Thursday, December 8, 2011

The High Cost of Free Walking

“If you seek a plenty of parking, look about you.” 

While Michigan is home to 14,037,931 off-street parking spaces, well more than 5,000 of these are within a half-mile of Comerica Park.  And while off-street parking accounts for 6.57% of urban land uses nationally, the area surrounding Comerica Park devotes 21.66% of its parcel area to public off-street surface parking lots.  These lots aren’t without societal costs, however.  Numerous studies document the damaging impact of large surface parking lots on pollution levels, economic growth, the tax base, public health, and urban vitality.  Despite these impacts, however, the number of parking spaces in downtown Detroit has grown considerably over the last 20 years.  Three groups have contributed to this state of affairs: parking lot owners, local government officials, and those of us who park downtown.  In this first of a three-part series, I wanted to look in the mirror – as a downtown parker – and turn attention to those who use surface parking lots.

Using the final regular season Tigers game as my laboratory, I inventoried the cost of all the parking facilities in the hour before the game on September 28. That day offered a unique opportunity in that there were no other major events downtown, so the vast majority of those seeking parking were heading to a singular destination.  Using 2010 SEMCOG othroimagery and parking data, I was able to identify all of the parking facilities within a half-mile of the stadium, a rough estimation for a 10-minute walk.  The results of that survey paint interesting pictures about those who use downtown parking.

In economic terms, downtown baseball game parking seems a perfect market.  The sellers offer relatively homogeneous products  (all of the lots I examined had an attendant, for example), buyers have perfect information (it is impossible to get to the most expensive lots without first passing a cheaper option), and no seller has a monopoly.  Given the similarities between all of the options, buyers presumably make their choice between lots on two inputs – the cost and the distance to their destination.

As these two maps suggest, the relationship between price and distance is highly correlated – the parking lots closest to Comerica Park were the most expensive, and those furthest away were the least expensive.

In fact, the relationship between price and distance is relatively linear.  Parking lots of similar distances from Comerica Park had similar prices, even if on opposite sides of the stadium.

The most interesting thing about this pattern, however, is that the median fans valued their energy at two cents per stride – $0.02 a yard.  A small minority of fans who paid a great deal of money – $25 – to park within a few feet of the stadium, however, biased the same numbers for the average fan.  The average fan valued their stride at nine cents.  Extrapolating from these numbers paints a dim portrait of fans, however.

This seemingly inconsequential fact about metro Detroiters has significant implications for downtown parking, however.  Because those using downtown parking are seemingly unwilling to park at even a modest distance from their destination, parking lot owners are unable to consolidate into a smaller number of shared parking facilities.  For example, only a small minority of lots is able to serve attendees of both Comerica Park and Joe Louis Arena, creating a great deal of wasted parking when only one of the two is in use.  If attendees were willing to walk slightly further, downtown would need far fewer parking lots, because a smaller number of shared lots could service a greater number of destinations.

Next time you go out to the ball game, literally vote with your feet, and go for a walk to avoid the premium parking – it’ll benefit you, the environment, and Detroit.


  1. At least there sharing between Ford Field and Comerica Park. My unrealistic wish: the siting of the new Red Wing arena would be based on the ability to use existing parking. Of course fans would probably pay more to walk less during the colder months of the Red Wings season.

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  3. May I suggest the assumptions of single purpose parking, even on game day, and the economic considerations of time as measured by distance and cost while parsimonious is overly restrictive.

    If your trying to convince me there is lots of surface parking I am satisfied, if your trying to convince me that the existence and cost associated with the parking is irrational I remain a skeptic.

  4. Surely fans' laziness is a culprit, but maybe some of this is due to the poor walking environment, or at least perceptions of it. I know lots of people who don't walk downtown because they find it unfamiliar and intimidating.

  5. Nice writeup, and it looks like you did your research. I feel like there are a couple of possible reasons for the large amount of surface parking in Detroit that you didn't mention:

    #1- A large number of buildings have been torn down in Detroit in the last 20 years without any plans for the future use of the sites. The easy solution to make them profitable again is to turn them into parking lots.

    #2- There is a severe lack of quality public transportation downtown. The people-mover can only do so much. Yes, people are lazy. They don't want to walk 20 minutes through downtown Detroit, and if they could hop on a reliable, clean bus, they could park farther away and still not have to walk.

  6. "In economic terms, downtown baseball game parking seems a perfect market."

    Parking in Greektown at X distance is the same as parking up in the empty lots on Woodward at X distance. Wait, what? I like restaurants, not townhouses and freeways.

    If you ignore all non-distance variables (check) and take generous liberties with the generalizations (concentric circles, check), you'll have a tough time failing to find 'perfect markets' in life.

    Not to mention your conflation of "attendant" with "guy who takes your money". One of them sticks around, the other doesn't care about your car after the 2nd inning. Details! They suck!

    And thank you for not pointing out any of the myriad free street parking (which would absolutely not me in the same market...night parking = regular break-ins for dummies who use it then). Your "research" is gladly appreciated by those of us who, you know, actually do things in Detroit besides trying to fit it into our quaint educational experiences.

  7. @ Todd - You raise a good point about Ford Field. Thank you!
    @ Geoff - Thank you for your kind words and for reading!
    @ Pmzago - I apologize if I wasn't more clear. I didn't mean to suggest that those parking downtown were irrational- I was just trying to look at the rationale for their rational decision-making processes.
    @ Lrayle - You raise a good point! I'm thinking your work on bxb might explain some of that..
    @ Spencer - Yes, I agree. I think both of those issues are behind our glut of parking.
    @ Anonymous - I think you might've misunderstood my point about perfect markets. I wasn't trying to imply anything about the quality of the parking. Check out the wikipedia article on them:

  8. Rob, I think that the price is a function of supply as well as locational demand. The exernalities that Anonymous mentioned are reasonable. In a perfect market supply equals demand. This would mean that all available parking spots are taken and your scenario does not suggest this. It suggests that parking spaces are oversupplied in Downtown Detroit and this is what drives down the price. I think it also suggests that because different kinds of parking products are available, you get perfect price discrimination. Crazy people like me walk or bike to Tigers stadium because my optimal price for parking is zero and I choose to underestimate (or is that overestimate?) the negative exernalities of crime, freeways, burning calories, etc. People with sufficient incomes who price some of the aforementioned exernalties take the parking at the stadium and call it a day.

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  11. Showing my coworkers this for opening day. I've already suggested to take Uber or Lyft to the game. :P

    Great information btw, I'm really into it!

  12. Parking lots in Michigan is a huge demand of people. Metro Detroit Airport Parking spaces are increasing over the last year. In business travel terms, it embark a perfect market.

  13. Umm... Price does vary with distance. The question of why it is economically feasible to build a parking lot and not a business downtown is a better question. Why is the center of Detroit dedicated to serving warren as a parking lot, and not a thriving Detroit.

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