The High Cost of Giving Away More Parking Placards

Mayor de Blasio's deal to hand out tens of thousands of new placards to school employees will impose about $40 million worth of congestion costs per year.

When people can park anywhere with impunity, they will drive more and usurp space where parking is not allowed, like this block that's supposed to be a car-free play street. Photo: Doug Gordon
When people can park anywhere with impunity, they will drive more and usurp space where parking is not allowed, like this block that's supposed to be a car-free play street. Photo: Doug Gordon

The decision last week to grant tens of thousands of new parking placards to teachers and other school personnel is classic Bill de Blasio: a freebie that’s not really free. It’s also a signifier of mayoral obtuseness about how a dense metropolis like New York City functions.

Indignation continues to mount over the parking giveaway, and not just from the usual sources. NY1 news anchor Errol Louis is challenging the mayor over placard abuse, while Marcia Kramer, CBS 2’s doyenne of driver entitlement, brought in “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz to affirm that “Handing [out] another 50,000 placards, whether to teachers or anyone else, makes no sense” in terms of managing traffic and making streets safe.

Veteran political consultant Hank Sheinkopf delivered the coup de grace, telling Kramer, “There are two cities going on here — there are de Blasio’s friends and then there’s everybody else.”

Yet to de Blasio, who is chauffeured daily from Gracie Mansion onto the FDR and over to Brooklyn to the Park Slope Y, there are no losers. “It’s still the same number of [parking] spaces,” the mayor says. “So yeah, there’ll be more people competing for those spaces. But it doesn’t change the number of spaces.”

Well, it’s also the same number of lanes into which more vehicles will be shoehorned. Apparently no one in City Hall tasked NYC DOT with quantifying the slowdowns that await other travelers when thousands of new weekday car trips begin wriggling like tadpoles to their promised free parking spots.

Or maybe the subject was raised and put aside once the true cost became apparent. I estimate that the extra traffic that the new placards will induce could impose about $40 million worth of congestion delays — a time penalty averaging $840 per placard per year. (See the notes on methodology below for an explanation of these figures.)

Like most political giveaways, then, the mayor’s bestowal of placards benefits an anointed few at the expense of the many. And these congestion costs don’t include the all-too-predictable rises in crashes and pollution from putting more vehicles in circulation.

This isn’t to single out the new placards from the tens of thousands already in use, both sanctioned and fraudulent. They clog our highways and streets just as much, per vehicle, as will the ones examined here. What’s tough to stomach is that a mayor ostensibly committed to both climate goals (an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050) and street-safety goals (Vision Zero) is minting a new perk that will make it harder to achieve either, while degrading, even if slightly, New York City’s efficiency as a place to live and work.

The “tragedy of the commons,” it’s called, when privileged claimants grab pieces of a finite and underpriced fishery, airshed or road network. They taught it when de Blasio was in college.

Of course, a mayor who didn’t seal himself off behind a windshield might have figured that out by himself.

Notes on methodology

I generated the figures in this post through a straightforward calculation, with these key elements:

  • Based on press reports, I specified 50,000 new placards, apportioned between schools in the Manhattan Central Business District (south of 60th Street) and non-CBD schools according to student populations.
  • I assumed that one new car commute would be induced for every two of the 3,000 placards issued for CBD schools and for every four of the 47,000 non-CBD placards (the difference is based on free parking’s higher monetary value in the CBD).
  • The induced car trips average seven miles each way — the mean length of NYC car commutes. For CBD schools, 20 percent of the commute is assumed to be within the CBD; for non-CBD schools, that figure is 2 percent (to allow for CBD residents who teach outside the CBD).
  • For baseline travel volumes, I drew on data from my BTA spreadsheet (see the “Parking Placards” tab): roughly 3.5 million weekday vehicle miles inside the CBD and 61 million outside; these are 24-hour totals, which dilutes the calculated traffic impacts.
  • I applied a quadratic “speed-volume elasticity” inside the CBD and a one-for-one elasticity outside, so that a hypothetical 10 percent increase in traffic volumes induces a 21 percent worsening of speeds inside the CBD (1.10 squared equals 1.21) and a 10 percent worsening outside. These elasticities are around half of what I use in the BTA, a conservatism that lets me ignore “uninduced traffic” by which the rise in traffic might deter some current car trips.
  • Baseline speeds are 10 mph inside the CBD and 21 mph outside (24-hour averages).
  • Time spent in traffic is experienced as a cost of $25 per vehicle-hour within the CBD and $20 outside (the differential reflects the more affluent mix of drivers in the Manhattan core).

