The Unintended Consequences of Trimming Alt-Side Parking Hours

I remember alternate side of the street parking. It was 1974, and I was underemployed and living on West 22nd Street. My tiny Renault and I were regular participants in the twice-a-week “slide” that Matt Flegenheimer described in his Monday Times story on Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez’s bill to bar police from ticketing alternate-side-parked cars once the street sweepers have passed.

Photo: Dr.DeNo/Flickr

The parking was free, but my loss of time and focus on Mondays and Thursdays (or was it Tuesdays and Fridays?) definitely was not. I soon switched to paid parking at Pier 40, with my bike as a shuttle. As I got more comfortable with city cycling I used the car less and less. Before the year was out, I sold it.

This long-ago moment came to mind when I saw Flegenheimer’s story, particularly the headline: “Council Aims to Ease a Parking Burden.” Forty years ago it was I who eased my neighbors’ parking burden when the alternate-side hassle motivated me to bail. But what if, back then, my 11 a.m. — 2 p.m. tour of duty had been trimmed by an hour, or two? With a lower “time cost,” would I have hung on to free parking?

Maybe. And you can bet that if the Rodriguez bill passes, some present-day car-owning and car-storage decisions will be tipped toward street parking. Why pay a garage if the time cost of free street parking has been cut in half? Why rely on Zipcars or stick to destinations served by public transit if the city has made it easier to store your own vehicle on the street?

The problem is that it wouldn’t take a slew of such decisions to cancel the intended time savings that have car owners salivating over the Rodriguez bill. I don’t know the number, but I imagine NYC DOT does. And maybe Bruce Schaller, who just returned to the private sector after seven sterling years running DOT’s analytics, can figure out how many more New Yorkers will elect to store a car on the street if the bill becomes law.

The underlying reality, of course, is that free on-street parking isn’t a public good. As Rachel Weinberger and John Kaehny put it in their magnificent 2008 report on parking policy for ITDP:

While it is often asserted that parking is a “public good” and therefore should be free, a true public good is one whose use by one party does not impinge on its use by another (like a lighthouse or a TV broadcast). Although curbside parking uses public streets, it is clearly not a public good; each motorist who parks takes a potential space away from another motorist.

In just that way, each move to play parking Santa without charging a price stimulates an opposite reaction that cuts into the benefit, perhaps to the point of cancelling it altogether.

This dour scenario isn’t about “externality costs” like the collateral increase in congestion, crashes, noise and emissions from the increase in car ownership I’m positing. My calculus here is limited to the car owners themselves. Maybe it’s time for them to look this gift horse in the mouth — or for NYC DOT to do it for them.

  • Alex

    It’s amazing to me how willing some NYC car owners are to advocate against their own interests in order to save a few minutes or dollars. Hacking away at ASP makes streets dirtier and harder to plow in the winter. Refusing residential parking permits for even a modest yearly fee means more people to compete with for parking, including those who illegally register their vehicle out of state but keep it in the city. And I’ve noted before that for drivers who park elsewhere and move their car once ASP ends, this is a really raw deal. They’ll be forced to wait on the street, keeping watch for the street cleaner to go by rather than simply popping out of their apartment at a set time if they want to snatch up a spot.

  • Larry Littlefield

    My right to park on the street at all was just revoked, and I am now being forced to pay for off-street parking.

    Which is to say our 17 year old Saturn wagon just bit the dust, so I will now be paying for off street parking as part of the cost of the Zipcars and rental cars we will use in its place.

    While parking on the street, and using the public street as my private property, was free for me until now, moreover, I was forced to pay to repave a public sidewalk I don’t even own.

  • Nemo

    Another great post from Mr. Komanoff. And indeed, parking is not a public good but rather a common resource. It is somewhat like a public good, in that anyone is free to park (it is “non-excludable”), but unlike a public good, free parking is subject to depletion and therefore “rivalrous”. I just learned about this in Econ 101!

  • Greg Costikyan

    I lived in Jersey City years ago, when this was default behavior. At the beginning of street-cleaning time, you’d see a line of people double-parking on the side of the street that wasn’t going to be cleaned, hanging out in their cars and waiting for the cleaner. The cleaner was followed by a traffic cop, who would ticket any vehicle in the cleaning lane, but ignored those standing, double-parked, in the opposite lane. And as soon as they were gone, all those standers would swoop back into the now-cleaned lane, confident that they would not now be ticketed.

