All You Can Eat Parking Isn’t a Great Deal

Imagine every time you go out to eat, dessert is included free of charge. How often would you turn it away? Rarely, right? Of course, because everyone appreciates a good deal.

Let’s think about this though. If your restaurant is giving you free dessert, you know they are making up for that cost somewhere else. Common sense tells you that everything else you ordered must have been priced a little higher to cover the freebie. This means your meal options were a little more expensive, whether you really wanted dessert or not. Your choice has been taken away by the clever marketing ploy of free dessert. Doesn’t seem like such a good deal anymore.

This is what happens with parking, every day all throughout America. Every mall that provides free parking, every downtown with free curb parking, and every garage with free first-hour parking has to recoup the cost of constructing, maintaining, and overseeing for the entire life of those spaces. This is invariably done by increasing the cost of things that people are used to paying for — goods, services, entertainment, taxes, etc. Whether you use the parking or not, whether you use it once a week or every day, whether you use it for an hour or all night — even if you arrive by unicycle — everybody pays tribute to free parking.

This deal is obviously the pits for non-drivers. Transit riders who have to pay every time they board a bus cough up the same price for a ticket at the movies as drivers with free parking. Cyclists help pay for car parking but rarely find reasonable accommodations in the road or at the end of their trip. As do pedestrians, whose choice to travel by the most sustainable means available is often repaid by incomplete sidewalk networks and dare-based street crossing infrastructure. Even in places where 99% of travelers drive themselves, this is a bad deal for a lot of people, and often a raw deal for the people who can least afford it.

Drivers, by contrast, seem to be getting a great deal. Imagine, perfect strangers pitching in to reduce your personal travel costs! However, by artificially depressing the cost of our most sedentary transport option, these communal parking subsidies have been nudging us away from all travel modes that incorporate at least some bit of exercise. Given the current set of subsidies, there’s no reason for most people not to drive everywhere they go, just like there’s no reason not to order that free dessert.

There is another option. By removing the “dessert” subsidies we have gotten so used to — but retaining the option of dessert — these communal transportation subsidies can be distributed more fairly, and even tilted in favor of things worth subsidizing — safer streets for our kids and grandparents, better transit options to expand economic opportunity (and the opportunity to Facebook all the way to work), better bike accommodations to nudge the young and the fit off of congested roadways and onto cycle tracks . In other words, instead a menu where only the desserts are free, we can try to make the carrots and apples a little cheaper.

This will be more equitable for everybody and ensure that if we subsidize something it’s something that is worth subsidizing. And even if the price of cake goes up, the cost of the filet will go down. And that’s a better deal for everyone.

David FieldsDavid Fields, AICP, is a multimodal transportation planner and Principal at Nelson\Nygaard. David believes transportation choice is a means to helping communities achieve greatness.
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5 Responses to All You Can Eat Parking Isn’t a Great Deal

  1. Lynn Laws says:

    Great article–thank you! … An environmental firm in Minneapolis (Fresh Energy) provides public transit subsidies for its employees and a place to store bicycles, and does NOT provide vehicle parking or parking subsidies. What a great way to encourage wise transportation choices!

  2. Michael Baldus says:

    Great article – the restaurant analogy is creative, and very applicable. We would be wise to begin thinking of driving 3000 lb. automobiles (usually single occupant) as “dessert” rather than a staple – it’s simply not sustainable into even the near future.

    We need awareness raising articles like this to begin to break the mental molds we have created. How many people have even ever considered whether “free” parking is really free?

  3. Rachel Garrett says:

    If you have evidence to show that free first-hour parking in garages raises the price of movie tickets, please share it. In the restaurant analogy, the restaurant raises the prices of other items at the restaurant — not items outside its control. Similarly, a garage owner may raise their overall rates to make up for some free parking, but there is no reason to think this affects the overall price level.

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