Alternate Side Parking Rules Lead To More Driving: Study

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Alternate side parking sign in Manhattan (photo by Kate Hinds)

Alternate side parking rules -- put in place to facilitate street cleaning -- actually increase driving in the New York City area.

In a soon-to-be-published study looking at driving behavior in places affected by street cleaning rules, a pair of New York University researchers found that alternate side parking (ASP) increases car usage in the New York City region by an average of 7.1 percent.

"Residents may simply make a new trip by car, to work, to school, or elsewhere, that they would otherwise not make, were street cleaning not performed on that day," reports the study, entitled "Duet of the Commons: The Impact of Street Cleaning on Car Usage in New York."

This, despite the fact that the costs of driving in New York can be  astronomically high-- drivers may need to pay for tolls and parking, and almost universally have to deal with traffic congestion and irate drivers.

But like many things New York, location is everything. In denser neighborhoods that are closer to the urban core, car-owning residents are more likely to drive on days when the rules are in effect. But in places further afield -- like in outer boroughs where residents have more access to off-street parking options  -- ASP actually leads to a decrease in car usage on the days the rules are in effect.

Guo found that surprising. "It seemed there should be no impact at all," he said. But when he dug a little deeper -- which meant, in part, that he scrutinized driveways and garages on Google Street View -- he discovered some compelling reasons to leave the car in the driveway once you get it in there.

"Many of the garages are actually very narrow, not facing the street," he said. Moreover, driveways in single-family detached houses in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx are often very narrow. Translation:  once you maneuver a car into the driveway or garage, said Guo, "it's very difficult for you to get the car out and use it again." The cars, he said, are effectively trapped -- and you only take them out for a good reason.

But he pointed out that that applies to only a small percentage of New York City car owners, as the majority don't have access to off-street parking, so the net effect is an increase in driving on alternate side days.

Legislation targeting alternate side -- a bête noire of New York City drivers -- is a perennial political staple.  In 2011, the New York City Council passed a bill that would give each community board the chance to opt out of alternate side parking one day a week — but only if that neighborhood had at least a 90 percent rating on street cleanliness in the mayor's management report two years in a row. And earlier this year the Council passed a bill outlawing the city's "shame stickers" that the Department of Sanitation used to adhere to cars flouting alternate side.

Guo says his study found that if neighborhoods that can reduce ASP rules do reduce them, there could be a reduction of almost three percent in the number of car trips.

"Streets belong to all New Yorkers," he said -- not just car owners. "It's a public space... it's a public treasure. And now only people who have cars actually benefit from that property. So there's a social equity problem here. So by reducing street cleaning, "you're basically assigning more user rights to car owners."

"The Duet of the Commons: The Impact of Street Cleaning on Car Usage in New York" will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Planning Education and Research.