- - Monday, September 16, 2019


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

However, there is a simple and effective — and cheap — way to greatly speed up bus traffic in Washington D.C.: 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 7-9:30am and again from 4—6:30 parking is ostensibly prohibited on most streets, 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, at Connecticut and M there is a (too short) space between stops for buses traveling north. Without parked cars in the way, buses can remain in the right lane to cross M street and advance to the next stop 300 feet ahead, and remain in the lane until it reaches Dupont Circle.

However, there are invariably cars sitting in those lanes, even during rush hour, and their presence requires buses wait for a red light (or two) to merge into traffic, making a one block sojourn a 3-5 minute affair. This also occurs at S Street and Florida Avenue.

When the bus goes around Dupont Circle its riders need to hope that a car isn’t illegally parked 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. For instance, L2 buses traveling on Calvert Street must slow down and wait for traffic to ease before advancing on three different stops in Adams Morgan. If the city dedicated the space for bus traffic it would save thousands of bus riders three to five minutes in their commute. Some of these spots are literally in front of a parking garage.

The city treats residential parking as a scarce natural resource to be conserved at any cost and no one considers trading off parking spots to speed up bus traffic, no doubt because people who own cars tend to be wealthy, politically active, and vocal about their right to park on the street. On the other hand, bus riders are 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 the blowback and leave parking alone.

The implicit calculus of our current parking arrangement is grotesque: We make thousands bus rider -sacrifice a few minutes of their time so that a few wealthy car owners can 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.

And to be clear, most people are not parking their cars on residential streets but storing them; the majority of cars sitting on curbs in Adams-Morgan are not used in a typical week: they are toys to be used for occasional jaunts or even storage.

Rethinking DC’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.

That our government acquiesces to the status quo — a proposal to modestly raise the $35 residential parking fee went nowhere — reveals that we would rather avoid inconveniencing a few loud and wealthy car owners than advance various progressive priorities.

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

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

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