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Encouraging New Yorkers to Park -- and Drive

image from Jon Protas
Photo (cc) Jon Protas

The Bloomberg administration has been on a traffic-taming tear since PlaNYC was announced in April 2007, but many of those efforts could be for naught, according to a new study by Transportation Alternatives.

"Suburbanizing the City: How New York Parking Requirements Lead to More Driving" argues that New York City zoning rules will bring 170,000 additional cars to city streets by 2030. These rules require that developers build parking lots along with new buildings-regardless of their proximity to transit or the anticipated demand for the spaces. As the new parking lots make car ownership easier by decreasing the time and financial costs of owning a car, they encourage more New Yorkers to drive.

Of course, both Mayor Michael Bloomberg's PlaNYC and the parking requirements that allegedly undermine many of PlaNYC's goals stem from a root concern: the influx of residents and cars to New York City. So what can be done to make room for the arrivals while keeping the city sustainable?

Traffic, Traffic Everywhere

Bloomberg introduced PlaNYC and its most contentious component, congestion pricing, by asserting that one million more residents would live in New York City by 2030. To avoid near-constant gridlock, the environmental impact of traffic jams and the $13 billion price tag stuck to all the delays, the city had to charge people for driving and adopt other measures that reduce the amount of vehicle miles traveled.

Although congestion pricing did not make it through the State Assembly last spring, the mayor and the city Department of Transportation have continued to enact measures that discourage driving in hopes of taming traffic.

Broadway was put on a "road diet" earlier this summer when the city replaced two lanes for cars and trucks with a pedestrian island and a traffic-protected bike lane between 42nd Street and 35th Street. The city also narrowed and simplified the Madison Square Park intersection at Fifth Avenue and added colored bike lanes and pedestrian plazas that removed space for cars.

Bloomberg has also looked to parking reform as a traffic reduction measure. Last January he announced a plan to limit free parking permits issued to city workers -- known as placards -- as part of "efforts to reduce traffic congestion, decrease the city's carbon footprint, encourage the use of public transportation and reduce the demand for curbside parking in connection with city business."

"A reduction in placards isn't just about opening up curbside parking spaces," said Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. "It also speaks to the city's efforts to be smarter about the allocation of our transportation resources and to a transportation policy that aims for a greener, greater and less congested New York."

It was with this sentiment in mind that the Transportation Department introduced its "Sustainable Streets" strategic plan, which calls for initiating "citywide parking policies to help reduce cruising for parking and congestion." The agency is looking to "exploring new curbside management'' that could "even cut back on congestion by reducing the need to circle for a parking spot."

With all this afoot, how could the city miss the mark so badly in the eyes of the authors of the Transportation Alternatives report? Simple: When planning for new developments - an estimated 265,000 additional dwelling units are on their way by 2030 - the city requires too much off-street parking.

If You Build It, They Will Come

Broadway's "road-diet" and the reduction in parking placards make it easier for pedestrians and cyclists by creating and preserving dedicated space for them. The policies also discourage car use by taking away traffic lanes and generating longer wait times for drivers. Although it might seem counterintuitive to reduce traffic by decreasing driving and parking space for cars, there is a time-tested and well-documented logic behind it.

When parking and road space is free or cheap and when other transportation is available, as it is in most neighborhoods in New York City, two additional factors affect whether or not people choose to drive: the amount of space available for driving and parking, and the user's available time. Once space becomes limited, the amount of time it takes to drive and park increases until it reduces the demand for driving. Adding traffic lanes or parking spaces creates more capacity for vehicles and so reduces the amount of time it takes to drive. This encourages more car use until the roads once again become packed.

In other words, people will only wait in line for a free ice cream cone for so long. After a while, the time you waste waiting in line is more valuable than the free ice cream and so you end up skipping out on a treat. If another person starts passing out free ice cream, the line won't be so bad but eventually, more people will get in it and soon things will be just as bad as they were to begin with.

So, when the city zoning rules set minimum requirements for off-street parking requirement, say .39 parking spots for every new unit, which is the case in the Williamsburg-Greenpoint developments, they create more space for cars and thus take away one of the limiting factors on car ownership. According to the study, residents of new development are at least 40 percent to 50 percent more likely to own automobiles than today's New Yorkers, about 45 percent of whom own cars, according to census data.

