The District of Columbia is an expensive city, so any increase in the cost of living is likely to get people riled up. And it's hard to argue against the protests of those who work for minimum wage, are unemployed, or simply earn modest salaries as teachers, trash collectors, or security guards. A $100 parking ticket can feel crippling to a low income family.
Although car ownership rises with income, lots of poor families own and drive cars too. A household with two full time minimum wage workers earns slightly less than $35,000 per year. According to data from the American Community Survey's most recent 5 year estimates, the probability that a DC household with a $35,000 annual income owns a car is slightly higher than 50%. The likelihood that a household earning $50,000 has a car is about 64%.
Which brings us to the debate over whether DC is doing right in reducing the subsidies that have traditionally been given to drivers, for example in the form of free or artificially cheap parking.
The problem with charging a flat fee on a certain behavior, like parking, speeding, or plastic bagging your groceries, is that the poorer you are, the more you pay as a percentage of your total income. Behavior taxes are highly regressive, but usually accepted by progressives because there is a cheap alternative of equal quality (e.g. canvas grocery bags in lieu of plastic ones).
Is there a high quality alternative to driving? It depends on your travel patterns. If you live near a metro station, work or study near a metro station, and only visit friends who also live near metro stations, then WMATA offers a service equal or superior to car ownership. But if you live far from metro (keep in mind that housing near transit is more expensive), put your kid in a charter school across town because the neighborhood school is crappy, shop at the cheapest store rather than the closest, and visit family in places like Bowie on the weekends, then Washington's public transit system is not an efficient option.
While I feel for the low and moderate income families who have become car dependent, I've also drunk the Smart Growth Kool-Aid. Our society must change its driving habits, urgently. We have to drive less and drive shorter distances, and regulations and policies at all levels must facilitate this transition. For the sake of the environment and for the fiscal well being of the country, which wastes too much money on sprawling infrastructure and the militaristic pursuit of foreign oil.
So how can DC make the necessary changes to its transportation policies and urban form without disproportionately burdening low-income drivers? Here are three ideas:
1. Stop subsidizing parking and driving. Charge as much as people will pay for on-street parking, using performance parking. Eliminate minimum parking requirements for new developments, require developers and retailers to unbundle parking costs from all other goods and services, and toll the roads.
Then use a portion of that revenue to send every poor family in the city a big check. Send middle income families a medium sized check. If driving is an indispensable part of their lives, then they can use this check to pay for the new tolls, parking fees, or expensive speeding tickets. If they can reduce their driving or get rid of their car completely (perhaps they were among the many who didn't drive in the first place), then they will have a big or medium sized check (or, more realistically, a refundable tax credit) to spend on anything else their hearts desire.
2. Make alternate modes of transportation so unbelievably attractive that everyone will want to use them. Make public transportation cheap for the user. Not just cheap in terms of fare, but also time. Have you ever ridden a bus in DC? Not only do they have to deal with the stop signs, stop lights and congestion just like cars, but they also stop just about every block to pick up and drop off passengers, and then merge back into traffic.
So let's give buses their own lanes, free from cars. If public opinion insists on streetcars instead of buses, then give the streetcars their own lanes. Let people pay before they board so it doesn't take a decade just to load. There are entire websites dedicated to how Metrorail can improve its service, so I won't go into detail on that topic, but like any other form of public transit, it must be faster and more reliable.
Even so, all this assumes that the beginning and end points of your trips are on a transit line, which is often not the case. Zoning restrictions that limit development around Metro stations must be eased or eliminated to allow more transit-accessible jobs and housing units to be built. Then...
3. Pay low income families to live near metro stations, because housing near transit costs more. DC offers low income renters vouchers (though the number is very limited), property tax abatements, and down payment assistance. Households that live within a half mile of a Metrorail station should have these benefits increased by 50% (or some other less arbitrary, evidence based percentage).
The Smart Growth movement will continue to be seen as arrogant and elitist if its main policy proposals involve regressive taxes and fees. To counteract this perception and broaden their base, anti-sprawl enthusiasts must also advocate for social and economic justice and reject the overly-simplistic assumption that the poor are entirely transit dependent.