Let’s alL take a deep breath. It’s just 80 parking spots, scattered across a big swath of Boston.
Recently, Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration took about 30 spaces at curbside, and about 50 in city-owned lots, and leased them to Zipcar and Enterprise CarShare for an 18-month trial period. Thanks to short-term car-rental services that relieve occasional drivers of the burden of buying their own vehicles, and the spread of technologies such as smartphones and street sensors, Boston has new opportunities to manage its existing parking supply far more efficiently.
It would be irresponsible for a 21st-century city not to run some modest experiments.
News of the program, known as Drive Boston, inevitably sparked indignation in South Boston, Charlestown, and the North End, areas where tensions over parking run high. “Even the elimination of four spots has a significant impact on the quality of life of North End residents,” the chairman of a neighborhood group’s traffic and parking committee told the website NorthEndWaterfront.com.
Never mind the research showing that a single car-share vehicle can replace nine to 13 personal vehicles.
The dustup came a few weeks after Walsh announced plans to raise rates at some parking meters at peak hours so that curbside spaces will turn over faster. This is a huge convenience for drivers, because more turnover means more open spaces. But three of the five at-large City Council candidates in Tuesday’s election opposed even this modest tweak.
There’s a lot of room in Boston devoted to street spots, off-street lots, private driveways, and garages. But when we complain about the dearth of parking, we’re really only talking about one kind: free spaces, or dirt-cheap ones, right in front of our homes or the businesses we visit.
Where the city is going wrong isn’t in renting a few spaces to Zipcar and Enterprise. It’s in giving away a scarce resource for nothing, in the case of residential parking spaces — or for a paltry $1.25 an hour, in the case of metered spots on the city’s busiest streets. At those prices, of course there’s a shortage.
It’s tempting to think of parking as if it were oxygen: something so self-evidently necessary that it’s almost a human right. Yes, there are some Bostonians for whom a lack of parking creates a genuine hardship. Then again, everyone in Boston needs housing, but nobody expects the city to provide apartments at no charge.
Peak pricing at parking meters will help, as will charging for resident parking permits. For each curbside space, Zipcar and Enterprise are paying up to $3,500 a year — a figure that hints at how severely Boston is undervaluing its parking. Fees of even a tiny fraction of that would encourage drivers who seldom use their vehicles to get rid of them, while freeing up space for people who can’t get to work or school without their cars.
It’s just as important to expand the range of options, as the Drive Boston pilot does, for how people get around. Recent innovations allow city residents to hail rides, share bikes, get real-time transit information, and use private buses on nontraditional routes. Over time, they’ll also make it easier for couples and larger families to get by with a single car — and for more people to give up their vehicles altogether.
It’s easy to blame Drive Boston or developers or neighborhood newcomers for the parking crunch. But the deeper problem is that Boston can’t accommodate the number of people who might like to park for free. And it shouldn’t try.