What's more, "Under the current zoning regulations, mandating parking at new residential developments will add over one billion annual vehicle miles traveled. This is 40 percent to 50 percent more than if the city were to maintain its existing rate." All of that additional auto use would add 431,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2030, a figure that significantly overshadows the 351,000 tons of carbon dioxide that the green taxi and fuel-efficient black car initiatives will take away by the same year.

Furthermore, by adding parking space but not road space, the city further unbalances an already top-heavy equation: More cars with the same amount of roadway means more traffic, more congestion and more air pollution from idling vehicles. It also means fewer on-street parking spots and more cars entering pedestrian spaces.

Still more troubling, when parking space is included in the cost of developing housing and/or in the cost of renting or buying a home, the price of housing increases and the cost of car ownership decreases. That affects not just people who own cars, but those who wish to live without them. The authors of "Suburbanizing the City" write that in bundling parking with housing, "both markets are distorted and likely result in both lower rates of homeownership and higher rates of car ownership than would be seen if the uses and costs were unbundled."

Getting Parking on Par with PlaNYC

What explains the disconnect between off-street parking regulations and the goals of PlaNYC? Rachel Weinberger, a professor of urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the study's authors, cites a lack of information available to policy makers in the Bloomberg administration.

"Public transit is in the hands of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, city streets are under the purview of the transportation department, and off-street parking information and regulation is controlled by the Department of City Planning," she said in a phone interview. "The information that one needs isn't integrated anywhere."

"Although the city is becoming increasingly aware of the effects of on-street parking on traffic and congestion, they seem to be ignoring the possibility that off-street parking can generate car trips," said Lindsey Lusher of Transportation Alternatives.

In a section of the report titled "What the City Doesn't Know," the authors write, "In developing the research reported in this study ... every possible data source on residential off-street parking was consulted .... Unfortunately, we found these data woefully inadequate for the task of developing citywide policy on parking."

They go on to discuss "grave inaccuracies and omissions" in the available records such as erroneous or unverifiable garage locations and thousands of additional square-feet dedicated to parking that were not unreported. The report concludes: "We were also unable to uncover any analysis or methodology that would lead to parking policy decisions."

A Department of City Planning spokesperson responded to a request for comment by email: "In order to minimize car use and create a more sustainable city, we are encouraging growth near mass transit while directing it away from auto dependent areas. DCP and DOT are also studying mechanisms for reducing the number of cars on city streets to achieve the mayor's PlaNYC goals. We are reviewing off street parking regulations, but most areas south of 96th Street in Manhattan do not require any parking, and in other neighborhoods, lack of parking is a frequent community complaint."

"Suburbanizing the Streets" paints a grim picture of the relationship between land use planning and transportation planning in the city today. Certainly there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Bloomberg administration is serious about taming traffic and its attendant ills, and it is certainly impressive how much officials have accomplished in so short a time. This report, however, suggests that there is still a great deal more work to do.

With millions coming, there is no time like the present.


Making Way for New York's Scooter Surge

scooter photo by Kumar McMillan

In the first three months of this year, scooter sales nationwide rose 24 percent, and according to the Motorcycle Industry Council, a national trade association, scooter sales in New York City, Long Island, and northern New Jersey grew 310 percent from 1996 to 2005.

With that rise in popularity, scooter riders, or "scooterists," are becoming a more vocal constituency, adding their concerns to the debate over street space, parking and rights to the road that has long served as the proving ground for transportation decisions in New York City.

Naturally, that increase in volume brings boosters and bashers. Many claim that the personal conveyances, which can go 70 to 100 miles on a single gallon of gas, are a long overdue addition to New York City streets, while others point to the dangers to riders, pedestrians and cyclists.

Why Scooters? Why Now?

With the average price of a gallon of gas in New York City hovering around $4.15, up about $1.10 from this time last year, many New Yorkers are looking to drive less or at least drive for less.

