Smarter Than You: The Ideology of the Incentive (Parking Lot Edition)

I’ve already made my feelings about most uses of “incentives” by technocratic planners fairly plain, and besides, I’m just really at best a handmaiden on this point for my colleagues Ken Sharpe and Barry Schwartz, who make the argument more elegantly. (And a bunch of other thinkers besides.)

Still, there’s always another reason to harp on this point. Say, for example, parking policy at a certain small liberal-arts college west of Philadelphia. Parking is pretty much the classic case of a “first world problem” so it feels a bit embarrassing to take it too seriously. Almost any issue, however, can illustrate the characteristic style of a certain kind of institutional or managerial thought as it approaches any problem, small or large.

So what are the “problems” with parking at this little college?

1. Not everybody observes the minimal rules that are supposed to govern parking. For example, there are choice spaces reserved for visitors to Admissions that on an average day are filled with the cars of students and even a few employees. I’ve frequently watched students I know park in those spaces and give me a shit-eating grin if they see me seeing them. They’re not parking there because the lot is out of spaces, they’re parking there so they don’t have to walk an extra 75 feet or so.

2. Every once in a while we run out of spaces completely, but not very often.

So far this does NOT really seem like a problem. #1 is only the very small problem that there are a few assholes around, which seems both not a big deal and unsolvable anyway.


3. We’re about to do a bunch of construction and there will be way fewer spaces for a long time even if we build a new parking facility in the process (which some people don’t think we should do for various reasons).

4. We would like to reduce our carbon footprint, and one way to do that is to get fewer people to drive to work.


Ok, 3 and 4 are genuine issues, but they’re really different kinds of issues.

On #3, why not just tell people, “Hey, fewer spaces! Sorry!” Well, because people will still drive and they will park in the surrounding neighborhoods, which have a limited street capacity plus this will badly annoy local residents.

Ok, why not just ration parking permits according to some scheme? Say, if you live further than 2 miles, aren’t near public transport, have small children, are pregnant or are disabled, you get one, and not if you don’t? Ok. But it won’t work if you don’t enforce permit parking, which we don’t really do much right now. Stepped-up enforcement isn’t just a matter of writing a few more tickets.

On #4, why not just persuade people, “Hey, save the planet, try walking or biking?” Well, this is already a pretty liberal place with plenty of exposure to that line of argument, so if people are still driving either they don’t take that argument very seriously or they feel there is something else more important about having access to a car. Or there’s something that makes walking or biking very hard. (There is, if you’re coming from west of the campus: all of the roads have no shoulders for bike riders and no sidewalks for walkers, plus there’s a major interstate in the way and a creek valley.)


So now what? You have three choices at this point: a) just do your construction and let whatever happens happens, same for the environment and sustainability; b) Ration parking permits, pay for enforcement, do your best to convince people to be do-gooders and maybe try to invest in more bikable/walkable connections to campus; c) use the magic power of the INCENTIVE!!!

Guess which option some consultants came up with? Yes, that’s right, get people to properly value parking in a suburban lot by charging them for parking because we all know that if you properly price things some sort of automagic utility rational choice dingus thingy kicks in and people behave the way they ought to behave. Just to make sure it’s all working right, since this is a college, we need to charge for parking and then create a Parking Advisory Committee, because faculty and staff don’t really rationally choose their maximum utility unless they get to have a participatory committee which can earnestly deliberate about the color of the paint on the parking spaces and whether the people giving out tickets should be called “Sustainability Contributors” or “Mobility Facilitators”. Participatory inclusive incentives!

You can see just how the thinking runs, just what the conversations must have been like. (No actual parking consultants were harmed in the making of this film. Offer void where prohibited.)

Rationing is too hard to do as a command exercise, too many people will protest, it’ll be too hard to be fair to people with genuine needs, let alone those who simply want to drive. Let’s get people to ration for themselves: if we put a price tag on it, only those who really have need will pay for it.

Not enough people really care about sustainability the way that they should! We’ve been trying for so long to get them to care but they just won’t! There must be something wrong with them. We’ll never persuade them with words and ideas. We can fix that by putting a price on it!

If you’ve been around long enough, you also know where this goes next.

