Why should the most convenient parking spaces also be free?
People are used to paying a little more for convenience. We generally pay more for food prepared in a restaurant, for pre-packaged convenience foods, and even pre-made mixes than for consumer staples. We pay more for tickets through a ticket broker to save us the trouble of going to the box office. We even pay more for groceries, hardware, or other goods if we buy them at a small shop close to home as opposed to driving to a much larger store further away.
Arlington recently proposed changes to its parking policies, including allowing charging for metered parking after 6 pm on weekdays and extending hours to weekends. This would be similar to charging for convenience. Right now you're getting convenient spaces for free, but so is everyone else, so they're usually gone before you find one.
Recently, I went out to eat at a restaurant on Fairfax Drive in the Virginia Square area. I tried to find a parking space, but since it was after 6pm, spaces on the main street were completely full. I wasn't familiar with this restaurant's off-street parking situation (free parking after 6 pm in a rear surface lot), but I drove around the block until I found that street parking was half empty. This is only one block away but the difference in occupancy was significant. The free parking lot for the restaurant was nearly empty (see map).
View Virginia Square Parking Map in a larger map.
The problem with this situation is that some people prefer cheap parking even if it's less convenient, and some people are willing to pay more for convenient parking. San Francisco recently had a study (PDF) where pedestrians who drove to an area were asked whether they would pay extra for more available parking. It's not surprising that most said they would.
By making all metered parking free after 6 pm and on weekends, even where spaces are crowded, everyone competes for the same parking spaces. No one has an incentive to look in the back until they've looked to see if there's a convenient space in the front. If Arlington were to charge for just the spaces on the main street, some people would park and pay, and some people would find the free spaces on side streets or one block away. Some people would even use the free parking lot that the restaurant was likely required to provide.
This is pretty common in downtown areas. Where parking is free, the most convenient spaces fill up quickly, giving the impression that it's hard to find a space. When you really look at all the available spaces, including local parking garages and side streets, there's more available parking than at first glance. For the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, Arlington has a good map of the off-street parking garages available to visitors.
Since Arlington's proposed policy will only allow parking charges where there is demonstrated demand for parking, it's hard to say that it will scare away customers. More likely they'll just find the other spaces that aren't obvious at first glance. If customers are really being scared away, demand will fall, and prices will fall to compensate.
The problem with all meters being free after 6 pm is that the convenient spaces are also free spaces. By charging for the more convenient spaces, some demand can be shifted to nearby spaces and off-street lots, and people will be able to choose lower prices or more convenience, just like they do already for most other consumer transactions.
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