If Friday brings the fierce snowstorm that meteorologists have been predicting, Boston will declare an emergency, leading to a citywide scramble for parking alternatives off snow arteries. The drivers who have to move their cars will be annoyed — especially if they have to pay for pricey space in private garages. But on-street parking shouldn’t be a cheap alternative to off-street parking. Street-level space is far more valuable than concrete-covered spots 200 feet up, and parkers should pay more, not less, for the privilege of being on the ground.
Drivers view off-street and on-street parking in radically different ways, because they emerge from opposite spheres — private and public — that carry different expectations. Parking garages are built at great cost by an entrepreneur. And as the quotation from “The Godfather” goes, “Certainly, he can present a bill for such services. After all, we are not Communists.”
On-street public parking, in contrast, is created in communal spaces and maintained by tax dollars. The instinct that common property should be accessible for free is deep-seeded; a 1937 legal challenge objected to parking meters as “a fee for the free use of the streets, which is a right of all citizens.” But that instinct is wrong. Just because something is publicly provided doesn’t mean that it should be free, or only $1.25 per hour. If a commodity is as scarce as land in Boston, we need a fair way of allocating it.
When public policy underprices things, as the Soviet Union once underpriced groceries, the result is long lines and shortages. People pay with their time, instead of their money. In Boston, the real price of seemingly cheap streetside parking also includes all the minutes drivers spend cruising around looking for it — and the congestion they create for everyone else.
UCLA transportation expert Donald Shoup has long urged that on-street parking rates be high enough to create an 85 percent occupancy rate — enough turnover to leave a spot empty almost on every block. Achieving this goal would require different meter rates in different neighborhoods, but new technologies will make it easy to set rates that change over time.
Boston should also charge more for overnight parking in neighborhoods where there are more cars than spaces. This can be done with electronic in-vehicle parking meters that sell space on a nightly or monthly basis.
Eventually, fees for on-street parking should be similar to fees for off-street parking. If it costs $30,000 or more to build a parking spot, then that is the true cost of providing parking in Boston. On-street parking carries a huge opportunity cost. Boston could get far more than $30,000 for a permanent parking spot on Newbury Street, which could be used by a food truck or even a mobile boutique. It could also be used for other valuable purposes, such as bike lanes or extra pedestrian space.
Drivers like me shouldn’t be bribed with more taxpayer-funded highways or underpriced on-street parking; we should be should be charged for the congestion we impose and the pollution we create. If drivers are unwilling to cover the cost of what the city gives up by maintaining valuable space as on-street parking, then the space should be used for something else.
The obvious retort is that some drivers have more time to spare than money, and can’t afford to pay more. If the city wants to limit the hardship that could be caused by higher rates, it could provide lower-income residents with fixed-value meter cards to be used in their own neighborhood or simply resold. This would mitigate short-term suffering and still let prices work.
Higher meter rates would mean more revenue, and a chance for the city to do something great for everyone. Snazzier buses, better bike lanes, and investments that brighten city streets are all possibilities if the city charges the right amount for on-street parking. Higher rates also mean that, when snow starts coming down, people who move their cars will have less trouble finding places to put them.
Edward L. Glaeser is an economist at Harvard.