Adi Talwar

As development has rushed north along Webster Avenue in the Bronx, what used to be a lonely stretch of road bracketed by train tracks and a cemetery is now usually chock full of cars.

After floundering for more than a decade, it seems 2019 may finally be the year New York approves a congestion pricing plan. Not only is the governor behind it, but a growing number of state lawmakers say they support charging drivers a fee to enter Manhattan’s business district, spurred by worsening gridlock on city streets and a cash-strapped public transit system in crisis.

But one element in the great traffic debate has gotten less attention: parking policy. If it makes sense to charge cars to drive on the city’s busiest streets, thereby discouraging auto use and speeding up traffic, wouldn’t it make sense to do something similar for parking? Many transit experts say yes, arguing that New York’s parking spaces are grossly underpriced in a city so pressed for space.

While about 85,000 of the city’s parking spots in commercial areas require drivers to feed the meter, a much larger number—about 97 percent of the city’s on-street parking spaces, experts say —are free, a fact that Jemilah Magnusson, communications director at the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, calls “fairly ridiculous” considering the cost of land and availability of other transit options in New York.

“You are causing more congestion, you are adding to the emissions, you’re taking up valuable space in a city that doesn’t have a lot of space, and that needs to be priced,” she says.

A growing problem?

Whatever monetary savings drivers get from free street parking, they pay for it with their time: A 2017 study found that New York’s drivers spend 107 hours a year searching for a spot, the most of the 10 cities it analyzed. Parking problems were also identified as a quality-of-life issue by two dozen of the city’s Community Boards in their annual budget requests for the last fiscal year, with a number of boards seeking funds for new parking facilities—including nine requests for more NYPD precinct parking, and another from Manhattan’s CB4 for a garage to house charter and tour buses.

“This community has households with up to 3 or 4 cars and we are in desperate need of parking,” reads one request from Brooklyn’s CB15, which includes Sheepshead Bay and Gerritsen Beach.

Several boards sought funds to hire more traffic enforcement officers to crackdown on illegal parking in their districts; others asked the city to install more parking meters. Some requested parking studies be done of problem areas, and Brooklyn’s CD18 asked for “large tire booting devices” so its local police could “combat the illegal parking of large 18-wheeler trucks and car carriers in our neighborhoods.”

Parking policies can have other consequences, too—in most of the city, zoning rules require new development to be built with a certain amount of off-street parking, which advocates say drives up the cost of housing. Curb space set aside for free parking could alternatively be used for things like bike lanes, bus stops or loading zones for deliveries.

“Parking comes at the expense of things that everyone else needs,” says Magnusson. “We should be striving for a city where nobody needs to have a private car, and you can get anywhere you need to go without having the annoyance and expense and all the other things that come with owning a car.”

Free or cheap parking is also a perk that benefits a relative minority of New Yorkers: Fewer than half, or 45 percent, of city households own a car, according to the Economic Development Corporation, and only 27 percent of New Yorkers actually use their cars to get to work, the same report found. Even those who do drive aren’t necessarily being well-served by the city’s current policies, according to transit experts, who point to research that indicates underpriced parking actually encourages more driving and makes congestion worse.

“That’s economics 101: the cheaper something is, the more people jump in on it,” says Rachel Weinberger, a transportation expert with the consulting firm Weinberger & Associates. “The more infrastructure you add, the more you are enabling that mode of transportation.”

‘Parking Exceptionalism’

The heightened push for congestion pricing has been driven, in part, by growing frustration over the state of New York’s crowded streets: while the actual number of cars entering Manhattan’s Central Business District each day dropped in 2016, travel speeds in the district have been slowing consistently since 2012, according to a mobility report released in June by the Department of Transportation. As the city’s population has grown, so has car ownership, with the number of household vehicle registrations up more than 8 percent since 2010, the same report found.

New York is also doing more business now than in previous years, with 620,000 jobs added since 2010, according to the DOT’s report. That increased economic activity has put more pressure on the curb, exacerbated by the growing popularity of online shopping, which translates to more deliveries being made, says Kathryn Wylde, head of the business advocacy group Partnership for New York City.

