South Boston doesn’t have a parking problem — at least not in the way that neighborhood officials think it does. Southie politicians are blaming waves of new residential buildings for area gridlock, but neighborhood street wars over coveted parking spaces don’t have anything to do with new buildings on Broadway or D Street. If anything, new development in South Boston, and across the city, is too generous toward cars. If parking is a problem, the answer is to build apartments that have no parking at all.
Boston’s obsession with parking is legendary. A developer’s ability to score a development permit is often directly tied to his willingness to buy into Boston’s parking orthodoxy, which views the creation of new on-street parkers as a cardinal sin. But this fever over parking doesn’t have anything to do with the way people actually live. Zoning around Boston routinely requires developers to build more parking than residents actually use. Ducking a fight over development and parking now means over-building parking.
Last week was a big one for hyperventilating over parking, even by Boston’s own standards. West Roxbury residents beat back a developer who was looking to build 62 apartments and 52 parking spots across the street from a commuter rail stop; one attendee suggested turning the entire property into a parking lot. Savin Hill neighbors fretted over a scarcity of parking at a 13-unit condo development that’s slated to rise across the street from a Red Line station — a location that shouldn’t need any parking at all. And a pair of South Boston politicians accused City Hall of flooding the neighborhood with new cars. They demanded that neighborhood developers build at least one off-street parking spot for every new housing unit.
Other cities have moved far beyond these types of squabbles because the use of cars is ebbing. The annual tally of miles driven by Americans peaked years ago. Younger Americans are buying far fewer cars, and they’re waiting longer to get their licenses. New York City responded to these shifts by adding hundreds of miles of bike lanes, and by shutting down streets to create new pedestrian plazas. New York’s moves are mild compared with those in Hamburg. The German city recently set a goal of going car-free within 20 years.
Boston isn’t talking about banning all cars, or even replacing some intersections with parks. It’s enough of a fight to argue that developers should build new parking at the same rate residents drive at. We aren’t even close to that mark.
According to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, parking regulations for new development exceed car ownership rates in most Boston neighborhoods. There are 50,000 fewer cars registered in Boston today than there were in 2008, but the politics hasn’t caught up. Even in South Boston, where neighborhood politicians are pushing a one-home, one-space requirement, one in four households doesn’t own a car; in the western half of the neighborhood, where the new development is concentrated, that figure is one in three.
The story is the same across the region: Nearly two-thirds of area cities and towns require more parking than the average resident needs. The phenomenon is worse in close-in municipalities, which enjoy robust MBTA access but act like they’re in Connecticut.
Northeastern University professor Stephanie Pollack has studied gentrification around transit stops across the country, and she’s found that one of the biggest mistakes municipalities make is requiring too much parking. Pollack’s data show that, given the choice, residents will self-select: Heavy drivers choose to live in homes that provide parking, and residents who don’t own cars will choose transit-oriented, low-parking homes. This is especially true for renters. So the answer to an urban parking crunch isn’t adding supply. It’s recognizing that parking demand isn’t monolithic. Urban parking is a choice, and if Boston really does have too many cars already, the answer isn’t to build room for more.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.