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Is This The End For Free On-Street Parking in NYC?

"Why should some of the most valuable land on earth be used for surface parking at a very low price?"

A parking sign in front of a skull mural

(Hell Gate)

Earlier this week, a group of state legislators floated an idea that would end one of the most costly public subsidies in New York City: free on-street parking.

Tucked into the State Senate's budget proposals is language that would allow the City to charge a maximum of $30 per month for a "residential parking permit." The goal, according to the Senate's Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, is to give the City a way to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to fund the MTA. 

Earlier this year, Governor Kathy Hochul asked the City to pony up $500 million in additional transit funding as part of her budget proposal, but so far, Mayor Eric Adams has refused. So the State Senate thought: Why not make drivers pay for it? After all, this is the basic idea behind the congestion pricing plan being implemented next year.

"The problem we have that necessitates a residential parking system is that people from outside the area are coming in and clogging up the streets with their cars. And the whole point is to discourage those people," Gianaris told Hell Gate. "If this is something that will help communities throughout the city, and raise money that the MTA desperately needs, it seems like a win-win."

The backlash from some lawmakers was swift. 

"The reason why you can't find a spot in my neighborhood is not because people from Kentucky are parking in Bay Ridge. It's because there's more cars in Bay Ridge than there are parking spots," Brooklyn Councilmember Justin Brannan told NY1, which hosted a panel of three politicians criticizing the proposal. "So me then paying for a spot, that's not going to guarantee my spot—forget about it. It’s not going to work," Brannan said.

But according to Donald Shoup, a distinguished professor at UCLA's urban planning department and the nation's preeminent expert on parking economics, Brannan's Bay Ridge drivers would be able to find a spot relatively easily under a parking permit system—they'd just have to pay a lot more for it.

Shoup argues that a successful pay-for-street parking system would have to be based on the actual market price for parking. In Bay Ridge, the price for a guaranteed monthly spot ranges from $225/month at the municipal garage to $275/month at the slightly fancier garage. (This is a bargain compared to SoHo, where monthly off-street rates hover around $900.)

"We'd be a lot better off if parking were priced like anything else," Shoup told Hell Gate. "Parking is the exception. And that's why it's such a nightmare. Especially in New York."

Around 97 percent of New York City's three million on-street parking spaces are free of charge. This status quo has meant that on average, drivers here spend 107 hours every year motoring around looking for a space—congesting streets, collectively racking up millions of miles on their cars, and spewing untold amounts of CO2 into the air. Non-drivers—who represent the majority of New Yorkers—end up paying the costs in time, pollution, and City resources for all this free parking.

Shoup's research shows that by pricing parking spaces for what they are actually worth, this relationship could be flipped. Charging $42/day for each parking space along just one block of the Upper West Side would raise more than $1 million annually to go towards fixing sidewalks, or transit funding, or trash containerization, or other public improvements. If the City charged just $5.50/day for each of its free spaces, that would raise $6 billion in annual revenue—revenue that's currently being left on the curb.

The main beef Shoup has with the State Senate's proposal is that $30 per month is much too low to work, and would create a long waiting list for permits, especially in Manhattan. "I think it would probably lead to corruption," Shoup predicted. "Important people will get the permits, unimportant people won't." 

This future sounds like our current reality, in which the City already does an abysmal job of enforcing its regime of special parking placards. We asked Gianaris why he thinks this plan would be any different. "There are people who abuse it, and they should be identified and punished accordingly. But overall, I mean, I see the ticket writers out there every day," Gianaris replied. "They're very aggressive."

Gianaris said that the $30 figure came from looking at other municipalities across the globe. "We're trying to minimize the burden on New Yorkers, while raising the revenues we need," Gianaris said, noting that the plan would raise $400 million for the MTA, with another $100 million coming from an additional 50 cent surcharge on Lyft and Uber rides.

A spokesperson for Mayor Adams said the administration is reviewing the proposal. At the City Council level, there are several bills introduced over the last year that would create residential parking permit schemes in individual neighborhoods, like Sunset Park, Kew Gardens, and East Elmhurst, implying that the City believes it doesn't even need the state to implement one. "We will review and discuss this State Senate proposal, as well as any other state proposals to fund MTA service," Council spokesperson Jorge Muniz-Reyes wrote in an email.

In 2019, then-Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer issued a study of other municipal parking permit systems that were instituted decades ago to raise revenue and make it easier for residents to park, and found that many of them didn't really work as well intended (though it should be noted that most of these are also priced far below market price—San Francisco's charges $127/year, while private garages there run some $300/month). 

A parking permit system also creates a literal entitlement to park and drive, which is why some safe streets advocates like Transportation Alternatives have come out against the State Senate's proposal.

"The real issue here is how so much of New York City’s public space is dominated by permanent, private car storage in a city where the majority of people do not drive," Elizabeth Adams, Transportation Alternative's senior director of advocacy and organizing said in a statement. "We shouldn’t be privatizing our public space—the climate crisis demands that our city and state government incentivize green, reliable transportation—not residential parking permits."

So how likely is it that the City will soon start charging for residential parking permits? 

This is a City with a chief executive who parks his car illegally on his own sidewalk, was infamous for allowing his subordinates to do the same, and who destroys dining sheds in order to restore parking spaces. Its legislative body is led by an elected official who represents a district where more than 40 percent of residents drive a car. The State Assembly is led by a driver. Will these politicians choose to single out the wealthier minority of New Yorkers who own vehicles?

Then again, just the other day, Mayor Adams was asked whether he was worried about whether pedestrianization in Manhattan would inconvenience drivers. "No," he replied. "And there's a culture shift that must take place in this city. And when you look at the number of drivers, the number of pedestrians that walk clearly outnumbers the number of drivers. And I am encouraging people to get out of their cars."

Still, we'll believe it when we see it. Don't be surprised if there's a sudden compromise before the budget is due at the end of the month.

Whether the City chooses to go down the path of eliminating free parking, or finding $500 million elsewhere, the question that Shoup raised in our interview remains an urgent one: "Why should some of the most valuable land on earth be used for surface parking at a very low price?"

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