When the calculated slowdown in travel is averaged across all drivers and expressed in miles per hour, it hardly seems to register: traffic slows by just 0.04 mph inside the CBD and 0.06 mph outside. However, the number of vehicles being slowed down is enormous, as indicated by the VMT figures given earlier. Converted to vehicle-hours, the estimated extra time that drivers citywide sit in traffic every weekday will rise by 1,600 hours within the CBD and 8,500 hours outside the CBD, making a total of around 10,000 new lost hours a day.

Based on drivers’ value of time, the delay cost stemming from the new placards is a bit over $200,000 per day. Applied across the 200 days per year on which teachers report to schools, that amounts to $42 million a year.

An easier number to apprehend, perhaps, is the delay cost per placard, computed by dividing the $42 million annual delay cost by the assumed 50,000 new placards. The result: $840 per placard per year.

  • mfs

    1 induced trip for every two placard eligible teacher seems high. is there evidence for this from other studies?

  • Komanoff

    That’s for CBD schools, which will account for just 6% of the placards. For the others I figured one in four. But fair point, there’s not much evidence to go on. Schaller found gov’t employees were 2x as likely to drive to work as others from same zip codes who didn’t have parking perks (“Necessity or Choice,” 2006.)

  • Reader

    Almost four years into Vision Zero, our mayor can’t even call for a crackdown on parking on the sidewalk for fear of pissing off unions. So it’s not surprising at all that he can’t make the connection to placard use (and abuse) and his stated climate/traffic safety goals. It’s political cravenness at its most transparent.

  • Vooch

    great article

    could you model replacing those 50,000 car placards with 50,000 cycling placards ?

  • c2check

    If anything, they should give out free Citibike and transit passes (including the RRs) to teachers and cops, not parking placards.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “There are two cities going on here — there are de Blasio’s friends and then there’s everybody else.”

    There is three cities, and has been to an increasing extent for decades. The executive/financial class, the political/union class, and the serfs.

    As I wrote in that post, in New York, the three classes end up living different lives.

    The executive/financial class rides around in taxis and black cars, or drives their own luxury cars to paid-for corporate parking spaces, lives in the wealthier parts of Manhattan or the more affluent suburbs, and sends its children to private or upscale suburban schools. Not regular New York City schools.

    The political/union class drives its own or city cars to public parking spaces reserved for it by placard, lives in the middle-class suburbs (they are no longer required to live within the city) or in a limited number of suburban-type city neighborhoods, and sends its children to suburban or “special” city public schools. To the extent that in the past there were special “middle income” housing deals on offer, such as Mitchell-Lamas, the political/union class got them, often through insider information. In general, however, New York City’s political/union class shuns the New York City public services it produces, opting for a better deal elsewhere. And runs to Florida with its winnings as soon as it can.

    The serfs include the unorganized working class, younger public employees and other union members on the wrong end of the repeated cycle of “screw the newbie, flee to Florida” contracts, young college graduates trapped in “freelance” jobs without benefits, immigrants, anyone who starts a small or new business in New York, everyone else really. They ride around by subway, ride bicycles or walk, or if they drive have to compete for scarce legal spaces. They often lack health insurance and generally lack pensions. They are squeezed by soaring real estate costs into less and less space for more and more of their income. They are neither rich enough to live well without public services, nor have enough connections to ensure privileged access to them when good ones are in short supply. Parochial schools had been a lifeboat for some of the serfs, but it is sinking. Charter schools are a lifeboat for some of the serfs, but the United Federation of Teachers wants to take it away.

    Both the executive/financial class and the political/union class have an enormous sense of entitlement. They certainly don’t react well if anyone questions the deal they have taken for themselves and its effect on the serfs; they don’t want to hear any comparisons between themselves and the serfs at all. Thus the “outrage” at the “Socialist” President Barack Obama every time he has dared to meekly question the distribution of income in this country. And the outrage at the “right wing,” “not-progressive” Governor Andrew Cuomo for suggesting that a more limited pace of tax increases – from what is already the highest state and local tax burden in the country – is all the serfs can afford.

    Another thing you hear is the accusation of “envy.” The idea that the serfs resent what the executive/financial and political/union class get because they are left behind, even though it has nothing to do with them. That is both an insult and a lie. Back in the 1990s stock boom, when it productivity and the wages of average workers was rising along with the stock market, average people did not resent the rise in executive pay. It was only when people realized that they had become worse off to pay for it that some of them began to resent it.

    Same thing with the political/union class. The fact that government workers get relatively good benefits is not new and was not unknown. Nobody cared – good for them, they made other sacrifices in exchange, people believed. Even when those already rich retirement benefits were retroactively enriched nobody cared, because it was done in secret, not widely reported, and not paid for. It was only when the tax increases and service cuts started as a consequence – when the serfs began to realize they were being made worse off to pay for increased benefits for those who had richer benefits to begin with – that people began to become upset.

