In early March, several hundred people demonstrated in Reston Town Center against a major injustice. No, this wasn’t a protest about ending Obamacare or about violence against Muslim-Americans or gutting the EPA’s budget. It was against paying for parking.
Since January, shoppers and workers in the nouveau downtown off the Dulles Toll Road have had to pay $2 to $3 an hour, or up to $24 a day, to store their cars while visiting the likes of the Apple Store or Ted’s Bulletin. Drivers can pay either at a machine or using a smartphone app. Those who don’t pay get a bright-yellow shell called a Bumble Bee affixed to their windshield, preventing them from driving away.
Boston Properties, which owns and manages Reston Town Center, says the device will deter commuters at the future nearby Silver Line station from parking there and walking off. But that hasn’t stopped more than 9,000 people from signing a petition demanding that Reston Town Center make parking free again. Business owners say charging customers scares the public away. Dave Kaminski, who works at the World of Beer sports bar, told Washingtonian’s Kim Olsen in February that business was way down on weekdays, when the fee is in place. A number of businesses have banded together to fight the charges.
Regular residents, meanwhile, say it’s a hassle that has pushed away community gatherings such as the Reston Runners meetup, which shifted to a location without meters.
One common thread in the reactions is that parking is a God-given right, enshrined in the Constitution next to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Parking can be pretty emotional. Spend enough time behind the wheel and you’ll know the indescribable high of finding that prime parking space right next to the mall or discovering that the meter already has a few quarters in it. But free parking is rarely ever free and can ultimately undermine the things we enjoy about visiting urban—or urbanizing—places such as Reston Town Center. In fact, just about anyplace in Washington worth visiting has a parking problem.
The first parking meters, introduced in Oklahoma City in the 1930s, were meant to solve a problem familiar to Restonians today: Commuters would leave their cars in front of downtown shops all day, preventing actual customers from parking. At first, drivers balked at the nickel-an-hour fee, calling it a “tax on drivers.” But as municipalities and businesses realized how hard it was for customers to find spaces, the idea spread. By the 1940s, more than 140,000 meters were in place. Today, there are 4 million to 5 million nationwide, according to the car blog Autoevolution.
At the same time, Americans were moving to the suburbs, lured in part by new malls with loads of free parking that made shopping much easier there than downtown. Many communities, such as Fairfax County, mandated plentiful parking for any development, assuming everyone would drive there (in turn creating more incentive for people to drive there). Even as the pendulum swung the other way and shoppers gravitated back to downtown-style environments, that attitude stuck around. When Reston Town Center opened in 1990, it married walkable urban streets with six blocks of structured parking garages, all free.
But that parking is never actually free. A single space in a lot can cost as much as $10,000 to build. In a garage, that rises to almost $30,000, and in an underground garage, building a single space can cost as much as $100,000. Reston has more than 7,000 spaces—it adds up.
Everyone already pays for free parking without realizing it. Landlords charge tenants higher rents to cover the cost of constructing and maintaining parking. Shops and restaurants then pass those costs onto customers through higher prices. Employers pass them on to employees through lower salaries. And don’t forget residents, who pay via higher housing prices. This all happens whether or not any of these people actually drive and park there.
It also creates an incentive that cuts against Reston Town Center’s original aims. The area was designed so people could get there without a car. The planned Reston Parkway station on the Silver Line is a pleasant ten-minute stroll from the center, and several local bus routes stop just a block away. The Washington & Old Dominion Trail passes through the development, tying into a web of bike routes that go deep into Reston’s neighborhoods. The town even has a handful of Capital Bikeshare stations. But why would anyone take that $4 Metro ride or $8 Bikeshare day pass when he could hop into the car and park at no cost? That means more traffic, which makes it harder for people to grab the bus into Reston or to cross busy roads on their bike or to walk without breathing fumes from cars waiting to find an empty space.
Why should people who bike or Metro into Reston Town Center pay for other people’s parking? After all, they too have choices. So many places in Washington that attract people—or want to—are charging for parking, or charging more. In DC, rates in busy areas such as Chinatown and Navy Yard rise and fall based on location and demand. Many suburban shopping areas, including Bethesda Row and the Market Common at Clarendon, charge about the same as Reston does for parking.
Of course, a few bigtime locations still retain free parking. When Tysons Corner Center installed gates at its garages in 2014, mall officials reassured customers they were there simply to ward off commuters, not to charge for parking. But Tysons is no mere mall anymore. My hunch is that, with the area’s new Metro accessibility and big-city density, as well as its slew of nearby residential buildings and perpetually greater demand for parking, it’s just a matter of time.
This article appears in the April 2017 issue of Washingtonian.