Monday, 16 August 2010

Why is so much parking free?

A question asked by economist Tyer Cowen in this piece in the New York Times. Cowen writes
[...] 99 percent of all automobile trips in the United States end in a free parking space, rather than a parking space with a market price.
Cowen goes on to say,
Is this a serious economic issue? In fact, it’s a classic tale of how subsidies, use restrictions, and price controls can steer an economy in wrong directions. Car owners may not want to hear this, but we have way too much free parking.

Higher charges for parking spaces would limit our trips by car. That would cut emissions, alleviate congestion and, as a side effect, improve land use.
The basic problem is that there isn't a market in parking so that we don't have prices to guide our parking decisions the way we so with most goods and services. Cowen continues,
If developers were allowed to face directly the high land costs of providing so much parking, the number of spaces would be a result of a careful economic calculation rather than a matter of satisfying a legal requirement. Parking would be scarcer, and more likely to have a price — or a higher one than it does now — and people would be more careful about when and where they drove.

The subsidies are largely invisible to drivers who park their cars — and thus free or cheap parking spaces feel like natural outcomes of the market, or perhaps even an entitlement. Yet the law is allocating this land rather than letting market prices adjudicate whether we need more parking, and whether that parking should be free. We end up overusing land for cars — and overusing cars too.
So once again not using the market lends to inefficient outcomes.

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