To Curb Congestion, Parking Reform Must Be in PlaNYC Update

Traffic headed from Hell's Kitchen, a neighborhood where off-street parking has proliferated, toward the Lincoln Tunnel.

Three years ago, the Regional Plan Association held a panel on congestion pricing at its annual conference. The title of the discussion was “Making Cars Pay Their Way.” At the 2011 conference last Friday, a similar panel on curbing traffic took the more generic title, “Strategies to Manage Congestion.”

The difference is telling. Instead of an all-out push to put a price on Midtown’s packed streets or the East River’s traffic-clogged bridges — not that anyone has given up on that goal — the fight to reduce congestion in New York City is now a multi-front campaign.

Tops on the list for the RPA panel, after congestion pricing, was reforming New York City’s parking policy. Based on international experience and research conducted here in New York City, we know that stopping the proliferation of off-street parking would help prevent streets from getting even more clogged with cars. But parking policy was barely mentioned and off-street parking was completely ignored in the original PlaNYC four years ago. Since then, the city has aided and abetted the construction of huge amounts of off-street parking.

This week, the city will release its update of PlaNYC. Will it finally include what is perhaps the biggest missing piece of its sustainable transportation plan?

At the RPA panel, David Bragdon, the head of the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, certainly seemed to agree that parking policy needs an overhaul. He repeated the story of a developer in Brooklyn who spoke to him after being forced to build more parking than he wanted because of mandatory parking minimums. The spaces now sit empty, said Bragdon. In affordable housing projects, he added, the problems with parking minimums may be even larger. “We may be adding costs unnecessarily,” he said.

Bragdon did not, however, definitively state that the new PlaNYC would put the city on a path toward eliminating parking minimums. He did say the city is currently doing some surveys about parking and will “try to draw some lessons from that to apply to the development code.”

Other panelists made the case for parking reform as a congestion tool more forcefully. That parking minimums are in place near New York City’s subway stations is “madness,” said Walter Hook, executive director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

In most European cities, he said, parking minimums have been replaced with parking maximums that keep developers “to those levels of parking which the traffic system can bear.” In many downtowns, he continued, there is a hard cap on the total amount of parking. “You can’t actually add a single unit of off-street parking unless you take out a parking space from the street,” Hook explained.