Who Needs A Car In Boston?

The other day one of those amusing little Boston controversies that the life of a great city seems to be stitched out of happened. Garrett Quinn, a fine young journalist with Boston Magazine, wrote South Boston’s Bonkers Obsession with Parking.

It was about space called Mary’s Garden, being sold by some Nuns to fund their nursing home. They were going to sell to a developer called the Cronin Group, which would have built nine condos with 11 on-site parking spaces. Quinn linked to Emily Badger’s great WashPo story There is no such thing as a city that has run out of room and noted the important cultural divide between today’s Bostonians and the existing residents: “Never mind that newcomers to Boston do not embody the habits of car-obsessed Old Boston—that doesn’t seem to come up. People move to Boston because of its density; because of its walkability, not to pretend they still live in the suburbs where a car is required for every daily activity.”

The kicker: “What car-centric NIMBYs don’t realize is that the policies they demand, as well as their push to make the city more suburban and more accommodating to car-owners, will backfire and only add to the dreaded congestion they decry.”

The responses were somewhat predictable: no one likes being called “crazy,” after all.

The biggest response I saw, Maureen Dahill’s Parking Crazy, was considerably more measured than the reaction on Twitter and Boston Magazine’s comments. She has a good point about the City needing to do a better job at enforcement, but she just as clearly doesn’t know anything, either.

She writes that Donald Shoup’s idea of pricing parking at a market valuable is “Utopian.” I don’t understand how anyone could think that. Usually market-based proposals are seen as mercurial, if not downright dystopian. In any event, the argument is simple: say you have something people want, like Tulips in 17th century Amsterdam, Beanie Babies in the late 1990s or parking spaces in South Boston. Since making more of them is very difficult, supply is limited, but people can’t get enough of them. In the case of Tulips and Beanie Babies, you sell them, letting people make offers and reading about other sales to set the price.

According to Quinn, the going rate for a deeded parking spot in South Boston is $70,000. Well, with 8,760 hours in a year, I calculate that the City ought to charge $7.99 an hour to park on its streets in South Boston. Instead, residents pay nothing and according to Boston Magazine’s Patrick Doyle, rates for the City’s 8,000 metered spaces have barely been raised since the 1980s. They haven’t kept up with inflation, much less demand.

Amazingly, when you sell something valuable for less than its worth, people overuse it. As FA Hayek showed, prices communicate information about supply and demand. California practically gave water away and now they don’t have any left. Throughout history well-meaning reformers have seen the price of food rise after a bad harvest and impose price controls, only to see shortages and starvation result because there wasn’t as much food as one would think available at the (imposed) price! It’s not difficult.

Dahill could see this basic principle of economics in action for herself by offering her home on the market for sale for $50,000, or going to Saugus on Black Friday

“It is naively optimistic to think that people will just give up their cars,” Dahill wrote.

Of course, that is precisely what people are doing, where public policy is allowed to make the changes away from planning for cars first, because that’s the elephant in the room. Cities like Boston and Cambridge and San Francisco have made baby steps along while the Dutch are building bike and ped friendly shared-streets, the Japanese keep building Very Narrow Streets and the Chinese are investing billions in rail infrastructure.

Boston still has minimum lot sizes, setbacks, mandatory parking minimums and little say in the Commonwealth’s transportation efforts. Highways and the MBTA are run by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which continues to be stuck in “wider is better; more cars are coming” mindset, despite StrongTown’s thorough debunking of it; the parkways are owned by the Department of Conservation and Recreation and the suburbs are even worse at these things.

Despite this torpid pace of change, Boston already ranks third in the nation with about one-third of its households being carfree. South Boston tracks this well, ranging from 19 percent car-free around the Telegraph Hill area to two Census tracts by Andrew Sq being over 50 percent carfree, which are public housing developments, judging by Google Maps. We have spent 75 years planning around the needs of automobiles and not people and so amazingly, lots of people have cars!

The fact is younger people are less likely to get drivers’ licenses, 29 percent less likely to buy cars and when we do, we drive fewer miles.

“I believe a family in the city needs a car,” she wrote. She is quite free to believe what she likes, but I wonder what she thinks families did before 1920. Or what families do in New York City. Or what poor families do.

“People will not give up their cars with a broken down system like the MBTA, either,” Dahill wrote. “If it can’t handle the current population of commuters waiting in crowds for the #7, then how do we expect it to handle more people. The buses are full sometimes by the second stop. Not to mention, the bus schedule is completely unreliable with some buses not showing up at all.  At a recent community meeting, the MBTA was asked if there could be more buses to which they replied, ‘No. There physically aren’t enough buses.'”

Of course, South Boston had the option of having the Silver Line go through their neighborhood back in 2004, but they rejected it because, get this, according to The Boston Globe, “some residents and business owners objected, fearing congestion that would curtail the local custom of double-parking, and that legal curbside parking spaces would disappear to make room for the 60-foot vehicles at bus stops.”

Because there’d be so much congestion what with one bus capable of carrying well over 100 people instead of them driving in over 100 individual cars. And double parking is illegal, so people that engaged in that “custom” ought to have had their cars towed and impounded.

Also, the neighborhoods around the B Line are some of the most car-free in the entire City.

At the end she talks about having to search 45 minutes for a parking space. Surely that’s an incentive to give up your car. I could walk halfway across the width of Cambridge in that time. If Tim McCarthy and Michelle Wu succeed in getting Zone 1A fares throughout the City I’ll be able to get to West Roxbury in that amount of time.

At least if my commute goes wrong and I spend two hours in the 66 going between Coolidge Corner and Riverway — again — I can spend that time reading. I’d go catatonic with boredom if I were driving it.

