The Parking Garage Dilemma

I’ve been studying a lot of economics lately and have been intrigued by a field known as “Behavioral Economics.” While I am far from an expert in this field, from my understanding this area of study seeks to explain why individuals make many of the decisions that they do, based on economic theory. This field is rooted in the concept of “rationality” which assumes that individuals weigh costs and benefits when making decisions.

Being a student of economics, and this area in particular, has lead me to try to apply what I’ve learned to some areas of my everyday life. (It is really interesting, as you get into this area of study, to look at and analyze the different decisions that you make on a daily basis. Oftentimes, you will begin to notice that you subconsciously weigh the costs and benefits of decisions without even explicitly thinking about it.)

One such area that I have been wrestling with is the concept of where one should park in a parking garage. I’ve been working in downtown Louisville for the past two years and utilize a parking garage on a weekly basis. Honestly, as I drove into work, I didn’t put too much thought into where to park. I generally would pick the first open spot I could find, so as to limit the amount of time I would spend driving out of the parking garage.

If everybody behaved this way, this topic would be quite uninteresting. After a couple months of parking in this manner, however, I started to notice that cars would drive past me and other open parking spots and head further up the garage in search of other open spots. To be honest, I could not make sense of this decision. Why would somebody pass up perfectly good spots on, say the fourth floor, in order to obtain open spots on the sixth floor? It made no rational sense to me.

Although I didn’t put too much effort into solving this puzzle, it did stick with me and annoy me on occasion. Finally, I obtained some clarity on a day when most of the lower level spots were filled. I drove up to the fifth level and noticed that all of the spots near the elevator were filled. I kept driving past many open spots until I got to the sixth level and also noticed that all of the spots near the elevator were filled. Suddenly, it occurred to me – these people were not trying to minimize the amount of time spent leaving the parking garage, but were trying to minimize the amount of time spent walking to and from the elevator! While I was willing to sacrifice a short walk to the elevator (cost) in exchange for a short drive out of the parking garage (benefit), these other people behaved the opposite way.

(Since writing this initial post in December, I’ve been able to take an “Urban Economics” class, which deals with city structure, transportation, and many other issues, and has given me a few tools to more eloquently explain this situation. Here is a more bit of a more technical explanation of the situation:)

When thinking about the “costs” of travel, economists consider both explicit monetary costs, as well as time costs. These time costs can be further broken down into “access time” costs and “in-vehicle time” costs. Access time cost is merely the disutility that an individual undergoes in order to enter a vehicle (i.e. waiting for a subway, walking to a bus stop, etc.), while in-vehicle cost is the disutility that an individual undergoes during an actual trip (i.e. sitting in traffic, sitting in a crowded bus, etc.).

Generally, to decrease access time, in-vehicle time would have to be increased. For example for a light rail system to decrease access time, the operators would have to add stops to the system. These more frequent stops would, however, increase in-vehicle time for those who were already on the light rail.

Empirical research shows that people actually dislike access time more than in-vehicle time. So, most individuals would rather get on a vehicle quickly, even if the trips itself were to take longer.

This actually lines up consistently with my observations in the parking garage. While I tried to minimize my in-vehicle time by parking in the first spot I saw, these people who kept driving to upper levels were trying to minimize their access time by parking close to the elevators. Apparently, my “ground-breaking” observations can be very easily explained by existing economic theory. Nevertheless, I thought these ideas were worth sharing.

To wrap this up, economics is a fascinating topic and can be used to explain many seemingly confusing aspects of human behavior. I hope this post was interesting and/or beneficial to you.

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If this post piqued your interest or if you believe that this is really too petty of a subject to be discussed, please leave a comment or send me an email. Thanks for reading!

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2 thoughts on “The Parking Garage Dilemma

    • Thanks for the comment! That makes a lot of sense. The parking garage that I use isn’t too tight, so I hadn’t really considered how that would effect behavior, but that definitely makes sense.

      Like

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