Newsflash: New York City Curb Space Was Privatized Long Before Car-Share Companies Came Along

Photo: Car2Go
Photo: Car2Go

DOT is launching a pilot program to reserve on-street parking spaces for car-share services, which got an advance write-up in the Times today. By reserving 285 spots for car-share companies (230 on-street, according to the Times, plus 55 off-street spaces), the thinking goes, the city can make better use of curb space.

City Hall is pitching the program as a way to ease people out of owning personal cars. “There are just too many cars here,” Mayor de Blasio said at a press event this morning. “There’s a lot of people who have their car in a parking space all week long and really only need it on the weekend.”

The program raises interesting questions about the impact of car-sharing in a majority car-free city like New York. Will easier access to car-share open up curb space as people abandon car ownership, or will any vacuum soon get filled by other car owners? Which will have a bigger effect on traffic: people who drive less because they give up their personal cars, or car-free people who drive more because they can use the car-share fleet?

All of that gets glossed over or buried in reporter Sarah Maslin Nir’s piece in the Times, which frames the program as another burden on people who just want to store their cars on New York City streets for free.

The story hits all the motorist entitlement buttons. Street parking is a “blood sport,” and by “cutting precious parking spots,” DOT is “taking away” space from car owners already besieged by “aggressive” parking enforcers, “unforgiving” tow truck drivers, and a city that — out of sheer spite, it seems — forces them to temporarily move their vehicles a few hours a week for street sweeping.

Cue the quote from AAA:

Beside the elimination of parking spaces, the program has also rankled some drivers over the decision to turn over public land to private companies — even if it is just a patch of asphalt.

“You’re basically taking those spaces off the plate there for the public,” said John Corlett, the legislative committee chairman for AAA, the automobile association. “It’s a valuable commodity they are handing over to a private, profit-making company.” In fact, the city already has done something similar through its bike-sharing program, which is operated by a private firm.

So the natural order of things is to only give street parking away to those who can afford to own and maintain their own automobiles. Got it.

The fact is, New York City privatized this public space ages ago, when the city decided that the default function of the curb zone would be personal car storage. It was a decision that never benefitted the majority of New Yorkers who don’t own cars. (The Times erroneously stated that in New York, “just over half of adults own cars,” but the household car ownership rate is 45 percent, and the per capita car ownership rate among adults appears to be significantly lower.)

It’s fair to question whether the city is serving the public interest in this arrangement with car-share companies — hopefully the pilot program will produce data on car ownership and driving mileage that provides answers. But you can’t say that the city is privatizing turf that was open to the public at large before. Most New York City curb space has been off-limits to most New Yorkers for generations.

  • Jeff

    It’s a valuable commodity

    Oh the irony…

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Most New York City curb space has been off-limits to most New Yorkers for generations.”

    Two or three at most. It used to be possible to play stick ball in the street.

  • JK

    My guess is that reserving curb space for car rental/share in dense
    neighborhoods leads to more driving — not less. In a 2008 study called
    “Guaranteed Parking – Guaranteed Driving,” Rachel Weinberger and I
    compared driving commuting in Park Slope and Jackson Heights. We found
    that the single most important factor that determined whether car owners
    drove to work was whether they had a guaranteed parking spot at home.
    If you don’t have a guaranteed spot at home it’s a giant drag to lose
    your spot and have to cruise around looking for a new one, so you don’t
    drive as much. Other research has shown that car ownership in NYC is
    directly related to parking availability. In denser neighborhoods, rich
    people park in garages, less rich waste time looking on the curb. In
    neighborhoods like Morningside Heights / UWS, — where the mayor
    announced car share today — less than 25% of households own cars and
    under 10% of all households park their own cars curbside. But forget
    car-share, NYC has a street management crisis because it has curbside
    parking completely backwards. Passenger cars — whether rental/share or
    personal — should have the lowest priority for curb space behind
    bus/bike>delivery>service>passenger. Plus, all vehicles should
    pay to use the curb. Basically, giving free curb space to car share in
    dense neighborhoods idiotic and completely fails to address backwards
    priorities that lead to double parking, honking, emergency vehicles
    stuck in traffic blaring sirens and cyclists getting doored, picked and
    killed. Lastly, can we just call it “car rental?” There is no real
    difference, it’s branding to confuse the issue. https://www.transalt.org/sites/default/files/news/reports/2008/Guaranteed_Parking.pdf

  • 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain

    we’re gonna need a bigger boat…

    “The city’s fleet — everything from take-home cars to garbage trucks — now exceeds 30,000 vehicles, 10 percent larger than when Mr. de Blasio took office.”

