Owning a Car in the City Should Suck

Judging from some recent local media stories, New York City is famous for its plentiful parking. For decades, motorists could count on finding a spot within a half-block of their intended destination any time, day or night, without cause for concern. The city is a driver’s paradise. But that paradise was shattered when the pandemic hit and everyone who didn’t already have a car bought one and now parking sucks.

If that doesn’t sound quite right to you, tell it to the people interviewed by the the New York Times and Newsday, which both published articles on the same “parking in NYC is hard now” theme today. For example, here is Maria Ardito from Farmingdale in Long Island: “Before the pandemic, it was ‘no problem’ to find a spot during jaunts with her daughter to Broadway, to dine out, to check out the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. ‘Now, you can’t find anything,’ Ardito said.”

This is, of course, totally absurd. New York has been synonymous with endless traffic jams, total gridlock, impossible parking and hours-long spot-hunting for decades. There was an entire TV show about in the 90s. And it is nothing short of bizarre revisionism to even imply otherwise.

Both articles echo drivers who lay part of the blame on the city’s outdoor dining initiative, which has converted approximately 10,000 of the city’s estimated three million parking spots to restaurant seating. This doesn’t hold up to mathematical scrutiny, as outdoor dining has removed something like one third of one percent of the city’s on-street parking. While this may be having an effect in certain neighborhoods with lots of outdoor dining, by and large the bigger impact is the fact that more people have cars.

According to the Times, total new car registrations in four boroughs—the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan—jumped 37 percent from August to October (Staten Island already had very high rates of car ownership before the pandemic) compared to the same period the year before. Brooklyn and Manhattan saw increases of 45 and 76 percent, respectively. While those numbers may be exaggerated because of pent-up demand during the months car-buying wasn’t occurring and possibly overstates the impact on parking as some people bought cars as the first step towards moving out of the city, there’s little denying the main point: car ownership and usage in the city is way up.

This is important for a lot of reasons. In general, more car usage is bad for the environment and bad for public safety. And the more people that own cars, the harder it will be to institute policies that make other modes of transportation more attractive, because there is a finite amount of road space and trade-offs to every decision about how to use it. The more people that have invested hundreds of dollars a month in owning a machine that has to be parked on the street, the harder it will be for the city to reduce the amount of space where those machines can be parked.

This isn’t to lay blame at the feet of car owners themselves. Any car-free New Yorker who says they haven’t fantasized about owning a car at some point in the last year is probably lying. I had the Mitsubishi Mirage with my name on it all picked out before I reminded myself I can’t afford a car nor do I want to deal with the headaches of car ownership in the city. But I thought about it for more time than I care to admit.

Likewise, every expert I have ever interviewed about transportation and land use issues emphasizes that systemic change will not come from convincing millions of people to act against their own self-interests, but for policymakers to make changes that will align those self-interests with the outcomes we want. If we want fewer people to own cars, it needs to not be subsidized, including but hardly limited to free use of public space. And other alternatives need to be cheap, convenient, fast, and pleasant. This is no small task, especially during the pandemic where there is nowhere to go except perhaps remote hiking trails or small towns in the suburbs, trips inherently unfriendly to mass transit alternatives.

In that sense, all these New Yorkers realizing—either for the first time or once again—that owning a car in New York is and will always be a pain in the ass are learning the lesson we want them to learn. Owning a car in the city should suck. In fact, it should suck way more than it currently does. It’s nice for individual people’s circumstances that they now have weekend escape pods or cars to visit their parents in the suburbs, but these are exactly the types of car ownership use cases—people who have cars not because they need one for their livelihoods but because they can—the city should be seeking to phase out (while making car ownership and parking easier for people with disabilities or specific occupational requirements like parcel delivery services and maintenance workers). The city should be accomplishing this not by banning cars—an urbanist fever dream in the auto-centric U.S.—but by making car ownership and use more unpleasant while boosting public options.

Opponents of this strategy will say the same things they always do, that drivers have just as much of a right to road space as everyone else and removing parking or creating bus and bike lanes is the city playing favorites. The problem is that’s not the current situation, where the vast majority of road space is dedicated to automobiles and their storage, creating a death spiral in which much of the city has been dedicated for such purposes in the quixotic quest for more convenient driving and parking, resulting in the very imbalance some drivers decry. Any effort to reverse this imbalance will make driving and parking slower and harder to benefit other uses, such as outdoor dining or faster buses.

In much the same way that a new bus-only lane next to a general travel lane doesn’t impede the right of drivers to use the road, removing some parking to keep restaurants in business doesn’t impede the right of drivers to park elsewhere. What does impede drivers is the presence of so many other drivers. There’s an old saying that if you’re in the traffic, you are the traffic. The same goes for parking. And the only proven way to fix that is not to create more parking, but to get people to give up their cars by making it too much of a pain in the ass to have one.

To Mayor Bill de Blasio’s credit, he has said the outdoor dining initiative will be permanent and accepts the trade-off between less parking and more outdoor dining space. We need more of this, more of public officials saying less about compromise and more about trade-offs we need to make. Only by acknowledging the trade-offs, rather than pretending everyone in New York City can have a free parking space, can we make better decisions and have a better city. Welcome to New York City, where owning a car has always sucked.

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