Eliminate the Parking Requirement

I’ve long bristled at the word "subsidies" that is applied so frequently to subways, buses and trains, and so infrequently to driving, even when the latter is "subsidized" much more lavishly than the former.

The latest subsidy I’ve encountered most viscerally is the requirement that exists, even in most parts of New York City, to build parking when you construct a building. This is nothing more than an enforced subsidy of driving, for if you require parking, you are encouraging people to buy cars to fill up those spaces.

I’ve been thinking about development these days more, and it struck me that the severity of this requirement would be demonstrated if we thought of it a different way.

What if we required that developers subsidize mass transit the same way we require them to subsidize car use? What if we required property owners and developers to kick in say, $25,000 for every unit of housing they built and give it to New York City Transit as compensation for the riders the new development would generate?

So if you built a 40 unit apartment building, you would hand the Metropolitan Transportation Authority a $1 million check. With private developers constructing tens of thousands of units of housing every year, that would soon add up to a nice additional source of revenue for the region’s mass transit system.

This may sound absurd, but we already do that with car use by requiring the construction of parking in most parts of the city. There are some exceptions, like in Midtown Manhattan, but in the boroughs and even much of Manhattan — including the new Hudson Yards redevelopment zone on Manhattan’s west side — constructing parking is a requirement.

This gets expensive, very quickly, particularly in the higher-density areas that also have the best mass transit access, and so don’t need the parking.

For example around Prospect Park in Brooklyn where I live, many areas require one unit of parking built for every two units of housing. So a 40 unit apartment building would have to build 20 parking spaces. Twenty parking spaces do not come cheap.

Because land itself is so valuable, a developer in Crown Heights or Park Slope often choose to pack these spaces underground. This is a good thing urbanistically, or at least less of a bad thing, but very expensive. It costs about $150 per square foot to build below grade, my developer friends tell me, and a parking spot including necessary accompanying space takes up about 300 square feet. So one parking spot might cost $45,000, or even more in higher construction costs areas.

In lower density areas farther out in Brooklyn, Queens and the other boroughs, developers will build surface lots. These cost less, but they have their own ill effects. They take away land that could have been used as yards, and help insure that street design is less urbanistic and thus less compatible with a mass transit system.

Let me ask a simple question: At a time when our roads are crammed, when we need open space, when we need lower cost housing and more recreational areas, when our climate is changing because of exhaust from cars, why are we demanding developers construct parking that jacks up housing prices, spews more cars onto burdened streets, takes away land that could be used for either housing or open space, and contributes to global warming?

This is such a crazy policy that I would like any planner out there, and to step forward and defend it.

Someone may ask what all this has to do with livable streets. The answer is a lot. The more we encourage and subsidize car use, the more our streets will be filled with cars, and which will push out other users. The more we require parking, the more our urban fabric will be torn with curb cuts and driveways. I’m not against cars, but I do believe that in urban settings they should be in their rightful place, which is basically last in line.

  • Slopion

    “I advocate providing A LOT more OFF-STREET parking – But not for free…For the right price. Furthermore, On-Street parking should ALSO cost a helluva lot more than it currently does. I advocate raising the price for this, too (for NON-local residents, that is) …”

    Josh, I agree with you up until the end. But I also believe that local residents should be paying a lot more (through parking permits) to park on their local streets. If I’m keeping my car on a city street, the city should be getting me to pay extra money toward the maintenance of that street, for improved transit, etc.

    As for more parking = more cars = more car use, that may be true in much of the world, but that certainly doesn’t gibe with my experience in New York City. In my neck of Brooklyn anyway, I know plenty of car owners, and none who drive to work rather than take the subway. And I don’t think it’s because we’re superior to all the brainwashed slack-jawed Americans who are fooled by billions of dollars in advertising. It’s because we have better options (good subway service), so we rationally choose to utilize them and use our cars for those trips for which public transit is less convenient.

  • Jonathan

    Josh: You live in Brooklyn, and I can assure you that there are plenty of parking garages with available spaces in Brooklyn. You don’t use them, however, because they are too inconvenient, or because the cost to you in time of getting out to those garages is too high. I can perfectly understand that; I don’t garage my car in Brooklyn either.

    What you’re advocating, then, is cheaper parking for you (and therefore for everyone else in your situation). As I said before, parking is the big cost of owning a car in NYC, and therefore reducing the cost of parking will make it easier for people to own cars. The Slopers who garage their cars out on Linden Blvd. somewhere will simply move to more convenient parking closer to home, and in general, because you’ve reduced the cost of car ownership, you will increase demand and put more cars on the streets, maybe not necessarily in Park Slope, but in Brooklyn as a whole.

    Now maybe you can get around to responding to my original question: as public policy, why is satisfying your desire for economizing on parking worth increasing the death toll concomitant with increasing motorcar use?

