A lot of people will tell you a war on cars is being waged in the District. It’s not really true, of course, but there is a heated debate over transportation in the city, and the most contentious topic is parking. The city has been accused of waging war for the increased number of parking tickets, for the proposed zoning change that would eliminate minimum parking requirements in new buildings near Metro stations, and for bike lanes that replaced parking spots. It’s an area where there’s hardly any room to maneuver without angering some very vocal residents.
Which is why it was refreshing to step out of this charged environment last night and hear about the types of parking policies that have worked in other cities across the country. Jeff Tumlin, a prominent transportation planner who lives in San Francisco and works with the consulting group Nelson/Nygaard, presented the 15 steps he deems necessary to fix parking at a panel hosted by the Coalition for Smarter Growth. His central message: Focus on what you’re trying to accomplish.
“We need to focus on outcomes,” he said, “and the primary outcome is availability.”
The spread of parking meters across the country came at the behest of downtown business owners who were concerned that people were parking outside their shops for eight hours a day while at the office and blocking potential customers from getting to the stores. The goal of the meters was to cycle people through, so everyone who wanted to find parking in the business district could.
But now, Tumlin says, we’re still using that same 1947 technology, where you insert coins and have two hours to park during business hours. It’s no longer relevant to our needs in 2013. In San Francisco, he says, 30 percent of traffic was just people looking for a parking space—that is, before the city instituted performance parking, which charges extra for people to park on the blocks with the highest demand.
So how do you reform parking to make cities as functional as possible for drivers? Here—and I warn you, this is about to get wonky—are Tumlin’s 15 steps:
1. Beware residential parking permits. Considered the holy grail among some D.C. residents, RPPs were designed to keep commuters from taking over the parking lanes of residential streets. But when demand exceeds supply—in other words, when there are many more RPPs issued than there are parking spaces—the hunt for parking continues. It’s sometimes better to charge for residential parking like you do for commercial parking; after all, who’s to say that a resident’s parking should be subsidized and protected by the city while a visiting contractor’s or a nearby customer’s should be banned? “Government,” Tumlin says, “doesn’t have much business deciding who has the right to park and who doesn’t.”
2. Meters must take credit cards. “If any of the businesses on Main Street required payment in quarters, they would go out of business,” Tumlin says. So should meters. And, while we’re at it, get rid of those pay stations that require you to walk halfway down the block to figure out what you need to do. If a city’s going to charge for parking, it has to be as convenient as possible.
3. Use smart technology like phone apps that help people find spaces. Again, this goes to convenience and efficiency, and cuts down the time spent hunting for a space (and blocking traffic).
4. Find the right price. “The right price for parking is the lowest price at which a few spots are always available,” Tumlin says. That’ll generally be a lot higher than cities are currently charing. On San Francisco’s Valencia Street, metered parking costs $4.50 an hour. On a cross street just 50 feet away, it’s $2.50. Why? That’s the price that balances supply and demand and ensures that the parking hunt won’t be futile. But it’s important to remember that the goal is not revenue, but to make it easier for people to find parking when they need it—”charging for parking is a pro-motorist strategy.”
5. Find the right time. It makes no sense to charge for parking from 9 to 5 on a street full of restaurants where parking is tightest from 7 to 10. Charge until midnight if needed. Likewise, don’t limit people to two hours of parking. Let them have dinner and a movie, and pay extra (provided they can do it conveniently with their cards or phones, not by running back to feed the meter or digging through mounds of quarters). That’s better for businesses and for drivers.
6. Invest your revenue. In Pasadena, 100 percent of meter revenue goes to the neighborhood business improvement districts to provide for cleaner streets, safety, and marketing. That’s better than putting the revenue into the city’s general fund and prompting residents to accuse the city of extortion. At the very least, a city should be clear about how the money’s being invested.
7. Be flexible. Allow restaurants and cafes to set up outdoor tables in the parking lane if they so desire. Remember, parking on retail corridors is there to serve the retail establishments. If they find that they get more business by increasing their street presence, let them do it. Outdoor tables in a parking lane at a restaurant not only give a boost to that restaurant, Tumlin says, they also help neighboring businesses by attracting people to the street.
8. Eliminate minimum requirements for off-street parking in new buildings. Not only can these be wasteful, eliminating them “is the most effective way to deliver affordable housing,” Tumlin says. Parking spaces generally run in the tens of thousands of dollars, so buildings with less parking have substantially cheaper units.
9. Replace minimums with maximums. D.C.’s Office of Planning considered this as part of the zoning update but dropped it in the face of considerable opposition and is just going for the elimination of minimums in transit zones. But Tumlin argues that maximums can help create housing choices for the minority of people without cars, who are often forced to compete for pricier homes in buildings marketed to people with cars.
10. Design parking well. Don’t degrade the pedestrian experience for cars’ sake.
11. Locate driveways well. Again, they shouldn’t turn a sidewalk into a minefield for pedestrians.
12. Unbundle parking from leases. This is related to 8 and 9. If people don’t have cars, don’t make them pay for parking in their buildings. Charge for spaces only when people demand them.
13. Encourage tandem/stack/valet parking, to save space.
14. Share. Each car-share vehicle, Tumlin says, eliminates seven to 25 vehicles from the roads. Hoboken, N.J., bribed residents with a two-year car-sharing membership and $100 to give up their RPPs, and Tumlin says it was a big success.
15. Park once. Currently, there are lots of arterial roads that are difficult and dangerous to cross, so driving from place to place is necessary, regardless of the distance. Think New York Avenue NE. By bringing the various uses along the road—schools, offices, stores—together on one side of it, connected by smaller streets, you allow people to park once and then walk to their various destinations. That cuts way down on traffic and makes for a better experience.
The District Department of Transportation’s Sam Zimbabwe, sharing the stage with Tumlin, sat grimacing as Tumlin laid out some of the aggressive measures cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles and Hoboken have taken to make parking less unpleasant, as if imagining the epic fight that these proposals would provoke in D.C. And so I asked Tumlin if these approaches might not be feasible in certain political or demographic environments, or if it really was just a question of communication.
“It’s only communication,” he replied. “No matter what a community’s issues are, being less stupid about parking is going to benefit everyone.”
Of course, making parking more expensive is not always popular. “On parking, being progressive is the opposite of being populist,” Tumlin says. “People say, ‘I want free parking, and I want a lot of parking.’ And they don’t think through the unintended consequences.”
But there’s an opportunity cost to tackling parking, Tumlin says. A city can only do so much at once, and going all out on parking means giving up other priorities. “In D.C. you decided to do bikes, and that was probably the right choice,” Tumlin says. “Washington is 100 times better on bikes and bike infrastructure than San Francisco.”