The New York Times recently reported that vehicle volumes at Metropolitan Transportation Authority crossings were down 4.2 percent in April, and preliminary data for June shows a similar decline. Meanwhile, bus, subway, light rail and commuter rail all show rider increases of between 4 percent and 9 percent, biking is booming, and the scooter's popularity is surging.

"People [are] coming up to me at gas stations, getting out of their SUVs, and saying, 'Where did you get one of those?'" said Jonathan Perkel, a scooter rider and an organizer for the New York Scooter Club. It costs Perkel only about $8 to fill up his tank.

But there's more to their popularity than gas prices, according to Allison Waters, another organizer for the New York Scooter Club. She thinks many New Yorkers get on scooters so they can avoid mass transit. "You don't have autonomy on the train, but on a scooter you can buzz about, weave through traffic jams, go where you want," she said. "Scooters are small enough to sneak through small spaces and powerful enough to keep pace with traffic on larger roads."

Still others are drawn to scooters because they fit in parking spaces that cars couldn't dream of. Considering that in some New York City neighborhoods vehicles cruising for a parking space account for two thirds of traffic on the street, scooters have the potential to cut congestion.

Scooterists also point out the pleasures of moving about the city in the open. "The air flowing past you, the nimbleness. When you ride through Manhattan you can hear and feel the reaction of people. You don't get that kind of reaction in a car," said Waters.

Street Fights

Despite their practicality and panache, scooters and scooterists are not poplar with everyone.

Environmental groups have expressed some hesitance about the increase in scooter use. Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for Transportation Alternatives, said, "Scooters are obviously a step up from the car in terms of efficiency. That said, we're in a fluid moment in terms of transportation habits. For the first time we have hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers giving up their cars and we want to encourage them to switch to the most city-friendly, environmentally savvy and spatially efficient modes: Biking, walking and transit. If people are going to give up their car, we want them to go all the way."

A Department of Transportation spokesman expressed a similar sentiment, "From our perspective, scooters aren't as clean as mass transit. The primary mode shift we're looking for is from vehicles to transit. That's why we're focusing our efforts on things like Bus Rapid Transit, bike lanes, and pedestrian improvements."

Mike Drury, a cyclist stopped behind a scooter on Sixth Avenue, has more immediate concerns. "Too many of those guys ride like bad bikers," he said. "They don't signal. They're in the bike lane. They weave through traffic. They might be smaller than a car, but they're still big, heavy and dangerous, and riders need to treat them as such."

By law they do. Scooters that can travel over 30 mph, or Class A Mopeds in Department of Motor Vehicles parlance, fall into the same category as motorcycles. This means they must follow the same traffic laws as cars and cannot travel in bike lanes, or park on sidewalks. Scooter operators also need a Class M designation on their driver's license.

Scooterists, worried about having their vehicle knocked over by a parking car or tampered with, sometimes park the scooters -- illegally -- on the sidewalk. There, they compete for precious pedestrian space and make enemies in the process. On Christopher Street, a mother pushing her child in a stroller down a scooter-pocked block said, "They lock them to everything. The sidewalks down here are already too narrow. Sometimes I can't get by and have to push her out into the street. They don't belong on the sidewalk."

The police department agrees. Last October, the blog Brownstoner reported that police were impounding scooters parked on the sidewalk along Third Street in Park Slope. The police also have started impounding scooters parked without license plates, an old trick to keep from getting parking tickets.

Making Room

As more people ride scooters, they need places other than the sidewalk to park them. In 2007, the New York Sun reported that the Department of Transportation was considering setting aside discounted parking for scooters in municipal lots. Although nothing has materialized, scooter advocates are pushing hard and hope that the city can find a way to make garage parking simpler for two-wheeled users. As it currently stands, many garages and parking lots refuse to rent spaces to scooters even at the car rate, sometimes claiming their insurance does not cover the smaller vehicles.

There also have been private efforts to ameliorate scooterists' parking problems. For two months last year the Piaggio Group, which imports the popular scooter brand Vespa, made 48 spaces in lots and garages in Chinatown, TriBeCa, Midtown and the theater district available for free to Vespa riders. During the parking space giveaway, Peter Scanlan, a Vespa rider who took advantage of a free spot near 44th Street and Sixth Avenue told the New York Times, "It's incredible. We win, we win!" Still, one-off events are far from a sustainable solution.

