At first, it hardly seemed real.
In the space of five minutes on Wednesday morning, three cars backed into spots on Boylston Street by Trinity Church.
Which meant three spots had opened up. Three.
Was this Boston?
Many of us have frittered away weeks, possibly months, of our lives, crawling along that block, and others like it, dreaming of such a thing — a break in the car rank that isn’t a hydrant or handicapped ramp. We’ve ignored the honks and middle digits of drivers trying to get somewhere as we inched along, peering and praying. We have double-parked, scanning the horizon for movement, ready to pounce. Detecting a blessed vacancy, we have crossed lanes and dodged pedestrians to perform feats of microsurgical parking. And by God, once we got a spot, we stayed there, even if it meant a $25 ticket.
Are those days gone? City Hall says yes, if parking rate hikes do here what’s they’ve done in other cities. Under the pilot project launched this week, meter rates have tripled to $3.75 an hour at about 1,600 meters in the Back Bay, and will rise at variable rates of up to $4 an hour at 600 meters in the Seaport District — the two neighborhoods where the search for parking is most likely to drive motorists round the bend.
Make street parking more expensive, the theory goes, and people will be less likely to use on-street spots for longer than they should, especially when the higher meter rate plus a parking ticket make the street as pricey as a garage. Spots will open more often.
And since drivers searching for parking account for a whopping 30 percent of the cars in congested neighborhoods, higher meter fees also should mean less traffic. That, in turn, lowers emissions. It also leads to fewer distracted drivers — excellent news for walkers and bikers.
It will also surely mean fewer cars, period, in those neighborhoods. It would be delightful if our public transportation system was equal to the higher ridership the new policy will prompt. Perhaps more T riders will put extra pressure on a state administration with a severe allergy to revenue-raising, prompting it to finally pay up for the system we deserve. Well, we can dream.
It’s too soon to tell if the fantasy that played out on Boylston on Wednesday was a fluke or a result of the new policy. But there will certainly be more scenes like it — especially if the city decides, after collecting more data, that getting obdurate Bostonians to change their habits requires meter rates to be even higher.
Yes, there will be angry drivers. One told the Globe the increases had him considering moving to another state (he was joking, presumably). But Boston has long offered a ridiculously good deal to street parkers: Our $1.25 an hour is comically low compared to some other places, which charge up to $6.50. We are subsidizing motorists when the city’s health, and that of the environment, cries out for fewer cars. And there are plenty of benefits to offset the hurt.
Take the pilot citywide and it could change the way we get around. If enough cities adopt the approach, it could fuel something of a revolution for public transportation — and the air we breathe. There aren’t many things for progressives to smile about these days, but this prospect could be one.
Now more than ever, cities — and policies that make them more liveable — are our greatest hope. Voters just elected a president who appears not to believe in most of what government does. He has selected Cabinet secretaries who are inexperienced, daft, eager to eliminate the departments they’ll lead, or some combination of all three. We’re entering an era in which those in power seem fine with — or at least determined to ignore — the planet frying.
But City Halls still brim with idealists. They can make change happen, change you notice, even with what seem like small shifts.
The new parking policy might be a pain in the neck. It’s also visionary.