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