    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/22/nyregion/city-owned-vehicle-miles-crashes-de-blasio.html

  • Joe R.

    One factor which mitigates driving might be the cost of car share. Sure, if people have a guaranteed parking spot at home they’re more likely to drive to work but consider that their only additional cost for doing so is fuel if they own the car. That might be less than subway fare for a lot of trips in NYC. Now think what car share might cost for the same trip. It will likely be enough to be cost prohibitive to use car share for work every day. That will relegate car share to occasional trips for which public transit isn’t feasible.

    Travel time is another factor. Putting aside cost, why would someone in Manhattan chose to use car share to get to work when the trip will likely take longer than using the subway?

    I’d say take a wait and see attitude. Car share may very well reduce car ownership and/or the number of car trips. It will also likely reduce traffic because in some areas half the traffic is people circling around for spots.

  • JarekFA

    The mayor is so close to realizing that free curbside parking is bad. He’s almost there. Just needs a nudge.

  • Fool

    It’s not privatized if it benefits me! That is the best kind of public good .

  • Larry Littlefield

    Here is the irony.

    Here in New York, the advocates of their free use of public space for parking claim that setting aside street space for shared vehicles is “privatizing” the street.

    But in some place like Texas, I’d bet the same people would claim that setting aside street space for shared vehicles would be “socializing” the street.

    Always trying to tribalism to hide what is actually going on.

  • Ian Turner

    Has anyone written to the Times requesting a correction?

  • brklynmind

    I got to admit I don’t get Streetsblog take in this.
    This is most certainly privatization, the city has taken ‘public’ parking (albeit used mainly by taxpayers rich enough to own cars AND workmen & delivery) and literally given it for free to individual companies to use for their private membership based car rental business. How is that not a step in wrong direction. At minimum make the spots open to all car share companies, as well as taxi drop off and quick delivery like ups.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “You’re basically taking those spaces off the plate there for the public,” said John Corlett, the legislative committee chairman for AAA, the automobile association.

    Taking them off the plate for members of the public who own their own cars, and making them available to those who don’t own their own cars.

    Basically, decades ago that space was taken off the plate for the public and turned over the Ford, GM and Chrysler to help their sales.

  • Maggie

    I keep trying to understand this line of reasoning but it doesn’t make sense. Were the privately owned cars or pickup trucks parked there before bought from an automakers’ nonprofit wing or something? It feels to me that automakers have been selling cars for profit for a while.

    We definitely need curb management that better reflects the needs of everyone. Agree with you 100%!

  • kevd

    I do wonder how much car sharing companies would be willing to pay for these spaces.
    It would be useful for establishing their market value, and determining how much car storers should expect to pay for curbside parking and just how much they are getting for free.
    My guess is the number is more than they’d like, and less than I’d like.
    Maybe it’s $20/week or maybe it’s $20/day?
    Tough to know until we actually start pricing it for everyone. Of course it would vary a great deal by neighborhood and possibly even block. But it would be clear exactly how much the city has been giving away for free for 60 years.

  • brklynmind

    Ignoring that I think there is minimal evidence that free street parking in NYC provides any material subsidy or benefitl to car manufacturers…

    These multinational car rental firms are not standing in place of the manufacturers, they are further down the line. They essentially are standing in place of the leasing Co and financing Co of new and used cars. EXCEPT those (customer optional) market participants can not offer its clients free reserved parking like was just granted for FREE to 2 selected companies.

  • Joe R.

    Sure, it’s privatization of curb space but it’s no more privatization than letting individuals use that same space to store their private property. Basically, you’re splitting hairs between whether the entity using the curb space to store their property is a person or a corporation. Ironically, the difference is blurred even more by the Citizen’s United decision which essentially says corporations are people.

    Of course, I’d much rather we charge for that curb space, irrespective of whether an individual or corporation is using it. Or better yet, I’d auction it off to the highest bidder to be used in whatever way profits them the most. That could be renting it for car storage, putting storage containers there, having an outdoor cafe, or even building micro housing. I can’t help but think if the free market dictated how we use curbside space, very little would end up being used for car storage as there would be lots of other, much more profitable uses.

  • brklynmind

    I am not advocating for the status quo at all BUT this most certainly is worse/enhanced privatization to what we have now. These (two) companies are effectively re-selling these reserved spots to sunscribers/renters for profit. Plus they get free advertising and a monopolistic position. Current private car owners do not get reserved spots exempt from alternate side, and the exclusove right to resell the privledge.

