Why Should Parking Ever Be Free?

PeterPan

I once asked my former wife, who worked for one of Bangor’s major employers, what would happen if her workplace started charging for parking. People wouldn’t stand for it, she said. There would be an employee uprising. I don’t doubt it.

At the time, we rented an apartment about a mile from her job. The rent included two parking spaces. After I gave up my car we only used one of them, but we paid the same rent we would have if we each parked a car outside the building. In other words, there was no separate charge for the pieces of real estate taken up by her real vehicle and left vacant by my phantom one. At her workplace, she parked in a spot provided by her employer, again at no charge. She paid for the food she ate at the company cafeteria, but not for the parking space she used all day.

Most of us expect our employers to provide free parking at the job site. We don’t expect them to provide free lunch. But why not? Everybody has to eat, just as everybody has to get to the job site. An employee can save money by bringing a sandwich to work instead of buying lunch at the company cafeteria. But the same employee saves no money at all by walking or taking a bus to work and not using a company parking space. There is no incentive to find an alternative to driving.

Some businesses in more congested parts of the country, recognizing that free parking isn’t really free, offer “parking offsets” to their employees. You can either have your parking space in the company lot, or extra money in your paycheck. In essence, this is what the University of Maine does by paying for free Community Connector bus rides for faculty, students and staff. Over the course of a year, I save $50 by not buying a parking permit, plus I get more than $300 in free bus rides. Other companies in greater Bangor could do the same thing, but they have been slow to catch on. Eastern Maine Medical Center, the area’s largest employer, built a four-story parking garage — right along a bus route.

Now, I understand that hospitals run around the clock and require some of their employees to work odd hours. But few people question their perceived right to free parking at their workplace. Yet the cost of workplace parking is borne by all, drivers and non-drivers alike. The same is true at shopping malls — parking is paid for by higher prices at all the stores, charged to all customers, whether or not they drive. Bus riders, pedestrians and bicyclists are subsidizing the drivers

In his 2005 book, The High Cost of Free ParkingUCLA economist Donald Shoup makes exactly this point:

If drivers don’t pay for parking, who does? Everyone does, even if they don’t drive. Initially the developer pays for the required parking, but soon the tenants do, and then their customers, and so on, until the cost of parking has diffused everywhere in the economy. When we shop in a store, eat in a restaurant, or see a movie, we pay for parking indirectly because its cost is included in the prices of merchandise, meals, and theater tickets. We unknowingly support our cars with almost every commercial transaction we make because a small share of the money changing hands pays for parking. Residents pay for parking through higher prices for housing. Businesses pay for parking through higher rents for their premises. Shoppers pay for parking though higher prices for everything they buy. We don’t pay for parking in our role as motorists, but in all our other roles — as consumers, investors, workers, residents and taxpayers — we pay a high price. Even people who don’t own a car have to pay for “free” parking.

Rewarding non-driving employees with parking offsets is more palatable than charging for parking, because the appearance is of a bonus for not driving, rather than a charge for something that people have, over time, come to perceive as their right. Parking lots cost money to construct and maintain. Ideally, they should be paid for by the people who use them. But the mechanism needs to be sugar-coated in such a way that people don’t scream that their rights are being violated.

Workplace parking offsets redirect the cost of parking where it belongs: to the individual car owner. It’s an idea whose time has come — just not yet to Bangor, Maine.

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