‘Free’ Parking is Bundled Bag of Goods

By JAMES KENNEDY

As I look for a campus to get my graduate degree, a surprising factor weighs into my decision: How much am I going to pay for parking? As a non-driver, Rhode Island College may end up charging me the most of all.

The Rhode Island College website boasts that parking is a free service offered to all students. Economists have a more accurate name for “free” services that are included with the cost of something else: bundled goods. The price of parking on campus is not actually free, it’s just bundled to the cost of tuition. Students pay for a parking spot whether they want one or not, even if they don’t own a car.

In fact, 99 percent of parking spots in the United States are bundled, from groceries to restaurant service, and at almost all of our jobs — so few of us think about parking’s cost. It’s not chump change. The median price of just one parking space is $15,000 (pdf). With four parking spaces per car in the United States, the real-estate value of all those asphalt rectangles adds up to far more than the total value of all the country’s vehicles.

Workers pay that cost in lower wages; customers pay it in higher prices for goods; renters pay it in higher housing costs. At Rhode Island College, a “free” parking policy results in higher tuition for students, whether or not that cost is actually itemized on one’s bill.

A movement is afoot to challenge free parking. In California, where businesses are now required (pdf) to match any free parking by paying non-drivers the equivalent of the cost of a non-used spot in cash, cyclists, bus riders and carpoolers all earn hundreds of dollars per month just by choosing not to drive alone to work. If RIC itemized the cost of the parking space students were buying in their tuition bill each semester, they might start to fight for that portion of their tuition to be returned to them. Why pay for something you don’t use?

Of course, if one has chosen to take the bus to school, free parking has made that more difficult as well. Parking expert Donald Shoup’s 2005 study (pdf) shows how zoning requirements for free parking challenge even well-funded transit systems. San Francisco, which supported its train system with the highest per-square-foot charge to real-estate developers in the country, nonetheless subsidized cars 4.7 times more for each additional parking space it required a building to provide.

In Rhode Island, which has one of the worst-funded public transit systems in the country (pdf), the destructive effect of free parking on public transportation can only be more pronounced.

Bundling one good to another isn’t always a bad idea. Students rarely choose a university for its janitorial services, but the cost of janitors is included in tuition because having a clean campus is universally needed. Letting students go a la carte and forego the cost of a janitor would be a disaster, leaving the campus a mess. But parking is not such a universal need. Students who can’t afford a car shouldn’t rack up more student-loan debt in order to hide the cost of driving.

Parking isn’t free. We’re all paying for it. That’s the part that has to change.

James Kennedy is a Providence resident.