    Slopion, you may be right that more cars don’t necessarily equal more commuting trips, but there are more ways to use a car than driving to work. Once you have invested the money into buying a motorcar, registering it, and insuring it, the trips are pretty much free. Your cohort of car owners who commute by subway? I would imagine they’re using their motorcars once a week at the minimum, for shopping trips, visiting relatives, or just going to Williamsburg to gallery-hop. I bike to work, but I’ve nonetheless put 12,000 miles on my car in the past year just in leisure driving. To assume that your friends are paying thousands of dollars a year for a mere couple trips to Philadelphia or Cape Cod in their personal vehicles is a little ridiculous.

  • Slopion

    Jonathan,

    I can’t speak for you, but I put maybe 4,000 miles on my car average a year. Either long trips outside the city or short trips within the outer boroughs. As they say on the Internets, YMMV — in this case literally.

    Anyway, I never said my neighbors weren’t using their cars, I said they weren’t using them daily. So we agree on that. What they’re not doing is driving their cars twice a day in insane traffic to and from an extremely congested Central Business District. The trips you describe are what I said: “those trips for which public transit is less convenient.” When I go to Greenpoint, I drive (unless I bike there). When they extend the G line, I’ll take the train. Better options, better choices.

    Likewise, I drive to visit relatives whom I could, theoretically, visit through a combination of subway to train, to their driving to pick my family up from a train station–but it would take literally three times as long. I don’t want to give up the driving options, but I would gladly pay more to subsidize the alternatives, especially when the side effect (in this case, parking) carries a benefit for me. (And I would not drive to work in Manhattan even if I had a guaranteed free parking space on both ends.)

    Which again goes to my general point. A policy of de facto forcing people to give up cars is a non-starter. But what we can, and should, do, is offer better alternatives, and discourage driving in places well served by transit through things like congestion pricing. And we can price both the driving and parking of cars to reflect (and subsidize) their social costs, in ways that ultimately have benefits all around (even–gasp!–to drivers).

    Bottom line: treating driving in NYC as an entitlement is foolhardy. Treating it as a crime is a pipe dream. Treating driving in NYC like a luxury, which is what it is, is the way to go.

  • Slopion

    By the way, great discussion here all around. It’s good to have a civil conversation on balancing driving vs non-driving with nobody attacking one another.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Bottom line: treating driving in NYC as an entitlement is foolhardy. Treating it as a crime is a pipe dream. Treating driving in NYC like a luxury, which is what it is, is the way to go.)

    Sounds reasonable to me. And remember, for some trips four people in a car is more efficient than any transit combination. Although the point is well taken that if the car is owned rather than rented as needed, it will be used wastefully for other trips as well.

    In any event, this is a small minority point of view. The majority are either in the entitlement or crime camp or both — my car is an entitlement, your traffic and use of parkign in my neighborhood is a crime.

  • Slopion

    Larry,

    I meant to mention renting. My family was between cars for a while and we considered ditching it and renting, ZipCarring, etc. instead. Like a lot of car owners in NYC (I think), it’s not like I’m a car lover–my car’s a device, not something I want to have in and of itself. What I want is what it enables me to do. Owning a car is a pain in the ass, parking or no parking!

    But after we tried it for a while, we found that renting and ZipCar, where we are, anyway, does not yet live up to its promise or word of mouth. For the times we wanted to drive, the distance we were willing to travel to pick up, and our capacity desires (2 small kids, car seats, etc.), it required WAY more advance anticipation than we we able to pull off, or wasn’t available at all.

    Mind you, that’s for us and our family situation. For others, I’m sure ZipCar et al are the solution right now. Which is great. And maybe someday it will be for us. Which would be greater.

    However, I doubt that, FOR ME, renting a car would reduce my mileage driven that much. I’d take the same long-haul trips which put on the bulk oof my car’s miles. What it would probably reduce are the shopping/entertainment jaunts of a few miles at a time that I now take in my “free” car. That might add up to a few hundred miles a year? But again, YMMV.

  • mork

    I advocate raising the price for this, too (for NON-local residents, that is) …

    Josh — I’m not sure what a non-local resident is, but it seems like what makes the best sense is to charge everyone the same for on-street parking.

    Why should you use the street space for free while your neighbor without a car does not?

  • Larry Littlefield

    (I doubt that, FOR ME, renting a car would reduce my mileage driven that much. I’d take the same long-haul trips which put on the bulk oof my car’s miles. What it would probably reduce are the shopping/entertainment jaunts of a few miles at a time that I now take in my “free” car. That might add up to a few hundred miles a year?)

    Maybe, but the MPG are higher, and the congetion impact smaller, on those camping trips upstate than they are driving the kid to a friend’s house the next neighborhood over.

  • mork

    Treating driving in NYC like a luxury, which is what it is, is the way to go.

