There’s No Such Thing as “Free Parking”

Free parking, it turns out, isn’t free. A new study by transportation guru Bruce Schaller finds that free parking in Manhattan’s Central Business district is responsible for a significant amount of New York City’s staggering traffic congestion. Schaller’s new study, Congested Streets: The Skewed Economic Incentives to Drive Into Manhattan (PDF), finds that free parking and improperly priced on-street parking imposes enormous costs on the city as a whole. Forget that political hot potato, congestion pricing. Mayor Bloomberg could, essentially, revamp New York City transportation policy (and meet some of his Long-Term Sustainability goals in the process) simply by making changes in the way New York City’s manages and prices its parking supply.

Last year, Schaller’s groundbreaking study, Necessity or Choice: Why People Drive in Manhattan (PDF) found that a whopping 80 percent of the motorists driving into Manhattan’s Central Business District have viable transit options. The study released today builds on those findings and begins to answer the question: Why do people choose to drive into Manhattan rather than using transit?

One of the answers to this question, it turns out, is that lots of people have access to free parking and on-street parking priced far below market rates.  

To conduct his most recent study, Schaller sent out a number of friendly, attractive, young people (OK… young women) to intercept and interview motorists about where they were driving, where they parked and how much it had cost. Stationed at strategic locations throughout the Manhattan Central Business District, the interviewers gathered viable surveys from 1,612 drivers.

Schaller crunched the numbers and here is what he found (the first stat is a real head turner):

  • 57 percent of Manhattan Central Business District drivers don’t pay anything for parking!!!
  • 38 percent of motorists parking in the CBD have free parking provided to them.
  • An additional 19 percent of motorists park for free at un-metered on-street spaces.

Transportation Alternatives’ sums up the findings as follows:

The cost and availability of parking is the biggest factor influencing potential motorists’ choice between driving and public transportation, and that free parking encourages driving and exacerbates Manhattan’s traffic problem. "The City’s current traffic policy has failed because the large majority of CBD drivers do not pay for parking," Schaller says. "These perverse economic incentives that encourage driving need to be fixed with new City policies recommended in this report."

Schaller and T.A. recommend that the City do five things to eliminate these "perverse incentives:"

  • Restrict the availability and use of government-issued parking placards
  • Rationalize the price of on-street meter parking and increase the number of metered spaces
  • Encourage private companies to reduce employer provided parking
  • Provide incentives to employers with a parking "cash-out"
  • Institute congestion pricing in the Manhattan CBD
  • I read through this, nodding all the way. However, I don’t really agree with the “forget the political hot potato: congestion pricing.”

    First of all, I’d bet that taking away that much free curbside parking will be just as much of a political hot potato (not to say that the move would be unjustified, just that it would be no easier).

    Secondly, there is a lot of pass-through traffic taking advantage of the “free loop” caused by the wrong-way tolling of the Verrazano that would be unabated by the parking shift. Congestion pricing tightens that loophole – one that causes my neighborhood in lower Manhattan a lot of pain.

  • It’s not just free parking in the CBD that’s the problem. Lots of students from Manhattan drive to school in Riverdale and park for free. They take the places of the residents who take their cars into Manhattan. It’s a mistake to think only in terms of Manhattan. If you’re trying to reduce the journeys, you have to think about both ends.

  • I am in favor of these policies for pricing parking, but I don’t think they can take the place of congestion pricing. Parking pricing will not significantly reduce the number of automobiles coming into Manhattan because there is enough demand to fill all the spaces regardless of price.

    Shoup recommends pricing on-street parking so 15% of spaces are vacant. That would reduce the number of parked cars in those spaces by a bit, but it would also encourage those spaces to be used for short-term parking rather than long-term parking, so it would probably mean more cars parked in them over the course of the day. It would reduce traffic because drivers would not spend as much time cruising around looking for parking, but it would not reduce the number of cars coming into Manhattan.

    Employee parking cash-out would reduce commuters’ automobile use in most of the United States, because parking is so overbuilt that the employee parking lots would be maybe 20% vacant after cash-out. But in Manhattan, there is enough demand that all of the spaces left by commuters who shift mode because of cash-out would fill up with other drivers. This also would replace long-term parking with short-term parking, so it would mean more cars coming into Manhattan overall (though fewer during peak hours).

    Parking pricing is a good idea because parking is used more efficiently. It can reduce auto use in many places. But I don’t think it can reduce auto use in Manhattan, where all the cars that leave because of the higher price will be replaced by cars that are willing to pay the higher price.

  • Dan Icolari

    My Staten Island neighborhood, St. George, is the closest to Manhattan, the most walkable and the best served by public transit (the ferry docks here; all surface and rail transit lines begin and end here). Yet the majority of my neighbors–except for many in the projects nearby––continue to rely solely on their cars to get around.

    The reasons are familiar enough: driving as a birthright, as a symbol of freedom (ha!) and as an instant signifier of status. But there are other less obvious reasons.

