A study conducted by University of Washington students (with funding from Microsoft and institutional support from UW and the University of British Columbia) found that 35 percent of cars moving around Seattle "are either searching for parking or are ridesharing drivers waiting for ride assignments." The latter account for 10 percent of "cruising" behaviors, as the students call it. “It translates to a lot of fuel wasted per year, lots of wasted time,” said a member of the team.
But wasting time is indeed the point. And here we must do something interesting, and recognize that wasted time is not all the same. There is wasted time that costs very little or even nothing, and wasted time that is expensive. If wasted time is dear, then it is in harmony with the kind of economy we live in. A society that wanted to make life cheaper for all would have almost nothing to do with cars, which cost lots of money to make, distribute, and maintain.
But why does our society want things to be so expensive? This is almost explained by Paul Sweezy and Paul Baran in Monopoly Capital. They note that the three big "epoch-making inventions" in the history of capitalism are the steam engine, the railroad, and the automobile. The last, however, was different from the first two in one significant way that Sweezy and Baran did not point out: Its rise corresponded with rising wages in the the post-World War II period. And so, though American workers had more money than ever before, much of it was going straight to "expensive shit," if I may use the words of Feli Kuti. The relationship between high wages and high cost of living is essential to the truce between American labor and the captains of business that became official with the Treaty of Detroit.
The "professor of parking" Donald Shoup, who tweeted about this UW report (above), pointed out in his 2005 book The High Cost of Free Parking that government subsides for cheap parking in the US range between $127 billion and $374 billion a year. And so the car industry provides a solution to a problem that few Americans understand, as they are taught nothing but bad economics day in and day out. That problem is surplus capital, which always threatens to slow growth (and therefore reduce profits). Costly parking spaces absorb massive amounts of surplus capital and lock it up. (Shoup recommends privatizing parking.)