Parking in Boston is Way Too Cheap

Today, the Globe‘s Brian McGrory uses his column to decry the fact that Mayor Menino has proposed “parklets” for some city parking spaces:

By my admittedly inexact count, and please don’t hold me to this precise number, there are a grand total of six unrestricted parking spaces remaining on city streets these days, and about 3,000 cars circling the block waiting for them to open up. Funny part is, the owners of the parked cars are sitting in them sending text messages to friends saying they can’t believe the parking space they found.

And now, in the face of this unprecedented shortage of street parking, our mayor comes along with a stunning new idea. He wants to take the few remaining spaces that we have, install flooring over the pavement, bring in patio furniture and planters, and call them “parklets.” This is terrific. While we’re at it, let’s put a swimming pool on the median strip of the Southeast Expressway and cut the highway down by a lane.

Now, Brian McGrory is an excellent columnist. He’s funny, smart, pointed, and knows how to hold people accountable. (He’s so good we put him on our list of the 50 Most Powerful People in Boston.) But on the parking issue, he’s dead wrong.

The problem is not the lack of street parking spaces — it’s that the spaces we have are absurdly priced. City of Boston meters cost 25 cents for 12 minutes, or $2.50 for two hours. Seems reasonable, right? A couple bucks for a couple hours. But it’s not reasonable considering that private parking lots can charge 10 times as much. The Prudential Center, for example, will charge you $28 for 2 hours; the Garage at Post Office Square will set you back $22. Ouch.

The reason that Boston drivers can never find a street spot — and will circle the block over and over again looking for one, causing even more traffic — is because the city spots are way too cheap. They’re in extremely high demand, but we barely charge anything for them. The result: It’s impossible to find an empty spot. The private garages know you don’t have a choice, so they can charge really high prices.

Now, I’m not arguing that we ought to raise street meters to the private levels, but clearly, the city is charging well below market rate. We could universally jack up prices across the city, but it might result in some areas never attracting visitors, which could hurt area businesses. Instead, let’s follow San Francisco’s system of supply and demand parking, which is based on the work by Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking. The basic idea is simple: Smart meters automatically adjust parking prices up and down, to try to ensure that there’s always one spot available. If a street is busy, rates go up; quieter times see a drop in prices. The most popular areas will always see the highest prices, so if you’re not willing to pay, you can always walk a few extra blocks. Some San Francisco spots now cost $4.50 an hour, but early results show the system is working.

Granted, this is going to upset a lot of people, who consider it their God-given right to have cheap parking. But wouldn’t you prefer paying $6 or even $9 for 2 hours on a city street, as opposed to a conducting a frustrating 30-minute search for a spot in traffic, followed by sucking it up and dropping $20 on a garage? We could cut down on traffic, increase city revenues, and finally, find the Holy Grail of Boston: Empty parking spaces.