    As Glenn McAnanama has written here, much of the problem has to do with inadequate local shopping––except for high-priced and inadequately stocked bodegas––which forces people into their cars.

    Still another reason, one I haven’t seen addressed anywhere, is many drivers’ total lack of familiarity with how New York City mass transit works–the subway system in particular. They don’t know how to plan a trip, how much time to allot, how MetroCard works, or which combinations of transit options are the fastest, depending on time of day and destination.

    It’s not enough to tell drivers to get out of their cars and onto bikes or buses. If we’re serious about raising consciousness in the outer boroughs, we should press for a decently funded communications program that builds awareness of the many advantages of riding the system and educates the public about how to use it most efficiently.

  • P


    I guess I don’t follow- who will fill these Midtown parking spaces if employees currently receiving parking incentives no longer drive? People who currently don’t drive because of the high cost and scarcity of parking? Couldn’t the city simply impose a higher parking tax to keep the prices and vacancy rates high?

  • Martin R.

    Congestion Pricing is an ill conceived solution. It is unrealistic to reduce the number of cars entering Manhattan without business suffering. Essentially it amounts to an additional tax and we can not tax our way out of this problem. The problem stems more from the lack of available parking.

    There are currently 900 off-street parking facilities in Manhattan. Five years ago there were 1400. There needs to be greater incentives to replace the parking that has been lost to development. Additionally, Mr. Schaller is correct by recommending the increase of on-street spaces as well as increasing the cost. $1.50 per hour for on-street parking is a bit underpriced. The higher cost would encourage turnover, but the increased spaces would reduce the number of cars illegally parked and the time taken to search for a space.

  • P

    Most shoppers and workers get to Manhattan by transit or their own two feet. It is only the small portion of people who drive who are creating the problem on the streets.

    I don’t see why New York should have any more difficulty than London and other cities making people offset their costs to the city in pollution, traffic, accidents, and wear and tear.

    The problem the city wants to solve is related to the increasing traffic in NYC- I’m not sure how creating more off-street parking solves this.

  • crzwdjk

    “Congestion Pricing is an ill conceived solution. It is unrealistic to reduce the number of cars entering Manhattan without business suffering.”

    Oh really. I’d like to see what numbers you have on this. Perhaps the aforementioned reduction in off-street parking facilities decreased business by 30%? Or even 3%? There’s a lot of what basically amounts to superstition in auto-oriented planning, for example that more parking is obviously better for businesses (what about having more actual businesses?) or that building more capacity reduces traffic while reducing capacity increases gridlock. I’d like to see fewer unfounded claims like that.

  • What thhe above study does not take into account is the time of day and days of the week that drivers are supposedly parking for free in Manhattan’s CBD.

    The stat that says “57 percent of Manhattan Central Business District drivers don’t pay anything for parking” may be accurate, but it is not accurate for weekday business hours (unless the drivers are paying and getting reimbursed by their bosses – but even then, someone is paying). I have done much research on Manhattan parking for my books and website which focus on finding legal street parking in Manhattan. It is next to impossible to find free street parking in Manhattan’s CBD from 8am-6pm, M-F. Nights and weekends are another story. I would have preferred that the study included this relevant information.

  • P


    I’m pretty sure they are referring to reimbursed parking. Sure, someone’s picking up the tab but this is a benefit that an employee can take advantage of only if he drives. It’s a policy that the city should discourage by persuading companies to give their employees the cash value of that parking if they choose another mode of transportation to work.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Martin, you’re saying the number of off-street parking spaces in New York declined by a third in the past five years? That’s great news.

  • AD

    New York City’s attraction for a lot of people is that it is the premier place in the country to conduct an auto-free life. If you don’t like to drive, can’t, or appreciate the qualities that come with a public space not subservient to the needs of the automobile, this is the place to be.

    Anyone who knows more about zoning, correct me if I am wrong here, but beginning in 1982, the city’s zoning resolution ceased to require on-site parking below West 110th Street and East 96th Street, and in Long Island City. (Can you imagine that it once was required in these areas?)

    Bravo for that decision! It needs to be supplemented in two ways.

    1) The boundaries of this area should be expanded to include the rest of Manhattan, and significant parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn.

    2) Rather than simply not being required, providing parking in these areas should be penalized. This would reinforce New York’s uniqueness, attract more people to the city, improve the quality of public space, and increase our economic health.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    That is a tremendously important change, AD. If anyone knows more about it and how it came about, I’d be very interested.

  • Martin R.

    The number of cars entering Manhattan has decreased by over 7% since its peak in 2000. The number of bus riders has increased by over 18% during this same period. Yet the perception is that congestion is becoming worse.

    During this same period the number of off-street parking spaces has decreased from 190,000 to 100,000. With only 100,000 off-street parking spaces in Manhattan and 29,000 on-street spaces, most of which are restricted during the day, there is simply not enough parking in Manhattan. There are 240K registered cars in Manhattan alone. Most vehicles do not have anywhere to go than to remain on the streets, either circling the blocks or parking illegally.

