Why Pay for Parking?
Another year is drawing to a close, and in the parking world, as with the rest of the world, it has been a bit crazy. Multiple parking companies have been acquired or merged, and many new companies have been started. Parking trade shows were back in full steam (albeit with fewer people than before COVID.) Most importantly, consumers have returned to parking and, in many situations, in greater numbers than before COVID. This change and growth have led many new people to join the industry. Our question this month comes from one of those newly minted parking professionals.
During my short period in parking, I noticed that no one likes to pay for parking, and some people get downright nasty about it. Do you know why that is the case?
Novice in Nashville
Your question is an age-old one in the parking world, and while I don’t have any research to back up my thoughts on the matter, I have a few general theories that I have found to be true in my experience in parking. Views on this topic will likely vary depending on your area or region. For example, people living in dense urban cores are much more conditioned to pay for parking and be thankful to have a space. But this is different for the majority of the United States. Also, many people follow the rules and posted signs, and for those people, we are grateful. But the ones who feel differently about the topic tend to make their opinions known in numerous and sometimes violent ways.
The first reason is that we (as an industry) tend to make the overall parking process harder than it needs to be. Almost nothing is standardized (rules, signage, technology, policies, etc.), so the experience is different nearly every time. The regulations in many situations are complex for on-street parking and can contradict each other. Off-street parking, in many cases, has complicated pricing structures, which can be hard to understand while driving in and can seemly change while a person is parked. (“Sorry, when you parked, it was an early bird rate, but you left too late, and now it is an event rate, so your price now is way higher than what you thought you saw on the sign this morning.”) We are not the only industry with complicated pricing structures, but the combination of complex rates and the variability of how people use parking can cause surprises.
Another reason for the anger is that in most places, parking is “free.” Yes, we know that no parking is actually free, thanks Donald Shoup, but as far as many people can see, it is free. This circumstance is unique as there are no other similar situations that I have found (a library is the closest) where a product or service is seemly free in one area but costs money (in some cases a lot of money) for what on face value is the same service. For example, a cup of coffee from a convenience store is not free in the suburbs but $30 downtown. But for many people, this is the exact situation for paid parking. They can park for free in most cases where they want to park, so the paid parking experience is unique. Experienced parking professionals would respond that it isn’t the act of parking you are paying for, but the value of the location of that parking, and I would agree with you. But most parkers don’t see it that way.
Overall, “parking” is rarely the end goal for our customers. The parking experience is just another step for people to get where they want to go. In our industry, we often miss this point, overcomplicate the process, and overstate our perceived value to the customer. In my opinion, parking works best when it isn’t noticed. I don’t believe people mind paying for parking; they want the process to be easy and don’t want to be reminded about the price at every step. To compare it to the toll road industry, we need to move away from the “paying the person at every toll booth every 10 miles” model to the electronic toll “E-ZPass” model of paying for all my tolls at the end of the month with no discernible impact on my journey.
Thank you for your question.
If you have a question for a future column or comment about a previous one, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.