  • Joe R.

    I sincerely hope this ends any illusions that so-called progressives are for the masses. The modern version of “let them eat cake” is “let them breathe exhaust”. The best thing the masses can do at this point is start leaving NYC so they’re not the hook paying for things which benefit only privileged classes.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Leaving is an easy choice.

    Finding somewhere else to go, not so much. This time they’ve done it to the whole country. “Progressives” and “conservatives” working together.

  • Joe R.

    I’m seriously considering going to another country once my mother passes on. I still don’t know which yet. I was considering China for a while, at least until their cities started becoming smog ridden.

  • JudenChino

    Doesn’t this “settlement” as enacted actually harm the principals who were the ones actually awarded placards? Because if no actual parking spots are created, then the principals won’t actually have parking spots for them?

  • Larry Littlefield

    I look at it this way. The administrators are required to get to school before the teachers.

    So if the placards are handed out by committee, the administrators get some, the teachers get some.

    But if its first come first serve, the administrators take the spots. Unless a teacher who lives in the neighborhood but workers elsewhere already has it.

    That’s why it was the administrators that sued.

    So the teachers, with their unlimited placards, are left with the crosswalks and fire hydrants.

  • walks bikes drives

    I just want to point out that the picture above this article states it is supposed to be a car free play street. It is the second time Streetsboro used this picture and caption. Play streets are car free in that you are not allowed to drive on them during the play street hours, unless you are exiting a parking space or parking structure. Play streets do not affect parked vehicles, but a driver cannot take a parking space on the block. The issue with the picture is the NYPD Smart Car parked on the sidewalk, not the cars parked at the curb.

  • J. Wesley Harder

    My school is in the Bronx – in an area that is far from a subway line. We currently have about 60 teachers in our school and I believe that there are about 6 teachers that have parking permits. We have only have about 10 staff member who don’t drive to school. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for an increased amount of drivers at our school.

    I think there are a significant amount of teachers who already travel into the city by car. I also think that there are already a significant amount of teachers who live in New York City and don’t want a car. I do agree that this may increase the total number of teachers who drive into the city. I think that the projections are too high.

    There may also be a few teachers who don’t drive anymore because they aren’t “guaranteed” a spot anymore(at schools where permits were given out for the school year and not daily). I also wonder if this will cause teachers to arrive at school earlier to try and get a spot, when there may actually be less congestion.

    From time to time the spots in front of our school have actually been underutilized, which should now decrease. This might occur when a number of people are absent.

  • bolwerk

    Bleh. He was so obviously not progressive in the Dem primary. Unless they were paying no attention to the cues, only the kinds of people who thought Hillary Clinton was going to steamroll to victory and usher in a golden age of prosperity were duped by his rhetoric.

    He might be delusional enough to believe his milquetoast neo-liberalism is good for the poor. Otherwise, he’s still basically Bloomberg’s fourth term.

  • bolwerk

    Can’t you get an EU passport? That gives you access to a lot of countries, in the end probably even still that nonentity one that’s leaving the EU.

  • Joe R.

    As far as I know I can. I just never tried it yet. I need to keep my options open given that I don’t know what direction this city is heading in. To be sure, leaving will be bittersweet but if we don’t start fixing a lot of major institutional and infrastructure issues here I’m not sure I want to be around when the shit hits the fan. I already went through that once in the 1970s through early 1990s.

  • Vooch

    So the teachers, with their unlimited placards, are left with the crosswalks and fire hydrants

    and the playgrounds, sidewalks, and lawns

  • Vooch

    the left – right paradigm ceased to be a useful lens for analysis

  • Brad Aaron

    The sign in the photo says:

    “No thru traffic / No parking in this block / 8 am – 5 pm / Mon thru Fri”

    Seems pretty straightforward.

  • walks bikes drives

    I was part of the team that applied for it for our school. The instructions we got were no through traffic or vehicles entering for parking. But if anyone parked is going to leave, we have to clear the street until it is safe again. It’s a city bureaucracy – nothing is straightforward.

  • Brad Aaron

    That sounds like a pragmatic directive based on the likelihood that there won’t be enforcement if someone is parked illegally, rather than clearance to park during play street hours.

  • Guy Ross

    Greetings from Berlin!

    It takes some getting used to the absence of chit chat and service is indeed poorer as there is no wage slave who is betting on tips to fill their cupboards at home. However, it is nice having good infrastructure and knowing that you are not living in a society that is kicking the weak to the curb. Also, for a Newyorker even midsized cities offer an urban existence as they are so dense.

    Check out: Netherlands, Austria, Dänemark