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Parking In Provincetown – Free Parking Until The Calendar Passes “Go”

Parking in Provincetown
Written by Brian Tarcy

PROVINCETOWN – For the second year in a row to attract spring visitors, it is free to park in Provincetown’s municipal lots for the month of April.

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Also, Robert O’Malley, owner of Beachfront Realty, recently sold a tandem parking spot in the west end of town for $70,000 – which is $35,000 for each spot. He also sold 10 spots recently in the center of town for $29,000 each.

This is the story of a small seasonal tourist town as told by parking. It’s more interesting than you might think. Seriously. You need to park, right?

This is the story of a small seasonal tourist town as told by parking. It’s more interesting than you might think. Seriously. You need to park, right?

“No one goes some place to park,” said Provincetown Town Manager David Panagore. “You are going to do something else and parking becomes a barrier to entry, or not.”

And here at the tip of Cape Cod, the question of how much of a barrier that parking presents to people is a complicated one with a simple calendar-based answer.


WaveWhy April Is Free

Officially, the season in which the Provincetown municipal lots charge money goes from April 1 to October 31, said Dominic Rosati, town parking administrator. It was a perfectly-framed season: April Fools until Halloween.

But last year, as an experiment, April was free. This year, April is free again.

“This is a huge thing,” said Rosati. “We are going to advertise this as a great partnership with our businesses.”

Last year, there was not much advertising of the free parking, said Panagore. “This year, we’re going to give it a bigger marketing push,” he said.

“The general sense last year was that there was not a great deal of impact,” he said. “But last year the decision came late in the game and there was not a great deal of promotion,” said Panagore.

Parking In Provincetown

A sign on a parking kiosk in Provincetown

The promotion should last for the entire month, he said. “It’s still as free on April 28 as it is on April 5,” said Panagore.

But Candice Collins-Boden, executive director of the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce, said it was successful last year and this year she expects even better results.

“Last year it was experimental and it worked beautifully,” said Collins-Boden. There were more cars than if we did charge.”

“This year, the selectman on their own without me kicking them in the ass, came up with it again,” said Collins-Boden.

While business increased, Panagore said there was a cost. “Last year, the estimate was that we lost $40,000 to $50,000 in that month,” he said.

“If you think of it from a marketing point of view, we’re not having free parking in Provincetown because there’s no value in April. It’s because there is value. We are trying to promote and stretch the season.”

Both Panagore and Collins-Boden talked about drawing people from “up Cape” during April.

Colllins-Bodin said the free parking attracts “people from up Cape who normally wouldn’t come down here on a beautiful April day. It does bring business. Last year in April there were many more cars in the parking lots and many more people in the streets.”

And Panagore said, “We are drawing people from up Cape, hopefully.”

“The exact tipping point is zero. Reducing the price has a marginal impact. So if it was $20 a day and you reduced it to $5, it has an impact but not a real impact… Free is really the one that draws people in.”  – David Panagore, Provincetown Town Manager

Panagore, the former executive director the New Haven Parking Authority in Connecticut, said that free parking does draw visitors.

“We spent two years studying this in New Haven,” said Panagore. “The exact tipping point is zero. Reducing the price has a marginal impact. So if it was $20 a day and you reduced it to $5, it has an impact but not a real impact… Free is really the one that draws people in.”

For the entire off season, from November until May, parking is free. After that, Provincetown has no problem drawing people in.

When the weather warms up, the problem then becomes where to park all the cars.


WaveBuilt Before Automobiles

“The problem is that most of Provincetown was built before automobiles,” said O’Malley. “They built multi-family homes in the 1700s and 1800s for the workers. They were built tightly on every lot.” Parking a car was not part of the plan.

Panagore pointed out that, “Boston was built before there were automobiles. New England was built before there were automobiles. The outer Cape in particular was primarily sea based. People got places by boat.” Not by car.

That is why Provincetown is a “picture perfect New England town,” he said.

It is also why parking, while given away as a promotion in the spring, is actually one of the hottest commodities in Provincetown. It is why O’Malley is selling parking spots for tens of thousands of dollars.

Parking In Provincetown

There is not a lot of street parking in Provincetown

As Rosati said, “We are a small town. A lot of properties that probably were one-family houses have now been turned into two and three condos in the building. We are truly filled.”

Filled, that is, part of the year.

Panagore described Provincetown as “a micro city with real estate values of a high-end city like downtown Boston or San Francisco.”

