States may be drawing their new decennial maps, but they don’t have a monopoly on politically motivated redistricting. While the District of Columbia doesn’t have congressional districts, it must redraw the boundaries for its eight wards to determine representation on the D.C. council. To a disturbing degree, that process is driven by wealthy residents’ desire to protect their on-street parking privileges—constituting an abuse of power that rivals gerrymandering.
The dense residential neighborhoods of wealthy D.C. are home to a surfeit of cars with residential parking permits. That’s an artifact of the council’s decision to keep the cost of annual parking permits at just $50—about 5 percent of the cost of private parking in the neighborhood. As a result, these neighborhoods have far more cars than they do on-street spots to park them. Owners drive around ceaselessly looking for spots (contributing to congestion and carbon emissions) and must often leave their immediate neighborhood to find parking. Because the district establishes residential parking permits by ward, prospective parkers can search for spots over a broad swath of real estate.
But savvy lobbying limits some of their options. For instance, car owners in Adams Morgan, where the parking shortage is endemic, can’t go to Kalorama—where an abundance of single-family homes with garages makes street parking plentiful—because Kalorama’s residents successfully lobbied the council not to be in the same ward as Adams Morgan, to protect their own parking. That means that Adams Morgan residents must go east, to Mount Pleasant—a poorer neighborhood, with a sizable Hispanic population, many of whom do not own cars—to find parking, which is more plentiful there.
This process hurts those without political connections. Hispanics in Mount Pleasant may not own cars, but they’re still inconvenienced by the parked cars in their area. Buses that connect the neighborhood with Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, or Woodley Park come to a crawl between 18th Street—the rough eastern boundary of Adams Morgan—and Mount Pleasant because the parked cars along Columbia Road slow down traffic. A bus-only lane would make perfect sense along Columbia Road, a major thoroughfare, but Adams Morgan residents would never give up prime car-storage space for a mere bus route. Curbside space that could be used to speed the bus commute of the working class Hispanics of Mount Pleasant has been essentially expropriated by Adams Morgan’s car owners.
Those who benefit from this arrangement leverage their connections to preserve it. Car owners parking in Mount Pleasant fight fiercely to prevent new housing from being developed there. While more housing would make the neighborhood more affordable, it could also put more cars on the street. Parking considerations have come to trump housing affordability, traffic, or other concerns to which the D.C. council pays lip service. As a result, journalists celebrate the preservation of a one-story paint store in lieu of a new housing development as a victory for neighborhood residents.
Wealthy car owners in other neighborhoods have hijacked the redistricting process to protect their government giveaways. A decade ago, the D.C. council actually redid its final map at the last minute after hearing the complaints of people living on Capitol Hill who wanted to be able to drive to work and park on the street for free—something possible only if they live and work in the same ward.
Redistricting in the United States is ultimately about the preservation of power for a privileged group. In one-party states like Texas or Illinois, the ruling party tries to encase its power in amber. In other states, the two parties come together to preserve the jobs of incumbents on either side of the aisle. But in the District of Columbia, the city’s politicians use redistricting to give themselves and other insiders a more tangible gift: nearly free on-street parking that often comes at the expense of the poor.
In the Soviet Union, two lanes in key roads were reserved for the city’s elite; everyone else sat in gridlock. Washington, D.C. does something similar—except here, the well-connected use the special lanes not to drive their vehicles but to store them.
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