Parking pimp

I’m still temping at a transit agency, which has developed a very active program doing fundraising for Hurricane Katrina Relief. A very worthy cause to be sure, but the considerable amount of time spent of organizing and participating in the fundraisers has me wondering about the cost of staff-time, since the public agency can’t take a corporate tax-write-off for the staff time that’s spent “volunteering.”

In the 5 months I’ve been there, there’s already been a bowling tournament, a manager’s dunk tank, a poker tournament, online auction, a bake sale, and a hiking trip. Only the hiking trip was outside of working hours.

Today, a universal email was sent out touting the achievements and upcoming fundraising activities. (These are sent periodically.) That along with the conference on parking I attended (featuring Donald Shoup, author of “The High Cost of Free Parking” inspired me to write the following almost tongue-in-cheek proposal for a Katrina fundraiser at my workplace.

“Dear Katrina Relief Fund Committee,

I have an outside-the-box suggestion for fundraising. It could easily raise a lot of cash with relatively little investment/effort:

Charge employees for parking

Our agency could set up a scheme for a day where employees parking at work would have to pay a $5 parking fee that would go to the Katrina relief fund. If they ride transit (or bike or walk, etc) and don’t drive that day, they don’t have to pay for parking.


I recently read Donald Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking”, and attended a one-day conference last week in San Jose where he was one of the key-note speakers. One of the things he mentioned was that while most employers provide ‘free’ parking to their employees, it’s not really free. There is a cost to the employers to provide that parking, but they don’t pass that cost onto their employees by charging for parking. This ‘free parking’ essentially becomes an employee benefit/subsidy.

Land use requirements for providing ample parking is a major factor in urban sprawl and has a negative impact on transit oriented development (TOD). Free parking encourages more driving and less transit-riding.

Our agency owns our headquarter building, an attached multi-storey parking structure, plus the underground executive parking where employees park for free. But it still costs something to maintain it. We could probably estimate the annual cost of maintenance, and figure out what it costs on a per-space, per-day basis. Say it’s $5.

Since we also happen to be a transit agency, most/all employees get to ride transit for free. And we should be promoting our employees to ride transit anyway, even if it doesn’t increase farebox revenue, but for principle’s sake!

On event day, ‘parking attendants’ stands at the entrance of the parking structure and the executive parking area and collect the money as drivers come in, between 6:30 AM and 9:30 AM (or whatever time frame that most of the cars arrive). Drivers would be given a little receipt to place in the car window. They would be allowed in-out privileges by default. Anyone who arrives before or after fee-collection time would get to park for free, but you can’t win them all. In theory you could have someone survey the parked cars and see how many cars didn’t have receipts, but I don’t think it would be worth the cost of staff-time to ‘enforce’ it! This scheme is based on the honor-system, and you’d expect folks to be in the spirit of things.

We might also sell parking receipts in advance of the event, so that employees could buy them before hand. On the day of the event, they would show it to the parking attendant at entrance and drive right in, so that they don’t have to hold up the cars queued behind them. This will save transaction time and minimize traffic back-ups.

It would be critical to publicize and explain this scheme well in advance of the event, because people’s gut reaction will dislike it. We are socially conditioned to see ‘free parking’ as a right, not a privilege. In this case, the parking-fee pill is slightly sweetened in the guise of a fundraiser. Most people have also been to places like San Francisco and paid to park in a garage, so it’s not that much of a stretch, even if it’s not as intuitive as a bake-sale.

The event should be publicized by universal email to everyone, as well as posting flyers in the stairwells and elevators, because not everyone who parks there is an agency employee. (Flyering every windshield would be effective, but use a lot of paper.)

COST: $2,500 for a one day event. Includes:
Staff time to develop and distribute marketing materials (publicity)
Marketing materials/ printing receipts
“Parking attendant” staff time

250 spaces X 90% occupancy X $5 = $1125 per day.

This scheme could be held 1 day, or 2 days or 5 days for more revenue. Also we could charge an extra $2 for premium first floor parking.

The on-street parking in our neighborhood is free, but has 2-hour limits. I don’t know if there are employees who would be stingy enough to park on-street just to avoid paying $5 parking fee, but risk getting a $20 parking ticket (Actually I don’t know how strictly the 2-hour limit is enforced by the city).

This scheme would have a more severe impact for employees who live outside of the our agency’s service area, where they don’t get to ride transit for free. It would probably also take much longer than driving, and involve more transfers. But they could carpool and split the cost of parking. But $5 is not very expensive: the daily coffee-flavored drink and pastry-on-steroids many employees buy at the Starbucks across the street costs about that much.

The ground floor of the building is rented out as office space. The tenants also park at our parking structure. This fundraiser could be explained in advance to the tenants, who could decide if they want to participate or opt out. We’d give them free parking passes if they opt out. But since they organized a huge toys-for-tots drive at Christmas, I think they could be persuaded to participate.

Visitors on business who arrive during fee-collection period would either (1) not be charged, or (2) asked to ‘donate’ whatever amounts they feel like donating (some museums’ admission fees work on that principle.)

Handicapped parking: Free with proof of disability, i.e. blue placard.

This scheme doesn’t feel as warm and fuzzy as a bake sale. It’s not as much of a team-building exercise as a bowling tournament. It’s not a corporate-morale booster like dunking executive managers. It’s not fun or glamorous: after all parking your car at work is just something everyone does in the normal course of their workday routine. But my guess is that it’s a smaller investment of staff-time per charitable dollar raised.

Please let me know what you think of my proposal. I won’t be offended if you don’t like this proposal, but am curious to see the reaction. If you are interested, I’d be willing to explain/brainstorm this further.“

Yes, believe it or not, I actually sent this in with my supervisor’s blessing!

What do YOU think? How would you react if your employer implemented a fundraiser like this?


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