The Parking Cure, Step 1: Diagnose the Problem

This curb-cutting driveway leads to a parking lot for a new residential development on 16th Street in Brooklyn.

What would you do if you went to the doctor, and before speaking to you, taking your vital signs, or learning about your condition, she prescribed a powerful drug and kicked you out the door?

New York City’s land-use doctor is the City Planning Commission, and the drug it doles out is the Zoning Resolution, a 1960s-era set of laws that is gradually transforming swaths of the city into more suburban, car oriented environments.

City zoning requires substantial parking at all new residential buildings. In many neighborhoods that means an astoundingly higher level of parking. For instance, the Zoning Resolution requires new residential buildings in walkable Park Slope to have eight times more off-street parking than the existing housing stock. So what does the planning commission base its powerful prescription on? Not much, according to Suburbanizing the City [PDF], a study just released by Transportation Alternatives, the Regional Plan Association and a host of other prominent transportation and planning groups. The study projects a billion miles of new driving by 2030 due to the planning commission’s off-street parking requirements. Yet, in the recommendations accompanying the report, the groups write:

appears that City planners do not know how much off-street parking exists, how
much parking is planned and permitted, or how existing or planned new parking
contributes to traffic, air pollution and carbon emissions.

As a first step toward diagnosing the extent of the parking problem, the groups ask the mayor to "fully assess the amount of existing
and planned off-street parking" and take the following actions to accomplish that:

  • Inventory existing and planned off-street

    The City should create a complete, public, inventory of existing,
    permitted and planned off-street parking. Using this information, the City
    should fully assess the relationship between residential, retail and
    commercial parking requirements, driving and travel choice. This
    information will provide a baseline to assess the impact of additional
  • Measure how much driving is created by new
    off-street parking
    . City agencies do not know the impact of new parking. Neither
    the Department of City Planning nor the Department of Transportation have computer
    models, surveys, sampling or studies that reveal the local or cumulative
    impact of parking requirements.
  • Determine parking demand based on the
    assumption that off-street parking has a cost.
    Currently, the Department of City Planning and
    environmental documents project demand for parking based on the assumption
    that it is free. This results in very high demand assumptions. The City
    should estimate demand for off-street parking based on appropriate price
  • Measure the effect of increases in parking
    growth on neighborhood and citywide traffic congestion.
    Through permits and as
    of right building, the City is increasing the city’s off-street parking
    supply, while the capacity of the street network remains static. New traffic as a result of new cars on
    the road (facilitated by the availability of parking) must be closely

Given the mayor’s sustainability push and the highly-touted PlaNYC, it seems logical that the City Planning Commission would take a careful look at Robert Moses-era, driving-inducing parking requirements. But old habits die hard. Ask the doctors. For hundreds of years they tried to cure the common cold by bleeding the patient. For some, the cold went away; many others died.

Photo: Ben Fried

  • Larry Littlefield

    Well, at least that development put the parking where the ZR intended — in the rear, accessed by a single curb cut, instead of in the front yard.

    I continue to point out that your issue is with what people are permitted to do, not with what they are required to do, even though the facts would get in the way of a good story. I took a detour on a ride home through Williamsburg yesterday, down Lee Avenue and Nostrand (I assume a ride up Bedford Avenue would be similar). You should try it sometime. That would tell you what is “required,” as opposed to what people are “permitted” to do if they want to.

    I suspect an inventory of actually required parking would generate a huge wave of opposition to the waivers. You might be better of saying that twisting the ZR arond and relying on non-enforcement (“accessory” parking rented out to non-residents, one parking facility subdivided into multiple facilties), that permitted parking is in reality unlimited.

