Market failure of the day, Connecticut commuter department

By Felix Salmon
October 25, 2011
Shelly Banjo's article about the multi-year waiting lists for parking spots at Connecticut train stations is going somewhat viral, for good reason:

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Shelly Banjo’s article about the multi-year waiting lists for parking spots at Connecticut train stations is going somewhat viral, for good reason:

The waiting list for a Fairfield Parking Authority permit has 4,200 people and stretches past six years…

“It’s like season tickets to the Giants—even when you’re dead they get passed down to your children,” said Jim Cameron, head of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council…

Connecticut’s parking crunch is, in large part, a problem of supply and demand: More than 60,000 commuters head toward Manhattan on Metro-North’s New Haven train line on weekdays, but transportation officials say stations have public parking for nearly 20,000…

John Eck, a former television executive from Fairfield, kept his permit after he left his job last spring—”just in case” he needed to start commuting again.

“You hear horror stories of people missing the renewal deadline and losing the permit in other towns,” Mr. Eck said. “I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”

Eugene Colonese, the transportation department’s rail administrator, said the task force “came to a certain point and well, stopped its work for a little while.”

He said the department is still “looking for the best way to get commuters to stations, a balance we think will be between building more transit-oriented development, looking at shuttles and other public transportation, as well as parking improvements.”

The parking lot at Fairfield train station is big enough for 1,053 cars; the station sees 2,942 people, on average, ride in to NYC, and the waiting list now has 4,278 names on it. These are all big numbers. The price for a spot, however, is low: just $340 per year. Obviously, that’s well below market, and causing all manner of problems. But there’s another number that’s lower still:

We recently spoke to Director of the Fairfield Parking Authority, Cynthia Placko…

Placko told us there isn’t room for many more than the 24 bike lockers that are already there, and those are totally filled.

My guess is that it really isn’t all that hard to take the space given over to 1,053 parking spots and use it effectively to house transportation for 2,942 people. Unless, that is, those people are all taking up the space of some enormous SUV.

In a place like Fairfield, it’s hard to raise the price of parking so much that you start to incentivize car-sharing directly. So here’s my proposal: rip out a bunch of car spaces, and replace them with covered, secure parking for bicycles and scooters. Maybe motorbikes, too. Surely that’s an obviously better way of getting commuters to stations than giving them each a couple of hundred square feet of massively underpriced prime Connecticut real estate, and then acting shocked when they flock to the opportunity.

Update: Fairfield could even buy back parking slots for more than they were sold for, and convert them to two-wheeled parking. Continue to do that until there’s one empty two-wheeled parking space. And then auction off the rest to the highest bidders.


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Simple solution: auction off the existing permits annually, and use the proceeds to pay for the improvements to the parking lot.

Posted by mra11is | Report as abusive

“We charge $345 for an annual permit, whereas the private lot nearby charges $1,280,” said Karl Kilduff, an administrative officer for the town of Darien, where the parking permit waitlist runs to seven years.

Gosh, I think that they know what the market price is even. Of course, if they charge it, people will be screaming about being ripped off….

Posted by bradpholden | Report as abusive

This sort of thing makes me realise why the government should strictly limit its remit.


I like the idea of more bike lockers but as an aggressive bike commuter myself, I would struggle with sitting my sweaty ass down in a train.
Motorcycle spots might be more helpful.

Posted by TinyTim1 | Report as abusive

I don’t see the market failure here. There is no scarcity of resource. Everyone in the story appears to have a place to park.
The towns are shorting themselves revenue by undercharging, but that’s not a reason to build more parking spaces.
As far as Felix’s proposal to rip out car spaces to make room for bikes: Politics is the art of the possible, and that would be IMpossible.

Posted by RZ0 | Report as abusive

Bike commuting isn’t very practical for 4 months of the year–make that six months. Especially for people who have to wear $1000 suits.

Posted by Publius | Report as abusive

Price is the great determinator. Raise prices until supply and demand are almost matched, then it will be possible to turn a spare car slot into a few bike lockers. Assuming of course there are no alternatives to commuting by train.

Alternatively, invest the subsidies that are now effectively given by not taking the market price into building better public transport feeder systems eg tramways so the problem is spread, and convenience for commuters is increased as the start off points will be closer to home.

I mean, it ain’t rocket science!

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

As usual the supply/demand people and proponents of raising the price don’t live in the real world. Because in the real world there are options and they aren’t listed here.

For example, where I live the parking is limited BUT the train station straddles two towns. One has “permit only” signs up, one doesn’t. So raising the price doesn’t do any good, they are just screwing themselves out of money for not making more parking (which they clearly could do).