7 thoughts on “Who Needs A Car In Boston?

  1. This is crazy. What the writer is forgetting is that some of us live in Southie because we travel for our jobs and need a car for our work. Southie is an ideal location with its proximity to the Pike, 93 and the airport, not to mention the city itself. My closest client is 2 miles away, but it would take me over an hour to take mass transit there vs. 10-15 minutes via car. I’m also carrying materials and supplies. My furthest is 6 hours – and would takes cab, 2 flights and a rental car to get there. I think the writer forgets, not everyone works in an office downtown, not everyone works 9-5 and not everyone has an easy commute without a car. I like city life, I have no desire to live in the suburbs and I walk to do most of my errands, but I need my car for work.

    • I do not have an easy commute and I do not work at an office downtown.

      The point is that a lot of people do drive from South Boston to Copley or Downtown and work 9-5. Their cars spend most of the time parked and they hardly use them for anything else. Since on average it costs $9000 a year to keep a car, according to Consumer Reports, these people are paying a lot of money to hardly drive. If it cost them an additional $70,000 a year to keep their car, they would probably get rid of it. Then the buses would work better, traffic would be lighter and parking would be easier.

      Yes, there are some people who do need cars. But it’s not as many as one would think and having to bear the actual costs instead of being subsidized would see most of them give up their cars.

      We transit riders are asked to bear far more of the costs of the system than drivers are.

  2. Parking spaces are not tulips or Beanie Babies, they are part of the public realm-meaning we own them and pay taxes for their maintenance; the idea of being charged for something one already owns is offensive. There are two issues here parking and the overall streetscape design. The City of Boston is taking two route at once the BRA is allowing more and more larger development without adequate off-street parking without any way to mandate these newer residents don’t have cars, while the BTD is working to increase traffic flow, encouraging ever more traffic. Also there is the reality vs, the bureaucratic line-where official say one thing and the reality is often very different, like setbacks? really? Over two thirds of new construction in South Boston not only abuts the sidewalk directly-it over hangs it.
    Not all South Boston residents are the same, not everyone is against bike lanes or bus lanes or supoorts double parking.
    There is a vast difference between encouraging people to give up their cares and forcing them via economic penalty.

    • Yes, parking spaces are owned by the public. But why should you have the absolute right to store your private property in the public’s street without compensating them? When people move using pods or a landlord rents a dumpster for a renovation or move out, they have to get street occupancy permits to leave that property in the public way. You can bet your lunch that the City charges the Earl of Sandwich to use the Common. They charge food trucks fees as well.

      Moreover, the point I am making about tulips and Beanie Babies is that there is a limited supply priced as though it were unlimited. What part of the “give something away for free when you only have so much of it and you’ll soon run out” idea are you not understanding? Aristotle understood this 2300 years ago and he thought women didn’t have anything to do with reproduction! It’s not hard!

      Furthermore, we car-free citizens pay taxes that go towards the maintenance of the whole street and not just the bits we use. We’re restricted, by the threat of death, from using the majority of the public way. What about our rights to the street? Or our lost time as we wait for buses stuck in traffic caused by too many cars being on the road? Or when some damn fool of a driver parks in a bus stop?

      • Streets vs. Tulips is an apples and oranges comparison. And your free market/business model is inappropriate for application to the public realm. The social contract we are all part of has long ago settled on the right of citizens to park on streets (with certain restrictions). Pods, Dumpsters &c are a very different thing than an automobile. We can certainly renegotiate that agreement, but it has a full participation discussion for the whole community.
        “Furthermore, we car-free citizens”, sound’s like you making an assumption about me there.

  3. You’re right. The public realm should be kept public, and not privatized piecemeal as private storage space. Thus, we should ban on-street parking entirely: it’s the only truly fair solution here, and doesn’t put the public realm in the clutches of the dreaded Free Market. Sure, the social contract was more or less settled, to give a certain class (car owners) special privileges (free storage space courtesy of the public). I say we change it, as we’ve been changing certain other social contracts, and do so in the only way that is fair to everyone.

  4. People, the parking situation would easily be corrected if laws regarding parking were enforced. Take note that over the holidays, there is plenty of parking. This is due to the fact that everyone goes home to be with family. I am located where many establishments for drinking and eating are. One does not move your vehicle on game day for you will not have a parking place within a 5 block area of your home. We prepare for this event, This statement “$7.99 an hour to park on its streets in South Boston” is unacceptable as I own property and have for 30 years I have paid in 2015 total of $5,822.43 in taxes, this more than compensates the City of Boston for me to park my car, the taxes that everyone who owns property pays to the City is inclusive for such things. However, I would support that the first registered vehicle gets a “free” parking sticker and charge $50.00/per additional vehicle. Also, many of the cars are here because the owners want to be able to travel on weekends, fine however they vote in the city and register their cars either out of state or out of the City of Boston, which means that the City of Boston loses revenue through unregistered vehicles. These unregistered vehicles belong to those same young people who like living in Boston for the connivence of walking, bike riding or taking public transportation to work, yet still want their car. Then there are those of us who are long time Bostonians raised here and never leaving we live and work here our cars are registered in the City of Boston we pay excise tax to the City of Boston our vehicles are for shopping, and for some getting to work at jobs that are no longer within the City of Boston (because industry was driven out). They belong to Firefighters, Police Officers, School Teachers, City employees, all of whom have residency requirements to work. These people have families that play in sports, so do you think that they should not be allowed a car? My point being is that parking is not as easy as stated in this article, one needs to look at everything involved and work towards a solution.

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