A Tale of Two Cities’ Parking Policies

As soon as Mayor Bloomberg finally decides to deal with New York City’s shameful and destructive government employee parking abuse situation, all he has to do is steal the simple new parking policy being instituted by Aetna Inc., a major employer in Hartford, Connecticut. The Hartford Courant reports:

Don’t look now, but right under our noses a stealth smart growth policy is taking shape – in the private sector. Who knew? Aetna Inc. will begin charging its employees for parking in 2007.

Beginning Jan. 1, parking fees will apply to all users of Aetna’s garages and executive parking areas. Fees for these two facilities will range from $75 to $200 a month, based on two criteria, parking location and salary level, and will be automatically deducted from paychecks.

Essentially, Aetna has established a market for a scarce commodity – parking – based on convenience and leavened by ability to pay. Beginning in 2008, fees will also be charged to the users of surface parking lots, although those fees have not yet been established. Ultimately every parker will pay, except for drivers and riders of van pools, who will continue to get the best spaces for free.

This is a smart growth policy because it will encourage the use of other, less wasteful commuting options and allow the company to use less land for parked cars. The company will sweeten the deal with larger subsidies for public transportation or van pools ($30 from the current $21 a month) and more biking facilities, which will continue to be free and conveniently located. Indeed, a number of employees plan to start biking, and have asked for more bike racks near the doors to the building. The company plans to provide them; shower and change facilities are already available as part of its fitness center membership.

And if you think it’s a good thing for on-street parking rates to remain cheap, here is a cautionary tale from laid back San Francisco where, apparently, the difference in price between garage parking and street parking is so great, people are now willing to kill for a curbside spot. Literally. The New York Times reports:

Burdened with one of the densest downtowns in the country and a Californian love for moving vehicles, San Franciscans have been shocked in recent months by crimes related to finding places to park, including an attack in September in which a young man was killed trying to defend a spot he had found. More recently, the victims have been parking control officers – do not call them meter maids – who suffered four attacks in late November, and two officers went to a hospital. Over all, 2006 was a dangerous year for those hardy souls handing out tickets here, with 28 attacks, up from 17 in 2005.

All of which has left officials in this otherwise civilized community scrambling to explain, and solve, "parking rage." Psychologists, planners and others familiar with the parking problems say they include underpriced meters and overloaded streets.

Mr. Metcalf added, however, that the density of San Francisco, with an estimated 740,000 residents in 49 square miles, also put in a different category from New York, which is also known for its parking nightmares. "It’s too dense for people to drive easily and not dense enough for really great public transit," he said. "So the result is frustration."

That opinion was seconded by Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, widely considered something of a parking theory guru. (His fans are called Shoupistas.) Professor Shoup said the chronic lack of parking here was a result of a decision to encourage a bustling downtown free of atmosphere-killing parking lots, a phenomenon echoed in other parking-challenged – and popular – cities like Boston, Chicago and New York. "Whenever someone from San Francisco calls to whine about the fact there’s no parking," he said, "I always say, ‘Well, you have to choose, do you want to be more like San Francisco or more like L.A.?’ And that usually ends the conversation."

That said, Professor Shoup noted that San Francisco had some questionable parking policies, namely cheap on-street parking and expensive garages and lots, a dynamic that encourages drivers to look endlessly for meters rather than pay for the privilege of parking off the street. "A lot of the traffic in downtown San Francisco is people looking for curb parking," he said. "And they’re apparently so fed up that they’re willing to assault parking officers to protest the idea of shortage of spaces."

  • liz

    Indeed. a recent schaller consulting report found that a whopping 28% of SOHO traffic is simply cruising for parking. here’s the link http://www.transalt.org/campaigns/reclaiming/soho_curbing_cars.pdf

  • Clarence

    Here’s a nice tale of “rage”

    Last week, burger joint in Chelsea: a man wearing a very expensive NASCAR jacket (about 20 patch logos sewn on it) comes in and places an order, he asks the woman behind the counter if she can bring the food out to his car when it is ready. (He points out the window to his car which is idling and parked in front of a fire hydrant.)

    She says no. He then throws the money at her and says, ” well, it couldn’t hurt to be a little fucking courteous!” Then he runs out and sits in his car.

    He darts back in a few minutes later. Swipes his bag of food, utters anothr tirade, and nearly knocks a young woman over on way out door (all this while on his cell phone.)

