With about 300,000 registered vehicles in the District, including about 200,000 with parking permits, car owners are a politically potent voting block. But census figures suggest that more than a third of city residents don’t own a car. They, too, are starting to show signs of electoral influence.
“It’s the third rail of District politics,” said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who was once hanged in effigy in a Capitol Hill bar after he pushed for new parking regulations in the neighborhood. “But one of the most inefficient uses of public parking is the storage of vehicles.”
Both Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and his predecessor, Adrian M. Fenty (D), faced the public’s ire over speed cameras and higher fees for meter parking downtown, where the average parking meter generates $1,700 a year. Yet city leaders said they will continue to nudge residents out of their cars, citing a long-term vision of a sustainable city.
In an overhaul of city codes expected to go before the Zoning Commission this fall, the District is proposing to stop requiring developers downtown and near Metro stations to provide a minimum amount of parking.
The D.C. Council and D.C. Department of Transportation are forming working groups to study how parking rules should be rewritten, including evaluating shrinking residential parking zones, repricing meters and increasing the cost of residential parking permits.
Some policymakers note that the District charges $35 for a year-long residential parking permit while an annual Capital Bikeshare membership costs $75. Tregoning called the permit fee “ludicrous” because many of the parking spaces could be worth more.
“In an ideal world, I would use a price signal to manage parking so it wouldn’t cost $35 a year to park on the street,” Tregoning said. “It would cost more, and in neighborhoods where there is a lot of demand, that number would be higher still.”
Christopher B. Leinberger, a visiting fellow for metropolitan policy at the Brookings Institution, told council members recently that “car storage” runs counter to the city’s recent success in marketing itself as a “walkable, livable” environment.
“I suggest people move to a market principle that forces us to make decisions like ‘Gee, do we really need a second car in our household?’ ” Leinberger said.
Nearly 50,000 households in the District own two or more cars, according to census data. One person in that category is Virginia Liu, a Southwest Washington resident who parks one car in a garage and the other on the street because she and her husband drive to work. But Liu said that finding on-street parking has become more difficult over time.
“As of five years ago, it was easy, because no one knew of Southwest. Now look — there is no space already,” Liu said one recent early afternoon. “It used to be just Dupont and U Street, but now everything is being pushed out.”
Townsend said some parking problems could be resolved if the District used the $140 million it collects annually from parking meters and fines to construct more public garages — a point repeated by some Southwest residents.
“It doesn’t have to just be parking and white lines,” said Richard Dallas, 36, an architect who doesn’t own a car. “You can put in a cafe, put in a dry cleaners [on the ground floor] and a green roof that is sustainable so people can sit up there.”
Tregoning counters that there is already an excess of garage spaces. Instead of building more spaces — many of which are used only 10 hours a day — Tregoning said the city will be encouraging more “shared parking,” not “capped for one use.”
For now, however, Ellis plans to keep his 18-year-old car right where it’s at. “At least until they take my permit away,” he said.
An earlier version of this article stated that some parking meters in the District can generate up to $3,000 per day. The information was revealed at a D.C. Council hearing. But D.C. Department of Transportation officials said Friday that they have since rechecked their records and concluded that that figure was inaccurate.