That Infamous Solution in Search of a Problem

John Van Horn

Online parking lot reservation Ė I have been hearing about this for more than five years. Usually itís from someone who has a personal problem finding a parking space (got to the airport, couldnít find a space, canít find a space when my kid has a concert at school, etc.) and they set out to solve the problem with technology.
They set up a website so people can go online, enter a location, find a parking facility, and then reserve a space for the date and time needed. Sorry, I just donít buy it.
OK, perhaps I live in a parallel universe, but I just donít have a problem parking when I drive to places, and I drive to a lot of places. I get in a car, take out a map (or my mapquest printout), and drive to where I want to go. I then look around for a parking space, find one, park, and go about my business.
In New York City, I pay a lot for the privilege of driving my car and not taking public transportation or taxis. At Costco, I park over by the wall on the west side of the parking lot and walk three minutes to the front door. When I visit popular L.A. venues, I enter the parking structure and drive to the roof. If Iím going out to eat, I usually valet park. When I fly, I use the valet facility at one of the off-airport parking lots. It costs half what the on-airport valet parking costs, and I have never had to wait even a moment to find a space. I just donít understand the problem.
There are a number of websites that find parking for you at airports. I think that may be a reasonable thing. You normally plan to fly weeks in advance, a part of that process can be reserving a parking space. It makes sense for the infrequent flier. But the rest Ė I just donít get it.
I really think it goes back to my first paragraph Ė individuals have a parking problem, so they assume everyone has a parking problem. The fellow who set up a website because he couldnít find a parking space at the airport admitted to me that he was perpetually late for his plane and really didnít have the time to park his car. He wanted to just drive to the closest space to his gate, park and walk to the plane. To that I say, get a life.
As for the other fellow who started an online reservation/parking share system, he complained that whenever he went to an event at his kidís private school, there wasnít enough on-street parking in the neighborhood where the school was located. I recommended that the school rent some parking space nearby (church or business) and that people walk, or they set up a valet system, or they shuttle. Of course, the parents would have to pay a few bucks to cover the cost, but as my friend pointed out, he was very willing to do so if he could simply find a space to park.
So in the second case, the parking problem could be solved by hiring a parking operator to look at the problem and offer a solution. Isnít that what we are all about as an industry?
There have been a plethora of articles in the mainstream media written about the lack of parking in the U.S. They always appear during the Christmas holiday season when malls are stressed and airports are at capacity. There is much wringing of hands and quotes from a mom with three babies who canít find a parking space 20 feet from the store she wants to reach. Or a student who is looking for free or cheap parking in an area that has proper charges for on-street parking. He drives by six spaces that charge $3 an hour to find a space that is free. Oh, and thereís the grandmother going to visit her grandchildren who worries for weeks before her flight that she wonít be able to park at the airport. Of course, when you drill down through the article, you find that she did find a convenient spot, but she was still ďconcerned.Ē
The guy who called me from NBC (I ended up on the cutting room floor again) was from New York and told me that, basically, I was full of baloney with the idea that there is plenty of parking. He said that obviously I hadnít been in New York lately. I said that I had been in New York just a few weeks before. I had driven and had no problem finding a parking space Ė however, it wasnít cheap.
Ah-ha, he said. See, thereís not enough parking. What he really meant that in New York there wasnít enough free or cheap parking. Well, duh. You have five million people living in an area smaller than DFW airport, and you canít figure out that parking may cost a bit. Itís one of the most expensive places to live on earth. Why shouldnít parking be expensive, too?
The others who have started reservation programs are from San Francisco, arguably one of the cities with the most screwed-up parking policy and an extremely high density. In Chicago, Iíve never found a problem with parking, nor in Dallas, DC, Baltimore, L.A., Seattle. Funny Ė I travel all over the country, parking is my business, and I simply drive up to where Iím going and park my car. Sometimes I have to pay; sometimes I donít. Itís simple.
We are spoiled; we donít like to walk. We had a big brouhaha in PT a few years ago when a Brit opined that Americans were lazy and would get in their cars to go across the street for a quart of milk. It raised an uproar. The only problem is that the fellow was right. The parking problem of the folks mentioned above would be solved if they left a bit more time at their destination and were willing to walk no more than five minutes from their car to where they were going.
OK, back off. I know that some places need additional parking, and assuming you let the free market work, it will be provided. But demanding huge garages and acres of parking lots is absurd. Churches know that you donít build the church for Easter Sunday. Parking operators know that you donít build your garage for the day before Christmas.
The solution isnít reservation systems, or giant garages. Itís drivers who understand that if you pay a bunch of money to drive your car, you also must pay a bunch to park it. Once you get over that hurdle, there is no problem.

Article Abstract from February, 2007

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