Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


The High Costs of Driving - and Parking

(Robert) Mosesian in its ambitious bid to establish a new transit financing authority, and (Jane) Jacobsian in its attention to the pedestrian and transit taking majority, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's sweeping transportation plan represents a welcome full frontal attack on traffic congestion and all of its attendant ills. Unfortunately, much of it depends on the state legislature. And so the mayor should take a closer look at something he can control: where New Yorkers park and how much they pay to park there.

Traffic ills -- health, economic and environmental -- are poised to get much worse. In addition to the much publicized influx of population and tourists and their attendant travel needs, the city is facing an estimated 83 percent increase in truck traffic (by 2020 over 1998 levels) and a torrent of new traffic unleashed by a bevy of major development projects like Atlantic Yards.

Despite the resurrection of Robert Moses' ambition, neither the mayor nor anybody in their right mind is proposing that we solve the problem with new roadways. The human and financial costs are too great, and new roads, we have long understood, just invite more driving.

Leaving Cars Behind

The wiser approach is to make better use of the street space we already have by switching car trips to methods of travel that make better use of our limited space. This "mode shift" forms the bedrock of the mayor's 16 green transportation initiatives. To make alternatives to the private car more appealing, the mayor wants to improve and expand bus service, enhance pedestrian access to transit stations and promote cycling with more paths and bike parking.

But two of the 16 initiatives hold by far the most potential to solve New York City's transportation problem: a $50 billion transit expansion program and a London-style congestion pricing system to help pay for it.

Congestion pricing, in addition to raising $400 million per year for the transit expansion program, would yield immediate transit benefits just by clearing away many of the cars that currently slow city buses. And by forcing drivers- especially city employees who currently drive at twice the rate as everyone else- to switch to subways and buses, the plan would significantly strengthen the political constituency for further transit improvements.

Even for the 5 percent of outer borough workers who currently drive to Manhattan (the other 95 percent take transit or drive elsewhere), congestion pricing holds benefits. Their commutes will shorten markedly, and all New Yorkers will benefit from cleaner air and less health eroding traffic.

As much sense as congestion pricing makes, its success is far from secure. For congestion pricing, and the long list of transit projects it would fund, to become reality, it must first gain the approval of a gauntlet of state legislators who with a nudge from the powerful parking and automobile lobbies could easily block it.

The Lure Of The Parking Space

Unless Mayor Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff are content to leave their legacy in the hands of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority leader Joe Bruno, they should pursue three parking policy reforms that would, like congestion pricing, reduce traffic and generate millions for transportation and street improvements. Unlike congestion pricing, these reforms do not require the approval of the state legislature.

Most Manhattan-bound drivers (in pdf) drive out of choice, not necessity. A recent Schaller Consulting study uncovered the reason why: Most drivers do not pay for parking. As any transportation expert will tell you, the carrot of free parking is too irresistible for drivers to refuse, even when they have decent transit options.

Government workers have their coveted (and often counterfeit) placards, and all drivers have access to a bounty of free and $1.50 per hour spaces, even if they have to circle the block for 40 minutes to find one. Because under-priced spots along the curb are always full, cruising for parking accounts for up to 45 percent of all traffic on city streets.

Three steps, used in other big cities, would enable the mayor to redress root causes of traffic congestion while generating a windfall to fund street improvements:

--Increasing the price for metered parking to a level that frees up spaces and reduces cruising;

--Charging residents for permits that would give them preferences for parking on public streets;

--Cleaning up the rampant misuse and abuse of city issued parking permits.

With a new generation of transit improvements funded by congestion pricing, Bloomberg and Doctoroff are poised to move mountains, if only they can move Albany. As a hedge, they should tackle what they can clearly control: New York City's broken parking policy.

Paul Steely White is executive director of Transportation Alternatives.


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