An Interview with Councilman Tommy Wells of Washington, D.C.

Not many politicians think like Tommy Wells--and even fewer have the guts to make change on the streets. Faced with the new Nationals stadium in his district and a growing concern over new traffic congestion, the D.C. council member recently won ground-breaking legislation for one of the most advanced parking schemes in the country. Here are his words of wisdom for New York City.

Why did you decide on performance parking as a main traffic-reduction tool?

Capitol Hill is a mixed use neighborhood with commercial corridors surrounded by residential streets. It has been growing in popularity and parking demand has been increasing on commercial and residential streets. Add to this the opening of a new ballpark not too far away, and we expected a crush of cars to overtake the Hill and lock up valuable storefront parking. All these factors and a strong desire to balance the transportation modes inspired me to consider a comprehensive curbside parking management strategy. The plan we developed has two major components: 1) an enhanced residential permit parking program for the residential streets and 2) market based pricing on commercial streets.

The goals were simple: protect residential parking and increase access to retail storefronts. As the area became more and more successful we needed a plan to get a handle on the ever escalating parking demand. The pressure on residential streets was also mounting. We needed a system to balance the needs of the residents, businesses, and customers. Performance parking offered some tools to step toward that balance. Leveling the playing field so driving is not presented as cheaper and easier than taking transit, walking, or biking to your destination is an necessary step we needed to take.

Who are your biggest allies?

As I started developing the proposal, I immediately engaged advisory neighborhood commissioners, business organizations such as main streets, and other local leaders. I wanted their perspectives and ideas to be rooted in the plan. Sustainable transportation groups and environmental have also been valuable allies. I should note, even those who were friends of performance parking went through periods where they questioned it. It is what naturally happens when you start getting into the details of something as complex as parking planning. However, I challenged them to continue to engage in the public dialogue and they eventually found themselves back as supporters. At the hearing, the vast majority of comments were in support of performance parking.

Who did you need to convince? And who still needs convincing?

I would say the businesses are the most important to convince because they are the ones most immediately affected. What is interesting is when the concept was first presented, I got diverse reactions. Some had been hungry for a parking management strategy for a long time. One person had actually already estimated how much money the main street was losing annually from each parking space that was locked up by an employee all day. Others didn't make the link between parking space turnover and meter pricing. They thought any increase in parking price would result in less business. But we continued to discuss the idea and look at examples of other cities. Ultimately, they agreed that it was worth trying. I made a strong point to assure them that their feedback and voice would continue to be heard after the program started. They needed to hear that and we needed to make that commitment.

After implementation, the quick service businesses such as dry cleaners, bike shop, and small convenience stores saw immediate benefits. People were able to get in and out more easily without having to double park and risk a ticket. Some pubs and late evening establishments hated the two hour limit because it was constricting for their night time business. We modified the hours to provide relief. Restaurants haven't seen a big change yet. Over the next year, as the meter rates are calibrated to match parking demand, it will be interesting to see how their experience changes.

Convincing businesses to partner with the city on something like this takes work and it is about building trust as much as anything else. Three months into the program, we have some businesses who support it, others who do not and some that are agnostic. The dialogue will be ongoing. The city's willingness to listen carefully and mitigate quickly any unintended consequences is essential. That is the only way to we can make sure we get this right.

We often hear concerns that parking reform will just make traffic worse? How do you combat this perception?

That was never the argument I came across. The most difficult part of performance parking has been that it has messed with people's routines. It has been more about resistance to change. Adjusting the rules of public curbside parking throws people off because it is such an integral part of their daily lives. The plan introduced a number of changes including extending the hours of operation of meters, introducing electronic meters, and implementing graduated pricing ($1 for the first hours; $1.50 for the second hour). The biggest complaints have had to do with trouble using the new meters and remembering the new hours. I've actually received no complaints about raising the cost of the second hour by $.50--something we did to encourage turnover.

