Deregulate New York City!

Commentary about business and finance.
Oct. 12 1999 3:25 PM

Deregulate New York City!

The biggest news here in New York City last week was the sudden crackdown on double-parking. Traffic cops descended on Upper West Side neighborhoods and midtown business streets and issued a slew of tickets. Because residents are accustomed to double-parking on days when street-cleaning takes place--you double-park from 8 to 11 a.m., blocking in all the people who are parked legally--the crackdown was assailed as the effective criminalization of an accepted social custom. (In some sense, it probably was, and in Moneybox tomorrow, I'll have something on whether this matters.) But the more interesting aspect of Rudy Giuliani's latest attempt to bring order to our fair city was the way it showcased how little parking there is in New York.

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Now, as someone who drives fairly often into the city, I'm pleased by the crackdown, since double-parkers have the magical ability to turn three-lane avenues as wide as an Interstate into slow-moving country roads. (New York drivers will happily double-park, even while they're in their cars, rather than park a car too close to a fire hydrant, even though doing the latter will let traffic move smoothly. I'm hoping the recent crackdown will change this habit.) And it's certainly true that most double-parkers are just people trying to avoid paying for a parking garage, or deliverymen trying to avoid having to walk around the corner. So no pity for them. (Except when they're me or my friends, of course.) But people want to avoid paying for a spot in a parking garage because $8 seems a bit much for a half-hour. And, in any case, parking garages are usually full. These two phenomena are not, needless to say, unrelated.

In fact, there are way too few parking garages in New York relative to the traffic, because the city, since the end of World War II, has limited the number of garages that can be built. For the existing garage owners, this is a great deal, since it means that in most neighborhoods there's effectively no competition. Parking real estate is not quite as valuable as land in the Hamptons, but it has a similar characteristic: The supply isn't getting any bigger, even as the demand grows.

There was an idea behind the limits on garages, which was that if you make it easier for people to park in the city, you make it easier for them to drive into the city, and "we" don't want that. But in a deeper sense, the limits on garages are emblematic of the way successive administrations in New York have handled most things: They have consistently assumed that without a strong managerial hand, the city would degenerate into chaos.

Take taxis. Why is it so hard to get a cab in midtown, especially on a rainy day? Because obtaining a taxi medallion is next to impossible, and the price of the medallions has soared out of sight. Cab fares are, of course, regulated, but that means only that the pricing is determined by whatever relationship--good or bad--exists between the Taxi Commission and the small number of companies it's dealing with. Opening the market to new competitors would increase the number of taxis on the street--that's the whole idea--and it would drive down prices. The fear seems to be that if you opened the market, you'd have a deluge of cabs, marring the relatively pristine streets of Manhattan. And perhaps you would at first. But pretty quickly the supply of cabs in the city would approximate the demand.

A similar point can be made about rent control and about the haphazard application of zoning ordinances to commercial establishments. Pace a recent Chatterbox piece, New York is certainly an exception to his rule about cheap movie tickets, and one reason is that there are too few movie theaters here to meet the demand. That's partly because of the high cost of real estate, but it's also about the sheer effort it takes to negotiate with the city to build a movie theater.

One might say, "Thank god someone is looking out for the city," instead of letting it be taken over by developers and entrepreneurial cab-company owners. In that sense, the implicit governing philosophy in New York has been "avoid the tragedy of the commons" (while also letting the people on the inside wet their beaks over and over again). I don't really think a city is a commons that will be destroyed if there isn't someone to tell us all what to do. But if it is, then all those ticketed double-parkers are just necessary victims on the continued path to order.

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