Monday, May 31, 2010


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.


Unknown said...

I like your thought process. Perhaps another way is to at least give developers the choice. Minimum parking standards or the same amount that would have been spent on complying with those standards could go toward the local transit fund.

I am not sure how effective this would be in a residential area but in a commercial area where a developer could maximize his land for more retail or office space by not having to build huge parking lots, I can see major payoffs for all involved.

skyguy said...

I think this is how it works here in London - there is a new development planned in Battersea, and part of the approval for that looks at getting the developers to at least part-pay for an extension to the Northern Line. Crossrail is currently being paid for by a business levy on those within a certain range of it.

CityLights said...

This issue is something that upsets me the most of all livable streets issues, because I see it every day. What amazes me is that most people are blind to the vast areas of concrete surrounding most new houses, single-family and buildings alike. Where I live in Staten Island it is very obvious - older homes on large lots are surrounded by greenery, while the new homes on equivalent lots, ugly boxes, have huge concrete pads out front, with their back yards half the size they could be due to the houses moved back from the property line to make way for parking (and because of the setback requirement).

My parents' house is one of the new ones, with a double-width driveway and a garage to match. I hope to convince them in a few years to rip up half the concrete for a front yard, and turn half of the garage into a storage room. (I wouldn't be surprised if that turns out to be illegal).

On an individual level, the argument against parking mandates is very simple - how would you like to save $20,000 on the purchase price of your new home and double the width of your backyard in exchange for an extra $500 annual payment for transit? It seems to make sense economically. But the politics of driving are local - a borough president can easily build a new park-and-ride - while the politics of transit are global, with the distant and hated MTA never quite under control of local politicians.

Unknown said...

I like the idea, but the main issue with the creation of a transit fund is an incremental one. i.e. Developer A puts X amount of money into the transit capital improvements fund to offset the ridership that the new development will generate. It doesn't matter how much money X is, it won't be enough by itself to cover the transit upgrade costs given the breathtakingly high construction costs in NYC.

You would need MANY new projects within a given radius of a transit station to raise enough funds to make this work, and it'd take years for enough money to accumulate in the fund to make the upgrades feasible. The new residents would likely have to suffer in the meantime from inadequate parking and overcrowded transit.

EngineerScotty said...

An excellent idea.

As noted previously, government is willing to move heaven and earth to ensure that people aren't stuck in traffic, or unable to locate parking near their destination--but doesn't mind as much if the busses and trains are crushloaded in one part of town, and unavailable in another.

Alon Levy said...

The denser zoning districts used outside the Manhattan Core - R7 and R8 - waive the parking requirement for small buildings. If this were extended down to the remaining districts, on the idea that large-lot houses have enough room for parking on the street, then it would allow small-scale developers to build without extra parking. Large-scale developers would need to appeal for a variance, but they always get what they want anyway.

Helen Bushnell said...

James, the fund might not only fund new construction, but also operating costs. Right now there are tracks in New York City that are underutilized. There is also federal money available to buy new buses, if needed, but no money to pay drivers.

Cap'n Transit said...

James, the point is not that the money will be enough by itself to fund anything in particular, but that it will add to the pool of money available for transit infrastructure. Just as the parking requirements don't provide complete car infrastructure, this is not meant to provide complete transit infrastructure. There's nothing in the proposal to prevent government from putting in tax money to get the ball rolling.