Imagine what New York City could do with 500 million square feet of public space.
Imagine how much more room for people and housing and parks New York City would have if more than 10,000 football fields’ worth of space suddenly became available. Or imagine how much revenue the city could generate if it charged anything close to market rate for each of the 2.94 million parking spaces that make up this approximately 500 million square feet of public space.
Free parking in New York City and the problems it causes is currently having a moment. After years of withering attacks by Donald Shoup, a UCLA urban planning professor who has made the fight against parking his life’s calling, a Manhattan community board has now picked up the thread. Community Board 7’s transportation committee passed a resolution earlier this year calling for an end to on-street parking in its district, though the board has since walked that proposal back slightly.
But the board has a point: The costs of free parking—cars sitting idle for days on end, essentially converting what should be public space into free private storage, or adding to traffic and pollution as drivers circle endlessly for their subsidized 180 square feet of street space—have become abundantly clear. And with congestion pricing rolling out in a year, some New Yorkers want to reclaim all of this space, while some others want to price it accordingly.
In its examination of the issue, the New York Times asked, “Could New York City Eliminate Free Street Parking?” The answer is yes: There’s never been a better time to end, once and for all, this massive giveaway of hundreds of millions of square feet of our city to drivers.
First, some numbers. Based upon well-established research, New York City has approximately 3 million on-street parking spaces, and of those, more than 95 percent are free. (The rest are available for a nominal fee during business hours only.) And this massive giveaway benefits a minority of city households: According to Census data, of New York City’s 3.1 million households, approximately 55 percent are car-free. In Manhattan, currently the subject of the fiercest debates over street space, a whopping 76.6 percent of households are car-free.
Meanwhile, as with the arguments I made here on Curbed last year in favor of congestion pricing, charging for parking largely affects those who are well-off. Overall, New York City’s car-owning households have a median income of $85,000, well above the city’s median household income of $55,000 and more than double the $40,000 median income of car-free households.
In Manhattan, where the borough-wide median income is $75,000, car-owning households report a median income of $134,000, while car-free households have a median income of $69,000. Simply put, free street parking is a giveaway to people who don’t need special perks and is a poor use of public space in a city where space is at a premium.
The negative effects of free parking on cities have also long been established. As Shoup has explored in a variety of books, free parking amounts to a nationwide subsidy on par with American defense spending. Because city residents expect free parking and car owners tend to ignore the negative externalities and costs of driving, free parking incentivizes driving when other means of faster, cleaner, and often more reliable transit are readily available. Traffic and pollution increase; congestion and the economic waste brought on by stopped traffic increase; and fatalities and pedestrian injuries increase as the number vehicle miles increases. Space that could be otherwise used for people or used to capture revenue is reserved to reward behavior harmful to urban life and urban residents.
Then there’s the fact that on-street parking wasn’t always free or even legal in New York City. For decades, cars weren’t permitted to park overnight on city streets; it wasn’t until the 1950s, when the Department of Sanitation wanted to clean streets during the day, that the city chose to make a bad deal for itself and a good one for drivers. In exchange for free overnight parking, drivers would agree to move their cars every few days to accommodate street sweepers. Thus began the disastrous practice of giving away street space, and creating a wasteful system in which drivers or simply run their engines for the sake of it so street cleaners can get by.
Charging for parking—whether through a massive expansion of metered space, a residential permit program, or both—rationalizes a system of transportation that currently encourages driving. As Shoup has detailed, charging for parking helps free up spaces by reducing demand, and drivers spend less time circling for spots and more time out of their cars, interacting with the city. In New York, where so many cars are registered out of state, a permit program could capture car registration fees lost to lax enforcement while allowing the city to realize revenue from underpriced public space. (Those hundreds of millions of square feet of sure could fund a lot of park improvement plans.)
Removing parking, of course, creates a political firestorm, and the Times article features its fair share of drivers complaining about the loss of a few thousand parking spots over the past few years, as the city has tried to keep pedestrians safe and make cycling safer. But in the age of climate change and of enlightened thinking about the allocation of street space, it’s time to end the free parking giveaway. The city can start to capture the billions of dollars in currently gives away as subsidies to drivers, reduce congestion, and reallocate new revenue to transit development in underserved areas. The end of car culture is coming and the city’s politicians should pick up the cause of Community Board 7 as it fights the good fight against free parking.