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Car-sharing pilot may take precious city parking spots

Boston plans to let car-sharing services use 200 spaces

Boston is launching a pilot program that could let car-sharing services, such as Zipcar, use 200 of the city’s public spaces.Wiqan Ang for The Boston Globe

If you thought parking in Boston was tough now, just wait a few months.

The city of Boston is launching a pilot program that could essentially gobble up at least 200 public parking spaces as part of an effort to promote car-sharing and provide more travel options for residents.

Companies will bid for the right to park two types of cars in city-owned spaces. Traditional car-sharing services such as Zipcar could bid for specific on-street and municipal lot spaces, where cars would park when not in use. But separately, the program would allow users of so-called free-floating car services — which let drivers pick up and drop off cars in any legal spot — to park in residential spaces and at meters without worrying about getting a ticket or requiring a neighborhood sticker.


In Boston — where fighting for a parking spot can turn into a full-contact sport — this approach is sure to raise some eyebrows.

Evelyn Addante, a retired transportation planner who lives in Charlestown, said the program will put more cars on the street, without necessarily prompting people to shed their cars. “It’s almost counterintuitive to say this is going to work,” she said.

Officials in Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s office declined to disclose the exact number of spaces affected by the program until they issue a request for proposals on Monday. But they confirmed that the number initially would equal two-tenths of 1 percent of all the city’s public spaces. With more than 100,000 in Boston, that means roughly 200 spaces.

This sort of thing happens in other cities: Enterprise and Zipcar already use public spots in cities such as Baltimore and San Francisco. And here in Massachusetts, car-sharing companies use a limited number of municipal spots in Cambridge and Brookline.

But until now, those cars were not competing for hard-to-score public spaces in Boston.


Betsy Hall got rid of her car four years ago and regularly uses Zipcars parked at the building where she lives in the South End. She could see the city’s effort working with spaces in municipal lots.

But taking away street spaces reserved for residents?

“There just aren’t enough spots for them in the first place,” said Hall, president of the Ellis South End Neighborhood Association. “We have more [residential] permits than we have parking spots, by a good deal.”

The one-year pilot program could be broadened if successful. City officials expect to pick winners by early summer, and public hearings will be held. The bids are expected to bring in new revenue for the city. But City Hall officials say the primary goal is to encourage more people to ditch their cars, eventually opening up more spaces.

In weighing the bids, the Walsh administration will consider geographic factors, in part to put some of the designated spaces in places without good rapid transit options.

“For certain neighborhoods and certain areas of the city . . . car-sharing could be a more affordable option than owning a car and finding a place to park it,” City Councilor Michelle Wu said. “The question is, where are these spots coming from and what does the parking situation look like for residents in those neighborhoods already?”

Boston-based Zipcar, a subsidiary of Avis Budget Group, and Enterprise Holdings are likely to bid for the designated spaces as a way to expand their substantial local operations. Zipcar, for example, already has approximately 1,200 vehicles in and around the city. Nearly all of those cars are now parked on private property.


“In a place like Boston, this type of model can have a tremendous impact on folks who live in the city, by reducing congestion and CO2 emissions,” said Brian Harrington, Zipcar’s chief marketing officer. “Zipcar is keenly interested in working with the city regarding the RFP.”

But Zipcar executives are also well versed in Boston parking politics. They say they’re in no rush to take over spots in parking-starved neighborhoods such as South Boston, and would instead start with spaces in less congested areas, such as Roxbury, Dorchester or East Boston.

The second part of the program would attract a new kind of car-sharing concept for Boston: allowing drivers to pick up and drop off cars almost anywhere in the city. Fast-growing Car2Go, the most popular of these free-floating services in other US cities, would not confirm whether it would bid, but said it is interested in coming to Boston.

Car2Go’s model is typical of how such services work: The company puts a set number of cars within a designated “home area,” often 50 square miles. These cars are the small Smart ForTwo cars manufactured by Car2Go’s parent company, Daimler. Members use a mobile app to find the closest Smart car, pay by the minute, and then park in any available spot within the home area. They don’t have to pay for metered spaces or observe residential restrictions.


These cars can’t sit in one spot forever: Car2Go typically needs to move cars that remain in one place for too long. Boston officials said they expect the time limit here would be 24 hours.

Car2Go’s expansion hasn’t come without headaches. Residents of Torrance, Calif., griped last year about the influx of these cars on residential streets, for example, and people in Calgary, Alberta, complained that the cars occupied too many downtown spots. Users have taken to the Yelp website to complain about technical glitches and customer service issues. Car2Go also retreated from the UK market last year after its service didn’t prove popular enough there.

Bostonians may cringe at the thought of sharing their spots. But some say the pluses outweigh the disadvantages.

“Our research on round-trip car-sharing suggests that each car-sharing vehicle takes 9 to 12 vehicles off the road,” said Susan Shaheen, codirector of the University of California, Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center. “When people join car-sharing, they learn to travel differently. In many cases, people sell a car or postpone a car purchase.”


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Quest for parking in Boston worse than ever

Paul McMorrow: Boston’s parking solution is not more parking

Jon Chesto can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.