By Wyatt Cmar • May 17, 2017

In 1981, the price of Boston's metered parking spaces doubled from fifty cents to a dollar an hour. Crews from the Traffic and Parking Department fanned out across the city to adjust 3500 meters by hand. For the city, the adjustment was part of an effort to diminish the discrepancy between on- and off-street parking prices, increase turnover in the city's limited number of metered spaces, and generate an additional $1 million in annual revenue.[1]

Prices didn't rise again until 2011, when the city began charging $1.25 per hour. The modest hike did little to make up for thirty years of inflation, which would have brought citywide parking rates to $2.66 today. Over that same period, the number of metered parking spaces ballooned from 3,500 to 8,000. Boston, like so many other cities, had effectively subsidized private vehicle commuting for decades through the provision of curbside spaces priced below what people would have been willing to pay.

Bar Chart of Price of On-Street Meters in US Major Cities' Downtown

The immediate ramifications of underpriced parking are clear: office workers elect to "feed the meter" rather than park in garages, while shoppers, restaurant-goers and others making quick trips are pushed farther away from their destinations. In the streets, cars cruise for empty spaces, significantly contributing to congestion, pollution, and distracted driving. In Boston, lower meter prices mean less money for the city’s Parking Meter Fund, which is used solely for transportation-related purposes.

Looking to interrupt this trend and increase parking availability, late last year Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced the Performance Parking pilot, a collaboration with the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM), the city’s in-house research and development team; the Boston Transportation Department (BTD); and the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT).

The year-long pilot, begun in January, represents two distinct experiments in two areas of Boston: in Back Bay, the city simply adjusted the price of parking from $1.25 to $3.75; in the Seaport, workers installed smart meters that calibrate prices according to the time of day and driver demand. “We are aiming for 60-80% occupancy, meaning a parker will have a high probability of finding a space open on each block,” said Ilona Kramer, Program Manager at MONUM.

Ilona Kramer
Ilona Kramer, Program Manager at MONUM

During weekdays in the Seaport District, fares adjust at 8:00 AM, noon, and 4:00 PM to accommodate fluctuating parking demand. At two-month intervals, data scientists in DoIT review the information collected by the smart meters equipped with sensors to determine whether to raise or lower daily rates by 50 cents, or hold prices constant. According to the parameters of the pilot, spots could become as cheap as a dollar per hour or gradually rise to as much as $4 per hour.

In March, the city announced that the majority of the 550 spaces in the Seaport District have gone down to a dollar per hour. A quarter of meter hours stayed constant at $1.50 per hour, and a quarter went up to two dollars per hour. Drivers can track the rates online at the Performance Parking website.

Boston’s pilot builds on other cities' successes. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority estimates that its smart meters initiative, SFpark, halved the amount of time commuters spent looking for parking spaces and reduced the number of miles driven in the pilot areas by 30 percent, from 8,134 miles per day in 2011 to 5,721 miles per day between 2011 and 2013.

If the Boston pilot achieves its targets, Kramer says there’s potential for growth. In addition to expanding the program geographically, MONUM has also contemplated using variable parking rates to attenuate demand during large events. “We like to experiment with several projects to see which ones work best," says Kramer. "We're looking for ideas that scale.”


[1] Price of parking at meters in Boston is doubling-- to $1. (1981, Jun 24). Boston Globe (1960-1985) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1011826432?accountid=11311