Parking: If You Build it They Will Come… in Their Cars.

This is the second in a three-part series on New York City parking policy.
Part 1: The New York City Parking Boom

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In recent years, urban planners have come to accept a somewhat counter-intuitive theory called "induced demand." The theory posits that when you build a new road or widen an existing one to try to ease traffic congestion, the roadway almost always fills to its maximum capacity and traffic congestion grows even worse than it was before. In the mid-1990’s British researchers discovered that the opposite of "induced demand" is also true. When roads are narrowed or altogether eliminated, or when it is less convenient or more expensive to drive, traffic doesn’t just pile up elsewhere. Rather, traffic disappears.

Traffic jams, it turns out, are the result of tens of thousands of individual human decisions. When it is no longer convenient to drive, especially in a big city with lots of other travel options, a number of commuters will decide to take a different mode of transportation, travel at a different time of day, car-pool, make fewer, more efficient trips, or simply stay at home. The corollary to "induced demand" is often called the theory of "disappearing traffic."  

Thanks to the work of UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup, city planners now have a significant body of evidence to show that the theories of induced demand and disappearing traffic also apply to parking. In his book, The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup showed that the more cheap, abundant parking that cities build, the more traffic congestion and automobile dependence cities get.

Shoup’s findings, however, do not yet appear to be influencing New York City’s official approach to land use and transportation planning, particularly in the booming outer boroughs. While city regulations hamper the construction of new parking in Manhattan below 96th Street and Long Island City, the Department of City Planning still attaches off-street parking requirements to new construction projects in much of the rest of the city, even in areas as transit-rich as Downtown Brooklyn and Flushing, Queens. Remarkably, the Hudson Yards rezoning on the west side of Manhattan also included minimum parking requirements despite the fact that billions are being spent to extend the number 7 subway line to reach it.

In other parts of the city, including all of Staten Island, officials have established "low density growth management areas," that maintain a more suburban character (including all of Staten Island). Part of the mayor’s plan to quell over-development includes strict limits on how dense development can be and higher levels of required parking attached to residential buildings. According to the city’s zoning handbook, the city’s goal is to "accommodate high auto ownership in these outlying areas distant from mass transit."

Matthew Roth of Transportation Alternatives finds all this exasperating. City officials "fail to acknowledge what their colleagues in the field have long recognized as indisputable truth: the demand for driving is elastic, dependent upon the amount of driving and parking space that is made available."

If City Hall is hedging its bets, the anti-parking argument is often a hard sell at community board meetings and local negotiations where new development projects are being discussed. It is virtually a rule: When a large new development is proposed, locals push for the construction of more parking.

Martha Bitterman, the district manager of Queens Community Board Seven, which includes downtown Flushing, said that she had heard the argument that more parking will lead to more traffic. But she believes that an outer-borough "mentality" means that people will drive at all costs. "You can’t say there’s not ample public transportation to get in and out of Flushing. But no matter what rules or regulations, or if you jack up the prices, people will still drive," she said.

The recurring debate is particularly strange because both sides appear to have the same goal — less traffic congestion. Yet, one side argues that building more parking space will achieve that goal. The other side says building less parking space — or, at least, charging more money for it — is the way to convince people to get out of their cars.

Unfortunately, debates about big new development projects are not marked by their capacity to digest such nuanced thinking, says Gale Brewer. She has spent decades attending such meetings as a community board member and now as a member of the City Council (Brewer recently introduced a congestion relief bill, which does not directly address parking).

Brewer says that parking comes up at virtually every community meeting she attends, inevitably inspiring such vitriol that she regularly excuses herself "to go to the bathroom" when the issue arises.

"People almost get into fistfights over this," she says.

Photo: photogirl58/Flickr

  • We almost lost one of the greenmarket locations on the East Side because the farmers need to have several parking spaces for their trucks nearby and (a few) people objected that we needed to balance the needs of car owners with the demand for greenmarkets. Since these were metered spots and the market was scheduled for Sundays, motorists

    So we almost lost a greenmarket that serves hundreds of people for a few hours on Sunday so that 5-6 cars could park for free.

    On a related note, I had a very discouraging conversation with a minister at my church who not only fervently supports the free Sunday parking, but drives to church herself despite good mass transit options from her neighborhood to the church. Her only complaint was that now people park there Saturday night and leave it until Monday morning. Her solution to that was to have “No overnight parking” at all metered spots. Unforunately in the minds of even some of the most enlightened New Yorkers (like say the minister of a Unitarian Church) it’s still very much a “I want my free and available parking” mentality, with little concern for the common good.

    The problem is that “free and available” rarely go together except in extremely low density areas, along with all the baggage that that brings.