    With the number of increased housing units, currently 30K under construction, coupled with 12mm sq. ft of additional office space, Manhattan will require multiple solutions in order to address its transportation needs. Instituting a congestion tax in order to dissuade parkers from driving in Manhattan is like trying to put out a building’s fire with a bucket of water. Has the increased housing costs (which have doubled during this decade)reduced the population? No, it has only contributed to the gentrification and loss of middle income/affordable housing in Manhattan. Congestion pricing in Manhattan will accelerate this process. Additionally, the statistics prove that the decrease in available parking has only exacerbated the problem.

  • Andy Statman


    Leaving your points about parking supply aside, your traffic congestion stats are out-dated.

    At the recent City Council hearing to discuss Intro. 199 DOT Deputy Commish Mike Primeggia said that the number of cars entering Manhattan is 1 to 2% below the pre-9/11 peak. So, that’s the official number.

    However, Primeggia was very likely low-balling it. People who have seen DOT’s 2006 stats at NYMTC say that 2pm traffic accumulation figures for Midtown Manhattan are significantly higher than the pre-9/11 peak. The number I heard was 7% higher. More cars crammed into Midtown Manhattan last year than ever before. No official will confirm this number, however.

    It sounds like you are working off of 2003 traffic congestion stats. But I don’t think you even need stats. Anyone who has lived in NYC for at least 10 years will tell you that it feels like traffic congestion is more intense than it ever has been.

    I’m not sure how building more parking will alleviate our congestion problem. It seems to me that the right move is to begin to provide New Yorkers with sticks and carrots to help them get out of their cars and get rid of their cars. More parking would only encourage more car ownership, wouldn’t it?

  • crzwdjk

    Simple supply and demand will tell you that if there is lower parking supply, and higher parking demand, prices will go up. Right now, there are two ways to pay for parking: time, in the form of time spent searching for a free spot, or money, in the form of garage fees. This cost is a part of the cost of driving, either a direct obvious delay, or else a hefty chunk of cash out of your pocket. The larger this cost compared to the alternatives, the more attractive those alternatives will seem.

  • Martin R.


    These figures were published January 27, 2007 as part of Mr. Shallers report, “Traffic Information in NYC”. My point was that congestion has increased (thereby agreeing with you) during a time when it is widely believed and published that the number of cars in Manhattan has decreased. Therefore, logic would say that the congestion problem is not just a result of the number of cars. To solve the congestion problem strictly by trying to reduce the number of cars, then you would need a material change in the overall vehicles in Manhattan, such as 50%. Therefore, good luck reducing the congestion problem by trying to limit the number of cars in Manhattan as employment, tourism and housing continues to grow at record levels. You should be a little more pragmatic and put your engergy toward viable solutions that consist of multiple remedies, since it is a myriad of factors causing the problem.

  • Andy Statman


    We agree that the solutions need to be multi-faceted. But we don’t need luck to solve this problem. We just need to pull from the best ideas of other world cities and come up with some new ones of our own.

    London, for example, is absolutely booming right now. One of the reasons why — and the way that they are accomodating much of this rapid growth — is by limiting the use of automobiles in the congested city center and using $ from the congestion charge to improve mass transit, biking and public space facilities. Turns out that automobiles simply aren’t the most efficient form of transport in a dense, crowded city. London is moving people out of their cars and onto buses, trains and bikes. Traffic congestion is down 35% or so. The number of cars in the city center is down 15% or so.

    In London, many on-street parking spaces are being converted to pedestrian streets, bike lanes and wider sidewalks. This is all about economic development and long-term environment. And it’s working. Bloomberg and Schumer keep issuing these warnings that London is overtaking NYC. It is. And it’s not just because of financial industry tax law. They are doing a better job of planning their city. And guess what? That planning doesn’t involve building lots of new parking spaces to encourage more motoring. To the contrary — the planning involves the gradual elimination of parking space in the city center. This is a proven way to discourage automobile use.

  • JK

    Two big studies: one in Boston, one in Brussels suggest that pricing parking correctly is more effective than London style congestion road pricing at reducing traffic. (See High Cost of Free Parking. Shoup) Most effective is combining road and parking pricing.

    Controversial as it will be to charge more for parking, at least the mayor can do this without the approval of the Council or legislature. So, at least in theory, it is easier politically to use congestion parking pricing.

    The mayor’s sustainability team is known to be very interested in parking reform and the work of Donald Shoup. So this is an area we will be hearing much more about in the months ahead. Among other things, I’d like to see the mayor move boldly to introduce a parking cash-out for municipal employees, and outright eliminate placards for the personal vehicles.

  • vladimir

    One of the most insane parts of NYC parking policy is treating motorbikes and scooters the same way as 18-wheeler trucks – the parking fines are the same for both vehicle categories. Most of european cities have alloted free parking spaces for 2-wheel vehicles, while NYC’s few motorbike only parkings are gone. I don’t mind paying even a small registration surcharge for motorbike-only street parkings, but it appears that very few city bureocrats have even thought about such an idea that could potentially reduce number of cars on streets of Manhattan.


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