Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The right to free parking in 1940s New York

As I wrote on Sunday, around 1947 the ban on overnight curbside car storage became untenable. The New York Times reported that there were so many cars in the city, and so many of their owners felt entitled to park on the street, that it would have required a huge increase in the police force to ticket them all. The NYPD had no choice but to ignore a large percentage of the illegal street parking.

I feel like I should take some time to address the entitlement issue. First of all, as "Old Urbanist" Charlie Gardner commented on my first post in this series, the streets were too wide to begin with: "If the carriageway is excessively wide for the needs of traffic, as many American residential streets are, you may as well park cars along it." In the middle of the night, that was certainly true of every street north of 14th, and most of the ones south of it. The drivers saw it as wasted space, and it was. They needed space to store their cars, the city had it. Why not put it to use?

Honestly, I agree with that. The real issue is not why the curbside lanes were used for overnight parking, but why it's free. That's an issue of middle class entitlement.

At first most of the car owners were wealthy, and it has been scientifically proven that wealthy people find ways of justifying their advantages in society. After World War II, rising prosperity and greater efficiency put car ownership within the reach of less wealthy Americans, and governments were flush with cash and made it a priority to provide more and better roads and parking for this segment of society. Car ownership was seen as increasing mobility and thus a gateway to middle class status.

This conception of the benefits of car ownership has always had a huge bait-and-switch component to it. In New York City in the 1940s it was no exception. When people looked at the price of a car, they didn't figure in $20-35 per month in garage rental. When they got their cars, many couldn't afford to pay and took their chances on the street. Garage owners now had to compete with free street parking and lowered their rates accordingly, which meant that they didn't have enough income to expand their facilities, and resorted to bribing the police.

These social-climbing drivers felt cheated, but they didn't take their anger out on the car dealers. No, they felt that the city owed them the free parking necessary to make their cars as affordable as they thought. To be honest, I still don't quite understand that thought process, but it pervades the city to this day.

Up to now I haven't mentioned a significant presence in this whole affair: the Automobile Club of New York, the local chapter of the American Automobile Association. The Automobile Club are still around today, spreading misinformation about the not-so-historical Bronx end of the Bronx River Parkway in order to grab more of our tax dollars for road projects.

The Automobile Club's fingerprints are all over this one. They pop up in a lot of these old New York Times articles, constantly pushing the idea that drivers are uniquely entitled to free street storage for their personal property. We'll see how that plays out in the next post.

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