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D.C.’s message? ‘Shop at the mall’
(Published May 6, 2002)

Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who says he wants more people to patronize retail businesses and restaurants in Washington, has an odd way of encouraging people to do so. The mayor has proposed more than doubling fines for illegal parking – while parking of any kind remains at a premium downtown and in most of the city’s neighborhood commercial centers.

Suburbanites will certainly look forward to finding a $35 ticket on their windshield, because they didn’t interrupt a leisurely meal at a downtown restaurant to walk a quarter mile or so to feed a parking meter between courses. And, of course, many D.C. residents who already abandon the city for suburban shopping malls – with lots of free parking, allowing people to "shop ’til you drop" – will be encouraged to waste their time looking for a downtown parking space, then feverishly rush to do their business and get back to their car in time to avoid playing the "$35 lottery."

What could the mayor be thinking? And what could city council members be thinking by even partially validating such a wrong-headed approach to dealing with the city’s parking shortage?

Common sense dictates that people who drive their cars to work are not the people who generally park at meters and in "no parking" zones in Washington. People who need short-term parking – largely, retail shoppers and restaurant patrons – are the people most likely to get ticketed.

These are not the kinds of people for whom using public transportation is always a viable option for conducting their business in the District.

For some, the choice between going to the suburbs or risking a $20 parking ticket may mean doing business in the District is still an affordable trade-off. But increasing the risk may be the breaking point for many people, who know they will spend far less in time, gasoline and parking fees by simply heading for the suburban shopping mall.

It makes sense to encourage users of long-term parking, primarily office workers who commute into town every day, to leave their cars at home. It makes no sense at all to expect shoppers to haul major purchases home on public transportation. Do city officials want people to spend money at D.C. stores or not?

City officials need to get serious about the District’s parking problems. And these same supposedly "business-friendly" officials need to consider how their ill-conceived approaches to date have actually discouraged people from spending money with D.C. merchants.

The District needs more short-term parking downtown and in its most congested neighborhoods. And the D.C. government could be sending a much more inviting message to people by helping to provide that parking – and at affordable rates – rather than continuing to penalize people for doing business here.

D.C. needs municipal parking garages. Did you ever wonder why there aren’t any? Some downtown business people will tell you it’s all about politics and a congressional prohibition that prevents the city from competing with the few wealthy individuals who control the city’s parking garages.

Rather than raking in millions of dollars in parking fines – and perpetuating ill will toward the District of Columbia – the D.C. government could be reaping millions in short-term parking fees, while providing a much-needed service that would encourage people to believe that the District really is, as the mayor often says, "open for business."

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator