Residential-Parking Permits: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

It's been tried all over the country, with some big hiccups. But managed parking — if properly priced — could succeed here.

An Upper West side community board recently made the opening sally of a bid to bring resident-permit parking to New York. Can New Yorkers improve on other cities' methods? Photo: Streetopia UWS
An Upper West side community board recently made the opening sally of a bid to bring resident-permit parking to New York. Can New Yorkers improve on other cities' methods? Photo: Streetopia UWS

New York’s three million free parking spaces  — about 20 square miles and 7 percent of all city land — are by all accounts grossly underpriced for some of the world’s most-valuable real estate.

Depending on the time of day, even the most coveted spaces may be used for free by any driver — a custom that subsidizes car ownership and driving in the city with America’s densest public transit and contributing to the carnage, congestion, pollution, and road rage on our streets.

The fundamental imbalance in our parking market also inspires what some call “parking psychosis” — a condition in which entitled drivers think that the city owes them space for free car storage in the public right of way.

Into this context, one neighborhood near Midtown is injecting an idea to rationalize its parking situation in advance of the 2021 introduction of congestion pricing in the city’s central business district.

Community Board 7’s Transportation Committee resolved in May to end free parking on the Upper West Side in favor of a system of permitted residential parking, as a way to prevent suburban drivers from clogging local curbs as they seek to avoid the congestion zone. (The board’s chairwoman tabled the issue, pending a deeper discussion, until October.)

Board members immediately encountered “parking psychosis,” as outraged local car owners have inundated meetings complaining about the loss of their entitlement. The car-owning minority also gained a champion in the New York Post, which recently accused Council Speaker Corey Johnson of scuttling his potential mayoral bid because he said that “there are too many parking spaces in New York City.”

So is it time for New York to implement a residential-parking permit system?

We’ve been here before

Mayor Bloomberg certainly thought parking permits could help. He proposed such a system in 2008 as part of his ill-fated congestion-pricing plan, and the City Council tried to revive the idea in 2011 and as late as last year,  as congestion-pricing legislation passed in Albany.

“New York City is the only major city in the country that doesn’t have some element of a residential-parking permit program,” said Council Member Mark Levine, who in 2018 proposed legislation to create permit parking in northern Manhattan. “With congestion pricing coming, the problem of non-residents abusing the free parking available in Upper Manhattan is going to go from bad to worse. Residential permitting would ensure that curbside space is dedicated to be used by members of our communities and not commuters dodging congestion fees. Why would commuters from New Jersey take public transit if they can get around congestion pricing by parking for free in Upper Manhattan?”

Permitted parking would offer New York manifold benefits:

  • It would reduce or eliminate nonresidents’ ability to park in the dense neighborhoods just outside the congestion pricing zone (the goal of the Upper West Side initiative).
  • It would force residents who want permits for their cars to register them in-state, curtailing widespread registration fraud and returning the monies lost through it to the state.
  • It would raise revenue that the city could use for street-safety measures.

Other cities do it

Permitted parking is common in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, Los Angeles, and even the Hamptons — where many New Yorkers’ cars can be found at public beaches with resident-parking stickers affixed to their windshields. So it pays to put aside the hypocrisy and the angst and look at how other cities do it.

But an examination of  permit systems around the country shows that they shouldn’t be established without careful planning and competitive, demand-driven pricing. Most large cities that introduced them in the 1970s now face political fights over expanding permit areas and raising prices.

A resident-parking permit sign in Boston. Could similar signs come to New York when congestion pricing arrives in two years?
A resident-parking permit sign in Boston. Could similar signs come to New York when congestion pricing arrives in two years?

Residential permits could succeed here if they are priced high enough to properly value New York’s scarce public space, said Zhan Guo, an associate professor of urban planning and transportation policy at NYU. London, Vienna and Amsterdam  — which charge hundreds of dollars annually per space and actively seek to reduce car ownership as a sustainable transportation policy — present better models than American cities.

High fees would more effectively manage residents’ demand, and could even produce considerable revenue. He noted that the cost of policing a comprehensive and complex parking regime itself would justify charging prices close to market rates.

“It will be a big opportunity missed if [residential permitting] is designed as only an exclusionary measure,” Guo said.

Permits for residential parking originated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when suburbanization had grown so much that commuters poured into city centers, overloading the parking in downtown areas on business days and driving up prices at garages. In response, drivers from the newer, distant suburbs began parking for free in older, streetcar suburbs — and walking or taking transit for the last few miles to the central business districts.

In those days, residential permits were created as the opposite of a progressive, pro-streets agenda; rather, homeowner associations sought to slow growth, reduce density, and maintain “neighborhood quality” by keeping out outsiders of other races or classes. 

Today, owing to their conservative origins, most American residential-permit districts charge way too little. In Los Angeles, annual fees are $34 per car; in Chicago, $25; in San Francisco, $144; and in Washington, D.C., $35. Boston charges no fee, although its city council is weighing a proposal to charge $25 a year for the first car, $50 for the second car, and so on. Greater Washington notes that its fees cost far less than it costs to maintain the pavement under each parking spot! (When Bloomberg last talked about permit fees, he said that they should be “in line” with those of other cities across the country. That would be a huge missed opportunity.)

The downsides

Drawbacks of residential parking permits include:

  • Low fees can incentivize resident drivers to use the curbs instead of garages.
  • Reserving too many spaces solely for residents, in a neighborhood like the Upper West Side in which only 24 percent of households own a car, might encourage more car ownership because there would be more spaces at a nominal fee.
  • Cities’ lack of enforcement against non-permit holders parking in permitted areas — it’s easier and more lucrative to ticket meter-violators in central business districts — can lead to conflict and even to vigilante-style violence between residents and outsiders. 

A veteran of earlier city residential-permit fights, who asked to remain anonymous because he now works for the governor, stressed the importance of finding political support for such initiatives; in particular, residents living near districts that have seen an influx of businesses because of up-zoning, such as Downtown Brooklyn or Long Island City, understand the benefits of banishing commuters from the curbs.

Still, it may be too politically difficult to charge full market price for annual permits — Upper West Side garages charge $5,000 to $10,000 annually for a space — but even charging 10 percent of such an amount would reduce demand for street parking and prices at garages in all but the most wealthy neighborhoods, as people sold their cars or left them at their weekend homes. As the example of Amsterdam shows, high permitting fees — say $400 to $500 a year, with a cap on the number of cars a family can have — can discourage car ownership. Some Amsterdam neighborhoods have long waiting lists.

New York City could try to balance the needs of residents and reduce congestion and cruising by dividing neighborhoods’ free parking among permitted parking (perhaps favoring disabled residents), market-rate metered parking, and bigger freight-loading zones.

But for such a program to succeed, the city must implement it in every Manhattan neighborhood, based on existing demand. Our zoned system for metered parking now takes demand into account, for example, charging more per hour to park in Midtown than in Washington Heights. Market pricing for residential permits could be determined by the number of people applying and how much they are willing to pay. That’s Donald Shoup 101.

Of course, in an ideal world we might get rid of parking entirely and re-engineer our streets for people, not cars, but permitted parking could be a good first step in that direction.

In sum, permitted parking is no panacea, but it offers a way for the city to regulate its curbs and extract revenue from drivers, one of society’s most privileged and subsidized groups. It is only justice when, in most neighborhoods, 80 to 90 percent of the public road space is set aside for the movement and storage of privately owned vehicles.

Will New Yorkers try it? We’ll see. The full board of CB7 will vote on the matter in October.

Eric Schewe is a historian and Queens resident. He writes regularly for JSTOR Daily and on Twitter @nychistorybiker.

  • Joe R.

    A thought just occurred to me on one way to get us to market rates. We can have RPPs but the price doesn’t matter so long as we let people sublet their spot. You can buy a spot even if you don’t own a car, and rent it out. You can charge whatever the market will bear. This could be a way for low-income people to get extra money. It may even make sense for those who bought a spot for their car to instead give up the car and just rent it out. Just something to throw out there since we’re thinking of ways to get parking to market rates.

    People with private homes and driveways can do the same thing right now but the value of the parking makes it not worthwhile. Once we have RPPs I might be able to get a few hundred a month renting a spot in our driveway.

  • MotoBX

    A) I work for the city, I make about 40% what the state of California pays for my exact position

    B) You work in Rockland and live in Westchester, ultimately, you shouldn’t have a say in what should be passed via City Council. If Yonkers were to establish RPP’s, I would (and should) have zero say in the matter. Note: I also feel the same way about CP. It should’ve been home-ruled in, it should’ve had two zones (city limits and CBD), and the fee for a city registered EZ-Pass should be tied to a round trip MTA fare.

    C) Glad you’re enjoying the infrastructure available to you. No problems there.

    Many of these people simply cannot afford to drive and park all day at a commuter rail station, not to mention commuter rail fares.

    This isn’t a reason for outer-boroughs to not have RPPs.

  • Joe R.

    I also feel the same way about CP. It should’ve been home-ruled in, it should’ve had two zones (city limits and CBD), and the fee for a city registered EZ-Pass should be tied to a round trip MTA fare.

