The Power of Parking Policy

This is the third in a three-part series on New York City parking policy.

Part 1: The New York City Parking Boom
 
Part 2: Parking: If You Build it They Will Come... in Their Cars

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Over the course of the last year, New York City's transportation policy community has spent tremendous time, energy and money pursuing the idea of congestion pricing. For good reason: London showed that congestion pricing works. It reduces traffic while raising money for transit, bike and pedestrian improvements. And it unites a full spectrum of political interests, from lefty environmentalists to rightish business types.

Despite all it has going for it, congestion pricing won't be easy to make happen. New York City likely does not have the ability to impose congestion pricing without approval from the state legislature. And outer borough politicians insist that they will do everything in their power to prevent it from ever being enacted. In public Mayor Michael Bloomberg has expressed no interest in the idea and many in city government believe that the political cost of congestion pricing is too high -- even though polls show that New Yorkers are relatively receptive to the idea.

As the pricing debate simmers on a back burner, transportation policy experts have begun looking more closely at other tools for managing and reducing the choking traffic congestion that one study estimates is costing New York City $13 billion per year. Increasingly, they are turning their attention to the quintessential, neurotic New York obsession -- parking. Parking policy, it seems, may be a key to reducing the city's crushing traffic congestion. 

City Hall can change parking policy without interference from the state legislature. And many of these changes can be made without expensive, time-consuming street redesigns and capital projects. Likewise, changes in parking policy don't require billions of federal dollars like the Second Avenue Subway.

"It's something we can control," said Matthew Roth of Transportation Alternatives.

Some things the city could do are simple, like cracking down on government workers who park illegally, or metering parking for city workers, which would raise $46 million annually, according to a study by Bruce Schaller of Schaller Consulting. But there are an increasing number of ambitious programs that could serve as models for New York.

In California, state law requires that certain employers who provide free parking to employees offer them the choice of a cash allowance equal to the market rate of that parking. Copenhagen spent 35 years reducing its total supply of parking by two to three percent annually. Many of the vibrant, thriving public spaces that you see today in Copenhagen were once, simply, parking lots. And many American cities are tinkering wit the idea that the price of parking on the street should be set by the market.

Jeff Zupan of the Regional Plan Association wants to rewrite city zoning restrictions that would put caps on the amount of parking developers can build. The new parking requirements would be based on the availability of mass transit, rather than the somewhat arbitrary minimum levels they are required to meet now. UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking, adds that the city should allow parking prices to rise to market rates, rather than requiring developers to build enough parking to keep prices low, which he says "collectivizes the cost of parking because they allow everyone to park free at everyone else's expense." This, Shoup says, takes away the incentive for individual drivers to save money by driving less. Over the long term, Zupan and Shoup both believe such changes would compel a shift from automobiles to mass transit, helping the city achieve its PLANYC 2030 goals.

Schaller agrees that new parking policies should be explored, but warns against doing so without also investing in mass transit and experimenting with other ways to shift travelers out of their cars. Transportation policy has a lot of moving parts, Schaller says, and putting too much focus on one aspect "overstresses the tool." If you're not careful you may end up "doing various things to clog up traffic and not accomplish your purpose."

All of this talk is a bit premature for some advocates, who are pressuring city officials to first come up with a detailed, comprehensive inventory of all the parking in the city -- something that, remarkably, does not exist today, and is not on the agenda of any city agency. Any aggressive action on parking must be preceded by an effort to understand the specifics of the current situation, said Jon Orcutt of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

As it is right now, "the whole issue of dealing with parking is groping in the dark," he said.

Photo: Zarin/Flickr