No Parking. You're Welcome.
By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
Let us now praise New York legs.
Not in a sexist way, of course. We're talking about the beauty of walking rather than driving, not to mention the millions, perhaps even billions of dollars that New York's policy makers, in their collective wisdom, save every year by not providing cheap parking for residents and visitors.
In much of the country, free or at least cheap parking is a God-given right. Americans expect to be able to drive to a movie, a bookstore or a department store and park at relatively low cost just steps away, either on the street or in a parking lot.
Not in New York. Just try driving to the local multiplex in Brooklyn or Queens, let alone the Empire State Building.
Now a new book with the policy-wonky title "The High Cost of Free Parking," published by the American Planning Association, goes a long way toward making New Yorkers feel good about the onerousness of parking in the city. In 733 pages, it offers a "comprehensive examination" of the parking customs of urban Americans, the fruit of 25 years of research by Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles.
There is, he contends, no such thing as free parking. To him, free parking represents lost revenue, squandered land and polluted air. To him, parking garages are not an amenity, but an antisocial car subsidy. If parking is scarce, Dr. Shoup says, that means it is underpriced. He calls for unleashing market forces: If the price of parking is high enough, there will be vacancies.
This makes a lot of sense. Parking on the Upper East Side would be a breeze if it cost $1,000 a day, and some might say that the city is already headed in that direction.
The Shoup book comes on the heels of a recent study by a senior economist at the RAND Corporation showing that New Yorkers are healthier than people who live in sprawling suburbs. This is because it is better, the RAND researchers suggested, to walk to the subway every day than to drive to work and go to the gym once a week.
Told of Dr. Shoup's analysis, Jerome Barth, director of operations for the 34th Street Partnership, a business improvement group, said: "This is one more way that New York is ahead of the country. In New York, you can park anywhere you want, if you can pay $30 an hour."
If maximum inconvenience to drivers is the goal, nothing beats alternate-side-of-the-street parking regulations. "This is, I think, very unique to New York," Mr. Barth, who is French, said admiringly. Certainly, Mr. Barth said, such a system does not exist in Paris, where men wash the streets and sweep between parked cars with old-fashioned brooms, no moving required.
According to Sam Schwartz, a k a Gridlock Sam and probably the city's pre-eminent traffic historian, New Yorkers owe the modern era of punitive parking to Ross Sandler. It is because of Mr. Sandler that New Yorkers look at an unclaimed parking space and say "Uh-oh," because they know it's too good to be true. Park in that space, and you are certain to get a ticket, because, as everyone knows, there is no such thing as free parking in New York City.
In 1977, Mr. Sandler was the lead lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council when he won a court order that resulted in thousands fewer parking spaces south of 60th Street as a way of forcing the city to comply with the Federal Clean Air Act. Later, as a transportation commissioner in the Koch administration (with Mr. Schwartz as his deputy), he introduced the "Don't Even Think of Parking Here" sign.
Mr. Sandler, now a law professor, thought Dr. Shoup's economic argument missed the point. "To think about parking in terms of money alone is pretty silly, because it really is politics," he said. He should know, having once granted two free parking spaces to Mother Teresa, at Mayor Koch's insistence. As a political move, granting parking spaces to a future saint was a lot more felicitous than activating parking meters near churches on Sundays, as the current administration has done.
Progress marches on, and Mr. Schwartz predicts that quarter-fed meters will soon go the way of dime meters and take dollar coins instead. In that spirit, he suggests that moves to reserve parking for residents in neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights are, well, anti-New York. "New York is a more freewheeling place than anyplace else," he said. "People visit each other. I just don't think residential parking is compatible with the New York style."
All that walking, Mr. Schwartz likes to say, gives New Yorkers a competitive and maybe even an evolutionary edge over people in car-dominated cities like Los Angeles. "I like to joke that our legs are a millimeter longer," he says. And still growing.