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Michelle Wu’s right: Parking permits should not be free

City Councilor Michelle Wu is proposing the city begin charging for residential parking permits. (PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF /FILE)

City Councilor Michael Flaherty has five cars — but maintains that people like him are not why South Boston is short on parking.

No, he insists, it’s that there are just too many bus stops taking up pavement that by rights belongs to automobiles.

His ridiculous comment came at last week’s City Council meeting when Councilor Michelle Wu introduced a common-sense proposal to begin charging for residential parking permits. The plan would provide some revenue to the city. But more important, it’d help address parking shortages and traffic congestion by giving a small nudge to people like Flaherty to think twice about adding another car to their armada.


Her proposal would bring Boston in line with most other large US cities, which either charge for residential permits, cap the number available to an individual, or both.

“We’re at a breaking point when it comes to traffic in Boston,” Wu said in an interview. “Our residential parking system is not working for everyone. People have to circle the block sometimes for over an hour” before finding a spot. Indeed, studies estimate that 30 percent of street traffic is caused by drivers looking for parking.

“It’s stressful and it’s frustrating. Something has to be done,” she added.

Now, imposing a fee on something people are accustomed to getting for free is about as popular as . . . imposing a fee on something people are accustomed to getting for free. But Wu’s right: Business as usual is failing residents, and the city needs to be more strategic about the way it divides up its finite supply of parking spaces.

Wu proposes to charge residents a modest fee of $25 per year for their first vehicle, with each additional permit $25 more ($50 for the second vehicle, $75 for the third, and so on). By comparison, San Francisco charges $100 annually for residential parking permits.


In Wu’s plan, some populations would be exempt: seniors, low-income residents, home health care aides visiting patients, and Boston Public School staff visiting students. Her ordinance would also implement a visitor parking permit at a cost of $10 per visit and valid for 72 hours.

In Boston, the need is only becoming more acute as the population and number of permits grow. Data provided by Wu’s office show that between 2008 and 2018, the number of active permits issued in the city went up 31 percent. In East Boston, for instance, the number of stickers nearly doubled from 6,900 to 13,500 in the same period.

The city doesn’t track how many households have more than one parking sticker, but a 2015 Globe report found that more than 300 households in the city have five or more cars with registered stickers.

That translates into more traffic and more frustration — a hidden psychic tax on every resident of Boston.

Wu’s proposal doesn’t have to be the last word, but the way that politicians like Flaherty rushed to condemn the whole idea shows only their own short-sightedness. Critics say paying for a parking permit is an extra tax. But so is the status quo. And if a few bucks a year helps reduce traffic and ease parking shortages every day, wouldn’t most Bostonians take that trade in a heartbeat?