The idea that a bunch of Park Slopers would congregate in a parking space in an effort to demonstrate that there are better uses for scarce public city land than the temporary storage of a single person’s piece of property has caused outrage on comment threads at Naparstek and Curbed. There’s been a lot of name calling and ad hominem attacks. Can’t we all just get along and discuss ideas in a civilized manner?
The point of the people who staged the parking spot squat was to show that parking a car is cheap. Really cheap. A municipal giveaway, in fact. The squatters may also raise the point that public policy at the moment is to forbid bicycle parking in the curbside lane and then to confiscate bikes parked on the sidewalk if they get too numerous, as happened in Williamsburg near the overcrowded L train station at Bedford Avenue. The point of the critics is to note that the parking spot squatters have too much free time on their hands or are wrong to fault the car as a source of problems or are pursuing the wrong strategy for making the city more pedestrian-friendly.
Amid the frey, there was one idea that I want to pull out and comment on. The idea that cars parked in parallel along a curbside act as a buffer to make pedestrians feel protected from the speeding cars in the driving portion of the roadway. Here in the Financial District of Manhattan, there is no buffer of parked cars, and pedestrians are protected from speeding, road raging motorists only by the one- to two-inch height of the curb. Cars frequently drive onto the sidewalk to park, or to squeeze by cars that are parked on the opposite curb. But in general, there are just pedestrians and cars in motion.
What are the effects of this? Lack of a buffer zone is indeed slightly disconcerting. But I wouldn’t say it makes one fearful to walk however. But every parked car becomes a moving car at some point, and the lack of on-street parking in the Financial District means that fewer people choose to drive to the area. As a result, during the off hours, there is very little traffic here, but because of the density, there are still plenty around. The neighborhood has lots of people but few cars, which is the perfect combination for urban vitality that we seek at some level by choosing to live in New York City.
I do like the idea of a buffer zone though. Cars parked in parallel compliment an unbroken street wall. Together, the two solid rows do create a sense of security. Many of the people who participate in the parking spot squat, I believe, did it not in an effort to eradicate parking, but to ask that the city charge a reasonable price for it. Others were there to protest the fact that the acres of curbside asphalt in New York City could be opened up to human beings, or bicycles, or grand pianos, or yard sales, or small-scale entrepreneurs, or to anyone who could spare a quarter. I’m not sure how this would be set up technically, but why not open up the curbside space to the highest bidder? If it is more important for a motorist to occupy the space than a group of cyclists, let him outbid them and pay for the privilege of using the real estate. In a city where money talks more loudly than anything, why should private automobiles enjoy a protected status?