Out of the Snow, Into the Parking Mess

Parking is a problem. When it snows it’s a nightmare. We start looking around, getting frustrated, maybe nasty. There seem to be parking spots everywhere except where we want to go. Parking is the explosive trap door of community transportation meetings – anything that reduces the number of spots anywhere evokes outcry. This winter’s climate craziness has pushed people from frustration into pathology — angry notes, slashed tires, off-road rage. Forgive us, neighbors, we have space saved.

At a recent meeting of the LivableStreets Alliance Advocacy Committee, Board member Charlie Denison led a brainstorming session about how the current parking situation in Boston isn’t really benefiting anyone, especially drivers themselves. The ideas range from snow-related strategies to general management of residential and commercial parking to long-term ways to reduce the overall demand. Just as the snow finally forced state leaders to acknowledge the desperate condition of the MBTA, maybe we can use this crisis to begin addressing the parking problem as well in both residential and commercial areas, by both addressing parking policies and the city-design need for it. Here’s my take on what came up during the brainstorm…


This year was a white monster. But we can’t relax into the idea that it was a one-time aberration. Anyone who thinks that a changing climate won’t bring even more extreme weather in future years (winter and summer) is deluded or listening to too many Tea Party speeches.

Boston does a commendable job clearing main roads of snow. Even this winter, with record snowfall, snow was plowed and often trucked away from streets and sidewalks on main streets and business districts throughout the city in a timely manner. However, the same cannot be said of most other streets in the city, where snow remains and parking lawlessness has taken over.

When a snow emergency is declared, no parking is allowed on any major roads in the City of Boston, allowing plows to get as close to the curb as they can, and ensuring there is plenty of room for emergency vehicles who need to get through. Boston has even negotiated discounted rates for residents in parking garages throughout the city during a snow emergency to help people who would normally park on these snow emergency routes. (And why not encourage people to use these off-road spots all the time?) However, it’s after the snow emergency is lifted when the problems really begin.

Unlike some neighboring cities, Boston’s plowing of side streets is limited to running the plows down the center while all the parked cars remain. This results in streets that are never plowed to the curb, leaving residents to fend for themselves. Some people dig their cars out and put the snow wherever they can find room (which this winter was especially difficult.) Others leave their cars buried until the snow melts. The end result is a bit of a parking nightmare. The folks who dug out the spaces they were using don’t want to lose them, since they may not find another one when they return, which is only made worse by those who left their cars buried, leaving those spaces permanently unavailable to anyone else for months.


Due to tradition and because the side street parking snow plowing/parking situation is so dire, short-term space saving has been allowed (but not enforced) in Boston. People are typically allowed to save the space they cleared for up to 48 hours past the end of the snow emergency. This winter, Mayor Walsh allowed it to go even longer than usual, due to all the snow. While, this policy may seem like a nice gesture to provide an emotional safety valve and to acknowledge the real effort that goes into shoveling out a car from truly deep piles, it’s actually quite unfair in many ways. And the space saving itself is really only a symptom of a much larger problem. Allowing space-saving under extreme conditions — 10 inches or more –should be the exception, not the rule.

The real solution is to expand upon the current snow emergency parking bans on major streets and have enough people/equipment in-house or under contract to clear all streets in the city to the curb within a reasonable amount of time. After the key routes are plowed, curb-to-curb, Boston should follow the street-cleaning approach and go neighborhood-by-neighborhood imposing alternative-side-of-the-street parking bans, using the opportunity to concentrate city resources to thoroughly remove snow from the rest of the roads. Portland (Maine), Montreal, and even Somerville (on one side of every street) already do this and residents report much less post-storm anguish than Boston’s suffering car owners. (Cambridge and Somerville have also made space saving illegal city-wide.) Somerville maintained the snow emergency long after the storm only lifting it street by street as they were able to clear the snow. They are also requiring all cars to be cleared of snow. Revere has been ticketing (if possible) and then clearing off/towing cars that are still buried in snow. The law is that cars must be moved every 72 hours or they are considered abandoned.

