Column: The Street-Sweeper Cometh, or An Ode to Alternate Side Parking

A street-sweeper on the Upper West Side.

By Dr. Joan Bregstein

On Friday July 24th at 9:00 am, thirty-two residents on my Upper West Side block exited their buildings to participate in a peculiar rite of New York living that many of us hadn’t realized we’d missed. We slid into our cars, which in most cases had remained un-driven since mid-March and, at the appropriate moment, participated in an act of automotive choreography known as ASP—Alternative Side of the Street Parking. Each of us drove fifteen feet across the street at the steepest angle possible, to double park, quasi-legally. At the communally-accepted time of 9:30—official no-parking is illegal from 9:30-11– we then all exited our cars, leaving the vacated side of the street free for the street sweeper to provide a much-needed cleaning. We had 90 minutes to strategize how, in our frantic game of musical cars, we would get our spaces back again by 11 without getting ticketed. Cops usually don’t give a ticket for the egregious double parking, but they could.

Dr. Joan Bregstein when she’s not parking.

For many NYC car owners, the four to six-hour weekly time commitment to do the ASP-dance dictates activities of daily living, the timing of appointments, meetings, exercise, meals, even when your dog pees. For on-street parkers, this cyclic process is played out twice weekly on every residential street in every borough–unless drivers have the bizarre urge to actually use their cars to get somewhere.

On that first Friday in late July, we all technically had 90 minutes to kill before the street sweeper passed and our old parking spots became legal again. If I waited the full 90 minutes, I would almost definitely be beaten out by my competitors who jumped the gun. If I moved back too early, I might see and hear the street sweeper honking at me through my rear view mirror, necessitating a hustle back to the illegal side of the street, followed by a quick return to re-grab my spot. Of course, 30 other cars lined up in front and behind me would be simultaneously executing this exact maneuver at the same angle and time with only inches to spare. Seconds are all that separate ASP success from failure and, of note, hybrid cars, with their stop/start delay, and drivers with “parallelophobia,” an intense fear of parallel parking, are severely disadvantaged.

It could have been predicted that ASP timing would be affected by COVID, but, as I have learned as an Emergency Department doc, exactly how the virus will screw things up is always anyone’s guess. Normally, people return to their apartments, do errands, walk their dogs, anything that will allow them to wander back around 10:30. I went back to my 4th-floor apartment, and did my best to delete a pandemic’s worth of useless emails from my MacBook. I imagined that when I returned, I would climb into my 2017 Subaru and, arms extended to the steering wheel, would dash 15 feet back across 89th Street and claim my prize. I had been thinking of my first day back at ASP for a while, because it is all about the timing—even in the summer when the city empties out and you don’t have to worry about winter snow making some spots unattainable. But I hadn’t predicted my huge strategic mistake.

On that first day back, I didn’t return to my car until 10:40 a.m. I found it alone in its illegally double-parked state, the only car out of place on the block, devoid of protection ordinarily granted by herd immunity. The pandemic had changed the rhythm, and those extra ten minutes at home cost me hours that day.

At 11 a.m., when parking was now legal, and other drivers, feeling quite smug in their victories, had retreated home to live their lives until the next ASP day, my fun was not over. It continued on an adjacent block with different, but unfortunately, not contiguous, parking rule times. This required me to drive around aimlessly, racking up mileage and consuming gas for two hours until I could start the process again.

On-street parking in NYC can save the average car-owner $800 a month or more in monthly garage fees, but it’s unclear if most do it for the savings or the sport of a 30-foot stock car race. As a physician, I suspect I could afford to garage park, which suggests that my hours spent at this are actually my most expensive hobby.

There are no evidence-based alternate side of the street parking rule books and the uninitiated learn by seeing, repeating and learning from their mistakes. Seasoned participants rarely share ad hoc process maps as this would be aiding and abetting the competition. This, of course, does not apply to relatives, including my children, to whom this knowledge is passed, l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation.

Alternate side of the street parking was suspended in March, was restarted in late July and, depending on covidity, may stop again. There has been talk by the mayor, “we’re re-thinking it”, that it may be discontinued for good, leaving a time-honored tradition in danger of becoming extinct for the first time since it was introduced in the 1950s. If it goes, on-street parkers will be left with a void in their lives that will be difficult to fill. There is not much that can replace its obvious fun and adventure; ASP also provides structure to our lives.

