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.