Do Parking Permits Have Unintended Consequences?

Parking Sign, not in New York City (Photo (cc) by Flickr user Smaku)

Issuing residential parking permits is one of those things that seems so self-evident to some New York City residents that it’s unimaginable it hasn’t happened already. At a city council hearing on Wednesday, Council Member Leticia James, who represents the area around Barclay’s Center, future home to the Brooklyn Nets, summed it up in her characteristically emphatic way: “A residential parking permit program would discourage all-day parking by commuters who use neighborhoods, as is the case in downtown Brooklyn, basically as a parking lot.”

Brooklyn Heights resident Michael Serrapica put an even finer point on it.  “This is a residential neighborhood, it’s been completely overrun by people from outside of the neighborhood who otherwise could pay to park in a commercial garage.”

The council voted 40-8 in favor of implementing a parking permit system, with one abstention.  But the bill doesn’t mean the system is going to be put into effect -- that requires a vote of the state legislature.

Still, even the prospect of a parking permit system got the saliva glands flowing for many New Yorkers.

And yet, for the New York City department of transportation, parking permits can produce a set of unintended consequences, excluding a group of people some neighborhoods need to accommodate.  Deputy transportation commissioner David Woloch ticked those groups off:  “those using local businesses and services, residential visitors, in-home workers, residents parking rental cars or car-share vehicles, and deliveries.”

Rachel Weinberger, a University of Pennsylvania Professor and Brooklyn resident -- who lives, BTW, not too far from Barclay's Center herself -- sums it up:

“Where I live, a typical lot width is 19 feet. You could park about 1.25 vehicles in front of each building. At the same time most of the units are three families. If everyone had a car and a permit there would be 2.4 times more vehicles entitled to park than spaces. In many NYC neighborhoods they would serve as a "hunting license" meaning you would be allowed to hunt for a space but there are no guarantees you would find one," she said.

In testimony before the city council, Woloch also invoked the term “hunting license.” “One potential unintended consequence is therefore that residents can find themselves paying Residential Parking Permit (RPP) fees for the same privilege they currently enjoy, namely, circling for scarce parking spaces.”

Weinberger also voices a concern that RPPs could “have an adverse impact on commerce. For example, if your RPP completely restricts visitors' parking, shoppers or restaurant customers will take their business elsewhere. If the restriction is something like only RPP parking from 10:30 to11:30 that will prevent commuters from using your area as a park and ride lot.”

In Europe, RPPs have been used to discourage parking and driving, part of that continent’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to Michael Kodransky, a parking expert at the Institute for Transportation Development Policy. He writes in an email: Permits “can be used to meet a variety of goals — like as a cap on the parking supply in conjunction with off-street parking regulations (forbidden/frozen) or to encourage cleaner vehicle use (e.g., in London certain boroughs vary the cost of a permit based on a vehicles emissions mostly based on their engine.)”

In Amsterdam, Kodransky notes, “off-street parking construction is forbidden since residents already have on-street spaces.” There is, he writes, a ten-year waiting list there.

However, in both these cases, the permits are used as revenue generators. The state bill supported by the NY city council would send revenue to transit, though there’s little evidence that council members are actually seeking big fees for drivers. One council member who voted against the plan, Lew Fidler, expressed concerns that at the end of the day, fees would go up. “And we’re just going to move the problem from one neighborhood to the next until everybody in the city of New York is paying for the right to park on the street."

ITDP’s Kodransky thinks that permits around a stadium could work, but only if the city were will to charge "a lot" for other on-street parking spots.

“If residential permits are issued, then I think all remaining spaces should be priced with sharp increases on game day to dissuade folks from driving (especially since terrible gridlock is in fact already forecasted and outlined in the environmental impact statement). If the on-street prices remain cheaper than parking in the arena garage, drivers will certainly put in the time to look for cheaper alternatives on 5th Avenue, 7th Avenue, Vanderbilt, Fulton, Dekalb or any other commercial streets where residential permits are less likely to apply while current prices are too low for a game-day scenario.”

As Transportation Nation has reported, that’s exactly what has happened on the streets around Yankee stadium.

The city says it is studying an option for permits around arenas on game days, and promises a report in early 2012.