    I totally agree with this. CP shouldn’t just be a cordon zone in Manhattan. You should pay to enter city limits, then pay more fees as you go deeper into the city and/or into particularly congested parts of the outer boroughs. The fees should be set high enough, and adjusted dynamically, so traffic is always free-flowing. That could even mean the fee is zero late nights. The converse of that might be on really busy days of the year at peak times you might pay $25 to enter city limits, and as much as $100 more by the time you reach the Manhattan CBD.

  • walks bikes drives

    Then, philosophically, I dont see any problem with a motorcycle being required to get a full price RPP.

    What I was talking about was not requiring a RPP as long as the bike is not taking up a full parking space.

  • walks bikes drives

    I agree that it is usually that they dont want their bike tipped. I get that. But for the argument that the bike only takes up 1/6th the space, it would have to actually just take up 1/6th the space. That’s all I am saying, and like I said, I support that. I do think the bike should still be required to get a RPP, which would be free, only because all of the restaurants around here park their delivery motorcycles overnight. They usually park 2-3 bikes in a full spot so that the owner can come in the morning and have a parking space reserved for him.

  • Vooch

    brilliant !

  • Vooch

    because its more valuable 🙂

  • Joe R.

    This is one way to look at it I guess but it’s dependent upon Generation Greed eventually being voted out of office, or dying. Don’t bet on either of those. They’re probably hard at work now on things to extend lifespan indefinitely. Once those are found, of course they’ll be restricted to anyone born before 1960 on the justification that those younger “don’t need it yet”. Those born before about 1943 won’t get it, either, because “they’re too old for it to work properly”. Of course, they won’t change those years as those younger get older. Their hope will be that they’ll outlive their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren by denying them the same drug which extends their life. Eventually you’ll have a country of just those born between 1943 and 1960. They’ll only realize what a colossal mistake they made after they see they have nobody left to steal from. But I guess driving their cars and rebuilding the nation in the best image of GM’s 1950s autotopia will be enough to keep them happy.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Permits that once belonged to people who move away, give up their cars, or die will not be reissued.”

    Which is exactly how spaces could be repurposed in a permit system, without people “losing parking.” As spaces were repurposed, the number of permits issued would fall.

    See my response to objections to my proposal at the top of this thread.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Violates zoning. Not to mention the taxes.

    They’re one step ahead.

  • walks bikes drives

    Well, you might think it is more valuable, but there is not a single car owner in the city that would think curb space is more valuable than a garage.

  • Vooch

    LOL – then yippee. We can liberate 40% of our streets from the scourage of car storage, simple by proper pricing 🙂

  • walks bikes drives

    Yipper, then we can liberate 40% of our housing stock, including low income housing, simply by proper pricing!

  • datbeezy

    If NYC can charge even 10% of market cost it’ll still lead to someone blowing up 55 Water Street. $500/yr is a ton. SF only gets away with $115/year and it’s still derided as a perk the city gives to their privileged elite. You’re dreaming if this will go over well citywide.

  • datbeezy

    That amounts to handouts to wealthy Upper West Side owners who are now given a free revenue stream protected by city parking enforcement.

  • Joe R.

    I’m talking about implementing it citiwide. I have no idea what market rates might be in my area but it could be a few hundred a month. If we bought the spot in front of our house, and rented a spot in the driveway, that could be an extra $500 a month, which would come in handy.

  • In Hudson County you take the guagua to the PATH.

  • But there is very little transit originating outside NYC that goes anywhere other than the CBD . . . I”m talking outer borough NYC neighborhoods here

    There are at least six Nassau County buses that go to Jamaica, terminating a few blocks from the Parsons/Archer terminal of the J and E trains, which, in turn, hit many different areas in Queens and (in the case of the J) Brooklyn on their way to Lower Manhattan. So a working-class suburban-dweller (as distinct from the stereotypical wealthy suburbanite) who has a job in Queens or Brooklyn is very likely to be able to take transit all the way.

  • walks bikes drives

    I disagree. It is not that you will be left with the people who actually need the car, you will be left with the rich having the parking spaces and the poor or middle class not being able to afford them.

  • walks bikes drives

    This is a reasonable price to me. And allow lower income residents to pay in installments without financial penalty.

  • Inspector Spacetime

    Nope. Cementing in further the entitlement sense of local car owners is not in our collective self interest. Repurposing spaces across the board, or metering more thoroughly, is the way to go.

  • Joe R.

    But wouldn’t the market rate vary drastically with area? In my area who knows, it might only end up at a few hundred annually. Remember the competition in any area which determines pricing will only be those who live on the block. I’m not suggesting something where parking spots are auctioned off and anyone in the city can bid on them. That’s not even an RPP system.

  • vnm

    OK, that makes sense. Wasn’t clear to me at first.

  • walks bikes drives

    On my block alone, you have NYCHA housing, rent controlled apartments, brownstone townhouses, and luxury apartments. So the people who live on my block range from pretty poor to pretty rich. Pricing based on your methodology will keep the lower income residents on my block from being able to afford the spots.

