Or: Lots of Words But Then An Awesome GIF, So Hang In There

Operating an automobile in an urban area is often quite frustrating. When you want to be driving, you’re often parked in traffic; when you want to be parked, you’re often driving around for a spot. Of course, there are apps for that: real-time traffic mapping apps from Google and others, and now we are also seeing so-called “smart parking” apps that display open parking spots by way of small sensors built in or near the parking space itself, fed into a network and then to a smartphone screen. A recent New York Times story on “smart parking” states that,

Smart-parking technology for on-street spaces is expensive, and still in its early stages […] Cities are marketing the programs as experiments in using demand-based pricing to reduce traffic congestion

The goal of “smart parking” is to give the city and individuals real time visualized data on which of those scarce city parking spots are occupied or not. Proponents hope this will mean easier parking and less traffic jamming. The idea of always knowing where those open parking spots are could be a huge relief. But, as the article above points out, these apps might not be so smart after all. The “smart” sensors will also make it much easier for law enforcement to ticket you when you’ve only been in your parking space moments too long. Also, new spaces are often taken as soon as they are available, and an app can’t help you much in that scenario.

To add to this, I’d like to briefly point out a different potential problem with “smart parking”: by focusing on making parking easier, we might also be encouraging more people to try to park. Like many tech-solutions-to-tech-problems, this answer could exacerbate the dilemma it is trying to solve when a better route may be to incentivize public transportation, biking, and other forms of transportation that don’t require looking for parking spaces in the first place. The logic that more parking information will lead to easier parking and less traffic congestion only holds, at best, if the number of cars looking for parking stays the same. The “smart parking” logic puts us in dangerous Robert Moses territory.

Robert Moses
yes, that is a proposed highway straight through lower Manhattan

Robert Moses is famous for his concrete Haussmann-like accomplishments in and outside of New York City from the 1920’s all the way through the 1970’s. He built more and more highways and bridges in an effort to accelerate the vision of a future American car culture. His power to gather funds and build new projects was unprecedented and unchecked. Among many, many other projects, Moses built the Cross Bronx Expressway straight through existing neighborhoods. The displacement was abrupt and the devastation can still be seen today. According to his biographer, Moses was said to have purposely built tunnels with clearance too low for buses to pass through, discouraging public transportation as well as keeping those less wealthy off of his new roads.* Yes, he also built green parks, but built them far away for people to drive to (and he built those roads, too). After four decades of success, Moses planned a highway dead through lower Manhattan, which is where he met Jane Jacobs and her coalition of long-time neighborhood locals and recent gentrifiers as well as the changing cultural tide of the 1960’s. In what’s told as a modern-day David and Goliath story, Moses was repeatedly defeated and the highway pictured above was never built.**

Jane Jacobs

I mention this mostly because I won’t pass up an opportunity to ramble on about NYC history (as anyone who has ever visited the city with me knows), but also because “smart parking” shares a logical error with Robert Moses’ vision. Indeed, what defeated Moses was the defeat of his underlying logic: that traffic congestion can be alleviated by adding more lanes of highway and more bridges. It seems intuitive enough: when sitting in a traffic jam you might wish for the addition of another lane. But this logic only holds if the number of cars stays the same. Instead, throughout Moses’ long power grip/trip, new roads didn’t reduce traffic; instead, the jams got worse, commutes got longer, more tolls were introduced, and drivers became more frustrated. In response, Moses built more, collected more tolls, and became more powerful. Traffic got worse. He built more. Et cetera.

What Moses failed to understand, what Jane Jacobs and others knew, and what New York City and the rest of the country took too long to realize is that adding more traffic lanes was increasing congestion. Open highways attract cars. Ease of driving meant more people were willing to drive more cars. New suburbs were built for commuting further and further away from the city. Driving became increasingly an option, and for the growing number of workers moving to the ‘burbs, a necessity.***

So-called “smart parking” certainly isn’t of a Robert Moses-like scope; those developing these apps are not (I hope) proposing to build massive concrete parking garages by demolishing existing communities. However, the logic—or more accurately, the logical error—is similar: providing an interface of all the unoccupied parking spaces will undoubtedly encourage more people to attempt to find parking.

Should I take the bus? subway? bike? Wait, I have the new smart parking app; let me check to see if there are open spots for my car. At least some people some of the time will choose the latter when they wouldn’t have before. The trouble of finding parking, like traffic congestion on urban streets, can be a prime reason why people in cities with cars leave their automobiles at home. Smart parking apps seek to remove that barrier, encouraging more new parkers.

That New York Times article above begins, “place ‘smart’ in front of a noun and you immediately have something that somehow sounds improved”, even when it has not. Since these parking apps could make spaces more scarce and encourage more cars on the road thereby increasing traffic, perhaps the “smarter” apps for making parking less of a hassle are those dealing with public transportation and biking.


*As Langdon Winner writes (citing this book, which I highly recommend),

Some two hundred or so low hanging overpasses on Long Island are there for a reason. They were deliberately designed and built that way by someone who wanted to achieve a particular social effect. Robert Moses […] built his overpasses according to specifications that would discourage the presence of buses on his parkways. According to evidence provided by Moses’ biographer, Robert A. Caro, the reasons reflect Moses social class bias and racial prejudice. Automobile-owning whites of “upper” and “comfortable middle” classes, as he called them, would be free to use the parkways for recreation and commuting. Poor people and blacks, who normally used public transit, were kept off the roads because the twelve-foot tall buses could not handle the overpasses. One consequence was to limit access of racial minorities and low-income groups to Jones Beach, Moses’ widely acclaimed public park. Moses made doubly sure of this result by vetoing a proposed extension of the Long Island Railroad to Jones Beach.

**Though, this left lower Manhattan to be transformed, as Sharon Zukin explains in Naked City, by wealthy gentrifiers instead of Moses’ brand of concrete rationalization.

***Facebook doesn’t cause loneliness, but there’s a good argument that this process did.

Nathan is on Twitter: @nathanjurgenson

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