NEW YORK — `Tis the season to be jolly — unless you’re trying to find a parking spot in Manhattan.
Most large cities suffer parking woes, but few cite space so tight that they suggest you park in another state. "If you are just visiting but insist on driving into the City, you might consider parking in New Jersey," counsels the visitor guide at www.nyc.com.
What is a frustrating exercise on what pass for normal days here becomes a tooth-grinding mission impossible when the city reaches its annual apex of congestion. From the week before Thanksgiving until the Sunday after New Year’s Day, traffic volume typically rises 10 to 15 percent with more than 1 million vehicles entering Manhattan over a 24-hour period, according to Michael Primeggia, deputy commissioner for traffic operations at the city’s Department of Transportation.
Parking contributes significantly to that congestion, with parking space hunters representing 20 to 40 percent of the traffic at any given time, according to Donald Shoup, a parking specialist and professor of urban planning at UCLA. He believes raising the price of street parking — much of which remains free in Manhattan, if you can find it — would go a long way toward reducing parking and traffic problems.
Meanwhile, hordes of holiday visitors, often clueless about the city’s parking protocols and demonic driving practices, further clog already sclerotic streets.
Many of them won’t know they can’t make a right turn on red in New York City — a knowledge gap guaranteed to produce much screeching of brakes and yelping of pedestrians. Most also will be unfamiliar with Manhattanites’ growing proclivity to walk against traffic lights and the unattractive language and hand gestures they direct at motorists who tap their horns in warning. And then there is the rodeo-like attitude toward driving itself that treats lanes as suggestions and fellow drivers as prey to be bullied and cut off at every opportunity. In Manhattan, drivers who hesitate truly are lost.
"Well, certainly the holiday gridlock season, as we call it here, is the time of year when the dysfunction of the streets, the inadequacy of the status quo traffic planning is most evident," said Paul White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a non-profit citizen group advocating bicycling, walking and sensible transportation.
"Traffic is bad every day of the year in New York, but the month of December is when everyone throws their hands up into the air in exasperation," said White, whose group brought in UCLA’s Shoup to meet with city planning officials earlier this month.
So it is little wonder that visitors are perplexed when it comes to parking regulations.
True, there are some very clear signs, such as "Don’t even THINK of parking here" and "No Parking, No Standing, No Stopping, No Kidding." But, unlike most other cities, New York also will stack as many as five different signs on a pole.
The tip to remember about the signs, Primeggia said, is, "When you come to New York, you do have to read them sequentially. The most restrictive regulation is on top."
But people do get things wrong, said parking expert Erik Feder, who has crafted a business out of deciphering parking rules and publishes the online newsletter Parkazine. "It doesn’t mean you’re a dumbbell ... It means that when you’re stressed out and Yellow Taxis are bouncing around you like a pinball machine, it’s easy to make a mistake."
Watching cars get plastered with tickets, Feder, a video editor, decided to produce a kind of Zagat guide to parking in New York and published "Where to Park Your Car in Manhattan (and Where Not to Park It)" in 2005. About a year ago, he launched parking search engines at www.wheretofindparking.com for Manhattan and Boston, with versions for San Francisco and Chicago due in 2008. The subscription service starts at $9.95 per month.
Many visitors find themselves so flummoxed that they will retreat to parking garages where the cost for a few hours can flirt with three figures.
That can seem a small price to pay for parking peace of mind. A parking ticket, after all, also can hit three figures — most commonly $115 for stopping, standing or parking in a prohibited area — not to mention the additional cost if the car is towed. After overcoming the initial panic that the car has been stolen, the unlucky motorist usually must hand over another $185 to ransom the car from the tow pound.
It’s no coincidence that more than half of the Department of Finance-related inquiries made to the city’s 311 Customer Service Center in fiscal 2007 concerned parking problems, according to the Mayor’s Management Report.
The city took in $530 million in revenue from parking summonses in fiscal 2007.