Parking in D.C. is tricky, and enforcement officers are on the prowl


Victor Stewart issues parking tickets between Dupont Circle and U Street NW. (Amanda Voisard/THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 8, 2011

It’s a familiar sight for many drivers. You see it under your windshield wiper from a distance, but you’re not sure what it is. A flier? A ticket? You were just a few minutes late!

It doesn’t matter. The person who left it is already gone, one of hundreds of parking enforcement officers prowling the city’s streets with one eye on the cars and the other on the time.

Victor Stewart, 47, covers an area between Dupont Circle and U Street NW. He spends his days guiding his Segway through the same zone. Back and forth, over and over.

He doesn’t mind.

“I’m enjoying the great outdoors,” said Stewart, who lives in Northeast Washington. “If you like what you do, doing the same thing over and over doesn’t bother you. At least it doesn’t bother me.”

Through Jan. 27 the DMV is allowing drivers to pay some overdue tickets without a penalty. But for drivers, parking in the District can be a confusing gamble.

A lot goes into determining where you can and can’t park, for how long and what happens if you violate those rules. Last year, new policies went into effect at the city’s meters, resulting in higher rates, requiring Saturday payments and extending hours in some areas.

And drivers don’t just have to worry about getting tickets from the District. About 30 city and federal agencies can issue parking tickets in Washington, although the Department of Public Works handles most of them. The agency’s 204 parking enforcement officers handed out 1.54 million tickets during the last fiscal year, said spokeswoman Linda Grant.

The District Department of Transportation places the meters (the city has about 17,000), the DPW oversees parking enforcement and the Department of Motor Vehicles handles the ticket appeals.

“I won’t come into D.C. because of the parking,” said Brian Duckett, 30, who lives in Calvert County. His work as a security technician occasionally forces him to drive into the District. He said it’s tough to find a space and increasingly pricey. “It’s frustrating. You try to do work, and the city just makes it harder and harder.”

Parking is also tricky because of congestion in the residential areas, DPW Director William O. Howland Jr. said. In many suburbs, you can park in front of your house.

“In the city, if you can park on the same block, you’re lucky,” he said.

‘Why me?’

Stewart glided down a leafy block of Swann Street NW on a hot morning late last month.

Washington is about to notch its 10th consecutive day with temperatures at or above 90 degrees. He’s one of about 23 parking enforcement officers patrolling the streets on Segways and 15 riding mountain bikes. The rest of the officers walk or drive. The Segway helps Stewart cover more ground and give more tickets. Plus, it’s easier on his feet and back.

Using a handheld device, he ticketed a white Chevrolet Malibu. The devices, used by all parking enforcement officers, help automate the process. Once a car’s information is entered, officers can’t issue tickets until the unit confirms two hours have passed, said Stewart, who has been an officer for about two years.

The driver of the Malibu walked up just a few minutes later. He looked less than thrilled, but he wordlessly grabbed the ticket, slammed his car door and drove off.

Stewart issues about 75 tickets a day. Sometimes people talk to him or yell. Men are more likely to just storm off, he said.

People who do talk to him always respond the same way, Stewart said: “ ‘Why did I get a ticket? What about all the other cars on the block? Why me?’ ”

He said he is lenient when he can be. But “once I’ve printed it, it belongs to you,” he said.

People tend to calm down when he explains their options and how they can appeal tickets.

“Some people, you just can’t reach,” he said. He doesn’t take it personally. “They might be mad about something else. You might reach them at the wrong time.”

Once or twice a day, he responds to a 311 call from someone complaining that a car is illegally parked. That’s when people who just want to park and go home thank him for doing his work.

“You see the same people every day,” he said. “You get to know them; they know you.”

‘The meter’s broken’

Stewart rolled up to a white Saturn parked at an expired meter in the 1300 block of R Street. He placed a ticket under the wiper and snapped a photo with the handheld device to document the process.

Jose Castillo walked out of the building across the street and caught site of the ticket on his Saturn. He wasn’t angry. “But the meter’s broken,” he said. The ticket was already printed. Stewart explained what the man should do.

Castillo, 57, said he was volunteering at the Central Union Mission across the street. But he seemed serene about the parking ticket. He decided to tuck it back under the wiper so he could stay a little bit longer.

Technically, Stewart said later, Castillo could leave the car there for two more hours before getting another ticket.

Stewart would find out either way. If the Saturn was still there in two hours, he would see it. If it was gone, there would be more cars for him to check. There always are.

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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