City Council Speaker Corey Johnson made headlines this spring when he said it was time to “break the car culture” in New York City.
“We have too many cars on the road causing traffic and greenhouse gas emissions, not enough space for more environmentally safe modes of transportation such as buses and bikes, and we don’t provide anywhere near enough opportunity for mobility impaired New Yorkers to navigate the City,” wrote Johnson in his “Let’s Go” mobility report, released last March.
More than half of city households are car-free and just 27 percent of New Yorkers drive to work, according to city Economic Development Corporation figures. Yet most of the city’s curbsides are reserved for parking private vehicles, and Johnson has said he wants the city to change that.
“We have over three million public [on-street] parking spaces in New York City,” Johnson said on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show in July, “and we should reclaim that space and use it for the public.”
One facet of Johnson’s transportation plan is to repurpose street space for buses. The council speaker is calling for at least 30 miles of new bus lanes per year, with physical separation from other traffic and camera enforcement to keep out cars and trucks.
“We can have a much faster and more reliable surface transit network if we convert curbside parking to bus lanes,” Ben Fried, communications director at the transit advocacy group TransitCenter, tells Gothamist.
“We have the slowest buses in the nation,” says Fried. “There are miles and miles of streets where the city should convert parking spaces to bus lanes to turn things around.”
Fried points to two current projects—the just completed Fresh Pond Road bus lane in Ridgewood and one planned for Brooklyn’s Church Avenue—as good examples of DOT converting curbside parking to bus lanes.
“DOT has done a good job of identifying the pinch points in the street network where buses slow down a lot and need more priority,” says Fried.
When Johnson talks about “reclaiming” streets, he means just that. Though curbside parking—much of it free—is today regarded by many as an entitlement, until the 1950s it was not legal for motorists to store their cars on city streets overnight. Though many parked curbside overnight anyway as early as the 1930s, most kept their cars in garages.
There are estimated to now be more than five million parking spots in New York City, including three million on-street spaces, according to a recent tally published by Streetsblog. With a standard parking spot measuring roughly 8 by 20 feet, that equates to 480 million square feet— or about 12 Central Parks—allocated to curbside parking alone.
“When we need to make upgrades to our city streets for bike lanes, for further pedestrianization, for bus lanes, that is going to mean we have to remove some parking spaces,” Johnson said last week. “And that is the appropriate thing to do. We cannot allow private automobiles to be prioritized over the lives of New Yorkers who are trying to get around in a safe way.”
Coming from one of the city’s most powerful elected officials, Johnson’s people-first transportation agenda is practically a revelation. Mayor Bill de Blasio, by contrast, has repeatedly encouraged motorists to block bike lanes, which is illegal and places people on bikes at mortal risk. De Blasio treats parking placards as political currency, and has increased the size of the city’s municipal fleet by 3,000 vehicles—which means that much more street, curb, and sidewalk space occupied by motor vehicles.
After tabling the ParkSmart initiative started by the Bloomberg administration to discourage long-term curbside parking by raising meter rates during times of high demand, last year de Blasio’s DOT took its first steps toward meaningfully regulating curbside parking turnover in commercial districts citywide. Residential parking permits, a system proposed as part of Bloomberg’s 2008 congestion pricing plan, have yet to be implemented during de Blasio’s tenure. A more engaged approach to managing curbsides would reduce cruising for spots and calm traffic by making it easier to park.
In addition to bus lanes, Fried says, the city could build bus-only “queue jumps” to bypass cars at traffic-choked intersections. More bus bulbs (sidewalk extensions at bus stops) would speed buses by allowing riders to board more quickly, since buses don’t have to merge in and out of traffic. Removing parking spots at intersections, a.k.a. “daylighting,” would improve safety and accessibility around bus stops and subway stations, especially for kids, seniors, and people with disabilities.
“This is a much better use of public street space than private car storage,” says Fried.
“If you look at the city’s busiest transit hubs, the pedestrian environment is pretty atrocious,” Fried says. “Around Penn Station and downtown Flushing, for instance, you’ll see people walking in the street because there’s just not enough room on the sidewalk. The sidewalks should be a good 10 feet wider in these places.”
Cities such as Seattle are using curbsides as “flex zones” that, depending on context, can be reimagined in a number of ways, says Transportation Alternatives communications director Joe Cutrufo.
“So in a commercial area, like a main street in Brooklyn or Queens, or one of the avenues in Manhattan, in addition to something like a loading zone you would see parklets and seating for restaurants and that kind of thing,” says Cutrufo. “In more residential areas you would probably see a mix of parking, reserved for residents that hopefully they’re paying something for, and something like bioswales in neighborhoods where they have drainage problems.”
While “there’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” Cutrufo says, he stresses that New York City is in dire need of more loading zones for taxis and freight, to reduce the rampant double parking that contributes to crashes and slows buses as well as other traffic. (Over the summer, DOT debuted a pilot program to add loading zones for package deliveries in residential areas in all five boroughs. But the city scaled back the program after some drivers complained.)
Impressive as it is, for now Johnson’s transportation plan exists only on paper. As early as 2021, though, New York City streets will see their most significant tangible transformation since the launch of Citi Bike: congestion pricing, which was finally approved by state lawmakers this year.
Congestion pricing is expected to reduce traffic within Manhattan’s Central Business District by 8 to 13 percent. Just as important, 80 percent of pricing revenues are to be invested in transit improvements—which will be essential to any large-scale effort to allocate more New York City street space to people, rather than cars.
“I estimate that on a typical weekday, almost 40,000 fewer vehicles will arrive in the CBD from 6 to 10 a.m.,” Komanoff tells Gothamist. “Around half of them pay to park, mostly off-street but some on-street. Taking 50 percent of the above, we have roughly 20,000 fewer vehicles coming into the CBD and paying to park.”
There are 102,000 on-street parking spaces in the Manhattan CBD, according to a 2011 city report.
“Needless to say,” adds Komanoff, “just how much of a decrease [in parking demand results] depends on the particular plan.”
And the success or failure of Corey Johnson’s transportation vision hinges in large part on rooting out placard corruption, a problem de Blasio has made many times worse by handing out 50,000 more placards to school employees, bringing the total number to about 150,000.
“You can paint all the bus lanes you want,” says Fried, “but if you have 150,000 people driving around who can park in bus lanes with total impunity, the bus lanes are going to get blocked.”
Journalist Brad Aaron was formerly a reporter and editor at Streetsblog in NYC, the "complete streets" advocacy news site.