World & Nation

New York hopes to end parking war between drivers and street sweepers

New York street sweeping
A street sweeper maneuvers around illegally parked vehicles in New York.
(Tina Susman / Los Angeles Times)

Andrew Porter left work early Tuesday, but he didn’t sit in a bar watching the U.S. play Belgium in that afternoon’s World Cup match, or sit on the beach watching the waves roll in.

No, Porter sat in his car watching the clock in his Brooklyn neighborhood, one of hundreds citywide where street sweeping schedules prompt a daily cat and mouse game among drivers, sanitation workers and traffic cops jockeying for space and supremacy on New York’s streets.

At 6 p.m., when the block’s no-parking rule expired, Porter and dozens of other drivers emerged from vehicles they had positioned into spaces as much as two hours earlier. They locked the doors and walked away, confident that they would not need to move their cars until the next Tuesday at 8 a.m.

But if some city lawmakers have their way, New York’s arcane parking laws will undergo an overhaul that would end this urban tango and let motorists lock up and leave as soon as a street sweeping truck passes by.


“I absolutely think it makes sense,” said Porter, a tech consultant who has played the parking game in Brooklyn and in Manhattan, where he used to live and where it was even more challenging. There, Porter’s street got swept four times a week, requiring far more shifting of his Chevy or sitting in it, double-parked, until he could legally leave it at the curb.

Failing to adhere to the posted time limit results in a fine of at least $45 or a towed vehicle that can cost more than $200 to retrieve. Neither option is acceptable, said City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who this week introduced what he called a common-sense solution that would follow the lead of San Francisco. There, after one of the city’s street sweepers has passed, car owners can re-park even if the sweeping hours posted on the parking signs have not expired.

“The tedious routine of waking up early, moving your car … is a struggle New Yorkers are all too familiar with,” said Rodriguez, adding that the rules are especially hard on poor and working-class residents whose jobs don’t give them the freedom to leave early, or to work remotely so that they can move their cars.

Speaking at a hearing on the bill before the city’s Committee on Transportation, Rodriguez said New Yorkers recognized the need to clean their city’s 6,000 miles of streets.


“However, before and after the street sweeper has passed, there’s no reason parking should not be allowed,” Rodriguez said.

He and several other council members who support the change say that GPS technology, which enables residents to track the progress of snow plows in the winter, should enable traffic officers and residents to track street sweepers to see whether a street has been cleaned.

But the sanitation department says it’s not that simple. The sweepers often have to make more than one trip down avenues if they are blocked by illegally parked vehicles, delivery trucks, school buses or idling cars whose occupants refuse to move, said Paul Visconti, the department’s assistant chief of cleaning.

He noted that the rules had relaxed considerably since the sweepers began spinning their brushes on city streets in the early 1950s.

There used to be 12 parking “holidays” a year, when the sweepers were not in action. This year, there were 41 scheduled. New Yorkers also saw street sweeping suspended for about three weeks last winter. Street cleaning is not done when as little as 2 inches of snow is predicted.

Four years ago, Rodriguez’s attempt to change the law went nowhere, and tickets have continued to pile up. Last year, 1,279,089 were issued for such parking violations.

With most of the City Council now favoring the change, and with Mayor Bill de Blasio not rejecting it outright, as did former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the bill could have a better chance this time.

Parking nightmares are legendary in New York City, and clashes between motorists vying for coveted curbside real estate aren’t unusual.


In May, a Queens man was shot to death in a dispute with another motorist over a parking space, police said. In 2011, a woman suffered brain damage when she got into a fight with a man over a Manhattan parking space and was punched in the face.

On street sweeping days, residential avenues spring to life as car owners jockey for position early. They sit in spaces until they can leave their cars without being ticketed. When the sweepers or police approach, they start their engines and move in unison away from the curb until it’s safe to return.

Among motorists, tales abound of traffic officers slapping tickets on cars left unattended two minutes before parking restrictions expire, or calling tow trucks to haul them away. Sanitation officials say that doesn’t happen. They accuse motorists of fouling the air by idling for hours in illegal spots, and of exacerbating traffic accidents by darting in and out of spots to avoid being ticketed.

“I see it from both sides,” said James Ratner, who stood beside his Jeep in a spot that would turn legal an hour later. “But sitting in my car every week for an hour, I also see that this is 52 hours of my life I’ll never get back.”

All of this raises the question of why anyone living in New York City, which is famous for its public transportation, needs a car.

“I love the freedom to get out of the city,” Porter said.

Lois Hedlund agreed.

“It’s kind of a thing of independence,” said Hedlund, who schedules errands in her Volvo around her neighborhood’s parking rules, going out while the sweeper is in action.


Nobody seemed to see the irony in embracing their cars for independence as they remained chained to them while waiting for the clock to strike 6 p.m.