Taking Back the Streets: How to Solve NYC’s Parking Problem

I’ve spent hours in search of the elusive free parking spot in NYC, marked by a sign such as this one indicating the relatively few hours of the week during which parking is not allowed there.

Last week I described how the series of street fairs in our neighborhood got me thinking about the under-allocation of space to pedestrians and the need for more places for kids to go out and play.  Late last week I brought the car home from its increasingly long-term parking spot at work in order to facilitate some weekend travels and shopping.  The hours I spent circling the neighborhood searching for free parking have given me plenty of time to contemplate alternatives to the horrendous state of parking in Manhattan.

We really don’t need a car 95% of the time, so we should probably just get rid of it already.  I’m not sure which will be cheaper or easier, renting a zipcar (and carrying two car seats back and forth each time) or keeping our car parked permanently in the back of my parents’ driveway in Brooklyn (and trekking for an hour each way by subway any time we want to use it).  In the meantime the car is being kept at work during the week, and I occasionally drive it home for the weekend.

Each time I drive near our new home I wind up regretting it.  Between the double-parked cars and trucks forcing one to weave through narrow streets, taxis honking from behind you if you don’t break the speed limit, and pedestrians and cyclists coming at you from every direction, driving in NYC is hard enough without having to divide your attention between the road and the parking lane.  The difficulty of finding a spot at some times makes me think the estimates that 30% of neighborhood traffic is cruising for parking are underestimating the problem here.

A few weeks ago a recent transplant to the Upper West Side outlined for me his brilliant plan to make some money during his current unemployment spell.  He had just spent the better part of a Friday afternoon sitting at the wheel of his illegally double-parked car, amidst a row of similarly parked cars, waiting for the street cleaner to pass so he could re-enter his free parking spot.  Somebody’s time must be worth enough to want to avoid this, he thought, and so he described his idea to charge people $5 to watch their car for that hour and a half.

Truth is, I doubt his idea is going anywhere.  Not only would you be hard-pressed to find a New Yorker who will trust his car to a stranger on the street, but this is apparently a well-known phenomenon that has been going on for quite some time, particularly on the Upper West Side.  Surely by now those who still engage in this bizarre ritual have found some way to make it a productive use of their time.  In fact, the New York Times recently reported about food being delivered (by bicycle, of course) to a double-parked car.

All of this is just to underscore that parking in New York City is an absolute mess of inefficiency.  This has led some to call for residential parking permits to be adopted here, as they have been in practically all other major American cities.  This may work for some neighborhoods where the vast majority of parking demand comes from residents, and nearly all residents park on the street.  A permit parking program should spur just enough residents to either give up one of their cars or find cheaper parking elsewhere.

In Manhattan neighborhoods south of Harlem, permits are unlikely to work.  The vast majority of residents do not get around NYC by car.  Residential parking permits alone may even make the situation much worse for residents, as it simultaneously makes it much easier for them to own a car (increasing congestion) while making it more difficult for friends and family from outside Manhattan (the source of much of the parking demand, but not as much of the congestion) to visit.

Furthermore, the sense of entitlement New Yorkers have for their free parking spot is a difficult political problem to overcome.  As George Costanza of Seinfeld famously said, “Why should I pay when if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?”

My solution would be to start by introducing long-term parking meters at virtually all residential side-street parking spots.  Such meters would allow one to buy time at a spot in chunks of 6-12 hours, at daily rates in the range of $2-$5/day with no time limit except that the car must be moved at street cleaning times.  In fact, to simplify things one could implement a paperless meter system whereby one enters their license plate information in the meter to buy a spot on a particular street.  One could even allow people to pay for the parking spot via smartphone or the web, eliminating the hassle of returning to your car before the meter’s expired.

In order to get over the hurdle of entitled resident parkers, the city should offer relatively cheap permits allowing one free access only to those spots very close to their home, defined as no more than a few blocks surrounding their home address.  The cost of such permits would only need to cover administrative costs, as I suspect resident parking would constitute a minority of cars parked on those streets.

I suspect such a combination of residential permits plus metered parking would generate far more revenue than permits alone, particularly considering cities’ tendency to underprice such permits.  Of course, other incentives for the community may also be included in such a policy, such as sharing the funds raised with a local community board tasked with spending on streetscape improvements, and other great ideas from parking reform advocates.

Reforming parking is a key component to improving the livability of the city.  Not only would it make drivers’ lives easier, but the additional money could pay for bike/ped street improvements.  Lower congestion from private cars will benefit all.  Perhaps private cars won’t need as many parking spots, or even as many streets, and some local streets could be taken back from cars and given to the community.


3 thoughts on “Taking Back the Streets: How to Solve NYC’s Parking Problem

  1. Thank you for your comment on Randal O’Toole’s crooked blog.

    The parent company of Megabus in the UK Stage Coach Group is also a train operating company.

    If there was an open market and if government provided for rail the same way they provide for roads. Private for profit operated rail service would be very viable!

    • Andrew,

      Thanks for commenting, even though your comment is really more appropriate as a reply to my comment on his blog than here. There is a “contact me” link above if you’re interested in sending me a private message.

      Anyway, I have many issues with O’Toole’s numerous blog posts based on horribly flawed economic logic. The worst part is the way he couches his case using economic terminology that most readers do not really understand and can’t readily see how what he says is so wrong.

      • I agree, there is no profit from the road & sidewalk in front of my house, but that doesn’t mean that I’m against having them.

        Politics & economics are related, but they are not the same.

        Thanks again!

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