Garage 57 on a Saturday night is a blur of headlights amid a cacophony of horns.
Photo credit: Francis Tatem

The first thing you see as you drive into one of downtown Bethesda’s busiest parking garages at 6:30 on a Saturday night is a long trail of glowing red taillights snaking up the narrow entry ramp in front of you.

The whole line is stopped, waiting for some lucky driver a floor or two up to snag a parking spot as its previous occupant leaves.

Eventually you inch forward, then stop again to wait for one car to pull out and another to pull in after it. The scene repeats, over and over, to a symphony of horns.

Finally, after about 10 minutes, you hit open air on the fourth floor, where you confirm what you feared: no empty spots.

This leaves you little choice but to make an eight-point turn in the narrow space, point your car in the opposite direction and inch your way back down in the long line of cars attempting to exit.

Welcome to a relaxing evening in downtown Bethesda.

If parking here is a battle, then Montgomery County Garages 40 and 57 are the front lines at dinnertime on a Saturday. Garage 40, located between Cordell and St. Elmo, and Garage 57, between Bethesda Avenue and Elm Street, are almost always full, with narrow lanes that make it nearly impossible to turn around before the top floor. And they offer no clue about space availability before hopeful drivers pull in.

Ask anyone who has tried to park at either garage on a Saturday night, and you’ll hear stories of battles waged over open spots. The fiercest fights can even lead to retaliation.

Rhett Mitter, who lives near the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro station, put on his blinker in Garage 57 one night last summer after seeing a car getting ready to pull out of a spot. A driver coming from the other direction stopped in front of the spot, too. Mitter sized up the competition.

“I have a Jeep Grand Cherokee,” Mitter says. “In a game of chicken, I knew I’d win. So I didn’t back down. I pulled in there a little faster and got the spot.”

When he returned later, he found a long scratch across the side of his Jeep.

“I can only assume that the guy found another spot, then came back. No other cars near it got keyed,” says Mitter, whose repair bill totaled $6,000. “It was pure vandalism—and it was all over a parking spot.”

It’s the small indignities that gall people. Cecilia Ray of Bethesda and her daughter, Adriana, parked in Garage 40 about 7:30 on a recent Saturday night on their way to dinner at Brasserie Monte Carlo. Tensions ran high as she and another driver competed for the same spot. Ray finally backed down.

“We could have made it ugly,” she says. “We decided to be civilized instead.”

Theresa Wells of Potomac had a similar skirmish in Garage 57. Wells and her two daughters were on their way to lululemon athletica the Saturday after Christmas, and Wells swung her van wide to take a rare open spot. A Prius coming from the opposite direction cut in front of her and pulled into the spot instead.

Karma accomplished what Wells couldn’t. As the driver of the Prius reversed to straighten her car, she smashed into a pillar.

“At the time, it was almost comical,” Wells says, “but I felt sorry for the young lady after she got out of her car in tears to look at the damage.” Meanwhile, “we found a spot one level up and continued our afternoon in wonderful Bethesda!”

The county doesn’t regularly track weeknight or weekend parking garage usage, but Steve Nash, chief of the Division of Parking Management in the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, says spot checks suggest that Garages 40 and 57 are both near 100 percent occupancy from 6 to 8 on Saturday nights.

“That’s not a surprise to us,” he says. But it apparently is to some of the drivers who pull into those garages.

“You don’t necessarily know what you’re getting yourself into,” says Kelli Seely of Chevy Chase, D.C., who circled Garage 40 for about 15 minutes with her husband, Jeff, and daughter, Lauren, on their way to Mia’s Pizzas on a recent Saturday. “Then you get inside, and you end up circling all the way to the top before realizing there’s nothing there.

“A sign out front would solve the frustration of circling aimlessly in a full garage,” Seely says, “even if it wouldn’t solve the problem of there being no spots.”

Nash has never personally experienced the perils of parking in Garages 40 or 57 on a weekend night, but members of his staff have.

“We are aware that, unfortunately, people have to drive all the way to the top of the ramp to find out whether there’s a spot…,” he says. “We know they often find that it’s packed, and that it’s then hard to turn around and get out. We know it’s really busy, really crowded and really frustrating.”

Installing a car-counting system would enable the county to track the number of spots available at any given moment. But that’s not a simple proposition. The most common system uses a gate to stop cars entering and exiting, with a loop detector that counts them. But “you can’t have cars streaming in and out like they do now with a gate,” Nash says. “It becomes a question of whether people want to know how many spots are available, or whether they want to easily get in and out of the garage.”

Nash says the county looked into the cost of installing a system like the one used at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. There, sensors in each parking space detect and count cars. The cost: $400 to $500 per spot. At $500 per spot, that would add up to $163,500 for the 327-space Garage 40, and almost $460,000 for the 917-space Garage 57.

Last year, the county tested new technology in Garage 40 that uses an ultrasonic beam at the entrance and exit to count incoming and outgoing cars. “It worked—sort of,” Nash says. The count was off by roughly 10 to 15 cars per day. “We think it would be just as bad to have a system with an incorrect message board than to have nothing at all,” Nash says.

The county plans to test a revamped version of the program in Garage 57. Ideally, it would count the number of cars going in and out of the garage using that ultrasonic beam, and would let drivers know the availability of spots via a digital sign outside. Nash doesn’t yet know the cost, but “we’re hoping for $50,000 to $75,000” per garage. If it’s successful, it would be installed first at Garage 57, he says.

David Dabney, executive director of Bethesda Urban Partnership, hears complaints about Garages 40 and 57 and asks: Why not park a little farther and just walk a few blocks? Or try one of the several private garages that open to the public on weekends? Or take the Bethesda Circulator, a free shuttle to many downtown locations?

Cecilia Ray says she and her daughter knew about the Circulator, and considered parking in a less-crowded garage on Del Ray Avenue. But they were running late and figured the Circulator would take too long, so they took a chance on the St. Elmo-Cordell garage.

“If we had known what a zoo it would be in there, we would have gone straight to the Del Ray garage and walked the extra distance,” she says.

Mitter says he has returned to Garage 57 several times since the night his Jeep was damaged, despite waits of 20 minutes or more to find a spot, and despite those delays causing him to miss movies or dinner reservations.

“To go park in an ancillary lot, then hop on a Circulator bus just to go to dinner would make me feel like I’m doing the economy parking at the airport,” Mitter says.

When it comes down to it, the parking crawl is fierce but brief—crunch time doesn’t start until 6 or 6:30 p.m. on Saturdays, and the congestion in even the busiest garages eases after about 7:30. By 8:30, Garage 40 and Garage 57 both have plenty of spots. The chorus of horns has fallen silent, the caravan of cars has disappeared.

That’s just about the time that Naseem Khan and Aisha Malik of Silver Spring stroll from Bethesda Row to their car in the Colonial Parking garage, holding cups of sweetgreen frozen yogurt. They’ve discovered yet another strategy for navigating parking in Bethesda at dinnertime: Come for dessert instead.

Amy Reinink’s work has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, Runner’s World and Backpacker. She lives in Silver Spring.