The Parking Cure Part 2: Do the Right Tests

We continue with our look at recommendations proposed in "Suburbanizing the City," a report issued by a cross-section of public interest groups on the detrimental effects of off-street parking policies on city traffic.

1835623642_aac6d9c4d9_b.jpgLast week we visited the city’s parking doctor and got the wrong medicine. In this episode of city parking malpractice, the parking doctor is doing the wrong tests.

In Manhattan south of 60th Street, new off-street parking is allowed only by special permits issued by the City Planning Commission. This rule is the main transportation legacy of the federal Clean Air Act in New York City. It stems from a long-running legal challenge from environmentalists dating back to the late 1970s. The rule has resulted in the Manhattan Central Business District having one of the lowest ratios of parking to people in the developed world.

Unfortunately, this success story is being swamped by a wave of accessory parking in new residential towers. According to Lindsey Lusher at Transportation Alternatives, city records indicate new parking in the Clean Air Act zone is being built at a record pace. It turns out that the City Planning Commission, with the consent of the Manhattan Borough President, "can" grant special permits for new parking in the Clean Air Zone. However, due to court decisions and political pressure from real estate developers, the planning commission has approved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of special permits, and attempted to disapprove only a handful.

A key legal reason for this promiscuous permitting is the strange way New York City’s environmental laws are interpreted when it comes to parking. Each new parking garage is considered in isolation from its neighbors. Because of this, the coalition of environmental and planning groups which released the "Suburbanizing the City" parking report asked the mayor to change the environmental review process for parking.

2. Revise environmental rules so that parking impacts are fully accounted for.

We recommend that the city revise CEQR rules for the special permitting process so that the cumulative impact of new parking garages on neighborhoods is considered. Currently, the impacts of a new parking garage are considered in isolation from impacts of other new parking garages. The cumulative impact of large amounts of parking are not considered, and overall impact of additional traffic on neighborhoods is ignored. For example, in Hells Kitchen in Midtown Manhattan, thousands of new residential parking spaces have been added in recent years. Yet, there has been no assessment of the cumulative traffic or environmental impact. Impacts of each new garage are assessed only if the garage generates 50 or more car trips in a peak hour. The problem with this approach is that two or more nearby garages could generate many more than 50 cars per hour, even though each individual garage would not. The net result of this approach is that very large traffic impacts are being ignored. One way for the City to deal with this issue would be to set a maximum number of parking spaces that would be environmentally acceptable, based on an environmental review, for each area of the city. These environmental reviews would consider cumulative effects. Once the maximums are set, special permits would be granted only if the total number of parking spaces within each area remained below the maximum acceptable number.

The groups know full-well that revising CEQR is a major undertaking. But an environmental law this myopic and ineffectual does little to further the public good and must be changed.

Photo of Chelsea traffic by ATHLETE Director Dave/Flickr