Sidewalks, bike lanes, and off-road paths also need attention. The city should adopt and enforce stronger sidewalk snow removal regulations, maybe using Cambridge’s as a starting point. There should be a volunteer sign-up system, perhaps done as community outreach by local CDCs or Main Street Orgs or Civic Associations, to help the elderly and infirm — with a for-pay service also available for snowfalls too heavy or frequent to expect that volunteers are enough.   The city and state (meaning MassDOT, MBTA, and DCR) need to start including more sidewalk and path clearance funds in their budgets, and the Legislature should start putting it keeping it there, so that people aren’t forced to walk or bike in the icy and snow-narrowed streets. City and state agencies also need clearer policies about which agency is responsible for clearing which sidewalks, particularly on overpasses and bridges. Many of the Charles River Bridge sidewalks remain untouched by snow clearing equipment for weeks.


Winter or summer, in several neighborhoods, Beacon Hill for example, there are simply too many cars trying to squeeze into too few spaces and enormous inefficiency in matching the available space to the searching drivers. (Actually, a new study shows that most neighborhoods actually have an oversupply of parking, if off-street and on-street are both counted.) The new Spot app, described as the “AirBnB of Parking, lists rentable spaces on private property or in larger apartment buildings but doesn’t include hourly-pay or daily-use commercial garages.

Neighborhood residential parking permits are instituted at residents’ request, so outside of the downtown it’s a patchwork of where they do or do not exist. Where present, residential parking permits in Boston have historically been free. This has been due to tradition reaching back to the (still continuing in some places) days when permits weren’t needed and fear that imposing fees would be politically dangerous. As a General Fund expense, the lack of permit revenue means that ALL residents of Boston (even those who don’t own cars or park on the street) end up paying the costs to administer the permits and enforce the residential parking zones. Logistically, free can work fine provided that there aren’t more drivers trying to park than there are total number of spaces. However, in many of Boston’s neighborhoods, the latter is the case rather than the former. This leads to a lot of wasted time and money spent by frustrated drivers looking for a space and a lot of congestion and pollution (and risk to pedestrians and bicyclists) generated by those very same drivers. The drivers aren’t happy and neither is anyone else!

The solution to the residential parking problem is managing the demand. A first step is to begin charging for on-street, neighborhood-specific permits. This is politically explosive; people have become used to seeing personal access to free parking as part of what they get with their property tax. But it might be feasible if presented as a partial solution to congestion and if the funds (after program expenses) are allocated back into the districts in which they are collected in order to make streets, sidewalks and intersections safer and more comfortable with better crosswalks, smoother walking surfaces, benches, bus shelters, bike parking, trees, and other amenities.

The permit fee could be initially set at a moderate level for the first car with huge increases for second and perhaps third cars. There probably should be a two-car per household default limit with multi-family households able to apply for one more permit. A good nuance would be to have the permit fee multiplied by various amounts for different categories of cars — lowest for fuel-efficient, light-weight, small vehicles and charging double or triple for cars significantly worse for our environment and public health on these dimensions. A touch of wealth equity could be introduced by adding a percentage of the value of the car to the permit fee. Or a surcharge could be added to the permit cost in neighborhoods where the number of permits exceeds the number of available on-street parking spots. Some cities charge more for permits to those who have off-street parking available at their residence than those who do not. And to avoid the gax-tax trap, there should be an inflation index to the fees, rising by the CPI or other measure every few years.

An alternative solution would be to limit the number of permits to roughly the available number of on-street parking spaces in each neighborhood. The total number of permits should still be greater than 100%, since some people who do have off-street parking often also acquire an on-street permit out of convenience, but use it rarely. For example, people who have guests visiting will sometimes park on the street temporarily while their guests use their off-street space(s). If there are more applicants than the number of potential permits a lottery can be used, or the number of permits per household can be limited to 2 or even 1 (even though this will be hard for multi-adult homes). Once the initial distribution occurs people get put on a first-in-first-served waiting list and have to wait until someone relinquishes a local permit — which should make in-coming people more willing to seek off-street space or even look for non-car alternatives. This method will solve to manage the demand through queuing, which will immediately raise suspicions of possible favoritism – giving people permits out of turn – because it lacks the seemingly impersonal efficiency of a market-oriented paid permit approach.

