Several years ago I remember walking around the East Bronx and the South Bronx, and noticing lots of new developments: single-family houses, townhouses, apartment buildings. At first it was nice to see since I knew what bad shape a lot of that housing stock was in, and how much of it had been destroyed in the seventies.
But then I noticed that almost all these developments had some kind of parking, and there were cars using all the parking. Rows of townhouses with ugly concrete parking pads in front, and on each parking pad an SUV, minivan or sedan. One more person who will see the city in terms of its highways and parking meters instead of its subways and buses. One more family that will drive to Westchester and Connecticut instead of taking the train to Manhattan. More pollution in the air, more oil burned, more chance a kid will get run over. One less person to support transit and livable streets in the city.
I thought of Freddy Ferrer and how proud he was of helping to "rebuild the Bronx." But he was rebuilding it from a city into a suburb. At first I blamed him for it; after all, he took the credit. And he may very well have approved of, or at least been indifferent to, all these cars being added to the city, all these urbanites transformed into drivers, seen them as a sign of upward mobility. But now I know that it was mostly zoning.
Our neighborhood's in the middle of a rezoning procedure right now, and I've been thinking about how much zoning affects transportation. This is not new territory; Matt Yglesias, Michael Lewyn and many others have extensively documented how single-use zoning encourages car use and discourages walking and transit. However, New York's zoning is emphatically not single-use, and the proposal for Sunnyside and Woodside is nothing to worry about from that perspective.
I've been specifically thinking about how minimum parking requirements affect transportation. This is also not new territory: the great Donald Shoup pretty much lays it all out (PDF). And Angus's report from last week's meeting indicates that City Planning is currently doing what they can to keep parking requirements to a minimum. They're still outrageous, but that can't be fixed by rezoning.
The best thing would be to rewrite the zoning code to reduce or eliminate minimum parking requirements citywide. The next best thing would be to expand the urban zone where parking requirements are almost nonexistent (PDF). It currently includes most of Manhattan and Long Island City, but not the other truly urban parts of the city: Upper Manhattan, Brownstone Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Bay Ridge, Western and Central Queens, the Bronx west of the Bronx River, and Saint George.
But I thought about the people mentioned in Angus's report who asked about schools. It seems reasonable that if City Planning is planning for population increases, they should have some mechanism to force the Department of Education to provide schools for the additional children. This is one area where I think the Queens Crapper and friends are right on: the agency that plans for new construction should have the authority to arrange the government services necessary to support the people who live in that new construction.
The Crapper and others have said the same things about buses and subways, but from a negative point of view. They don't actually want the increased density, so they just say, "You can't build that big building! There's no room on the subways!" Some defenders of parking requirements even say, "You can't expect them to take the subways, there's no room!"
There is an expansion of the car transportation network built into the zoning code. Every time a developer builds a new building, they are subsidizing an increase in car capacity. You may say that they ultimately pass on the cost to the buyer or renter, but then the government is forcing a homeowner to sink money into car infrastructure that they may not have otherwise been interested in. Now that they've spent the money, though, they'd be silly not to use it. I once rented a house with a garage and felt stupid keeping only my bicycle in it, but it came with the house.
Then it hit me: the zoning code does mandate transportation, but only car transportation. There is no such expansion of the transit system mandated. In some areas there is no expansion of the pedestrian network mandated either. What happens when homebuilders are required to provide parking but not sidewalks?
What if there was a mandate to contribute to the expansion of the transit system? What if every developer had to pay a certain amount into the capital fund for the local transit agency for every housing unit they built? I'm not talking some piddling few thousand dollars, but something that would have the equivalent trip-generating potential of that parking space. Ideally, they would be able to choose to fund transit instead of providing parking.
There have been various proposals for new taxes to finance transit expansion, but I think this is the best one. It's exactly equivalent to minimum parking requirements. We do have something similar in New York, in the form of the Mortgage Recording Tax, but it is not calculated on a per-unit basis and only applies if a mortgage is taken out.
It comes down to this: parking requirements are forcing the owners of every new building built outside of Manhattan and Long Island City to subsidize car ownership. There is no corresponding requirement to subsidize transit use. As long as that imbalance exists, transit will have an uphill battle. Change it, and you change everything.