    I don’t actually have an opinion as to whether this is good or bad; it does seem like a sad waste of human potential and time. But JC is not an easy place to live without a car, despite the light rail and a handful of bike lanes, and people do what they must.

  • Reducing ASP is good for people who just want a place to store their car. If CM Rodriguez is serious about helping working people who need to drive (big assumption there, but hey), he should establish ASP six days a week to create a disincentive for people to leave their cars stored all week long.

  • R

    Residential parking permits and a crackdown on people who register their cars out of state to avoid NYC insurance rates would probably do a lot more to help drivers find parking. I’d say 5 – 10% of the cars parked on my street regularly have out-of-state-plates. How many people would give up their cars if they were forced to register them here?

    Unfortunately, our City Council can’t think of better ways to help drivers than to keep chipping away at ASP. It’s sad.

  • Hilda

    Alternate Side Parking is the main reason we got rid of our car almost four years ago. If parking was easier, we would have a car.

  • walks bikes drives

    Where do you get your information that streets will be dirtier and harder to plow? I realize it seems like common sense, but it is not actually rooted in fact. NYC did an actual study on the benefits of ASP and found there was “no significant difference” between streets with two days, one day, or no ASP whatsoever. This included cleanliness of streets as well as parking turnover (availability of parking spaces). As far as plowing, if you pay attention to ASP cancelations, you will see they actually suspend ASP for every snowfall and don’t reinstate it until the plows have left the street.

    However, I do think a fee based residential permit for overnight parking on the street is a great idea. Something like $200 a year with a registration check would make the city countless millions, which could be used for better infrastructure. But ASP is useless for all involved.

  • Joe R.

    I personally think banning overnight curbside vehicle storage in NYC makes more sense than a residential permit. Many people couldn’t afford to own a car if they had to pay market rates to park it in a garage. End result would be a dramatic decrease in car ownership and use in the five boroughs. That in turn would save the city many millions more in police, fire, and hospital costs than the city would get from any residential parking permit system. Sure, I know for now the idea of banning curbside parking is not politically viable, but it’s something which should be bought up again and again until there is enough popular support to pass it. NYC was never designed for cars. Trying to shoehorn them in has caused myriad problems which can’t be fixed without dramatically reducing motor traffic levels.

    We also need to reinstate the commuter tax and have a congestion tax to keep people from out of the city from driving in. Exempt those using public transit from the commuter tax as they’re not causing the problems of those who drive in.

  • Larry Littlefield

    You have the executive/financial class, the political/union class, as the serfs.

    I think our pols and others in their world identify with those who commit insurance fraud by claiming their cars are elsewhere, to get cheaper auto insurance.

    Meanwhile, the serfs end up paying for the Brooklyn scofflaws who end up driving without insurance at all. The auto insurance rates here insane.

  • lop

    Much of the city was designed for cars. Look around at parts of queens and si.

  • Joe R.

    No, after WWII those parts were redesigned for cars. There used to be a trolley on 164th Street two blocks from me, for example. Even much of Long Island was designed around railroad stations. The car-oriented settlement patterns only started appearing in the 1950s after car use was common.

  • Flakker

    I agree except for the commuter tax part. It’s a political loser and frankly unfair. Much more fair is charging New York City income tax to everyone who works in the city. As it stands you can live in Nassau, walk to Queens, and work there and not pay the same tax your neighbor in Queens does, which makes little sense. Seriously, what does it get you, a library card? Either repeal the city income tax or apply it to everyone.

  • Flakker

    Although SI is car-dependent I’d argue a small amount of the total is actually designed for cars in a modern sense. The traffic is as horrific as anywhere else in the city.

  • Andrew

    As it stands you can live in Nassau, walk to Queens, and work there and not pay the same tax your neighbor in Queens does, which makes little sense. Seriously, what does it get you, a library card?

    Not even – NYPL cards are available to anyone who lives or works in New York City.

  • Larry Littlefield

    You need to take that further.

    Things got a lot worse starting in the 1970s and 1980s. Levittown was designed with sidewalks, and services, schools and libraries in walking distance. Mothers and children were assumed to be at home, without cars.

    Later developments assumed one car per adult and driving everywhere, even to a place to take a walk. No sidewalks at all. When I was in City Planning school at Rutgers in the mid-1980s, the problem was affordable housing, and one solution was eliminating requirements for sidewalks, which no one used anyway.

