The New York City Parking Boom

The first in a three-part series on New York City parking policy.

Last December, in announcing the goals of his Long-Term Planning and Sustainability initiative, Mayor Michael Bloomberg raised the terrifying specter of New York City commuters in the year 2030 stuck in an eight-hour "rush hour." This all-day traffic jam would become a reality, the mayor said, if New York City failed to plan for growth.

Just a short bus ride away from the Queens Museum of Art, where the mayor delivered his speech, is Downtown Flushing. There, the ideal of the mayor’s Long-Term Planning and Sustainability project is running up against the reality of New York City’s current-day development boom.

Though Downtown Flushing is accessible by more than twenty bus lines and the number 7 train, two major new development projects, Flushing Commons and Flushing Town Center, have been planned with the assumption that people will come by car. Flushing Commons, a $500 million project which will include a hotel, retail, and community center, is being built on city-owned property. Flushing Town Center is a combination residential and retail complex whose $600 million cost is being helped along by a variety of state tax breaks. Together, the projects will create a net gain of 3,500 hundred parking spaces in Downtown Flushing, an amount more suitable for a suburban mega-mall than the most transit-friendly neighborhood in all of Queens.

New York has a reputation as a walking and public transportation city, and cutting commute times is one of the goals of the PLANYC 2030 project. Yet the city’s recent development boom has included the planning and construction of tens of thousands of new parking spaces, many of which are being paid for by public money. New York City and State are, in essence, subsidizing a parking boom that, some experts say, may ensure decades of automobile dependence and traffic congestion no matter what Mayor Bloomberg’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability has to say about it.

No one seems to know exactly how many new parking spaces are being built across New York City, but Matthew Roth of Transportation Alternatives says he can think of 18,000 spots off the top of his head. The new Yankee Stadium includes 10,000 slots for vehicles, more than doubling the amount of parking per fan at the old stadium. The Bronx Terminal market will offer room for 2,800 cars. And vast, accessible parking lots are a basic element of plans for Atlantic Yards, Ikea, Fairway, Whole Foods, Lowe’s and many other developments in Brooklyn. In April 2005, Brian Ketcham and Carolyn Conheim of Community Consulting Services tallied up over 20,000 new parking spaces planned, under construction or already built in and around Downtown Brooklyn (Download their PDF).

While many outer borough Community Boards view new parking spaces as a traffic mitigation, experts say otherwise. "Those new parking spaces result in encouraging more people to drive while at the same time you’re trying to eliminate traffic by other means," said Jeff Zupan, a transportation analyst with the Regional Plan Association. "You’re working at cross purposes, no doubt about it."

All of this new parking space is necessary, city officials say, because outer borough New Yorkers are more likely to drive where public transportation is not as developed. Even in Flushing, with its wealth of transit, Councilmember John Liu (chair of the council’s transportation committee), has fought to keep the cost for parking at Flushing Commons below market rate and to keep the number of new spaces as high as possible, despite studies that show they aren’t all needed.

The City Planning Department has long tried to restrict driving in Manhattan’s Central Business District by not requiring developers to include parking, putting caps on the amount of parking that can be built, and taxing parking lots. A recent, notable exception is the rezoning of the enormous Hudson Yards area on Manhattan’s West Side. City dollars are being spent on extending the 7 train to the area. Still, developers will also be required to build a certain amount of parking based on the size of the buildings they are constructing. These are the first such parking requirements in Manhattan since 1982.

City officials argue that they are simply providing people with a choice by accommodating both public and private transportation. But UCLA Professor Donald Shoup, whose book The High Cost of Free Parking is the most thorough examination of parking ever written, argues that simply offering a choice won’t cut congestion.

"Off-street parking requirements encourage everyone to drive wherever they go," he writes, "because they know that can usually park free when they get there." Inexpensive and abundant parking, in other words, creates more traffic congestion. So, how does Mayor Bloomberg square his administration’s laudable long-term sustainability goals with the boom in parking that his administration has, in many cases, promoted and subsidized?

Photo: wakejunkie/Flickr

  • JK

    Thank you Streetsblog.

    This terrific piece sheds light on a disasterous, and seemingly out of control, problem. There is such profound myopia and ignorance about parking, that the public officials who should be stemming the problem, are fueling it.

