Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How Free Parking Destroyed the World

The school where I teach has had a surge in students in the past few years, and renovations are now being started to the campus. Combined, those 2 facts are causing a parking problem on campus. Students and faculty are charged a small fee for parking each year, whether or not they drive to school, and no matter how often they drive.

Meanwhile, the latest attempt to get a bus pass program for employees of the school recently went bust. The RTD, the regional transit company here in the Denver metro area, has a program called Eco Pass that businesses can enroll in, but we could not get all employees to agree to kick in.

Does anyone see the problem here?

Many economists will tell you that cheap parking causes incentives that make our world dirtier, our traffic worse, and help push up the price of gas. Here in America, we expect to drive everywhere, and are pissed off when we have to pay to park. So, when we build most anything, we include acres of free parking, with the exception of highly congested areas, and events like concerts and sports. My school, just like most other businesses in the area, provides cheap parking because that is what the customers and employees have come to expect.

As a result of so much free parking, we have built a society where we live a long way apart and drive too much. We believe we have the right to drive our own cars, alone, to work, play and shop, and extremely cheaply. Anyone who has traveled abroad knows what a joke public transportation is in this country. Why? Because we have free parking!

How would an economist solve the parking problem at my school, while at the same time making the environment cleaner? Easy. Change the incentives. Charge daily for parking, raising the marginal cost of driving your car to school. Then, use the money to make sure that students and staff all get bus passes at a very reasonable cost. Finally, the people who made this brilliant decision would need ear plugs to avoid all the whining from people who think their God-given right to drive around and pollute the earth at the lowest cost in the developed world. Imagine, being forced to ride public transportation! The indignity!

Think I could run for Congress on the "No Free Parking" ticket?

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