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Plenty of Spaces, but “Nowhere to Park”

"There's nowhere to park." That's what a lot of drivers think, even when there is parking available very nearby — say, on the upper level of a parking garage. This disjunct between perception and reality, which can lead to municipalities overbuilding parking facilities that end up standing empty, is the topic of an intriguing post today from Tom Vanderbilt, on How We Drive.

Vanderbilt recently appeared at a forum with parking guru Donald Shoup and asked Shoup about this problem of perception. Vanderbilt writes:

4092187604_49e98a672f.jpgIf people can't see the parking, they think it doesn't exist. (Photo: Corey Holms via Flickr)
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”…. 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."

The post has already started a lively and informative comment thread. Head over and check it out.

More from around the network: The Transport Politic on financing transportation in an era of political cowardice. Extraordinary Observations on shopping centers designed to be unwalkable. And the new Brookings Institution report on suburban poverty gets attention from The Avenue, Rustwire.com and Ryan Avent's The Bellows.