“The increase in freight activity alone is huge, and available curb space has not grown proportionality,” she says, noting that many commercial parking garages have been redeveloped into housing in recent years. “You have a situation that is contributing to driving up costs for consumers and businesses in the city, resulting in loss of productivity due to delays, and contributing terribly to congestion.”

To address this, Wylde would like to see the city reform its much-criticized parking placard system (something Mayor Bill de Blasio announced changes to on Thursday, including a move towards digital parking management). She also thinks the city should raise the cost of metered parking to encourage more turnover at the curb, opening up more spaces. Though DOT hiked its meter rates in August, many advocates feel the cost is still too low: An hour of parking in Midtown Manhattan starts at $4.50, while metered spots start at just $1.25 in other parts of the city.

“The basic problem in New York City is that parking is underpriced,” says Ben Fried, communications director with TransitCenter. “If you want to have parking be convenient, then parking is also probably going to be more expensive.”

In a statement, the DOT pointed to August’s meter rate increases as the latest in its “ongoing efforts” to find the right price for parking. “We continue to examine neighborhood parking and look to engage with communities to improve the functionality of their metered parking areas,” a spokesman for the agency said.

Cheap or free parking spots tend to attract drivers who park and stay put, leaving few or no open spaces in a given area. This leads to more people driving around, circling the neighborhood for an available spot—a behavior referred to as “cruising” that worsens congestion, according to research by the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, which found that as much as 45 percent of traffic on some city streets is caused by drivers in search of a spot.

Raising the cost of parking spaces to be more in line with the demand of the area they’re located in could help, experts say. Similar to congestion pricing, charging more to park would encourage those who don’t want to pay the pricier fee to take transit instead, or to park further away in a different area where the demand for parking is lower and therefore, cheaper.

Of course, raising fees for any civic commodity creates questions of economic equity. While only about 22 percent of New York City residents who work drove to their jobs in 2017, more than a third of those drivers earned less than $35,000 a year, according to Census data.

The city has experimented with the idea of adjusting meter prices to better reflect demand: An initiative called PARK Smart was tested in several neighborhoods, which charged more for metered parking during the busiest times of day. Though the initiative was discontinued in some neighborhoods—including the Upper East Side, where the community board opposed it, according to reporting from Streetsblog—it’s still in place in Jackson Heights. There, DOT says it saw an estimated 12 percent increase in drivers finding spots within the PARK Smart area, and that the changes encouraged more drivers to park for shorter periods in most spots, “allowing more shoppers and visitors to park,” according to an evaluation of the program’s first year.

Donald Shoup, a parking policy expert and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking and Parking and the City, says the idea of charging more for parking is often met by pushback from the public.

“People think that parking is different from the rest of the economy and should be exempt” from market-based pricing, he says. He called this thinking “parking exceptionalism”—the belief that parking should be free, since it more or less always has been.

“Free on-street parking was the status quo, or has been the status quo, ever since the car was invented,” he says. “Insurance is not free. Tires aren’t free. The only thing that’s free is the parking, and parking is part of the problem.”

A potential solution, according to Fried, is for the city to prioritize curbside space for the most efficient modes of transit—for bus stops, delivery loading zones and even taxi pickup areas—giving less priority to individuals in cars. TransitCenter points to the city’s move last summer to convert nearly 300 public parking spots across the boroughs into designated parking for car-share services, as something the group would like to see more of.

“You don’t really want to think of parking in terms of, ‘How can we satisfy everyone who is looking for a parking space?’ Once you start thinking that way, you start making decisions that actually skew the system in a way that creates more traffic,” Fried says. “You really want to be thinking about it in terms of: ‘How do we efficiently allocate this public space?'”

Another potential starting point, he says, would be for the city start installing meters and charging for parking in in-demand areas where it’s currently free, beginning with the streets on the periphery of the zones that are already metered.

Neighborhood permits and complications

For residential neighborhoods, some have proposed a parking permit system, which would charge residents within a given area for a pass allowing them to park in a set number of resident-only spaces. At least two bills have been introduced in the City Council to do just that, including one sponsored by Council Member Mark Levine that would set up a permit system in northern Manhattan—spurred, he said, by concern that the imminent passage of congestion pricing will result in a deluge of drivers from other places parking their cars north of 60th Street to avoid paying the congestion fee.

