Parking in Boston can’t be both ample and free

Andrea Buckley shovels her car out of a snow bank in South Boston last week.
Andrea Buckley shovels her car out of a snow bank in South Boston last week.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

In Boston, it only takes a few feet of snow to turn the usual curbside parking crunch into a wacky Wild West of conflicting property claims and frontier justice.

In the last week, Maureen Dahill, a South Boston native who founded the neighborhood website Caught in Southie, has been retweeting stories from people who return to parking spaces they spent hours shoveling out, only to find that the lawn chairs and traffic cones that they left behind as spot savers have been moved aside. She also shared a plaintive note one reader had left on his car: “Picking my kid up from school, be back in five minutes. Please don’t slash my tires.”

The guy who wrote the note was kidding, but the heartbreak of Southie parking remains. “You kind of have to keep a positive attitude and have a sense of humor about it,” Dahill says, “because if not it would ruin your day, every day.”


While recent snowstorms in Boston have exacerbated the problem, the squeeze on parking is perpetual — a running joke for some Bostonians, but for others an argument for putting the brakes on new development. What City Hall needs to do is treat the shortage as the basic economics problem that it is. There’s exactly one way to solve Boston’s parking woes: by giving up the pretense that, in a city of 13,000 people per square mile, parking can be both ample and free.

Street parking isn’t a right; it’s a limited resource that needs to be managed accordingly. Unlike Cambridge and Somerville, Boston charges nothing for a residential parking permit and puts no limits on the number that a single household can obtain. Not surprisingly, Boston has issued resident parking permits to far more vehicles than it has street spots to accommodate.

“Boston is the only city I know,” says Donald Shoup, a UCLA urban planning professor and parking guru, “that thinks it can repeal the law of supply and demand for parking.” He thinks cities should charge significant fees for the first residential permit — San Francisco demands $110 a year — with still stiffer prices for additional ones.


In Boston, the Globe’s Todd Wallack recently identified a South End couple with 11 parking permits; more than 4,400 housing units in the city have three permits or more. It’s obvious some residents use city streets as a free garage for vehicles that they seldom drive. Dahill noted Monday that, of about 26 vehicles on her block, eight or nine hadn’t been shoveled out since the blizzard the previous week. San Francisco-style fees would give owners of such vehicles a nudge to sell them, opening up parking for others.

The opposition to this approach comes in two flavors: In the left-wing version, parking fees are too great a hardship for low-income residents. Yet on the many blocks where BMWs and Audis outnumber Chevrolets, free parking is plainly an upper-middle-class entitlement. Besides, permit fees can be set by neighborhoood — higher in Boston’s pricey urban core, lower in transit-poor areas farther from downtown.

To skeptics on the right, meanwhile, parking permit fees look like new taxes, another pool of money to be shoveled into the putative black hole of City Hall. Even for this objection, Shoup has an answer: parking benefit districts, which would collect revenue from parking meters or residential permit fees in a given neighborhood and use it on street improvements, snow removal, or other public purposes in that same area.


Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration has been sending mixed messages on parking. Signaling that adding more spots isn’t the only way to handle the shortage, the city will let Zipcar and similar firms bid for the use of about 200 public parking spaces. Yet the idea of fees or limits on residential permits has gained little traction. “We haven’t reached the point where we think we should be rationing spaces,” a city transportation official told Wallack.

In fact, Bostonians are already paying for parking — just not in money. And even that’s just a matter of time. The city scared away Haystack, an app that would have guided motorists to vacant street spots for a fee. But Caught in Southie recently highlighted a Craigslist ad from someone who’d blocked off a street spot and was trying to rent it out for $150.

Wicked trolling, or the wave of the future? Better for Boston to adopt Shoup’s ideas — before the Craigslist alternative takes off.


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2013 | Editorial: Build future with new people, not old ideas about parking

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.