How to Fix Off-Street Parking Policy, Before It’s Too Late

queens_driveway.jpgOn Monday we looked at how the proliferation of off-street parking is pushing New York toward higher rates of car ownership and substantially more traffic, based on the projections in Transportation Alternatives’ new report, Suburbanizing the City. To avert a scenario where the city becomes less transit-oriented and more beholden to car owners, a coalition of planning and environmental groups is calling for the reform of off-street parking policies. In a letter to Mayor Bloomberg, they urge the city to:

  1. Fully assess the amount of existing and planned off-street parking.
  2. Consider measures to significantly reduce required parking.
  3. Revise environmental laws so that parking impacts are fully accounted for.
  4. Freeze special permits and stop directly subsidizing new parking.

The full slate of recommendations starts on the third page of this PDF. With more than a billion miles per year in extra car traffic on the way if current practices remain unchanged, advocates say the city must first acknowledge the impact of off-street parking. "What is almost as scary as all this new traffic is the fact that the city is not even aware of the problem," said T.A.’s Paul Steely White. "The Department of City Planning does not know how much parking exists, nor how the parking supply affects traffic congestion."

Decisions such as whether to allow developers to exceed parking limits in Manhattan are currently based on small-bore factors, like traffic counts on nearby streets. The cumulative impact of all the off-street parking that’s being added through these exemptions remains unknown. That hasn’t stopped the Planning Commission from approving a slew of them, the effects of which will be felt for decades. "The city takes a very local view of parking," said report author Rachel Weinberger. "They have to take a citywide view of what additional car ownership means."

The recommendations in the report, which were formulated by co-author’s John Kaehny and Weinberger, include a mix of incentives and other measures to stem the tide of excessive off-street parking. The widespread practice of "bundling" a parking spot with the price of housing, for instance, rewards car ownership and weighs down car-free households with an unnecessary cost. Cities including San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. are moving away from this practice, and New York could do the same. Another concept is to nudge developers in less transit-oriented neighborhoods to include space for car-sharing instead of private cars.

Here’s a sampling of other ideas being proposed:

  • Doing away with mandatory
    parking minimums and instituting maximums that would vary based on a
    development’s proximity to transit
  • Prioritizing the pedestrian
    environment above the dictates of convenient parking by banning curb
    cuts on key streets for pedestrians and transit
  • Establishing impact fees on new parking spaces that take into account their full costs to the public.

Streetsblog will
be taking a closer look at these recommendations and more in the weeks ahead.

Photo of residential driveway in Queens: Forgotten NY

  • Larry Littlefield

    For those of you looking to change things through the use of zoning regulations, may I point out that front yard parking has been prohibited virtually everywhere in NYC since 1989, unless the rules were subsequently liberalized.

    Here is the general language:

    “In the districts indicated…accessory# off-street parking spaces shall be permitted only in the #side lot ribbon#, within a #building# or in any open area on the #zoning lot# which is not between the #street line# and the #street wall# or prolongation thereof of the #building#. Access to the #accessory# spaces through a front setback area or required #front yard# shall be only through the #side lot ribbon#.”

    The side lot ribbon is the space along the side lot line, where a driveway could be put to access parking in the rear.

    Now take a look at the picture, or the related pictures on Forgotten NY.

    The ZR is a joke. As I mentioned the parking requirement is a joke, and it is likely that any lack of parking requirement would fare similarly.

  • John Kaehny

    Larry, if you mean that the Zoning Resolution is a “joke” because it is based on little or no meaningful information or analysis, the groups that put together the recommendations would agree. That’s why their first recommendation is for the city to “Fully assess the amount of existing and planned off-street parking.” People on all sides of the off-street parking debate would agree that the paving of front yards and gardens is a citywide disgrace and shows a complete loss of political will by the city. It’s like crack dealers selling bags in front of cops in Bryant Park during the ’80’s: a sign of total government failure. But with some determination and hard work, Bryant Park was turned around. The Zoning Resolution is not beyond hope, though the road to true change will be a hard one.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    I think “shows a complete loss of political will by the city” couldn’t really state it any clearer. Unfortunately much of the land-use debate in the outer-boroughs has to look through a political lens of down-zoning first, down-zoning now and down-zoning forever. And the parking issues have to be seen in a context of a relentless rush to minimize residential density on all fronts. In my neighborhood the neighbors were hell bent to stop a project only a little taller than the existing neighborhood, the builder offered to limit his height if they would support his variance on the parking requirements. They wouldn’t, in fact they used that as one of their ten thousand arguments to stop his project. The term-limited City Council and those who pretend to the next seats on the city council and borough presidencies are doing what they can to down-zone residential neighborhoods and eliminate manufacturing zones all together. A few big box stores thrown in and voila, Nassau County. There is something about the structure of city government since the demise of the Board of Estimate that tends to empower the NIMBYs most of whom apparently own cars.

