THE BOSTON Redevelopment Authority has permitted a 54-unit building in Charlestown with only 43 parking spaces, and the neighborhood appears to be aghast. If the city’s main planning agency doesn’t mandate enough off-street parking for new buildings, current residents may have to compete harder for limited on-street parking. But far from “sticking their heads in the sand,” as one Allston community activist put it, the BRA is right to regulate more lightly — especially when its existing regulations artificially encourage automobile congestion. (I should note here that the BRA and the Rappaport Institute, which I direct, have collaborated on public events and research.)
Minimum-parking requirements are a second wrong that doesn’t make a right. The original wrong is that we’ve never charged automobiles properly for using city streets, either for driving or parking.
If you give a valuable resource away for free, the inevitable result is overuse and crowding. In the old Soviet Union, groceries sold eggs and butter at near-free prices, and therefore shoppers faced long lines and empty shelves. In modern Massachusetts, on-street parking is available at low or no cost, and therefore drivers can’t find a parking spot. Low parking costs also ensure there are more drivers congesting the roads.
The original robber barons exacted high, unauthorized tolls from travelers passing through their territory, especially along the Rhine. Free public thoroughfares were an antidote to that problem, and created relatively few problems in the pre-car era. Pedestrians require little space, and they park themselves in private homes, not public streets.
But during the 20th century, the advent of the automobile made competition for public road space a far fiercer fight. Since a driver typically uses at least 50 times as much road space than a walker, and cars at rest still occupy significant urban real estate, cars presented a profound challenge to older, compact cities. As early as 1920, Los Angeles banned downtown parking to alleviate congestion. Angry motorists soon got that ruling reversed.
Parking meters, introduced in Oklahoma in the 1930s, provided a more durable tool for managing urban road space. With most goods, prices are high enough so that you can expect to find milk and meat when you want them. We’ve had the technology to charge reasonable prices for on-street parking for 80 years, but for political reasons, we keep the price far too low, at least for parkers lucky enough to find a spot. So in Boston today, residents who rarely use their cars leave them at curbside for days or weeks at a time, even as other drivers circle the block again and again looking for a rare vacant spot. UCLA professor Donald Shoup — the sensible scourge of free parking — has long advocated on-street parking prices high enough so that drivers can always expect a vacancy.
Charging the full cost of on-street parking would also reduce most of the pressure to artificially inflate the number of off-street spaces, since parkers would face the prospect of abundant, if expensive, parking — with or without new parking spaces. Since we don’t charge properly for on-street parking, locals get a great deal — the ability to use a significant swath of city streets for free — and they understandably fear losing that bonanza if new buildings don’t provide enough new parking spaces.
Since World War II, planners have responded to these fears by requiring minimum parking requirements for new construction. Instead of allowing a common market price and letting supply respond, cities kept street parking artificially cheap and then mandated more off-street spots, tragically wasting scarce common space, encouraging automobile congestion, and raising the cost of construction.
Boston started tentatively reversing this trend with an environmentally motivated parking freeze in 1976. The BRA’s current move is far gentler, notwithstanding all the neighborhood angst. The agency isn’t banning new parking spaces; it’s just reducing the number that developers are forced to build. This is deregulation, not social engineering. Since developers typically prefer to provide less parking, more freedom means fewer parking spaces.
Reducing (or eliminating) minimum parking requirements is one of those unusual cases where the ardent environmentalist and the libertarian economist see eye-to-eye. The libertarian believes that fewer regulations mean more homes and a more affordable Boston. The environmentalist wants fewer cars in Boston. Both causes are just, and the BRA should continue reducing minimum parking requirements citywide.
Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard economist, is director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.