On a recent Monday morning, West 55th Street was crowded. A cab, avoiding a pair of double-parked delivery trucks on the block west of Seventh Avenue, drove down the bike lane. Two cyclists waited their turn, seeking shelter from the wind and traffic among the parked cars at the curb.
Unloading boxes into the street, the driver of the lead truck—he refused to give his name–was unfazed. He didn’t have a choice but block traffic, he explained. The driver gestured at the loading zone around the corner, which was occupied by another truck and a pair of police cruisers. Plus, he said, his employer, UPS, has a deal with the city.
He’s right. In 2003, New York City cut a deal with large delivery companies, giving them a discount on their parking tickets in exchange for not disputing the cases the court. The program now has more than 13,000 participants and waived 10 million dollars in fines last year alone, according to a report released in early February by the Independent Budget Office, a city agency that functions as an internal watchdog.
It’s a good deal for companies that must deliver goods throughout the city, and there are many of them. But the deal infuriates other denizens of New York’s streets, in particular, bikers who must battle for space and a safe lane.
“It’s annoying as hell,” said Maren Bush, as she waited on her bike for the light at an intersection just south of Penn Station the prior week. Trucks blocking the bike lane force cyclists to merge into traffic—where they are more vulnerable. In New York City, in fact, they face real danger. A Department of Transportation report found that between 2006 and 2014, cyclists suffered more than 3,000 severe injuries on city streets.
Fifteen minutes later, another cyclist pedaling up the 8th Avenue bike lane expressed displeasure with the parking-ticket deal. “It makes sense as business decision,” said Casey Eisenreich. “But it makes me feel that our lives as a cyclists can be bought.”
The 2003 deal was cut by the city’s Department of Finance, with the goal of reducing the number of parking ticket hearings. Participants racked up 600,000 tickets last year alone, according to the Independent Budget Office report. The program remained largely untouched until last year when some fees were increased and certain infractions were no longer waived.
Still, the discount can be substantial. UPS, the largest beneficiary of the program, had $3 million in fines waived last year, according to the Independent Budget Office report.
The underlying problem is obvious: In New York City’s crowded streets there’s nowhere for delivery drivers to safely park. This leaves UPS, Uber, Fresh Direct, and the like vying for space with bicyclists, buses, and ambulances.
Still, the system of ticketing—and then reducing—fines for delivery drivers just trying to do their jobs strikes even staunch cycling advocates as unfair. “It’s an absurd situation that’s fair to nobody—delivery people can’t do their jobs properly, and then they wind up putting the rest of us in danger,” wrote Eben Weiss, author of the popular cycling blog BikeSnobNYC, in an email to NYCityLens.
Commercial deliveries have increased 300% in the last 30 years, a CUNY study found in 2015. But loading dock requirements for city buildings have changed little since the 1950s, according to a 2017 Department of Transportation report, leaving curbside deliveries to pick up the slack.
One solution is to replace streetside parking spots with more loading zones. Experts say there’s ample reason to do it. Free curb parking has little economic value to the city, explained Donald Shoup, a professor of Urban Planning at UCLA. He proposed replacing curbside parking with new load zones and charging for their use by the minute. “The trucks are a more high-value use so they should be able to pay for it,” said Shoup.
But in the stalemate of entrenched interests that is New York City public-space politics, such solutions seem a long way off. For example: the war over loading zones in the streets west of Central Park. The neighborhood’s community board has submitted requests to city officials for loading zones to alleviate congestion. So far, the Department of Transportation has refused, telling Howard Yaruss–chair of the board’s transportation committee–that the request must come from the buildings themselves.
For some New Yorkers, however, bike lanes, loading zones, and other street renewal projects are a threat to their way of life. “I’m in a car because I have to for my job. I have kids. I don’t exactly want to rely on public transit all the time,” said Josmar Trujillo, a personal trainer living in East Harlem. He and his neighbors can’t afford to park in a private lot, he said.
“I think a lot of people who get into this conversation of urban planning and design are not necessarily people from my side of the tracks,” Trujillo added.
Last year, a community board voted against eliminating parking spots to add bike lanes to a pair of streets in Sunnyside, Queens, where a cyclist was killed in 2017. This was after the Department of Transportation reworked its proposal to include more street parking.
It is unclear if Mayor Bill de Blasio will direct the department to proceed despite community opposition, as he did to install bike lanes on Queens Boulevard in 2016.
Meanwhile, cyclists, feeling that they are in a battle for survival on New York’s crowded streets, are adamant that change is needed. Jon Orcutt, a spokesman for Bike New York, has a clear message for city leadership: “People who ride bikes in New York need a new deal,” he said.