Map shows the boundaries of the District’s street parking experiment. (All images courtesy of DDOT)

One of the most congested travel zones in downtown Washington will become a lab for experiments in street parking regulation.

As with so many other transportation programs across the D.C. region, the goal is to make better use of street space rather than expand it. If the program works the way the District Department of Transportation hopes, drivers will find street parking more available in the Gallery Place, Chinatown, Penn Quarter area, and some congestion-causing behavior will be reduced.

This area, with 1,300 metered parking spaces, is home to many entertainment venues, museums, restaurants, offices and government buildings. It draws a crowd, day and night. Drivers slowly circle the blocks, coming to a halt when they see a free space — or think that a space might become free within the next few minutes. The more desperate ones will block several lanes or make sudden U-turns to capture a vacant space.

“The parking experience is one of agony,” said Soumya Dey, director of DDOT’s research and technology transfer division.

Under the pilot program, called parkDC, the cost of street parking in that zone will vary much more than it has, and the effects of the changes will be monitored so that more adjustments can be made. The goal of the prices changes is to reach a sweet spot where there’s always one parking space open on each block. DDOT officials call the system “value pricing.”

That means the street parking prices will vary by the time of day, but they may also change from quarter to quarter as the program evolves in 2015 and 2016.

New D.C. signs on parking rules New street signs will attempt to simplify parking rules.

Travelers also will be able to go online to get information about parking availability on those blocks, which could cut down on cruising for street space. This won’t be about identifying a particular space that’s vacant. That would be useless to a traveler about to get into a car some distance away and distracting to a driver with a smartphone. The online information is more likely to be about how things are trending on streets within the zone.

A traveler might see how things stand in the Verizon Center area and decide to take Metrorail, a bus or a bike instead. A driver looking at the online information might also see that street spaces are more likely to be available a few blocks away.

Closed circuit cameras will be used to detect the availability of spaces, both to provide real-time information to travelers and to store up the data needed to adjust the prices over the life of the pilot program so that supply more closely matches demand.

There’s a low-tech, but very appealing angle to the program: The street parking signs are going to be modified to make them easier to understand. People who park in the District complain as much about the confusing signs as they do about any particular restriction or price. Many just want to know when, where and how they are supposed to pay.

Early 2015, drivers will start to notice changes in both the signs and the parking meters within this zone. The signs should become easier to interpret. See the image of a sign for an example.

DDOT pay by space sign Parkers will tap in the number of their space when paying at kiosk.

Today’s multispace meters, in which drivers pay at a kiosk then leave the receipts on their dashboards, will be replaced with a pay-by-space system. A driver getting out of a car will look on the curb for a sign displaying the number of the parking space. The driver will enter that number at the kiosk while paying. Drivers could still choose to pay on their smartphones via Parkmobile.

A parking enforcement officer will be able to see on a handheld device that the space has been paid for.

The changes in pricing and metering equipment also will apply at the curb spaces set aside for delivery vehicles and buses within the zone starting in 2015.

Drivers are likely to see the first of the price adjustments next summer. DDOT still has decisions to make about how complex the pricing system should be, as well as about the actual rates, said Sam Zimbabwe, the department’s associate director for policy and planning.

One key challenge, he said, will be communicating those prices to travelers so they can modify their behavior. While parking prices will be highest at the busiest times of day, the prices on some blocks may be lower than on the high-demand blocks, encouraging drivers to spread out.

The pilot program, funded through a grant from the Federal Highway Administration, is scheduled to wrap up at the end of 2016 with an evaluation of its effectiveness. If successful, it could be expanded to other parts of the District.