Too many people are still trying to park! We’re crowding into the surrounding neighborhood AND we’re still destroying the planet! We’ll have to raise the price until we’ve ‘properly’ set it so that people will rationally decide to do what we know they should do.

Now they’re getting really mad about the price! We need the Parking Advisory Committee to do a study. Maybe hire a consultant again.


In general, despite the seeming impact of policies like congestion pricing in London, life does not really work out as it does in a Malcolm Gladwell book. Because even in general, most people know what the incentive is trying to get them to do, and they even know that the whole apparatus is like one of the humane chutes that Temple Grandin designed for cattle butcheries. Unlike cattle, they’re not soothed by technocratic chutes: they get more and more agitated as the kill floor approaches, particularly when they get a glimpse of someone in a white coat with a checklist observing the incentive machine in action. People have more agency than cows, and if there’s anything that mobilizes them to perverse or unpredictable ends, it’s the sense that they’re being made to do something by someone who thinks that people are too stupid to even notice they’re being made to do something.

This goes over even less well when many of the people in question have Ph.Ds., both because they dislike even more the sense that they’re being maneuvered and because many of them understand full well the intellectual background behind trying to create social outcomes through proper pricing.

Technocrats and managers turn to incentives when they lack the political will to dictate an outcome or when they believe that people aren’t doing what they ought to be doing for their own good. Or as in this case, both. The former is somewhat understandable, particularly in institutions that otherwise have relatively flat or soft hierarchies. The latter is almost never a good idea. You can raise a tax, charge a fee, create a penalty when you’ve straightforwardly won an argument about what is good and not good, when you’re doing a lot of other things to persuade people. Say, in raising fees on tobacco: that wasn’t done in isolation from a broad campaign to persuade smokers and non-smokers about the consequences of smoking. You can’t do it as a substitute for winning the argument, or as a cheap way to win an argument that would otherwise incur some more expensive obligations. If, for example, you want people to drive less for environmental reasons, you have to seriously look at the reasons why they aren’t doing so already, and not just use an incentive as a way to automagically devalue and dismiss those forms of reasoning.

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15 Responses to Smarter Than You: The Ideology of the Incentive (Parking Lot Edition)

  1. Tulip says:

    “Technocrats and managers turn to incentives when they lack the political will to dictate an outcome or when they believe that people aren’t doing what they ought to be doing for their own good. Or as in this case, both. ”

    If you impose an outcome and attach a penalty, then you ARE using incentives. All the things you mention – more enforcement, the rationing (creates incentives to park on streets) are or generate incentives, they just aren’t necessarily prices.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, I should clarify here that the example I’m using is specifically about the “attach price, magic social engineering follows” form of the incentive. But I would also argue that there is a difference between the conceptual underpinnings of “the incentive” and the underpinnings of law or command. You could choose to say, “A law that criminalizes murder and specifies life in prison as the sentence is a disincentive to commit murder” but there are other and older conceptual infrastructures undergirding “law” in this sense. The loose use of incentive as all-purpose translation of all deliberate (and for that matter accidental) attempts by social systems and institutions to achieve imagined outcomes only makes sense if you buy into homo economicus as an equally all-purpose explanation of how people really think and function and act. It doesn’t work if you believe in any way in other kinds of bounded rationality (e.g., that people can sometimes be persuaded by the merits or truth of an argument or appeal quite independent of whether following the argument satisfies their self-interest or produces utility gains) and it doesn’t work if you think that sometimes people act for reasons that have little or nothing to do with utility (say, guided by cognitive, behavioral, neurological, psychological, deeply cultural or other principles that are not necessarily in any sense reasoned or rational).

  3. Anzel says:

    If we’re going to talk about incentives, however, then I think the opposite side of the coin is to talk about the incentives provided by subsidizing parking access. Providing parking for universities is not free–and if you get to the point of needed garages (I don’t know how tight space is at Swarthmore), it rapidly becomes very expensive. If you look at the situation for my own graduate school, the economics are such that Caltech is effectively subsidizing all car drivers $54/month, more than any other form of transportation. This is money that is not going to our academic or scholastic mission, and is fundamentally unfair to us (myself included) who don’t drive (and are saving the planet, yadda yadda yadda).