In a 2006 New York Times op-ed, Neil Barton, one of the New York Scooter Club's founders, argued for dedicated street space for two-wheeled vehicles. He pointed to Toronto as a model. There the City Council passed legislation increasing the amount of parking space available for two-wheeled vehicles and made motorcycle and scooter parking free. "Toronto obviously realized that it did more harm than good to punish those who reduced congestion and emissions in the city. It's only a matter of time, I hope, before New York City comes to the same conclusions," Barton wrote.

For now, scooterists are just one of the many voices calling for more respect on New York's chaotic streets. If current gas prices remain high, environmental trends remain and scooterists continue to make their needs known, city officials may take greater notice.


Albany Puts the Brakes on Faster Buses

Photo by Timo Arnall
Photo (cc) Timo Arnall
A bill that would help enforce bus lane regulations has been blocked in the State Assembly.

"No one has done more to preserve, protect and defend gridlock in New York City than Assemblyman David Gantt (D- Rochester), and Tuesday he made sure that bus riders are condemned to commuting at a crawl," the Daily News said earlier this week after Gantt, the chair of the Assembly's Transportation Committee, effectively killed a bill allowing enforcement cameras for city bus lanes, at least for this legislative session.

Gantt blocked a bill (S7229 Golden / A10233 Bing) championed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as well as scores of New York City advocacy groups, that would have allowed the city to use cameras to enforce restrictions designed to keep cars and trucks out of bus lanes. Supporters saw the measure as key to the success of the bus program. "Bus lane enforcement cameras are a key element to keeping bus lanes clear and bus riders moving," said a memo by the Campaign for New York's Future, an umbrella group of city advocates.

Both the mayor and advocates were disappointed.

"Gridlock will not simply disappear on its own," said a spokesman for the mayor. "The lack of action without any explanation ... means that transit riders can expect slower buses and longer commutes."

Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for Transportation Alternatives was a bit more pointed: "Twice this spring," he said, referencing the Assembly's recent decision to not even vote on congestion pricing, "Albany has been offered the opportunity to decongest our streets and get our city's 2.7 million bus riders moving. Twice they've stood in the way. After an unprecedented year focusing on the city's transportation crisis, we're left wondering if our legislators even grasp the problem."

So What is the Problem?

Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the Straphangers Campaign, frequently says that it takes less time to get from New York to Philadelphia on Amtrak than to go from Harlem to City Hall on the M-15 bus.

Russianoff, of course, is an advocate with an agenda. But sweltering Staten Islanders standing around X-1 stops in Midtown express almost identical sentiments.

"On a bad day, and there are a lot of bad days, it's usually around two hours. On a terrible day, I've been onboard and standing for more than four hours," said Jim Litterelle, a financial consultant who has commuted from New Dorp, Staten Island to Midtown Manhattan for the past five years. Four hours, by the way, is more like an Amtrak ride from New York to Boston.

Litterelle's story is by no means unique. Many of city's bus commuters have contended with multi-hour traffic tie-ups for years. The Straphangers Campaign and Transportation Alternatives have been doling out Pokey Awards to New York City's slowest buses since 2002, and "changes in bus speeds since 2004 have generally been too minor to demonstrate significant trends," according to the Pokey's most recent press release.

Speeding the Buses

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the city Department of Transportation and advocates, however, have seen the glimmering of a green light at the end of the congested tunnel. The city's first Bus Rapid Transit project, called Select Bus Service, is scheduled to start along the Bx 12 route in Northern Manhattan and the Bronx on June 29. With enhanced bus lanes, payment before boarding, increased spacing between stops, and priority for buses at traffic lights, many believed this new route, along with four other planned Select Bus Service corridors, would act as surface subways, providing a faster, more reliable and appealing bus commute.

Bus lane enforcement cameras were a crucial part of the Select Bus Service plan.

"Bus Rapid Transit needs to be rapid and for that to happen we need an easy way of keeping autos out of the bus lane. Cameras are a simple way of making that happen." Russianoff said.

