Boston’s population growth has brought congestion and parking problems. But, where are the cars coming from? Suburbanites commuting to work, or city folk who prefer driving to alternatives? A transportation study is coming out in late fall that should shed some light. But, local representatives aren’t waiting for the results to start talking about policy solutions to address parking congestion. Two weeks ago, Councilor Frank Baker called a hearing to discuss parking. At the hearing, Councilor Bill Linehan decried that transportation and parking availability “is one of the central issues facing Boston”. The discussion was heated as some officials want better parking enforcement to address issues such as the abuse of handicapped parking signs while others want to do away with parking in some areas to make room for bike and bus lanes. More details about the hearing are covered in the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe.
One proposal that does seem to generate consensus is increasing parking meter rates. Boston Chief of Streets, Chris Osgood, spoke of this proposal at the hearing and indicated it would include reinvesting parking revenue in the neighborhood where it was collected. Hopefully the revenue will be used for street and sidewalk improvements. Increasing meter rates is one solution. There are others to consider. Controlling and pricing residential parking permits is one. Providing drivers with real-time information about parking spot availability is a related and very important solution. With access to parking spot availability data and pricing, drivers will spend less time searching for parking, or may not bother to drive in the first place (if parking is expensive and hard to find at certain hours). According to MIT’s Senseable City Lab, the average American spends about 50 hours per year just looking for parking, wasting fuel while increasing air pollution and traffic congestion.
The details of the parking meter increase are not yet known, but one would hope the rate increase would be based on demand, and not a flat rate increase. As the organization LivableStreets Alliance states: “we need variable parking rates that change based on the time of day/week.” The ideal parking situation is one in which there is always one spot available on each street. Everyone wins in this scenario – area businesses, drivers, pedestrians. Demand-based pricing solutions can deliver this type of outcome.
Improving parking in Boston requires new technology, including an App. Yes, this is a situation where an App can make a tremendous difference. This one would give you real-time parking availability information along with their cost. To get there, Boston could use wireless sensors to track and report on real-time spot usage. Parkifi, a Denver-based start-up has a solution that can do just that and help parking officials and garages identify price points that will achieve target occupancy rates. The firm is currently beta testing its real-time parking spot occupancy solution in Denver.
Boston transportation officials will likely look at demand-based pricing programs implemented in other U.S. cities – San Francisco, L.A., and, most recently, Washington D.C. Sensors aren’t always the preferred option. San Francisco’s SF Park uses parking meter data to identify occupancy rates and determine pricing. Changes in rates are published on the SF Park website as well as delivered via an app. The app provides some availability data: estimates of parking availability in garages. Rates range from $6.25 to $0.50 and vary only every three to six months. Not quite real-time, but at least no one gets surprised. The changes are modest, often only increasing or decreasing by 25 cents. Washington D.C.’s pilot program, ParkDC, uses sensors for half of the spots which will allow the city to provide real-time parking availability data for the pilot area. Rate variation will be more simple than in San Francisco, with only three different price points varying by 30 cents or less: $2, $2.30, or $2.75. These on-street parking prices are still very low and won’t do much to discourage driving to downtown centers. Cities will make changes only within a politically safe zone, but at least they are moving in the right direction.