Most New Yorkers Don’t Own Cars. Do Community Boards Reflect That?

Most households in New York City, about 56 percent, don’t own cars. But if you’ve ever attended a community board meeting about redesigning a street, you might have come away thinking that car storage is the single most important function our streets serve.

Community boards tend to fixate on parking and driving despite low car ownership in the communities they represent. Photo: Chris Potter

That’s a big problem, since DOT often defers to community boards when deciding whether to move forward with its redesigns. Many a bus lane, bike lane, or pedestrian improvement has been watered down or abandoned at the behest of a local community board that refused to accept a reduction in parking in return for faster transit or safer streets.

Even in neighborhoods where the car ownership rate is as low as 20 or 30 percent, such as Manhattan CB 9 or Brooklyn CB 9, parking and traffic often dominate conversations about important street safety projects. If the car ownership rate among members of these community boards reflected the neighborhood at large, it’s hard to imagine that the elimination of a few parking spaces would be a sticking point so often.

Currently, there’s no way to tell with any degree of specificity how the composition of community boards compares to the neighborhoods they’re supposed to serve. Bronx Council Member Ritchie Torres wants to change that.

Torres has introduced a bill (Intro. 1046to survey the demographics of community boards each year. Under the proposal, community boards would have to disclose members’ names, employment information, neighborhoods of residence, and length of service. They would also have to provide a count of open spots on boards and committees. Members would be encouraged to volunteer other demographic information, such as race, income, language spoken at home, and — of special note for the issues Streetsblog covers — if they own a car.

Torres told Gotham Gazette last week that community boards should welcome putting diversity and representation on the agenda. “My message to community boards is this: There’s nothing to fear from diversity,” he said. “The goal isn’t perfect proportionality but broad-based representation.”

Making the demographic questions optional would compromise the accuracy of the survey. A mandatory survey could still preserve the anonymity of individual members while yielding a truer picture of the board as a whole.

This is the second session in a row where some form of community board reform has been proposed in the City Council. Last year, a bill from Council Member Danny Dromm that would have put term limits on community board positions did not make it out of committee.

The question of community board representation re-emerged last month, when, after community boards across the city voted against Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing proposals. In one interview, de Blasio said community boards lack a “perfect vantage point on their communities.” A few days later, while discussing the progress of Vision Zero, de Blasio told the Wall Street Journal, “I respect community boards. But community boards don’t get to decide.”

Torres opposed community board term limits, but he clearly thinks something has to change. “I think the real issue is not whether there should be term limits, but why do we allow community boards to be stumbling blocks to safe streets?” Torres said at a hearing on the term limits bill last May. “We don’t require community board approval when we’re making decisions about fire safety or policing policy.”

  • This is something a few people have raised in the past and is tangentially related: DOT goes through this torturous community board process for safety improvements, but if they want to put a parking space back after, say, daylighting an intersection, there’s no similar notification process. Even beyond community boards, then, the planning process is flawed to favor prioritization of cars over people.

  • Another example are slow zone treatments. In Boerum Hill, DOT needed community board approval to remove parking spaces to install gateway treatments – signs and barrels that narrowed slow zone entries – but after they were hit repeatedly the signs were moved to the sidewalks without community board notification. This left the “gateways” useless – drivers could still turn corners at breakneck speeds.

    The message was exactly as you say: taking space from drivers requires “community” approval, but taking space from pedestrians requires nothing at all.

  • ohnonononono

    The majority of New Yorkers are renters too, yet Community Boards are disproportionately stacked with the owning minority, some of whom possibly see both homeownership and car ownership as complementary signs of “success” and “investment” in one’s life and community, as opposed to the peons renting apartments and taking the bus. Creating more opportunities for car ownership then is seen as going hand in hand with boosting homeownership rates, neighborhood stability, etc. It’s a hard impression to dislodge.

  • Back in 2000 while head of Brooklyn’s T.A. Committee we were frustrated by the lack of movement on the Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming Project. Then, Community Board Six was not very good on our issues and obsessed with even losing one parking space.

    We got the stats from 1990 and saw that only 52% of households in the CB owned cars. Then over a span of a few months we tried to find out how many people on the Community Board owned cars by marking down who we definitely knew owned and those we weren’t sure of kind of asking questions so we’d know if they did or not.. Our estimate was 88 to 90%. No wonder they obstructed change.

