Smart Growth Leader Tells Planning Commission: NYC Can Do Better

Smart_Growth_Manual_Cover.pngAccording to the Smart Growth Manual, "It is the planner’s role not to incentivize driving, but to create a transit and pedestrian experience that makes not driving a pleasure."

New York may be the most transit-rich city in the nation, but that doesn’t mean big changes to the city’s planning policies aren’t necessary. That’s the message Jeff Speck, a leader of the New Urbanist movement and co-author of the newly released Smart Growth Manual, delivered yesterday to the City Planning Commission. 

Presenting at the invitation of Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, Speck gave New York’s top land-use policy makers advice on how to make the city more walkable and livable. He was quick to note that New York is already among the greenest cities in America,
simply by virtue of its density and low rate of driving. Even so, his presentation outlined how the city often fails to
capitalize on its transit infrastructure. Perhaps most importantly,
Speck repeatedly identified ways in which the city sabotages the
sustainability of its transportation system through its parking policy.

While commissioners responded enthusiastically to Speck’s vision, one exchange revealed the strong influence of demands for plentiful, cheap parking on their decisions.

Commissioner Betty
Chen asked Speck to respond to the two arguments about parking she
hears most frequently. The first is that parking spaces are necessary
to lure higher-income residents to a neighborhood; the second is that, as she put it:

people will own cars and drive no matter what, no matter what public
transportation is available. Maybe it’s because they live in a part of
town that’s not close to public transportation, or they want to bring
their family for shopping or a Broadway show, or it doesn’t make sense
for work… So you should provide parking for those people because
otherwise they’ll be circling the block and leading to congestion on
the streets.

While Chen
— and Burden, who asked a more general variation on the same question
— showed interest in moving away from automobile-centric development,
the question certainly reveals the obstacles standing in the way of
more walkable, sustainable patterns of development in New York. (For more on the damage to New York caused by parking minimums, Transportation Alternatives’ 2008 report, "Suburbanizing the City," is essential reading.)

Upon learning that many parts of the city still had parking minimums for new construction, Speck responded that there is almost never any reason to force developers to build more parking than they want to. While providing the caveat that minimums are a "neighborhood-by-neighborhood decision," Speck illustrated the perils of parking minimums with the hundreds of empty spaces — parking spots that were required by law — in Washington DC’s otherwise successful DC USA development. Unfortunately, the Planning Commission has buttressed New York’s parking minimums as recently as last November

Speck also criticized New York’s under-use of transit stations as development centers. He displayed a satellite photograph of the St. George Terminal of the Staten Island Ferry, showing a massive surface parking lot adjacent to a transit hub which serves 65,000 passengers daily:

Picture_1.pngImage: Google Maps

On a site with such direct access to Lower Manhattan, laying asphalt instead of building a high-density development is a terrible misallocation of a very scarce resource.

Christine Berthet, the co-founder of the Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen Pedestrian Safety Coalition who has squared off with the planning commission over parking policy before, attended Speck’s presentation. While she was optimistic about the general tone of the discussion, she was disappointed in what came next: The commission certified a special permit for a developer to build about 50 percent more parking than the law would otherwise allow. As Berthet put it, "Commissioner Chen was really looking for answers on parking and the strong answer she got was that you just need to say no to the developers. That’s not an answer the Planning Commission is ready for."

  • Okay! I’ll bite!

    I’ve always wondered if providing off-street parking at residential sites is less of an issue then providing parking at the destinations, such as commercial, office, etc.

    I could see providing one parking space per unit even in some denser locations in NYC. My thinking is if there isn’t anyplace to park for cheap at the destination within the city then you are not as likely to want to use the car. Instead you would leave the car at home and us transit or maybe even a taxi.

    However, the private car would still be there to be used on occasion, to visit places that are not well served by transit and are typically outside the city, such as gradma’s in the suburbs or a ski weekend in Vermont.

    Anybody got a good reason why this hypothesis isn’t so?

  • Andy, did you read the “Suburbanizing the City” report linked above?

    Also, see this:

  • JK

    Yes, free off-street residential parking does encourage more driving. Please include an additional link to Guaranteed Parking — Guaranteed Driving, which is the companion piece to Suburbanizing the City.

    That report compares Jackson Heights to Park Slope. Despite Park Slope having higher car ownership, Jackson Heights residents are 45% more likely to drive to work in the Manhattan CBD and 28% more likely to commute by car in general. The authors (I was one)concluded that this was because Jackson Heights has far more off-street (guaranteed) residential parking. It is this, free and guaranteed, residential parking which fosters such relatively high rate of car trips.

  • Boris

    As a Staten Island resident, I can’t imagine ever driving to the ferry in rush hour. I’d much rather look down at the honking, congested mess from the window of a bus or train. And who would ever need to drive? Anyone living close by would be in a transit-rich area; anyone living far away is facing a drive of half an hour or more- much better to spend a fraction of that time looking for parking near a distant SIR station.

