A Free Parking Space Grows in Manhattan

The Antiplanner blew it yesterday by saying there was no free parking in Manhattan, which shows this Oregon resident doesn’t spend much time in the Big Apple. It turns out Manhattan has lots of free on-street parking, though on many streets you have to move your car to the alternate side of the street every night.

This doesn’t change my main point, which is that it is one thing to argue that cities should not price parking below market rates where there is a market for parking. I have no problem with this. But it is quite another thing to argue, as many urban planners following the Shoup model do, that private businesses should be required to charge for parking (or be limited in how much parking they can provide) in areas where the market rate for parking is zero (meaning most areas outside of central city downtowns).

But I began to wonder: if there is so much free on-street parking in Manhattan, why would someone pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for their own personal parking space? Census data indicate that, outside of towns in Alaska that are not accessible by auto, Manhattan has about the lowest rate of auto ownership in the United States: just 22.5 percent of households have a car, compared with more than 90 percent in the rest of the country. So you might not think there would be much demand for parking.

On the other hand, Manhattan has some of the highest population densities in the United States: nearly 67,000 people per square mile according to the 2000 census, compared with an average of 2,000 to 3,000 per square mile in most other developed areas. Combine one-quarter the auto-ownership rate with twenty times the population density and Manhattan turns out to have a much higher density of locally owned autos than all but a handful of communities, most of them bedroom suburbs.

Specifically, as of the 2000 census, Manhattan residents owned (or leased) more than 8,350 cars per square mile. That’s considerably more than Brooklyn or Queens (both around 6,500 cars per square mile), and more than twice car-crazy Los Angeles (about 3,900 cars per square mile for the city) and more than four times auto-friendly Houston (about 1,800 per square mile, again for the city).

Among urban areas, the highest auto densities are found in San Francisco-Oakland (4,000 veh/sq mi), San Jose (3,900), and Los Angeles (3,800). The New York-Northern New Jersey urban area only has about 2,200 cars per square mile, but that covers more than 3,300 square miles of land outside of Manhattan, including most of Long Island and parts of New Jersey more than 100 miles south of New York City. The Houston urban area has just 1,700 cars per square mile.

About a dozen incorporated cities and towns have higher auto densities than Manhattan, led by Guttenberg, NJ at 20,600 veh/sq mi and West Hollywood, CA at 13,900 veh/sq mi. Then there is Friendship Village, MD, the highest-density “census-defined place” in America, a small group of high rises housing 82,000 people and 45,000 cars per square mile (though in fact the whole place occupies less than a tenth of a square mile). In general, higher population densities may have lower auto ownership rates but they are still tend to be associated with higher auto densities per square mile. So much for reducing congestion by increasing population densities.

You can look up the data on the Census Bureau’s web site, by choosing the decennial census, selecting Summary File 3, and asking for table H44. To save you the trouble, I’ve posted auto ownership data in three files: by urbanized area (a 3.6 MB file that includes urban clusters of 2,500 people or more), by place (a 12.7 MB file that includes cities, towns, and other concentrations of people that the Census Bureau defined as “places”), and a few selected areas, including the five boroughs of New York City as well as the cities and urban areas of Houston, Los Angeles, Portland, and San Francisco.

The census question on vehicle ownership asked households if they had 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 or more cars. In calculating the number of cars, I assumed that households with “five or more cars” had just five cars, which may slightly underestimate auto densities in some areas. But this should not greatly change the results as less than 1.3 percent of households (including nearly 2,000 households in Manhattan) admitted to having five or more cars.


8 thoughts on “A Free Parking Space Grows in Manhattan

  1. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    > Then there is Friendship Village, MD, the highest-density
    > “census-defined place” in America, a small group of high
    > rises housing 82,000 people and 45,000 cars per square mile
    > (though in fact the whole place occupies less than a tenth
    > of a square mile).

    Commonly known as Friendship Heights, this place is hard by the border between the District of Columbia and Montgomery County, Maryland. It’s not quite a municipality, but is a so-called special tax district formally called the Village of Friendship Heights. The name Friendship Heights is shared with the (lower-density) area across Western Avenue in D.C.

    It has a station on the WMATA Metrorail Red Line (and long before that, it was home to a bus terminal and before that, a streetcar terminal).

    To me, the more amusing fact about Friendship Heights is its largest employer, located adjacent to the apartment buildings across Willard Avenue, is the Government Employment Insurance Company, more commonly known as GEICO, which has earned many dollars over the years for its owners (currently Warren Buffett) by insuring the private automobiles of people that work for the federal government.

    One would think that Montgomery County’s obsession with transit would have rewarded GEICO with as much employment density as possible. Alas, that was not to be, as the county’s culture of not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBYism) trumped the idea that jobs should be near a rail transit station, and instead of expanding in Friendship Heights, the company built a massive new complex along U.S. 17 in Stafford County, Virginia (many miles from the nearest transit service and many miles from Montgomery’s planning-obsessed citizens).

