“Turn Off the Lights,” Or, How We Waste Resources

When you were a kid, your parents may have told you to turn off the lights when leaving a room. They were probably trying to save money on their electric bill, though turning off the lights also obviously benefits the environment. This is an easy principle to understand and one that we’re all probably familiar with.

However, it’s also a principle that can be used to understand the way entire cities waste resources, particularly land and parking.

Consider: when a parking lot is filled with cars, it’s a useful investment. Just as you couldn’t read without light, you can’t use car-oriented destinations without parking. In both cases, the underlying resources — electricity or land — are worth expending when needed.

A mostly filled parking lot at the Provo Library. If every parking lot remained constantly in use, they’d all be great investments.

But unfortunately, we can’t just “turn off” parking as we pull out of a space; to use the lighting-electricity analogy, it’s always on. That means that whenever parking spots sit empty they’re wasting land as well as their builder’s investment.

Empty parking spots at the Riverwoods shopping complex. Each one of these spots is like a really expensive light that has been left on, burning up energy and money, when no one is using it.

This analogy isn’t without its limitations, but the point is that parking, just like lighting, costs money. It cost money to install — often tens of thousands of dollars per parking space in multilevel garages — and eats up land that could otherwise generate revenue. And of course, there are collateral costs as well, such as the heat island effect.

Even worse, many developments — such as malls or grocery stores — install enough parking to handle peak usage. That means JCPenny has to have enough parking for all the shoppers on Black Friday, even though Black Friday comes but once a year. And of course, the rest of the year much of that parking sits empty.

A mall parking lot in the middle of a typical weekday.

In fact, most parking lots sit empty most of the time. Even a thriving commercial center is usually open fewer than 12 hours a day, and often closes at least one or two days a week. That means most parking sits unused more than 50 percent of the time.

This would be like installing high powered, energy-hungry light bulbs throughout your entire house, then leaving them on all the time just to ensure that there is light when you happen to want to read. It really makes no sense.

This idea was further tackled by Emily Washington in a recent post from Market Urbanism that summarizes parts of Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking:

He explains the factors that lead cities to systematically provide more than the optimal amount of parking by relying on the level demanded on the busiest day of the year, meaning that parking in many retail lots is oversupplied 364 days of the year.

That post goes on to explain the problems with the way planners determine parking needs. It also points out that parking is a good, like any other, but one that cities feel the need to offer for free. It’s like a city “that requires bars to provide their customers with as much beer as they’d like at a zero monetary cost.” Again, it makes no sense and wouldn’t be tolerated with any other good.

The point here is that we all pay for parking, just like we pay for electricity or anything else. The difference, especially in cities like Provo, is that we rarely pay for parking up front. Instead, it’s rolled into other costs:

Shoup points out that of course we pay for the cost of all this parking, only drivers do not pay this price in their role as drivers. We pay for it as a tax on housing, retail goods, and in the form of lower wages as workers. Those who pay the highest tax are of course non-drivers. Some drivers are subsidized under this system with the highest subsidy going to drivers who make frequent, short car trips.


He cites an example of a Los Angeles example where the required parking adds $104,000 to the cost of each apartment(!). Of course this added expense goes into the cost for all building residents, whether or not they drive or have only one car.

Returning again to the analogy, this would be like buying a house and paying all future electricity costs up front. In this case, the size of the payment would be determined by assuming that you’d have all the lights and appliances on all the time.

No one would pay for electricity that way, but that’s exactly how we pay for parking. This can be a hard fact to remember when we’re searching for a spot on Black Friday, but as we better understand the economics behind parking we’ll better understand how to save more money and become more prosperous.

This scrappy little parking lot is shared by nearby offices and a church, making it one of the best-used lots in Provo. But it still spends a considerable amount of time empty.



Filed under driving, economics, environment, parking

5 responses to ““Turn Off the Lights,” Or, How We Waste Resources

  1. Pingback: Parking: Insane and Insanely Expensive | (pro(vo)cation)

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