In 1954, New York City started letting drivers park on public streets overnight for free, abandoning the stance that streets are public conveyances, not private driveways. The city defied complaints that street parking slowed traffic, interfered with fire trucks and street sweepers, and helped criminals conceal themselves. The city rejected a parking tax of $60 per year (about $550 today), which the New York Times suggested would be a fair price for the “nuisance” of street parking, though only 43 percent of households, mostly richer than average, owned cars.

Today, much of New York’s scarce street space is devoted to car parking. In Manhattan, parking takes up 44 percent of street space besides sidewalks, according to economist Alain Bertaud. Most street parking is free; in 2011, only 81,875 of the city’s roughly 4 million parking spaces were metered. Even the most in-demand parking spots are sharply discounted. An hour of street parking in the busiest areas of midtown costs $4.50, versus $30 or more in a private garage.

Any change to this system feels radical to some. Critics of the city’s removal of 6,100 parking spots over two years—about 0.15 percent of the total stock—say that it constitutes a “war on parking.” When the community board for the Upper West Side recently proposed charging for much of the neighborhood’s currently free street parking, the New York Times called it “broaching the unthinkable.” The Upper West Side residents interviewed by the Times all came from a wealthy car-owning minority: of the 33 percent of Upper West Side households that own cars, 78 percent earn more than $100,000 per year, and 52 percent earn more than $200,000, compared to 54 percent and 31 percent among the car-free majority.

But the familiarity of New York’s system of cheap parking blinds most residents to its extreme wastefulness. Cheap street parking in dense cities is inefficient, anti-free-market, and unfair, inflicting vast harms to provide a benefit to some lucky drivers. New York should reallocate much of its street parking to more productive uses and raise prices on the rest.

Parking is scarce in New York not because of any war on parking, but because cars need lots of space. A private car that occupies 200 square feet of the road spends most of its time parked and the rest holding perhaps one or two passengers. A bus, which can comfortably hold 60 passengers in 500 square feet, is much more efficient. A rack of 50 Citi Bikes, similarly, takes up the same room as six or seven parked cars.

Reallocating the usage of even a few parking spots could transform city life. Few other cities, for example, pile garbage on the sidewalks on trash-collection days. New York’s trash piles are not just ugly and smelly: they also leak, constrict walking space, and attract vermin. Cities such as Barcelona and Buenos Aires, meanwhile, have repurposed a few parking spots and installed hygienic municipal dumpsters. These devices are also easier for sanitation workers to collect from. According to one proposal solicited by the city Department of Sanitation, midtown Manhattan could adopt a similar system at the cost of only six parking spots per crosstown block.

Parking could also be converted to bus lanes. Even slight congestion can cripple bus service, causing a vicious cycle of bus bunching, in which small hindrances create cascading delays. Bus lanes can transform service at the cost of, at most, 200 or so parking spaces per mile—a minuscule impact, compared with the ridership of New York’s important bus routes. The city could expand loading zones, too, the scarcity of which worsens congestion by forcing delivery trucks to double park.

Cheap or free parking doesn’t even serve the needs of drivers. When low prices encourage lingering in parking spaces, drivers must search longer for parking, adding to road congestion: Transportation Alternatives estimates that half of drivers in Park Slope are circling the block, looking for a parking spot. When San Francisco piloted a program that adjusted parking prices to guarantee a vacant spot on every block, drivers spent 43 percent less time searching for parking, and traffic decreased by 30 percent in the pilot areas, compared with just 13 percent and 6 percent in nearby control areas.

Much of the car ownership enabled by free New York parking, moreover, is unproductive. Many residents seldom drive except for leisure trips out of the city; the free parking spaces that their unused cars hog could enable many more profitable trips. On the Upper West Side, where residents unsuccessfully sued to stop a bike lane that replaced 400 car spaces, only 14 percent of workers in car-owning households use a car to commute.

Car aficionados often accuse supporters of public transit of “social engineering,” but the real social engineers here are the defenders of the status quo. Cheap street parking in New York exists by government fiat; a free market for urban space—in which, for example, drivers hoping to use a Midtown parking spot had to outbid the thousands of pedestrians who would rather clear sidewalks of trash by installing a dumpster— would raise its price or convert it to more productive uses. When the city provides cheap parking by snarling rush-hour bus commutes and making pedestrians squeeze past piles of garbage, motorists are effectively subsidized by others’ inconvenience and wasted time.

In a dense city with good public transit, driving is almost always an extravagance. New York is one of the world’s most desirable cities because it concentrates human endeavor beyond the level that private cars can support; expecting others to shoulder the burden of one’s own private car travel in such an environment is at root antisocial. By and large, New York’s drivers could easily afford the true cost of driving: slightly less than half of the city’s households own a car, and their median income is more than twice that of the households that do not. City government, meanwhile, must realize that cheap street parking is geometrically incompatible with mobility for most New Yorkers, and act accordingly: raise parking prices, stop watering down bus-lane plans to cater to car owners, and—last but not least—get the trash off the sidewalks.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images


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