  • The zoning resolution is a joke because it is determined by the Department of City Planning but enforced by the Department of Buildings, which uses their own interpretation of what it means. Paving of front yards is no longer allowed under the zoning resolution, but good luck getting DOB to enforce that. I agree with Larry – these resolutions you put forth are not going to change what goes on in the outer boroughs with regards to parking.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The zoning resolution is a joke because it is determined by the Department of City Planning but enforced by the Department of Buildings, which uses their own interpretation of what it means.”

    Or builders simply ignore it, or get variances from the BSA, or the zoning is obsolete (or was wrong to begin with) and cannot be changed because don’t want to create unnecessary political controvery when an under the table deal will suffice, etc.

    The politically acceptable compromise between NIMBY and developer greed is to ban everything and enforce nothing, except against the powerless. No one is going to stop a placard holder — or a CEO — from putting in front yard parking.

    “The parking issues have to be seen in a context of a relentless rush to minimize residential density on all fronts.”

    Parking issues are at the forefront of downzoning debates. People are often willing to tolerate new buildings and new people only if they won’t compete for “their” on-street spaces. Streetsbloggers should be aware that the predominant politics of this are the opposite of the Streetsblog point of view, by 10 to 1.

  • John Kaehny

    H’mm so we should give up and let the Zoning Resolution, the law which is most fundamental to determining how walkable and bikeable neighborhoods are, continue to be a “joke?” That’s the spirit guys. Larry’s right that the politics are daunting. But fundamental reform is never easy. We are starting on square one with off-street parking reform — an issue deliberately excised from PlaNYC because it was too controversial. That’s right. Rationalizing off-street parking is more controversial than congestion pricing. It’s also more important.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “H’mm so we should give up and let the Zoning Resolution. That’s the spirit guys.”

    Hey, I worked there 13 years, and spent much of the last decade pushing a fundamental reform of the commercial use and parking regulations, which eventually died with a report ready to be printed.

    Meanwhile, in the last few years most of the vacant lots in the northwest half of Windsor Terrace have been developed, and the majority of new units are in buildings that flat out violate the carefully considered zoning that was mapped there in 1989!

    So if anyone has a right to surrender, it’s me.

    The only way I see something like this working is to come up with two sets of packages, one for “pedestrian oriented” neighborhoods and one for “auto-oriented” neighborhoods, divide up the city into 200 areas, and let them vote.

    The pedestrian oriented package could integrate new off-street parking rules with new on-street rules handing a grandfathering advantage to existing crusties. The on-street rules could include paid permit parking, with the money kept local (city takes over sidewalk maintenance, etc.) and a nominal $50 per year fee for those with vehicles licensed and insured on the date of enactment, compared with $30 per month adjusted upward for inflation for future parkers. And, in areas with a “parking shortage,” no new permits would be issued until someone else gives one up.

    Areas could chose a restriction on overnight parking, or both overnight and weekday parking, by non-permit holders.

    Other aspects of pedestrian-oriented areas could include liberalized home occupation rules, extended sidewalks at intersections in place of the last spot with bike racks (also improves traffic visibility) more bike facilities and bike boulevards, an end to alternative side (with the parking revenues used to hire teens to sweep the curbs), etc.

    Maybe if you buy off the existing parkers with a privilege at the expense of new people (as opposed to new buildings without off-street parking creating more competition for spaces) you’d have a half-chance.

  • Larry Littlefield

    And by the way, Mayor Bloomberg has succeeded with a version of this approach.

