STARTS & STOPS
By Noah Bierman, Globe Staff | December 20, 2009
Free parking good for the short term, but costs down the road
Merchants and shoppers cheered when Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino announced last month that he was giving away free parking during the holiday season for the 16th year in a row.
It’s become a holiday tradition - two hours at meters on Saturdays - gratis.
Who could possibly be against that, some kind of parking Grinch?
“I would rather think of myself as a parking Santa Claus,’’ said Mark Chase, a parking consultant who can explain why free parking is a really dumb idea. “You can put that as your title: ‘Parking Grinch or Santa Claus?’ You decide.’’
Chase thinks about parking all the time, mostly helping businesses and universities figure out how to avoid building more spots. Earlier this decade, when he worked for Zipcar, he designed the scheme that reserved spaces all over the city for the company cars, making the rest of us scared that the renters’ club was gearing up for some sort of military takeover of Boston and Cambridge. He is among a group of advocates and professionals who share the view, popularized in the 2005 book “The High Cost of Free Parking,’’ that parking costs need to be managed more intelligently to improve city life.
Chase says that when there is a parking shortage, giving it away free is about the worst thing you can do, for everybody. The lure of free parking draws more drivers who may have otherwise carpooled, walked, or taken public transportation. They all compete for fewer spots, driving in circles and spewing pollution in hopes of snagging one, and getting progressively angrier at the world when they don’t.
Eventually, they stop coming downtown, hurting the merchants as well.
Instead of giving it away free, charge enough for the good spots so there is always one or two of them available, he said. Charge less for the bad spots, so people will be willing to walk a little farther.
Employees usually take the free spots before shoppers, and then keep them all day anyway, he said. They got there first and many make only $7 an hour, he added.
“You can’t blame them,’’ he said.
But if you push the cheap or the free spots farther away, the employees will walk a few blocks, emptying spaces for customers.
Thomas J. Tinlin, Boston’s transportation commissioner, said the parking promotion is a gesture designed to persuade people who commute through the city to come back and shop. If they come for the promotion, maybe they’ll return the rest of the year.
It only lasts a few weeks, from late November through December 26 this year. Sundays are free year-round. Merchants have asked for more free Saturdays but the city has balked, in part because the meters raise $40,000 on average Saturdays the rest of the year.
“It’s all about balance,’’ Tinlin said.
Tinlin said parking officials are usually the ones called Grinches. Maybe with the free parking, he said, people will think of them as “good-intended elves.’’
So why does Chase one-up Tinlin, calling himself a Santa Claus? He suggests pooling all that money and then holding a holiday parking lottery.
“Give the money to one lucky customer,’’ he said.