The first weekend of February saw a massive storm hit the Northeast. Where I live in Somerville, cars were banned from parking on the even side of the street.  Being one of the densest cities in the United States, one had to wonder where all those cars went.  I put together a web survey and got 218 responses.   Here's what I found.

The 218 of you people who answered my survey were responsible for parking 350 cars that weekend, so it’s a pretty good sample.  

It’s interesting to note that although 50% of households have one car, they only account for 33% of the cars accounted for.   Two car households actually have the most cars in Somerville.  Three and four car household are a relatively small group-- small enough so that their car numbers don’t add up to a whole lot.

I looked at the US Census to see how our survey responses compared with what the average is for Somerville in 2010. If we assume that the 23.7% of residents who don’t own cars in the Census had answered my survey, the profile of respondents would have been pretty close to the overall picture of Somerville.
I looked at the US Census to see how our survey responses compared with what the average is for Somerville in 2010. If we assume that the 23.7% of residents who don’t own cars in the Census had answered my survey, the profile of respondents would have been pretty close to the overall picture of Somerville.

So... where did we park.  The short answer is, in driveways.  Generally our own driveway, but sometimes friend’s driveways.  Some people did park in City lots and out of town, but they were not a significant portion of the cars parked.  Note, where there were less than ten cars in the total, I just used "plus 1/ minus 1 etc).  Because the numbers were small, the percentages wouldn't have meant much.
And for those of you who like details, the placement of those cars in more detail is at the bottom of the post.

What’s most interesting is how many people appear to be not moving their cars back to the street many days after the storm.  Below are pictures of Hancock Street, Willow Street, and Belmont Street where I live more than two weeks after the storm.    I have two theories about where the cars went.  One, peoples cars are hunkered down in their storm locations and no one’s in a rush to get them back out on the street.  Or two, the odd side of the street is now long-term-parking, and all the people who drive to work are using their driveways or using the even side of the street at night (my pictures were done mid day).

Hancock Street 16 days after the storm

Willow Street 16 days after the storm

Belmont Street: 16 days later

My take away is that on-street spaces are truly loved and convenient places to park, but that when it comes to a pinch-- like a big snow storm, we have the space to store our cars.  I think we could also do more to encourage people without driveways to hook up (not in the biblical sense) with those with driveways.  Then we’d really be efficient.  One of the beauties of sharing a driveway is that people you share with will help dig you out!

I have to say something about Beacon Street-- it has it’s share of driveways too-- but more than driveways it has a number of very large surface lots that right now are only open to customers and employees.  Can we use policies and prices to encourage owners to share their extra spaces?  Can we do this in a way that doesn’t hurt low income drivers?  In the meantime as businesses and landlords, can we use better the parking that we have?  That will be the subject of another post. Food for thought.
The City of Somerville is proposing to reconstruct Beacon Street in the near future.  One of the proposed features of the new street design is a cycle track that will serve a broader group of cyclists who are not comfortable riding in traditional bike lanes.  The proposal is controversial because it would eliminate parking on one side of the street to accommodate the proposed cycle track.   This has created conflict between those who feel there is not enough parking on Beacon Street and those who would like to see better bicycle facilities on the street.

Problems with parking on Beacon Street can easily be seen as simply not enough parking.  The true picture is more complex than that. There are many different parking needs on the street.  A simple way to categorize the needs would be by business or resident, but even this is an over-simplification.  By looking at the resources and needs of these groups in more detail, we can see some important nuances that can help instruct what options are available to meet the parking needs of Beacon streets residents, business owners and customers.

Business Needs

On-street & Off-street

To begin, it’s necessary to distinguish between those businesses who have off-street parking and those whose customers must use street parking. On Beacon Street there are both types. For instance, Star Market—perhaps the largest business on Beacon Street—has an abundance of off-street parking, to the point that they may be willing to rent their excess parking to the City.   On the other hand, there are several businesses on Beacon Street who rely on on-street parking to meet all their parking needs.  But even among those businesses that rely entirely on street parking, their needs will vary based on the amount of time their customers need to park.

Short-term & Long-term Parking Needs

The businesses whose customers require only short-term parking pose markedly different challenges than the businesses who have longer term parking needs. One rule-of-thumb is that the longer a person is staying in a location, the further they will be willing to walk from a parking space to their destination. To illustrate, a customer who will be spending 3 or 4 hours over dinner at a restaurant would likely be willing to park further from his destination than a customer parking to pick up take-out food.

