National News

Car-Share Companies Get Coveted Parking in New York City

Posted May 31, 2018 6:33 p.m. EDT
Updated May 31, 2018 6:36 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Losing a handful of street parking spots along a stretch of Upper Manhattan may seem like relatively little to give up. But in the blood sport that is parking in New York, Elisa Ferreira, who was pushing her son, Mason, in a stroller through Hamilton Heights on a recent weekday, said that the 20 spots the city plans to remove from her neighborhood will just make the ordeal even worse.

“It’s already really hard to find parking,” Ferreira said. “It’s only going to be harder for us.”

Starting Monday, as part of its campaign to expand transportation options, the city is taking away about 300 parking spots in more than a dozen neighborhoods, mostly outside Manhattan, and reserving them exclusively for vehicles from car-share companies, like Zipcar. It is the first time the companies, which currently keep their inventory in parking garages, will be allowed to store cars on city streets.

The city’s Department of Transportation is well aware that cutting the number of precious parking spots — even in a city with millions of spaces — will infuriate drivers, some of whom already see the agency as bent on banishing cars as the city continues to install miles of bike lanes and turn parts of thoroughfares into pedestrian plazas. But making more vehicles available to be shared by more New Yorkers, officials said, could lessen the reliance on individual cars and reduce congestion and greenhouse gases.

“It is not my job to make anyone take up a particular mode. It is my job to try to provide the best options I can for all the travelers of New York City,” said Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner.

In New York City, just under half of adults own cars, according to the New York City Economic Development Corp. — significantly less than the national average of 92 percent. Car-share programs, officials said, can play a vital role in helping people without cars who live far from public transit get around.

But the prospect of fewer street spaces has angered drivers who said aggressive ticket agents, unforgiving tow truck drivers and alternate side of the street regulations already make car ownership in New York more of a headache than most places in the country.

As part of the program, car-share companies will get a total of 285 parking spaces in 14 mainly low- and moderate-income neighborhoods that were chosen because they are not well-served by car-sharing companies as a result of having relatively few parking garages. About 230 spots will be on streets, and 55 will be in municipal lots.

Signs went up recently labeling the spots as reserved for Zipcar or Enterprise CarShare cars, the two companies the city selected to participate in the pilot program. Other than a one-time fee of $765 paid by each company, there is no charge to park on the street, though the companies were required to provide discount fares to certain low-income New Yorkers and deploy cars with high fuel efficiency.

And private car drivers beware: The car-share companies have been given permission to tow unauthorized vehicles parked in their reserved spots.

Beside the elimination of parking spaces, the program has also rankled some drivers over the decision to turn over public land to private companies — even if it is just a patch of asphalt.

“You’re basically taking those spaces off the plate there for the public,” said John Corlett, the legislative committee chairman for AAA, the automobile association. “It’s a valuable commodity they are handing over to a private, profit-making company.” In fact, the city already has done something similar through its bike-sharing program, which is operated by a private firm.

Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, lauded the car-share program and had little sympathy for drivers. “The fact is that these are private companies providing mobility options for all New Yorkers,” White said. “What you have now is a situation that people are storing their private property, which is only for their use, in public space.” Car sharing has become increasingly popular in many parts of the country, propelled by a host of factors, including worsening urban congestion, a concern over the environment and the decreased popularity of car ownership among millennials, according to data collected by Navigant Research, an emerging technologies research firm. Today, there are over two dozen companies competing for business in an industry that has been around for about 15 years.

In the United States, about 1.4 million people have signed up for various car-sharing services, which typically require membership, according to a 2017 study.

Some research has suggested that car-share programs can coax people to give up their cars. One study in 2010 that aggregated information on round-trip car-share usage in cities across North America, found that for every car-share vehicle added, nine to 13 privately owned cars were removed from the road.

But on a less macro level the results can be mixed, said Susan Shaheen, an adjunct professor at the University of California Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center, who conducted the study on one-way car-share programs. Cities with more suburban-style environments, like San Diego, where car-share programs have been established, have not had the same reduction in car use, she said.

Because companies are reluctant to share their data, the total number of car-share users in New York City cannot be easily determined. But Zipcar did provide the growth in the number of cars they use: After launching in the city in 2002 with just 10 cars, the company now has 2,500 vehicles in all five boroughs.

“We share the city of New York’s vision of easing traffic congestion, reducing parking demand and promoting sustainable transportation options,” said Katelyn Chesley, a spokeswoman for Zipcar.

Many car-share users in New York tend to generally offer similar reasons for using the service. On Yelp, one Zipcar user from Manhattan wrote, “I hate owning a car for the following reason: “1. Looking for parking in N.Y.C. 2. Paying N.Y.C. gas. 3. Paying N.Y.C. car insurance. 4. Did I mention I hate finding parking?”

City officials said they would consider expanding the program based on demand. Five years ago, Steven Ké, 42, gave up his car, frustrated by delays driving from upper Manhattan to midtown Manhattan, where he works in real estate. He still dreams of owning a BMW sports car, but for now, he said he welcomed the car-share program.

“The subway is the worst. Driving has always been imperfect because of traffic and tickets,” Ké said. “It seems like something new is needed.”