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