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Coaxing drivers to choose not to cruise

Commissioner hopes to change city's parking mind-set


by: JONATHAN HOUSE - Betsy Weil pulls out of a valued parking space next to Papa Haydn on Northwest Irving Street. Like most drivers, Weil is willing to drive around the block a few times looking for that perfect parking spot.When Betsy Weil visits shops on Northwest 23rd Avenue she expects to drive around awhile looking for curbside parking. She says it rarely takes more than 10 or 15 minutes to find a spot. Could Weil save some time by parking a little farther away from her destination and walking?

Well, yes, she says. But there’s something about the driving/walking equation that eludes objective analysis, Weil says. When she’s in the car, the extra driving always seems worth it, despite the fact that when she’s had to park farther than she wanted to, it wasn’t so bad.

“You think it’s a really long walk, and then you get there and it was only 10 minutes,” she says.

Welcome to the club.

Most of us are, like Weil, willing to cruise for a parking spot rather than just park and walk. Maybe we feel lucky. Maybe we remember that one time we got a spot right in back of Powell’s more distinctly than all the other times.

Steve Novick would like us to think differently. Cruising for parking creates congestion, says the Portland Bureau of Transportation commissioner. And it increases fossil fuel burning.

Novick says he’s going to start a public relations campaign to sway people from the practice of cruising for parking. He’d like to appeal to our sense of environmental stewardship, our pocketbooks, and, just possibly, our competitive instincts. His goal?

“We want to be able to say Portlanders are the fastest parkers in the West,” Novick says.

Cruising is one of the few transportation topics that hasn’t been well studied, says UCLA traffic expert Donald Shoup, partly because it is hard to recognize. Shoup added to the knowledge base when he sent his urban planning students to observe drivers in tiny Westwood Village, a commercial Los Angeles district near the UCLA campus.

Shoup found that on average, the Los Angeles drivers spent 3.3 minutes cruising for a parking space, traveling on average about two and a half times around a block. But those short cruising times, according to Shoup, created “an astonishing amount of traffic.”

Adding up the total time and distance lost by cruisers over the course of a year in Westwood Village, Shoup came up with 950,000 driven miles that could have been avoided if the drivers had immediately found a spot in a parking garage or on the street. Taking it a step further, Shoup calculated the cost in wasted gasoline at 47,000 gallons a year, and the environmental cost at 730 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

A 1997 study in San Francisco found the average cruising time there to be 6.5 minutes. A 1993 study found New York City drivers averaging 13.9 minutes searching for a parking space. Another New York City study showed that on some streets as much as 40 percent of the Saturday traffic was due to people hunting for curbside parking.

Ingrained behavior

So does Novick have a shot at getting us to change our cruising ways? It won’t be easy, say the folks who study how people make everyday choices.

University of Portland behavioral economist Mark Meckler says the city’s message had better be short, snappy and appealing to kids.

Trying to convince people to park and walk a few extra blocks is an uphill battle, Meckler says, because it is taking on years of societal conditioning.

“It’s primary socialization,” Meckler says. “It’s habit. Your parents did it — you got dropped off by the school bus closest to your house. That’s considered better. It’s not considered better to walk. From the time you’re a kid you’re socialized to drive, not walk, and to look for the shortest walk if you have to walk.”

Childhood socialization can be very hard to overcome, Meckler says, even among adults who might be regularly seeking the type of exercise provided by those little car-to-store walks. That’s why anti-litter campaigns of the 1970s and ‘80s targeted schools. Kids got the message early, bugged their parents to change their littering habits, and became adult non-litterbugs themselves.

Besides, Meckler says, time and efficiency — even five saved minutes — are among the most highly valued concepts in the United States. “It certainly trumps health, enjoyment and happiness,” he says. “People would rather be efficient than they would be happy. We have sayings like, ‘Time is money.’ ”

But time, according to Shoup’s research, is on the side of parking quickly and walking. Unfortunately, according to Meckler, that’s a rational approach. And Meckler, the behavioral economist, doesn’t believe people operate rationally in these types of situations.

“When you access your memory you give more power and strength to the extreme events,” he says. “So the time you found a space right in front, that’s the time you remember.”

Tom Vanderbilt, author of “Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (and What It Says About Us),” has studied parking habits at shopping malls and noticed that drivers don’t act rationally there, either. Rows that line up with the store entrance get filled vertically while adjacent rows get fewer cars. Even past the point where walks to the entrance would be shorter from adjacent rows, people park in the entrance rows.

Vanderbilt cites research that shows people tend to underestimate the time it takes to travel in their cars, and overestimate the time it takes to walk, exactly the effect 23rd Avenue shopper Betsy Weil has experienced.

