Sunday, 12 April 2015

A signpost note, anarchy in Fort Greene - and the misery of the idle motor car

It’s not often that I’m seized with the desire to deface a sign in a public space. But, on a walk with the Invisible Visible Woman on Easter Sunday, I came very close to hacking down the handwritten notice that a householder in Nelson Street, near our apartment, had attached to a pole on the sidewalk.

“Please do not lock bicycle here, Thank You,” read the laminated note.
A rare insightment: a sign that begs to be torn down

The sign infuriated me because it struck me as an arrogant attempt to appropriate the right to dictate what happened on the public street outside the householder’s home. As a New York City taxpayer who in theory is on the hook for the cost of keeping the pole in place, I experienced the appropriation as a kind of theft.

Yet the more I’ve thought about it since, the more I’ve recognised that the householder’s act stood out only in the explicitness of its expropriation of public space. Nelson St, where parking is free, as it is on the vast bulk of New York City streets, was lined on both sides with parked cars. They had together turned the street from a potentially healthy artery in the city’s road system into a clogged, ill-functioning one. With fewer idle vehicles, the street could have had wider sidewalks, extra space for moving cars or, of course, a proper bike path.

But the sign on Nelson St – which I suspect was put there to ensure the householder could park his or her car without worrying about a bike’s obstructing the doors – illustrates how many people fail to grasp the true nature of free, on-street parking. There’s a tone of outrage about any effort to remove or curtail access to on-street parking that suggests many people think of parking spaces as essentially their property. The sudden gaps in New York’s cycle routes – where protected lanes turn into painted ones or painted lanes degenerate into “sharrow” markings – illustrate how tenaciously some communities hold onto their precious storage spaces.
Police supervise vehicle parking in the Kent Avenue bike lane:
a stark illustration of the depth of the city's problem.
It's my strong suspicion that the defence of parking arouses such fierce passions partly because the privilege is defensible only in emotional, rather than logical, terms. Motor cars in most developed countries, after all, spend on average 95 per cent of their time parked, taking up vast quantities of space given the paltry 5 per cent of their lives they spend actually moving. I suspect the idle time for many vehicles in New York City – where even carowners frequently commute by subway – is still higher than the average.

When they are moving, in addition, cars rely on a supply of free parking spaces at their destination. That must mean most cities have parking spaces to store far more cars than actually exist in the city. By definition, that’s space that’s taken away from actually moving things and people or generating economic value. The route to rational use of space and transport policy in many cities will almost literally have to run through the abolition of free on-street parking.

All that aside, I nevertheless feel some sympathy for motorists living in big cities over the stress of parking. There’s a purgatorial edge to the experience of trying to end one’s journey yet finding oneself desperately circling, running later and later for that meeting, and unable to stop.

It’s certainly no coincidence, I suspect, that a recently highly-publicised incident in New York where a police detective unleashed a tirade of racist vitriol at an Uber driver started when the detective was under the strain of looking for a parking spot.

I remember one resident's telling me in Fort Greene, when I was working on a story about the introduction of Citibike to the area, how he resented the loss of two parking spaces for a bikeshare station on his street. He already frequently spent half an hour circling looking for a parking spot at the end of a journey.

“What do I have to do?” he asked me. “Sell my house and move to where I can have a driveway?”

Who needs loading zones when you can get your watermelons
out in the middle of a busy street in The Bronx?
New York City also imposes on drivers the deeply-resented ritual of alternate side parking. Vehicles are banned for certain, brief hours each week from being parked on a certain side of each street, so that street cleaning machines can clean right to the kerb. When I first arrived in the city, I was baffled occasionally to see cars lined up, double-parked, on the wrong side of the street, their drivers patiently waiting for the sweeper to pass.

But it’s also easy for those used only to New York’s odd ways of doing things to lose sight of quite how anarchic the city’s parking culture is. When I lived in London, because most local shops had designated loading and unloading zones, it was rare to have to dodge round double-parked unloading trucks. In New York, double-parking is so endemic that Joel Rivera, a city council member, in 2013 introduced legislation, thankfully unsuccessfully, to make it legal for parents picking up children from school to double-park briefly.

Right by an intersection? Check. In the bike lane? Check.
Challenging weather? Check. The NYPD leads in New York's
parking chaos by terrible example.
When I visited Fort Greene to write about Citibike, local residents complained that residents of farther-flung parts of the borough drove to Fort Greene, parked on its streets and took the subway into Manhattan. Where I lived in London, the rules restricting some parking to holders of residents’ parking permits or their guests made it far harder for commuters to clog up local streets.

On my morning bike ride to work, even turning traffic lanes are clogged with parked vehicles which, because they are displaying the badge of some law enforcement agency, will be left unmolested, no matter how dangerously they are parked. I had never encountered such blatant abuse of official position - sadly a fairly standard aspect of NYPD behaviour - when living in the UK.

Five vehicles double-parked nose-to-tail in a rush-hour bike lane.
In other news, New York's cycling rate seems to be stalling.
The effects of New York’s parking anarchy and the reluctance to tackle it are far-reaching.  It’s thanks to parking’s being sacrosanct that I’m so often forced to ride up streets with narrow bike lanes painted in parked cars’ door zones – the most dangerous place to ride on the road. The lanes would be far better if more parking spaces were removed. Free on-street parking condemns vast swathes of land to producing no economic value at all. In many cities, congestion is one of the biggest external costs of motor vehicle use – and the presence of parked and double-parked cars on streets can only add to the hold-ups.

