Like the narrator of Calvin Trillin’s novella, Tepper Isn’t Going Out, as a New Yorker with a car, I have an unseemly obsession with parking. I have encoded into long-term memory the local geography of available spaces, and I can identify a false space (e.g., a parking hydrant) from far off, like a fisherman can sense oncoming weather. My refrigerator bears not family photos but the DOT’s calendar of street-cleaning holidays (Sukkot — Yes!) I’ve spent late nights cruising around looking what for I sometimes think must be the last available space, and pondered the unthinkable: What would happen if, one night, there simply were no spaces, if the invisible hand of the parking market clenched up into a closed fist? It’s this last prospect that, more than anything, determines my own (limited) use of the car in the city. I only drive someplace when I know I can reasonably expect to find parking, and when there is a reasonable chance of finding a “good” space when I return.
This point is underscored in a fascinating new study, “Guaranteed Parking — Guaranteed Driving,” by Rachel Weinberger, Mark Seaman Carolyn Johnson, and John Kaehny (via the indispensable Streetsblog).
The study looks at two NYC neighborhoods Park Slope and Jackson Heights and finds, strikingly, that despite a number of other demographic factors (e.g., income, car ownership, number of total commuters, government employees, etc.) that would seem to tip Park Slope as the bigger source of drivers commuting into Manhattan, it’s actually Jackson Heights that comes out on top in terms of car commuting — by 28%.
What explained the difference? “Surveying the neighborhoods brought us to a powerful explanation,” the authors write. “Jackson Heights has more than twice as much off-street residential parking per residence, it has more than 2.5 times as much off-street parking per car-owning household and over six times as much ‘on-site’ off-street parking, i.e., in driveways or on-site garages.”
In essence, having that guaranteed spot upon returning makes Jackson Heights residents more likely to get behind the wheel. This report doesn’t cover actual traffic patterns within Jackson Heights, but I would imagine the same parking formula helps explain why traffic congestion always seems so abysmal in Jackson Heights; in Park Slope (or “No Park Slope” as we call it around here), the streets are rarely that crowded per se, but finding a parking space can often be arduous. So much so that I usually find another way to go to Park Slope.
In any case, the report shows how traffic, rather than the ‘natural’ phenomenon it is sometimes taken for (“trafficandweather,” exclaim the radio stations), is shaped by a series of discrete incentives, and of course by government policy; as Kaehny notes, what explains the parking discrepancy to begin with between the two neighborhoods is that “much more of Jackson Heights has been built since 1963, when the city zoning code introduced residential parking requirements…[which require] driving-inducing residential parking for between 40 and 150 percent of new dwelling units.”