Downtown Parking Reform, Without a Witch’s Brew of New Regulations Salem, MA


In recent years, the popularity of downtown Salem, Massachusetts, attracted many visitors and new residents—who could not find convenient parking.

To determine why, the City’s Economic Development Director created a parking committee, made up of concerned stakeholders, and selected a consultant to study the problem. The resulting study looked at every possible facet of parking in downtown Salem, revealing some surprising facts and issues. Employees were taking prime on-street parking spaces before shops even opened. The downtown parking garage was three times more expensive than the on-street meters, which essentially penalized motorists for parking off-street. Employees who sought garage permits were paying the lowest rates in town, but the upfront purchase price was too high for part-time retail employees to bear. Over the years, attempts to control on-street parking demand had resulted in a confusing array of over 30 regulations—one block alone had seven separate regulations, virtually guaranteeing customer confusion. Yet a whopping 1,500 downtown parking spaces remained empty at peak, with parkers avoiding slightly less convenient spaces. The city needed to drive more long-term parkers into these slightly less convenient spaces, without creating a confusing maze of new regulations.

The proposed solution was a radical restructuring and simplification of regulations into four categories for residents, employees, customers, and commuters. Within each, zones of tiered pricing would be set based on demand, making remote spaces cheaper and prime spaces more expensive. The parking committee supported the plan, but feared the public’s reaction, even scheduling two police details for the first public meeting. However, the public understood the simple logic of the plan and, after a year of debate by cautious legislators, the plan was fully approved in early 2012.

Salem began implementing changes recommended by the plan in spring 2012. The city unveiled the program in stages, aiming to make it attractive to the most problematic users first, and a website was developed for the program. New smart meters are now being installed in downtown Salem, with pricing changes going into effect. Thus far, the program has been remarkably successful in meeting the diverse needs of people parking in downtown Salem.