Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


The Politics of Parking


Related In Community Gazettes:
• Flushing Draws a Crowd, But Where Will They Park?
• Restrictions Won't End Parking Woes in Bay Ridge

Tavi Fields, a 25-year-old rapper, found the city's alternate side parking regulations more than she could handle. "I was going through a hard period of time for a while, where I slept in for most of the day," Fields told the Daily News. While she stayed in bed, her Lexis remained on the wrong side of the street. The result: 90 tickets now totaling $10,433, making her, by the paper's reckoning, one of the top 10 parking scofflaws in the city.

Most New Yorkers manage to avoid such a dubious distinction, but for the people who own the 1.9 million cars registered in the city, parking borders on an obsession. Its rules have spawned at least one novel, a guidebook, sitcom episodes, and two companies dedicated to helping New Yorkers outsmart traffic enforcement officers.

Parking presents elected officials with a quandary. Many New Yorkers with cars view a free space to park as a God-given right. But other New Yorkers, pointing to pollution and congestion from automobiles, object to any move that encourages driving. The city's need for revenue from parking further complicates the picture, along with politicians' natural reluctance to attract the ire of voters who get tickets.

These issues arise again and again - in the controversies over parking at the West Side stadium and the proposed Nets arena in Brooklyn and the debates over the future of city neighborhoods. (See related stories on Flushing and Bay Ridge.) The latest imbroglio is an election year tiff over the use of parking meters on Sunday, which the mayor's critic dubbed "pay to pray."

Most New Yorkers would say the problem is too many cars chasing too few spaces. But some planners disagree. The problem, they say, is not that parking is too expensive, but that it is too cheap. And some say the problem is not that there are too few spaces but that there are too many.


Paying for space in a parking garage, George tells Elaine as they seek a space on an episode of Seinfeld, "is like going to a prostitute. Why should I pay when, if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?"

Many New Yorkers apparently agree, and so spend long periods of time driving, in concentric circles or zigzags, looking for parking.

Even the smartest among us do this silly chore. In a 2000 interview, Horst Stormer, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, described his formula for finding parking spaces by scooting ahead of rival drivers.

The average cruising time for a parking space in some New York neighborhoods approaches 14 minutes, according to a 1993 study. That's twice the time spent in San Francisco, where it is so hard to park that residents leave their cars on the sidewalk.

But cruising takes up more than time. Environmentalists cite a 1984 study that found drivers in one 15-block neighborhood in Los Angeles spent 100,000 hours cruising, wasting 47,000 gallons of fuel and producing 700 tons of carbon dioxide emissions in a single year.

New York's rules complicate the process. Moving the car from one side of the street to the other is not required in every city. And any single spot can have three sets of rules governing its use at various times.

Such parking regulations attempt to address a variety of needs, according to Michael Primeggia, the Department of Transportation's deputy commissioner for traffic operations. In most of the city, the main concern is street cleaning, which dictates the alternate side rules.

But in busier commercial areas, particularly in Manhattan, other considerations come into play, such as the need to accommodate traffic flow and allow for deliveries. "New York City is not so lucky that there can be one regulation that regulates the curb for the entire day," Primeggia said. And that leads to two or three signs - with different rules - for a single space.


Ironically, the city famed for its convoluted parking rules and parking headaches is the only American city where a majority of residents do not own cars. This gives rise to a chicken and egg debate. Do New Yorkers not own cars because it is so hard to park? Or is it so hard to park because New York remains a pedestrian and mass transit city that has not destroyed itself to accommodate the automobile?

The number of cars registered to New Yorkers has declined by about 5 percent since its peak in 2000. According to the 2000 Census, 54 percent of all New Yorkers -- and three out of four Manhattan residents -- do not own a vehicle.

But cars still clog Manhattan streets. Although the number of auto trips into Manhattan dropped after September 11, 2001, it has begun to grow again. Some experts predict it could reach 1 million vehicles a day.

A majority of people in Brooklyn and the Bronx do not have cars, but two out of every three Queens residents and four out of five Staten Islanders do.

By some measures (.pdf format) , New York is the second most congested - after Los Angeles - of America's largest cities. In 1990, the average speed of crosstown traffic in a car fell to 5.2 miles per hour. Brian Ketcham, a Brooklyn transportation consultant, estimated then that traffic cost the city nearly $30 billion a year in losses in employee productivity, accidents, air pollution, noise and roadway damage. And a 2004 study concludes that congestion cost the metropolitan area more than $7 billion in wasted time and fuel alone.


Many New Yorkers decide not to own a car at least because parking costs so much - particularly for drivers who get a lot of tickets. City drivers paid $537 million for parking violations in 2004. This came from some 10 million tickets, a 20 percent increase from 2003.