  • AnoNYC

    Also keep in mind that per household does not equate per person.

    The average household size in NYC is 2.61 people per unit according to the US census (2009-2013). These people are not all headed in the same direction at all times, nor does every householder even have access to the automobile (roommates).

  • I always point this out to people in statistics – that a car in a household could mean a car for a couple, or even 4 or 5 people. So in NYC when they say roughly about half of all households have a car, the percentage of adults actually owning a car is well less than that. I wish we knew that number.

  • Joe R.

    There are good financial and other reasons for owning your own property besides as status symbols. Small (1000 to 2000 square foot) homes on smallish lots (40’x100′ or less) can be a viable part of the urban fabric. What doesn’t belong in cities at all are these hideous McMansion status symbols on large lots.

    What we need to do is to discourage the car ownership which seems to go hand in hand with home ownership. Requiring one to store their car only on their own property is a good start. Eliminating curbside parking and putting infill development on the huge commercial parking lots prevalent in places like eastern Queens would help further discourage car use. The truth is even typical urban private homes provide more than enough density for at least comprehensive bus service, if not subway service. Besides that, cycling can be really viable if we got rid of most of the fast, aggressive car traffic which seems to exist in the outer boroughs. The only reason we apparently encourage car ownership where it doesn’t need to exist is exactly because too many on community boards still see this as a sign of success.

  • Joe R.

    This whole daylighting issue just needs to be fixed once and for all via legislation. Prohibit curbside parking within at least 25 feet of a crosswalk, better yet 50 to 75 feet. Everywhere. That alone will get rid of enough parking to radically discourage car ownership.

  • Joe R.

    What’s more puzzling than community boards stacked with people who favor free curbside parking is how the idea of storing private property on public streets ever came to be allowed in the first place. At best streets should have loading zones, which would be places to temporarily park to discharge passengers or cargo. The idea that you can park on a public street, then go shopping, or even leave your vehicle there overnight, is an abomination which should never have seen the light of day. It’s ugly, people looking for parking cause congestion, people actually parking block traffic. It’s just a brain dead idea on many levels. If catering to people who drive is important to a business or residence, then the owners should see fit to build parking off the street. And whether or not such parking exists should be dictated only by supply or demand, not by city parking requirements.

  • BBnet3000

    Removing bike facilities is supposed to require CB notification as well but I’ve seen no evidence that this has been followed in various conversions of old bike lanes to sharrows or to nothing at all.

  • Mike

    Not to mention what happens if you look at NYC minus Staten Island.

  • BBnet3000

    Too many young diverse working class neighborhoods have wealthy old white CBs.

  • JK

    Of course there should be term limits for CB members. Torres, who is a
    dynamic, open minded person, would not be in council if not for council term
    limits. But this is a good bill and it will help make the case that, overall, CB’s are ossified and unrepresentative of the communities they pretend to represent.

  • I’d also like to see how many CB members who do own cars use it as their primary mode of transportation. I would imagine many members, especially in Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn, take subways to work and mostly use their cars for weekend trips.

    I used to see Daniel Kummer, former chair of CB6, taking the train to his office at Rockefeller Center. He was known to squash bike corral proposals on occasion.

  • Ossified. It’s a perfect word.

  • AMH

    There is too much free parking for sure, but I’m not sure that requiring people to store vehicles on their own property is the answer. There are plenty of neighborhoods where people have turned their small gardens into parking lots.

  • Eric McClure

    They’re still obsessed with losing even one parking space, but I hear the Transportation Committee co-chair is okay – even though he owns a car.

  • Andrew

    I’m not sure that’s quite the right formulation. It’s not a question of where people are required to store anything, since there’s no obligation to own the thing that needs to be stored. The problem is simply that it’s become widely accepted that there’s some sort of public or governmental mandate to provide car storage to those who opt to own cars, even though there’s no similar mandate regarding any other large (or for that matter small) object.

    Imagine if we simply expected motorists to take responsibility for the storage of their own cars (just as we expect everyone to take responsibility of everything else). Perhaps you own space for your car, perhaps you rent it from someone else (such as a private business or a neighbor who doesn’t own a car or who has room for two), but simply plopping it down on the street implies that you’re leaving it there as a freebie for anybody else to take. Meanwhile, local businesses can opt to provide as much or as little parking as they like, at whatever price (including $0) that they like, as a simple business decision.

