The Wash
A parking meter. Washington suspends many of its parking restrictions on federal holidays, including Memorial Day. (Photo by Cole Reynolds)

Memorial Day parking is free in D.C. Should it be?

Free parking is often touted as a way to get people into downtowns. But many Memorial Day drivers in D.C. were oblivious to it in the first place.

Jackson Marques stood at a parking meter on G Street, N.W., Monday morning, staring at its screen with a puzzled look on his face. The Brazilian native was trying to pay for his parking spot but the meter wasn’t letting him. A missionary, he’s leaving town soon and said he wanted to take the opportunity to visit the White House with his family. 

“Oh!” Marques exclaimed, smiling and throwing his hands in the air when he finally realized that D.C. waives parking fees during federal holidays, including Memorial Day. 

In many ways, this represents a significant bet from the city. With 18,000 metered parking spots, D.C. could be passing up on as much as a million dollars in revenue by waiving fees for a day. This is on top of its regular $2.30 per hour rate, which some have argued is below market price anyway. Because of this cheaper parking, conventional thinking goes, more people might drive to businesses or tourist attractions. 

But around the country, a growing number of people have begun doubting this paradigm. Parking spots cost money to build and maintain, and parking activists have questioned whether free parking draws enough people to make the subsidy worth it. In fact, many drivers downtown for Memorial Day, like Marques, were actually oblivious to the free parking available.

“Wait, so we’re paying when we didn’t have to? Story of my life,” joked Jonathan Goldberg to his wife Louisa Sanchez. They parked underneath the Reagan Building where there still was a $19 fee for the day. Goldberg said he’d seen a sign for parking and simply turned down the ramp. 

The price, he said, was far from his mind. He didn’t know how much the Reagan Building was charging, even speculating that he might pay $50 for his spot.

But Goldberg said that he might not always be willing to pay that much to park. He described his parking calculus as “situational,” the price he’d be willing to pay dependent on how badly he wanted to get to a certain destination.

Goldberg and Sanchez had come into town from upstate New York to watch their daughter march in the Memorial Day parade. That, Goldberg said, was worth any price.

“To see my kid march in the parade,” he said, “I’ll pay anything.”

Forcing people to make these sorts of calculations is part of the philosophy of parking reform, particularly for those who argue that drivers should pay more to do so during times with high demand. For example, in June, New York City will implement a system of tolls in Manhattan that would charge drivers when the streets are especially congested. The idea behind the policy is that if driving got more expensive, people would use alternate forms of transportation for discretionary trips.

Sanchez and Goldberg are somewhat examples of this philosophy in action. Sanchez said that when she and Goldberg visit New York City, they stay in New Jersey instead, taking the train into the city. Even before congestion pricing, Sanchez said the price of parking makes driving in New York City too expensive and she would rather avoid it altogether.

‘Metro is more convenient.’

D.C. resident Katherine Fritz doesn’t worry about parking in Washington, though. She said she grew up in cities and never bothered to get a car in the first place. Taking the Metro is more convenient and more affordable than driving and parking, she said.

The Metro “is a block away from where I live. It’s a block from where I work,” Fritz said.

But others questioned if D.C.’s public transit system could support travelers if parking prices didn’t remain free or heavily discounted. 

A few minutes after Marques left for the White House, Charles Eggleston drove his Ford sedan down G Street. “Park on the street! Park on the street!” he called out the window to pedestrians and other drivers, shaking his head at a car that pulled into a nearby parking garage with a $15 rate.

“Jump on the Red Line for the next week. Tell me how that goes,” he said, referring to planned construction that will close four stops along the line during the summer.

Eggleston argued that parking fees should always be “minimal” or even free because tax dollars are subsidizing the upkeep of parking spots. But people advocating for parking reform often argue the opposite. They question whether the taxes of non-drivers like Fritz should subsidize parking infrastructure at all.

However, Eggleston said that he considered the free fees on Memorial Day separate from the larger discourse on parking, describing them as a sort of gift from the city to drivers.

“For the big events — like Memorial Day, Christmas — why would we charge someone?” he asked.

Cole Reynolds

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