Parking in Boston seems pricey. It’s not, and we need to make it more expensive.
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.
The steep costs at our garages mean that only the well-off and the truly desperate ever wind up parking in them. The rest of us find ourselves in a never-ending chase for metered street parking, which is an absolute steal. Because the price is absurdly low for such a rare commodity—there are around 8,000 metered spaces in Boston—drivers are willing to circle the block for as long as it takes to find an opening, like vultures in search of prey. The $10-an-hour difference between a garage and a metered spot in Boston gives “drivers a license to hunt,” says Mark Chase, a local parking consultant,“but it’s not a guarantee of a parking place.” The result, naturally, is congestion. Studies from around the country have shown that as much as 34 percent of all traffic in downtown areas involves drivers just looking for parking spaces.
Meanwhile, Boston has set aside a ton of spaces for resident-only parking in neighborhoods, and it charges nothing for the permits to use them. And what happens when it doesn’t cost anything to keep cars parked on the street? They stay there. Today more than 311,000 vehicles are registered in Boston, and more than 87,000 of them have residential parking permits. Each of those cars takes up around 160 square feet—the size of a street spot—of prime city real estate.“You have some of the most valuable land on earth, and you’re giving it away for free to cars,” says Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking. “It’s preposterous.”
Okay, so we can all agree that the parking situation in this city is bad. But what can we do about it? Not much when it comes to the garages—we need to maintain the cap. But when it comes to street parking, Shoup believes he has the solution: smart parking meters, which can charge more for parking during periods of high demand and less when fewer people are looking for spaces. The goal would be to always have one or two free spaces on any given block. Popular streets, like Newbury and Boylston, might charge as much as $4.50 an hour during the day, while quieter ones might charge as little as 50 cents an hour during off-peak times. Those who are unwilling to pay higher rates could choose to park in lower-demand spots farther from their destination. (Shoup, by the way, also recommends increasing the time limit from two hours to four, which would make the spaces more useful to drivers, eliminating the need to dash back to feed the meter. Such a change would certainly also please shop owners. “The worst thing you can do for a business district,” says Jason Schrieber, a principal at transportation planning firm NelsonNygaard, “is to say, ‘You’ve been parked for two hours—it’s time to go! You can’t spend any more money!’”)
Last year, San Francisco instituted a dynamic pricing system. Meter prices now range from 25 cents an hour in less-popular areas to $6 an hour in high-demand areas, and are adjusted every six to eight weeks as city officials try to find the right balance between too full and too empty. The city also launched a website and smartphone apps that identify available spaces and the up-to-the-minute cost of meters on different blocks. All meters accept credit cards, and time limits have been increased to four hours. Collections from meters are up, and parking tickets are way down. “By finally making it easy to pay for parking on the street and having longer time limits, we’ve made it very easy to avoid parking tickets,” says Jay Primus, the head of San Francisco’s experimental parking program. “That’s good for the city and drivers, and we think that’s good customer service.” Seattle, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, are all now conducting experiments of their own, and Boston should join them. “By reducing congestion,” Shoup says, “buses will travel faster, pedestrians and bikers will be safer, people will find parking places where they want to go, there will be less air pollution and fewer accidents, and traffic will go faster. There is a cascade of benefits.”
As a complement to our smart new parking policy, we also need to start making people pay for residential parking permits. Cambridge and Somerville already do, charging $20 and $30 a year, respectively. Why not split the difference in Boston and charge $25 for current residents? For newcomers, we could charge $100 annually, perhaps even more in crammed areas like the Back Bay or the South End. When I spoke with Tom Tinlin, the city’s transportation commissioner, about parking in Boston, he said his department doesn’t currently have plans to institute fees for residential permits, or to create a dynamic-pricing system, but that he is paying attention to the results of the San Francisco experiment. Ideally, though, he’d like to see fewer cars, period. “Our ultimate goal,” Tinlin says, “is to keep people’s cars in their driveways and get them to take public transit or use the Hubway system.”
Fair enough, but that’s not realistic. No matter how great the T and Hubway are, a good portion of the population will need to drive in the city, which is why we need to make parking easier. And yes, convincing city residents that they ought to pay more for parking can be a tough sell, which is why we should add a sweetener. Why not have half of all fees generated from parking stickers and meters in a neighborhood go right back into area beautification projects—repairing sidewalks, planting trees, painting bike lanes, fixing potholes? That way, we’re taking cars off the road, freeing up parking spaces, and investing in making our neighborhoods better. “Nobody wants to pay more for parking,” Shoup says. “But getting the price right is the biggest and simplest thing a city can do to save money.”