Free or cheap parking is the great enabler

It encourages more auto use and more emissions

WHAT WOULD YOU DO with your car if there was no place to park it?

Everyone who owns a car must have a place to put it while it’s not in use (which is most of the time). Sometimes you’re wealthy or lucky enough to have housing where a parking space is available to you. Often, you appropriate a publicly owned asset for a fixed period of time. This is the typically free curbside parking that many of us use for a range of purposes, including short visits or overnight parking.  Perhaps you have parked at a shopping center, where the parking is provided at no direct charge to the driver. Instead, the cost of parking is passed on to the tenants, and they pass it along to you when you make purchases at their stores. It’s so opaque you never realize it. In high density urban business districts, parking is often subsidized by employers or taken as a tax write-off.

Wherever you park your car, one thing is certain: your car has no value to you, indeed it has negative value to you, unless you have a place to park it. Auto mobility cannot function without parking. Most of us take parking for granted, and sometimes we think of it as an entitlement.

We are all insulated from the true cost of parking. The true cost of parking would include the cost to build and maintain the parking space, the associated costs of congestion and emissions connected to the parking space, as well as the lost opportunity costs of what urban parking often displaces.

If there is a single major contributor to the unsustainable trifecta of traffic congestion, carbon emissions, and particulate matter emissions, it is the easy availability of underpriced parking. We should be pricing parking for what it is: the greatest enabler of the worst externalities of auto mobility. Free or cheap parking is a major contributor to emissions, as people drive around urban blocks until they find an empty space. Free or subsidized parking at shopping centers, office buildings, and garages encourage more auto use by removing parking anxiety from the journey.

Our unreasonable expectations about parking availability and cost were recently highlighted for me by a Twitter exchange with a local TV news anchor, who characterized as “criminal” a $40 charge for 1.5 hours of parking in the Seaport District in the early evening hours of a Friday night. Imagine for a moment that you want to enjoy the convenience of your car, and you want to park it in a space owned by someone else, at a time of high demand, and in an area where there is constrained supply.  How much do you think the business owning the parking space will charge you? What should it cost to park your car in a commercial parking space in a dense, downtown urban area?

Mind you, a person might spend $40 or more after an hour and a half in a restaurant, bar, or movie theater and think nothing of it. But the same charge for parking? That raises hackles. It also raises a question: why not use public transportation?

The Seaport District is, or ought to be, easy to access via public transportation. From South Station, which hosts both the Red Line and several commuter rail lines, most destinations in the district are accessible with ease, either by walking or via the Silver Line. The fly in the ointment is the regularity of rail service, which can pose a real barrier to its use.  With one-hour frequencies, commuter rail does not serve the needs of a family wanting to enjoy a place like the Seaport on a weekend night.  Thirty-minute frequencies (or less) would be transformational, opening up access for many more people.

Those of us who have traveled to Europe for business or vacation have learned that in most, if not all, major metropolitan areas we really don’t need to pay attention to timetables because the frequencies are superb.  Did you just miss a train from Amsterdam to The Hague?  No problem – the next train will be arriving shortly. As the saying goes, frequency is freedom. Without reliable and responsive public transportation, people view their choices as non-existent, and they drive.

How much should urban parking cost?  The answer is often dictated by private sector decisions made on a supply & demand basis. The right answer, the answer that reflects the true costs of parking and the need to tame traffic congestion and auto emissions, is that the cost of non-residential parking should reflect and include a price for the negative externalities parking facilitates.

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For example, I have advocated for a home rule amendment that would allow each municipality in the Commonwealth to impose a parking assessment on every non-residential parking space to more fairly capture some of the negative impacts of auto mobility. Particularly in inner core metro Boston cities, this could be one way to encourage modest mode shift to transit and rail and raise net new revenue that can be used at the municipal level to promote sustainable mobility (investments in the Complete Streets program, protected cycling lanes, and dedicated bus lanes).

None of this is politically easy to say or do, but we won’t achieve our climate or equity goals by maintaining a status quo parking mindset that helped bring us to this time, a time when our transportation policies are actively reducing the quality of our lives and our health. Resolving the twin problems of climate change and urban particulate matter pollution will require introducing new technologies, changing travel behaviors, and using policy levers like parking assessments as tools to introduce a new era of sustainable access and mobility in metro Boston.  We are kidding ourselves if we think we can succeed at this without making fundamental changes to the status quo approach to parking.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation. He is a TransitMatters board member.