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.