On Beacon Street there is very little short term parking. This favors businesses with long term parking needs as any available parking may not be directly in front of the store. Take for example two businesses on the western end of Beacon Street:  Café Rustica and the Beacon Street Laundromat. Both have no off-street parking and have a mix of long and short term customers. Short term customers who drive to these businesses probably have some difficulty finding parking on Beacon Street at peak times.  Therefore it is understandable that they are concerned about losing curb-side parking.

Furthermore, some businesses are more car-oriented than others. Whereas an auto-repair shop may have 100% of its customers arrive by car, other businesses may find that most of their customers arrive on foot or by bike. While there are several auto-only-oriented businesses on Beacon Street, all of them appear to have adequate off-street parking.   Whether parking is removed from one side of the street or not, there remains a challenge for businesses with a substantial customer base who drive, but rely on short term on-street parking.  Potential solutions to this are posed later on.  First let us turn to residential parking.

Residential Parking

While residents have different needs than businesses, many similar principles and challenges apply. Off-street residential parking on Beacon Street appears to be about average for Somerville in that some houses have abundant off street parking (they have paved their entire lot), while others have no parking or only tandem parking.

As in much of Somerville, many car-owners opt not to use their driveways when they can easily park on the street.  After all, a City parking permit costs less than $3 a month, while off-street spaces on Craigslist retail for between $75 and $100 a month. In defense of those who use on-street spaces when they have off-street parking, on-street spaces are often the most convenient parking space to a resident’s front door.

One important item to note: Beacon Street has street sweeping twice a week every week from March 1st through December 31st. This rigorous sweeping schedule makes the very-long-term (2+ days) residential parking seen on other Somerville street (where cars need only be moved every two weeks) impossible on Beacon Street for most of the year.

Parking During Street Sweeping

There has been some discussion online about whether the City’s parking study adequately captured the student population or took into account the effects of street sweeping. Suffering from chronic insomnia, and having perhaps an unhealthy interest in my neighborhood’s parking problems, I conducted my own parking counts during street sweeping (midnight to 6AM) on four nights in November and early December. Given the cold weather and the fact that I was alone and on a bicycle, I only counted empty spaces on a block by block basis.

These are my results:

Street Sweeping/ No-Parking North Side

Street Sweeping/ No Parking South Side

As you can see, demand during arguably the most parking-constrained situation varies quite a bit over the entire length of Beacon Street. A quick glance shows that the highest demand on-street occurs at the Oxford Street end of Beacon.  Thus whether or not you have any trouble finding parking during street-sweeping will depend greatly by which block you live on.

I did not have the time or energy to count off-street parking availability. That said, I could still easily observe that Star Market and most of the larger business lots were almost entirely empty. This is not surprising given that the businesses are closed in the middle of the night.  Additionally, a quick glance at the driveways revealed that although many driveways were full, others had available capacity.  In fact there were a few driveways that were completely empty. 

Managing Parking on Beacon Street


In my consulting practice, it is common to hear from clients and the public that building a parking garage will solve a parking shortage. In a few cases this is true. In the majority of cases (and especially on Beacon Street), people are unwilling to pay the cost of a parking garage in either user fees or higher taxes. As noted above, even during street sweeping there is some available parking on Beacon Street. The problem is that there’s little incentive for healthy, able-bodied people to walk to it.

In order to get the most out of Beacon Street’s on- and off-street parking, I recommend trying a combination of well-designed regulations and judicious pricing to achieve the following goals:

●     Encourage able-bodied, long-term parkers (2+ hours) to park in less desirable further-away parking spaces

●     Make short term curb-side/ close to curb-side parking available for business owners during the hours that they need them

●     Incentivize business owners and residents to make their under-utilized driveways and parking lots available to those who could use the parking.

●     Fully inform and make clear to residents, businesses and customers the range of parking (and non-driving) options available

This is in no way a comprehensive list. Rather, I hope you will consider them a catalyst for creativity in solving Beacon Streets parking challenge—one that’s not so very different from other streets in Somerville.