  2. Market Urbanism

    I don’t doubt that Manhattan has the highest auto-density. But does your calculation account for the number of Manhattanites that don’t keep their cars in the city. Most Manhattanite car owners that I know keep their cars in the outer boroughs, Jersey, or their summer home…

    There’s always demand for parking – even in NY – it’s the supply that makes things crazy. Although there is free parking on many streets, there’s hardly enough at the price that is charged… Anyone who values their time either ditches the car, keeps the car out of the city, or pays top dollar for a spot in a garage…

    I’m not in favor of anyone being forced to charge for something they choose to offer for free, but I can’t think of any Manhattan businesses that offer free parking anyway. It’s obvious that pricing mechanisms need to be allowed to allocate parking on the streets.

    However, I don’t think the market rate for parking in a truly market-governed society would be so close to zero that it should be mandated to zero – even in a low-density situation. Thus, I oppose parking minimums.

  3. The Antiplanner Post author

    Census Bureau numbers don’t account for people who don’t keep their cars where they live. But it is interesting to note that the NY DMV says there are a lot more cars registered in Manhattan (New York County) than census estimates. The 2008 census estimate was 190,000 cars owned by households. The DVM says there were more than 223,000 “standard” vehicles registered in Manhattan. The 33,000 difference might be accounted for by government and business-owned vehicles, but it is still a lot.

    BTW, the urbanized area file has autos, population, and land area, so we can calculate the correlation between population and auto density. For urbanized areas (areas greater than 50,000 in population), the correlation is 95 percent. For clusters (areas with 2,500 to 49,999 people), the correlation is lower, about 45 percent.

  4. T. Caine

    It really depends on the neighborhood you live in. I live near Union Square, between 5th and 6th Avenues and even though the streets are packed during the day, leaving you fighting for a parking space, not many people are staying the night. When friends visit from out of town they can always find a parking space on my street for the night, but they have to move in the morning.

    I think a lot of the traffic is commuting/off island traffic. As Market Urbanism notes, I think most residents don’t have a car and those that do keep it outside of the city. Land in NYC is becoming too valuable to fund parking lots, but garages in new construction are still common place. I have one in the base of my building and it certainly helps generate revenue.

    In reality, you really don’t need a car if you live on the island. I’d say I agree with you here. If street parking was priced at lot/market prices, it would change the dynamic of which people chose to drive in. The less cars in Manhattan the better.

  5. Andrew

    “But I began to wonder: if there is so much free on-street parking in Manhattan, why would someone pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for their own personal parking space?”

    Because of the annoyance of having to move your car to the other side of the street 4 times per week either between 8a and 11a or 11a and 2p for street sweeping

    When its not street sweeping time, both sides of the street are generally filled with parked cars. When the dread hour approaches, all the cars vanish. The lucky ones find another spot on the opposite side of the street where they don’t have to move them until the next day. The unlucky ones have to circle around in their cars for 2 1/2 hours until about 30 minutes before the sweeping time is up and people begin to return to the street and park their cars, but sit in them to occupy them in case they are asked to move.

    I found after a while the ideal sequence for parking was as follows:

    1) Wednesday at 1:30 pm, take a spot on a Monday/Wednesday 11a-2p no parking street. You can leave the car until Monday morning.
    2) Monday at 10:30a, get the car, and move it to a Monday/Wednesday 8a-11p no parking street that is just finishing getting swept. You can leave the car until Wednesday morning.
    3) Wednesday at 8a, park the car in a lot or a meterd spot until 1:30 pm, or go run errands in the outer boroughs or the suburbs, or get up early and try to find a Tuesday/Thursday spot being vacated. If choosing a metered spot, often best to occupy when the metering stops the night before at 6p or 8p or 9p and then feed the meter in the morning.

    I spent 4 years driving to Manhattan almost every weekend starting in 1996. On weekends, I never had trouble finding a free on street spot within 15 minutes of arriving on the island near where I was going. Most of the time, I was within 2 blocks of my destination, and very frequently, I got within a few doors of my girlfriend’s apartment. On weekdays, much harder. When I later lived in Manhattan I tried keeping a car there, but gave up in frustration at the opposite side parking rules for street sweeping and began garaging the car with my dad in suburban New Jersey.

  6. Marcotico

    I think your surprise comes from the same place as something I noticed in Bruegmann’s book on Sprawl. You both make the mistake of confusing owning a car for using a car. It makes perfect sense that places that have higher densities of ownership have lower rates of usage, because density correlates with other options to driving. People still value the flexibility that cars bring, but don’t rely on them for stable transportation that doesn’t require flexibility. Many pro-transit people aren’t advocating for getting rid of all cars (although some are), just in more selective use of those cars. For example people with no experience of transit think they couldn’t get by without their cars for their commute, because “what if” they need it in an emergency, or what if they want to go to their grocery. But this is far from rational thinking: basing 99% of your travel decisions on 1% of your need.

    Same with parking minimums. They base required parking on peak demand. And in the retail context that means basing 364 days supply on 1 day’s demand. No business would plan their demand that way. In a demonstration of ULI’s shared parking methods, I recently saw, that basing requirements on average monthly peak demand versus that one Saturday before Christmas parking demand could save a shopping mall, 3,000 spaces!

    In his book for example, Bruegmann points out that smart-growth advocates are mistaken in pointing to Europe as a model, because car ownership has grown radically as suburbs have spread. However, he is not looking into the data. Ownership in European suburbs has grown almost as much as American ownership, but usage has not grown as fast. People over their use their vehicles much more selectively. And still maintain a high quality of life.

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