The Boston Transportation Department (BTD) conducted a long overdue parking study in Roslindale Square in October of last year, and earlier this month released a 22-page report with detailed findings. There’s a good deal to sort through here, but we hope this report will serve as a launching point for constructive community dialog around hot-button parking issues. We intend to play an active role in advocating for solutions that advance our goal of making Roslindale the most walkable neighborhood in the City of Boston.
It’s no secret that parking has been poorly managed for decades across the city and in our neighborhood, often leading to rancorous conflicts over spaces and, even more unfortunately, opposition to desperately-needed new housing based on fears that such actions will exacerbate parking problems. We are optimistic that, with this study as the backdrop, we’ve reached the cusp of a new era where parking policy can be informed by best management practices and a vision that recognizes the major changes in mobility coming around the corner and the need to balance the needs of all users of our roads and sidewalks.
First, the most important fact this report establishes is that Roslindale Square has enough parking, but there has been a failure to manage it. In particular, the report notes in its conclusions on page 21:
With on-street parking available within the overall study area during most times; with most parking demand concentrated around the ‘commercial core’ and Washington Street commercial corridor; and with an abundance of available off-street parking during most times – the solution is to better manage the parking resources that exist so they serve the needs of residents, businesses, and visitors.
In particular, the report notes that “most off-street parking lots had an abundance of unused parking.” A count on a Farmers Market Saturday found:
- 20 unused spaces in the Taft Hill Municipal Parking Lot
- 123 unused spaces in the MBTA Commuter Lots
- 119 unused spaces in privately-owned lots
A count on a Wednesday similarly found:
- 7 unused spaces in the Taft Hill Municipal Parking Lot
- 107 unused spaces in the MBTA Commuter Lots
- 106 unused spaces in privately-owned lots
This reinforces a view that we’ve been advocating for many years now. Dedicating more space to parking than we currently have won’t meaningfully help the issues but will insure increased traffic congestion and pollution, not only from vehicle emissions but also from the creation of additional impervious surfaces, even putting aside the cost of building and maintaining more parking. Managing what we already have, by contrast, will foster conditions where people who need to drive will be able to find parking easily, while avoiding inducing demand for more driving. What form that parking space management should take is something we’d like to see discussed with some urgency and then implemented as soon as BTD can make it happen.
Second, although many recent proposals for new housing in Roslindale near transit hubs have been shot down by a minority of members of the Zoning Board of Appeal on the basis of allegedly insufficient off-street parking, the report provides no basis to conclude that new nearby housing meaningfully impacts parking issues in the central business district. Indeed, the addition of nearby residential development should be a complete red herring as a parking issue: having more folks living within walking distance of the square will help the existing businesses and generate demand for businesses to open in the now-vacant storefronts. In and within walking distance of the square is the ideal place in the neighborhood to develop residences with no or comparatively few off-street parking spaces. It is also worth reiterating here our preference for using space and resources to build places for people, not motor vehicles. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimated in 2019 that each new structured parking space in our region costs $23,500 to build and each new surface parking space costs $6,000 (figures that must now be significantly higher due to inflation). Making new development provide parking on site both drives up the cost of each unit and takes space that could otherwise be used for more units.
As we find a path forward, we also want to keep an eye on other takeaways from the report:
- Better parking management will also improve vehicular traffic, since a substantial number of cars circle the square looking for parking. Parking spaces should be managed so there is generally a minimum availability of open spaces, thus avoiding endless circling as well as idling/double-parking and blocking of crosswalks. We would be a good candidate for dynamic pricing and smart meters so that space availability can be tuned more precisely.
- Prime storefront spaces should be metered to increase turnover. We could also use some very short term spaces to make it easy to run into a store like Sullivan’s Pharmacy or Solera Wine to grab an item and go.
- We should also consider enabling the option of paying for longer stays in the Taft Hill Municipal Lot. For example, for some spaces, parking could be free for an hour, but paid at a reasonable rate for longer stays. The newly-installed rapid electric chargers in the lot already allow the user to pay for more time than is necessary for a charge.
- It makes no sense for so many MBTA lot spaces to go empty and also for there to be no free or discounted after-hours parking in those lots. There is substantial demand for restaurant parking in the evenings and essentially zero demand for commuter rail user parking at that time. This should be an easy fix and could also be matched with implementing parking sharing of both lots during the daytime as well.
- Business owners should encourage and incentivize employee commuting by means other than driving (for example, we’re encouraged here by the decreased car use shown by a recent pilot program for providing subsidized BueBike memberships and T passes to employees in Main Street districts), and for those who do need to drive, encourage them to park a short distance away rather than occupy prime spaces. Store owners and employees taking up spaces in front of their own businesses makes it more difficult for potential customers to park. Formally opening up the MBTA lots to non-commuters as well as allowing a paid option for longer stays in the Municipal Lot could fix this problem entirely.
- Finally, the square has had nagging vacancy problems for many years. Fixing the vacancy issue is a real problem that could be solved (1) with better parking management as outlined above and (2) with a long-term vacancy tax to incentivize commercial landlords to find tenants rather than passively leverage their empty properties as a tax break.
For those interested in digging deeper into the relationship between parking policy and walkability, we must recommend the canonical book The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup (the first chapter of which is available free online), as well as Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step a Time (free summary here), by our nearby neighbor Jeff Speck.