PARC Tackles Parking

Aerial view of the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Note the vast space dedicated to free parking. Ironic, huh?

The Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Note the vast space dedicated to free parking. Ironic, eh?

by James A. Bacon

A couple of years ago, the creative geniuses at Xerox’s renowned Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) labs were brainstorming ways to shake up one of the stodgiest sectors of the American economy: parking. A new wave of technologies made it possible to do things never thought possible before, such as adjusting the charge for parking spaces in response to real-time changes in supply and demand. New smart phone apps were making it possible for drivers to search for empty spaces on the street and even in driveways garages, and to compare prices. Who knows, maybe people even would take to the idea of “reserving” parking spots ahead of time, to ensure an empty spot on an important occasion.

Much of the thinking was based upon classical economic theory. The Xerox team figured a city should aim to keep the number of vacant, on-street spaces between 10% and 25%. Raise parking charges when too many spaces were filled and drop the fee when there were too many empty spaces. That would strike a nice balance, ensuring that the spaces were close to fully utilized while leaving enough vacancies so drivers could always find an empty space (if they were willing to pay the price). Prices could be adjusted on a block-by-block basis to optimize outcomes.

However, theory often collides with reality. Humans can be unpredictable or downright perverse. Among the challenges in persuading them to act like economically rational agents is making it easy for them acquire and process usable information.

James Glasnapp, a senior researcher with PARC, discovered that there can be a wide gap between theory and reality. As an ethnographer — a researcher who studies the behavior of people in natural settings — he and his team members conducted close-up studies of parking in California communities that allowed the PARC parking team to fine-tune its product both before and after commercializing it last year in downtown Los Angeles.

Using a combination of simple observation, videotaping and personal surveys, Glasnapp and his team spent many days in the urban wild. “We wanted to understand from the parker’s point of view how they make decisions about how to park.” It turns out that people were eager to express themselves. “Everyone loves to complain.”

Glasnapp got an earful. Much to the dismay of classical economists and parking apps, most people had no idea what the parking prices were. Few realized that prices varied from street to street. “They were completely surprised that parking might be cheaper catty corner to where they were. Very few people knew about the smart apps.”

People don’t think in advance about where they’re going to park. They just decide upon a destination then start looking around for a space when they get there. The Xerox ethnographers showed people the marvelous things the parking apps could do but it took some convincing to get them to accept the value proposition that paying a small commission to extend the parking time beats fishing for coins and running out of the office to feed the meter.

Another problem the ethnographers uncovered is that people can’t use the apps when they’re driving. It takes focus to choose between open spaces in different locations and weigh that against different prices. “There’s a lot of complex information to take in,” says Glasnapp. “You need a co-pilot in the car to direct you to the cheaper parking.”

The Xerox research also showed that people do crazy things when looking for parking — like making illegal U-turns in the middle of the street, sometimes even driving over a curb, to reach an open space. Glasnapp thinks there is a tremendous potential market for reserving on-street parking, although he concedes people will have to get accustomed to the idea of driving past a seemingly empty space that someone else has reserved.

It will take time for drivers to learn how to use the parking apps and change their behavior before dynamic pricing has the effect that classical economists say it should. But Xerox is learning from experience. Among other tangible contributions, the ethnographers have made progress in simplifying oft-indecipherable parking signage. With more observation and tinkering, Glasnapp is optimistic that people will incorporate the technology into their routines and change the behavioral dynamics of parking. Says he: “These are the things we have been thinking about.”

One Response to PARC Tackles Parking

  1. excellent article! and bemusing..

    ” Glasnapp got an earful. Much to the dismay of classical economists and parking apps, most people had no idea what the parking prices were.

    ….. Very few people knew about the smart apps.”

    People don’t think in advance about where they’re going to park.

    Another problem the ethnographers uncovered is that people can’t use the apps when they’re driving.

    The Xerox research also showed that people do crazy things when looking for parking…

    I’m smiling for several reasons.

    “classical economists” are almost dogmatic in their loyalty to theory – to the point where they act “shocked” that their theories don’t mean squat to the average person who has, essentially, a human competing agenda to “the theory” that often renders the theory as some esoteric… well…. theory.

    Second – there is an electronic divide for want of a better phrase (perhaps, “knowledge” or “information” or “technology”) where those we refer to as “millennials” have not only embraced technology but are actually quite impatient about it’s failure to mature fast enough for their expectations.

    So a millennial has absolutely no problem relying on a smartphone app telling her where to go park (integrated with the phone GPS of course) whereas on the other side of the “divide” are those who don’t have and don’t want a smartphone, or dynamic pricing or any of this “fancy” technology. Just leave them alone to conduct their lives the way they always have. That smartphone is a niggling threat to their preferred status quo!

    then we also have the folks “in-between” who actually have Smartphones but see the “value proposition” as something like seeing their grandkids latest photos on FB or calling/texting their better half when separated on a shopping trip but hell no … we don’t need no stinking smartphone app so we can pay MORE for parking – no way!

    and in a way you have this juxtaposed parking thing where all the parking you could ever want is “free” at WalMart at the same time some fool is talking not only about charging for parking but making it more expensive!

    Finally, people do not like to pay tolls on roads in general, will pay for parking only when forced to and totally get enraged about the idea that tolls and parking fees could be “dynamic”. Despite dynamically-priced airline tickets, gasoline, etc, they do NOT like that idea when applied to roads and parking and it WILL be a “learning” curve! For that matter, many don’t like that idea about electricity either!

    I don’t think the “older generation” and I don’t mean by chronological age anymore – but by their acceptance, embracing of technology – which, in turn, puts a very real-time aspect to many things – including pricing.

    this “real time” aspect – is actually seen as a disadvantage by those who are feeling too-pushed by technology these days anyhow.

    Older/boomers-type people tend to be comfortable with things staying the same and change is a nuisance and frequent change – a real booger.

    I have a friend with a SmartPhone – and he is constantly showing me all the wonderful things it does (like I don’t have one also) but THEN the other day, he freaked out because he could not get to the bank to a human teller to pay his bills…. I asked him why he did not have things set up as auto-pay or pay online and he said that it seemed too difficult to do… remember.. the man has a SmartPhone…… this is what those economists are “learning”!

    ;-)

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