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Sean Roche

Is parking too cheap?

What's wrong with this picture? Four friends drive to Kenmore Square for a Red Sox game. They take a couple of laps around the neighborhood unsuccessfully looking for a $1-an-hour meter. They give up and park in a $20 lot.

Thanks to the work of UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup, we now know that the low meter rates lead to congestion, unnecessary fuel consumption, and additional pollution. It also allows parking entrepreneurs to make 20 bucks (or more) for the same 120 square feet of asphalt that the city is practically giving away.

In his recent book, "The High Cost of Free Parking," Shoup claims that curbside parking is a valuable resource that cities squander by "renting" for less than market value. The most obvious consequence is the lost revenue. If motorists are willing to pay $20 to park in a lot for a Red Sox game, why shouldn't the city charge the same amount, or at least something closer to the private rate than $1 an hour?

This wouldn't just generate more money for the city. When there's cheap parking to be had, spots fill up. But, people, like our Sox fans above, troll the streets hoping to score the elusive spot (and save the $20 for some Fenway franks). A trolling car consumes gas, emits pollution, and adds to congestion.

Near-free parking is also bad parking. Consider Newbury Street, another place where curbside spaces are chronically scarce. Low meter rates lead to low turnover. Once people -- often residents and employees -- find spaces, they spend the day feeding meters. It's cheap. Shoppers, who are the most valuable parkers to local businesses, cannot find spaces easily, though they invariably take a few laps looking in vain.

If Newbury Street meter prices were set high enough to produce a 15-percent vacancy rate, the level Shoup recommends, a number of good things would happen. (The proper meter price would only become clear through trial and error.) Turnover would increase, as those needing long-term parking would look elsewhere -- or travel by foot or by the T instead. Shoppers willing to pay the higher rate would always be able to park near their destination boutique. A few open spaces on every block would decrease congestion-producing trolling. And there'd be new meter revenue, which could be earmarked for improvements along Newbury Street.

Such a proenvironment policy might seem to come at the expense of business. But what shop owner wouldn't want a new customer parking in front of his store a few times an hour? In places like South Pasadena and Redwood City, Calif., where Shoup's theories have been put to a real-world test, the results have pleased local businesses.

Boston sells itself short in another way: through resident-only parking along streets such as Commonwealth Avenue. For $30 a year, you can occupy some of the most valuable real estate in the country, if you are lucky enough to find a space. And, you can stay about as long as you'd like. These spaces, too, should be subject to market rates.

Resident parking policies that resulted in a 15-percent vacancy rate along Commonwealth Avenue would have similar benefits as higher meter rates on Newbury Street. But the surprising beneficiaries would be the residents themselves, as they could count on predictable short-term parking near their homes. Fifteen-percent vacancy could be achieved by adding several meters to every block, which could be resident-only meters.

The Kenmore Square-Newbury Street-Commonwealth Avenue triangle makes for a good story because of the seriousness and variety of parking issues in close proximity. But, the parking problems in that area are not unique. Like Fenway, the Garden and many of the major institutions generate the same kind of event-driven parking demand. (Try getting a space near the Children's Museum on a rainy Saturday.) Lots of commercial areas have issues as acute as Newbury Street's. And resident parking cannot meet demand in lots of the city's neighborhoods.

Market-based parking could relieve some of the problems resulting from excess demand for the city's curbside parking -- and generate money for neighborhood improvements. Higher meter rates are not a solution, though, for all the traffic and parking issues in Boston, or any other city. There needs to be better provision of off-street parking, more coordinated traffic and parking policies, and enhancement of mass-transit options.

Still, higher meter rates could, by themselves, have a noticeable, immediate effect. The city should give it a shot.

Sean Roche writes about traffic and parking at newtonstreets.blogspot.com.

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