When Good Cops Park Badly
Chinatown residents and business owners fired off another salvo in downtown Manhattan's street parking wars. They held a press conference Wednesday morning to tout a new report by the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives which documents just how bad the abuse of free street parking privileges by police, court officers and other municipal workers has become in lower Manhattan.
On March 29, two TA volunteers were detained and questioned by police for photographs of cars parked on the sidewalk outside the 5th Precinct in Chinatown as part of this survey.
But that didn't deter the rest of the TA team, who managed to document a whopping 115 illegally parked cars blocking sidewalks, crosswalks, and fire hydrants between 9 and 10 o'clock that morning, in a five-block area bounded by Canal Street, the Brooklyn Bridge, Centre Street, and the Bowery.
More than 90 percent of the illegally parked cars had city-issued placards that permit free street parking for police and government employees when on "official business." But those placards aren't supposed to be all-day passes for city workers who simply commute to work and back, and they don't give anyone the right block sidewalks, hydrants, or crosswalks. (The rules are clearly spelled out on the back of this NYPD-issued placard obtained by the Voice.)
According to Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, most of the scofflaw cars they spotted belonged to cops. "We cut back on the close-ups of the actual placards and license plates," says White, when asked how volunteers managed to keep photographing offending vehicles without running into further hassles from police. "Clearly it's a situation of selective enforcement when the NYPD is turning a blind eye to the worst sorts of illegal parking, like blocking sidewalks and hydrants. The very people supposed to uphold the laws are the worst offenders."
As if to underscore his point, he pointed to a white coupe (pictured below, courtesy of Transportation Alternatives) with a NYPD placard on the dash that was parked on the sidewalk on the corner of Mulberry and Mosco streets, and partly blocking the crosswalk.
Similar photos are included in TA's report, many of them shot by Chinatown business owners and residents, whose fight against illegal street parking has made them sidewalk vigilantes. They've even made a short film, Clogged Arteries, in partnership with Community Board 3.
It's tempting to ask, what's the big deal? New York City cops are underpaid, and the streets are so tight in Chinatown. Where are the blues supposed to go?
Both NYPD and court officials concede their members bend the rules--in part, they say, because there's increased demand for parking due to stepped up security details downtown after 9-11. But Chinatown residents say the excess street parking has created a cascade of problems in their neighborhood, from fire trucks and ambulances that can't get through, to the all the delivery trucks doubleparking to drop off goods and pedestrians forced to dart into traffic. Outside the Church of Transfiguration on Mott Street, pallbearers often carry coffins over doubleparked cars because the crosswalks are blocked.
Meanwhile restaurant and store owners say the parking squeeze is choking off the local economy by driving away customers. Over the last two years, 32 businesses have closed shop in Chinatown, which suffered greatly from the street closures following 9-11, when only cars with permits were allowed south of Canal Street.
"Chinatown became their parking lot after 9-11, and since then they've never left," complains Jan Lee, who owns an antiques store on Mott Street. "It's actually gotten worse because people have copied the placards using digital scanners. A lot of them are fake," he charges of all the purported police and court officer cars he finds camped outside his doorstep.
And anyone without a placard, Lee says, gets ticketed.
At the press conference, Lee and others called on the city to investigate the proliferation of forged parking placards, which have been cropping up all over the city. They also want the NYPD and City Hall to crack down on illegal street parking.
But mass transit advocates like White say City Hall should phase out free street parking privileges for municipal employees altogether. "Studies show city workers commute by car at two to three times the rate of other New Yorkers," notes White. "Clearly it's just encouraging a bad habit."