With parking always tight in Boston, and acres of low-cost lots in the Seaport District giving way to new developments, you might think someone would keep close track of how many spaces are left for the public.
It turns out no one knows, certainly not at City Hall, which has spread oversight of parking issues among several agencies and does not collect parking data in one place. The last official count was released in 2003, based on numbers gathered in 1998, and it covered only parts of Boston and surrounding cities.
One large landowner in the Seaport, the Massachusetts Port Authority, offers a startling estimate of the changes afoot: Roughly three years ago, there were 6,000 spaces in surface parking lots in the South Boston neighborhood. Three years from now, there will be just 750.
That’s a big problem, officials concede. Even if many people embrace travel by public transit or bike, a thriving Seaport District also will depend on people being able to drive there. And park. “It’s not just a convenience,’’ said Thomas Glynn, chief executive of Massport. “It’s really part of the success of that area.”
For some, it may be hard to understand how we got here. How did a city of technology wizards, big-data gurus, and parking apps for smartphones lose track so utterly of its parking plan? How did the city of “pahk the cah” become one bereft of places to put the cars?
Blame a booming economy, low interest rates fueling development, and a demographic shift to younger urban dwellers willing to live without wheels. Millennials who care less about cars are an advantage, officials say, as Boston grapples with a parking shortage.
Now, a transportation nonprofit, in conjunction with the city, is embarking on the first comprehensive tally of parking spaces in Boston’s major business districts in 17 years. With an $80,000 grant from the Barr Foundation, the organization, called A Better City, will tally all off-street parking downtown and in South Boston, as well as in the Longwood Medical Area, Dudley Square, and Allston/Brighton.
“There’s good reason for people to scratch their heads and say, ‘Where do I park?’” said Richard Dimino, a former head of the Boston Transportation Department who is chief executive of A Better City, which represents the business community’s interests in transportation and development.
Consultants from San Francisco-based Nelson\Nygaard will help A Better City use a variety of means to collect the data, Dimino said, from gathering public building records and conducting on-site visits to reviewing aerial photographs.
“I’m not sure there’s any way for us to get to know the exact number of parking spaces in the city of Boston,” Dimino said. “But we’ll have a much better sense when we’re done — and enough to make policy recommendations.”
The study is due to be released next spring, roughly in line with a broader examination of Boston transportation that Dimino is cochairing, called Go Boston 2030.
At the moment, Boston parking data can be found only in disparate and outdated slices. The people who did the last study, at a regional planning organization, have moved on. The city’s Transportation Department tracks metered spots and issues residential permits. The Air Pollution Control Commission oversees parking freezes, or caps, across the city.
In just one example of why the task of tracking parking spots has become so unwieldy, consider the Seaport-area garage on Necco Street that recently changed hands for $56 million after a bidding war. The buyer said there were 588 parking spots. The seller said there were 657. The guy who answers the phone at the garage said there were 595.
Now multiply that confusion by all of the buildings that have sprouted up over the last several years — surface spaces lost, new commercial spaces added.
Gabrielle Schaffner, an artist who has lived in the area’s Fort Point Channel neighborhood since the 1980s, said the years of ample parking were a luxury that’s disappearing.
“It’s a daily difficulty. I do think twice before I drive in the middle of the day,” she said. “I think, will I have a spot when I get back?” This winter’s snow laid bare the changes in the neighborhood as well. “I’ve never seen space-savers in Fort Point before.”
The parking woes certainly come as Boston’s public transportation is under duress.
“When it relates to the future character and quality of cities, these questions cities are asking themselves about whether they want to be auto-centric are good,” Dimino said. Many people want to see Boston become more reliant on public transit, along with bicycling and walking. But, he admits, “To be honest that’s easier said than done. You’ve got a transit system that’s got a fever, coming off a bad winter flu.”
It’s perhaps fitting that Dimino is the person counting Boston’s spaces. He ran the Transportation Department from 1985 to 1993, served on the MBTA’s advisory board, chaired Boston’s Air Pollution Control Commission, and had a hand in transportation policy related to the Big Dig.
Dimino supported a parking freeze in South Boston — capping off-street parking spaces at 30,389 — that was enacted shortly after he left, in 1994. He also favored the 1992 freeze in his native East Boston, he said, in order to keep airport traffic pollution at bay.
Residential spaces in new buildings are excluded from the Seaport cap. But public spaces are the ones feeling the squeeze that’s so hard to quantify.
Downtown, the parking freeze dates to 1978, in response to the federal Clean Air Act. There are 35,556 public spaces allowed in commercial facilities downtown, although an exclusion allows builders to add private spots for tenants.
Without that exemption, Dimino said, “the whole system would have fallen apart.”
There are 1,260 unused spots remaining in the South Boston-Seaport area in a “parking bank,’’ spaces that can be created by developers who apply for them. Once those spots are taken, it would be difficult to add more. Downtown, there are no spots left in the bank.
A Better City’s parking study will examine, among other things, the current regulations and requirements on developers. It will also document the fees charged by garages and propose ways to keep the parking inventory updated.
There is some good news on the way. Massport, which is not subject to the South Boston freeze, plans to build a garage with 1,700 spaces on land it owns across from the convention center. But that could take at least three years, Glynn said.
As bad as parking is now, Glynn said, “It’s not getting any better.”Beth Healy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @HealyBeth.