Parking Karma

Denny's and the weird economics of car storage.
This post is 10 in the series: Parking? Lots!

“My sister has great food karma. She finds great food, and she never pays.” If you heard someone say that, you’d just scratch your head. What could that mean? Does she dumpster dive?

If you substitute the “parking” for “food,” though, it makes sense. Indeed, a friend said those exact words to me recently, so I started asking others about their parking karma. Everyone I asked knew exactly what I was talking about: no confused expressions or blank stares.

Greg W. said, “I have always had spectacularly good parking karma….It’s a Zen thing: I am water flowing downhill into the perfect parking place.”

“Just ride with me and you’ll always get a parking spot right in front!” said Cynthia S.

What’s not surprising is that people claim good parking karma. An overwhelming majority of people sincerely believe that they’re luckier than average, as economists Robert Frank and Philip Cook reported in their 1996 book Winner-Take-All Society, so a pervasive belief in good parking fortune fits.

What’s more surprising, or perhaps more revealing, is that we apply the notion of karma to parking at all, and with only a hint of irony. The naturalness of this expression, “parking karma,” suggests that parking is one of those spheres of life where we regard ourselves as at the mercy of cosmic forces or blind chance.

And this fact is an indication of what a strange commodity parking is. It is among the strangest in the economic universe. It’s god-awful expensive, but the “market” for it is triply weird. It is a domain of hidden prices, huge spillover costs, and bizarre cross currents.

Weirdness 1. Parking’s Price: High but Hidden.

The cost of car storage, I’ve explained, is exorbitant. Mark Delucchi, a researcher at University of California, Davis, estimates the total, annualized cost of parking in the United States in the hundreds of billions of dollars. If Delucchi is right, perhaps every fortieth dollar of US economic output pays to store vehicles (see pages 206-209).

But because parking is also among the most subsidized sectors of the economy, parkers almost never foot the bill for their own parking at the time they use it. Instead, someone else pays. For example, some 95 percent of Americans who drive to work end their commute at a free space (see page 209). If the parker does pay, she does it in roundabout ways, often without knowing where her funds are bound. Less than 4 percent of the financial cost of parking is paid by drivers at pay-to-park spaces (see pages 206ff). The other 96 percent of the cost is bundled into higher rents and home prices, lower paychecks and profits, higher prices in stores, and myriad other charges. The rest of the economy picks up the tab for free parking, and that’s an enormous inducement to drive. If you got a 96 percent discount at Denny’s, you’d go there a lot. That’s what free parking is like. The total value of this handout, according to UCLA planning professor Donald Shoup, is probably greater than what Americans spend to operate their cars.

That is, if drivers paid for their parking as they used it, the total expenses of operating a vehicle would roughly double. (Other expenses, meanwhile, would go down.) Imagine if the cost of fuel, oil changes, regular maintenance, and new tires doubled. People would leave their cars home more. Having to pay for parking is among the most-cited reasons survey respondents give for riding transit. People would also own fewer cars. Even a charge of $50 a month for parking at an apartment building tends to reduce vehicle ownership among tenants by 8 to 15 percent, according to Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

Parking quotas and the free parking that results are like an all-you-can-eat meal plan at Denny’s that’s partially rolled into your rent and partially underwritten by your boss, favorite clothing store, and town council. It’s also an all-you-can-eat Denny’s that you are required to help pay for so all your friends and neighbors and everyone else who lives nearby can gorge themselves on Belgian Waffle Slams® and Moons Over My Hammy®. It’s nice to have the free grub, but it’s an absurdly wasteful way to feed everyone. It’s hell on other restaurants too, and it’s not helping anyone’s waistline.

Weirdness 2. Parking’s Costs Spill Onto Health, Environment.

Many of the costs of parking are what economists call “external.” That is, they don’t get paid in dollars and cents by the provider of the parking. Instead, they get paid in polluted air, congested traffic, ugly buildings, “doored” cyclists, and other transgressions against our communities and planet. They are unintended consequences—spillover effects—and they add up quickly.

