City-state cooperation, mass transit would help ease Boston parking crunch

Word from the Boston parking pundits is that there's good news and there's bad news. The bad news, according a preliminary report issued by the former city administration, is that in the next 10 years there will be a lot more cars roaming the streets of Boston vying for parking spaces. And there won't exactly be a lot more spaces.

The good news, says one official in the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), is that the new parking burden will be taken care of completely if the report's recommendations are implemented.

According to other officials, however, there may be some snags in the report's plans and projections. Some claim the study is too limited in scope, includes too many variables, or doesn't make enough realistic suggestions.

It's no secret that finding a parking space for that old gas-guzzler is a challenge. Boston residents, businesses, retailers, commuters, shoppers, and tourists all have a vested interest in the availability of parking.

Alfred Howard, transportation planning director of the BRA, says the parking situation in Boston is tight now, but not unbearable. Midday parking demand runs at about 93 percent of capacity, he says.

Yet that's sure to change. The BRA and the city's traffic and parking department, the Air Pollution Control Commission, commissioned a study to determine how parking would be shaping up in years to come. Conducted by Cambridge Systematics Inc., the study focused primarily on downtown.

It considered the number of Boston parking spaces, the number of commuters and shoppers coming into the city each day, mode of transportation (auto or mass transit), population projections, and several other factors.

Not surprisingly, the study found that with high-rise towers shooting up everywhere and with business booming, there are going to be a lot more people moving in and around the city each day. The report's authors project that by 1990 there will be a ''deficit'' of 22,000 parking spaces every day.

This ''does not, of course, mean that 22,000 cars will be circling the downtown, in fruitless search of parking,'' the report adds. Rather, it says, transportation supply and use must adjust to accommodate the added demand.

It would be nice if Boston had more parking spaces. Yet there are several reasons why this will not happen. One is that it costs $15,000 to $20,000 for each new parking space.

Air pollution in Boston is a another problem. In fact, the principal restriction on the parking supply is the Boston Air Pollution Control Commission's law, named ''the Freeze.'' Implemented to cut down on air pollution , this parking freeze has limited the number of off-street spaces to about 35, 000 since 1976.

Beyond that, added spaces only encourage people to drive. Limited parking and its accompanying high prices are supposedly good because they encourage people to take mass transit, to wedge themselves into carpools, to bike, or to walk.

Imagine for a moment what it would mean to have 22,000 more cars trying to get into Boston each day, wending their ways into the financial district, arriving and leaving at about the same time. Imagine them added to the thousands of cars that already fight for road space on Boston's tangled cow-path road system. The streets could not reasonably handle the added traffic.

But alternative access must be balanced so that a lack of parking doesn't drive away development, shoppers, and tourists. The report recommends several steps which, it projects, will meet the demand.

* The Freeze should be relaxed slightly to allow more parking near the Expressway and Central Artery - the few remaining areas that will not overburden streets downtown.

* Public parking facilities should be ''restriped'' with reduced aisle width and spaces for compact cars.

* Other facilities could use parking attendants who can pack cars close together.

Also, the needs of the midday parker must be addressed, the report says. Garages would be encouraged to reserve spaces for shoppers driving in after 10 a.m. And the city should encourage alternatives for commuters.

The city would promote ride-sharing programs, vanpools, carpools; it would encourage employers to subsidize employees' MBTA passes, and require developers of new, large buildings to draw up access plans on how building occupants will get there.

Taken all together, the study says, 13,000 of those 22,000 cars will stay home. The other 9,000 will be able to find spaces.

But success depends on such things as whether private-sector employers are willing to be involved, the bus companies, the service on the Massachusetts Bay Transporation Authority (MBTA), and other variables.

Matt Coogan of the state Department of Transportation and Construction says the city's parking study should be looked at very cautiously. There are other things to consider.

Most important, Mr. Coogan says, is the need to ask whether the streets and intersections can handle more traffic. More available parking is sure to bring more traffic. And with Boston's already crowded streets, Coogan says, ''there are only so many holes you can shoot people through.''

Rather than taking a fragmented approach, looking just at parking, he says, there needs to be a look at the broader issue of transportation throughout the metropolitan area. His department plans to conduct just such a study.

And that does seem more reasonable. For as Coogan says, the MBTA, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, and the Massachusetts Port Authority all work for the state. Those agencies have responsibility for the movement of traffic in Boston. And each will play a large role in meeting the region's growing transportation needs.

Solving the traffic and parking problems in Boston will require the cooperation and coordination of city and state. Only then will the wheels of Boston residents, commuters, and tourists keep turning in the coming years.

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