Parked Your Car? Pay a Tax!: Parking Commodification and its Possibilities for Green Infrastructure

Eric Schillinger, Staff Writer

New York State is riding the coattails of New York City when it comes to green transportation.  New York State consistently ranks among the best states when calculating how successful its population is at efficiently transporting itself.1 It’s true, on average New Yorkers are among the most energy efficient people in the United States.2 But these numbers don’t tell the whole truth.  New York City is the most efficient large city in the country.3 As it is more than twice the size of the next largest city, Los Angeles, it greatly skews the numbers as they apply to the entire state.4 The city’s enormous population and its leading efficiency statistics skew the numbers in favor of New York as a whole.5 Nearly half of all New York residents live within the five boroughs,6 and these individuals are, thankfully, some of the most efficient in the entire country.  This helps push New York up the green ranks.

Upstate New York, on the other hand, is frighteningly un-green.  In fact, if New York City’s very green residents were removed from the equation, the remaining 12 million people in New York State rank near the least efficient in the nation.7 Upstate New Yorkers live more like notoriously inefficient Texans then they do their counterparts in Metro-New York.8

We can do better.  Rather than riding the coattails of New York City’s efficient residents, transportation policy upstate must be reworked, to spur all New Yorkers to transport themselves efficiently, use energy sparingly, and recognize the importance of taking responsibility for how they consume energy.

One of the key factors in efficiency is population density.  Not to take anything away from the progressive energy reforms instituted by the Bloomberg administration,9 but New York City’s superb efficiency is due in large part to its very high population density.10 High density living enables the development of mixed use zoning and public transportation.11 Upstate, density drops rapidly, and even the largest upstate city – Buffalo pails in both overall population and average population density when compared to the City.12

High population density directly impacts how individuals transport themselves – cars are extremely inefficient in densely populated areas, but public transportation and, foot travel are effective and readily used methods of getting from A to B in those dense areas.13 Upstate public transportation systems are laughable in comparison to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s well run collection of trains, buses and ferries.14 Average distances traveled upstate are also notably further than in the City, and walking is rarely a viable option for most trips.  The result – Upstate New Yorkers like most suburban dwellers around the country rely on the automobile, almost exclusively, to get themselves from their suburban single use housing to downtown work centers in the city.15

Reliance on the automobile is a “chicken or the egg” scenario – do Upstate New Yorkers rely on cars because of the suburban lifestyle they live, or did the car enable the development of the suburban lifestyle?  To some degree both are true.  Without a doubt, the cheap and speedy transportation automobiles provided in the period following World War II in the United States hugely contributed to the growth of sprawl.16 But, in the twenty-first century the reality is that our sprawling society accepted the suburban lifestyle as a goal, and the car as a requisite part in achieving success.17 After all, without an automobile, getting from that house with the white picket fence in the suburbs to the job downtown becomes much more difficult.  As people improved their standard of living, urban flight, and the car based commuter lifestyle that came with it became an indication of success.18 Now, New York State must take the lead in responsibly establishing a new model for success – one that encourages green development and sustainable lifestyles as an indication of success rather than the historically irresponsible American model.

A number of issues must be addressed in establishing a sustainable society – chief among them is the spread-out nature of our demography.  Combating the inefficiency of sprawl can be done in two basic ways.  First population density must be examined – without policy that discourages sprawling low population single use land development, there is little hope that people’s transportation efficiency will greatly improve.  Population density is a key factor in efficiency, but it is also not something that can be changed in a New York minute.  Policy that has any chance of success therefore must do three things.  First and foremost, it must be approachable in present terms.  Any attempts to force change in society, generally, must be moderated.   Stark and demanding changes will likely face outright rejection.  That said, there are really two functional issues that must be dealt with to improve Upstate New York’s transportation efficiency – first, policy must discourage sprawl as to increase population density, second it must encourage improvements in the mass transit system, making it possible to lower the energy amounts consumed by individuals who will maintain a notable commuting distances.

There is no single simple policy that will cause a societal shift in where people live, and how they perceive suburban and urban lifestyles, however, there is a common denominator throughout society that can be used to achieve change – economics.19 Simply put, if the government can increase the cost of commuting from the suburbs, to a level that makes living close to work more financially attractive, it may possibly stem the tide of urban flight.

