Cheap Lot

Parking in Boston seems pricey. It’s not, and we need to make it more expensive.

By Patrick Doyle | Boston Magazine |
parking in boston

Illustration by Peter Crowther/Debut

Driving in Boston is about as much fun as an emergency appendectomy with a jigsaw. Those of us who live here are well equipped to deliver detailed lectures on the reasons why: one-way streets derived from 17th-century cow paths; the lack, for the most part, of a grid; poor to nonexistent signage; and the general willingness of citizens on foot, on bike, and behind the wheel to dart out recklessly into traffic. But as bad as driving is in Boston, it’s a dream compared with the parking.

You see, the average car is driven only about 5 percent of each day. The rest of the time—when the owner is at work, at home, or in a store—that car is parked. In a small city with limited space like ours, this creates a major problem. Too many cars are competing for too few parking spots. Finding an empty space on the street is such a rarity that when my friend in the North End does manage to grab one, she’ll often choose to keep her car parked in it and shell out for a Zipcar when she needs to run an errand. Whenever you’re thinking of driving into the city—be it for a Red Sox game or a quick stop on Newbury Street—there’s always one overwhelming concern: If I can’t find a spot on the street, how much is the garage going to cost me?

It doesn’t have to be like this. Unlike a lot of the problems we have with cars around here, this one we can actually fix.


We’ll get to what Boston must do to alleviate its parking problems, but first, let’s examine how we got ourselves into this mess. In 1978 the city froze the number of off-street spaces—garages, private lots, and the like—at 35,556 in the North End, Financial District, Chinatown, Back Bay, and South End neighborhoods. (Southie and Eastie had their own parking freezes later on.) Why? Because we needed to reduce air pollution to comply with the Clean Air Act. Limiting the availability of garage parking was seen as an effective way to control the number of pollution-spewing cars that were traveling into the city. Not a bad strategy, but, predictably, with supply limited and no new competition, the owners of the city’s garages have spent the past 30 years jacking up their prices.

During that same period of time, the city has barely raised the rates at parking meters, for fear of angering the public. In 2011 the Boston Transportation Department bumped up the hourly rate by a quarter, to $1.25. That marked the first increase since the mid-1980s, and it didn’t come close to matching inflation since 1985 (114 percent), never mind reflecting what the market-driven price should have been in a city that had added 62,000 residents and very few additional spaces since 1980. Today, our meters cost far less than those in Chicago and Washington, DC ($3 an hour), and in Los Angeles (as much as $4 an hour).

Why does all of this matter? Because when you combine low street-parking prices with a cap on the number of garage parking spaces, what you get is a mad dash for street spots and super-pricey garages. Today, according to Colliers International, Boston is home to the second-most-expensive parking garages in America, trailing only Manhattan. Residents of Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, DC—who pay more on the street—all pay less at the garage. Our hourly garage rates hover between $11 and $15, and our average monthly rate is $438. Pay that for two years and you’ve shelled out almost as much as you would for a new Kia.

  • MarkB

    Unfortunately, since the citizen retains the freedom to choose WHICH 5 minutes of the day the car is used, that autonomy will remain an attractant.

    No one, it seems, wants to ‘subjugate’ their lives, even for a moment, to the schedules of mass transit. Selfishness to a fault.

  • Mike

    On public transportation: it costs (in some places) $10-$12 a day to commute in from the suburbs. $7 fro most T garages plus the $4 round trip on the T. Add to that limited parking spaces at said garages AND the fact that you can continue driving past the T to your destination and save lots of time. Why use public transportation in Boston? 4 out of 5 days a week I can find a free spot (top secret). IF I get a ticket, it’s still less than parking for the week.

  • Heidi

    fantastic idea…can we make it happen? I also think that having more cabs would help!

  • RichD

    Increase the number of parking lot spaces! This is not 1978 and emissions technology has improved substantially. That combined with smaller cars/engines means that we put less pollutants in the air. Time to open up more parking lot spaces and eliminate the stranglehold on high lot prices…oh..but then, the “in crowd” would lose their pricey monopoly on high lot prices.

    • Marc

      It’s not only about emissions, it’s also about congestion. We can’t build out way out of this problem with more streets and garages, that will only exacerbate the problem.

  • limbodog

    So, wait, you want to help the people who come into the city one night a month by reducing the cost of their night by $5, and punish the people who live and work here daily by increasing their monthly cost by $100? What kinda of evil bastard are you?

  • Bobby Newmark

    It sounds like the cap on private parking spaces is bogus and simple enables entrenched owners to price gouge customers. Like another commenter said, emissions technologies and standards have improved a lot since 1978.

  • DaveO

    The title of your article worked. I read it purely to gather ammunition to post a reply about how ridiculous this article was, but in the end I am not unconvinced. Extending the time on meters would really help out a lot too. I can’t help but feel like something would go disastrously wrong with this because, after all, this is Massachusetts. However, in theory at least, this sounds interesting.