  • Driving. Parking quotas flood the parking market, pushing the price of parking to zero. This makes driving cheaper for drivers, so they do more of it. One of the most comprehensive environmental impact studies on a parking garage ever completed (see page 195ff) conservatively estimated that each month, each new parking space at the University of California, Los Angeles would generate 83 additional driving trips of almost nine miles each. That’s 727 miles a month of extra driving for every new space built.
  • Congestion and pollution. Extra driving yields extra congestion and more carbon pollution, worse local air quality, and more traffic noise. For the UCLA garage, the estimated total additional health cost and negative economic impacts from congestion and air pollution—to the extent the analysts could put them in dollar values—totaled $117 per space per month. Each space initially rented for $54 a month, but it caused harm to the world worth more than two times as much.
  • Sprawl. Parking quotas put a tight lid on development, reducing the number of apartments, offices, and shops on each acre in the city. Inevitably, development spreads outward, bringing the usual handmaidens of sprawl with it—extra driving and carbon emissions, worsened congestion, and lost rural lands.
  • Water pollution. Land paved for parking contributes mightily to polluted stormwater runoff. Parking quotas are the opposite of green infrastructure.
  • Collisions. Parking doesn’t cause a lot of life-threatening smash ups, but it causes more than its share of fender benders. In a study of 32 cities, some 18 percent of collisions involved parking (see page 361).

The financial cost of parking may be around one fortieth of the economic output in the United States, but the full cost is far larger. If Weirdness 1 made parking quotas a subsidized all-you-can-eat Denny’s, Weirdness 2 makes it a coal-fired one that pumps black soot into your nearby apartment, ladles trans fats into its Value Menu® pancake batter, and dumps lard into the town reservoir.

Weirdness 3. Public-Private Cross Currents

The ubiquitous interlacing of public curb parking with private off-street parking sets up bizarre standing waves of group behavior, such as when lines of drivers circle the block, looking for free curb spaces while nearby paid spots stand idle. UCLA’s Shoup has made a careful study of cruising for parking (see pages 352-3). It turns out to be more than a peripheral curiosity.

Shoup studied a 15-block area called Westwood Village (shown in the map), a commercial district near UCLA. (In Cascadia, similar areas include the University District in Seattle and the neighborhoods near Portland State University and Boise State University.) Westwood Village has 470 curb spaces plus 3,400 off-street stalls. Shoup and his students rode bicycles to trail people driving in Westwood. They found that an astounding 68 percent of traffic in the village was cruising for street parking. These cruisers form a “mobile queue of cars that are waiting for curb vacancies, but drivers cannot see how many cars are in the queue.” They ignore the vastly more numerous off-street spaces for the few inexpensive or free spaces on the street. No doubt believing in their own parking karma, they keep circling, looking for someone pulling out. The average street parker drives half a mile through the village looking for a stall. In a year, this cruising—just in the 15 blocks of Westwood Village—amounted to nearly 1 million miles of driving. It consumed 100,000 hours of drivers’ lives, burned about 47,000 gallons of gasoline, and released more than 700 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Westwood Village is just one well-documented case, in a tiny patch of L.A., of a common phenomenon. Shoup and coauthor Gregory Pierce write in the Journal of the American Planning Association, “Ten studies conducted in eight cities between 1927 and 2011 found that an average of 34 percent of cars in congested downtown traffic were cruising for parking.” What’s more, the one-third of cars that are hunting for cheap curb parking are a particularly obnoxious form of traffic, because they move slowly and unpredictably, hogging the outside lane that buses and cyclists rely on, sometimes coming to a complete stop or suddenly lunging ahead at the tell-tale sign of a pedestrian reaching for a car door.

The reason for all this cruising is that city politics keeps curb spaces much cheaper than private, off-street parking. The price differential motivates many people to cruise. For some, it’s a point of personal principle; to pay for parking, they feel, is to be a sucker. In the subsidized, all-you-can-eat Denny’s, to extend the metaphor, the line can be long, but many people refuse to go elsewhere and pay. For some, it’d be a matter of pride: “Day or night, I never pay to eat breakfast food!”