  • In my trips around New York recently on foot and by bicycle (including Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx), I’ve been struck by just how severely automobile infrastructure has blighted our urban environments. The degradation is both micro and macro: curb cuts, front-yard parking, drive-throughs, buildings surrounded by oceans of parking lots, gas stations, ultra-wide roads, expressways, the roaring traffic. (How quiet, by contrast, it was on Park Avenue during Summer Streets!) This one human was overwhelmed by the vastness and desolation of the concrete, the asphalt, the trash and broken glass, the heat, the forlorn patch of grass or shrub struggling for survival in a denuded environment. When it all becomes a drive-through world, is there anything left worth stopping for?

  • Larry Littlefield

    Which of course makes an interesting “strange bedfellows” point. If anyone is living the way aficiandos of the “urban neighborhood” lifestyle rather than the “suburban” lifestyle say everyone should, is it not the Hasidm?

    Perhaps some Streetsbloggers should talk to the people there and the builders of those buildings as to why they build with little if any parking, and how they live without it.

    And then talk to the builders of buildings on 4th Avenue and ask why they provided (expensive) parking if they could have easily avoided it, and with the yuppie residents of those buildings on whether they need it and why.

    I’d be interested in the answers.

  • What are the types of off-street parking that would be in such an inventory?

    * pay parking lots and garages
    * exclusive lots and garages (for residential buildings and business)
    * Car pads, home garages (?)
    * lots for schools, stations and municipal buildings…
    * Anything else?

    What kind of laws are on the books now– if I build an apartment building will I be forced to build parking in some parts of the city? (I know some suburbs have those laws, but do we have them in NYC too? Can we get rid of them?)

  • vnm

    For a great case study on this topic, check out Silverleaf Hall, built in 2005-2006 by the Lantern Group with city funding at Bathgate Avenue and 176th Street in the Bronx. This developer understands that what the Bronx needs desperately is more affordable housing and what it does not need is more auto exhaust, traffic and fatalities. By arguing that the site is transit-oriented (it’s near the Tremont Avenue crosstown buses and the Tremont Metro-North station), and amply-supplied with off-street parking at nearby lots, they applied for and received a waiver allowing them to not have to waste money building parking on site. Because of this decision, they were able to save on their bottom line and use the space to build that many more affordable apartments. Plus, they actually invested in high quality architecture for a new building for once.

  • John Kaehny

    It is surely right that there are problems with both what parking is permitted (legally and illegally) and what is required. Donald Shoup recommends as a first step turning minimum parking requirements into maximum parking requirements. That’s what we have in Manhattan South of 110th or 96th Street and in parts of Long Island City. Anti-development fights have revealed that developers in every borough would like to build apartments without parking. They should be allowed to. For profit and affordable housing builders, like at Silverleaf, should not have to waste time and expense getting waivers to avoid building parking. Incidentally, the examples of good and bad off-street parking posted here are very helpful. Please keep sending them in, along with any links or press reports about off-street parking controversies in your neighborhoods.

  • You can’t beat the auto and sprawl in the zoning meeting. It has to be a national campaign. When the hobble of fares is removed from our public investment in public transportation, then business and the public will have the burden of congestion lifted from their shoulders. And there is a nice side benefit, the biosphere might be saved from destruction.

  • da

    The rear gardens of many city blocks are a kind of leafy, car-free oasis. Collectively they are called the “donut hole” of each block and residents get mighty incensed when, say, someone on the block builds a massive rear extension that cuts the light and air of the neighboring houses. In short the donut hole is a wonderful urban amenity worthy of protection.

    In developments like the one above, the street has actually punched through the building wall and invaded the “donut hole” on the block, bringing cars into a formerly car-free space. I would say that rear parking lots are just as detrimental to neighboring properties as large rear extensions.

  • FPT, I disagree. Transit is only one component of the cycle.

  • J

    If San Francisco must do an environmental impact statement before building new bike lanes, NYC should be required to do an environmental impact statement before building, requiring, or allowing new parking facilities. There should be a moratorium on all construction of additional parking facilities until the review is completed. Inaction by the planning department is implicit approval of the status quo.

  • Anonymous

    What a great post!! This post can help a lot in solving this issue!


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