Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Ramblings on Free Parking and Morality

Ramblings on Free Parking and Morality

There is a sense of entitlement associated with free parking for employees, at least in the US. I don't know if that same sense of entitlement exists in other countries but I want to take a moment to explore whether or not that sense of entitlement is justified and what the consequences, great, small, and intended or not, might be by perpetuating the employee benefit of free parking.

Overall, driving a personal vehicle is an inefficient, dangerous and environmentally harmful form of transportation relative to alternatives such as buses, bicycling, trains or trams. To subsidize driving is morally irresponsible given the harm done to society.


First, a word or two about what I mean when I use the word morality. My working definition for this discussion is: the harm or good done to others in the present or future by an action of an individual or group. I believe that every action anyone takes has moral implications. I was only able to articulate this after listening to Constructive Living by David Reynolds. On reflection, I think I have always believed it at some level. So, every act has moral implications by virtue of the fact that every act will impact someone, sometime, in a big, small, negative or positive way.

Now on to the moral implications of a company providing free parking. Lets look at the financial and social costs and benefits in a qualitative way.

Financial Costs from the Company Point of View

  • Parking lot maintenance, including: asphalt repair, painting the lines, periodic cleaning, snow removal.

  • Lighting maintenance and energy costs.

  • Safety, security, surveillance, insurance.

  • Property taxes.

  • Opportunity cost (the land could be used for more office buildings for example or rented or leased to someone else)

Not all of these costs would apply in every case but it is clear that providing parking lots and free parking for employees takes a toll, perhaps small, on the company's bottom line and ultimately this money is subtracted from employee paychecks or investor dividends.

Financial Costs to Society (Driving versus Alternative Transport)

  • Roads must be built to accommodate rush hour traffic removing land from more productive use.

  • More traffic means more police and safety-related infrastructure.

  • Roads cost a lot of money to maintain. Bigger roads cost more than smaller roads (duh!).

Social and Intangible Costs

  • Traffic accidents are more likely on crowded roads and when drivers are in a hurry to get to work.

  • Social isolation, which breeds intolerance. The thought here is that in general the more exposed to different people we are the more tolerant of those differences we become.

  • Because much more fuel must be burned than if alternative transportation were used dollars must flow overseas to buy oil, often to countries that we'd perhaps rather not be showering with cash. Or, to frame it a little obnoxiously, every time you buy gasoline you are indirectly supporting terrorism. How's that for a leap :-) .

The distortion of the free market by subsidizing automobile based transport by employers providing “free” transport arguably influences the employees decision making process. I think you will agree that free parking really means subsidized driving and that translates into a reduced incentive to use alternative transportation. Yes, driving a car to work provides a lot of benefits for many people. It is flexible, private, and comfortable (assuming you can afford more than a clunker). However there are consequences to having every employee of every company commuting to their workplace every work day in an automobile.

What to do?

What should an upstanding moral employer do? Simple: pass the costs of parking on to your employees AND at the same time give everyone a raise equivalent to the expected revenues from the parking divided by the number of employees. This maintains the status quo and would allow for a transition while avoiding employee revolt. Morally employees who think deeply about the factors involved should feel good about the parking costs coupled with the raise. No upstanding employee wants to be a part of an immoral (that is, harmful) subsidy. Those who love to drive will benefit by seeing the roads a little less crowded. Those who loathe driving will no longer feel that they are subsidizing other drivers because of the money that comes out of company profits or their paychecks to pay for “free” parking that they do not use.

UPDATED: What to do?

The solution is so simple I missed it. One small and easily enforced law is all it takes. If an employer provides free parking then require they also provide free bus passes to employees. The company I work for provides free bus passes for its employees. I recently started using the bus and even though my comute is now 10-15 minutes longer I am loving it. I get to read and relax and get a few minutes walk in every day.


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