Curb-parking rules set up other waves of group behavior, too: cars arriving in a neighborhood just before the daily end of time limits or metering; pairs of employees who use their coffee breaks to swap curb places and skirt parking time limits; residents with neighborhood parking permits near arenas who move their cars onto the street and rent their driveways to visitors on game day. For every form of curb-parking regulation, in fact, someone has a gaming strategy at the ready. The widespread abuse of disabled parking placards shows to what lows people will go in pursuit of free parking.

Breakfast Food Karma

These standing waves of weird behavior at the boundary between public and private parking (Weirdness 3) augment the already colossal bizarreness of parking economics in general (Weirdnesses 1 and 2). One reason people get irate about having to pay for off-street parking, for example, is that they’re accustomed to it being free. Because quotas in land-use codes glut the parking market, we think of free parking as normal. Consequently, most of us have little idea how expensive parking really is. We are shocked when asked to pay the full cost. In Seattle, many people complain about paying $4 an hour at meters in downtown, but typical downtown parking places are worth about $40,000 each. (Each space is about 160 square feet. Downtown private real estate is commonly appraised by the King County assessor at $250 per square foot. 160 x $250 = $40,000.) An hourly rental rate of $4 is a steal for an asset worth that much. Zipcar customers, for example, happily pay $12 an hour to rent Audi A3s, which sell for under $30,000 new. For a new, $40,000 428i BMW, you’d probably expect to pay $16 or $18 an hour, not $4.

Worse, many people regard pay parking as not just an aberration but an imposition. A friend and I were walking among the new condo buildings in Ballard, my Seattle neighborhood, and she mentioned in an off-hand way, “I have no problem with all the new buildings, but if they want me to keep coming here, they have to replace the parking.” By “they,” I learned, she meant the city, and by “replace the parking,” she meant build a free garage to substitute for the now-scarce on-street spaces. Her reaction was that the city should spend millions of dollars to meet her habituated expectation of free parking. This sense of entitlement is common, trained into us by a lifetime of experience with ubiquitous free slots. The natural state of parking, we seem to believe, is to be free.

On the other hand, we fully expect to have to search for parking. We consider it a fact of modern life, and our minds respond to the scavenger-hunt parking market with superstition and faux-spiritual reasoning. “Hail, Mary, full of grace,” say some Catholics. “Help me find a parking place.” And others, more Eastern in orientation, prefer to speak of parking karma.

But the root of parking spirituality is in neither the spiritual world nor in the parking. It’s in the weird economics of the commodity: storing vehicles is expensive, both in dollars and in nonmonetary impacts, but parking quotas push the price to zero most places. Consequently, we expect free parking and resent pay parking. Wherever it’s part free and part paid, we swarm like flies around the free spots, shunning the rest.

Reforming parking—off-street parking deregulated, on-street parking managed and priced—will make parking much less interesting, in a way. Parking will become a normal commodity, governed by the law of supply and demand, not local land-use laws plus the inscrutable hand of fate. In that future, people won’t talk about “parking karma” any more than they talk today about “food karma” or “oil change karma” or “Lumberjack Slam® karma.”

In my next article, I’ll begin to describe how some enterprises are moving toward that future.

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  1. Clark Williams-Derry says:

    I wonder what the Buddha would have thought about Lumberjack Slam® karma.

  2. Marc Schlossberg says:

    Great article! Should be required reading for every city manager, traffic engineer, land use planner, and economic development director, not to mention doctor and free marketeer, and every student studying anything related to any of these professions.

    • Buster G says:

      How about adding every car driver to the list of those who should be made to read the article?

      • Daniel Keough says:

        and perhaps every developer who fails to challenge this, even when they have reduced or no parking requirements. The tenants want an option for car-free living(and not pay to subsidize their neighbors’ habits)!

  3. Matt says:

    Thank you for this series – it’s chock full of useful sources, examples, and great explanations. Your work is helping to change the PNW for the better. Thank you.