On the other hand Donald Meyer, a traditional economist at Western Michigan University, assumes people behave rationally. His driving habits bear that out.

Even a few blocks away from his destination, “I just take that spot,” Meyer says. Of course, his wife, he says, often asks why he has parked so far away.

Meyer, whose research looks at how people make decisions involving risk, thinks that if drivers come to recognize that they are wasting time cruising, they will change their habits. Novick’s campaign can help educate Portland drivers. And sometimes, Meyer says, people also need a little encouragement.

Economic incentive

“If you want to discourage something, you raise the price; and if you want to encourage it, you lower the price,” he says. That’s basic, traditional economic theory.

In this case, Meyer says, if the parking spaces close to the most popular downtown destinations were more expensive, and those a few blocks away, or in the Smart Park garages, were cheaper, people likely would change their habits.

The price for parking in a downtown Portland Smart Park garage is the same $1.60 an hour it costs to park at a metered space (but less if a store validates the Smart Park stub). But Novick says he’d consider making the garage price lower than the street price as a way to reduce cruising.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - New York City drivers spend an average of 14 minutes hunting out parking; San Francisco drivers average six and a half minutes. Maybe, evolutionary psychologists say, were just hardwired to hunt.Meyer, from his vantage in Kalamazoo, thinks a public relations campaign with a positive spin could work.

“You guys are healthy out there (in Portland). Why isn’t there an ‘Exercise, get fit, bring your tennis shoes and walk a few minutes, it would be good for your heart (campaign)?’ ” he says. “The more people who think this is not a cost but a benefit, the more likely they are to take that further away spot.”

Andreas Wilke sees this whole driving and parking question through a completely different lens. Maybe, Wilke says, we’re hard-wired in ways that don’t work well with automobiles and parking meters.

Wilke, an evolutionary psychologist at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., studies what he calls sequential search problems like the moment-to-moment decisions a driver makes while looking for a parking spot.

Cruising for parking, according to Wilke, could be a result of the Concorde Fallacy. Remember the supersonic, super-expensive Concorde jet? It was inefficient, and it lost money, but it stuck around for 27 years. The Concorde continued to get financing long after Air France and British Airways knew it was not a cost-efficient way to fly people across the Atlantic Ocean.

Wilke says that was because the Concorde’s owners were too invested in the prestige of their product to give up on the idea. Until they did. Circling the block looking for a parking space can be like that, he says. As soon as you pass by one spot hoping to find a better one, you’re invested in the hunt.

“Even though I literally failed, already I’m more willing to look another five minutes,” is how Wilke describes the predicament.

Models of evolutionary risk-taking predict that males are more prone to that type of thinking than females, Wilke says, especially if there is a female in the car beside them. A young male taking a risk and succeeding can be seen as high-quality mate material, apparently.

Sure, there weren’t cars in caveman days, but Wilke suggests hunting for a parking spot could have something to do with how our ancestors hunted for food.

Wilke likes to study how animals search for their food. He uses the example of a bird that stays around the same pond day after day pecking out worms to eat. Eventually, the supply of worms grows smaller. At what point does the bird decide to move to another pond where the worm pickings might be better, or might be worse? That, Wilke says, is the definition of a sequential search problem, and our hunter-gatherer ancestors developed sequential search brain processes on when to stay and when to move based on similar circumstances. Except, now we’re searching for 20-foot-long pieces of asphalt next to sidewalks.

“Perhaps we’re stuck with different search and stop mechanisms that don’t match our current environment,” he says.

And by the way, Wilke says, if drivers were really thinking rationally, wouldn’t they drive straight to their destination, then start looking for a spot, and drive away in concentric circles, taking the first spot they find?

Accentuate the negative

University of Portland’s Meckler insists that a successful anti-cruising campaign will have to show people that the value of the extra walking is a “current gain,” not a far-off, hard-to-quantify future health gain. And it will have to convince people that by parking they will avoid a negative, because that’s more powerful than a positive message such as “parking and walking will make you healthier.”

And it better take advantage of what economists calls availability bias.

“The available and understandable solutions are the ones people latch on to even if they’re not true,” Meckler says. Translated, that means if something sounds simple and obvious, people are more likely to believe it, even if its oversimplified and not really true. That’s where cruising has an advantage.

“It’s very hard to get simpler than ‘Let’s park in front,’ ” Meckler says.

So the city needs a slogan that is simple, intuitive, warning people to avoid a negative and emphasizing efficiency. Meckler’s got it.

“The message has to be, ‘Don’t waste time, park and walk,’ ” he says.

Then again, the slogan would be better if it rhymed, Meckler adds. Apparently there’s something economists call — and we’re not making this one up — the Rhyme As Reason Effect. People are more likely to believe a slogan if it rhymes.

“You cruise, you lose?”