Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Metro history: D.C. parking was agonizing even 70 years ago

September 14, 2011 - 06:25 PM
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Visions of bowling alley parking garages. (Photo: The Rotarian)

In this week's dispatch from transit history, I have good news for you, D.C. drivers — the parking problem can be solved.

Yes, you heard me. No more parking woes! What's that, you're laughing? Oh ... I do see that pile of parking tickets. And yes, that does sound like a long time to wait in D.C. traffic and hunt for a space. Okay. Why yes, that is rude, too, I'll admit. So maybe we haven't quite solved parking yet.

But in 1946, some folks thought we were about to. Consider the headline of this wonderfully fascinating April '46 article from The Rotarian: "The Parking Problem Can Be Solved," the title forthrightly proclaims. G. Donald Kennedy, the vice president of the Automotive Safety Foundation, proceeds to explain tips from cities that have learned about how to manage parking and, in a telling but significant phrase from the article's subhead, "keep downtown shoppers cheerful." He describes several strategies that some cities, such as Jersey City and Kalamazoo, employed to better pack in the parked cars, whether through big, free parking lots hidden near the back of downtown stores or in deep parking garages. Kennedy proceeds to offer several tips to cities with bad parking problems: get one group to accept full responsibility for the problem, reserve curbside parking for short-term parkers, and so on. We learn about the origin of free two-hour parking, which first emerged in San Francisco in the 1930s. Also included is a great city ditty, as The Rotarian calls it: "Here lies an urban gentleman / Who failed to make his mark. / He died with a lifetime squandered, / Hunting some place to park."

Poetic and tragic, all in so few words.

My favorite part of the piece is right in the beginning, where Kennedy talks about D.C.'s pre-World War II concerns about parking. The city collected suggestions about what to do from residents:

Bridge the Potomac River with parking stalls.

Erect elevators along the curbs, to hoist cars in the air.

Put garages under all city streets.

Prohibit all parking.

Provide free parking for everybody by using all public parks and historic land downtown.

Let motorists park "almost everywhere" upon payment of $100 a year for the privilege.

What did the DDOT of yore conclude around 70 years in the past? Cars "should automatically disappear upon one's arrival at work, and then reappear at the completion of the day's work." Say what, D.C.? Oh well. We've somehow survived the better part of the century, however much the difficulty.

Read the 1946 Rotarian piece here and just imagine how they'd react if they knew how parking was today — or that we can now pay for parking with cell phones! Here's Kennedy's thoughts: 

Read more pieces of Metro history here.

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