with mass transit — and create permits equal to 90 percent of that amount. We should then auction these permits to the highest bidders and use the money to subsidize mass transit of low-income residents.

Before the “what about the poor?” argument ensues, it’s important to note that most people in these neighborhoods — and nearly all of those who own cars — are well off, as evidenced by the surfeit of luxury cars currently parked on my street.

What’s more, by taking away the fuel that fires the opposition to every new housing project in our neighborhoods we may actually see more homes constructed in places like Adams Morgan, making it easier for middle-class households, and those who travel by mass transit, to live here.

No one intentionally decided to allow the interests of car owners to effectively determine housing and transit policy in our neighborhoods, but that is precisely what has occurred. If our progressive rhetoric about needing to take steps to improve the environment, pedestrian safety, access to affordable housing and mass transit means anything, we need to charge what the market will bear for the right to park on residential city streets.

Ike Brannon is a senior fellow with the Jack Kemp Foundation.

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