  • JamesR

    Not really workable unless you build enormous parking garages at the city line in each borough that shares a border with the suburbs. If I have family coming into the city via car, they need a place to stash it, whether it’s on a curbside spot or a garage.

  • Joe R.

    And I’ve proposed exactly that several times. To me that’s a far better solution overall for many reasons, including the fact that buses and delivery vehicles can run much faster without being impeded by car traffic.

  • lop

    You have to go back further than WWII. All along Queens Blvd there are communities that were farms before the highway heading to the QB bridge was built. The LIRR was already there, but many areas weren’t developed until cars showed up. The IND subway didn’t come until later.

    A trolley on 164? And what’s that prove exactly? That cars weren’t there when the area was developed? How’s that?

    Much of LI and Queens was farmland and country clubs and golf courses. If you mean the places closest to train stations, sure those were first built before cars showed up. Then rebuilt later on in some but not all cases. But much of Queens wasn’t developed before cars showed up. Those areas were built around cars. I don’t mean in the modern sense where every adult has a car and every child is driven everywhere they go and transit options are minimal at best. But to say that cars were shoehorned in is ignoring history.

  • lop

    How does bad traffic now mean that the farmland in Staten Island that wasn’t developed into housing until after the VZ Bridge was built wasn’t designed for car owning residents?

  • Flakker

    I’m saying, in a sense almost everywhere in New York City is “designed for cars”. Take, for example, one-way broad streets in Manhattan dominated by cars. But if you look at Staten Island it comes nowhere close to meeting the car-dependency standards to which roads would be built today. So you’re not wrong, but even in Staten Island it’s a haphazard map of modifications rather than ground-up design for the most part. And “the most part” matters when we’re talking about cars getting anywhere outside the most suburban enclaves.

  • lop

    In 1900 Manhattan had a population of 1.85 million
    Brooklyn had a population of 1.17 million
    Queens had a population of 153 thousand
    The Bronx had a population of 200 thousand
    Staten Island had a population of 67 thousand

    That year 4192 cars were produced in the United States.

    The urban core was built for few people to enter it. Because there wasn’t a way for lots of people to travel long distances to enter it. Cars and trains were shoehorned into the core. The Els were a blight. Buried or eliminated from most core areas. Cars were a blight. And they still are.

    Outside the core, little development existed until there was a way to bring lots of people from there to the core. You had farms. Country clubs and estates. Golf courses. Wilderness. Small towns around train stations. By the time a significant portion of the city (by land mass) was developed cars were affordable for the people expected to move in, and were taken into account. No part of the city is like a 1990s Phoenix area greenfield housing tract, but I don’t think that’s necessary to say that an area was designed for cars.

  • Joe R.

    A trolley on 164? And what’s that prove exactly? That cars weren’t there when the area was developed? How’s that?

    It proves that even when the area was far less dense than it is today public transit was feasible. All this stuff I hear from people about how large swaths of the city must have cars because they lack the density to support public transit is utter nonsense. It’s a chicken and egg thing. Build for cars and people will use cars to the detriment of local public transit. Do the opposite and they’ll flock to transit in large enough numbers to make it feasible, as it was pre-WWII. I get it with the crappy, infrequent local bus service how many people in the outer parts of Brooklyn/Queens will opt to drive. However, infrequent, crappy local bus service isn’t a given here. We can easily support a lot of light rail, especially in or above highway medians, and can also support probably 50 new route miles of subways. There are places far less dense than where I live where a majority don’t drive and don’t own cars. When you reduce the number of cars drastically you not only help support public transit, but you make biking for short trips safe/pleasant enough that it can largely replace many short trips people currently do by car. I think places like Eastern Queens can be a cycling mecca if we get rid of most of the cars, and merchants start to provide safe bike parking. We may never be able to make getting around everywhere by public transit feasible, but we can certainly replace nearly all car trips by some combination of biking and public transit.

    But to say that cars were shoehorned in is ignoring history.