Change frustrates people. I take this reality very seriously. Working closely with the public to help them transition to the new system is the trick. We have offered "meter school" (outreach events to help customers use the electronic meters), developed special posters for businesses to post in their stores explaining how to navigate the new system, improved signage based on public feedback, and created Spanish language instructions. Listening to what people are having difficulty with and taking real steps to solve those issues is the best way to transition to a new way of doing things. Ultimately the burden is on us--the policy makers and implementers--to prove we can approach parking differently.

What about local residents? Have they been helpful, receptive, skeptical?

A lot of effort was put into building public support for performance parking. When it came to the public outreach, early and often was the key. We held over 15 community meetings and a quarterly public meeting is required throughout the life of the pilot. Giving people the opportunity to participate--whether it is to express frustration or offer new ideas, has made a big difference.

Unfortunately, we hit some snags during implementation which raised the public's skepticism. While some operational problems are to be expected, we needed to minimize any mistakes because we were selling a new parking policy. Errors such as incorrect sign installations reflected badly on the larger policy. Those kinds of implementation mistakes diminish trust. The first two months of implementation were very intensive in terms of public relations and trouble shooting. When mistakes were made, we worked hard to fix them quickly.

When the new signs and rules went up, we heard from many more people who were becoming aware the new system. Working with these residents as they made the transition required patience and a listening ear. Initially, we fielded many calls, but with time, the volume of inquires has subsided substantially. Some people still call in and offer suggestions about signage or share their experiences. Local residents are getting more comfortable with the new system. We will be making additional adjustments on the residential streets based on initial feedback. Overall, being responsive to reasonable recommendations has been important.

Why is revenue-return to the community important? Is it for political reasons alone?

The revenue return does indeed help justify increases in the meter rates. However, highlighting the nexus between good parking management and the benefits it affords the community is fundamental. It reminds people that storefront parking, the quality of sidewalks, the availability of street furniture, the grade of bike facilities, the presence of real-time bus information are all related items. If we underprice parking, we not only get curbside inefficiencies, but we also give up a resource for getting the other things that make that street more vibrant and accessible. Tying parking meter revenues to multi-modal transportation improvements on the same block can be powerful. Parking management becomes a tool for so much more, and the dialogue becomes about access, not just car access.

Was there any special legislation required to do this?

Yes, we passed a bill that granted special authorities to the Department of Transportation. The most material was the ability to raise and lower the meter rates based on parking demand. This means curbside parking needs to be monitored to gather data on things like double parking, available spaces and turnover rates, etc. If the curb is always full with little turnover, the hourly price may be increased. If there are too many empty spaces, rates may be decreased. There are parameters on how frequently rates may be adjusted, and the Department of Transportation must give a ten day public notice before rates are increased.

What advice do you have for business leaders and Council Members in New York trying to move forward a similar program here?

Creating an environment where strategies can be discussed and debated beyond the block to block issues may be the most important role a public leader can play in the move toward performance parking. It's about managing the public dialogue so it remains focused on the problem we're trying to solve and the real solutions we have to choose from.

Performance parking is about inventory management. This epiphany crystallized the issue for me. We have a fixed inventory of public curbside parking. The question is simply how best to manage it. We already manage it to some degree with rules and rates. Can we manage it better? This context changed my perspective and opened possibilities to get more out of the limited curbside parking we have.

I used this framework to facilitate the public dialogue about performance parking. It opened up the discourse. There are different opinions about how to get to optimal management and the right balance. (I mentioned 15 community meetings--some of those were quite lively!) The debate is healthy and a necessary one to have because the benefits of good parking management are so significant.

The second piece of advice I would offer is to remember that new parking policies should come with a well thought out public relations plan. Rapid response to unintended consequences, quick corrections of implementation mistakes, and proactive public outreach will make performance parking much more palatable. Put a lot of effort into developing a good performance parking plan, and then put in twice the effort toward first-rate implementation.