In a city where people can spend hours searching for parking, Boston officials are pursuing a strategy that seems as galling as it is counterintuitive: They are deliberately discouraging construction of new spaces.
The policy shift — which comes even as thousands of new residents flock into its neighborhoods — is being implemented across the city, with officials relaxing once inflexible requirements that parking be built with every new residence. The goal is to encourage the use of public transportation, and to devote more land and money to affordable housing, open spaces, and other amenities. Officials also say the city’s youthful population is becoming more accustomed to life without a car.
“We don’t need a parking space for every bedroom in every new building,” Peter Meade, head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, said in a recent interview. He cited US census data showing that one in three Boston residents is between 20 and 35, and most bike, walk, or use public transportation to get to work.
But the reduction in spaces is roiling residents in some of Boston’s densely populated neighborhoods, with critics arguing that officials are allowing high-minded planning principles to trump the needs of residents who wage a daily battle over precious street spots.
“This might make sense 20 years from now, but it doesn’t make sense today,” said Mark Rosenshein, chair of development for the Charlestown Neighborhood Council, a civic organization. “The city is asking us to believe that the people moving into the neighborhood don’t own cars, and we’re just not seeing that.”
He and other residents protested the BRA’s recent approval of a 54-unit apartment building with only 43 parking spaces in the Charlestown Navy Yard, a neighborhood with limited public transit options. “I have no idea where those people are going to park,” said Barbara Babin, a longtime Navy Yard resident. “I don’t think any more development should be allowed until they find a solution.”
For decades the city has imposed limits on the number of commercially owned spaces built in the city, but now the strategy is being applied to new residential buildings. Disputes over parking have rattled through Allston-Brighton, South Boston, the Back Bay, and elsewhere.
However, there is evidence that automobile use is declining among Boston residents. The number of registered vehicles in the city has dropped by nearly 14 percent in the last five years, from 362,288 in 2008 to 311,943 today, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
It is harder to estimate the number of parking spaces because there is no accurate tally of on-street spaces. Thomas Tinlin, the city’s transportation commissioner, said there are 134,000 off-street spaces in Boston, and 61,000 active on-street parking permits.
City officials are not reducing parking requirements in every instance, and in some cases they have continued to order that one or even two off-street spaces be built for every new home. But in most cases, officials are allowing the ratio to slip to 0.75 spaces per residence. Meade said the city will explore cutting back even further when projects are located near multiple transit options, such as rail and bus service, shared-car stations, and Hubway, the area’s bicycle network.
Since its implementation, Hubway has nearly doubled in size, from 60 stations in July 2011 to 112 now, with new bike- and car-sharing stations being added frequently in neighborhoods across the city.
The expansion of new options is critical as the city’s population continues to increase. About 19,000 people flocked to the city between 2010 and 2012, boosting the headcount to 636,479. That growth is fueling more residential development, with about 5,350 units under construction citywide.
Meade cited figures showing, however, that the 20- to 35-year-olds who account for much of that growth are shunning the automobile: 58 percent of people in that generation bike, walk, or use public transportation to get to work, according to a BRA analysis of census data.
“If you say to many people in this age group, ‘You can either have a smartphone or a car,’ they’ll pick the phone,” Meade said. “The people in this age group are driving a lot less.”
While Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and presumably many of his top planners, are leaving office in six months, officials believe the generational shift in transportation preferences is here to stay. Tinlin said the city welcomes public debate on parking policy, but that developers, employers, and residents should be encouraged to use transit services, carpooling, and other alternatives.
“If we’re serious about making a difference on climate change and traffic congestion, then these should be important steps for all of us,” Tinlin said. “I think if folks look at some of the other [transportation] options we have available now, they would see that those things can benefit their neighborhoods.”
Tinlin acknowledged that the policy remains a hard sell to many residents. Earlier this year, a proposal to build a car-free development in Allston sparked strong objections from neighbors. Eventually, the project died because the developer failed to obtain rights to the property, but some residents worried the proposal was just a precursor.
“The reality is that people here are going to have cars, and the BRA officials are just sticking their heads in the sand,” said Charlie Vasiliades, a member of the Allston Community Development Corp. “It’s policies like this that make me want to dissolve the BRA. They’re planning for themselves, and not the residents of the city. I think that’s wrong.”
In Portland, Ore., a city often cited as being on the cutting edge of urban planning, a backlash by residents prompted officials to block construction of car-free housing complexes and to require a minimum number of parking spaces for new residences.
But elsewhere in the country, cities are cutting back on parking.
In Milwaukee, officials have eliminated parking requirements for all downtown land uses other than large housing complexes, and for those, the city only requires two spaces for every three units.
Seattle has eliminated parking requirements altogether in its downtown and allows fewer spaces in other neighborhoods when developers include on-site car sharing or build affordable units whose occupants are considered less likely to own cars. Los Angeles is allowing car-free development along a major rail line. Meanwhile San Francisco, New York, and Pittsburgh are placing strict caps on the number of new spaces.
And in Massachusetts, Boston is not alone in cutting parking. Cambridge restricts construction of new spaces, and Somerville is relaxing its rules that require 1.5 to 2 parking spots for every new residential unit.
The developers of the Maxwell’s Green apartment project near Somerville’s Davis Square recently persuaded city planners to significantly reduce the required parking, from more than 300 spaces to 233. Developers Gate Residential and KSS Realty Partners successfully argued that fewer spaces were needed because the complex is located along a community bike path and near the MBTA Red Line. It is also next to a future stop on the extended Green Line and offers on-site Zipcar service to residents.
“By eliminating the extra parking, we were able to build a new public green space in the middle of the complex,” said Ted Tobin, director of development for KSS Realty, adding that construction of a parking structure can cost $30,000 to $50,000 per space.
In Boston, officials are now reviewing proposals to redevelop some of the city’s biggest parking structures to make room for larger civic spaces and more walkable streets. A developer is proposing to demolish a portion of the Government Center garage to create room for a 60-story office tower, a public square, and multiple residential buildings. The number of parking spaces would drop from 2,300 to 1,159.
In the downtown, officials said they are convinced that reducing parking is the right policy; the only question is how widely it should be applied to other neighborhoods.
Tinlin said the city will continue to explore reductions near transit stops in neighborhoods across the city, whether in Brighton, South Boston, or Jamaica Plain.
He said normal off-street requirements should continue to apply in thickly settled areas more removed from transit options, but that the city must start to wean itself from dependence on the automobile.
“We want to leave some room for negotiation in every community,” he said. “But if we don’t start to push people to get out of their cars and consider other options, then that behavior is never going to change.”
Casey Ross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.