Primeggia says parking regulations are not designed to produce revenue or to confuse drivers. Any average citizen who reads English should be able to figure where and where not to park. When there is more than one sign applying to a space, the city puts the most restrictive sign on top. "All it takes is reading the signs in order and determining which sign is in effect," Primeggia said

But not everyone agrees. Louis Camporeale said he became aware of the faulty enforcement of traffic regulations in the 1980s. As a student, he would try to park at broken meters. "Three or four dollars in meter money was a couple of hours work," he recalled.

But sometimes the plan backfired, and he got a ticket -- an unfair ticket. (You can park at a broken meter -- but only for an hour.)

Such disputes led Camporeale to become an advocate for New York City parkers. He has written "The New York City Motorist's Guide to Parking" and runs a web site with parking tips. "New Yorkers think they're so savvy, but when it comes to parking regulations, they're not," he said.

Glen Bolofsky, the author of the city's first alternate side parking calendar, now runs a business that fights people's tickets - for a fee. Its successful challenges arise from confusing signs, mistakes on the ticket itself and other gaffes by the city. The company, which also operates in Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia and Philadelphia, claims that it won dismissals or reductions on 75 percent of the tickets it challenged last year.

"The rules and regulation are pretty much stacked against the average person," Bolofsky said. "The city goes out of its way to create a situation to intimidate and bully people."

Although the city consistently denies setting quotas for parking agents, Bolofsky disagrees. "The city budget dictates what the revenue [from parking tickets] is going to be," he said.


People risk tickets to park on the street, though, because lots and garages cost so much - and the fees seem likely to rise even higher.

A reserved space in a garage in midtown cost $496 in 2004, the highest rate in the country, according to a recent survey. This has prompted some developers to offer parking condos where people purchase a space for tens of thousands of dollars and then pay a monthly fee.

But, despite this, lots are closing as New York's real estate boom makes land too expensive to park on. The city owns lots, but when the land becomes valuable, sells them for other uses. (See related story on Flushing.)

The same thing is happening with private lots. Broker Anne De Marzo told the New York Times that she has sold five parking lots and two garages in the Hudson Yards area with 20 more deals in the works. And Sean Sweeney, director of the civic group SoHo Alliance said he counted 2,000 parking spaces that had been lost in his area. Owners say they can sell their property for $350 for each "buildable" square foot.


In Calvin Trillin's novel about parking - "Tepper Isn't Going Out" –fictional Mayor Frank "Il Duce" Ducavelli sees his poll numbers rise after he goes after the "scofflaws in striped pants" - Ukrainian diplomats who did not pay their parking fees. Trillin obviously drew his inspiration from Mayor Rudy Giuliani's attacks on United Nations diplomats who parked illegally and used diplomatic immunity to avoid paying their tickets. While the problem has eased, New Yorkers still hold a special animosity for foreigners who park freely and illegally, and politicians continue to use that sentiment to their advantage.

Similarly, because alternate side parking rules have few fans among voters, City Council has added to the list of days when rules are suspended, aiming the dispensations at various religions and ethnic groups. In 2002, for example, the council voted unanimously to suspend rules on Asian Lunar New Year, Purim and Ash Wednesday, overriding the mayor's veto.

This year's political parking dispute concerns the use of meters on Sundays -- something the city has done in recognition, it says, of the fact that stores now stay open on Sunday. The move also brings in about $7 million a year.

But a Bay Ridge minister complained that parishioners were ducking out during services to feed the meters. In response, City Councilmembers Vincent Gentile and Hiram Monserrate introduced a bill that would ban metered parking on Sunday. (See related story)

Other Democrats picked up the cause. "There shouldn't be a tax on worshipping," mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer said. "People shouldn't have to pay to pray."

The city has done a done a few things on parking that have met with general approval, particularly the use of multiple space meters. Rather than feed coins into a metal meter on a post, motorists purchase a ticket from a machine and then leave it on their dashboard. Cars can then park more tightly. The system also enables the city to charge different prices at different times or discourage long stays.

Currently, Primeggia said, many of the meters charge $2 for one hour but $9 for three hours to spur turnover. "We're encouraging them to use it as long as they need it, but when they're done leave," he said.

The city also addresses parking in zoning decisions. Residents often cite increased parking difficulties as a hallmark of rapidly developing - or overdeveloped - neighborhoods. So, on Staten Island, for example, the city has increased requirements for parking to accompany new buildings. Of course, more space for parking can mean less land for other uses, including lawns and gardens.