  • brklynmind

    Because of this insane giveaway by BdB, cheaper and/or more innovative car share type alternatives face a massive competitive disadvantage and will likely not enter this market.

  • Scroller

    Well, to start, I don’t think Streetsblog bills itself as an anti-privatization forum (or pro-privatization forum for that matter). It’s about smart policies for our streets and public spaces, which this is.

    At the core, limited resources require smart policies to manage them. Unfettered access causes the current problem we’re seeing in Manhattan with ride shares clogging streets and overpowering an industry once regulated for exactly that reason. Same goes for cities with multiple dockless bike share companies.

    Since you don’t seem familiar, Zipcars and the like have home spots they must be returned to. These are not spots reserved for people in Zipcars to park in for a few hours when they run errands or the like. These are where the car is to be returned to until the next person needs it. Opening it up to say, 20 more car share companies, would require 20 times the spaces. There must be as many spots as cars.

    These spots were not “literally” given away for free either. In fact, the city stands to make more money from it than they would from private cars, albeit still below market value.

    And a taxi can always let someone off in these spots if they’re not occupied, and they should. Too many taxis stop in a traffic lane when they could easily pull out of traffic.

    While I’m usually against privatization, in this sense, as Citibike has shown, and until the city operates its own carshare network, it works.

    PS – I’d also love to know what you mean by workingman? Cause I’m a man and I work, yet you I don’t think you mean me. Does my sister count?

  • brklynmind

    I am quite familiar with Zipcars – and there is no absolute need for 1:1 spot to car as the cars are often rented for overnight and out of town trips. And when open any zipcar renter can use these new spots for shorter term parking.

    Additionally, if NYC is going to be giving away public streets, then they easily could have demanded that these companies adopt more of a ‘dockless’ model for those situations that a pre-arranged spot is taken (which frankly may still occur as Zip offers one way rentals ). This way multiple companies could use these spots, allowing for competition and innovation. Instead the city has now locked in monopoly power by giving away street parking. And no there is no way that the City makes any material $ under this system.

    Finally, yes taxis etc could still use these spots for drop offs (and they will) but technically the signs say no stopping, so that is technically an impermissible use

    I’m sorry but this program simply further privatizes & subsidizes street parking for the benefit of some with no return for the city or other transportation options.

  • great point . the give away of parking to car owners is pure socialism for car owners – not the poorest citizens . De Blasio could insist that each car owner using free parking must let homeless people sleep in their cars , as a way to contribute to the city and show a little heart. Otherwise car owners would have to pay for the cost of interim hotels – about $ 4,000 a month .. sounds fair

  • Maggie

    I think that’s mistaken. There is ample evidence that people buy cars if and after they know they have a place to park them. From a logical perspective, nobody buys a car unless they understand they have a place to park it.

    I still don’t understand the AAA argument splitting the difference that it’s okay for, say, taxis, buses, dollar vans, delivery vehicles, sanitation trucks, food trucks, and on and on, to use the streets as for-profit mobility or service providers, but that carshare companies may not have space at the curb. Do you mean the spots should have been auctioned off and so should all our curb space? Is there a leaner startup you’re thinking will get boxed out?

  • brklynmind

    Car share companies should not have exclusive rights to park in a particular location unless they pay FMV- otherwise (under current construct) they should be treated like all other users. However, if the city wants to support car sharing (which I think is a great idea) then free spots cannot be exclusive – they must be open for all car share companies – current or future (and potentially other for profit uses as you listed).

    As to other startups – Car2go users would certainly benefit from dedicated space to park as I am sure the now defunct ReachNow would have greatly appreciated.

    It certainly would make such programs more attractive for adoption if a user knew they could likely find parking at their destination.

  • cjstephens

    The Times doesn’t usually feel the need to correct itself, even when it is wrong on obviously verifiable facts. I wrote in about a fairly benign error a few years ago (a reference to Columbia’s Low Library being named after Mayor Seth Low, when in fact it’s named after Seth Low’s father). I even included a link to a primary source to back up my correction. The Times wrote back telling me that they didn’t think that merited a correction because, if you read what they had written, technically you might be able to interpret it in a way that might make it sort of OK. In short, the NYT is really only going to print a correction if they’re at risk of someone suing. Little wonder that so many no longer trust the “newspaper of record”.

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