    Here’s an interesting essay on the idea of treating cars as a luxury that I came across recently:

    THE SOCIAL IDEOLOGY OF THE MOTORCAR
    André Gorz
    http://www.worldcarfree.net/resources/freesources/ideology.htm

  • Jonathan

    mork, thanks for the link! It’s worth reading through until the last, most thought-provoking paragraph:

    Above all, never make transportation an issue by itself. Always connect it to the problem of the city, of the social division of labour, and to the way this compartmentalises the many dimensions of life. One place for work, another for “living,” a third for shopping, a fourth for learning, a fifth for entertainment. The way our space is arranged carries on the disintegration of people that begins with the division of labour in the factory. It cuts a person into slices, it cuts our time, our life, into separate slices so that in each one you are a passive consumer at the mercy of the merchants, so that it never occurs to you that work, culture, communication, pleasure, satisfaction of needs, and personal life can and should be one and the same thing: a unified life, sustained by the social fabric of the community.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    And remember, for some trips four people in a car is more efficient than any transit combination.

    It may be more efficient, but it’s significantly less safe.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    That article is awesome, Mork! And it was written in 1973. What I found most interesting is this:

    And yet, you may say, people don’t take the train. Of course! How could they? Have you ever tried to go from Boston to New York by train? Or from Ivry to Treport? Or from Garches to Fountainebleau? Or Colombes to l’Isle-Adam? Have you tried on a summer Saturday or Sunday? Well, then, try it and good luck to you! You’ll observe that automobile capitalism has thought of everything. Just when the car is killing the car, it arranges for the alternatives to disappear, thus making the car compulsory. So first the capitalist state allowed the rail connections between the cities and the surrounding countryside to fall to pieces, and then it did away with them.

    Fortunately, things have improved since then. According to Google Maps and the SNCF, here are the times for the French towns he mentions:

    Ivry-sur-Seine to le Tréport: 2 hours 38 minutes by car, 3 hours 35 minutes by train

    Garches to Fontainebleau: 1 hour by car, 1 hour 17 minutes by train

    Colombes to l’Isle-Adam: 32 minutes by car, 52 minutes by train

    In 1973, all of these trips would probably have taken at least an hour longer by train. The improvement of the Ivry-le Tréport trip is due to the RER B, opened in 1977. The Garches-Fontainbleau trip is due to the Metro Line 14, opened in 2003. The trip from Colombes to l’Isle-Adam was improved by the construction of a new bridge over the Seine and the reconstruction of the Ermont-Eaubonne transfer station last year.

    I wonder how many of the politicians responsible for those projects read this article?

  • Larry Littlefield

    (One place for work, another for “living,” a third for shopping, a fourth for learning, a fifth for entertainment. The way our space is arranged carries on the disintegration of people that begins with the division of labour in the factory. It cuts a person into slices, it cuts our time, our life, into separate slices.)

    My view of how to live 20 years ago — subway to work, walk to as much else as possible. New view — work and shop at home via the internet, walk or bike otherwise, transit when necessary (work meetings, large gatherings, social engagements). It could become possible.

  • mork

    Glad folks are enjoying the Gorz link. There’s a ton more stuff on the same site (most of which I have not read — there’s only so much preaching the choir can take) here:

    http://www.worldcarfree.net/resources/free.php

  • Jonathan

    Browsing the worldcarfree site, I found a French-language antivoitures blog, too: I found this gem there:

    Imaginons que le même homme ait choisi de prendre le vélo. Attaché-case sur le porte-bagage, il aura humé l’air vif, surfé entre les tôles d’acier agglutinées, coursé un moineau fou, été transpercé par cette lumière matinale du début du monde. Le critère qui nous a fait plébisciter la bicyclette, à mille lieues de toute préoccupation de modernité, est cette capacité de faire corps avec l’espace. Le vélo fend subtilement l’atmosphère, qui se referme derrière lui sans laisser un sillage à la traîne.”

    “Les cyclistes qui se croisent sur l’asphalte s’envoient un petit signe ou un sourire de connivence au-delà de toute considération sociale ou ethnique. Voilà un autre trait, moins anodin qu’il n’y paraît, qui distingue le vélo de l’auto : sur le bitume, les automobilistes sont concurrents, les cyclistes sont solidaires.”

    Or, in English:
    “Let’s imagine that the same man had chosen to take his bike. Attache case on the baggage-rack, he would have breathed in the live air, surfed between the tiles of stuck-together steel, tracked a crazed sparrow, been struck through by that morning light of the dawn of the world. The criterion that makes us choose the bike, a thousand years away from any preoccupation of modernity, is that capacity to find your body in space. The bike cleaves through the atmosphere, which reforms behind it without leaving a wake.

    “Cyclists who cruise the asphalt let fly a little sign, or smile, of connivance beyond any social or ethnic considerations. One last trait, less anodyne than it might seem, that distinguishes the bike from the car: on the pavement, the automobiles are battling, but the cyclists are united.”

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