Curbside in Boston: Increasing Available Parking with Innovative Pricing

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

boston-parking-meters (1)
Boston Parking

We’ve all had the experience of having to drive around a city looking for on-street parking near our destination. Having limited availability of parking can lead to increased traffic congestion and vehicle emissions and decreased safety while drivers are distracted and looking away from the road to find parking. The City of Boston, as well as the Commonwealth (including MassDOT), have all been looking for ways to reduce vehicle emissions and improve driver safety. Variable parking meter pricing by municipalities may help.

The City of Boston recently completed a year-long pilot study testing higher parking meter pricing in the Back Bay and Seaport neighborhoods. The final report of the study is available online here. A main goal of the study was to increase the availability of on-street parking with 1-2 on-street parking spaces per city block being open at all times, equivalent to a parking occupancy rate of 60-80%. The City also sought to increase road safety by reducing distracted driving caused by drivers looking for parking and to reduce traffic congestion by decreasing illegal parking and the time to find parking.

For the study, the City raised the metered parking prices in the Back Bay area and kept the higher price for the whole pilot year. With the increased pricing, the study achieved its stated goals. With the higher meter charges, there were more open on-street parking spaces for residents and business customers.  There was also a reduction in illegal parking, in illegal parking in loading zones, in double parking, and an overall decrease in traffic congestion.

In the Seaport area, the City used a more dynamic pricing model, varying the meter prices from block to block and adjusting them every two months to try to maintain 60-80% on-street parking occupancy.  During the study, the dynamic pricing generally did not lead to more parking availability. The on-street parking occupancy in many of the zones increased from January to October 2017, even though the meter prices were raised repeatedly. Parking occupancy fell during the final two months of 2017, though it’s not clear if that was due to the higher prices. Other factors could be an ongoing construction project that impacted parking availability, and seasonal demand fluctuations in the Seaport area. Overall, during the study, the number of parking meter transactions decreased. It is possible that many drivers going to the Seaport area were not aware of the differing and changing prices for different streets. As in the Back Bay, the amount of illegal parking fell significantly during the study.

During the study, public outreach sessions were held in the Back Bay and the Seaport neighborhoods. Both positive and negative feedback was received, with the negative feedback focused on the parking rate increases in these neighborhoods when other neighborhoods kept their old parking prices. Despite the latter feedback, the City considers the pilot program to be a success overall. When announcing the study results, Boston Transportation Department Commissioner Gina N. Findaca shared the City’s findings that the parking pilot program was “an effective tool to reduce congestion, improve safety, and open up more parking in our busiest neighborhoods” and “this program makes better use of our limited curb space and helps our business districts and neighborhoods thrive by making sure drivers can easily find a spot and that pedestrians and cyclists are not adversely impacted by double parking.”

Parking meter revenues rose by $5.7 million in the Back Bay and by $300,000 in the Seaport area during the pilot year. These funds will be used for a variety of projects to improve transportation mobility including for sidewalks, bus lanes, buses, and bridges.

There are other cities, including San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, that have introduced dynamic meter prices in popular neighborhoods and during times of peak demand to help address parking shortages and encourage other transportation modes.

Boston’s leadership is now considering possibly continuing the differential pricing in its current locations and perhaps extending it to additional parts of the city.