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Parking Squat: Kind of silly and yet…

11:54 AM EDT on May 17, 2006

Boy, the parking squat post really seems to have hit a nerve in the comments section. In some ways, it is not surprising. Working and writing on these issues for a few years now I have found that New Yorkers are increasingly supportive of the idea of creating better pedestrian, cycling and bus facilities. Yet, when you point out that, very often, the best ways to translate this support into action involve making it even more difficult, costly and inconvenient to drive and park private automobiles in the city than it already is, the support quickly evaporates, no matter the potential benefits.

When, on top of that, you also point out the extraordinary costs of our automobile-dominated transportation system, it often just makes people feel kind of bad and defensive. This is why I have learned to try to focus on the benefits. No one wants to be reminded that they are, in a small but significant way contributing to global climate change, the war in Iraq and their neighbors' kids' asthma every time they turn their ignition key. So, despite the seeming innocence of setting up lawn chairs in a parking space, it is not a surprise that the parking squat would provoke some strong, emotional reactions. The squat challenges some very fundamental assumptions about how Americans and New Yorkers live their lives. American culture teaches explicitly and implicitly, over and over, that owning, driving and parking a motor vehicle is perfectly normal, good and absolutely necessary. The parking squat challenges all of that. That is hard for people to hear.

One commenter questioned the economic argument of the parking squat. I will try to respond to that and a few other comments:

The market rate price for a private parking space in Park Slope runs between $500 and $1,200 per month. People pay a lot of money for a parking space in New York City. On-street parking on the vast majority of the streets in Park Slope, on the residential blocks, is totally, completely, 100% free. On the commercial avenues parking costs about $1/hour for about eight hours of the day. That is $8/day or about $250/month. But people looking for long-term storage of their cars can't really use metered spaces anyway. These motorists are either paying a huge monthly fee for private space or they are trolling the streets looking for a free spot.

So, there is an enormous discrepency between the market rate price of parking and the on-street price of parking in most of New York City. This inefficiency in the market for automobile storage space creates a lot of irrational and destructive behavior. For example, many motorists clog the city's streets (especially during morning rush hour when street cleaning takes place) spending countless hours, gallons of gas and pounds of carbon emissions circling their neighborhood searching for free parking space. This uniquely New York behavior was even memorialized in Calvin Trillin's hilarious novel, "Tepper Isn't Going Out."

The irrationality and dysfunctionality of New York City parking policy and parking's role in generating automobile traffic and congestion is beginning to become a major topic in academic, policy and planning circles. UCLA professor Donald Shoup kick-started the public discussion with the recent publication of his book, "The High Cost of Free Parking," in which he details, among other things, the vast waste of time, gas and carbon emissions spent simply "cruising" for parking in dense urban areas. Next Wednesday, May 24, the NY Chapter of the American Planning Association is hosting a roundtable discusion, "No Time to Stop! Moving People Through NYC" that will focus on many of these parking issues, including the idea of how pricing and permits can be used to rationalize parking policy in New York.

The bottom line to the ecomonic argument is that space is one of the most precious commodities in New York City. Yet, we give away automobile storage space nearly for free. In neighborhoods like those of north Brooklyn where a fair number of residents have personal wealth, traffic congestion is a major problem, transit, biking or walking into the Manhattan business district is a viable option, and where the public would benefit from more space being dedicated to things like bus lanes and even cafe tables, it doesn't make sense to give away such vast tracts of public space for the free storage of personal motor vehicles.

Likewise, as New York City grows, develops and densifies -- a necessity for New York's economic survival -- we are seeing that there are better, more efficient and more socially and economically productive uses of our public space than automobile storage. Automobile-dependency is, in many ways, becoming a brake on New York City's growth. Virtually, every big development in town is being fought on the grounds that it will generate too much traffic. We need to make our streets work more efficiently as people-movers. Personal automobiles won't allow us to do that.

We know from Shoup and others that making parking free, cheap or abundant helps to encourage automobile use. And automobile use in a crowded city is costly and destructive in many ways. On the micro level our car dependency produces an inefficient, gridlocked transportation system, horn-honking, car alarms and diminished quality of life, third world level asthma rates, and enormous personal expense in the form of gas, insurance and maintenance. On the macro level our car dependency is helping to produce global climate change, resource war and political instability in oil-producing regions, and a lack of funding for other more efficient modes of transportation like a national rail system or our local bus systems, for example.

So, while, on one level doing a parking squat is inherently a little bit silly, I think it is also a great way for people on the super-micro local level to challenge some ingrained assumptions about how we run our city and to take action on some of the most pressing local and global challenges that we face. Clearly, the event touched a nerve.

Finally, one commenter called the event a "protest" but I do not think that is an accurate description. The squat didn't look, feel or sound like a protest. No one was angry, holding signs or chanting for powers-that-be to take some specific action. In fact, people seemed relaxed, mellow and enjoying the alteration of New York City land use policy that they were themselves creating right there and then. Rather than a "protest" the parking squat seemed a lot more like a "celebration" or a "reclamation." The event was just a bunch of people parking their bodies and their bikes in a space that the city has, without a whole lot of thought, discussion or analysis, handed over to a minority of New Yorkers to store their automobiles, their space-hogging, gas-guzzling, air-polluting, glacier-melting private property.

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