A number of potential taxes could add an artificial cost to commuting, thus making it less attractive to the typical suburbanite.20 One of the most commonly suggested taxes is a substantial gas tax.  The thinking behind the gas tax is fairly simple – if fuel is more expensive, people will be less willing to burn large quantities of gas.  As a result, it is theorized that car usage would drop and various benefits associated with less driving would occur.21 Unfortunately, indications have shown that while increases in the price of gas do impact driving, in fact, it impacts leisure driving over commuting by a substantial degree.  Logically, people continue to drive to work because there is no other option for them to get there.  In reality, increased gas prices do not substantially impact gas usage; people simply reallocate their spending to accommodate the more expensive fuel, spending less money in other areas.  The impact on the economy over all is highly negative as a result of increased gas prices.  Expensive gas also fails to narrowly target commuters traveling from suburbia into the urban center.  It hits nearly every industry and profession regardless of the nature of an individual’s drive to work.  Because the lack of a narrow focus, a high gas tax fails to fully discourage suburban sprawl and commuting, and instead becomes a source of frustration for everyone purchasing fuel for any reason.

There is a tax that has strong potential to discourage the commuting lifestyle and suburban sprawl without the negative effect of inflation and the disparate impact that occurs across economic class with a straight gas tax.  When individuals commute by car they need two things – fuel to go in their vehicle, and parking.  Suburban commuters readily fiend over cheap, close, convenient parking.  After all, when you get to work, you cannot just leave your car randomly on the side of the road in a downtown environment.  In fact, for the commuter, parking is as important a commodity as the fuel that goes into the car.  Local governments have substantial control over parking on their streets already.  Meters dominate street parking in most downtown areas, which help make private long term daily parking lots successful.  Because the commuter cannot park on the street and walk right into their office, they are forced to pay for the convenience of parking.

A tax attacking parking as a commodity could be used to drive the cost of parking up, making it at first unattractive to bring a car into the city, and eventually, nearly cost prohibitive.  Revenue from the tax could then be used to develop attractive mass transportation options and revitalize urban areas in upstate cities, making it both more attractive to commute via mass transit, and simultaneously more attractive to simply live in higher density urban environments.  High density urban living, as exemplified by New York City places far less stress on the energy supply than the low density commuter driven lifestyle.  A substantial parking tax would directly target automobile use by commuters, and with a substantial tax, the elasticity of cost absorption could be surpassed.  Simply put, those individuals who choose to move into the suburbs, loosing the ability to walk or take some form of mass transit to work, will be forced to pay for the true cost of the impact that decision has on the environment.

The beauty of a parking tax is that it can easily be tailored to impact commuters driving comparatively longer distances, while not necessarily injuring those who live in urban environments.  In fact, New York City already employs this precise model.  New York City imposes a sales tax on parking fees.22 In Manhattan, when a non-resident commuter pays to park his or her car, whether for short term day parking, or long term car storage, he or she must pay a total tax of 18.375% on receipts from parking.23 This tax breaks down into four parts –  a 6% tax for parking in New York City, an additional 8% for parking in Manhattan specifically, a 0.375% Metropolitan Commuter District Surcharge, and, the standard 4% New York State Sales tax.  Basically, the city charges 6% tax on all parking receipts, and tacks on an additional 8% for non-residents parking in Manhattan.  This tax specifically targets commuters by hitting them with a nearly 20% tax on leaving their cars in parking lots on Manhattan island.

Certainly, this additional cost in an already very expensive environment does not encourage people to drive into the city.  Not surprisingly, New York City has a very high percentage of individuals commuting via rail, bus, and ferry.  Individuals traveling relatively long distances from New Jersey and Westchester County are willing to take mass transportation into the City due to the cost and difficulties associated with driving and parking their cars.  Upstate, however, the concept of an individual commuting via any form of mass transit for distances greater than a few miles is completely unheard of.  The only thing lacking more than the mass transit infrastructure upstate, is the commuter’s interest in not driving to work.  As a result, people continue to use cars, create sprawl, and live debilitatingly inefficient lives.