And yet many of the dwellings do not have enough parking for the occupants. Occasionally, as in the case of a condo development on Alden Street, there is more parking available than the building needs.

“This is the restoration of an old building,” said O’Malley. “The property was a municipal property, originally built as a poor house in 1870. It was later used as a nursing home, and most recently it was used as a town office building. When the town closed one of the schools, it moved the offices into the school building.”

And the renovation created condos, as well as ten extra parking spaces that O’Malley, as agent, sold for $29,000 each. They all sold. “There’s a limited number of them around town,” said O’Malley of parking spots for sale. “We have a waiting list of two people that are disappointed they didn’t get one of these.”

For those who don’t have parking, O’Malley said, “what happens is people already have a strategy for dealing with parking. If you have a condo, the more typical model is that your rent parking somewhere. People rent parking spaces.”

In addition, Panagore spoke of informal parking systems. “Your informal systems are actually part of your parking system,” he said. “Some of them can have negative effects. People know places in town where you can park for a month and no one will notice.”

Robert O'Malley

Robert O’Malley of Beachfront Realty. PHOTO COURTESY OF ROBERT O’MALLEY

O’Malley said there are several paid lots that have space that can be rented. Some are owned by the town and some are owned privately. “There are probably 10 or so private parking lots.”

According to Rosati, there are 1,200 paid parking spots in the town, including the two main lots in town, as well as public spaces with kiosks and meters in the street.

The town sells resident stickers for $55 and non-resident stickers for $275. Parking in the paid lots varies depending on location. One lot charges $3.50 an hour with a $35 maximum, while another, a little further from the center of town, charges $2.25 per hour with a $25 maximum, said Rosati.

There are people with resident stickers who use the municipal lot as their primary parking. Panagore said, “At any given time, I am told that at the MacMillan Wharf parking lot, 40 percent of the cars in there have residential stickers.”

And, as Rosati pointed out, “It’s $35 to park at the lot at MacMillan Wharf. And a parking violation in the street costs $35. People in town know that.”


Wave“The Lifeblood Of The Town” 

While free parking is an inducement in April to get people to come to town and spend money in the shops and restaurants, parking revenue is actually crucial to the town.

“The tax rate in town would be much higher without our parking revenue,” said Collins-Boden. “It’s the lifeblood of the town.”

Rosati said that parking brings in approximately $2.1 million to the town. This includes pay parking in the streets and the various parking permits, including resident and non-resident permits.

The revenue is important, said Panagore, but it is also important for the system to operate efficiently.

“The tax rate in town would be much higher without our parking revenue. It’s the lifeblood of the town.”  – Candice Collins-Boden, executive director of the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce

“It drives the customer experience,” Panagore said of parking. “If you arrive someplace and the parking experience is negative, you carry that with you the whole day.” And if it is positive, it is the same thing, said Panagore.

Parking, he noted, is the first and last thing someone experiences when they visit somewhere.

Parking In Provincetown

The Pay & Display parking lot at town hall, with a kiosk

“We’re looking at our entire parking system,” said Panagore. “We’re looking to adopt improved ways and better technology to pay for parking remotely.” Panagore said information sharing will help direct people to open lots. This includes “better signage on the highway,” he said.

Panagore said that the technology in the parking kiosk system is being updated during April. The kiosk system, also known as “Pay & Display” has been in use for a half dozen years and needs a technology update, he said.

The efficiency of the system makes it worth the investment, he said. “The cost of the upgrade will come out of parking revenues, not general taxation,” said Panagore. The cost is estimated to be $85,000 with a 10 percent contingency, he said. “We’re going out for quotes on that right now.”

Parking In Provincetown

The Pay & Display kiosk at town hall.

Installing the update is as simple as “take one box out and put a new box in.”

“When we installed the Pay & Display, we saw an increase in revenues,” said Panagore. The reason, he said, is “because people are paying for their time. Whenever they leave, the clock starts at zero,” he said. In other words, no inheriting of coins, and thus time, from the previous occupant of the spot.

“We’re attempting to make it more user friendly and more effective,” said Panagore. “We want to maximize the number of people on any given day.”


WaveSummer, July 4 & Carnival

“The town has a finite capacity,” said O’Malley. “But it’s actually not as bad as it used to be. If you think about it, we have the ferries now that bring thousands of people here every day. That’s lots of cars that aren’t here clogging the roads.”

Collins-Boden agreed that since increased ferry service started to Provincetown, “there is much less traffic.”