    Then he sits in the car eating his food while continuing to idle.

    This kind of thing scares me when I realize I am out there walking or bicycling. You assume that most people driving around you are reasonable people – maybe bad drivers, but not out to kill you. This person was completely insensitive to everyone around him. I wish I could have put a hidden camera on him for a day…

  • Dave

    A major difference is that San Francisco has permit parking, so at least the people fighting each other over parking spaces are legal residents of the neighborhoods. We here in New York are up against anyone with a car, fighting for those same spaces given away free to anyone.

    Rather than fighting for congestion pricing let’s limit the parking available in the city. If in fact 28% of Soho traffic is looking for parking, wouldn’t traffic go down by some percentage (less than 28% surely) if people knew they couldn’t park for free and either had to pay to put their car in a garage or take public transportation?

  • Dan Icolari

    Responding to the post about the incident with the NASCAR-jacketed guy placing a takeout order:

    This is the sort of culture-clash I see repeatedly in my neighborhood–St. George, Staten Island, a walkable community near the ferry, developed in the 19th century with a substantial number of narrow, two-way streets and only two true thru-streets.

    My neighbors and I have discussed how you can often distinguish a local driver–one accustomed to sharing the street with pedestrians, bicyclists and people in motorized wheelchairs, who often find slate sidewalks difficult to negotiate–from a driver who lives in a more suburban, more sparsely populated neighborhood with few pedestrians and cyclists or other non-vehicular users.

    Judging from behavior, the latter type of driver is accustomed to looking out for other vehicles–which s/he regards as equals-in-tonnage, primary road-users like him- or herself. But pedestrians, cyclists and motorized wheelchair operators are inconvenient Others who force the automobile, often grudgingly, to share its right to the road.

    I was just such an Other on a recent afternoon. As I was crossing at the corner, a driver making a turn nearly drove into me because while he checked for approaching vehicles, he didn’t check for pedestrians crossing at the corner. Because he probably was unused to the need to check for pedestrians–which is to say, because I wasn’t a car–the driver literally didn’t see me.

    To too many drivers, we pedestrians are invisible. And because we’re invisible, we’re vulnerable targets for any drunk, any cellphone yakker, any distracted parent behind the wheel of an SUV packed with kids. It happens all the time. And with more people and more cars, it’s getting worse.

  • I am glad the article on SF at least touched on its public transportation problem, though it probably could have examined it a bit more. One of the major problems in SF is that there are semi-sprawling neighborhoods, such as the outer richmond and sunset, where transportation to the city’s more central districts can take well over an hour on many occasions — indeed neighborhoods such as ingleside and around lake merced are even worse — and these neighborhoods also happen to be very easy places to keep a car. Having been in such a situation before moving to NYC, I often fell into the trap of driving to central districts and doing the old round the block game looking for parking and getting agitated.

    Naturally there is no simple solution to this problem, but i think the most important improvement SF needs to make is to its public transportation. Few people will willingly spend over an hour waiting for and riding public transportation when they can hop in their car and arrive at the same destination in half that time (of course, they may make up the rest of the time looking for parking, but few think in those terms). Give people a transportation option that beats driving and they’ll likely hop aboard. It is ludicrous that Geary Blvd and 19th avenue are not serviced by light-rail; there have been countless plans to do so, but time and time again they get shot down, and so people stick to their cars. Maybe someday I’ll get to move back to a San Francisco serviced by the quality public transportation it deserves.

  • Steve

    Dan, I was glad to see your comment. Sblog seems to be dominated by readers from Manhattan and Brooklyn and we could use some SI perspectives.

    I think you can sum up the problem in terms of accountability–increasingly, people give themselves license to behave in antisocial ways as long as are in an anonymous context with no accountability. Roadways in the automobile age seem to be the paradigmatic “accountability-free zones.” One often hears that robert Moses and other transportation designers were motivated by a vision of maximum mobility in which everyone could escape the limitations of their neighborhood and explore our Great Nation. What they ignored is that, cut lose from the community pressures that enforce accountability, many people act like complete jerks. Hit and run acidents are the paradigm. Mobility is good for individuals but not so good for communities tht cannot control those who enter them.

    In the meanwhile, the amount of traffic has exploded so that even the upside of the scheme–mobility–is lost to traffic jams. Some deal!

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