At a Council hearing on the bill in June, Margaret Forgione, the DOT’s chief operations officer, said such a system would likely require approval from the state legislature, and said she worried such a plan would “pose a significant question of equity.”

“They favor local residents’ ability to store their cars in the program area, often one with good access to transit, while restricting the ability of others to park in the area,” she said, according to a transcript of the hearing. “These others can include those who may lack access to good transit and maybe more car dependent, and are driving to the area in order to then access transit or nearby jobs, schools or services.”

Weinberger agrees that a neighborhood-based permit system can cause issues, including for businesses that rely on customers from other parts of the city being able to park in the area, so thinks a more flexible, less geographically-dependent permit system is preferable. She also stresses that what works in one neighborhood may not in another, so parking prices should be sensitive to the ease and availability of other transit options in a given area, pointing to certain parts of the city, like eastern Queens, where it’s harder to get around without a car.

“An area like Times Square, that’s very easy to get to by transit and very crowded, should have much higher meter prices than, say, the Upper East Side,” she says.

Equity has been similarly raised as an argument against congestion pricing, with critics who say it would price out poor and middle-class New Yorkers from being able to drive into Manhattan. Pricier parking fees could raise those same fears, though demographics indicate that New York’s car-owning households tend to be of higher income than those without vehicles. Transit advocates also make the argument that free on-street parking spaces essentially amount to subsidized car storage the city pays to maintain, even if a majority of residents don’t drive.

“Everybody is paying it, regardless of whether or not you have access to a parking space,” Magnusson says.

Shoup has advocated for the use of Parking Benefit Districts, in which residents within a neighborhood can bid on a set number of parking permits based on how many available curbside spaces that district has. They’re priced based on market demand, determined by auctioning the permits off and doling them out to the highest bidders, but with each winning bidder paying the same price—whatever the lowest bid was.

The revenue from sale of the permits would then go to improvements within the district, like free WiFi or street cleaning, based on what residents would like to see. Such a system helps mitigate the community backlash that often comes with parking price changes, Shoup says, because residents can physically see the benefits the permits bring to the neighborhood. Without that, people don’t “have any real incentive to say yes.”

“If the city proposed putting parking meters in everywhere and raising the price, drivers would go crazy,” he says.

A hard sell

Charging people more for something that has otherwise always been cheap, or even free, can be a difficult sell. Vicki Been, law professor and faculty director at NYU’s Furman Center and former commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, says parking is a “really hot button issue” for New Yorkers, many of whom feel pinched financially on a number of other fronts associated with city living.

“What I heard a lot was, ‘It’s getting so hard for the middle class to live in the city and this is just one more thing now you’re going to make us pay for,'” she says. “I think parking is sometimes a stand-in for a set of other issues: people’s perception that property taxes are high, and income taxes are high… I think it’s a little bit of a catch-all category, and it’s kind of the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

During her time at HPD, Been helped shepherd the passage of the city’s affordable housing plan, which included changes to longtime parking regulations that required developers provide a set amount of off-street parking spaces with most new projects—a provision researchers say makes housing more expensive and difficult to build.

“So often the parking spaces were just sitting empty, so it was a terrible waste of money and space,” says Been. The city’s zoning changes eliminated those requirements, called parking minimums, for affordable and senior housing projects in a number of areas the city deems well-served by transit, though the minimums are still in place elsewhere. Been thinks the city should now be “taking a hard look” at where else it could potentially remove or reduce those parking minimums, including when developers apply for zoning changes as part of a project, what planners refer to as spot zonings.

Other cities, like Mexico City and San Francisco, are eliminating parking minimums altogether. Not only do minimums make housing more costly, critics argue, they also incentivize driving and car ownership by making it easier for people to own and park a car. But Been thinks it would be a tall order to get rid of parking minimums completely in New York, considering the current state of the city’s subways and buses, as poor transit service often pushes people into cars.

“Given the difficulty with subway service these days, that would be a very hard sell,” she says. “I don’t think we can take on people’s cars and really hit hard on parking until we do better on transit.”

Magnusson, though, is a bit more optimistic, saying more cities are rethinking their parking policies and making bold changes in the face of climate change and growing congestion, despite the public pushback that can sometimes come with it.

“This is a regulation change that is beneficial in so many ways that cities are taking that risk,” she says.