The ferry service is only one of the reasons demand for parking in the height of summer “is actually down,” said O’Malley.

“When I was first here, 30 years ago, all the American kids were here for the summer. They were our workers. They’d drive in with their shitboxes,” said O’Malley. “Now the kids come from Europe. They fly in and then the take the ferry.” In other words, they don’t have cars.

While O’Malley and Collins-Boden said there is less demand on the roads than in the past, there are certain times when Provincetown draws cars like a magnet.

“When I was first here, 30 years ago, all the American kids were here for the summer. They were our workers. They’d drive in with their shitboxes. Now the kids come from Europe. They fly in and then the take the ferry.” – Robert O’Malley, owner of Beachfront Realty

“From Memorial weekend to October, on weekends we are jamming,” said Collins-Boden. “And we have so many theme weekends that people actually call and say, ‘When don’t you have something going on, guys.’ They want a quiet vacation. Some people are themed out.”

Carnival 11

The Town fills up during Carnival

All the activity starts, said Collins-Boden, in mid-April when the whale watch boats start going out again.

And as the weather gets warmer and then schools empty out, momentum builds, theme weekends start and more cars begin driving into town looking for a place to park.

Carnival and Fourth of July are the two biggest days,” said Panagore. Provincetown is, in some ways, an exaggerated version of all Cape towns in that the off-season is extremely slow while, as Panagore said, “All of our systems need to be designed for the peak event.”

“We need to be designed to scale up and handle that peak,” said Panagore. “Carnival is kind of an entire week of extended activity. And it scales up by at least a factor of ten of a normal summer day, and that includes infrastructure costs.”

“All of our systems need to be designed for the peak event.”  – David Panagore, Provincetown Town Manager

How to build to allocate costs is “constantly at the forefront of the selectmen’s minds,” said Panagore. The question, he said, is, “How much do property taxpayers pay to support the peak event, and how much do tourists pay?”

But of course infrastructure also includes having enough parking for people to attend peak events in town.

“We only have so many spots,” said Rosati.

“Particularly for peak events, people find places and ways to park,” said Panagore. “People are entrepreneurial and they find their own solutions.”

For instance, Cape Cod Wave has paid to park on someone’s private lawn for the Carnival parade. There were many entrepreneurial land owners renting parking spots that day. Told this, Rosati said, “They should be going through proper channels. You just can’t open up your yard and say, ‘Come in and park.’ “

But Collins-Boden said that during Carnival people “park on route 6 and they (the police) turn their head the other way.”


WaveRainy Day Parking

The town fills up for Carnival and for July 4, and also on rainy days.

Yes, that’s right.

Before the ferry lessened traffic, Collins-Boden said, “Our biggest problem in the past was rainy days. That was our nightmare. There would be a line of traffic from the bridges to Provincetown. There were so many cars, they couldn’t find parking.”

Parking In Provincetown

The Grace Hall parking lot at Prince Street

“Clear days disperses the traffic to the National Seashore,” she said.

Rosati agreed. “On a rainy day on Cape Cod, it becomes overwhelming down here. The entire town chokes on a rainy day.”

Collins-Boden, who has been with the Chamber of Commerce for 42 years, has a solution. “On rainy days, shuttle them into town from the National Seashore parking lots.” she said.

The idea is the seashore would still collect parking fees “so it would help the seashore,” she said.

“It’s going to happen,” Collins-Boden. “One of these days someone is going to come up with this old idea of mine and put it all into use.”

Until then, Pangore provided this general statistic, not even specific to Provincetown, to ponder: “Twenty percent of average traffic is caused by people driving around trying to find parking.”

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About the author

Brian Tarcy

Brian Tarcy is co-founder of Cape Cod Wave. He is a longtime journalist who has written for the Boston Globe, Boston magazine, the Cape Cod Times and several other publications. He is the author of "YOU CAN'T SELL RIGHT FIELD; A Cape Cod Novel." He is also the author or co-author of more than a dozen mostly non-fiction books, including books with celebrity athletes Cam Neely, Tom Glavine and Joe Theisman. His previous book was, "ALMOST: 12 Electric Months Chasing A Silicon Valley Dream" with Hap Klopp,who created the iconic brand, The North Face.
For more information, see Briantarcy.com
Brian is a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan with a long-running NFL predictions/political satire column connecting weekly world events to the fate of his favorite team, now at Whatsgonnahappen.com.

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