    The whole idea of high prices works for those who want to lower the number of cars on the street, but then just feeds another issue into income inequality. At a reasonable price, there can be equity. For that, the price of the permit needs to match the benefit of the permit, which has to be the status quo w/o the permit system vs

  • bolwerk

    Absolutely not. Because if nonresidential parking is undesirable, residential parking is undesirable for all the same reasons and more. The nonresident is likely to bring a vital service from outside your neighborhood (plumbing, electricians, construction, deliveries).

    This is one of those rare cases where neoliberals often get things right: why not just meter? If we’re going to have parking at all – fine with debating that – the right equilibrium is for there to always be a parking space. That, in turns, means less time spent driving around looking for parking. Setting side the waste and pollution in terms of man-hours and emissions, that translates into more safety for pedestrians, transit users, and cyclists.

  • Joe R.

    That sounds like an unusual situation. Most blocks in residential areas have people with similar income levels.

    We can get equity another way, which is charging annually for the permit based on some percentage of income. A poor person making $25K might pay only $240 annually. A rich person on the same block making $500K would pay $4800. Any thoughts on that? In fact, maybe we should make all car fees and fines income based like Sweden does. Now a red light ticket is pocket change to a rich person but it’s a big hit to a poor one. Under Sweden’s system both rich and poor people would have a similar financial incentive to change behavior.

  • multimodal

    It’s funny – I have long been in favor of residential permits and have said that I would pay a low nominal fee … like $400 a year. Not that I think that’s nothing, but compared to a garage or daily metering, it’s cheap! $25 annual is insane, it wouldn’t even pay for the program itself. You wouldn’t be able to have enough traffic agents to enforce it.

  • Long suffering motorist

    Dumb idea! Dumb, dumb, DUMB! Do you have relatives from outside of the city who visit you, Vooch? Push a shitty law like this, and you’ll never see them again, because they won’t be able to park anywhere without the risk of a ticket.

  • Meredith MacVittie

    The way it worked when I lived in West Hollywood: 1) commercial blocks were metered, residential blocks were permit. Of course, this has its own problems as we strive towards mixed use, and which much of Manhattan already is. 2) One could purchase up to 2 resident permits (for up to 2 cars) per year, and up to 2 “permanent” guest permits, valid the entire year. These were more expensive than the resident permits, but not by much. In addition to that, you could ask for temporary – 36 hour – guest permits if you were having a party or something. Finally, you could also have a space/area temporary blocked off if you needed to bring in a moving truck or contractor.

    Now, that is a lot of lee-way, and also reflects that parking wasn’t that bad and many people also have driveways or off-street lots or underground parking. But I never had a friend not be able to find parking, because I could always magic up a space by using a guest permit. But there are other ways to accommodate as well. 1-2 loading zones at the end of each permitted block. Alternating permitted and non-permitted blocks. More meters in addition to permits. And don’t forget – part of the point is to reduce cars by increasing the size of the “stick” – the cost of parking a car on the street becomes prohibitive. Garages are already prohibitive. So stick with the subway, bus, uber, citibike or your own two feet.

  • Meredith MacVittie

    That is technically already the law. It’s just rarely enforced.

  • Meredith MacVittie

    How would paying more to own your car incentivize car ownership?

  • Vooch

    Dude

    my relatives aren‘t stupid. When they visit The City they take the train and then a cab ( after all they are suburbanites ) to my place.

    Only a dimwit masochist would use a private car to visit The City

  • Long Suffering Motorist

    No, only a dimwit would think there’s never a need for private cars in the city! How do you expect somebody from Coram to get to Bayside without a car? Suffolk County Transit doesn’t run 24/7, and the LIRR doesn’t run trains past Ronkonkoma that often, so taking the S61 to Medford station isn’t always an option. Plus Route 112 is a traffic nightmare thanks to anti-highway zealots like you! Also, buses are bigger than cars, and they need more room to get around, which means they need those road improvements that you hate so much too. But of course, you anti-car freaks never think of that.

  • Suzette

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  • Boeings+Bikes

    ^^ THIS!

    If someone is paying for “the right” to park their car in one of 1000 spots, and then we take away 10% for residential deliveries, say – as we are doing in places – should the drivers get a 10% rebate? So now does the city say that making streets safer is going to cost $$$ and therefore have even more resistance than it already does due to fear of political blowback?

    RPP is a minefield and we should stay out.

  • Vooch

    you are on the wrong side of history clinging to your hulking death machines

    while the rest of us embrace the glorious future of mobility.

    I sympathize with your frustration – hulking death machines are clumsy, inefficient, and outrageously expensive.

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