Parking is an important issue for city planners and policymakers. Parking is an important issue for city planners and policymakers. Parking is an important issue for city planners and policymakers. (Photo: Non C / Shutterstock)

This traffic expert wants to change how we park

Scientists and urban planners create virtual reality lab to study the psychology of parking decisions.

You're driving downtown to get to an important meeting. You're a bit frazzled, cappuccino in one hand, while you navigate the city streets with the other. Being late to this appointment is just not an option. So, as you approach your destination, what do you do? Will you spend time circling the area looking for on-street parking that's close to the meeting? Or will you head straight to a sure thing – a parking garage, even though it may be a couple blocks further away?

That may seem like an inconsequential decision in the big scheme of things. But to urban planners, it's of great import. After all, cars that circle the block multiple times looking for a parking space end up congesting traffic and causing more air pollution as they putter around. A city likely would prefer you just head straight to a parking lot.

Thankfully, there are people like Dr. Eran Ben-Elia working on that very issue. A geography professor at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, Ben-Elia has devoted the bulk of his research to studying people's parking habits and why they might choose one spot over another. A niche field, for sure.

A guest tries their hand at the parking simulator in Ben-Elia's lab at Ben Gurion University. A guest tries their hand at the parking simulator in Ben-Elia's lab at Ben Gurion University. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, he gave us a tour of his high-tech lab, an arcade of sorts. Guests strap on virtual reality glasses, sit down in front of a steering wheel and are instantly transported to a city street. He watches as they make parking decisions in virtual environments. The 47-year-old Tel Aviv native has turned the parking experience into a video game. "Everyone who has played Sim City knows that it's very, very difficult to manage a city," he said.

What he's found is that there are different types of parkers – those who are risk-averse and prefer certainty will head straight to the nearest parking garage for a guaranteed spot, while there are others who take a risk and look for a closer spot on the street. "If you have enough perseverance," he pointed out, "you will find parking."

Ben-Elia, who considers himself a "spatial scientist," was inspired by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning Israeli psychologist who helped found the field known as behavioral economics. (Bestselling author Michael Lewis wrote a biography of Kahneman and his partner, Israeli professor Amos Tversky, last year.) "The whole thing about transportation is we're trying to understand how people behave under uncertainty," Ben-Elia told us. "Because once you leave your home and you want to go where you go – say to your work, and you're commuting – you're under uncertainty. Because you never know when you really will arrive. You maybe have a clue from previous experience or from a GPS app, but you don't really know."

His research boils down to solving this one question: "We want to see what will convince those cruisers to avoid cruising."

Professor Eran Ben Elia (left) explains his research to guests in his laboratory. Professor Eran Ben-Elia (left) explains his research to visitors in his laboratory. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

A pilot project in San Francisco called SF Park was working on solving a similar problem in the congested streets of the City by the Bay. They thought if they could raise prices on street parking, it would solve the issue. But their rates were inconsistent and confusing to drivers. Some streets offered one price, while one street over it was less expensive.

Instead, Ben-Elia looks at two data points: occupation rate vs. turnover rate. "These are the two factors that are really important because these are what play the chance that you might find a parking space while you're cruising," he said. Time of day matters, too. At night, when people are already settled in at home, there's less chance of turnover.

His goal is to give the information he finds in his lab to cities and policymakers around the world. In addition to Israel, he has already worked on projects in El Salvador and Venezuela. "They will have much more information to try to do these expensive natural experiments, but with the ingredients for success. That's why games are really important. They re-create an experience which people can relate to, and they get consequences of their decisions."

So what kind of parker is the professor? Is he a risk taker or does he head straight to a parking lot when he comes to the university each day? "Well, I actually don't drive to work," he said with a laugh. "I take the train."

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This traffic expert wants to change how we park
A scientist at Ben Gurion University has created a virtual reality lab to study the psychology of parking decisions.