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Car-free future? Not for families

Parking along Broadway in South Boston.Globe File/Boston Globe

THIS CAR-FREE city thing is getting out of hand. Whoever is driving this movement probably doesn’t spend much time shuttling elderly relatives to medical appointments or picking up the kids from their friends’ houses across town. Before Boston officials give the green light to developers to build housing with little or no off-street parking, they should remember that many of the city’s residents are already driving around in an endless loop looking for a place to park.

Planners from the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city Transportation Department are mesmerized by the growing number of residents in the 20-to-35 age range who shun car ownership.


City officials posit that Boston’s future rests with these devotees of walking, biking, and Zipcar membership. So why require developers to build one or more parking spaces per housing unit as they did in the past?

The city now requires just .75 parking spaces per unit at large residential developments in many areas of the city. And planners are starting to look with favor upon large-scale housing complexes with no parking requirements whatsoever in neighborhoods with abundant public transit options, such as Brighton.

By definition, reducing or eliminating the number of required on-site parking spaces at new developments will make street parking scarcer for residents who rely on cars to support themselves and their families. The dozen candidates competing to be the next mayor of Boston should consider that there are still plenty of voters out there with more to do after work than walk to a nearby restaurant and decide which craft beer to match with which sushi roll.

istockphoto/H.Hopp-Bruce/Globe Staff

City planners emphasize that the number of registered vehicles in Boston has dropped by 14 percent over the past five years. Peter Meade, the head of the BRA, sees this as evidence of a new Bostonian who embraces efforts to reduce carbon footprints with the same passion that an earlier generation devoted to the struggle for civil rights. That’s a pretty lofty view. But the view from the curb is very different.


In Charlestown, for example, residents express righteous anger that it will be harder to park now that the BRA has approved a 54-unit apartment building with only 43 parking spaces in the Navy Yard.

You can’t really trust anyone over 30 who doesn’t own a car. They talk a great game of sustainability. Next thing you know they are romantically involved with some guy who owns a Ford Ranger truck and sleeps over half the week. They are keen to beautify their homes with money otherwise spent on car loans and insurance. You can be certain, however, that none of those hardwood floor sanders, cabinet restorers, or kitchen island designers will be pulling up to condo developments in the South End, Jamaica Plain, or the Back Bay in vehicles from the Hubway bike sharing system.

Environmentally friendly Portland, Ore., went down this slick road years ago by allowing developers to build parking-free apartment houses. City officials later discovered that many of the bicycle enthusiasts bought cars when their lives became more complex. The fight for on-street parking spaces intensified. In April, the Portland City Council amended the zoning code to reintroduce minimum parking space requirements in future developments.

If Boston officials are so confident of a car-free future, they should charge a small fortune for new on-street residential parking permits in densely settled neighborhoods. Theoretically, there should be few takers. Current sticker holders, meanwhile, would retain permanent rights to free on-street parking. Upon sale or vacancy of their units, the sticker could be transferred to a new owner or tenant. It’s a way to bring the city’s planning principles in line with the concerns of longtime residents who don’t have the luxury of living without a car.


For decades, there has been an unspoken covenant between City Hall and families that stayed in the city during the school desegregation crisis of the 1970s and the crime waves of the 1980s. It goes something like this: Don’t flee to the suburbs. In exchange, city officials will keep your residential property taxes in check and try not to annoy you unnecessarily.

Any policy that makes it harder for families to find a parking space on the street is a breach of that urban contract. And there’s one more thing about cars that city officials should remember. You can put your luggage in them and drive away.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.