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A man for all signs: an interview with Larry Berman, former NYC Parking Commissioner

Managing the world's largest municipal parking system through 30 years of parades, blizzards, and traffic, former Parking Commissioner for the Department of Transportation Larry Berman kept people moving around NYC with as much efficiency and ease as possible. Berman was responsible for the manufacturing, design and placement of parking signs.

Old New York Street Signs One of Larry Berman's signature ideas: selling New York signs to collectors. Here is Libby O'Brien, sign collector and New Yorker, circa 1966, with her prized possessions.

"Want to know how I solved the Financial Crisis?" Berman is excited—he’s talking about the mid '70s, when a downturn in industry and commerce resulted in increased crime and near bankruptcy. Half the city’s street signs had gone missing. His solution: sell 'em.

Though Berman knew his idea would be a hit, his proposal was initially denied by the city, which had concerns about the initiative conflicting with its non-profit status. Undeterred, he called a contact at the New York Post. The next day, an article titled "WALL STREET FOR SALE!" was published. By the end of that day, 5,000 orders at $27-35 a pop had come in, along with a call from the Mayor's Office with its blessing. By the end of the year, the City had netted $1 million in profits. Furthermore, while not a crippling cost, it deterred sign theft. "Rather than climb up on a ladder and getting a misdemeanor," says Berman, "You pay $35 for an exact replica of the Wall Street sign, and you take a little bit of New York home with you."

"There is no real system" for monitoring the well-being of posted signs, Berman says, but there are three reasons the City puts up a sign. One, someone's got to ask for it – either the City Council moves to name a street after a fallen hero or important constituent reports that a sign is missing. Two, there are broad changes in regulations on a block or an intersection. Three, the City gets a grant to improve specific signs. Berman proved himself a financial boon to the Department again when he lobbied for a powder protective coating to replace the traditional electrostatic sheeting. Costs for sign manufacturing dropped 50%.

Back in the '80s when illegal parking had hit an all-time high, Berman looked into vehicle sensing technology. In order for the new system to work, sensors would have to record the vehicle coming and going. Now, the technology is more sensitive, increasing demand and competition. Since Berman’s adoption of vehicle sensing in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco have installed their own system with successful results.

Vehicle detection works this way: if you ever hit the lottery of a meter with leftover time on it, you can understand why cities would see that time as lost revenue. If a sensor can reset the meter after a car leaves, revenue shoots up by 20% and cities stand to make millions more by the quarter. To that end, Berman reports that companies such as Nedap and Streetline are currently running tests in the Bronx and Manhattan. It’s only a matter of time before these new sensors are set in place.

When asked about how the Department fared in his absence, Berman says, "It's like this: put your hand in a bucket of water, ok? Now take it out. You see any difference in the water when you pull it out? That's the way it is with New York." However, no love is lost on Berman. He knows that he managed the traffic flow of billions of people and instituted a few great ideas that are still in place today. And he understands what signs mean for a city and its travelers, tied to the great adventure that is New York.

 

 
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