The National Cherry Blossom Festival, which runs through April 13, is big business for Washington’s hotels, restaurants, and other service industries. It’s also the peak season for the District’s parking ticket apparatus, an annual phenomenon that never fails to irk pro-motorist concerns like AAA Mid-Atlantic, which is sounding the alarm for the estimated 1.5 million tourists expected to visit Washington during the festival.
“DC’s effort to add to the pink of the cherry blossoms,” says Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA, about the surge in parking tickets the District issues this time of year. According to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the auto club, DC authorities issue about 156,600 parking tickets during the 2013 Cherry Blossom Festival, or about 6,000 a day. The group expects about 144,000 to be written up this year.
Anderson says the city is scaring off its biggest rush of tourists harshly by enforcing so many expired meters and blocked fire hydrants.
“For me, the issue is how we treat our guests who come to Washington to have a good time,” he says. “They spend millions if not a billion dollars on our hotels, our restaurants. Parking tickets are not a good welcome mat.”
Washington is one of the more frustrating big cities for people looking to park their cars, but it’s not the worst. The personal finance website Nerdwallet rates it the nation’s seventh-worst for parking, taking into account the average daily garage rate of $19 and a car theft rate 60 percent higher than the national rate.
One of AAA’s chief laments is that unlike suburban communities like Bethesda and Silver Spring, the District does not have any municipal lots. And parking around the Mall is far from ample. A lot in East Potomac Park holds 320 cars, while garages at Union Station and the Ronald Reagan International Building have about 2,000 spaces each.
Anderson says the city should have its cherry blossom visitors park at RFK Stadium and run shuttle buses to the Tidal Basin, while the Department of Public Works employees who write parking tickets should be tasked with welcoming visitors and handing out directions to parking facilities.
Tourists do have alternatives to freaking out about where they’re going to park their vehicles, even if Anderson disagrees with the solutions. Many suburban Metro stations have attached parking garages, though Anderson dismisses that by saying most are filled up by 7:30 AM. There are also bike routes and Capital Bikeshare stations along the Mall, but Anderson says bike lanes are just a measure through which the District government is reducing curbside parking.
There are also several parking-related apps that smartphone-equipped tourists can use to ease their woes, such as SpotHero, which reserves parking spaces at participating garages, and Parkmobile, which replenishes those needy parking meters.
And as much as Anderson grouses about a shortage of parking, some transportation analysts say there’s actually a glut. Paul Goddin, an urban planner at Arlington’s Mobility Lab, writes that the United States contains three times as many parking spaces as people, and that 99 percent of them are free. Closer in, Mobility Lab also found that in Arlington, most parking garages hover between 20 percent and 80 percent filled, even in locations along Metro lines, suggesting that the Washington area might have too many parking spaces.
But if parking in Washington is as horrible as Anderson says, tourists should consider shunning the Cherry Blossom Festival altogether and head west toward Boise, Idaho, rated by Nerdwallet as the best big city for parking cars.