  • Sorry, the last sentence of the first paragraph should be:

    “motorists desired these spots even more because they were free priced from Saturday afternoon to Monday morning.”

  • A couple of points:
    When a minister just wants parking without thinking about the common good, that is the time to mention global warming. Global warming has already aggravated drought in East Africa, and people have died as a result. According to the latest study (see today’s NY Times), billions of people will suffer from water shortages before the end of the century because of global warming. Has this minister thought about whether the luxuries of Americans are more important than the necessities of the poor people of the world?

    I have to disagree with this statement:
    “The recurring debate is particularly strange because both sides appear to have the same goal — less traffic congestion.”
    I would say that one side has the goal of allowing high levels of automobile use without congestion, so they call for low densities and more parking. The other side has the goal of reducing of automobile use.

    And this must be a typo:
    “the mayor’s plan to quell over-development”
    Shouldn’t that be:
    “the mayor’s plan to kvell over development”
    (Yiddish joke.)

  • AD

    Great article. The fight to maintain a low-density suburban-style character in New York City is truly exasperating and perplexing.

  • AD

    I should add to the list of the exasperating and perplexing: The failure of local communities to recognize the connection between traffic congestion (which they hate) with ample cheap parking (which they love).

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I’ve seen both of these in action myself, and I also find them exasperating and perplexing. But what’s the solution? Has anyone found a way to overcome these short-sighted objections? Or is that Part Three?

  • Ray Hyde

    Actually the theory of induced demand is hardly recent, in fact the Wikipedia listed link notes references to it as early as 1970. Early theorists claimed as much as 90% of new road construction was wasted or absorbed because it cused that much additional traffic.

    In more recent studies based on careful before and after measurements the actual effect of induced travel is said to be as little a 10%. Most of what has been called induced travel would be more accurately called latent travel.

    here is what the Federal Highway administration has to say about it:

    “Economists use the term “induced travel” to describe the additional demand for travel that occurs as a result of a decrease in the generalized cost of travel, including both travel-time and out-of-pocket costs. However, this term is often misused to imply that increases in highway capacity are directly responsible for increases in traffic. In fact, the relationship between increases in highway capacity and traffic is very complex, involving various travel behavior responses, residential and business location decisions, and changes in regional population and economic growth. While some of these responses do represent new trips, much of the observed increase in traffic comes from trips that were already being made before the increase in highway capacity, or reflect predictable traveler behavior that is accounted for in travel demand forecasts.”

    It is no doubt true that the demand for travel is elastic depending on the availability and price of driving and parking space. On the other hand, most driving is done for reasons of commerce, so there is a real question of how much you can squeeze travel without squeezing commerce.

  • Dan Icolari

    One reason some outer borough residents want to maintain the suburban character of their neighborhoods probably centers on taxes. Within the outer boroughs, it’s possible to live in a suburb in the city, if that is your preference, and be taxed at only a tiny fraction of the rates you’d have to pay for the suburban lifestyle anywhere else.

    Here in St. George, the most urban and most walkable of Staten Island neighborhoods, many clamor for better shopping and more interesting restaurants yet oppose the kind of density that might help to attract them. With their support or without it, that greater density is coming– appropriately, in my view–courtesy of a variety of development projects now underway, each a fast walk to the free Staten Island Ferry.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Thanks for providing the mainstream take on induced demand, Ray. But the criticisms are a series of false assumptions and non-sequiturs.

    I honestly don’t know what the difference between induced demand and “latent travel” is, but the fact of the matter is that highways and parking do the following things:

    1. Encourage people to switch from walking, biking or transit to driving.
    2. Change their home, work location to make use of the new facilities, often resulting in longer trips and parking in more places.
    3. Because of (1) and (2), consume more gas, emit more pollution, kill more people in “accidents,” and demand more highways and parking.

    The argument about “squeezing commerce” is of limited value in a place like New York where a large amount of commerce can be done on foot, on bike or by transit. In my part of western Queens, most commuting is done that way, and quite a lot of business travel. The amount of commerce that requires personal motor vehicles is very small. Because of this, there is no need for new highways or parking, and we can convert a lot of our current roads and parking to other uses without “squeezing commerce.”

  • crzwdjk

    “there is a real question of how much you can squeeze travel without squeezing commerce.”

    Yes, there is, and I bet you can’t squeeze travel very much. But, and I do feel this is so important that it needs to be in all caps, TRAVEL IS NOT DRIVING. Maybe most driving is done for reasons of commerce, but, at least in Manhattan, most commerce is definitely not done by people who drive. It’s unfortunate that in this country, “travel” and even “go” have become synonymous with “drive”, mostly through lack of any real alternatives. At least in NYC, those alternatives exist.

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