    Readers should be very, very concerned.

    If this massive reservoir of new off-street parking is not stopped, it will unleash a deluge of new traffic which will swamp congestion pricing, car-free parks and neighborhood traffic calming.

    The sheer scope of the parking being added is daunting, and it’s being added everywhere except the core of Manhattan. Queens especially is shaping up to be a transportation disaster.

    The new bus service John Liu is calling for will never be an attractive commute option while below market parking is being built. The buses will lack the convenience and flexibility of the private cars, and will sit stuck and underused in traffic. It is simply nonsense to call for more buses and support more and cheaper parking.

  • See this item for an example of a more rational approach to the issue (not in NYC):
    http://www.tstc.org/bulletin/index.html#article09

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I’m so glad to see transportation activists finally talking about this issue.

    What scares me most is that it’s not just the big projects. Just about every bit of Queens crap and most Fedders specials contain more parking than the buildings they displaced.

    Freddy Ferrer is proud of the 66,000 units of housing he helped finance in the Bronx, but most of the ones I’ve seen have come with parking where there previously was none. That oversight was one of the big things that made me question his qualifications to be mayor.

    We may have gotten rid of a few hundred parking spaces in Manhattan in the past ten years, but it seems like we’ve been saddled with a lot more in the other four boroughs. The exact number could probably be counted, but it would be several days’ work.

    How do we even begin to address this issue without people thinking we’re nuts? I’ve been in a room with Helen Marshall gushing about all the new developments in Flushing, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand up and say, “What’s with all the parking?”

  • One way to address the issue without being considered nuts is to say that, in fairness to non-car owners:
    – the price of parking should be unbundled from the price of rent
    – the price of parking should cover the full cost of constructing the parking.
    This is simply a matter of fairness to non-car owners, who should not be forced to subsidize car owners, and it would reduce the amount of parking built significantly.

    Given NY’s good transit, there is also a place for car-free housing and for car-free neighborhoods (like the one recently built in Frieburg, Germany, where parents line up in front of schools with bicycle trailers to pick up their children). It NY neighborhoods, it would be easy to chauffeur your children around and get your groceries by bicycle, if you did not have to worry about being run down by all the cars. Needless to say, this is more radical than just ending subsidies to parking, but there should be room for one car-free neighborhood in NY – maybe one of the new neighborhoods they want to build along the waterfront in Greenpoint and Williamsburg.

    Incidentally, a friend of mine was the organizer of Auto-Free Bay Area (now defunct), and he got a free parking space in his apartment building. He used it to store anti-car banners and posters.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Those are good things to say, Charles, and they will be helpful for rentals and some co-ops. Incidentally, most of the co-ops in my neighborhood charge separate rental fees for parking, and many of them make a significant income from it. But the garages and lots are still there, taking up space that could be used for courtyards and enabling car-dependent lifestyles. If the parking spaces are there, people are very likely to rent them. So it’s not a complete solution, unfortunately.

    I’m more concerned what about the large numbers of outer-borough single-family houses that have been built with garages (that often take up half the facade of the house) and/or concrete parking spaces in front of or behind the house. Is zoning the only way these things can be controlled? And once those parking facilities are out there in the hands of private individuals and families, there doesn’t seem to be any incentive for anyone but radicals to get rid of them.

  • Angus: I suspect that those rentals and co-ops charge separately for parking but do not charge enough to cover the full cost of constructing that parking. That is true of all the new buildings that charge for parking in Berkeley (where I live): they cannot charge full cost, because the zoning laws require them to build so much parking that they could not rent it all if they charged full cost. So, if we put it on a market basis, by requiring to charge full cost and eliminated the zoning laws requiring parking, they would build less parking than they do now.

    Admittedly, this is not a perfect solution. I greatly prefer the idea of car-free neighborhoods. But this is a solution that might become political feasible (like congestion pricing).

    There is not much I can say about free-standing houses, except that some zoning laws, inspired by the New Urbanists, ban “snout houses” with parking that dominates the facades, and require parking to be in back.

  • mfs

    I was in a community meeting in close-in Queens yesterday where there is a rezoning going on. At the request of the community, the district the City is proposing does not allow builders to get off-street parking waived.