As most of us city-dwellers can attest, the parking lot is generally an ugly heat island (or gusty frozen wasteland) separating us from where we want to go.  Can’t all those big ugly parking lots be made into something better? Something more humane, playful or artistic?  Can’t they have multiple uses?  The author Eran Ben-Joseph dangles this out there like a ripe plum.

Ben-Joseph is a Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at MIT.  The book is divided up into three sections: A lot in Common (the ugly state we’re in; Lots of time (historical overview); and lots of excellence (examples we can learn from).  It’s this third section where we hope there will be a multitude (dare I say lots) of great designs for the great blight of the large parking lot.  

Unfortunately, the great-examples in the “Lots of Excellence” chapter falls mostly flat when it comes to the urban context.   Yes we can use those lots for other uses: farmer’s markets, festivals and summer pop-up patios.   Yes there’s the eye candy of green parking lots with grass and trees liberally sprinkled around the lot.   This doesn’t do much for the fundamental flaw of the parking lot in the urban context-- that parking lots create too much distance between pedestrians and their destinations.   Most of the great parking lots in this book are in places with low density and low land values.    

The problem of parking design in high density/ high property value cities is fairly clear: Put parking underground; or wrap an above ground garage with an active use or a beautiful facade.  If you must have a parking lot at all, put the building up against the street and the lot behind.    To his credit Ben-Joseph gives a nod to shared streets as a way of making street parking flexible-- and with the right materials more beautiful too.  But these are not the dreaded parking lots that make the urban context so brutal.   These are simple city streets that more fairly accommodate all modes of transportation.  

What I found to be the most beautiful parking lots profiled in Chapter 3 are for the most part all small-- and perhaps that’s the best lesson for cities: small lots can function as decent public spaces-- but large lots really are a sacrifice of urban space for the suburban prerogative:  To live in the burbs with unbridled access to the city by automobile.  

One urban parking lot cited as a positive example in the book is the Porter Square Shopping Plaza about a five minute walk from my home.  The gateway to the lot shown is seen by most residents as an ugly and disorienting place.  While thousands of pedestrians pass through the Katayam-designed crosswalks every day, very few stop to take in people watching.  Even a most basic crop of park benches and trees would create what Jan Gehl calls a staying place at this location.    The contrast is particularly stark when compared with the two adjacent subway stations which are lushly populated with strollers and musicians.

The book has examples from around the world, but clearly the cultural audience is that of the United States.  This book will be appealing to small cities and suburbs who want their free and plentiful parking to be as beautiful and “green” as it can be.   It’s a good coffee table book with snippets that can be read comfortably in less than a minute.   For the cities that are working to to end the curse of the ugly-out-of-scale parking lots, this book will provide interesting facts on history and some ideas for design.  Hopefully it will inspire some truly captivating urban surface parking lots.  

In the meantime, lets get the price right!

Often when cities and towns don’t charge enough for parking, enforcement is the only way to get people to move along. If the price of parking is not high enough to create vacancy, then time limits are often used to help encourage turn-over.  Time limits require aggressive enforcement or drivers quickly learn that they can get away with parking in a location all day. This especially applies to employees who will quickly spread the word about when, where and how long to park in a business district.

A question arises: can there be too much enforcement?  In working with clients I often hear merchants complain that there is too much enforcement.  One way of looking at this is to ask if enforcement is resulting in the right amount of empty parking spaces so that there are a few parking spaces available?  This mirrors the mantra for pricing parking: The right price is one in which there are always a few spaces available.     

Whether it’s enforcement or pricing, the right fee or price would ensure a few available spaces.  If the price of parking, or cost of ticketing is really annoying patrons, then they will stop coming. With price, the policy option is simple: Reduce the price of parking until you lure people back to the district with low parking rates.  With enforcement, a city could similarly back off of issuing tickets.  The key advantage of using price over enforcement is that the cheaper parking is immediately apparent to the user.  The pain of a ticket is much more intermittent.  Clearly pricing is a better way to manage parking.

Another way of looking at enforcement is is it deterring bad behavior?  One client I worked with recently raised the price of parking tickets to the point where people took extra-ordinary measures not to get a ticket.   Demand for parking on street remained high-- but violations went way down.   In this case, the behavior change is exactly what we would hope: people are parking legally rather than getting a ticket.  Demand for parking remained high-- so price at this point is the last tool available to help clear out parking demand.

