- - Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Washington Area Bus Transformation Project issued a comprehensive report last month that laid out a multi-pronged approach for improving the performance and utilization of the area’s buses. The report calls for redesigned routes, new buses, traffic signal improvements and a variety of other complicated, costly investments that most area jurisdictions will be reluctant to make.

None of these are needed, as there is a simple and effective — and cheap — way to greatly speed up bus traffic in Washington: The city could simply enforce current parking rules downtown and stop allowing people to store their cars on residential streets for a pittance.

My daily commute takes me along Columbia Road to Connecticut Avenue NW to Farragut Square, and I traverse the two miles by foot most days because the bus doesn’t travel much faster than a brisk walk. The slow bus traffic is almost entirely caused by parked cars obstructing traffic and hindering the ability of buses to access and egress bus stops.

The biggest problem is that car owners flout rush-hour parking bans on the city’s major arteries with impunity. From 7-9:30 a.m. and again from 4-6:30 p.m. parking is ostensibly prohibited on most thoroughfares in business districts, but it is haphazardly enforced at best; on some streets the ban is completely ignored.

Just a few illegally parked cars create traffic bottlenecks, slowing traffic for everyone but buses most of all, since they typically need to hew to the right lanes occupied by parked cars. For instance southbound buses — and all other traffic — becomes ensnarled every morning on Connecticut Avenue and M Street NW around 9 a.m. as the rush-hour parking ban gets brushed aside. Allowing parking on the portion of Connecticut that abuts Longfellow Square creates gridlock when buses try to stop on M Street. For the sake of four parking spots, every bus heading south must invariably wait through at least one red light at N Street, Jefferson and M Street.

At night the northbound traffic often becomes gridlocked at the same corner, again owing to parked cars, and buses that continue on their route to go around Dupont Circle are liable to get stuck by an illegally parked car in front of the Starbucks on the north side of the circle — a common occurrence that precludes a bus from advancing at all until the owner shows up and moves it.

In Adams Morgan the ubiquity of parked cars hinder bus traffic at all hours of the day, creating myriad bus bottlenecks that could be eliminated if the city prohibited parking in front of stops. Some of these spots are literally in front of a parking garage.

The city effectively treats residential parking as a scarce natural resource to be conserved at any cost, and no one seems to recognize or care that many cars stored in legal parking spaces serve to slow down buses — no doubt because people who own cars tend to be wealthy, politically active and vocal about their right to park on the street. Bus riders, on the other hand, tend to be younger and poorer and don’t have the wherewithal to send emails to neighborhood listservs to complain about their commute. It’s easier for a city council member or ANC member to avoid resident blowback by leave parking alone, regardless of the cost on everyone else of doing so. Even the loss of a single parking spot for residents can trigger petitions and outrage from the neighborhood’s surfeit of self-described activists.

The implicit calculus of our current parking arrangement is grotesque: We make thousands of bus riders sacrifice a few minutes of their time so that a few more wealthy car owners can park downtown store their car on the street for a pittance.

Rationalizing our parking laws would not cost the city a dime: In fact, if it were to charge something akin to the market price for car storage on residential streets and increase parking fines to a level that would deter illegal parking, the city would be able to more than pay for increased parking enforcement and have money left over. It would also be wildly progressive, especially if we were to devote any money generated to subsidizing mass transit for low-income residents.

Rethinking Washington’s policies on parking on city streets would not only speed up bus traffic, but it would also reduce traffic congestion and carbon emissions while improving pedestrian safety, each of which are supposedly priorities of the mayor and city council. Charging a market price for the right to store a car on city streets would also take away some of the vitriol that greets any new residential development in our part of town, which is driven largely by fears of more competition for residential on-street parking.

Issuing this report was a complete waste: It is perfectly obvious how we can speed up bus traffic. It’s too bad that Washington, D.C., has no compunction to address it.

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

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