    Anybody can ride a bus. Bus riders should not be denied fast and reliable service by people wishing to store their private property on public land.

  • Andrew
  • Lex Luthor

    1.8 million registered personal vehicles in NYC, and a million of them are in Queens. Stop working against working class new yorkers, so rich folks can drive unobstructed.

  • Lex Luthor

    Public transportation in Queens sucks and it is expensive. To go into Manhattan with my family of five costs me $27.50, just to travel within my city! A gallon of gasoline, even at high prices, is cheap and I avoid the significant inconvenience of weekend schedules. I haven’t got time to waste on weekends with the #7 train. I bike to work when I can just to avoid it, but even serious utilitarian cyclist like me realizes that cycling is fair weather transportation. Most bike lanes are a pain to bicycle commuters because they are designed for recreation, for out of town cyclists who can’t hack it in the City of New York! Even worse, they come from places where there are no pedestrians and don’t know how to interact with them. Hypocrites! Go home and mess with the motorists there! Motorists pay more than their share–stop messing with working families and do something really progressive!

  • Lex Luthor

    I take it back! Clearly you represent monied interests and not even the cycling or any other community. Rich folks want working class personal vehicles off the road cause we’re not important enough for them to share the road with us and you guys work for them.

  • Miles Bader

    Public policymakers have spent 50+ years pandering to automobiles and spending all money on remaking the city to favor them, and the result is an unworkable crapfest.

    It’s about time they admitted it’s not going to work and start spending on improved public transit instead.

  • It stands to reason that the people who volunteer for unpaid positions that require a large commitment of personal time are going to be people who have a certain level of means.

  • ohnonononono

    If only we could all travel in families of 5 at all times, eh? Most travel is single-person. The average household size in this country is 2.5 and dropping.

    If it’s a foregone conclusion that you own a car, go for it! But don’t try to make that economic argument that it’s cheaper than using transit. That’s absolute nonsense. The average annual car insurance premium in NYC is about $3,000, which is already more than the yearly cost for unlimited monthly Metrocards for 2 people. Add the cost of “cheap” gas, wear and tear on your car at the government rate, and parking. It’s not even close.

  • kevd

    Yeah, only Brooklyn Yuppies do that…..
    I see more GA, PA and SC plates in my very working class neighborhood of Brooklyn than I do in the yuppified parts. (maybe those tend to be registered at “country houses” in CT, VT and MA). But honestly, it happens everywhere in NYC and drives up insurances costs.

  • Wilfried84

    Just this morning on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, a caller complained that crosswalks and pedestrian islands replace 14 parking spaces on St. Nicholas in Harlem. He can’t find parking! He had to sleep in his car (really? That’s a thing if you can’t find parking?)! The pedestrian islands are menace because drivers can’t help hitting them! Oh, the humanity! I think the guy needs to rethink his priorities.

  • Tyson White

    If public transportation in Queens sucks, why do these community board members oppose select bus service?

  • Joe R.

    The sad part is our so-called leaders listen more to people like him than to the majority who don’t own cars. I also fail to see why it becomes the city’s problem if someone can’t find storage for their car. Tokyo has the right idea here. You can’t own a car if you don’t have an off-street space to put it. NYC should follow suit.

  • sam

    also, while some renters are long-term residents (particularly if there is some sort of rent control involved), in general renters are a more transient group than owners due to the pressures of rent increases, and people who are moving every few years, from neighborhood to neighborhood, are probably less likely to get involved in the long term politics of a particular local CB. Particularly where there can be multiple CBs in a relatively small geographic area, even moving a few blocks can cross boundaries.

  • sam

    it also doesn’t measure things like – my parents, who live a few blocks away from me, have two cars. But they only ever have one in the city, because they have a weekend place where they keep the other one. And sometimes they just park the one “city” car at a metro north station (or get a ride) and have no cars in the city. And sometimes I, who don’t live with them, borrow the car. It’s like community property. And now that they’re semi-retired, they actually only spend, like, 3-4 days a week in the city on average anyway. So the one car, which 3 people in two apartments share when it is physically in the city 50% of the year, is really only like, an eighth of a full-time city-dwelling car.

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