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Looking to improve parking, Boston turns to L.A. and Seattle

David Hardie, parking meter technician supervisor, watched the giant screens that shows activity of all parking meters in the city at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.
David Hardie, parking meter technician supervisor, watched the giant screens that shows activity of all parking meters in the city at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times

Seven years ago, Los Angeles transportation officials launched a major initiative to manage parking by increasing meter rates during higher demand. Critics in the car-loving city of 4 million grumbled, but the program worked out well — doubling parking meter revenue.

“As soon as the price went up, people kept [using] the meters,” said Bruce Gillman, spokesman for the Los Angeles Transportation Department.

Boston officials now plan to increase parking meter rates, following similar initiatives in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., part of a trend that uses real-time pricing and performance data to encourage drivers in and out of parking spots.

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Like those in Los Angeles, Boston area drivers are not taking kindly to the price hikes, but Boston officials are moving forward with their plan to make more money from those hundreds of rectangles of asphalt around Boston.

“Jurisdictions are realizing that a curbside is a valuable asset,’’ said Soumya Dey, associate director for transportation operations and safety in Washington, D.C. “There have been studies that show the direct relationship between curbside congestion and roadway congestion. If you manage those curbsides more effectively, you are actually addressing the congestion issue.”

Boston’s yearlong pilot program, set to launch Jan. 3, targets 1,650 spaces in Back Bay and 591 spots in the Seaport District with the aim of encouraging turnover at the meter, limiting the number of drivers circling the block, and stopping motorists who would rather pay a parking fine than leave their on-street spot.

Meter rates — currently $1.25 an hour — will soar to $3.75 in Back Bay. Seaport meters will have sensors that automatically adjust parking prices, and those rates will fluctuate up to $4 an hour depending on demand, city officials said.

City officials say they have not yet determined how much in revenue the meter price increase will generate. The cost for the sensors will be approximately $37,000, they said.

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Mayor Martin J. Walsh and other city officials have defended the higher rates, saying drivers in other cities pay much more for metered parking.

“A meter at $3.75 per hour is cheaper than any parking in the city of Boston by far,’’ Walsh said last week. “You’re not going to get a better deal in the city.”

Transportation Commissioner Gina Fiandaca said Boston can learn from other cities, such as how to manage the parking meters so that drivers can easily find at least one meter free in a business district instead of circling the block.

“What we’ve seen in other cities . . . is that [the performance-driven initiative] actually improves the likelihood that someone is going to find a parking spot, so it improves the business districts,’’ Fiandaca said. “But it also helps with quality of life in those locations, so that you don’t see people double parking . . . or trolling for a parking spot, creating congestion.”

Los Angeles launched its LA Express Park program in 2010, after a hard recession and a realization that the city needed to modernize its aging and rickety parking meters, most of which had been damaged by vandals, said Gillman, the transportation spokesman.

The city targeted 7,500 of its 40,000 parking meters in the Civic Center area, in an experiment that fused technology with a sliding-scale payment system that determined pricing based on demand. Using hockey-puck size sensors in the ground to track turnover at a metered space, officials were able to fluctuate the cost to park. Prices were raised from 25 cents to up to $6 in certain spots, Gillman said.

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The program is expanding and will soon include Venice, San Pedro, and the University of Southern California campus communities, he added.

Seattle launched a similar performance-driven effort in 2010, setting meter rates based on local parking conditions up to $4 an hour. Last month, the Seattle City Council passed legislation that increased the meter rates up to $5 an hour beginning Jan. 3, the city’s parking strategist, Mary Catherine Snyder, said in a statement.

Seattle manages 12,000 paid on-street spaces, in a complex system of 31 parking areas with different hourly rates, maximum time limits, and hours of operation, she said in an e-mail.

Using meter performance data, Seattle made more than 120 changes to parking area rates and hours of operation, officials said.

In the nation’s capital, officials spent more than a year on its pilot program, funded with a $1 million federal grant, said Dey, the transportation official.

Washington installed meter sensors and mobile cameras, and targeted 1,000 meters in the Chinatown and Penn Quarter neighborhoods, officials said. In October it raised the hourly meter rate from $2.30 to $2.75. The purpose is to follow demand: During low-usage times the prices will likely decrease to $2 an hour, Dey said.

The city is also preparing to launch a smartphone app that will divert drivers to open meter spaces. Dey said that with the program, officials were not overly concerned about generating revenue. But they wanted to more effectively manage curb space and travel.

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Back in Boston, complaints are mounting about the higher meter rates in Back Bay and the Seaport. Some Bostonians question whether the mayor can risk rankling nerves just as he is about to launch his reelection bid. But Walsh dismissed such concerns.

“I’m the mayor. I can’t worry about that,’’ Walsh said. “My job is to try and move our city forward. My job is to relieve any traffic in our community, keep our business districts open, and find creative ways to find solutions” to congestion.


Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.