In article in the Boston Globe yesterday, Salem has acquired "smart" parking meters in preparation for better management of it's parking resources.  Salem is starting off on the right foot by both raising and lowering parking rates. Quoting the article:  "Hourly rates in the parking lots and garages will be lower than the hourly rates for meters on the adjacent streets. In addition, lower demand areas, such as the South River area, will be priced less than higher demand areas, such as the northern end of downtown.  For example, hourly rates in the garages will drop from $1.50 to $0.25 in the Waterfront Garage and from $1.50 to 75 cents in the Downtown Garage." 

Salem will join a significant list of smaller cities that have embraced parking reform.  These include Redwood City and Ventura California as well as trail-blazing Pasadena which undertook reform in the 90's and has seen such dramatic positive results.  We'll be keeping an eye on Salem to see how it all pans out in the coming months.

One of the key things about the SFPark pilot is the regular adjustment of rates.  They just released their 4th Rate adjustment.  It's interesting that they are truly raising as well as lowering prices to adjust to demand.  They do this about every two months.

Looking through the archives of their "News" tabs I could see that since the last three rate adjustments have seen a pretty balanced raising and lowering.  See how they have evolved below.  The screen shot is one of many pricing zones.  They can be seen in their entirety at http://sfpark.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/SFpark_rateadjustments_MeterAdj4_120207.pdf

Fourth Rate Adjustment (2/9/12):

• Decrease by 50¢ during 5% of metered hours
• Decrease by 25¢ during of 30% of metered hours
• Stay the same 39% of metered hours
• Increase by 25¢ during 26% of metered hours

Third rate adjustment (12/9/11), meter rates:
  • Decreased by 50¢ during 6% of metered hours
  • Decreased by 25¢ during of 29% of metered hours
  • Stayed the same 38% of metered hours
  • Increased by 25¢ during 27% of metered hours
Based on parking demand data, in this second rate adjustment (10/5/2011):

10 percent of rates decreased by $0.50
25 percent decreased by $0.25
33 percent stayed the same
32 percent increased by $0.25.

The first rate adjustment (7/11/11) saw the following price changes:
  • More than two-thirds of the new rates at SFpark meters were the same or lower than the old rates.
  • The new lowered rates were adjusted down by 25¢ or 50¢ to as low as $1.75/hour in some places.
  • The remaining one-third of the rates rose by 25¢ to $2.25, $3.25 or $3.75/hour depending on the current rate.

Lately I have been doing a lot of work on zoning.  If you have ever been involved with making zoning code, then you know that one of the biggest questions you face is "how much parking should we require for you-name-the-use".  

A better question to ask is how much parking do we need at "you-name-a-price".  Unfortunately we're so used to free parking that the price is assumed to be free. 

If you've read the other pages on this site, you probably have come to the conclusion that (where there's a parking shortage) the price of parking should not be free.  We need to wonder as well, in areas where there's not a parking shortage, do we even need parking minimums?

Back to the price of parking: This is not just about zoning.  It also applies to central business districts where there is *not enough parking*.  Often the assumption is not-enough-free-parking or not enough cheap parking.  Really the question is what is a target price for parking? Or better, what are the target prices for parking.  We need to price parking at the very least for different geographies (best spots more expensive than not-so-good spots), and ideally for different times of day.

Another key question is should we subsidize parking?  If yes, for everyone? For low income employees? In just certain areas?  In many communities we find that free parking is the bench mark and regardless of income, free parking is good.

What is the right *target* price for parking.  This goes beyond just setting the price to achieve a good occupancy rate.  Really we're asking: how high will we let price go before we build (or require a developer) new parking?

The answer to this of course varies by community.  I think there are some principles that we can follow.  The price of parking should:

  • cover the cost of construction and maintenance of the facility.
  • result in a target occupancy rate that includes both the facility and adjacent on-street parking (stay tuned for an upcoming post on the importance of pricing on-street parking right).
  • reflect broader policy goals such as encouraging people to park-once-and-walk or avoid driving to the location all together (transit, biking, walking etc).

I welcome your thoughts. In particular if you have any examples of places that have incorporated (or even thinking of it) the price of parking in to zoning regulations please let me know.