With so much about life in New York, especially during COVID, being unpredictable, it’s comforting to know there is a reliable, if absurd, process to follow in order to find a free parking space.

COLUMNS | 44 comments | permalink
    1. Audrey says:

      No one would believe that this really goes on! All so true!
      Great article!

    2. UWS Driver says:

      As a youngster I observed the ritual of alternate side as a six day a week, three hour a day exercise.

      Given that, and the universal availability of a mobile internet, sitting in the car for 90 minutes once a week really isn’t too much to ask. Who knows, get a spot close enough to home and you’ll even get WiFi.

    3. Matt says:

      This was a great read. Thanks Dr!

    4. Lisa says:

      This is a colossal waste. We should designate residential streets as available only to UWS residents who purchase an annual pass, like Boston does. That way Upper West Siders can continue to street park and not have to compete with non UWS cars for spaces. We increase revenue by charging more for metered street parking.

      • Tam says:

        Agree with Lisa – NYC is one of the very few cities that don’t allow permit parking. It’s ridiculous.

        some of us do need cars for various reasons. It shouldn’t be so difficult. Other cities have figured it out.

    5. UWSWasp says:

      In the 1.5 hr (8:30-10) parking window on my block, I drive to the grocery store, shop, and make it back in time to park, usually just after the sweeper has passed. I am a very fast grocery shopper.

    6. Gena says:

      Years ago a woman moving to NYC asked my advice about keeping her car. I told her about moving her car twice a week, and advised various strategies. “OK,” she said. “But why do you move your car to the other side of the street?”

    7. Herb radtmuller says:

      Just another reason UWS businesses suffer: street parking is property of people who have the time to do this silly fandango.

      Lease a parking space, or give up your cars, people!

      • Elyse says:

        Kindly do not disrespect people who have different values and needs than you do! It is legal to park in the street. It is legal to have a car. Businesses suffer because there is no place to park and go into a store, since metered parking is occupied by so many who can’t park on their own block because of ASP. Do you have a perfect life, with plenty of money? Or are there some things you economize on, so you can enjoy other things.

    8. Blower says:

      No mention of the actual accomplishments of the street sweeper?

    9. babrarus says:

      Not to worry…..
      In a few years all streets will be converted to bike lanes and cars will be prohibited on city streets.
      Parking garages will charge upward of $2,000 per month and a great city that we once knew and loved will forever be gone for us, the NY city car lovers and drivers.

    10. SM says:

      Has anyone noticed how many out of state plate cars are parked on the UWS? My estimate (admittedly non-scientific) is that about 15-20% (incl. NJ) are non-NY plates.

      At a minimum, can we get non-NY plate cars banned from parking on the street?

      • Mazie says:

        Please don’t discriminate against NJ plates. I split my time between NJ and the UWS. I am happy to call myself an upper west sider even if it’s part time. I do partake in the alternate side ritual. I shop here, I dine here and I pay property taxes here. And I’m more than happy to be contributing to the local economy.

        • Sid says:

          If your car has NJ plates and you live more than half the year in NYC, then you are committing insurance fraud.

        • SM says:

          If you stay in NY, register your car here and pay the state registration and license fees.
          Otherwise, unfortunately, you are for very practical purposes, a NJ resident (from vehicle and parking perspective).

          The first step (even before determining a resident parking fee which I fully support), can we pass a referendum to eliminate non-NY plates from parking in the UWS?

          This would have an immediate benefit to residents of the UWS and also force some NJ registered cars to pay fees to NYC/NYS thereby generating revenues.

        • Stu says:

          Then register your car here, in NY. If you want those benefits, then you need to pay the price.

      • Leon says:

        If they charged a nominal amount for cars to register to park on the street it would completely solve this problem. If you can afford a car, you can afford to pay a little bit (say $50 a year) to do this, especially since it will make your life a lot easier.

        I think all of these people who register their cars out of state would suddenly find religion and start registering in NY. This would also generate a lot of revenue for the state, which we could use – the registration fee plus the additional cars registering in NY would more than cover the administrative costs.

      • Boris says:

        Many leased cars have out of state plates as do rental cars. They could belong to a NY resident.

        • SM says:

          I don’t think leased cars have out of state plates unless the owner leases them from somewhere outside of NY. In that case, they should get NY plates or not benefit from street parking.
          Rental cars sometimes do, but if you rent a car and need to park it, use a garage or the metered parking.
          Can’t make exceptions – how would you monitor?

