A pedestrian and a parking meter in Back Bay.

Credit: Chitose Suzuki/AP

Is Boston’s Back Bay Parking Experiment Working?

May 10, 2017

These days, twenty-five cents will buy you exactly four minutes of on-street parking in the Back Bay. So, I'm going to drop a quarter in the metaphorical meter and invite you to give me four minutes of your time (depending on how quickly you read) so I can share what I learned when I recently hit the streets to find out how the new rates are (or aren't) working for people in the neighborhood. 

Back in January, rates at metered spaces tripled from $1.25 to $3.75 an hour as part of a year-long pilot program being run by the mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. It's an attempt to solve the decades-long problem of parking in the city’s bustling commercial and residential neighborhood. 

At one of those kiosks where you pay for parking on Newbury Street, I came across John and his family (he didn’t want to reveal his last name). They were visiting from Connecticut, here to do some shopping and grab an early dinner. Here's what happened:

Me: You know, for two hours it’s going to cost you almost $8 [to park]. How does that strike you?
John: It strikes me. It’s a good hit. That’s an outta the park hit, yeah.
Me: Too expensive?
John: It is very expensive.
Me: And yet you drove down here
John: I did.
Me: Why?
John: No choice.

As an area resident, Marie Miranda did have a choice. She could have taken the T, grabbed an Uber or a Lyft, even walked from the Public Garden where she told me she had been parked earlier in the day. Still, the convenience of the car for an afternoon of shopping won the day.   

"It’s really pricey, but I get it," said Miranda. "I think 'cause people just would stay in the same spot for hours, so maybe they’re trying to get people to move. But it is still kind of pricey."

Miranda is spot on. Getting people to move their cars is exactly why the city is experimenting with higher prices.

"What we’re trying to do is figure out how to better manage our limited supply of curbside parking opportunities," said Ilona Kramer, program director in Mayor Marty Walsh's Office of New Urban Mechanics.

The theory is that higher prices will incentivize people to consider shorter stays, public transportation, or a nearby garage, thereby creating more open spaces on the street.

"Our goal is that, on average, there would be one space open per block," said Kramer. "So that you, as a driver, when you’re looking for a space, you have a high probability of finding one on your first pass on the street."

The city has been monitoring and collecting data in the Back Bay for months, and progress report is expected in June once the numbers are statistically significant. In the meantime...

"Anecdotally, we are hearing that it is working," said Kramer. "[We're hearing] that It’s easier to find spaces, that there are fewer cars double parking, and fewer cars illegally parked."

In fact, it’s working too well if you ask Michele Messino from the Newbury Street League, an organization that represents more than 300 Back Bay businesses. She says there are too many open spaces these days on Newbury and Boylston. As evidence, she pointed to the dozens of letters she’s received from area businesses — from high end clothing stores to salons, co-working spaces to restaurants — that say parking prices are driving customers away.

"It’s kind of cutting out that experience of 'an afternoon on Newbury Street',” said Messino. "And that’s not — I don’t think — what this is meant to do."

Messino wants the city to drop the price down to $2.50 an hour for the remainder of the year-long pilot program.

Vicki Smith, with the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay isn’t advocating for that, but she does want to see a more holistic approach. As we walked the neighborhood streets she drew my attention to the kinds of vehicles taking up many of the metered spaces: work vehicles.

"Electricians, mechanical," said Smith. "They’re clearly here working. And they’re not residents, and they’re not shopping."

During the day, Smith says, there are actually plenty of open parking spaces on the Back Bay streets — not at meters — but in the significant stretches reserved for residents only. Her idea? Visitor parking permits, like they have in Cambridge and Somerville.

Smith says that if day workers could park in residential areas, it would free up all kinds of spaces at the meters — and cut costs for everyone.  

"For cleaning people, for babysitters, for plumbers, it would be a huge benefit to be able to have a visitor space," said Smith. 

As if on cue, Smith and I ran into Angel Gonzalez, who was dropping a few more quarters in the meter. He’s an exterminator who says he’s worked the Back Bay for decades. And he’s been feeling the pinch:

Gonzalez: It’s too much.
Me: $3.75 an hour is too much?
Gonzalez: Yeah it’s too much, too much for $15 an hour.
Me: You make $15 an hour?
Gonzalez: Yeah.
Me: And $3.75 of that is now going to parking?
Gonzalez: Too much.

All this is just the tip of the iceberg. What about more loading zones for delivery trucks? Are the higher prices impacting the city’s revenue? Will area garages raise their prices if the new rates are kept long term? Those questions will have to be left for a later date. We're out of time. I've gotta go feed the meter. 

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