  • A quick review of Suburbanizing the City’s Executive Summary and key parts of the report DID NOT make a concrete connection between more residential parking and more driving. If it did it should have been in the Key Findings of the Executive Summary. The report clearly assumes that new residents will drive a car as much as current residents. The only definitive conclusion I found in that report is that residential parking minimums increase car ownership. On that I will totally agree however there is not an irrefutable link in that report (I did skim it REALLY quick) that this translates into increased daily car use. I will totally agree that these minimums, if implemented poorly, do destroy the pedestrian nature of NYC neighborhoods. Still the argument is compelling but changing other variables (bridge tolls, congestion pricing, PARKING TAXES) could quickly change the paradigm of intra-city commuter car use in NYC.

    The other report Guaranteed Parking – Guaranteed Driving does make a concise measurement showing that “Jackson Heights residents are 45% more likely to drive to work in the CBD than Park Slope residents.” Coupled with the prior report it would seem to be a solid case that off-street residential parking translates into more commuter driving, since transit access is actually poorer and people richer in Park Slope. However there must be another factor and that is guaranteed parking at ones destination. If the Jackson Heights residents are commuting into Manhattan, it is only because they are finding parking. Eliminate the destination parking and you eliminate the possibility of driving to work downtown.

    My personal experience in denser European (German) cities has been that most new residential construction has one space per unit (often well hidden underground) but few even bother to drive in the city because the mass transit is cheap, comprehensive, quick and clean while driving is slow, expensive and bothersome and parking impossible to find downtown.

    Hmmm… Maybe I answered part of my question.

    Still, people will continue to commute to work with a car as long as they can find parking. I think that is where TA’s efforts should be focused at least as much as it is on the residential side.

  • Danny G

    Phase out Parking Minimums. Phase in Parking Maximums.

  • We don’t need maximums either, dammit! Off-street parking is expensive for developers. If there’s good street design and good public transit, they’ll build fewer spaces.

  • Well, what about the new police academy in Queens? Didn’t you guys say that the Environmental Impact Statement only stated for half the amount of parking spaces they currently have on the drawing board?

  • My second job is at DC USA and our company fully reimburses all of our parking. I’ve only used it once since I don’t have a car here but you can bring in your receipt and they will pay for it. As a normal cyclist, sometimes Metro rider this somewhat irks me since I’d love to have my Metro card compensated as much as they pay for parking (or they could buy me bike tools). It’s really a stupid subsidy. Seeing the GGW article when it was published I began to wonder if DC USA was giving X number of free spaces as a perk to the companies renting since they aren’t filling up. Either way, it’s an example of stupid parking policy being a disincentive to take public transportation.

  • Bolwerk

    Andy, what do you call “denser” in New York City? I live in a residential neighborhood where 3-story walk-ups with 4 or 6 units are the norm depending on whether there’s a storefront. I just peeked outside my window. I’d say my building is approximately two parking spaces wide. How the heck are we all going to have a car?

  • Bolwerk,

    Yeah, I generalized but if you are building a large block development it could be possible to put parking underneath a larger building only serviced by one driveway ramp. Probably not all that feasible with most single family home lots without destroying the streetscape unless there are alleyways behind.

    BTW Alleys are WAY cool and an urban design tool all too often forgotten by NYC folks. They are exceptionally popular in urban places in the Phillysphere (the general Philly Metro area) and are perfect for hiding cars, garbage, etc. (all thing ugly).

  • Bolwerk


    It’s possible, and I suppose it’s actually encouraged. New developments in Williamsburg even seem to have quite a bit of room for parking. Not that it should be outlawed per se, but I think it’s ridiculous for the city to encourage it. There are already traffic jams, and they want to add more cars?

    I don’t why alleys are supposed to be a useful design tool. They seem like space that could be utilized to put more housing, though hardly wasteful like large-scale parking complexes are wasteful. Actually, I’d extend that criticism to housing blocks too. Not only are they ugly, but they utilize space terribly, at best, and seem to at worst encourage urban decay.

    I personally favor transit-friendly multifamily dwellings like we built at the turn of the century. They tend to foster the most community, and are very comfortable and convenient when located near mass transit. They necessarily aren’t hyper-dense like Manhattan. Sadly, they seem to be discouraged by planners these days – perhaps because they really don’t accommodate cars very well.

    I think the worst direction to go in is more superblocks. Sadly, larger-scale development than the kind I favor may be the only way to get a good return on an investment though. If you buy a plot of land and need to spend several hundred thousand dollars tearing down previous construction, you need a pretty big structure to replace it before you start actually profiting. I’m not sure what to do about that.


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