Zone-based pricing is more effective at changing driver behavior than block-based pricing.

Lessons learned from a performance parking pilot in downtown Boston neighborhoods.

Date Posted


Summary Information

The City of Boston conducted a performance parking pilot in 2017 with the goal of improving the parking experience, lowering congestion, increasing road safety, and generally learning how to implement a performance parking program.  

The objective of the price changes was to encourage other modes of transportation as well as encourage parking on blocks that were consistently underutilized, freeing up 1 to 2 spaces on block faces consistently at capacity. The desired effect was limiting the added Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) caused by vehicles circling for available parking and decreasing double parking caused by ride hailing and delivery services. Parking occupancy was measured using sensor technology mounted to parking meters and extracting data from Boston’s parking payment vendors.  

The pilot was executed in two downtown neighborhoods, Seaport, with block-by-block dynamic prices, and Back Bay, managed as a zone. Boston’s approach in the Seaport neighborhood was to introduce dynamic pricing by block face (the portion of a street between two other streets), increasing or decreasing prices by 50 cent increments, until demand left 1 to 2 spaces per block available throughout the day. Prices were capped at $4 an hour and the lowest fee was $1 an hour. The Seaport neighborhood prices were adjusted every 2 months between January 2017 and December 2017. The Back Bay neighborhood meters were changed uniformly as a zone from $1.25 to $3.75 and remained that price during the pilot. 

The report found that performance parking is an effective tool to increase parking availability, lower congestion, and improve road safety. The zone-based performance parking pilot in Back Bay led to measurable improvements in all of the City’s metrics. The report described the following lessons learned:

  • Zone-based pricing is more effective at changing driver behavior than block-based pricing. The block-based pricing coupled with pricing changes every two months in Seaport likely did not give a transparent signal to drivers about the costs associated with parking. In contrast, pricing the whole Back Bay neighborhood at $3.75 per hour for an entire year was easier to understand and led to a much larger change in behavior.
  • There was some evidence that the block-by-block price changes every two months led to a specific meter rate that incentivized the City’s occupancy goals. However, it was challenging to understand the direct effect of the price changes on driver behavior as there were many other factors influencing parking demand in the area, including new development, construction, and seasonal changes in demand. 
  • Breaking neighborhoods into multiple sub-zones based on occupancy will likely lead to more effective pricing decisions.
  • Different prices throughout the day could be an effective strategy towards reaching the City’s occupancy goals. Both neighborhoods had different parking occupancy levels during different times of the days.
  • It is possible that the clearing price could be set higher than in the pilot. The demand for parking outstrips the supply by so much that demand is price-inelastic. For example, the rate for private garages in the high occupancy areas of the Seaport and the commercial Back Bay have hourly rates far exceeding those of the pilot.