    What you did in much of Queens at first was to convert horse trails to roads. Indeed, Fresh Meadow Lane may at one time have even been a trail used by native Americans. After that is when you started shoehorning cars in by building a street grid which made driving everyplace feasible. Had we not done this, but instead stuck to roads spaced maybe a half mile apart or more, cars would never have seen widespread use here. People would have walked or biked that last half mile or so from the major roads to wherever they needed to be. Perhaps there still would have been a grid of sorts, but for bikes/pedestrians only. I think if Queens developed this way it would have been a much nicer place to live. In fact, that’s not a bad model for NYC. Keep the arterial grid intact, limit commerce and heavy industry there, and have a bike/ped only grid in between the arterials. Sure, it absolutely makes car travel far less convenient as it can no longer be door-to-door (unless your origin and destination are on an arterial) but that’s largely the point. The less convenient we make car travel, the fewer people will use it.

  • lop

    Rail transit between Flushing and Jamaica was feasible when the area wasn’t developed, and it was basically an interurban line, not intraurban, and there was no other way for most people to make the trip in a reasonable amount of time? Yea. Before many people lived there. When people moved in they built roads for them. The area was designed for travel by private car. It was not designed to be served by existing rail, or new rail that would have had to be built. That’s why it’s sprawling out over there, not concentrated around rail stations.

    Flushing-Jamaica is an underserved transit market today though. That doesn’t mean the area wasn’t built for cars.

    The buses running similar routes today might
    run more frequently than the flushing-jamaica line ever did. Have any old timetables handy? Best I could find was a state assembly hearing ordering the company to increase frequency on their lines, in this case to 6 at peak, 4 times per hour most of the day.

    It’s a neat site. White means housing that is planned or was occupied after the 1940 census.

    Look at the population. 12887.

    71513 from the last census.

    This area was built for travel by car. Because it was built as a suburb for people who wanted to leave the city center, and cars were how people wanted to get around when the area was built. That doesn’t mean transit shouldn’t be introduced. I’m not defending cars. I’m just not counting the farms or native american trails that were there before as something that was redesigned from, and if you count them, what area didn’t have cars shoehorned in? As an urban area with lots of people, Flushing South was built for cars. A lot of NYC wasn’t. This part of Queens was. Whether or not it’s worked out, whether or not it should have been designed differently to accommodate cars better, or designed differently to accommodate transit usage better at the expense of car travel if necessary is not what I was trying to get at in my first comment. My only point was that some parts of the city, including this part of Queens, as an urban area with lots of people, was designed for travel by private car. Not transit. Manhattan had a population of 1.85 million in 1900 (more than today) a year when 4192 cars were built in the US. Cars were shoehorned in there. Flushing South (kew gardens hills, pomonok/hillcrest) was not an urban area before cars. If you live far from the core like that kind of area, and you aren’t near a rail line, your area was probably first built up for travel by car.

    As to your idea of only having arterials…it doesn’t sound too different than typical suburbs today except your bike/ped roads are basically shared streets. Motorists aren’t completely ignorant to the costs of driving, how loud obnoxious and dangerous cars are, especially when moving fast. So they drive slow and careful when near their neighbors, who they know will be in the street from time to time. It’s just for a minute or two until they get on the major arterial so they don’t mind. Walking or biking somewhere is generally rather bad there not because of the almost shared streets, but because of the arterials. And that’s where all the destinations are.

  • Joe R.

    Car travel may have been workable when the area only had 12,887 people but it obviously isn’t now. That’s really the problem with much of Queens. It may have made sense to build for cars when development started, but probably nobody at the time could foresee the area increasing in population five-fold, with probably an attendant 10 to 25x increase in motor traffic as people made more trips in general, and most trips by car. For the same reason, probably nobody thought it was worthwhile building more subways here once the Flushing line was built, and the E/F extended to 179th Street, because it was thought you would never have the population to justify more subways. Now what we’re stuck with is a mess. You can’t decrease car dependency without offering viable alternatives. And the viable alternatives (biking, buses, light rail) won’t work all that well (or at all) until you dramatically decrease car traffic. We can argue over what the definition of “shoehorned in” might mean, but the hard fact is Queens has largely passed the point where its feasible for large numbers of people to depend upon cars. Not helping matters is that places where cars were inarguably shoehorned in, such as Manhattan, end up generating significant amounts of extra traffic in Queens in the form of suburban auto commuters driving to or near Manhattan.

