Driving home from the Yale event last night (which was packed, and filled with all kinds of interesting traffic types, ranging from Norman Garrick to Anne Lutz Fernandez), as I was listening to various renditions of La Boheme on Doug Fox’s wonderful program (Mr. Fox, I didn’t catch the details on that second act), which I discovered for the first time, a warm presence amidst the eerie fog-tinged, arc-lighted Stygian gloom of I-95, I was thinking back to Donald Shoup’s reply to a question I had posed to him, which itself was related to Brian Pijanowski’s study of parking-lot sprawl in Indiana. Despite a huge and quantifiable overabundance of parking in the county he studied, he was interested to note that people still complained “there wasn’t enough parking.”
I asked Shoup, who of course from the groves of academe has helped ignite a quiet but fomenting revolution in parking policy, to what extent this question of perception in the parking equation had been studied or quantified — keeping in mind that perception is a crucial, if often under-appreciated part of the traffic/planning nexus (e.g., commute times, etc.). One part of Shoup’s answer stuck with me: He talked of studying a parking garage in West Hollywood. On the bottom floors, there were cars, and in the empty spaces, plenty of oil stains to indicate past users. On the upper floors, he noted, it looked as if the spaces had never been graced by a single car. And yet the word from drivers was that there was ‘nowhere to park.’ But the problem, Shoup noted, is that drivers’ perception parking supply is informed by the parking spaces they can actually see. Call it “parking availability bias” (ode to Tversky and Kahneman). And the spaces that are most easily seen, of course, are curb spaces, hence the importance of rational market pricing policies to ensure turnover and vacancy. A few empty spaces (15%) can go a long way.
This perception is a powerful force and leads cities into all kinds of policies that turn out to be misguided and rife with unintended consequences; take the “free holiday parking” approach. Towns hoping to lure shoppers downtown, away from the big boxes, offer up free parking. But beware the power of incentives: Given that many of the best parking spaces in front of local businesses are often occupied (it happens right here in Brooklyn) by the store keepers themselves, the free parking bonanza ends up actually enticing local employees (who would have parked elsewhere or not driven) to grab some free real estate for the day — leaving would-be shoppers with the perception (all-too-real in this case) that there’s ‘nowhere to park.’ Here’s how it went down in Providence.
This is a case where ITS may prove quite useful: Let the algorithms, not fallible human perception, guide the driver to the (properly priced) parking. In the meantime planners and politicians should take parking complaints with a healthy dose of salt.