By Alex Israel
Transportation experts discussed the potential future of the Upper West Side’s curbs during a forum on curbside optimization hosted by Community Board 7’s Transportation Committee. At least 60 people showed up to the forum on Tuesday night, hosted at St. Paul and St. Andrews Church (263 West 86 Street) in place of the committee’s monthly meeting.
“Please come with an open mind and with questions for the panelists,” read CB7’s promotional flyer, which also described the intended purpose of the event as “to discuss the different possible uses of curbside space.” The forum was scheduled after the transportation committee urged the city to stop providing free parking for private cars during a meeting in May, in response the New York State legislature’s passing of a congestion pricing proposal that will take effect no earlier than January 2021.
The full panel included Charles Komanoff, creator of the model used by New York State legislators to analyze congestion pricing and President Emeritus of Transportation Alternatives, a non-profit organization with a mission is to decrease automobile use; Ed Pincar, Manhattan Borough Commissioner for the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT); and Rachel Weinberger, Senior Fellow for Transportation at the Regional Plan Association, an independent non-profit organization that focuses on recommendations to improve the quality of life and economic competitiveness in the tri-state area.
Upper West Siders were eager to open up the floor without so much as an introduction from the speakers—but before turning to questions, committee co-chair Howard Yaruss invited the panelists to kick the night off with some opening remarks.
Weinberger started the discussion with a short introduction to the issue of curb management, which she identified as a “resource allocation problem” that involves competing demands for the curb.”The right allocation today might not be the right allocation ten years from now,” she said. “The allocation we have—there’s actually no reason to believe it’s in fact the right allocation for today. So we need to come up with a systemic and systematic approach to thinking about these issues,” she added, noting the complexity of the topic and praising the community board for hosting the discussion. “It’s a critical question and it’s not well-answered in any way I’m aware of.”
Pincar spoke next, emphasizing DOT’s dedication to taking a balanced approach to the problem. “Trying to find the right answer is really challenging,” he said, echoing Weinberger. “In the past it may have been unbalanced, and dedicated too much to one mode of transportation, and now we’re trying to bring it back to a situation where the many different people in our neighborhood—residents, businesses, institutions, bus riders—are trying to get the best available curb to them,” he said, pointing to the success of DOT’s more recent pedestrian enhancements, including shared streets, busways, street seats, and bike corrals.
Komanoff rounded out the opening remarks by voicing support for congestion pricing and paid curbside parking. Congestion pricing represents “the opening of a door or the turning of a page away from treating resources as boundless and—in a funny way—without value,” said Komanoff, who believes putting a price against these resources is the only way to change behaviors for the better. “When we win congestion pricing, we are going to turn to pricing curbside space. Not because we want to make life harder for New Yorkers, but because we want to make it easier,” he said to a mix of groans and cheers from the audience.
From there, Yaruss began to summarize the written questions for the panel that attendees had submitted via index card, ranging in topic from parking permits and curbside pricing to loading zones and bus and bike lanes.
“Why is New York City the only city in the country that doesn’t have residential parking permits?” he read off an index card, laughing at the framing of the question. Residential parking permits (RPP), which designate certain street parking spaces for the exclusive use of local residents, are currently implemented in some form in San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., and Portland, OR. New York politicians have considered them but they’ve never materialized.
“We have concerns about the system and how it would work in our city,” answered Pincar, referencing prior studies conducted by DOT. An overwhelming number of vehicles and a limited supply of curb space suggests that DOT wouldn’t be able to guarantee everyone a space, he said. But, as he attempted to assure the audience (for the first of many times throughout the night), there is no specific proposal up for discussion on either side of the issue—and the first formal study regarding residential permit parking won’t occur until at least 18 months after congestion pricing rolls out.
Weinberger jumped in to encourage residents to think about the bigger picture before deciding to support any future proposal. She rendered the concept of RPPs as potentially “shortsighted,” because, by “convert[ing] the public right of way for private use to the people who live in the area,” they prohibit non-locals from visiting and patronizing neighborhood businesses and institutions.
A white paper released by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office studied other cities’ implementation of RPPs, concluding their success was a mixed bag, “with some cities left wondering if creating a permit parking program was the right choice in the first place.” Brewer ultimately takes a neutral stance, but warns of high price points and potential legal challenges as barriers to entry for implementing such a program in New York.
