The Difficulty with Parking Meters

Photo courtesy of
‘New DC Parking Meters’
courtesy of ‘Mr. T in DC’

Let’s get something out there from the get-go.  I hate parking meters. I hate them a lot.  I cackle when I see them broken, I chuckle when the little display blinks “FAIL” and I grin when I read a story about a guy with a reciprocating saw that cuts them down like Paul Bunyan.  But it’s why I hate them that matters. I hate them because they’re an impediment to getting what you want to get done accomplished.  They’re temperamental, they’re kludgy and they’re driven by heavy coins that you never seem to have enough of.

There’s a movement afoot to roll back the parking meter rate increases that the Fenty Administration enacted.  Rates climbed to, in some cases, $2/hr, and enforcement hours expanded.  The point was to help increase revenue for the city, and to increase it with the people that use the roads in DC and park in the commercial areas.  So, let’s look at what’s going on here.

Leading the charge against the meter hikes is Councilman Jack Evans of Ward 2.  He’s interested in a “return to sanity” in meters.  I would agree, I’d love a saner system, but that doesn’t mean we have to back away from the meter charges.  Let’s talk about what garage parking runs downtown.  I can’t think of a single garage (but I’m sure you can) that offers hourly parking for less than $10 an hour.  My last two refuges of sub $10/hr parking have this summer raised their rates, and that’s lead me to street parking on a number of occasions, when I can get it.

He believes that parking should be free on weekends, that it should be $1/hr and that meters should run to 6:30pm.

Here’s the thing: He’ll need to find $6-8M in order to pay for that, in a year when the city’s running a rumored $100M in deficit.  I can’t think of why parking needs to be just a tenth of what the garages are successfully charging and getting.  The market can, and will, bear prices of $2/hr.  There are a couple of problems, though, with the way DC enacted these changes:

  1. Coin-only meters.  God these things suck. 8 quarters buys you just 60 minutes.  If you were to park for two hours, twice in a day, you’d be looking at a burn rate of four rolls of quarters each week.
  2. Unreliable equipment. I run into broken meters on a regular basis, I swear I’m on a first-name basis with the folks at the 311 hotline.  Broken meters mean no revenue at all, for as long as it takes to fix the meter.  Couple with that a rough experience

The answer seems to be, from my perspective, a citywide adoption of payment by phone, the pilots of which I’ve enjoyed very much in Foggy Bottom and near Dupont.  Call a number, it recognizes your caller ID, charges your card and gives your license plate the all-clear for a few hours.  Not in love with the idea of credit only?  I can understand that, but there’s no reason we couldn’t double-up with cash multi-space meters.

Do I hate paying for meters?  Well, yes.  But parking has to cost something, because it comes with its own abuse potentials, and it’s a resource that the city provides.  Keep the meter fees where they are, people will continue to pay them, as long as you make it easy for them to do so.  Take out the frustration, and replace it with an easy credit card-accessible option.

There’s another option here, as well, and that’s a system like Arlington’s system with pre-paid portable meters.  They get interest on your parking money, you get to mete it out, minute by minute, with support varying lengths and rates.  Not a hard system to use, and easy to support.  Either way, going back to $1/hr isn’t going to build your revenue base, Councilman Evans, and that’s not what keeps people from going to Georgetown.  Georgetown does that all on its own.

I live and work in the District of Columbia. I write at We Love DC, a blog I helped start, I work at Technolutionary, a company I helped start, and I’m happy doing both. I enjoy watching baseball, cooking, and gardening. I grow a mean pepper, keep a clean scorebook, and wash the dishes when I’m done. Read Why I Love DC.

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8 thoughts on “The Difficulty with Parking Meters

  1. Tom, you only spoke to one side of the equation… which is the fact that often times, the parking situation in DC encourages people to either 1) stay at home, 2) take mass transit, or 3) [if you're lucky] walk to their DC destination. Why do I note this, as not everybody uses DC for work… namely thinking about entertainment, shopping and cultural things… by frustrating people with tricky meters, long enforcement times and the other items you mention… you end up keeping commerce out of DC. And what does commerce bring to DC? Why I’m glad you asked… tax revenue!

    So, wouldn’t you think that the increase in sales tax and other revenue generated by businesses (even the bag fees!) going back to DC coffers may offset the difference in these adjustments into the positive… it may not be double digit, but you have to start somewhere… to think that the ills will be solved in the short term is and endemic problem with DC and, well, government in general… which is having patience and utilizing the long view… if you make it a good place for commerce, the business will come, and then the consumers… at least that is what has always been promised…

    The other issue, that isn’t noted here, is actually understanding traffic and flow issues. Streets with some parking are too narrow, and thus cause congestion, which also aggravates people, and others have no parking, of which they could support it. DC’s poor planning once again on display. And speaking of Georgetown… that place could really do with a few parking garages (underground or otherwise) to help with some of those issues…but DC isn’t just Georgetown…

  2. Agreed on the craziness that is increased fees and longer enforcement while still requiring coins at most meters.

    San Francisco has a debit card system in place that works pretty well. You buy a card (sold lots of places, including, even Whole Foods) for $ 20 and put it in a slot on the meter. Every 5 second or so, the meter adds 15 minutes of time as the amount on your card decreases.

    I realize that some people don’t want another card to carry around, but it provides an alternative for those that don’t want to use their credit cards to feed the meter. And, if you really don’t want to carry the debit card around, you just leave it in your car, since you’ll never really use it other than when you’re driving somewhere anyway.

  3. David, judging by how difficult it is to get a street parking space downtown by 6:45, I don’t think it’s parking *fees* that keep people away from DC businesses. Maybe it’s lack of available *spaces* that keep people away, but that’s not a feasibly correctable issue.

    What keeps people from buying a $30 dinner downtown isn’t the $4 they’ll pay for 2 hours of parking, it’s the $25 ticket they’re risking if they don’t happen to have enough quarters with them and can’t get a space at one of the all-too-few cash/credit/phone meters.

  4. Apologies for the stupid question, but what is required at a ‘no time limit’ meter? Must I feed the meter for as long as I am parked, even after 6:30pm?

  5. @Kevin
    I’ve seen these cards in use in philadelphia as well, and by the looks of most DC single space meters, there is no reason why they can’t be supported here. I’m just not sure where you would buy them.

    As for parking in georgetown, there is parking on residential streets but be prepared to walk 5-10 minutes to M street or wisconsin. Honestly they only reason to pay for parking there is for the convenience of being very very close to your destination. In my 24 years in this city (7 driving) I can only think of a handful of times that I or someone that I was with has paid for parking in g-town and it has usually taken me no longer than 5 minutes to find a spot.

  6. Leaving aside the debacle of the privatization of the parking meters her in Chicago, the city has done one thing right; at the center of a block with metered parking is one machine, that accepts coins, bills and credit cards. It spits out your receipt, with time, which you then leave on your dashboard. Wonderful system in that way.

  7. @Joseph… that idea doesn’t work real great with motorcycles or anything with an open top… JFYI :-)

  8. @David They’re way ahead of you; the receipts are adhesive backed (and have a space where you can write the license number so no one should swipe and use it).