Also there are other towns on the line that are the same, and one stop away there is a parking garage close by that charges $5 a day. Furthermore, price out the train ticket costs, the price to park and then what the radius is for parking and you’ll be amazed at where people will then drive to.

So in this case, the price could be constrained by all these real world effects. NONE of which any of you discuss. Typical for economists or armchair ones ;)

Posted by skyman123 | Report as abusive

Ah yes, the much coveted RR parking permit. It’s even driving some normally mild-mannered Connecticut suburbanites to a life of crime! I came across this rather embarrassing article on the front page of the local paper last: “Weston Man Arrested for Forging RR Parking Permits”

Posted by JPorter1000 | Report as abusive

Nobody HAS to wear $1,000 suits. That’s a choice thing, often driven by poor self-image, lack of confidence and a small, err, afterthought. Even if it were true, leave your suit at work and commute in more comfortable clothes. Heck, there’s even a business opportunity here, “garaging” people’s suits overnight and cleaning them on a regular schedule.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive


I don’t disagree with you that nobody has to wear $1,000 suits, but everybody has to wear something to work. And unless you are going to wear an insulated wetsuit, riding a bike/motorcycle/moped to work in Connecticut is not really an option from October-April.

Nor is it really feasible that there will be some sort of supplemental mass transit in Southwestern Connecticut that will allow people to get from their home to the train station without a car.

Posted by ctcommuter | Report as abusive


I rode a motorcycle to work in Maine – in the winter…. You can get Goretex bike overalls pretty cheap, or just pack your work clothes (or leave them at work… just take a new shirt every day…). It’s very doable, cold is the biggest worry, not so much rain.

Here in CA, employers are required to have showers, something which encourages alternative transportation.

Posted by ChrisMaresca | Report as abusive

@Chris Maresca

Wow, better you than me. I suppose it is possible to commute via motorcycle in the winter – but you don’t see many people doing it.

Posted by ctcommuter | Report as abusive

@Publius et. al.
The current bike parking is sold out which indicates more demand than supply (FS doesn’t say if there’s a waiting list on them.)

The story states that there is room for some more bike lockers, though not “many”. Why don’t they put some “more” in? Regardless of the feasibility of swapping car spots for bike spots, even a minor parking price increase could fund improvement for bike parking which would encourage more to bike, etc. etc. etc.

The massive benefits of rationalizing parking pricing seems to just barely be beginning to sink into the heads of public agency managers.

Posted by MaxUtility | Report as abusive

I don’t see commuting on a bike/moped in New England for at least 2-3 months in the winter largely for safety reasons. Snow and ice on the streets make it a very dicey proposition. The streets are narrow due to plowed snow, with no room on the sides of the streets. Sidewalks, when cleared at all, are narrow and icy. Cars can’t stop easily. I would hate to ride any two-wheeled vehicle under these conditions.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

And it’s dark during both morning and evening commutes, and street lights in the suburbs are widely spaced or nonexistent. You may be able to see, but even with a light and reflective clothing, others are much less likely to see you.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Felix–you forgot that taking the bike with you should be an option. Surely anyone in Fairfield who can afford a $1000 suit can afford a Dahon or Bike Friday. Or even a Brompton! Then you can skip the cab to the office too.

And yes, you can commute all year by bike in New England. I do, every day, no matter what. Admittedly, I only have to go from one end of Cambridge to the other, but still. Rain, snow, I can deal.

Posted by Moopheus | Report as abusive

Moopheus, you’re in the city. It’s different when you get off the train in the suburbs. Try taking the commuter rail out to Lowell, for example.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

I, too, was particularly impressed by the example in which the market price (of a slightly less convenient spot) is readily visible.

Further, that market price is $5 a day. My years of living in NYC have perhaps given me a different perspective from that of Darienites, but I think if anyone pitched a fit over having their permit price raised to $5 per day, I’d be inclined to mock them. (Where are these people commuting to? If it’s New York, they’re paying more than twice that for the train ride.)

Posted by dWj | Report as abusive

Motorcycle riders have a very high fatality/serious injury rate, because they are involved in car collisions, but lack the protection of a car. So in the absence of separate lanes for bikes/motorcycles, Felix’s proposal will increase the number of bike and motorcycle rush hour commuters, and thus will increase the number of fatal/serious traffic accidents. I wonder how this cost should be factored into the analysis (because it clearly isn’t right now).

Posted by AmadeusX | Report as abusive

A parking garage is about $4M to build. That’s only $1k per person in the queue.

Posted by mattmc | Report as abusive

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