    If you’re talking about rationing parking, Donald Shoup (that guru of market-based parking) has looked at what’s happened at UCLA. The short of this (this starts on page 128) is that there is widespread dishonesty and gaming of the system to try and get the best parking spots. The money quote “Lie, cheat, and steal. These are the fundamental traits Transportation Services wants you to learn here at UCLA.”

    If you’re concerned about poor bike and pedestrian access to campus (and you should be), then charging for parking can provide an excellent method of raising money for improving this infrastructure. This is what Pasadena, CA has done, and a downtown that was rundown and full of porn-theaters in the 90s is now a nice (if expensive) place to go.

  4. Anzel says:

    Finally, how would you respond to Shoup’s suggestion of Parking Cash Out? (I.E. anyone who doesn’t use campus parking gets paid the difference in the cost for not using a parking permit.) If you look through his website you will see that that strategy HAS been effective at getting folks to take alternative forms of transportation.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I think first off Caltech and UCLA are in radically different situations than us. We’re in a suburb where, though there is traffic, it’s really nothing like Pasadena or Westwood. Most faculty live either within two miles of the campus or they live in Philadelphia, which has a light rail line that stops right on campus. Staff live in a more diverse range of places and also cover a wider income spectrum than faculty. If I had to guess, I’d say that more of the parkers on campus are staff than faculty, and that fewer staff could walk or bike to campus or would have good public transport options.

    You can certainly describe the transportation infrastructure of a suburb as having been produced by incentives in the past, and that too strikes me as a problem, in that there was never a clear national discussion about encouraging home ownership, building suburbs, etc. until after it had started happening. But one of the upshots if you look around where we are, no large suburban employer with a significant campus or grounds charges employees for parking (at least not that I know of). While green space on campus is highly valued, the present parking we have covers our needs pretty well. The issue is really going to be how we manage with fewer spaces during construction and how we manage after the construction is finished if the result is a net loss of parking on a long-term basis.

  6. Anzel says:

    Some arguments/questions
    – Certainly UCLA is in a fairly urban environment, but if you just look at densities, the population density of Pasadena matches that of Ridley. We’re more of a “city” (oh look, real street grids) but I think there is much of an unwarranted trend to say “eh, we’re not enough of a city so we won’t try and address sprawl”.
    – With the construction happening on campus (as best I could tell from the, there’s a process slow expansion going on? The referenced pdf didn’t seem to give any concrete numbers on anything), will you need additional parking at some point? Where do you plan on putting it, and how will it be paid for?
    – Saying “well, no-one else charges for parking” doesn’t strike me as the most valid excuse not to do so. If there’s something useful to be gained for it, then there should be fair consideration for it. If the surrounding community is worried about Swatties taking all their spaces, they can institute parking zones themselves.

    Ultimately, I still don’t see that charging for parking (or at least not enacting a parking cash out) least is a priori a bad idea, and I believe that it can have a lot of good. Free parking is a nonzero cost to the university that doesn’t further its academic mission, it supports transportation use that’s contrary to your university’s explicitly stated goals of sustainability, it can provide a funding stream for investing in alternative forms of transportation, and ultimately, as a method to reduce the parking load on your campus, it works.

    And on the other hand, if the idea of having a Parking Advisory Committee spend some time figuring out potential prices strikes you as administrative bloat, do you think that rationing by need (and determining whether or not people are being honest) is going to require any fewer man-hours?

  7. Anzel says:

    Slight grammatical bit in the previous comment, sorry.

    “Free parking is a nonzero cost to the university that doesn’t further its academic mission and supports transportation use that’s contrary to your university’s explicitly stated goals of sustainability. On the other hand, charging for parking can provide a funding stream for investing in alternative forms of transportation (or simply just free up money towards other academic uses), and ultimately, as a method to reduce the parking load on your campus, it works.”

  8. Doug says:

    “I’d say that more of the parkers on campus are staff than faculty, and that fewer staff could walk or bike to campus or would have good public transport options. ”

    Is this something that is knowable? Or known to the people making the decisions about construction, parking, inconvenience, etc.?