  • mg

    I am fed up with cars. I had a beauty when I was 16 years old (67 Cougar), but after a couple of years the cost of gas, maintenance, insurance, blah, blah, blah added up and I thought what the heck and I’m wasting so much money for? Needless to say, it was upsetting to lose the car, but the freedom was and still is incredible.

    People are just lazy nowadays, they should get off their duffs and start walking around maybe we wouldn’t be so fat if we did!

    Also, why are taxpayers paying for parking?
    Why is the city giving out placards?
    Why is it that we condone what’s wrong for us, and ignore the good?

    Take the South Bronx, diabetic kids with asthma, so what do we do? we take away parkland in exchange for parking spots and a new Yankee Stadium.

    BRILLIANT!!!

    I am so sick and tired of the HAVES getting over on the HAVE NOTS it makes me sick.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Mfs, I’m very interested in hearing about your meeting, but I can’t figure out whether the community wants more off-street parking or less.

  • Eric

    I agree with JK’s comment above about buses. They are not the best mass transit option and they won’t entice people to not use their cars, not to mention they pollute also.

    Instead, I think the city should seriously consider building light surface rail, especially in areas without or insufficient subway service in the outerboroughs.

  • archie

    FYI, the Flushing Commons project is getting ZERO funding from the NYCEDC, contrary to what the article says. I’ve also been to some Flushing Community Board meetings. The issue is pretty much split on whether the community wants/needs more or less parking. The business owners want it because it means more customers; the resident’s don’t because more parking means more congestion.

  • John

    Outer-borough development will inevitably include heavy accommodation to car travel. Why? Because the only convenient mass transit infrastructure for places like Flushing Commons go to and from Manhattan, from where almost none of the prospective shoppers come.

    I’d like to see a mass-transit true believer go from Flushing to Hollis, even Little Neck, or anywhere in western Nassau by subway, bus, or commuter train. On a weekend, no less — you’d practically have to book a hotel room mid-route.

    Billions in municipal or state investment to make mass transit TRULY viable for outer-borough point to point travel is a pipe-dream, so accommodating parking is the lesser evil — better to get all parking off-street, build enough spots so that people get in, out of their cars and walking around as quickly as possible.

  • You can hide parking off-street (until you run out of land) but that doesn’t do anything about the congestion of cars coming and going from the parking. L.I. suburbanites won’t chose to sit in Queens traffic to go shopping when they can go to a suburban mall in the other direction with less traffic. Your Flushing Commons would do better to cater to the dwellers of the city it’s built in than the adjacent ‘burbs that can throw up big new malls with parking and access at a moment’s notice (until they, too, run out of land).

    The biggest pipe dream of all is that massive automobile use has a future in densely populated cities.

  • JF

    John (9:04 AM), you know that “inevitably” and “pipe dream” are fighting words, right? And that most of the “outer boroughs” (the South Bronx, Western Queens and most of western Brooklyn) is quite well-served by mass transit? That people from all over western Queens can easily get to Flushing by the subway, the LIRR and a large number of buses? That the areas where it’s difficult to live without a car are confined to the eastern Bronx, eastern Queens, Flatlands and Staten Island?

    Why exactly is “TRULY viable” mass transit in these areas so inadequate? There were plans to build subways and elevated trains to serve them, but they were blocked – by the residents of those neighborhoods. That’s right, by the very people who lived in Hollis, Little Neck and Fresh Meadows. Many of these motorists are the same people who are responsible for the fact that it’s so difficult to get around by train. The rest are their descendents, or the immigrants who sought out a suburban lifestyle with no train. They’re also the same people who are opposed to congestion pricing in Manhattan.

    Bloomberg and Quinn are dependent on the Queens Democratic machine for their power, and I’m sure Spitzer and Schumer owe them a lot too. If Joe Crowley went to them today and said, “Hey guys, how about extending the #7 train underground to Queens Village,” what do you think they’d say? Probably, “Okay, let’s see what we can do.”

    These people want to further their suburban lifestyle within the city limits, and they want it subsidized by the average tax-paying, transit-riding New Yorker. They may be able to stop transit from being extended to their neighborhoods, but if we can stop the city from making it easier for them to drive, I think we should. Let ’em sit in traffic and circle for parking! Just keep their cars out of the places where people want to live, work and shop in actual neighborhoods and, you know, walk around.

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