  4. Matt the Engineer says:

    Seattleites complained about our policy of pricing parking such that there’s an empty spot or two each block, but I love it. My wife has caught me complaining about driving to certain neighborhoods, afraid of having to circle endlessly for parking, and reminded me of the empty spot policy. Sure enough, there’s usually an empty spot within a few blocks of anywhere I drive (that has paid parking).

    The one exception is downtown – I have a feeling parking is much more valuable there than the city thinks it is, as I still almost never find a spot at $4 an hour.

    • Lauren says:

      I believe the rules adopted by the City Council only allow parking rates to go up to $4 max, the rate in most of downtown.

  5. RDPence says:

    Yes, I’m sure most or all of what you say is true, but where does that get us? Automobiles are baked into our society and our lifestyles, at all levels, and they aren’t going to go away soon. Tesla is rapidly proving that the future is electric cars, not no cars.

    Yes, it would’ve been nice if industries and cities and markets had all accepted your wisdom 100 years ago, I’m sure life would be very different and probably better. But that didn’t happen.

    Parking rants have become a Sightline obsession, and to me they’re getting a little tiresome.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      What to do? Alan’s series is building towards that. There are actually some smart and well-tested ways to shift parking policy so that the next 100 years don’t resemble the last 100.

      Sorry you don’t like the parking series. Alan’s research on the topic should be tied up within a few months. In the meantime, feel free to skip those posts!

    • Kimberly Kinchen says:

      Demographics are showing that the future is a lot less driving, and fewer cars. Electric cars mostly shift the cost — especially environmental costs — to others. Imagine spending some of what the public pays for free parking on transit, and more of it away from the urban core, so that transit was a viable transportation option.

      This post strikes me as a thoughtful analysis of the misallocation of public and private resources, and an important small step of many toward offering solutions. If that’s a rant, keep ’em coming, Sightline.

    • drs says:

      I’m reminded of someone complaining about tiresome abolitionist rants back in the day when slavery was “baked in” to society. “Yes it’s bad but what can we do? Can’t we talk about something else?”

      “Tesla is rapidly proving that the future is electric cars, not no cars.”

      How many people do you see affording $70,000 cars, not counting the expensive battery replacements?

      As for what to do, saner parking policies + much better transit. This isn’t rocket science.

    • Scott Walker says:

      I, on the other hand, am pleased in the extreme that someone with knowledge, ink, respect, and readership has taken on the issue of what I consider the single most damaging aspect of our culture. The difficulty in selling the issue, though immense, is due to almost all that damage being indirectly caused by free parking which subsidizes every driving trip: polluted stormwater killing the Sound, GHG emissions, acid rain, sprawl, loss of native habitat, public health and obesity, loss of community, wars for oil, public support of the asphalt industry, lack of walkability and bikability, urban heat islands, and more. They all get solved when we stop subsidizing driving with free parking. Yay Alan and Sightline!!!

  6. Nic Jay says:

    Good article, but where are the solutions or best practices or how to reverse this trend? I agree as a former Shoup student with the vast majority of his ideas, but shouldn’t we focus on promoting the alternatives that are working than just writing about how wrong things are. Perhaps even calling out planners and city managers that are still promoting and building parking infrastructures that we know don’t work for us.

    • Alan Durning says:

      Patience, Nic Jay. Diagnosis before prescription. The next four or five articles will focus on solutions.

  7. CelloMom says:

    Thank you for an outstanding article. I look forward to your follow-up pieces.
    My hometown, rather a pioneer in traffic calming, has been steadily decreasing the number of on-street public parking over several decades. Right now, the only parking is for the handicapped, and for residents who are willing and able to parallel-park along a canal (no safety rails). Public transport use has gone up. So have sales of the stores “served” by the deleted parking spaces.

  8. dr2chase says:

    Not sure I agree with your comparison of parking-space rent and car rent; the “space” for the parking space will not wear out, though the pavement, curb, and meter may require maintenance. Cars wear out, and cars also need to be insured.

    This doesn’t say anything about the appropriateness of $4/hour parking, but the $16-
    $18/hour derived from comparison with an equal-priced car might be too high.

    • Scott Walker says:

      Yes. A better comparison may be the cost per hour of 150 square feet of adjacent commercial space.

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