          We need to eliminate non-NY plated cars from using street parking. Many benefits for UWS residents, NY City tax coffers, etc.

    11. Adam says:

      Do you realize how selfish this is? What if one of the cars that you block while you double park and go grocery shopping had an emergency and had to get out?? One of the biggest problems with New Yorkers is the “me” mentality.

      • Seriously says:

        Yes, agreed. This happened to me when I first moved to the UWS. I was blocked in for a half hour when I urgently needed to get out, sounding my horn to no avail. If you’re going to double park, STAY IN YOUR CAR in case the person you’re blocking needs to leave.

      • Carlos says:

        This is a great point. This is part of why the vast majority of people (unlike the author) sit in their cars for the 1.5 hours and find ways to amuse themselves rather than going home, going shopping, or whatever else. If the person they are blocking needs to get out, they can easily move.

        In addition to ticketing those who fail to move their cars at all, police really should ticket those who double park for alternate-side parking and are not present at their car.

        • Paul L says:

          Unoccupied double-parked cars do get ticketed. Sometimes twice during the 90 minutes. But this doesn’t help someone who is blocked in and needs to leave.
          Also, there are the drivers who don’t show up to move their cars away from the street cleaning side. They get tickets, or sometimes towed. You can’t double park across from those cars, because the street cleaner needs room to swerve around them.

    12. Kathy says:

      Five years ago I moved to the UWS and witnessed this dance for the first time as I was moving into my apt. My FB memories came up today with the short video I took of two people trying to get into one spot, cursing ensued, it was quite comical.

    13. Juan says:

      In this day and age, it isn’t that hard to just sit in your car – you can get plenty done on your mobile phone, catch up on reading, listen to the radio, or whatever else.

      I haven’t done this dance in a while but when I used to, as soon as the sweeper passed, everyone moved back. So if the sweeper comes through at 9:35, you can then move back and sit in that spot until 11 (as you can still get ticketed). So those who return to their apartments lose out.

      I was always amused/frightened by the people who got hostile when someone took “their spot” on alternate side day. There was one couple that would get really nasty about this. It seemed like they never actually drove anywhere and the car was always in that spot. And on top of this they had out of state plates (Ohio).

    14. UWSDrew says:

      I think everyone with a car in the city knows the real problem. The literal army of construction, plumbing, ISP, HVAC, etc vans and cars filled with workers that pour into the city every weekday morning and take all the spots.

      Just regulate these workers and how/ where they park we would have a lot more parking spaces.

    15. rikitiki says:

      you left out the part where someone drives on the sidewalk, where the doormen try to move two cars at once, where someone not ballsy enough lost their spot and is near tears…ah the sagas.
      thank you for documenting this insane thing we all do! well, by we I mean my partner ;D

    16. Big Earl says:

      To all the whiners, alternate side also helps the city function. Alternate side allows moving trucks and day workers like handy men, carpenters, painters park in the morning outside whatever apartment they might be working on that given day. Otherwise they have to double park (ever see the chaos when moving trucks double park) or find a meter and feed it all day making working harder. Outside the city these workers can park in one’s driveway, but there are few viable options available on city streets. Plus, they all leave between 3-5pm and you can find a spot on the street within 5-10 minutes so you don’t have to wait 90 minutes in your car in the morning.

    17. Josh P. says:

      My block has roughly 400 apartments and 50 on street parking spots. How do we decide which 50 people get those spots?
      Do we give them to the people who need them the most (people with disabilities, essential workers without public transit alternatives)? To the people who have been here the longest? To the people who can least afford to pay for an expensive garage? To whoever pays the most into a fund that would help everyone in the neighborhood?
      No, we allocate some of the most valuable real estate in the world to whoever has the most time to sit around on a weekday afternoon. It’s a terrible system and everyone knows it. The UWS should be embarrassed that we haven’t implemented a better system yet.

    18. Kat French says:

      Free yourselves from the tyranny of ASP… give up your car!

      The day I got rid of my car and stopped doing this stupid twice-weekly dance was one of the happiest days of my life. With the money I save by not owning a car, I can rent one for a weekend a month if I want to (I almost never do). Plus I’ve gotten three hours a week of my life back.

