The Economics of Parking, State Fair Edition
As I’ve mentioned before, I currently live in Minnesota. Like most places I’ve lived, it has its upsides and downsides, but one thing I put firmly in the “upside” category is the Minnesota State Fair. This event occurs in the final days before summer ends and the school season begins. While scrolling through the local news, I stumbled across an opinion piece with what struck me as a strange take on fair parking.
Parking at the fair can certainly be an ordeal. It attracts large crowds and there is only so much parking space and only so many streets one can take to get there, so the last leg of the drive to the fair is often spent moving at barely faster than walking speed while getting into the parking lot. The official state fair parking lots charge a $20 fee. In theory, street side parking is available in various neighborhoods within walking distance of the fairgrounds. But, because these street side parking spaces are available to use free of charge, they reach capacity approximately instantaneously and finding one requires a great deal of luck. Personally, I’ll cheerfully pay $20 to skip that process and park at the fairgrounds. The amount of time and hassle I save is worth significantly more than $20 to me – which will be even more true this year, since my three-year-old son will be coming along for the experience.
The author of this piece, however, takes a different view. For him, its either free street side parking or nothing at all. He calls this his “biggest tradition” regarding the fair. Now, I’m not going to say he’s wrong for harboring this preference. Economic value is subjective, and just because the time and hassle saved by using fairground parking is worth $20 to me doesn’t mean it must be worth $20 to him. However, I think his opinion would benefit if he took certain externalities into account.
He does seem at least partly aware of one externality associated with his parking preference – the time and hassle costs of fulfilling his parking preferences are also inflicted on the other people joining him to this event. He acknowledges this issue exists, commenting how his behavior “drives my friends and family accompanying me to the fair nuts: I will drive around for a looooooong time through the neighborhoods to find a free parking spot. This is a game I am not willing to lose.” But even though he’s aware that fulfilling this preference inflicts costs on the other members of his party, he doesn’t seem too troubled by that.
However, there’s another externality going on that he also fails to properly appreciate. He points out that some “enterprising individuals who live adjacent to the grounds” will also, for a fee, allow state fair attendees to park in their driveways or even on their lawns. I think this is a great thing. Parking is a scarce resource, and during the state fair the quantity of parking demanded is unusually high, and local residents are responding to this by increasing the parking supply since they can charge a price for the use of that resource. Unfortunately, it’s clear that when he refers to these people as “enterprising individuals” his intention is full of sarcasm and scorn – he also refers to these people as “clowns” immediately afterwards.
I think his disdain for these people is uncalled for. Some people have extra space that can be used, others are happy to pay to use that space, and this is a mutually beneficial exchange for all parties involved. If he doesn’t find that it’s worth it for him, that’s fine, but sneering at people who do find it beneficial is a bad look. But even if he has no wish to partake, he should be grateful these arrangements exist – they work to his benefit. Every person who uses these spaces to park is one less person out there looking for street side parking. The more people are willing to allow their driveways and lawns and lots be used for fair parking, the more it improve his odds to find some of the street side parking he values so much. The very thing he scoffs at and looks down upon also creates a positive externality from which he benefits. Perhaps if he took the insights of economics a little closer to heart, his attitude towards other people would be a little less dismal.