Ending New York’s Traffic Jam: Roosevelt Network Testimony to NY City Council
March 7, 2015
By Brit Byrd
On March 5, 2015, Roosevelt Network Senior Fellow Brit Byrd testified before the New York City Council on the topic of vehicular traffic congestion and potential policy solutions. His written testimony is reproduced below.
Good afternoon. My name is Brit Byrd. I am the Senior Fellow for Economic Development for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a student at Columbia University.
The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network is the nation’s largest student-driven policy organization, with more than 120 university campuses in 38 states, involving thousands of young people nationwide. In my capacity as a Senior Fellow, I have examined the economics and urban planning implications of New York City’s on-street parking spaces. I appreciate this opportunity to share some of my research and policy suggestions, which I elaborate on in depth in the attached white paper. That paper was also presented to members of the National Economic Policy Council at the White House last December.
Vehicular traffic congestion presents a serious and ongoing challenge in the City of New York. Most recently, the city’s “Vision Zero” program has highlighted the tragic human cost of reckless and haphazard traffic. This is sadly only one facet of a diverse and widespread problem, spanning concerns about public health, environmental emissions, losses in economic productivity, and responsible urbanism. The economic cost alone is staggering. The Partnership for New York City estimated that as much as $1.9 billion is lost annually due to inventory, logistical, and personnel costs of traffic congestion, and up to $4.6 billion is lost as unrealized business revenue.
The city has not been blind to this problem, and has pursued solutions at the state level and to a more limited extent within its own departments. But the city hasn’t fully taken advantage of one of the largest tools at its disposal: the management of on-street parking spaces. De-incentivizing vehicular traffic within the dense, transit-rich parts of our city is a straightforward task in that raising the cost of a car trip results in fewer car trips. Efforts at enacting a congestion pricing plan in 2008 and the current Park SMART NYC program reflect an awareness of this policy tool. But parking policies that use the same mechanisms have been almost entirely overlooked, even though they represent an ideal opportunity for the city to raise the effective cost of driving while operating entirely within its own powers.
City-administered on-street parking spaces are currently highly undervalued. Current rates vary from $1–$5 across the city, while pricing for an hour of parking in a private off-street garage suggests the market rate is closer to $15–$30. As noted in my white paper, there is extensive research showing that parking prices in cities with transit alternatives, such as New York City, respond remarkably well to classic principles of supply and demand: raise the price of parking and demand will decrease. Conversely, lower prices encourage a higher demand. This is especially pertinent when on-street metered parking is so much less expensive than off-street parking. In one study of six different urban sites, roughly one-third of traffic congestion consisted of people avoiding off-street market prices by circling around an area searching for cheap on-street parking.
Parking spaces represent an enormous quantity of public land that is in effect rented out by the city, but the current management scheme heavily subsidizes the use of this space for a relatively small portion of New Yorkers. Only 22.7 percent of New Yorkers commute to work alone in a vehicle, and only 46 percent of households own a vehicle.
Today I am here to urge the City Council to pursue two policies that would help reduce traffic congestion, discontinue subsidizing car ownership, and raise revenue.
- Introduce a residential parking permit system for on-street parking spaces on residential side streets.
- Devote a small number of on-street parking spaces for the exclusive use of car-sharing vehicles.
Both of these policies would raise additional revenue for the city, which I further advocate should be allocated to capital budgets for City Council districts that employ participatory budgeting.
Proposal #1 — A Residential Parking Permit (RPP) System
The vast majority of on-street parking in the city is on residential side streets is completely free. In 2013, research found that “free and available on-street parking increased private car ownership by 8.8 percent for households with off-street parking in the New York City region.” Simply put, this free parking represents an indirect subsidy of personal car ownership and induces additional traffic congestion. Moreover, the free use of residential on-street parking represents a complete concession of a valuable public resource to a small portion of citizens.
In place of free parking on these residential side streets, New York City should implement a residential parking permit (RPP) to set a more appropriate price for the public space being rented. This would also eliminate the existing informal subsidy for personal car ownership and reduce traffic congestion and other vehicle-related negative externalities. In contrast to metered parking, an RPP scheme operates by charging residents a monthly or yearly charge to park within a given zone.
An RPP system benefits drivers by making it easier to find a parking spot available close to their front door and simplifying alternate-side parking. Perhaps for these reasons, there is evidence that New York City drivers are already prepared for RPP. Urban planning researchers Zhan Guo and Simon McDonnell found in 2013 that 52 percent of NYC drivers in the outer boroughs and upper Manhattan were already willing to pay for a residential permit, with a median volunteered price of $408 a year.
Proposal #2 — On-street parking spaces for car-sharing vehicles
Car-sharing services are already known and popular to many New Yorkers. For a relatively small yearly subscription fee and an hourly usage rate, subscribers can rent a car for the occasional trip, such as moving, trips outside of the city, or trips to big box retailers. The service is an ideal complement to an RPP system, since many car owners in New York City use their cars largely for these kinds of trips. Additionally, the service offers an affordable alternative for those not willing to pay the high entry costs of purchasing, insuring, and fueling a car.
As it stands, car-sharing services mostly partner with private garages or other private institutions, limiting their coverage and public knowledge of the service. Devoting public on-street parking space to car-sharing infrastructure both complements the goals of RPP pricing and provides a distinct public service within itself. Research shows that car-sharing programs encourage similar policy goals as increasing parking rates, and can even encourage drivers to forgo personal ownership altogether in favor of car-sharing. Hoboken, New Jersey implemented a “Corner Cars” program, in which on-street parking spaces were rented to car-sharing services; 3,000 participants say they have given up their personal cars due to the sharing program, and each car-sharing car is estimated to have replaced 17 private vehicles.
Directing a Portion of Revenues toward Participatory Budgeting
In addition to helping to reduce congestion, both of these policies would also produce new revenues: RPP through the lease of permits, and car-sharing through yearly leases of individual spaces in responsible public-private contracts. The revenue raised by this rent has a more direct connection to the physical landscape and infrastructure than other municipal revenues, such as property or sales taxes.
As Council members doubtlessly know from their commutes between City Hall and their district offices, transportation is more than just a line item in our budget, but rather a fundamental part of the daily quality of life for all New Yorkers. Smart transportation policy tackling traffic congestion could have a profound, rippling effect upon the way in which New Yorkers work, study, relax, and feel a connection to their communities. Directing a portion of these new revenues to Participatory Budgeting, a process in which citizens deliberate and vote on capital investments, will both strengthen our infrastructure and citizens’ connection to the processes that enable its funding and maintenance.
Introducing residential parking permits, and public car-sharing spaces represents a step toward a better New York City for all of its citizens. But here too there is also a policy byproduct that is greater than the sum of its parts. Connecting the ubiquitous public resource of parking spots with the more arcane and less accessible processes of municipal budgeting makes government less invisible to the citizen on the street.
Thank you and we look forward to working with you.