      You really don’t need a car on the UWS. We have an abundance of transit options and car services available. Those of you who are doing the ASP dance at not using your cars every day so why cling to the past? Live like a real New Yorker! Ditch the car.

      • Elyse says:

        Dear Kat. Again, a WSR person is pinning their values, hopes and dreams on others. That is not the way of democracy, my friend. You are free to not have a car, take public transportation or walk vigorously, if you are young enough, carry heavy bags of groceries home, and sit in the park. Some of us like to have our cars, and need them. They are regulated and we pay for the privilege accordingly. We support business and the economy. Can’t you live your life and not force other people to do what you do? Or judge them so harshly? Perhaps the self love you bring to yourself about not having a car, can be re-directed to treat other people, who believe differently, more kindly.

    19. Stu says:

      Iv’e done the dance, and perfected it. But I must admit that it is incredibly selfish to view the spots as “our spots” or “my spot”. The worst offenders are the doorman who “reserve” spots for tenants that pay them and/or for friends and relatives. What they do is move 2 or 3 cars in such a way that the 2 or 3 cars take up 4 or 5 spaces, and then they move those 2-3 cars back and forward, as needed, to open up the spaces for the additional cars. Another awful practice is the guy that owns a motorcycle, and then parks it parallel to the curb like a car (and not at an angle or perpendicular to the curb as is social custom), taking up the space of a full-length car (actually more as nobody wants to park too close to a motorcycle for fear of knocking it over), thereby reserving the space for his car — he then moves the motorcycle perpendicular to the curb to fit both the car and cycle.

      They need to establish parking permits for residents only as they do in DC, Boston etc. (non-resident are limited to 2-hour parking periods).

      • Abdul Sayeed says:

        Wow, you must live on or near 90th and RSD! Or is this the practice almost everywhere?
        I knew about the Parallel Parking Motorcycle Guys, but have only suspected the existence of The-Three-Spots-Now-Five-Spots-Doormen.
        So now I know!
        It would be interesting to hear (anonymously) about other tricks and ploys.

    20. NYC10023 says:

      Longtime UWSer here – sell a limited number of permits for overnight parking – how about auctioning them off? Everyone else can pay for parking by the hour. I haven’t owned a car for years – parking garages are $600+/month around here. Factor in depreciation and insurance – you’re looking at 12k+/year. We rent a car whenever we need it and come out way ahead financially.

    21. Anne says:

      If you work in, say, a remote part of the Bronx, you HAVE to have a car. Get a tiny SmartCar— I have no problems parking! SUVs in NYC are ridiculous 😜

    22. DrM says:

      A very entertaining article about people who clearly have WAY more free time and money than I or anyone I know. Need to travel by car? Take a cab!!! Even daily use must be cheaper and more convenient than a car payment, car insurance, gas, maintenance, and the utter ridiculousness of parking. #zerosympathy

    23. Lilsc says:

      “This required me to drive around aimlessly, racking up mileage and consuming gas for two hours until I could start the process again.”

      No one’s “requiring” this of you. You’re wasting time and resources, as well as contributing to pollution by driving around for two hours, totally of your own volition

    24. BarbaraB says:

      All of this chit chat and no one even mentioned that the car parking ritual has brought neighbors together. Those minutes where the day is nice, you leave your car and hang out. Get your coffee delivered to the car. Get breakfast. Read a book, e-mail. Listen to your podcasts. Wow. I do not see this as a waste of time but as free time to do things I might be distracted from if I were home. Honestly, it is no big deal. In 22 years I have had a grand total of 3 tickets. Never for being double parked. Overslept and illness.

    25. Barbara Hariton says:

      I love your writing style…it reminds me a bit of mine :-). Maybe you should pay for parking and use your time to write. I have been looking for a UPS writing workshop where time is not wasted teaching and editing and people just read their stuff to each other and make constructive comments. Anyone out there interested as well? Can you suggest a group? NCJW on 72nd St. used to provide space for one. Any ideas? I am ready to zoom or loom.

    26. David S says:

      If you can afford to live in Manhattan, your time is probably worth enough that it’s not worth it to play this silly game year after year. Suck it up and get a spot in a garage. You’ll sleep better knowing your car is safe from theft and vandalism and you’ll save the time and worry of the street cleaning dance.

    27. Ralph says:

      build parking into buildings. problem solved. especially new developments.