  9. Timothy Burke says:


    Another reason the consultants want us to have a parking fee and a permit system is that they’re trying to make us “legible” in the James Scott sense of the term. E.g., it’s not knowable in a firm or final way because some faculty and staff don’t even bother with permits any more (we got one ourselves way back when but when we take our other car, we don’t bother with the permit) and also some students do the same though they’re a bit more obvious when they’re trying to park under the radar because they keep their cars around here overnight. So my sense is based on a: seeing who is getting out of cars and into cars in the main lot (mostly staff) and b: knowing that most of those staff don’t live right next to campus.


    My problem really comes down to how you imagine human beings. In general, like my colleagues, I really dislike plans that are intended to produce outcomes not through agreement or acceptance but through indirect manipulation. When that’s not possible or not efficient, when there’s a problem and leadership simply has to come to grips with it as leaders, I’d rather they simply act. I think this is especially acute on the issue of sustainability. I don’t think that’s the kind of change you accomplish through little fragmented or feel-good initiatives undertaken because you have some abstract model or goal–in fact, I think that’s precisely one of the corrosions that have worn down liberal democracy–bureaucrats and policy wonks with a model thinking they can move people around like pieces on a chess board both don’t give people in general enough credit for knowing they’re being manipulated and don’t pay enough attention to their own histories of fallibility and error in past schemes. There is no way out but through on this sort of thing, to quote Yseabeau Wilce’s character Nini Mo.

  10. Doug says:

    Gotcha. Thanks.

  11. Anzel says:

    What then would you say to the university charging for parking to make it “revenue neutral” (reflecting the land-value, infrastructure, and administration costs)?

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    Should we charge fees to people who walk through campus? Other non-paying users of the “land-value”? Are we providing lights in a parking lot strictly for the convenience of free-loading drivers? Or how about charging employees for the grass on the grounds? See, I think the thing you’re missing is that the parking is one of the things that the college does to make life easier for its employees–and to attract the most diverse range of employees it can within its region. Now if we had to build a more expensive structure than an asphalt lot with some lights on it, maybe you could begin to make a case. But up to this moment, the main alternative possible land-value would have been green space (which also has costs and infrastructure). Now that we’re entering a period of construction, perhaps not–but the logic of “revenue neutrality” suggests that every other amenity of use to workers should also have a fee next to it. Pretty quickly that has an effect on the compensation of faculty and staff and even more quickly it impinges on the core identity of a small residential college in the suburbs. Should I start charging the college a fee when I have students over to my house for dinner each semester? Ask for compensation if I buy snacks for my seminar? If I’m gonna get nickel-and-dimed in one direction, then let’s start running a bill in the other. And pretty soon you’ve done real damage to the institutional culture…

  13. Anzel says:

    Slippery slope much? The logic isn’t “let’s charge for every service”, it’s “for this particular instance, would charging for parking be a net good or net ill”. I can recognize that subsidizing parking for employees could be considered a “cost of doing business”, but for all the related externalities–you’re subsidizing a form of transportation against your sustainability goals, encouraging sprawl, avoiding the administrative work needed to ration (though you already sort of do that, limiting student permits to 112), the money could be put to use for things like helping cover the costs of public transit or improving bicycle infrastucture, and the whole “paving paradise to put up a parking lot” deal–I still think a fair case could be made for charging for parking.

    Also, I just looked again at the Swarthmore master plan for parking and found that you’re complaining about a $30 per year parking fee. PER YEAR! Dude, that’s a week’s regional train fare on SEPTA, and you’re fortunate enough have the Elwyn line conveniently stationed at your front door, and during the week it runs until midnight. My good friend studying at Irvine would kill for that sort of access (Metrolink in LA for her cuts off at 6 PM, and it’s a 6 mile bike ride to the station). That’s probably a small fraction of the food budget for what you do for one of your dinners for students. I’d be more sympathetic to your complaints if the costs were anything remotely onerous, but from my perspective (as a poor grad student myself) that price is pretty much zero.

  14. RobS says:

    Excellent comment thread and I really appreciated the link to Shoup’s study. The cash-out mechanism is lovely. From the discussion it feels like some spheres of taboo trading have collided –

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