The problem with the lottery/waiting-list method is that it assumes everyone values parking equally. In reality, some people truly need on-street parking for their daily lives, to get to work or school or for their livelihood, while others may have a car for occasional use but could likely get along without owning one (for example by using car sharing for the occasional weekend trip or trip to the big box store.) By pricing parking accordingly, it allows those who need it to pay for it and have the access to it that they truly need, while that same price discourages people from owning a car who without free parking would likely not own one in the first place. At the same time, people’s willingness to pay is also determined by their capability to afford the price, their wealth. So the regressive disparity of people’s market power should be mitigated with an annual rebate to low-income families, perhaps simply to everyone getting a health insurance subsidy.

A few special cases of parking problems require heavy handed enforcement rather than incentives. Around big event locations –sports arenas, theaters, beaches, etc. – as Boston citycouncilor Zakim has noted, “as long as private parking costs more than the fine, people are going to keep parking illegally in resident spaces.” And cars that park in bicycle lanes, crosswalks, or handicapped spots need to be quickly towed and heavily fined.


Business districts tend to have parking meters — and those that don’t should get them. Contrary to popular belief that the main reason for meters is revenue generation, the primary purpose is to promote regular turnover of on-street parking so that many customers can be served throughout the day. Store employees and long-term parkers should be parking in off-street lots (which, ideally, should be cheaper than the most desirable on-street spots during business hours) or on-street parking further away from the busiest part of the business district. There are a batch of new smartphone apps trying to address the matching problem – SpotHero, BestParking, Spot, Parker, and others — but although these can help they treat the symptom not the cause.

The obvious solution to commercial area parking problems is to treat it in a more business-like manner, factoring supply-and-demand into the pricing as Donald Shoup has advocated for years. Demand-based market pricing would dynamically adjust the cost of using public space according to the time of day and level of congestion in order to leave about 15% of the spots available at all times – 1 to 2 spaces per block. This could also allow cities to get rid of the stress of on-street parking time limits if they want to – some MAPC studies of suburban downtowns show that many 2-hour limit spots are actually occupied all day by the same car despite enforcement efforts. Since it will naturally cost more to park in the highest-demand on-street spaces than it will to park in the spaces that are farther away or in off-street lots, people who want to park for longer times will want to find those cheaper spaces. In some places where this has been implemented, the fees at the most valuable on-street spaces actually get more expensive the longer you park there (for example the third or fourth hour are more expensive than the first or second hour.)

With the addition of smart-street technology, we can have real-time analysis of parking use patterns, allowing hourly adjustments in price, and ensuring that the system is properly calibrated – as well as fully transparent.


The sophistication of the system can be, at least initially, reduced to a simple rule that further away from the hot spots and the more off-hour the time the lower the price.   Using this approach, cities as diverse as San FranciscoVancouver, Pasadena, and even car-crazy Los Angeles have found that the average price to park in a neighborhood often is lower than the original meter price before the demand-based pricing was implemented. While the most coveted spaces are more expensive during times of high demand, many other spaces are less expensive (and sometimes even free), particularly during times of low demand. The goal for all these cities has not been to maximize revenue. It has been to reach that 85% occupancy rate that allows everyone who wishes to find parking on a given block to do so quickly and easily.

Meter revenue should also be funneled back into the districts in which it is collected. Again, this money could fund higher quality maintenance and better trash pickup as well as streetscape improvements to beautify the district and make it more walkable and bikable. A cleaner and more accessible business district will results in even more customers visiting. In fact, repeated studies show that the vast majority of shoppers walk a block or more to their desired store, so even drivers benefit from a more walkable district. And the more passer-bys — meaning walkers and, perhaps, bicyclists — the higher the store entry-rate. Walkability and bikeability turn out to help businesses even more than frontage parking.

In really smart systems its possible to incorporate environmental incentives as well. For example, Madrid now has meters on which you have to enter your license plate, the meter looks up your vehicle’s emissions level, and charges you more for a heavy, gas guzzling SUV or less for a lightweight hybrid. Talk about smart parking.

And, again, this regressive fee can be offset to some degree by adding to the low income rebate described above.


