Arlington, VA

Modern Mobility is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Arlington has over 30 acres of valuable public real estate that it is terribly mismanaging.

The County provides it to some, but not all residents for the express purpose of storing their private property. Some residents can use it for free, others pay a tiny pittance of $20 per year. Many residents, primarily the young and least affluent are forbidden from using it at all. Virtually every inch of it has been paved over.

Perhaps worst of all, those special residents who are allowed to use it, rarely do so. Over 50% of the time this land is sitting completely empty.

I’m speaking, of course, about Arlington’s on-street Residential Parking Permit Program parking spaces.

You’d be forgiven for not realizing any of this — the conversations about on-street parking in the County would make you think the exact opposite. You can’t show up at a development approval public hearing without hearing about the parking scarcity in Arlington. Penrose’s “parking crisis” is a regular topic of conversation at my neighborhood’s Civic Association meetings.

The cold, hard, data from the County’s parking occupancy study paints a very different picture, however. While on-street parking on commercial corridors is often at 85-100% occupancy, especially during evening hours, neighborhood streets with Residential Parking Permit (RPP) restrictions average less than 50% occupancy, even in the hours when those RPP restrictions aren’t in effect. During school hours, nearly every residential block in the County’s detailed study area is under 50%.

In a County as space-constrained as Arlington, we simply must make better use of this public land. Our tax money is used to maintain it; its imperviousness worsens flood risks for all of our homes; and as long as it is on-street parking, it cannot be rain gardens, parklets or bike infrastructure to get our kids safely to school.

Two current problems facing the County could greatly benefit from this land, and some simple changes to the RPP program could accomplish them.

First, Restaurant Row on 23rd St in Crystal City, which is home to many dearly-loved and locally-owned restaurants has very little dedicated parking. This recently received a lot of renewed attention due to the potential redevelopment of a private parking lot in the immediate vicinity. One business owner, specifically lamented the loss of lunch business in his testimony to the Transportation Commission. A large part of the loss of nearby parking near Restaurant Row, is due to those blocks acquiring RPP restrictions of the last decade.

While some sort of restrictions may be necessary to prevent commuter parking, the existing RPP restrictions have clearly gone much, much too far, especially when it comes to during the work day. Nearly all of the nearby blocks are under 60% occupancy at lunch time on weekdays.

There are several ways the RPP program could be changed that would help support these businesses without overly burdening nearby residents. Two hour parking could be allowed in RPP zones without a zone permit. To make this easier to enforce, parking meters could be installed. If this might result in too much commercial parking it could be limited to only during the work day, or only on one side of the street.

Second, the expansion of Arlington’s Career Center is currently working its way through Public Facilities Review Committee and how to accommodate the school’s parking needs is one of the hottest topics of conversation. The County estimates that the expanded Career Center will need 400-500 total parking spaces.

Building that many spots on-site in a 2-level parking garage beneath a multi-purpose field, would cost approximately $34 million. Reducing that to a single level of parking garage would save somewhere in the neighborhood of $17 million. With APS facing the prospect of needing to build multiple additional schools over the next 10 years, saving $17 million is a very attractive proposition.

Where could those other 200 parking spaces be made-up? Unsurprisingly, the on-street parking in the surrounding neighborhood is pretty empty during the school day, even though few of the nearby blocks even have RPP.

Many residents are loathe to rely on this neighborhood parking, because those blocks could theoretically acquire RPP restrictions in the future, once the current moratorium is lifted. A wise modification to the RPP program, however, could provide the opportunity to better utilize these spaces during the school day when they are largely empty. One tactic might be only allowing RPP restrictions on one side of the street; another would be to issue APS employees RPP permits for the appropriate zone.

While RPP is an important tool for managing Arlington’s on-street parking inventory, its current incarnation is too restrictive, especially during the work day. The ideal parking occupancy for a block is about 85%, ensuring that someone who is looking for a spot can find one without circling, but putting this public good to proper use. Arlington’s review of RPP must modify the program to ensure this public land is efficiently serving the public good. Doing so will save the County and APS money and help feed our local businesses.

Chris Slatt is the current Chair of the Arlington County Transportation Commission, founder of Sustainable Mobility for Arlington County and a former civic association president. He is a software developer, co-owner of Perfect Pointe Dance Studio, and a father of two.

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