By mimicking New York City’s parking tax model, and hitting non-residents with a notably increased tax rate would create a direct economic disincentive to participate in long distance commuting.  Upstate, the tax could be applied with residency status conferred on individuals in a handful of ways.  Cities could implement parking restrictions based on residency with city limits, or the lines could be drawn based on zip code – where individuals park in the city they live in, or even possibly, the zip code they live in, they would pay little or no parking tax, but as individuals travel further from their homes and park, they tax they become subject to would increase substantially.  On a long term level, this added parking cost could cause a generational shift, with young professionals who live in city environments being less likely to move to the suburbs as they become more financially successful, because parking costs would be prohibitively expensive if they traveled from the far reaches of sprawling suburbia to get to work.

No single tax policy is going to cause enormous societal shifts in how Upstate New Yorkers live, but it’s important to foster policies that generally and specifically encourage efficient and responsible uses of energy for transportation.  Without a doubt, comidifying parking and making it an expensive and scarce product though a tax would help drive generational shifts away from the irresponsible suburban commuter lifestyles presently lived by many New Yorkers.

Meredith Perry, Benjamin Loefke, & Eric Schillinger, editors.


1 Stephen Cohen, Promoting Energy Efficiency: Comparing New York State to California, New York Observer, Sept. 17, 2008, available at

2 Id.

3 Id.

4 Info Please Database, Top 50 Cities in the United States by Population and Rank, (last visited Mar. 9, 2009).

5 Cohen, supra note 1.

6 New York City Department of City Planning, Current Population Estimates (2007), (last visited Feb. 14, 2009).  New York City’s estimated population as of 2007 was 8,008,278.  Id. New York State’s population as of the last census was 18,976,457.  U.S. Census Bureau, Table 1: Interim Projections: Ranking of Census 2000 and Projected 2030 State Population and Change: 2000 to 2030 (2005), available at (click on “Table 1).

7 Cohen, supra note 1.

8 Id.

9 See Martin LaMonica, Mayor Bloomberg floats New York City wind plan, CNET News, Aug. 20, 2008, available at

10 Julian D. Marshal, Energy Efficient Urban Form: Reducing Urban Sprawl Could Play an Important Role in Climate Change, Environmental Science & Technology, May 1, 2008, at 3133, available at

11 See id.

12 New York City’s average population density as of the year 2000: 26,517 people per square mile.  City of New York Population & Boroughs: Population and Population Density from 1790, (last visited Mar. 9, 2009).  In comparison, Buffalo New York’s population density as of 2000 was 2,664 people per square mile. USA Urbanized Areas over 500,000, (last visited Mar. 9, 2009).

13 See Marshal, supra note 10, at 3134.

14 Compare Metropolitan Transportation Authority, (last visited Mar. 9, 2009), and Capital District Transportation Authority, (last visited Feb. 14, 2009) (The MTA has a wide range of vehicles and routes, has easily understood schedules and routes, and is readily accessible.  In comparison, CDTA provides only bus service, and while not to take anything away from the efforts of the CDTA, it offers far less comprehensive transportation options and accessibility when compared to the MTA.).

15 See Marshal, supra note 10.

16 David L. Ames, Interpreting Post-World War II Suburban Landscapes as Historic Resources, in Preserving the Recent Past, Deborah Slaton and Rebecca A. Schiffer, Eds. (Washington, DC: Historic Preservation Education Foundation, 1995).

17 Id.

18 Urban Flight,, (June 27, 2008, 10:25 EST).

19 For another example of policy that can help foster shifts away from the present energy use model, see Eric Schillinger, Over Turning Shell Oil v. New York State Tax Commission: How the Anti-Pass-Through Provision Can Shift New York State Away From its Reliance on Oil for Transportation, 2 Alb. Gov’t L. Rev. (Forthcoming, June 2009).

20 Id.

21 Notable economists and politicians from Alan Greenspan to Al Gore trumpet the benefits of more expensive gas.  See Daniel Gross, Raise the Gas Tax? Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Republican, N.Y. Times, Oct. 8, 2006, at 33.

22 See New York City Sales and Use Tax, (last visited Mar. 9, 2009).

23 Id.

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