Why I Still Own a Car

Free Parking Creates a Perverse Incentive for Car Ownership

February 4, 2015

Planner / Architect, NBBJ

As a Boston resident, I am quickly becoming a minority: a car owner.

Only 63% of Bostonians have “access to a car,” according to the American Community Survey, and this number is decreasing rapidly. Car ownership is simply beyond the reach of most of the city’s newer residents and has long been too expensive or inconvenient in the city’s densest neighborhoods, where rare parking spaces can set you back more than $500/month to rent or $150k to buy. A tandem parking space (two spaces end-to-end) in the Back Bay recently was auctioned for $560,000. In Boston’s densest neighborhoods, such as the historic North End, car ownership is less than 33%, and even in tony Beacon Hill, fewer than half of residents have access to a car.

So why do I still own a car? I drove 3,000 miles from California to Boston more than 20 years ago just to tour the country, and I kept it for a sense of independence. Fast-forward 20 years and, despite the nightmare of moving it around for monthly street cleaning and snow removal (not to mention shoveling), I still own a car.

Washington_Street,_Brookline_Village_MA

Brookline, MA (Wikipedia)

I now live in Brookline, a close-in, densely built “streetcar suburb” within three miles of the Hub. No one in their right mind would commute by car from Brookline to Boston: daily parking is now more than $50 and monthly parking… Well, I don’t want to think about it. I have access to multiple and easy methods of reaching downtown Boston; the T, bike share, Uber, Bridj (a bus-share service) or my own bike, which I ride nearly every day to the office, where I have access to a city-mandated gym pass for showering. Several Zipcar stations and car rental agencies are within a five-minute walk of my house. My zip code has an overall Walk Score of 90 — “a walker’s paradise” — and my specific neighborhood is even higher, at 93.

So why do I still own a car? Did I mention that Brookline has an exclusionary practice of banning overnight parking on its streets? Thus the only real option in Brookline is either to park over the city line in Boston, to rent or buy a space, or to be so lucky as to have a deeded space on your property.

Which is the only reason I have a car. Because 15 years ago I bought a condominium with a deeded off-street parking space. It’s that simple.

If we want our cities to be more walkable, maybe it’s time we made them less park-able. When new developments provide parking, as current regulations require them to, they just encourage more people like me to own cars they don’t really need. Much discussion has been going on in Boston about developers building housing with little or no parking: existing residents fear streets clogged with cars parked (warehoused) on city property. Yet when I think of why I still own a car, it is simply because I have a space. If I did not, I would have rid myself of a car years ago.

Image courtesy John Murphy/Flickr.

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