When Kirk Anderson moved from Alexandria to the District’s H Street NE corridor two years ago, the 26-year-old spent two months traveling about town by bike, bus and Metro while sorting out issues with his car registration.
For a time, he even considered ditching the wheels permanently. But the convenience of a car when running errands or taking trips proved too great, and now it sits at the curb in front of his rowhouse.
“It was definitely doable,” Anderson said of a carless lifestyle. “But, particularly running to the grocery store, it’s a lot easier to do in a car than on a bike. You can carry a lot more stuff with you.”
The District has seen its population boom in recent years as more people, particularly young people such as Anderson, flock to urban environments where they can live, work and play without much travel time in between.
But the influx of residents has placed added strain on the District’s number of on-street parking spaces, even as the city boasts one of the lowest rates of car ownership in the country and offers a bevy of alternatives, such as bikes, buses and trains.
It’s a headache that city officials want resolved.
“There will be a point where, if we do nothing, then it will backfire, and folks will not want to be downtown and not want to be in this business environment, because they can’t find parking,” said Angelo Rao, who oversees parking for the city’s Department of Transportation.
U.S. Census estimates released in December show the District’s population climbed from 601,723 to 632,323 between April 2010 and July 2012, meaning more than 1,100 people, on average, moved into the city during each of those 27 months.
Although not all of them brought cars, those who did placed greater pressure on an already limited number of spots. Officials tally approximately 260,000 on-street parking spaces in the city, a figure they say hasn’t changed significantly in the last decade.
A little more than 60 percent of households in the District own cars, according to the Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey, a figure well below the national average of roughly 90 percent.
“In the District, we’ve had increases in households over the last couple of years, and at the same time seen car ownership decline, which is remarkable,” said Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies urban infrastructure. “It’s not the trend we’re used to in this country.”
That’s due in part to the fact that the District has been faster than many cities to adopt new forms of transportation. Beyond the Metrorail and Metrobus systems, the popular Capital Bikeshare program allows members to share bicycles stationed around the city, and several car-sharing companies, such as Car2Go and Zipcar, are active here.
Then there are a bevy of smartphone applications that allow those in need of a ride to summon one, whether through taxi services, carpooling or car rental.
“What’s different about this city is, we’ve been planning for growth for 30 years, and now we actually have it,” said Harriet Tregoning, director of the D.C. Office of Planning. “A lot of the ways we have done things are going to be different, and that means managing on-street parking.”
Some changes are underway.
In recent years, parking officials have designated areas in Columbia Heights, Capitol Hill and Navy Yard where the price of a metered parking space fluctuates depending on the time of day and level of demand. Rao said they might add as many as 12 other “performance-based parking” zones this year.
The residential permit parking program is also under review. Currently, District residents pay $35 a year to park within a designated zone based on their address. Officials are evaluating whether the current regulations make sense and the annual cost is too low.
Demand for parking appears poised to grow, with new apartment complexes on the horizon and mixed-use development projects that encourage people to live in and visit the District.
The Washington region is expected to have a record 15,500 apartments come on the rental market this year, according to Delta Associates, a real estate research firm. Of those, more than 4,000 are likely to land within District limits.
“If we are increasing our land use by increasing units, then sure, I can’t look you in the eye and say that’s not going to have some adverse effect on this limited on-street space,” Rao said.
“If a two-story building got converted to a nine-story building, we still haven’t built more curb space,” he said. “The curb space stays static. It’s fixed.”
If current trends continue, many of those new residents with cars will look to park on the street, where the cost of a permit is considerably cheaper than the monthly fee many buildings charge for garage or lot parking.
Jonathan Banco, 33, parks his Nissan Xterra on the street outside his apartment in Adams Morgan. He could pay more than $100 a month to park in the building’s lot, but a residential parking permit costs a fraction of that per year.
“I’ve lived in cities for much of my life. I just like having a car,” Banco said. “I’ve had this car for a while, and it’s not really worth anything if I sell it. It runs fine. It works great. But reselling it at this point is not worth my while.”
Banco doesn’t use the car to commute to work or conduct daily errands, he said, so at times it will sit in the same spot for a week or two. He even rents it out for extra money through an online service.
Rao said city streets are lined with cars that, such as Banco’s, rarely move except for the occasional weekend getaway or errand in the suburbs. The result is cluttered roadways that force regular drivers to battle for fewer spots.
“The public [road] system is being used as storage,” Rao said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what the street is for. But is that the best method for dealing with those precious spaces? I only ask that question.”