How parking (validation) makes the movies more expensive

A few nights ago I saw The World’s End at the theater in Salt Lake City’s Gateway mall. Because that theater is only a block away from my house, I walked there.

As I was buying the tickets, however, I was asked if I needed parking validation. I said no, but the clerk was apparently unaccustomed to my response because he gave me a validation ticket anyway.

And that’s when it hit me: I was paying for parking whether I was using it or not. And that’s a terrible arrangement.

Parking garages in Salt Lake City.

Parking garages in Salt Lake City.

Parking at the Gateway costs $3 for three hours — about the time you’d need to walk from the parking lot, buy a movie ticket, watch the previews and the movie, and get back to your car. A validation ticket makes that parking seem free, but of course it is not; the costs of building, maintaining and securing parking lots are incredibly high and are always passed on to building owners, tenants and, finally via prices, customers.

In other words, we pay more for goods and services that come with “free” parking because the costs of that parking are rolled into the prices of whatever we’re buying. This is true of all parking, of course, but the validation transaction emphasizes that parking was never free to begin with, it’s merely an obligatory add-on when buying something else.

So in my case, the movie ticket was more expensive because it came with $3 worth of parking. It’s like I was forced to buy a concession that I didn’t want.

This is similar to the “bundling” that cable companies do. You may want HBO or ESPN, but you’re forced to buy 500 other channels to get them. In this case, however, the movie isn’t bundled with other entertainment, it’s bundled with a parking lot.

Obviously, this arrangement incentivizes driving. By way of analogy, if you were forced to buy a bucket of popcorn, you’d probably end up eating it, whether you originally wanted it or not. Or, to return to the cable bundling analogy, you probably watch more, say, VH1 Classics than you’d otherwise be willing to pay for a la carte because it’s there, you paid for it, so whatever, you watch it.

With parking, this situation doesn’t just hurt pedestrians, it also hurts drivers. Let’s say, for example, that you head to the movies in a group of six friends. Theoretically, each person could get parking validation, which is reflected in ticket prices.

But everyone in the group probably didn’t drive a separate car, so you may only need one parking validation ticket for the whole gang. That means four people paid for a “concession” or “bundle” they never used or needed.


Parked cars at an outdoor mall in Provo.

A better solution would be to have drivers pay for parking a la carte. In that scenario, each of six friends could have pitched in $.50 for parking a single car and had their ticket prices consequently reduced.  Or they could have chosen to walk to the movies and thus avoided parking costs altogether. Or they even could have driven separate cars and paid $3 each for parking.

The point is just that “de-bundling” the cost of parking from the cost of goods and services gives people more choice, the opportunity to save money, incentives to use healthier forms of transportation, and a better understanding of where their consumer dollars are going.

This principle is true everywhere: it’d be better for grocery stores, restaurants, and everywhere else to charge people for the parking they actually use, rather than the maximum potential amount of parking they could use — which is what’s going on every time parking at a business seems free.



  1. Pingback: “Bundling” parking with housing costs you more money | About Town
  2. Pingback: Parking Today

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