A Heated Debate About Free Street Parking on the Upper West Side

  Last modified on March 10th, 2020

On the evening of December 3rd, the chair of Community Board 7, Mark Diller, acknowledged the large crowd of people eager to speak about the resolution requested by the Transportation Committee to the city to do a study on curb usage.

“I know that this is the issue that a lot of you came out for, and we absolutely want to hear you. Per my remarks earlier, please let’s have a dialogue that talks about the issues and not about anybody or anything else.”

What followed was a very heated debate where local residents and board members accused one another of everything from personal agendas to ageism for not caring about future generations.

Howard Yaruss, co-chair of the Transportation Committee, took some time before presenting the resolution to review the background. He explained that in May the Transportation Committee was discussing the increased congestion on the UWS.  He explained that there are many reasons for the increase in congestion including the increase in the number of delivery trucks, double parked cars, and bike lanes.  Howard explained that he thinks this is a complex issue and in his own words he “doesn’t know what to do.” What he would like to do is have the city do a study.

“What we have before us merely calls on the city to assess what’s going on with the curbs. To assess the policy of free parking, and the usage of the curbs as it exists, and to consider things like residential parking permits, and surge pricing for busy hours.”

Howard said this would allow for loading zones so that Amazon and Fresh Direct could do their business legally and not frustrate everyone with their parking situation.

“The city has experts that we pay, and that are there to help us in this regard. They unanimously decided we’d like to hear from them on what we could possibly do to improve this situation. That’s the resolution before us tonight.”

The first draft of the resolution adopted by the transportation committee, but not by the board, asked the city to end the practice of providing free parking for private cars. There was a public forum meeting that included speakers and experts from the city and non-profits.

The following facts were taken into consideration:

  • A congestion pricing plan was passed by New York State which will impose fees on cars that travel south of 60th Street. This may increase congestion of non-residents looking to park on streets north of 60th Street in order to avoid driving into the congestion zone.
  • City owned street space next to curbs is a precious commodity. This huge amount of City owned land should be used to create the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
  • Free parking for privately owned cars strongly encourages private car use over mass public transit, thereby creating traffic congestion, pollution, environmental degradation as well as unsafe conditions for pedestrians, cyclists and other users of the street. It exacerbates economic inequality by directing limited City resources to private car owners.

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Community Board 7 requested that the City assess and analyze the policy of providing free parking for private cars and consider whether there are more productive and equitable uses of the curbside space, including, but not limited to:

  • paid residential parking permits
  • meters capable of surge pricing
  • the best practices of other major cities

After listening to local residents speak, Jay Adolf, a community board member, said he found Howard’s characterizations as “just a study” and disingenuous.

“I have to say, to sell this resolution as only asking for study in my opinion, is disingenuous and misleading. And I say that because of the language of the resolution itself. The third bullet point of this resolution, which is designated as a fact, by the terms of the resolution, clearly demonstrates that the committee that produced this resolution has already made up its mind.”

Jay also took great offense to the statement that free parking exacerbated economic inequality.

“One of the gentlemen who testified made the point that, in fact, it’s precisely the opposite. It’s people that cannot afford the outrageous fees to park in private garages that have to use the streets to park their cars which they use for work or visiting family, or taking care of their children or their elderly relatives.”

Many local residents said that they have lived on the UWS for decades and have had it with their parking spots disappearing. One speaker argued that if you want to decrease congestion, one must create more free parking, because many of the cars, up to 74%, are driving around looking for parking! Not only that, but community members argued that this was an assault on those who cannot afford to park in garages. Many community members resented the fact that just because they owned a car, it meant that they were wealthy.

More extreme opponents to the resolution said it was “anti-car”, and called for Howard to step down from his position.

Not everyone agreed that so much curb space should be used for cars, free parking or otherwise. One speaker, who identified as a physician, public health professional, and mother, stated “There are few health problems that can’t be linked to cars and the way we built our environment around them. From high blood pressure and heart disease due to noise pollution, asthma, air pollution, physical inactivity and obesity, and even behavior problems in kids because they can’t get out and play. As a physician, I am too aware of all the horrible things that can happen to kids. But when I send out my daughter in morning the thing I really truly think about is, am I going to get that call that she’s been hit by a car on her way to the park.”

Others in favor of eliminating parking space and making the UWS less conducive to parking argued that it is time for change.

“I’m speaking on behalf of the 76% of the Upper West Side: I do not own a car. I am curious as to the percentage of people in this room and on this board, who are part of that 76% of individuals in our community, and that is what concerns me,” said one board member.

She continued to say that a study will help to decide what to do. “It’s not calling for anything. It’s not calling for metering, it’s not calling for permits, which is why I don’t understand why everyone is speaking against this resolution. It’s not calling for anything …  it’s (just) calling for a study.”

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Overall, this issue was seen as a very debatable proposition. All of the board members agree that these issues exist and are not opposed to the city doing a study, but want the ask not to reflect a bias towards eliminating free parking.

By the end of the almost 2 hour debate, one of the board members said “I’ll try and keep it brief. I really don’t even know what we’re voting on anymore, there’s been so many things that I really can’t keep track of.”

In the end, the resolution was sent back to the Transportation Committee so that it can be redrafted with edits that have been suggested. There will be a public meeting on December 10th at 7pm at the Board Office (250 West 87th Street) so that people can review the next draft of the resolution.

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