Park Smart Pilot Has Cut Traffic in Park Slope, DOT Finds

fifth_ave_delivery.jpgDouble parking on Fifth Avenue is one sign that the price of parking is too low. Photo: Ben Fried

They call it No-Park Slope for a reason: At many times of day, motorists looking for a legit spot in this Brooklyn neighborhood wind up cruising the streets endlessly in frustration. Because on-street parking spaces are some of the cheapest real estate in the city, drivers snap up the bargain and create parking shortages, leading to excess traffic and double-parking. In the end, everyone pays for the cheap price of parking: motorists who lose time, pedestrians and cyclists endangered by excessive traffic and double-parking, and bus riders delayed by congestion. Now it looks like there's some relief in sight.

NYCDOT's Park Smart program, which raises the price of on-street spaces when demand is highest, has helped more people find parking in Park Slope while relieving the traffic caused by cruising for a space, according to new data released by the agency.

In Park Slope, the only Park Smart pilot area outside Manhattan so far, meter rates went up 75 cents per hour along parts of Fifth and Seventh Avenues between noon and 4 p.m. (when curb spaces are scarce and traffic is intense), bringing the total to $1.50 per hour. The goal is to increase parking turnover, freeing up spaces sooner so motorists spend less time searching for a spot. 

The Park Slope changes took effect in April 2009, so for an apples-to-apples comparison, DOT set out this April to measure the changes on the neighborhood's main commercial corridors.

As intended, during the peak period, the average amount of time that drivers parked in the pilot area decreased significantly, according to DOT's analysis [PDF]. On Fifth Avenue, the average time that a car occupied a given spot dropped from about an hour and ten minutes to 58 minutes: a 17 percent drop. On Seventh, the drop was even larger: 23 percent. (It's worth noting, though, that you're only allowed to stay at these spaces for an hour; changes in enforcement could be a factor in addition to price.)

Higher turnover means more customers for the shops and restaurants that line each of those corridors. DOT surveyors counted a 17 percent increase in the number of unique vehicles parked along Fifth and an 18 percent increase along Seventh. With more cars using the spaces for shorter times, the overall occupancy of parking spaces along each corridor remained essentially unchanged.

In neighborhoods like Park Slope, where a Transportation Alternatives study found that more than half of all traffic consists of endless cruising for a free space, Park Smart also serves as a congestion killer. During the peak period, traffic volumes dropped by five percent on Fifth and nine percent on Seventh. Traffic is down even as more people are able to reach Park Slope by car, a rare combination.

"The city is doing the right thing," said UCLA professor and parking expert Donald Shoup, praising the willingness to use meter prices to affect the broader transportation system.

DOT has not stated a specific goal for the Park Smart pilot areas, though, which Shoup said makes it impossible to properly assess the program. He recommended following the lead of California cities, which have made an occupancy rate of 85 percent their target. "That leads to one or two open spaces per block," he explained, "so that the parking is both well-used and readily available." On Seventh, the occupancy rates remained above 90 percent after Park Smart's implementation. 

Though some local merchants have protested that the higher prices have driven customers away, the facts suggest that Park Smart has brought more potential shoppers into the area. Moreover, just over half of all parkers told DOT they weren't even aware they had paid a higher rate. (Of course, most Park Slope customers aren't looking for parking at all. DOT found that only 15 percent of people on Fifth or Seventh had driven there, while a full 68 percent had walked.)

Looking at the data, Shoup guessed that the price was still too low. "If 40 percent are very frustrated with finding parking and over half didn't even notice the price go up, you should nudge it up a little further," he suggested.

Further rate hikes during peak hours (or replacement of free alternate side parking on side streets with meters) could likely cut traffic even more. At $1.50 per hour, it's still a huge bargain to cruise for an on-street space rather than pay for a garage.

In fact, the numbers show that Park Smart is one of the very few arrows in DOT's quiver capable of putting a dent in traffic. And as the only Park Smart pilot outside Manhattan, Park Slope's example shows that the program can work even where the transit network isn't quite so robust. 

"It looks like Park Smart is working from both a traffic management and a local business perspective," said T.A. Deputy Director Noah Budnick. "Cruising is a major problem in Park Slope and the pilot seems to be fixing it." Budnick called for future DOT assessments of Park Smart to measure whether the program has helped reduce illegal parking.

ParkSlopeParkSmart.pngDOT proposed extending the Park Smart zone from the light blue areas on this map into the orange areas.

With the stats telling a success story, DOT has proposed making the pilot permanent and significantly expanding the zone in Park Slope (see the map for details).

Shoup urged DOT to expand Park Smart to many more neighborhoods as well. "When you add up all that cruising, it does a lot of damage not only to the neighborhood, but to the whole earth," he argued. Guessing cruising was common across at least Manhattan, Shoup said "I don't see how you can claim to be a green city if that's happening everywhere."

In a presentation to Brooklyn Community Board 6 in June, DOT also called for extending the Park Slope pilot's hours in addition to its borders. Finding that evening spaces were about as scarce as afternoon ones, DOT recommended extending the peak parking rate through the end of metered hours, to 7 p.m. Along the northern end of Fifth, which is dominated by restaurant parking, DOT called for extending Park Smart's hours until 9 p.m.

The most controversial recommendation, predictably, was DOT's suggestion of upping the peak rate from $1.50 per hour to $2.25. While Community Board 6's transportation committee has recommended accepting DOT's proposed expansion of Park Smart, according to district manager Craig Hammerman, the full board put off the vote about the rate hike until its September meeting.