Saturday, December 13, 2014

The SPOT app undermines the Clean Air Act, and therefore our air quality, in Boston

I recently read about the "SPOT app" that allows people to easily rent out an empty parking spot that they own and are not using. Sounds reasonable enough. I'm a fan of making more efficient use of physical resources. It's the opposite of "minimum parking quotas" that force everyone to waste huge amounts of land and money, and yet still fail to meet parking demands.

"SPOT app" (source: BostInno)

But, when I took a look at the map included with the article, it occurred to me that there is something not quite right about this. The app allows you to rent spaces in the Back Bay and downtown Boston. It transforms so-called "accessory spaces" that are attached to particular uses (such as residences) and allows them to be used instead as "commercial spaces" that are available to anyone, for a price.

So what's the big deal?

Well, back in the 1970s, the city of Boston was facing an air pollution problem caused by the creation of all those urban highways that tore through the city, bringing hundreds of thousands of cars spewing exhaust fumes into the air. In order to satisfy provisions of the Clean Air Act, the city of Boston agreed to cap the number of "commercial spaces" that would be available at any one time. It's called the "parking freeze" and it's intended to help preserve our air quality. The downtown Boston parking freeze cap is currently set at 35,556 spaces, and there is no capacity for new spaces at the moment. Yet, the SPOT app is effectively creating new commercial spaces that have not been subject to the parking freeze regulations. That means more cars, more air pollution, and more congestion.

I think it would be appropriate if the company that created the SPOT app were to be proactive about dealing with this air pollution problem. Perhaps they should disable the use of the app within the parking freeze zone until they figure out a way to mitigate the air pollution caused by the additional cars they may be attracting into downtown Boston. Perhaps it should only be available for electric vehicles within that zone. Or perhaps they need an allocation from the freeze "bank" in order to offer spaces in that zone. I don't know what the best solution is. But I do know that it is something that should be addressed. 

I'm also a little disappointed that City Councilor Frank Baker did not consider the implications for the parking freeze, the Clean Air Act, and our air quality, before providing an endorsement of the app.

One thing I did find really interesting is that the company behind this app has been collecting price information about short-term parking in various parts of Boston. This article has a breakdown. Average prices range from $1.75/hour in Allston/Brighton up to $3.75/hour in Back Bay. What's remarkable about these averages is that (a) they're higher than the city-wide set meter price of $1.25/hour, and (b) they're really not that expensive, and quite reasonable when compared with typical meter prices in other American cities. Even the Back Bay's average market-driven price of $3.75/hour is less than meter prices in busy parts of Vancouver, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Does it really make sense for places like the Back Bay and the South End to have city meter rates that are comparable to Boulder, CO or Rochester, NY (both $1.25/hour)? Hopefully, this inspires the city to give another look at using smart parking reform to address parking issues, instead of hurting the residents of the city with onerous minimum parking quotas. Those quotas are especially harsh on people who don't even own automobiles and yet are still forced to pay the cost to park other people's cars.

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