Boston officials say fewer and fewer people are driving into downtown.  More are arriving by public transportation, bicycle and on foot.  The bad news — if you have to drive — is finding a place to park.  There are fewer parking lots these days and garage costs are up dramatically. But if you’re lucky there are actually a limited number of on-street visitor spaces in and near downtown where you can park, at least for a short while, for free.

Traffic is just one of the challenges of driving into downtown Boston.  Parking is the other.  And finding an empty spot at the height of the day, forget about it.  So, there’s always a garage. 

I pulled into one close to Government Center and was told by the attendant that it would cost $41 for eighty minutes. Garage owners in downtown Boston make lots of money because parking is at a premium said Vineet Gupta, the director of transportation policy and planning for the city. 

“The amount of parking in downtown Boston is capped by a downtown freeze that was imposed by the EPA back in the seventies. And so there's a constraint on the total number of parking spaces available to the public at-large to the constraint on that supply, and that often results in higher prices for parking.”

And $41 dollars for 80 minutes is not even the most expensive in Boston.  Private garages are unregulated and can charge whatever they want. And here’s another big challenge facing anyone who drives downtown.  There’s new construction everywhere, and with it the loss of parking spaces—like the former lots in the Seaport District.  For a long time I knew exactly where to go to find alternatives to expensive parking in Boston. And so I drove there.


It is hard to know how long it lasted, but for a little while you could park on Merrimack Street in proximity to North Station for free.  There was another area right near Chinatown and the leather District where you could also find free parking, but that too is no longer the case.  I drove to a few other places in downtown Boston in search of this elusive free parking.

For officials like Vineet Gupta, free parking is antithetical to logical planning.  “The notion of free spaces?  In the downtown area all our parking spaces are regulated.”

But those regulations also extend to visitors.  In the North End I went searching for free parking.  Now resident parking, of course, is free for those who live there, and it should be.  But what about those of us visiting the neighborhood?  I was looking for a place to park without using a credit card, cash or coins.

The job of Boston parking officials is to rake in revenue — $15.5 million dollars this fiscal year — to make sure that there is ample public parking, and to guarantee that residents like Robbie Knowles of the North End are not inconvenienced by those of us looking to park in their neighborhood. But Knowles is inconvenienced:

“I live here, I have a resident sticker.  Sometime I have to come home and drive around for over an hour to try and find a parking spot. There are no spots to park in."

But that’s doubly true for visitors like Rachel (she volunteered her first name only) and Jackie Devine who work nearby and were out one day looking for free parking.

“As a non-resident, absolutely,” said Devine. “It is difficult to park,” added Rachel. “There’s just limited spots."

What about visitor spots?

“Where are they? they asked, in near unison.

Just when I’m about to give up looking I found five- free- parking- spots on two streets.  

So there is free parking in the North End: two hour limit, no meters, enough time to grab a bite or a haircut, back in the car, and you save money in the process, if you can find one of these spaces.  Now residents in the North End would not be happy if I told you, so I won’t, but if you’re in the vicinity of Clark Street you may be in luck.

In downtown in general there are many spaces that are free and available after 8 p.m.  However, most are for residents only, such as in the Back Bay.  But think about this: spaces reserved for commercial vehicles are often free for anyone to use after the business closes. 

Here’s another tip. On a South End street close to the Theater district there are five-free visitor spaces available.  But there and anywhere else you also have to be very careful.  Parking enforcement officers are hovering nearby, and their job is to convince you that there is no such thing as a free parking space, and for the time your car is parked there after the two hours have expired a ticket will likely result.