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What Seinfeld Teaches Us About Parking

I haven't been watching a lot of Seinfeld lately. I guess it doesn't help that I don't have a TV or cable anymore. Nevertheless, I've been thinking about the show lately. Even 12 years after it went off the air, it still manages to stay relevant to so much of every day life.

From an urbanist perspective, the show highlights a lot of the great things about cities. The four main Seinfeld characters live on the Upper West Side (aside from a few brief stints living elsewhere in the city). They walk to a lot of places in the neighborhood. The ride in cabs quite frequently, and occasionally use the subway. And except for Elaine, they all own cars at various points throughout the show.

(from Flickr user #9)

I count at least four parking lessons that we can take away from Seinfeld.

1. People will drive around indefinitely for a 'free space'
In the episode The Parking Space, George and Elaine return from shopping at a flea market. When they get close to Jerry's block, they search for a place to park. Dialogue:
George: Alright, start looking for spaces.

Elaine: Oh, you're never gonna find a space on Jerry's block, just put it in a
garage.

George: Look, I have my system. First I look for the dream spot right in front
of the door, then I slowly expand out in concentric circles.

Elaine: Oh come on, George, please put it in a garage. I don't want to spend
an hour looking for a space.

George: I can't park in a garage.


Elaine: Why?


George: I don't know, I just can't. Nobody in my family can pay for parking,
it's a sickness. My father never paid for parking; my mother, my brother, nobody. We can't do it.

Elaine: I'll pay for it.


George: You don't understand. A garage. I can't even pull in there. It's
like going to a prostitute. Why should I pay, when if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free? (he hears a horn honking) What? What do you want? Go around me, I'm looking for spaces.
Some estimates put the number of people driving around Manhattan cruising for spaces at higher than 25%.

2. People parked in 'free spaces' are more reluctant to leave.
In the episode The Handicap Spot, Jerry ask George about borrowing Frank Costanza's car so they can pick something up at the mall. George explains why it's not feasible. Dialogue:
Jerry: What about your father's car?

George: No, no, no. Out of the question. I was over there today. He's got the good spot in front
of the good building in the good neighborhood. I know he's not gonna wanna move.

Jerry: Are you serious?


George: You don't know what that spot means to him. Once he gets it, he doesn't go out for weeks.
For some people, a place to park is more than just a place to park. It's a point of pride. This is the reason why 'free downtown parking' often backfires around the holidays, when cities offer it to encourage people to come shop. Why come, buy what you need and leave when you can come, stay all day, and it won't cost you a dime?

3. 'Free spaces' in desirable neighborhoods are highly valuable.
Again, from The Parking Space, George and Mike Moffit simultaneously find the perfect spot in front of Jerry's apartment. Dialogue:
George: Hey, what are you doing?

Mike: I think I'm parking my car.


George: You can't do that, you can't just sneak in from the back like that.


Mike: I'm not sneaking. I didn't even know you were parking, you were just
sitting there three spaces up.

George: Well if you didn't think I was parking, why did you put it in head
first?

Mike: Well that's the way I park. Anyway, you didn't start backing in until I
pulled in.

George: I was in the middle of a conversation.


Mike: Hey, buddy, what can I tell you?


George: The point is I was here first.


Mike: I was closer to this space than you were.


George: But I'm backing in! You can't put it in head first!


Mike: I can if I have room!


George: Are you gonna move the car?

Mike: No, I'm not gonna move the car.


George: Jerk!


Mike: Oh, you're not?


George: Do you believe this guy?


Elaine: Come on, we'll put it in a garage.


George: I am not putting it in a garage, it's my space.
It would be one thing if this were pure television drama, but violent incidents over parking spaces have become unfortunately common. Just last month, someone was stabbed over a sparking spot dispute. Earlier this year a 99-year old man got beaten up over a parking argument. Right here in my own city, someone was assaulted for trying to hold a parking space. This isn't always a laughing matter.

4. People will find ways to game 'free parking'
In the episode The Alternate Side, Jerry explains to George that he pays a guy in the neighborhood to move his car around the block to avoid parking tickets. Dialogue:
George: Who's Sid?

Jerry: He's this guy in the neighborhood, parks cars on the block.


George: What do you mean?


Jerry: He moves them from one side of the street to the other so you don't get
a ticket.

George: What, do you pay him for that?


Jerry: Yeah, like fifty bucks a month.


George: How many people does he do that for?


Jerry: The whole block, forty, fifty cars.


Kramer: He only works three hours a day. He makes a fortune. Course he's been doing that for years, right Jerry?
So everyone in the neighborhood pays this guy $50 a month to move their cars around the various 'free spaces'. The entrepreneur makes a fortune, and the city, providing the 'free spaces' gets nothing. People are willing to pay 50 bucks per month, because they know it's still well under what the market price really should be.

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