Last winter, a full week after the final snowstorm of the season, most of the cars parked on our block, in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., sat untouched. It wasn’t the snow that kept the cars in place; a warm front melted most of it by the weekend, leaving a patina of ice on the cars not driven since before the storm. Fifteen of the 21 cars parked on the block hadn’t been driven in eight days. A few had been there even longer: a van was parked in the same place since last summer. A late-model canary-yellow Corvette, though regularly washed by its owner, hasn’t been moved in almost two years. Its blue-book value is $15,000. A genuine London Cab sat parked across the street, sporting the same “for-sale” sign for three years.
These cars and many others are essentially baubles for their owners in a pricey neighborhood where one-bedroom apartments rent for over $2,000 per month and three-bedroom homes start at $1 million. With proximity to downtown and plentiful mass-transit options, few in the neighborhood need cars to get to work. Nevertheless, many hold onto their vehicles because storing them on city streets is amazingly affordable. A yearly residential parking sticker costs just $25. By comparison, the going cost for parking a car in a private, reserved spot in the neighborhood is $250 per month—more than 100 times what it costs to leave it on city streets annually.
The underpricing of street parking results in a predictable outcome: people commonly use city streets to store vehicles for months at a time, and parking spots are chronically scarce. People coming into the neighborhood cruise city streets in vain looking for a spot, especially on nights and weekends, adding to the area’s congestion. By one estimate, a majority of the cars driving in the neighborhood on weekend evenings are trolling for parking spots. By virtually giving away on-street parking, the city inconveniences almost everyone save for the fortunate few.
There’s one obvious solution to the problem: use an auction to sell parking spots in each neighborhood. The ostensible objection is that there remain some low-income people in these neighborhoods who genuinely need their cars to commute to work, and an auction would make parking rates too high for them to pay. That problem could be addressed, though, by setting aside a portion of parking permits for low-income workers who can verify that their place of employment is beyond the reach of mass transit (and those caught reselling their permit on the black market could face stiff penalties).
The profits thrown off by these auctions could conceivably be used to subsidize mass-transit options for low-income people and others to encourage fewer cars and decrease traffic congestion. Auctioning parking spots in desirable city neighborhoods—and potentially using the proceeds to fund innovative policies—represents a promising solution to what has been an intractable problem, not just in neighborhoods around Washington, but also across the country.