NYC Street Cleaning: The unintended environmental consequences

Few New Yorkers would disagree that parking in the city is a nightmare. There aren’t enough street parking spaces to accommodate all the cars, and garaging a car can cost upwards of $500/month. It’s even trickier when cars have to be moved to allow for street cleaning.

But one thing which is just plain unfair and wasteful is the way street parkers linger (often with engines running), double parked, waiting for the street cleaner to pass. The local neighborhood and ultimately the entire city pay the price for the congestion and pollution these people create.  Here: watch it in action.

In my neighborhood, street cleaning takes place two days per week on each side of the street, with the days alternating.  This is why it’s called “alternate side street parking” and why cars are always having to move from one side of the street to the other.  Generally, parking is prohibited for a 90 to 120 minute window when street cleaning takes place.

But in many neighborhoods (apparently, mine included), double parking is openly tolerated, even though the Department of Transportation clearly states that “Double parking of passenger vehicles is illegal at all times, including street cleaning days, regardless of location, purpose or duration.” The signs indicating prohibited parking indicate a set time period, not “until the street cleaner passes,” so it’s unclear to me why the city tolerates this.


This message is pretty unambiguous

What’s the big deal about cars double parking as they wait for the street cleaner?  There are at least 3 problems when cars double park this way:

1) Not everyone moves their car and double parks.  If 100% of the cars double parked on the other side, there should be no additional congestion, since you’re just moving an open lane from one side of the street to the other.  But inevitably, some cars don’t move.  So now you end up with 3 lanes of cars blocking a small one-way street.  This creates congestion.


Most (but not all) cars move and double park, which creates a "triple parked" situation at some spots

2) On half the days, double parked cars are sitting in (and blocking) bike lanes.  This is dangerous for cyclers and defeats the purpose of having the bike lane there.  This video shows what I mean.

3) In all but the most mild weather, many of the cars idle their engines for the whole time they are waiting in order to run their air conditioners in the summer and heaters in the winter.  This is wasteful and creates pollution.  A single street between 2 Avenues has perhaps 40 cars.  40 cars idling for 60+ minutes on every block, 3-4 times per week, is a huge amount of waste and pollution.

Some neighborhoods lobby the city to reduce street cleaning frequency in order to reduce the amount of times cars must be moved each week. You can see lots of Park Slope neighbors weighing in on the issue here.  There may be some merit to that, but the broader issue is that drivers need to be charged for their use of city parking, so demand falls to meet the supply.

Does the fundamental issue here sound familiar? It’s the old ‘underpricing of a shared but scarce public resource’ issue which I’ve blogged about before. The city is removing cost for the individual by providing free parking, but the resulting solution isn’t free. The cost is simply redirected from making individuals purchase a parking space and is redistributed as: 1) wasted time for the individual (all that time these people are spending in their parked cars), 2) congestion for the neighborhood (all that double & triple parking), 3) pollution and environmental waste for the city and the world (from all those engines idling), and 4) the cost of gas from the idling engines.

Here are some steps in the right direction:

1) Implement a neighborhood permit system where 70% or so of each block’s spots are only for neighborhood residents. Permits would be available to registered residents who have filed a NY state tax return (and have paid NYC city tax). Pricing should probably be on the order of a hundred bucks or so/year. Lots of other cities use neighborhood stickers as one way to ration scarce spaces – Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington come to mind.

2) Increase the time that parking is prohibited on street cleaning days. Also coordinate this time with trash removal. This would ‘shock’ the system by essentially removing spaces, but would help free congestion caused by garbage trucks slowly moving down congested streets.

3) Enforce existing rules for no street parking and double parking. Fines of $100 should do the trick. Use this money for cleaning and park services in the same neighborhood where it is collected.

I’m slightly torn about one aspect of this issue. On the one hand, I value diversity in the city and don’t want my neighborhood populated only with people making Wall Street salaries who can afford $500/month parking spaces. Some people have a legitimate need for a car, and some street parking needs to be available. But on the other hand I’m not crying for owners of $40,000 BMWs or $70,000 Range Rovers who sit in their double-parked cars, engine running, talking on their cellphones or working on their broadband-enabled laptops, because they choose not to pay for a private parking space.

Disclaimers: I walk to work so I’m fortunate that I don’t need a car, have a car, or want a car. You can also call me unfairly biased because I’d prefer to live in a city with a minimum of congestion and pollution and with fewer cars on the streets. Crazy, I know.

One response to “NYC Street Cleaning: The unintended environmental consequences

  1. Your suggested changes would have some very negative unintended effects I think. If you enforce the ban double parking and extend street cleaning times, these cars don’t simply disappear–the drivers just end up having to actually drive around for the duration of street cleaning, creating even more pollution and congestion.

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