    Hard green, upzoning, bicycle and transit Mike in more central and transit-oriented areas of the city has been downzoning, parking requirement upping, Motorhead Suburban Sprawl Mike on Staten Island and in Eastern Queens. I’ll be there is an understanding on the City Council — if those in suburban ‘hoods vote for more development in Williamsburg and Park Slope, they get less where they are.

  • UGH. What do you expect when we have huge parking garages going up in the Bronx for Yankee Stadium? And this is right on a transit hub– in fact we’ll have a new Metro North line soon so I just don’t know why they are doing this.

    It’s just not a part of the mentality, to even think about the impact more parking has.

  • Ace

    I still haven’t heard back from the city on this one:

    Form: Customer CommentTopic: Zoning and Land Use Questions/Information

    Message: Every morning I walk by a brand new apartment building
    that just installed curb cuts smack dab in front of the ground floor apartments. I thought curb cuts had to be in the rear of on the side of buildings? While I can’t imagine living in an apartment where my living room window looks out on a parked car, it is also awful to walk by on the sidewalk.

    Thank you for contacting the City of New York. Your message has been forwarded to the appropriate agency for review and handling. For future reference, your service request number is 1-1-413342297. Sincerely, The City of New York

  • Peter Meitzler

    Okay, here’s an idea discussed yesterday at an informal bikeshare meeting held on Long Island:

    Fine — create the indoor/underground parking spaces with the new construction. NYC needs real estate taxes generated by the sales of such units, to keep its services going in this economy, which is expected to worsen.

    But keep eliminating on street parking. There is no corresponding requirement to keep the on – street spaces at their current levels, is there?

    Thereby moving on-street to off-street. And what do you put in place of the now eliminated parking spaces for cars?

    Bike share docking stations, for one thing. And how about plastic wood benches?


  • If people pay market rate prices for on-street parking it’s not always bad. The cars make a nice shield for people walking on the sidewalk– it depends on the street, though. There might be a temptation to do away with on-street parking and have a wider street, with fast cars moving near people on the sidewalk.

    If that’s a the choice I’ll take the parked cars, as long as they are paying.

  • I agree with Susan, Peter. Getting rid of on-street parking on a large scale only makes sense if the cars are going slow enough that you don’t need a buffer.

    On the other hand, getting rid of a few spaces here and there for sidewalk extensions, intersection visibility and other things is a good idea.

  • Parked cars aren’t the only kind of buffer that can protect pedestrians. Bollards do the job too. They’re a lot less unsightly than SUVs and they allow peds to see what’s going on in the street.

  • Larry Littlefield

    OK parking wonks, perhaps we can take a ride around some fine weekend this fall and take some pictures? I’ve detoured home via southern Williamsburg/northern Bed Stuy a couple of times, and there are lots of examples of fairly substantial recent buildings with no parking at all. The buildings are divided into segments, each of which probably waived.

    So much for required parking.

    Riding down Franklin a litle closer to the Clinton Hill border, on the other hand, I came upon a couple of smaller “moderne” looking buildings whose first floor was a wall of garage doors! Tre chic!

    I’m not much of an aesthetic kind of guy, but the auto critics are right about one thing — parking does drive the look of buildings in an ugly direction. Hence the front yard parking prohibition, which seems to lack the all-important “and we’re not kidding!” clause.

    Want the low auto use, low environmental impact urban neighborhood? Looks like Black Hat is where it’s at, and I don’t mean beret!

  • Yes, Mark, but if you put your idea and Peter’s together, then you have to drum up the political will to (a) build lots of off-street parking, (b) remove lots of on-street parking, (c) install lots of bollards. I’d rather leave most of the on-street parking, and use the political will to (a) charge market prices for it, (b) declare a moratorium on new off-street parking, and (c) work towards zero off-street parking.

    To get an idea of what New York would look like with lots of off-street parking, take a train up to Stamford sometime. Lots of “parking pedestals,” lots of curb cuts, lots of fast-moving cars on the street, and an incomplete pedestrian infrastructure. Not what I want in my town.

  • Cap’n, I’d skip (a), but then, I’m an idealist.


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