Two hours of sitting in your car going nowhere: New York’s unique parking rules are back

New York City is known for being one of the most difficult cities in the world to own a car – and a return to pre-pandemic parking restrictions could make it even more discouraging. Starting on Tuesday, drivers who park outside will have to move their cars two or three times a week for street cleaners, up from once a week during the pandemic.

This unique dance is called alternate side parking. Under these rules, drivers are allowed to park on many of New York’s streets free of charge, except during marked hours when a sanitation truck drives through to clear debris with a mechanical broom. Each side of a street has different cleaning hours, so that cars can move from one side to the other. Failing to move your car gets you a $65 ticket.

It’s a workable solution in theory, but in practice, streets are already crammed full on both sides so there’s nowhere for cars to go at cleaning times. It’s not uncommon for New Yorkers to spend hours circling for a free space. After a surge of new car registrations during the pandemic things are likely to get worse.

To keep their coveted spots without getting fined, many New Yorkers simply sit in their cars during the 90-minute cleaning period so that they can swing their vehicle out when the cleaner comes, then quickly pull back in afterward. While waiting for the cleaner, they tend to leave their cars on, blasting AC in the summer or heat in the winter, while hunched over in the driver’s seat scrolling on their phones.

Street parking is so hard to come by that many drivers avoid driving whenever possible, simply leaving their vehicles in place until the next time the cleaner comes.

The ritual has become a part of the city’s culture. The New York comedian John Wilson recently devoted a half-hour episode of his documentary series to ruminating over parking (joining a long tradition: in one episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza gets a job moving people’s cars for them). An editor for the New Yorker once maintained a blog called the Alternate Side Parking Reader. In 2009, Anthony Bourdain joined the local news anchor Debra Alfarone as she demonstrated alternate side parking. “I’m not buying a car,” he quipped when it was over.

The ordeal was initially suspended completely during the pandemic by Mayor Bill de Blasio, before a reduced once-a-week clean was implemented. But Jessica Tisch, the new sanitation commissioner, ordered a return to more frequent cleanings earlier this year, explaining that De Blasio’s rollback had left the streets clogged with litter.

“I know it’s a pain to move the car, but let’s be real, we need people to do it to allow our brooms to give the city the good scrubbing it needs,” said Tisch.

Laurel, a 54-year-old driver who parks in Brooklyn’s affluent Park Slope district, told the Guardian that street litter had gotten worse as some of her neighbors simply don’t move their cars at all, preferring to risk the occasional ticket.

“It used to be that there was an understanding that everybody would get in their car and move to the other side, but now nobody bothers to do that.” Going back to two days a week could help, she said, if tickets are enforced.

But Jimmy Segarra, a 51-year-old car owner, called the city’s move to two days a week “crazy”. Segarra is a longtime resident of Brooklyn Heights, a wealthy area where street cleaning rules have been once-a-week for decades, and will remain so, unlike the rest of New York.

Segarra said the tidy streets in Brooklyn Heights showed one weekly clean was enough. “When people are around the neighborhood, they take care of the neighborhood,” he said.

The problem dates back to the early days of America’s 20th-century auto boom. In 1947, as cars choked New York’s streets, the police commissioner, Arthur Wallander, called street parking “one of the gravest problems facing the city” and cited broad public unhappiness with “the public streets being used as garages”. The sanitation department responded by introducing alternate side parking in the summer of 1950.

“The new plan is expected to keep the test area virtually free of litter and answer sanitation workers’ prayers for relief from the arduous task of sweeping up accumulated refuse beneath parked cars,” reported the New York Times that year.

The program has remained in effect in the decades since. But now some advocates say a real environmental justice effort should reconsider whether free parking should exist at all.

“The conversation shouldn’t be about one day of alternate side versus two, but rather how NYC can reimagine curbs to be more than just free storage for multi-ton private vehicles,” said Cory Epstein, the director of communications at Transportation Alternatives.

A poll commissioned by the non-profit last year found that a majority of New York voters would support adding bike lanes, bus lanes, wider sidewalks, greenery and parks to their neighborhoods even if it meant reducing parking spaces.

Helen Ho, a transportation planner in Queens, called street parking a wasteful giveaway, citing estimates that the typical car stays parked 95% of the time.

Ho, who has a car but rents a private parking space, considers free street parking “an infringement on public space”. For the last few years, Ho has been selling merchandise with anti-parking slogans like “Street Parking is Theft” and “Parks not Parking”. It’s a “niche idea”, but one that gets a lot of approval among fellow transit enthusiasts, she said.

“Our parking spots are highly, highly subsidized. The cost per square foot of property in New York City is astronomical,” Ho said. “So our parking spots should similarly reflect that price.”

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