    My proposal of arterial streets only for motor traffic is a bit different from what exists in the suburbs. You can’t really go anywhere in the suburbs without getting on an arterial because outside of arterials, there is no grid pattern. If we have a fine grid of bike/ped streets and a courser grid of car-oriented arterials, you can have safe/pleasant/rapid bike access from any point to any other point. Here’s how: Obviously you won’t need traffic signals or stop signs anywhere on the bike/ped only grid. The pedestrians would still have sidewalks as they do now, and bikes would run in the much narrower (12 feet wide?) streets. The gives clear runs of ~1/2 mile until you hit an arterial, assuming the grid is contiguous, which in much of Queens it isn’t. Anyway, what you can do is have a rough grid of major bike routes offset about 1/4 mile from the arterial grid, and of course supplemented by the finer grid of bike/ped streets which get you to your final destination. That means bikes never need to go on arterials when going longer distances, except for maybe a few blocks if the final destination happens to be on an arterial. To go such a short distance along the arterial it’s perfectly feasible to either ride slowly on the sidewalk, or walk the bike on the sidewalk. In other words, the arterials need no special accommodation for bikes.

    The only problem with this scheme comes when the major bike streets cross arterials roughly every half mile or so. Unlike my elevated bike lane scheme which needs continuous viaducts, this idea only requires some type of grade separated crossing every half mile or so. And in this case, it probably makes more sense from a cost and aesthetic standpoint to go under the arterial instead of over it. Underpasses are preferable for bikes because you use the momentum built up going down to come back up the other side. And if there are no utilities in the way, you only need to go down about 7 or 8 feet instead of going up at least 15 feet. Anyway, this is sort of what I had in mind. It’s far different from the suburbs. It would allow dense settlement and easy ways to get around without cars without much alteration of the existing physical structure. It would also greatly decrease car use.

    Interesting site you linked to . Some of my mother’s friends lived in this area back when it was being built up in the 1940s. When we first moved here in 1978, the woman next door actually lived here back when a brook ran in back of her house. That was probably the 1910s or 1920s.

  • lop

    Wouldn’t the arterials like Hillside have to have subways running under them to move everyone if they aren’t driving? Don’t a lot already have water and sewer mains or electric or gas running underground?

  • Joe R.

    Sure, and in cases where going down isn’t feasible due to subways and the like you just go over. I’m thinking here 95% of the time it will probably be less costly to go under. Going over Hillside would actually be preferably because an overpass could smooth out that awful hill right next to Hillside. You need to go up eventually anyway, but if you start doing so a block earlier that makes the gradient much more manageable.

    Electric, gas, and sewer mains are typically only a few feet down so they don’t present a major obstacle. In fact, what is often done when you build an underpass is to route the adjacent utility lines up so they end up right under the roadway bed. When they need to be accessed they would then be accessed from the underpass instead of by breaking up the roadway. This solution pretty much means you rarely need to go down more than about 8 or 9 feet. And in the long haul it may save quite a bit of money as you can put major utility junctions out in the open, where they can be reached without expensive digging/resurfacing.

  • Josef Szende

    I like the anecdote and agree fully with the logic.

    This is not an argument that is politically viable for a council member to make. Alternate side parking isn’t about deterring vehicle ownership; it’s about cleaning the streets. The only way to possibly defeat this bill would be to argue on those grounds.

    I now work in a neighborhood with significant placard abuse, which results in some cars never moving for street sweeping. This creates an unsanitary condition that I’m sure many in the city would be against.

  • mike

    I’d write a longer comment, but I have to go move my car.


Quinn’s Top Transpo Priority in 2011: Convenience For Car Owners

In her State of the City address this afternoon, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn laid out her priorities for the year ahead. Her speech focused on four issue areas: balancing the city budget, creating jobs, preserving affordable housing and parking. Quinn’s parking platform isn’t aimed at making parking cheaper or more plentiful — though she’s […]

Streets for Walking, Part 2: Dan Burden on Building Support for Change

Burden leads a workshop helping a hospital in Calgary design its pedestrian space. Photo: Dan Burden. Last week Streetsblog spoke to walkability expert Dan Burden about how new design guidelines for urban streets can replace the suburban, car-oriented standards that have become the norm throughout America (read the interview here). Burden has been advocating for […]

Ridiculous David Greenfield Parking Bills: A Timeline

A few years back Streetsblog ran a post with the headline “Another Year, Another David Greenfield Parking Bill.” And it’s true! Except for 2014, Greenfield has introduced or sponsored legislation intended to somehow lessen the hassle of parking every year since 2010. While he’s a vocal proponent of Vision Zero, it still seems Greenfield has never […]