Curbside controversy

Some parking reformers want the city to abandon free spaces in favor of metered side streets or residential permits. Photo: Steven Strasser
What would an end to free parking mean for Manhattan?
By Michael Garofalo

An ongoing debate is exposing New Yorkers’ divergent priorities regarding how the city should utilize one of its most precious public commodities: the curbside parking space.

The passions at play were immediately apparent at the June 4 meeting of the Upper West Side’s Community Board 7, at which members were scheduled to vote on a resolution calling on the city to “discontinue the policy of providing free parking for private cars.”

The measure, passed weeks earlier by the board’s transportation committee, requested that the city consider “more productive and equitable uses of curbside space” and “the most efficient way to get fair value for the provision of any private parking it does provide” through alternative policies including paid residential parking permits and metered spaces with variable pricing based on demand.

“There’s increasing congestion on the streets, increasing difficulty to find parking, increasing cruising for parking, and the concern was raised: How is this all going to be affected when congestion pricing comes?” Howard Yaruss, co-chair of Community Board 7’s transportation committee, said of the resolution.

To the frustration of a number of attendees who turned up at the meeting hoping to weigh in on the issue, the community board ultimately decided to postpone its vote on the resolution, which was revised before the meeting to ask the city to “review and study” free curbside parking rather than stop it altogether. But a brief public discussion served as a preview of heated debates to come, with residents arguing over whether an end to end to free parking would represent “a war on anybody who owns or needs a motor vehicle” or a welcome step to address “a fundamental unfairness” in how the city allocates public resources.

Commuter-driven Parking Shortage?

The impending implementation of congestion pricing, which beginning in 2021 will impose a yet-to-be-determined fee on vehicles entering Manhattan below 60th Street, has drawn increased focus to the always-hot topic of the borough’s parking spots. While Upper West Siders will not be subject to the new congestion toll when driving within their own neighborhood, many residents fear the policy will disrupt local street parking patterns. Out-of-town commuters who currently drive into the congestion zone, the thinking goes, will seek to avoid the new toll by parking just outside the boundary and transferring to the subway for the last leg of the journey.

A number of city legislators have sought to preemptively address this concern by introducing legislation to put in place a residential parking permit program, which would effectively reserve 80 percent of free parking spots in a given neighborhood for those who live nearby. Proponents say the permits, which could be obtained for a fee, would make it easier for residents to find parking spots in their own neighborhood and cut back on the number of cars cruising for spots, reducing congestion and pollution.

Council Member Mark Levine, who introduced one of the residential parking permit bills, has spoken of a “flood” of out-of-town commuters who park on the streets of his Upper Manhattan district each day and get on the subway. “They are taking advantage of free curb space in our residential neighborhoods,” Levine said at a committee hearing last year. “They are adding to congestion and they are displacing local residents, and they’re doing it for free.”

But evidence of a commuter-driven parking shortage is primarily anecdotal, and many observers are skeptical it will be a significant issue even once congestion pricing goes into effect.

Traffic Models

Margaret Forgione, chief operations officer with the city’s Department of Transportation, cautioned the Council last year against voting to institute a residential permit program. The DOT’s limited studies on the topic of out-of-town parking, she said, “have indicated that there may be fewer outsider vehicles in New York City neighborhoods than people may perceive, with many actually belonging to local residents. Rather, in New York City on-street parking scarcity is mainly driven by the large number of resident owned vehicles compared to the number of spaces available.”

“If the supply of permits significantly exceeds the number of parking spaces in a zone, the permit is no guarantee of parking availability — just a permit that residents must now obtain for the privilege of circling the block looking for parking exactly as they did before,” Forgione continued. “In this case, only a system that incorporates either rationing or pricing to control the number of permits will actually ease the search for parking — meaning waitlists or mechanisms such as auctioning.”

Traffic models produced by transportation policy analyst Charles Komanoff project that roughly one percent of drivers bound for the congestion zone would find it in their interest to park elsewhere in the city and transfer to transit — equating to roughly 1,100 cars each day.

One alternative to residential permits is metered parking on side streets, which could be implemented on a “surge pricing” basis to reflect varying demand at different times of day. Supporters say the policy would capture the value of a public resource that is currently given away for free, and also serve as a disincentive against unnecessary car ownership by locals.

Community Board 7 voted to refer the parking resolution back to the transportation committee for further discussion during its July 10 meeting, at which local elected officials will be invited to testify. The full board (which does not meet in August), plans to take up the issue again at its September meeting.