Judging by the success of bus lane cameras in London, Russianoff is right. Since the technology was first deployed there in 1997, the length of average bus trips was reduced by 10 minutes, wait times decreased by 15 percent, bus speeds increased by 12.6 percent, and bus lane violations decreased by 60 percent, according to the most recent Transport for London reports.

According to a Department of Transportation briefing memo, depending on the bill's final language, the cameras, which would be used exclusively along the Bus Rapid Transit demonstration corridors, could be installed on buses, at fixed locations or on mobile units along bus lanes. Between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., the cameras would capture photos or videos of vehicles violating bus lane regulations. The owner of the offending vehicle would receive the equivalent of a parking ticket in the mail. No points would be assessed against the driver.

In many ways, bus lane enforcement cameras would be similar to the city's red light camera program, which has had a great deal of success since implemented in 1994. It has not only saved traffic officers time, but early studies showed a 40 percent to 60 percent reduction in speeding violations and a 24 percent reduction in injuries where the cameras were installed.

The Opposition

Civil liberties advocates have traditionally voiced concerns about the deployment of cameras for enforcement purposes. The New York Civil Liberties Union carefully watched this particular bill and decided it could accept it. "We talked a lot of things through with city DOT and developed a good framework for addressing privacy concerns," said the group's legislative director, Bob Perry. "We would not oppose the bill. We would offer support with amendment, because we felt we were engaged in a good faith effort to get privacy principles reflected in the bill."

Gantt has long opposed traffic enforcement cameras, often citing privacy concerns as his reason. But, with such a blessing from reputable privacy advocates, what concerned him this time around?

To add to the confusion over his thinking, the Assembly member recently introduced a piece of legislation that "would allow any community in New York State to install red light cameras ... and to boost government revenue from fines levied on violators," according to a recent article in the Poughkeepsie Journal.

Gantt did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but several news outlets (click here and here) have reported that his red light camera legislation was written as a "contract bill," a bill that favors a particular lobbyist. Robert Scott Gaddy, Gantt's former counsel and the principal of Excelsior Advocates LLC., represents CMA Consulting Services, an Albany-based company vying for the state's red light camera contract. This, by the way, is not the first time that the press has suggested that a piece of Gantt's legislation is a "contract bill" favoring Gaddy and CMA.

To further twist this tale, a staffer in Gantt's Rochester office said that Gantt has never supported any type of traffic enforcement cameras. The staffer said that, although he could not speak for the Assembly member, there is a "slippery slope of automation" and that cameras "might make a mistake," issuing a ticket for a necessary violation and unjustly punishing a driver.

When asked why Gantt would bother to introduce a camera enforcement bill, the staffer responded that, "it was to control the legislation -- to do what he wants with it."

Where are We Now?

Whatever Gantt's reasons for opposing the legislation, it's quite clear that, for now, New York City won't see bus lane enforcement cameras operating along the first Select Bus Service route. For supporters of the plan, this is a heavy blow.

"Without bus lane enforcement cameras Select Bus Service will be good, but by no means as great as it could be," said Norvell. "Perhaps this will make the DOT look at other ways of ensuring the integrity of bus lanes and speeding bus commutes, like physically separated lanes that don't need to be OK'd by Albany"

Others have suggested more radical remedies. Comments on the progressive urban planning Website Streetsblog called for New York City's succession. One individual, writing under the moniker Urbanis, wrote, "I'm outraged. Once again another livable streets initiative for New York City has been stymied because of our corrupt and dysfunctional state legislature in Albany. I feel all transit riders here have been collectively slapped in the face. New York City has been deprived of home rule on so many fronts, ranging from rent regulation to congestion pricing to bus lane enforcement. It's time for us to secede."

Assemblyman Jonathan Bing, who introduced the legislation, gave the New York Times a more measured comment in a similar vein: "This is such a specific New York City issue, it's one of the many things where you wonder why the State Legislature has any role in it at all."

Graham T. Beck is the managing editor of Transportation Alternatives' StreetBeat, and a freelance writer. He lives in Brooklyn.  

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