Creating Markets for Parking

Petula Dvorak calls for greater regulation of what she terms “predatory towing,” which appears to be another term for enforcing existing, publicly stated rules. She gives a personal example where she was looking to pick up a bookcase that she’d bought off Craigslist from someone who lived in a high-rise building in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, Va. She circled the block and looked for an open street parking space but couldn’t find one. So she decided to park in the surface lot of a nearby dry cleaner who was closed:

I stayed with the car until I had to go up to help my husband lug the piece through the lobby. I put a sign on the car windshield written in Magic Marker: “Moving furniture, back in 10 mins, PLEASE don’t tow,” and put my flashers on.

No mercy!

It took 10 minutes tops for them to sweep in, in the 9 o’clock darkness of a Wednesday night. Just as we huffed and puffed out the door with the bookcase, the tow truck was peeling out of the lot, complete with cartoonlike sparks as the undercarriage slammed the curb. Chasing, running (and, yes, cursing) ensued. No luck.

Our Craigslist bargain just cost us $125 more.

It was frustrating and maddening. Yes, there was a sign. And yes, those are the rules.

But let’s be honest: At that hour, we were not hurting that business.

Now I do sympathize with what she’s saying here, but it’s difficult to see how more stringent regulation of towing companies would solve the problem. The real issues here are twofold. One is that we mismanage on-street parking in the United States. In particular, in high-demand areas we tend to make it too cheap. As with any price-control scheme, that tends to lead to shortages that in turn lead to desperate measures.

The other issue here, as she later says in the column, is that “the dry cleaner could make plenty of money by charging for parking in those spaces when the starched shirts are asleep but the nearby bars and restaurants are abuzz.” That’s quite true and seems to be the real tragedy of the story. The prevailing mentality about parking sees high levels of parking demand in a given area as a kind of nuisance for business owners. What we ought to see it as is a potential windfall for people who already own parking spaces. The growth of the Clarendon area not only increases the demand for dry-cleaning services, it increases the demand for the parking spaces the dry cleaner owns. If they let people pay to park there, this whole sad situation could have been avoided. But for it to be possible for the dry cleaners to get into the parking business, they need a credible way to exclude nonpayers from the parking lot. They need, in other words, to be able to make a contract for aggressive towing.