Yaruss then turned the discussion to potential pricing models. Weinberger, who believes the goals of such a program would need to be established before moving onto pricing, suggested monthly garage pricing is likely a reasonable comparison. Pincar categorized the topic as “political,” in that state legislators would likely have a large say in pricing, should a proposal for RPPs in New York come forward.
Next came the question of DOT’s process in determining curb usage. “Does DOT have values to allocate curb space?” Yaruss asked. “If so, what are they?”
Pincar listed safety as the top concern of DOT, who he said takes an “inch by inch approach” to allocating the curb, always trying “to strike the appropriate balance.” For example, DOT traditionally hasn’t allocated a lot of curb space for commercial vehicles, Pincar said, but with the growth of e-commerce, he wondered if that would be a sustainable policy moving forward. Weinberger noted that DOT’s balancing of the curbs might mean less space for private cars. “It’s a system, and it’s complicated,” she said.
When Yaruss followed up, asking whether or not loading zones would help free up space for these commercial vehicles, Komanoff suggested the city charge companies like Amazon and FreshDirect higher prices “to reflect congestion costs their presence is imposing on the community”—while Weinberger warned that those costs might end up getting passed onto the community.
The panelists also addressed concerns about how middle- and low-income car owners would be impacted by congestion pricing or an RPP. “By and large, the people for whom we have the greatest equity concerns are not car owners,” said Weinberger. She maintained that funds earned from the congestion pricing program will be invested in transit, “which is much more likely to serve people of limited income and lesser means.” Komanoff added that New Yorkers below the poverty line are less likely to commute regularly from outside the congestion zone into the congestion zone, and would benefit more from improved mass transit.
The discussion moved on to other uses for the curb beyond residential parking. Touting the success of the recent 14th Street busway pilot project championed by Speaker of the New York City Council Corey Johnson, Yaruss asked if DOT has a plan for implementing more solutions like this, despite some initial community board opposition.
“It’s very difficult to operate a transportation system when you have these neighborhood by neighborhood oppositions,” said Weinberger, acknowledging the tension between local neighborhoods and the city at large. Progress might not come quick enough for some, offered Pincar, but “intense engagement with the public leads to improved projects.”
Finally, the conversation turned to the environment. “Could you address how you would try to make the streets more livable?” asked Yaruss.
Pincar pointed to DOT’s ongoing push for innovation, and referenced a new study underway in FiDi that will evaluate the possibility of using “garbage corrals” in place of parking spots. For DOT, Pincar says striving for sustainability will all come back to the question: “Is this a better use of that curb?”
With some time remaining, Yaruss turned the floor over to the attendees for additional questions. Of the 16 people who took the mic only a few had clear questions that the panelists could address, and they had nearly all been covered at some point in earlier discussion.
As time ran out, for the rest of the attendees, the open mic was an opportunity to voice criticism of DOT and concerns about the concept of residential parking permits and curbside allocation that de-prioritized cars.
“We use our cars to escape New York,” said one, lamenting the idea that he might lose curb space for parking, where his car typically sits unused throughout the week. (“Is storing a vehicle the best use of the curb?” asked Weinberger in response.)
“Has anyone on the panel actually considered talking with anyone in the community about the use of cars, or is the whole thing an analytical exercise?” asked another, as he participated in a public forum to gauge community opinion. “I am an internationally recognized expert on curb management, and I was asked to come here tonight for questions,” said Weinberger, growing exasperated with the crowd.
Others disparaged DOT for their “improper management” of the curb (“I reject the premise,” responded Pincar), criticized hypothetical models for RPP pricing (“No price is set, because the proposal doesn’t exist,” reminded Pincar), and wondered why the forum, which had been listed on the CB7 website for a month, was “so poorly publicized”—among other concerns unrelated to the expertise of the panelists.
“How can I be part of the solution?” asked the last man to speak, who seemed genuinely interested in understanding the available actions he could take to reduce the negative impacts of parking his car in the city, while primarily using it for leisure. Komanoff directed him to look into forming a car sharing group—to eye rolls and groans from the crowd.
“We badly need innovation,” Komanoff said, as the forum wrapped up and Upper West Siders took to the streets.