Replacing Parking with Parks

by Anne Schwartz, Sep 20, 2007

Someone looking for a parking spot on a sunny Saturday last June in Park Slope, Brooklyn, might have been annoyed to that discover two spots in a prime location were blocked by a plywood cutout of a car and filled with lawn chairs where people could stop and hang out. From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., members of a neighborhood organization called Park Slope Neighbors fed the meters and invited passersby to sit and enjoy the space.

This parking spot squat, a brief re-imagining of what could be done with a couple hundred square feet of public space, elicited a lot of nasty posts on Curbed, the New York City real estate blog. One of the milder comments was, "I would have loved to see these pedestrian pansies blocking a spot I wanted to park my Ram Pickup in. I would just pull up reeaaal close and BLARE the horn."

On the street, however, "once people started coming out and seeing it, they were very excited about what was going on," recalled Geoff Zink, one of the organizers. People were able to "viscerally experience this alternative use for parking space and how it can improve their quality of life," he said. At the nexus of the Slope’s shopping district and across from the local elementary school — where parents with strollers, twenty-somethings and other locals already overflow the outdoor benches provided by the muffin shop on the corner — it was even possible, for a moment, to envision a permanent public space.

Parks for a Day

Zink and his compatriots will set up a more formal version of their "park" on Saturday, September 22, this time as part of National Park(ing) Day (officially September 21), sponsored by the Trust for Public Land and the San Francisco arts collective REBAR. In a dozen American cities, and around the world, metered parking spots will be turned temporarily into public spaces to call attention to the need for urban parks.

"We want to inspire people to think of creative ways to make New York City more livable, starting with our neighborhood," said Julie Raskin, a Columbia University senior who organized a group creating a mini-quad with Astroturf and lawn chairs — complete with Frisbees, books and free cider — to highlight the university’s shortage of outdoor space for studying and socializing.

About two dozen such "parks" are planned in at least four boroughs. The New York City pedestrian and bicycle advocate Transportation Alternatives is coordinating the effort. There will be greenery and benches in several midtown spots courtesy of New Yorkers for Parks and the Trust for Public Land; a scene of the city before the automobile staged by the Lower Eastside Girls Club; and shade, chairs, lemonade, a volunteer bike mechanic and musical entertainment in the West Village from Time's Up! and Green Map.

"We take for granted that a street has so much space for pedestrians, so much space for vehicles, and so much space for parking. It hasn’t always been that way," said Wiley Norvell, communications director for Transportation Alternatives. "Is the best use of the space to park one person’s private vehicle when nobody is in it, or to have children playing or seniors sitting or have a little bit of green space in an otherwise concrete area?"

What seems like another crazy art installation or a novel form of street theater may actually lead to a valuable discussion about the most efficient and productive use of a major piece of the city’s public real estate. About a quarter to a third of most city roadways are dedicated to curbside parking, while in parts of the city, sidewalks are jammed during peak hours. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s blueprint for the next quarter century focuses on keeping the city sustainable as it adds an expected one million new residents, in part by creating new public plazas in every neighborhood and reducing traffic congestion and pollution. Reconfiguring some curbside space -- in the context of a citywide parking policy -- could help meet these goals.

Parking’s Toll

Urban policy makers are looking more closely at how parking availability and pricing affects traffic congestion, pollution and energy use. Anyone who has ever driven in the city knows that even one perfectly placed double-parked car can snarl the traffic for blocks. Several recent studies have found that drivers searching for parking generate a significant percentage of traffic in the city. A survey by Transportation Alternatives conducted on four days in January and February found that 45 percent of the people driving on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope were cruising for a parking spot. In another study, by transportation expert Bruce Schaller, who is now a deputy commissioner at the Department of Transportation, 28 percent of drivers surveyed while waiting at traffic lights in Soho were looking for curbside parking.

Other studies have found that many New Yorkers drive because they want to – not because they have to – and that available and sometimes free parking offers a powerful incentive for them to use their cars instead of mass transit.

Any plan to reallocate parking spots would, of course, have to be part of a comprehensive plan for managing and pricing parking, something the city does not yet have. Other cities, particularly in Europe, have found many ways to provide parking for those who need it while discouraging unnecessary driving. These include charging market prices for metered parking, allowing only neighborhood residents to park on local streets and creating new space-efficient garages that stack cars on moving platforms.

New Uses for Asphalt Spaces

If some of the city’s parking spots were eliminated, that square footage could be used to make sidewalks wider and safer, add bike lanes, create little parks and plazas in areas that lack public space and provide more public seating for seniors and others who would venture out more readily if they knew there was a place to rest. Imagine wider sidewalks on Prince Street, greenery around Penn Station or benches every few blocks on the commercial streets of residential neighborhoods.

The idea of replacing parking spots for other uses might be starting to catch on. In July, for the first time ever, the New York City Department of Transportation removed car parking spots for bicycle parking, adding racks for 30 more bikes at the Bedford Avenue stop on the L train, a very popular bike-and-ride destination. Then, in August, the department turned a small triangular parking lot in Dumbo into a pocket park.

Transportation Alternatives is developing proposals for the city and community groups as part of a more extensive effort to swap parking spots for little parks and other community space. "In order to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, there are limits to what you can put in on sidewalks in terms of amenities, like bus shelters, benches, or trees," said Norvell . "Only through increasing sidewalk space can these amenities be provided. We think this is a tradeoff a lot of New Yorkers would be willing to make."