Concerns about parking also enter into one of the year's hottest political controversies: the proposed Jets stadium on the Far West Side. The extension of the No. 7 subway line aims to make the proposed West Side football stadium friendly to transit users and discourage automobile use. The Jets anticipate 70 percent of people attending games will arrive by mass transit. This would require parking for 7,000 cars.

And an anti stadium group, the New York Association for Better Choices, sees that number as unrealistic. It predicts that each Jets game would attract 16,000 cars and 100 buses, requiring 70 acres of parking lots and garages.

For the short term, the city has said it plans to allow approximately 1,500 new spaces near the railyards. Eventually, it says, thousands of new parking spaces would be provided to accommodate the residential and commercial development of the surrounding area.

Parking is also a concern for the Nets arena in Brooklyn, which, like the Jets Stadium, aims to be accessible by mass transit. The arena plans call for 3,000 parking spaces but critics say this will not be enough. And, they charge, an already congested area will grow more crowded as thousands of Nets fans cruise the streets looking for parking.

Parking is such a problem for new projects that developers want even racecar fans to get out of their cars. The proposed NASCAR track on Staten Island would accommodate about 95,000 people, but the plan only calls for parking for 8,400 cars. International Speedway Corp. hopes fans will park at some 16 off-site lots and take shuttle buses to the track.


Even though parking is a cherished commodity in New York, the city gives it away. A 2002 survey found that only 24 percent of the almost 30,000 curbside parking spaces in Manhattan south of 59th Street had meters.

Donald Shoup, a professor at University of California Los Angeles, argues in his new book "The High Cost of Free Parking" that free parking creates many costs, helping to explain "extreme auto dependence, rapid urban sprawl and extravagant energy use." Just charging $1 an hour for those unmetered Manhattan spaces, he said, would generate $250 million a year.

"People are paying a very high cost for housing and people even go homeless and cars are parking for free," he said.

Shoup believes the city should set rates for on-street parking high enough so that about 15 percent of the spaces are usually unoccupied. In some areas of London, this is eight pounds -- about $15 -- an hour.

To make such a sharp increase in rates politically palatable, Shoup proposes the money go to local community agencies to fund neighborhood improvements. "Nobody ever wants to pay for parking, so you have to create someone on the other side of the meter who wants the money," he said.

Some critics say such policies are unfair to lower income people. And while this is less true in New York City than other places, businesses worry (.pdf format) that high priced parking will keep people from driving to their establishments and spending money.

Some cities, though, have taken more drastic measures to stop parking. Copenhagen for example has a policy to reduce parking by about two percent a year.

That would be fine with Kit Hodge, campaign director of Transportation Alternatives, as long as people take transit, bike or walk instead. "Our aim is to discourage parking," she said.

For More Information


New York City Department of Transportation
Alternate side parking, other parking regulations and how to pay a ticket online.

Parking Pal
Information and tips designed to help drivers park in New York City

Transportation Alternatives
An advocacy groups that seeks to reduce automobile use. Its web site includes information on car and bicycle parking.


Colliers Parking Rate Survey (in pdf format)
A survey of how much it costs to park in 55 North American cities.

Gridlock Sam
Web site run by former New York City Traffic Commissioner Sam Schwartz with information on parking, driving and congestion in the city.

New York City Department of Planning
Maps showing the locations of all licensed parking lots and garages in the five boroughs.
Company that will fight your parking ticket - for a fee.

2004 Urban Mobility Study
The Texas Transportation Institute's study of mobility and traffic congestion on freeways and major streets in 85 cities.


The Autonomist Manifesto (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Road)
(New York Times Magazine)

A Brief History of Parking: The Life and After-life of Paving the Planet
(Architecture Magazine)

The Dynamics of On-Street Parking in Large Central Cities
(Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, NYU)

Fewer Cars (Same Traffic)
(Gotham Gazette)

The High Cost of Free Parking
(Donald Shoup)
The site includes the book's first chapter, articles on the book and comments by the author.

High Costs Drive Car Owners Crazy
(Daily News)

NYC Parking Policy is Backwards and Dangerous
(Transporation Alternatives magazine)

No Parking. You're Welcome
(New York Times)

The Overdevelopment Debate
(Gotham Gazette)

Parking Space and Public Spaces: Why Parking Can Destroy Communities and How to Find a Place for It
(Project for Public Spaces)

The Savvy Parker
(New York Chapter, American Automobile Associatin)

Shakedown: Sometimes It's the Little Things that Drive Your Over the Edge

"Tepper Isn't Going Out" by Calvin Trillin
Discusses the novel about parking in New York

Ticketing Blitz?
(Gotham Gazette)

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