Thursday, June 21, 2012

The automobile empire strikes back

I was thinking about a recent Boston Globe column attacking the Mayor's "parklet" initiative while riding the bus this morning when I observed a curious event. Someone was exiting a parallel parking space while someone else was waiting for it and blocking traffic. The bus was trapped at the curb while this was playing out. Finally, we got free, and passed the woman who got her parking space she had so desperately wanted. And three cars later, I spotted an empty parking spot she could have taken instead. Figures. But as we went on, I saw more and more parking spaces that were empty. I counted approximately 14 available parking spaces within those next 3 blocks. The whole mess could have been easily avoided if only the driver had the foresight to look ahead.

Brian McGrory of the Boston Globe has a problem with finding parking that could also be resolved with a little forward thinking too, if he were to choose to exercise it. He writes:
``By my admittedly inexact count, and please don’t hold me to this precise number, there are a grand total of six unrestricted parking spaces remaining on city streets these days, and about 3,000 cars circling the block waiting for them to open up. Funny part is, the owners of the parked cars are sitting in them sending text messages to friends saying they can’t believe the parking space they found. 
And now, in the face of this unprecedented shortage of street parking, our mayor comes along with a stunning new idea. He wants to take the few remaining spaces that we have, install flooring over the pavement, bring in patio furniture and planters, and call them “parklets.” This is terrific. While we’re at it, let’s put a swimming pool on the median strip of the Southeast Expressway and cut the highway down by a lane.''
His complaint is ostensibly with the space set aside for commercial vehicles, taxis, tour-buses, food trucks, police vehicles, diplomats, 15-minute parking, and now "parklets" -- which are parking space-sized public parks being deployed during warm weather. However, the outlandish tone of his column, and excessive attitude expressed within, suggests that his real agenda is to strike a blow for the cause of suburban automobile drivers at the expense of city residents. Further on:
``The car is still banned from Downtown Crossing, even while it’s painfully obvious that the hard luck neighborhood would benefit enormously from vehicular traffic. Cities around the country have turned their tired pedestrian malls back into real streets with great success. Not Boston. The car is constantly ticketed. The car is pushed into increasingly narrow lanes to make room for bikes.''
Filene's "Memorial Hole"
In contrast, whenever I visit Downtown Crossing I am amazed by the numbers of people walking around there despite the gigantic gaping fiasco that is the Filene's Memorial Hole. The location is a transit hub that sits on top of the major nexus of the Red and Orange lines as well as several bus routes. What the neighborhood there needs is relief from overbearing zoning restrictions (which does seem to be happening) and an end to the games played by the developers who abandoned their property and their obligations to the city. Indeed, there are already companies choosing to relocate to Downtown Crossing. Furthermore, I think Mr. McGrory will probably not be happy to learn that economic development benefits far more from setting aside loading zones for commercial vehicles rather than simple street parking, which isn't that effective at fitting cars anyway.
A makeshift "pop-up park" being enjoyed by about 10 people

The fact is, a parking space requires approximately 200 square feet, a space which can easily fit more than a dozen people comfortably. Businesses that depend upon attracting customers will quickly recognize that an appropriately placed "parklet" is a much greater economic boon to them than a street parking space. I have already had the opportunity to witness this in action at a temporary Sunday "parklet" in Allston that was sponsored by a local bicycle shop in conjunction with a cafe. There were over ten people enjoying the space at one time, which rivals the patronage of that parking space over the course of an entire day. I saw someone packing up a bass violin, it seems I had just missed some live music as well. The city's plans are much more refined than this particular example and are coordinated with the local business for clean-up and safety responsibility. So I am looking forward to further expansion of the program. I know I have been critical of "greenspace" in the past, but I think this "parklet" program is the opposite of useless, empty "greenspace" because it is placed right where people will use and enjoy it. And that's what's crucial.

Stepping back a little, this attack on the city ties back into a larger effort to undo decades of attempts to mitigate the negative effects caused by automobile traffic in the city of Boston. After the $22 billion taxpayer-subsidized Big Dig made it so much easier to drive into the city, it was inevitable that people would begin to demand additional subsidized parking spaces. To help avoid the fate of further bulldozing the city and submerging it into a cloud of smog, a "parking freeze" was adopted in Boston proper, in accordance with the Clean Air Act. But, as Fred Salvucci noted at the Bowker Overpass meeting, it is a very "leaky parking freeze." Earlier this week, there was a great example in Commonwealth Magazine: an article about a proposal by Mass Eye and Ear to build a giant parking garage and a demand that the state spend $30 million to relocate Storrow Drive. This land lies within the Boston proper parking freeze, but it is almost powerless in the face of such political forces. Similarly, State Street obtained a $12 million subsidy to build a parking garage in the Fort Point neighborhood which is supposed to be under the jurisdiction of the South Boston parking freeze. But these freezes seem to be no more than light autumn breezes when the well-connected come around, backed up by road raging columnists. The residents of the city are the ones who lose the most from these deals, being forced to live with the blight and the smog generated by all this car infrastructure, and the broken promises to make it right.

If city hall was truly interested in solving the street parking problems without damaging neighborhoods and without hurting city residents, then they would consider adopting the common sense reforms proposed by UCLA professor Donald Shoup: moving the provision of street parking towards a free market solution where prices are set based upon demand, just like with any other product or piece of private land. Street parking is generally a "tragedy of the commons" problem, and like all such problems, it can be solved by introducing a proper and well-delineated market for managing that resource. Without this change, it is likely that the political forces that push parking lot socialism will eventually get their way and force the city to subsidize a larger supply of parking at our expense.


  1. Thank you for your reasoned, evidence-based to that absurd McGrory article. I was too enraged to make a decent response myself.

  2. Hear, hear!

    Every time I walk around Boston I feel like I'm risking my life. I've seen cars in Somerville back up one-way streets, cars in Boston ignore traffic signals and signs and it's multiplied by the highways speeds of the cars on that asphalt expanse dividing the North End from Haymarket.

  3. Matthew, I found your measurement of people per parklet space to be quite useful, and I cited you here:

    Where I also think about how many people can use McGrory's hated Hubway bike racks per foot, compared to a 20-foot car parking space.