No Such Thing as Free Parking in Boston


A recent article in the Boston Globe asks “Are the days of free residential parking in Boston numbered?” Unlike neighboring cities like Brookline, Somerville, and Cambridge that charge $25 to $40 a year for parking permits, residential parking permits in Boston are “free.”  Of course, nothing is really free, and as the research of UCLA Urban Planning professor Donald Shoup shows in “The High Cost of Free Parking,” the costs of a city providing “free” parking are often shifted in inequitable ways.  This is why Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu is investigating charging an annual fee for Boston residential parking permits, an idea that I’ve long considered a good one and believe the city should pursue as soon as possible.

This is an issue of equity.  In a city where land is at a premium, a considerable amount of the public commons is given over for “free” storage of private property.  And it is a use of public land that benefits wealthier people who are more likely to own a car than poorer people, and in fact wealthier people are more likely to own multiple cars, as the article notes “at least 300 residences have more than five parking permits.”

With a major winter storm coming up, this is a time when many Boston residents are concerned with a shortage of on-street parking.  And yet this is a time when we can most see the negative effects of free residential permits.  Go down any street after a snow storm and you will find at least one car that remains unshoveled for days, or even weeks after the storm.  The owner of that car probably rarely drives but because there is no cost to them to store the car at the city’s expense, they keep the car there just in case.  Similarly, people who typically keep their cars off-street on driveways and in garages will move their cars on to the street before a storm because they know the city will plow the street, but they are responsible for clearing their own driveways.

Charging an annual fee for a residential would not be primarily for revenue, but a means of regulating the behavior of on-street parking in the winter and all year round.  It need not be an onerous amount, just priced enough to make someone who has one car that they rarely use but are keeping “just in case” to take the plunge and go car free.  Or for someone who has two cars to decide to go car-light.  Neighborhoods that are higher density, have higher property values, and/or have a shortage of on-street space would also obviously pay a higher annual rate than a neighborhood that is low-density, low income, and/or has surplus space. Major arteries can also be priced to reduce on-street parking and allow for dedicated bus and bike lanes. I’d also propose that while the annual rate for a single residential parking permit be relatively affordable, that permits for a second, third, or so on car be increasingly and prohibitively expensive.

The income that is raised from parking permits can be redirected into the neighborhoods.  Money can be invested into repairing and widening sidewalks, planting trees and improving greenspace, and constructing protected bicycle lanes.  In some places, the recovered space may even be used to construct new housing or retail spaces.

I hope that Councilor Wu and others in our community embrace paid residential parking permits as one means of increasing the quality of life for all residents of the city.

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