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.



01/24/2013 07:17

Mark - great analysis and recommendations. I really appreciate your thoroughness. However a few concerns from a resident perspective that aren't addressed: many of the housing units on Beacon St. are multi-family units that are rented out or condos. Part of the reason that parking demand is higher at the Oxford end is because there are I believe apartment buildings adjacent to the businesses. Even those who don't own cars themselves are allowed to purchase 2 visitor parking passes. The visitor parking pass has a much narrower zoning restriction compared to the regular resident permit which allows you to park wherever within the city limits. Beacon is bound by rail road and the Cambridge boarder making it rather further complicating matters. "many car-owners opt not to use their driveways when they can easily park on the street." This is a pretty broad assumption. Let me elaborate: Even those who have off-street parking adjacent to the property they live in may not be able to legally use them depending on their condo association agreement or lease. For instance, when I rented a room in a 2 family in Winter Hill, the house had a pretty long driveway next to it, but my roommates and I were not allowed to park our cars or visitor's cars in it per the leasing agreement, because it was reserved for exclusive use of the landlord. Somerville has a relatively high percentage of owner-occupied rental units and I'm aware of others who have similar arrangements. Some landlords will also sell parking spaces and have pre-existing rental agreements with non-tenants. re: suggestion of higher parking permit fees for 2+ car house holds - what about people who live in roommate situations vs. living with a domestic partner? In my WH apartment there were 4 car commuters occupying the unit...this would penalize several lower income residents.

01/26/2013 07:39

You make many good points. I think we are both on the same page in terms of existing problems.

City regulations and pricing of parking are making the problem much worse than it need be by encouraging what I think is bad behavior. If people are not using their driveways because of city laws, condo laws or because they prefer being closer to their front doors, we should not accept this as a given. We should work to change the rules so that these spaces get used.

As for lower income residents, I don't see any reason why the City couldn't issue a low income permit. They already issue more than a dozen different permits. Data shows that low income residents own far fewer cars than the average person. The City would not lose much money on that and they could make up for it in the increased revenues by charging something closer to market rate for those of us that can afford it. They could also use the money to lower our taxes. I'd much rather pay lower taxes and higher parking permit fees.

01/25/2013 06:59

Mark, Thanks for the writeup and parking study. A few rhetorical questions to add context; During the late night study, did you notice many other bikers? What would it be like having to hunt for a spot within this half mile stretch every single day instead of just two days a week during st cleaning? How much time would that add to ones commute? In that scenario, imagine glaring at 6 feet of an un-used cycle track. All this disruption for a distance of 0.4 miles, with a marked bike lane on both sides (more than most city streets get), and what you will eventually be riding on once you get to Washington St.

Then there's the snow. There were 5 snow emergencies during '10-'11, winter season and parking was so bad that I needed to park in a garage and take the T to get to it. As previous post stated; there is no relief on two sides due to train tracks and city line. Beacon would go from an adequate parking situation to a prohibitive one - and it would be permanent.

Also, renting space from a private business as a strategic move isn't pragmatic. I read an article this morning on about Shaws/Star Mrkt being sold, and layoffs.

01/26/2013 07:55

Hi Dave, Strangely I did notice more bicyclists out at night when I was counting cars. I think it's because younger people stay out later and ride bikes more than older people. I saw perhaps 3 cars driving and two cyclists driving and one or two pedestrians.

As for looking for parking spaces, I hope you will take another look at the data. I am guessing you live at the Oxford Street end of Beacon Street-- because everywhere else there appeared to be at least some available on-street parking spaces. That said, parking demand varies by time of day, and just because there's some available parking in the middle of the night doesn't mean that the same space may not be taken at another time of day (and vice versa).

Regarding the Oxford Street end, currently there's virtually no reason for anyone to do anything but take the best and easiest available space. What I was suggesting in the posting above is that there could be much more parking on the street if the off-street spaces were better used-- In particular those who are willing and able to walk need to be encourage to do that to get cheaper more available parking. To do that the city needs to change its policies and pricing on the street.

Finally as for snow, I feel your pain. That winter I also couldn't ride my bike much (only to Market Basket) and had to rely on the T for just about everything. Fortunately those winters are few and far between. Managing parking during major weather events is a whole other conversation. Perhaps I'll have a guest blogger do one on that some day.


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