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European Parking Policies Leave New York Behind

Grosvenor Square, London, the site of Europe's first parking meter, shows how putting a price on parking clears up the street and makes parking available. Image: ITDP.

Grosvenor Square, London, the site of Europe's first parking meter, shows how putting a price on parking clears up the street and makes parking available. Image: ITDP.

Flashback to Europe, sixty years ago. Just emerging from the ruin of total war, the continent was in the midst of a nearly unprecedented reconstruction. Over the next decade, industry finally was able to turn toward consumer products, from stockings to refrigerators and, of course, the automobile. Italians owned only 342,000 cars in 1950, but ten years later that number had increased to two million, according to historian Tony Judt [1]. In France, the number of cars tripled over the decade.

With mass car-ownership fundamentally new for Europe, parking policy was practically non-existent. The first parking meter — an American invention — only made it to Europe in 1958, arriving in front of the American embassy in London. In most places, cars could park not only for free but wherever they wanted: on the sidewalk, in a public square.

When they realized that simply giving drivers free rein to park anywhere was untenable, Europeans attempted to build enough parking to meet the population’s galloping demand. Public space, from sidewalks to canals, was turned into parking space. Zoning forced all new development to use money and space for parking. All these concessions, however, only made European cities friendlier to cars and further drove up demand.

Today, however, all that is in the past. As outlined in the new report from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, “Europe’s Parking U-Turn: From Accommodation to Regulation,” the continent is now leading the world when it comes to innovative, intelligent and sustainable parking policy [PDF [2]].

Across Europe, cities have come to understand that oversupply or subsidy of parking leads to too much driving. The effect is considerable. In Vienna, for example, when the city began to charge for on-street parking, the number of vehicle kilometers traveled plummeted from 10 million annually to 3 million. In Munich, the introduction of a new parking management system has resulted in 1,700 fewer automobiles owned in the city center each year since 2000.

Zurich has emerged as a world leader on parking policy. Here, on-street parking was replaced with pedestrian space, likely to compensate for new off-street spaces. Image: ITDP.

Zurich has emerged as a world leader on parking policy. Here, on-street parking was replaced with pedestrian space, likely to compensate for new off-street spaces. Image: ITDP.

Looking across the Atlantic offers a wide array of strategies to manage parking more effectively.

Across Europe, there appears to be a much heavier emphasis on providing residential parking permits, public-private partnerships to operate the parking system, and technological conveniences like pay-by-phone parking.

Cities like London and Paris are New York City’s competitors. While they move forward with these innovative programs, New York still forces its drivers and bus riders to sit behind a line of traffic cruising for a rare open space or holding out for one of the city’s many free on-street spaces. New York tacks the cost of unwanted parking onto every new office and residence. In commercial zones, meanwhile, parking spaces are commandeered for hours, reducing turnover and making deliveries a hassle. Not to mention the environmental and safety disasters of encouraging all those extra car trips.

The Mayor’s Office is thinking about tackling parking policy [4] in this spring’s update of PlaNYC, and hopefully they’ll use this ITDP report to adapt some of Europe’s best ideas. Then again, they just bowed to motorist influence in the City Council [5] over raising meter rates by just a quarter. Giving New York City’s parking policy the same U-turn that Europe took will apparently be quite the political lift.