For really serious communities that understand how the amount of car traffic is intimately tied to the availability of parking and are committed to incrementally nudging people towards non-car methods of downtown travel, Copenhagen is the city to emulate. About 10 years ago, Jan Gehl began a policy of reducing the available parking by 2% each year — a tiny amount that was barely missed but which, over time and in conjunction with the expansion of transit and protected bike facilities, has played a key role in the city’s shift to other modes. (Unfortunately, Governor Baker’s budget cuts include money for just such a study.) Adopting a program like this in Boston will probably require an initial study of actual parking usage patterns, both on- and off-street, over seasons, day-of-week, and time.   Maybe the upcoming Boston hackathon can find a way to use the newly available WAZE data to figure out how many cars stop overnight or perhaps just over an hour in one spot as a way to begin analysis. Or else, we can just do it.

Finally, every city should go beyond Cambridge’s model and create official Transportation Demand Management Programs, in collaboration with local Transportation Management Associations, that set periodically reducing maximum percentages for the number of employees of every business over a certain size who arrive by car — with real enforcement and stiff penalties for violation along with Technical Assistance and incentives for compliance.


Of course, the ultimate solution to parking is to have fewer cars – a proven result of greater use of car-sharing services. In residential areas the long-range strategy is better zoning. We should be eliminating parking minimums rather than dictating how many parking spaces developers MUST build. In some locations, we should be setting parking maximums, so that our streets do not become congested with new traffic due to new development. In most cases, we should be letting the market decide how many spaces are built. Some residential development may end up with one or more spaces per unit. Some may end up with none at all. It all depends where the building is located and who it is built to appeal to. We should not require parking to be bundled with housing units. It should be sold or rented separately so that people can opt in to having a parking space if they want one and not be forced to pay for one that they do not want or need. Other than selling off city land at below-market rates or subsidizing loan/mortgage interest, this is one of the most effective ways to bring down the cost of housing in our market — as well as provide incentives for people to not drive or perhaps not even own a car — especially if the buildings included indoor or nearby car-share services. (Perhaps every developer should also be required to make a per-unit contribution to the creation of a nearby Hubway station as well.)

Instead of in-building parking, developers should be allowed — perhaps encouraged or even required — to make arrangements for residents to use nearby municipal or private garages. (Developers might be also required to provide some kind of shuttle service, or subsidized taxi service, between the building and the garage.) Just as car-sharing services like Zip Car significantly reduce the number of privately owned vehicles, a community “shared use” garage can cut the need for personal parking space in residential areas both off- and on-street, allowing valuable land that would otherwise be used for parking to be used for private green spaces, patios, playgrounds, or even more housing.

In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s zoning reform proposals include doing away with parking requirements for new low-income, inclusionary and affordable senior housing units that are within a half-mile of mass transit. It would also reduce those parking requirements on mixed-income housing where it would benefit the construction of affordable units.


Even if we can get the political will to change our zoning from a minimum to maximum orientation, housing developments near train, trolley, and bus stops (as well as along full-year bike corridor-paths) should be allowed, as-of-right, to provide no indoor parking (except for a couple required handicapped spots and optional car-share spots). However, to prevent people from simply moving their cars to the street, people who live in zero parking buildings in these Transportation Oriented Development (TOD) zones should become ineligible for on-street residential parking permits.

Of course, these zoning reforms have to be done in conjunction with street parking reform. Otherwise, as parking consultant Mark Chase points out, “providing parking behind or under a house doesn’t solve the on street parking problem because even people with driveways and parking often prefer to park on-street.” Free or cheap on-street parking subsidized by the city will always be tempting for many who don’t want to pay the full cost of an off-street parking space. Or people looking to make some extra money from off-street spaces they already own will choose to park on the street and rent out their off-street spaces. (We have heard a number of stories of people doing this in Boston today.)

Developers should be required to include sufficient space for convenient bicycle, electric bike, scooter, and even motorcycle parking spaces — as should the city at the destination ends of these non-car trips.

And, of course, a massive increase in the quality, quantity, and extent of transit service, low-traffic-stress bicycle corridors (including a full implementation of the Greenway Links vision and the regional LandLine network) would make it much less necessary to drive — and then park — in the first place.

None of this will end every parking problem or deal with the confusion created by every weather crisis. But it will certainly help, maybe significantly.


Thanks to Charlie Denison who really deserves co-authorship for his extensive suggestions and to Mark Chase, Jessica Robertson, and Sarah Kurpiel Lee for valuable feedback. All remaining errors and opinions are my responsibility.


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