It significantly exacerbates the shortcomings of New York’s often inadequate bike lane network that vehicles park in many parts of it – both those segregated from traffic and painted lanes – with impunity. Cars parked right up to intersections frequently obscure what’s going on at intersections, increasing the risk of collisions. The sheer unpredictability of grappling with the constantly-shifting landscape of illegally-parked vehicles adds significantly to the stress of cycling in New York – and surely helps to account for the miserable proportion of trips in the city made by bicycle.

Nelson St: if you see the bikes locked to that pole and think
they're ruining the place, you'll fit right in.
There are few mysteries around how to alleviate cities’ parking problems. I remember my parents scrambling 40 years ago to buy parking tickets on my grandparents’ street in Edinburgh in Scotland under a then-new scheme to bring order to the city’s parking. It’s impossible to imagine so many New Yorkers would hang on to barely-used cars with dubiously-legal out-of-state registrations if parking cost a realistic amount in the densest parts of the city.

Yet I’ve heard since spotting the sign on Nelson St a week ago of a similar sign on another post elsewhere in the city. I see no evidence of any politician’s being willing to tackle the misery created by the wholesale storage of idle cars. New Yorkers continue, it seems, to accept the many problems created by motor vehicles but to express rage at the presence of far more space-efficient bicycles. Until that fundamental dynamic changes, many streets look set to continue to be like Nelson St – choked by the status quo, but full of residents raging at the prospect of change.


  1. It's surprising - and actually sort of funny - that you suspect the sign was put there to make parking easier for the sign writer. I don't know how easy it is to find a parking spot on that block, but in most similar areas the odds of getting a spot directly in front of a specific post are very slim. More likely, the sign writer, as the owner of the adjacent property, has the legal obligation to keep that section of the public sidewalk clean, and finds that a bike parked there makes his or her job more difficult.

    Finding spots for parking bikes in the public right of way is the problem. Cars have dedicated spaces, bikes mostly don't.

    New York is also unique among North American cities in being the ONLY city to not have residential parking permits, which would restrict the "drive to transit" phenomena you mention. We should institute residential parking permits, and build "park and ride" facilities closer to areas poorly served by public transit.

    1. Jonathan,

      Obviously, I don't know precisely why the householder put the sign out. But I still strongly suspect it's more to do with some perceived obstruction issue than cleaning. I haven't ever seen a householder clean a sidewalk in New York except after a snowfall and I think that the sign's newer than the last snowfall. That it's unlikely the householder ever manages to park in front of that specific post doesn't necessarily mean, in my view, that the householder didn't put the sign there for that purpose. The whole issue, as I wrote, involves a great deal of illogicality.

      As for the residential parking permits, you're absolutely correct. Park-and-ride is probably a good idea in outlying bits of the city but for a lot of the city I suspect there's just a lot of laziness involved in the driving-to-transit. People get in the car rather than walk a short distance to the subway. They then dump the car in places like Fort Greene once driving becomes effectively impossible.

      All the best,


    2. It is actually quite easy to get a spot right in front of your house, if you move your car during alternate side parking. Just follow the street sweeper down the block and stop at your preferred spot. Then wait for the time to run out.

  2. Interestingly, as much as car owners hate alternate side parking, they rarely acknowledge the fact that life would be HELL for them without it. It would be impossible for them to find a spot since other car owners would hold on to their spot for as long as they can go without moving.

    Once they understand this concept, they are somewhat ready to be introduced to the economics of parking, and the supply and demand of it all. Namely, that charging for overnight curbside parking would benefit everyone!

    1. Anonymous,

      It's certainly helpful that alternate side parking gets vehicles moved about - and probably deters some outright vehicle storage. I suspect, however, that it might seriously complicate the business of introducing residents' parking permits. I'd be inclined to trade dirtier gutters for more logical parking.

      All the best,


  3. In London the push for residents parking was from residents themselves who were frustrated at not being able to park near their home because of commuters. After controlled parking was put in place by tube stations, there was then was a ripple affect as it spread to adjacent areas so now, you won't find many areas in central London without controlled parking.

    It seems very strange to me that something similar hasn't happened in NY.

    A consequence of controlled parking in London is that quite a few new developments are now car-free. Developers want to maximise the square footage used for residences so are happy not to build car parking if they don't need to, and the local authority won't issue permits to people who live at that address.

    Controlled parking permits in London are still ridiculously cheap in my opinion. In my borough, an annual permit works out at £5 a week, while if I wanted to put a skip on the road outside the house, it would cost £45 a week. A skip is sitting there 100% of the time while a car is there on average 90% of the time... obviously that 10% makes all the difference...

    1. Michael,

      You're quite right that residents' parking permits have brought far more rationality to parking in London. There are also battles over how much parking to put in at new developments in New York. For many, it's compulsory to put a certain level of parking in the building. If that parking lies idle, however, it trashes the economics of the development. Entirely car-free developments are pretty rare.

      All the best,


  4. It's another symptom of car craziness, as in New Orleans at

    The notion that taxpayers should subsidize car storage is bizarre!

    1. Steve,

      You're quite right it's crazy. It's even crazier in some ways in New York than in New Orleans, given that New York's public transit is rather more effective than New Orleans'. If politicians would only drop the idea that every ordinary person is a driver, the world would be far better.

      All the best,


  5. Excellent post.

    Ian Walker's take on parking this is amusing:


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