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In L.A., valet is everywhere – and not just for cars

In the city where parking your own car is so yesterday, residents rely on valet service for their bikes as well as BMWs.

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"The people who work out here are very successful, and their time is too precious to search for a parking space," says Bill Jones, waiting for his wife beside the valet podium. "They don't care about spending extra money on letting someone else park their car."

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Many factors influence whether people park their own car or let someone else do it – everything from pragmatism to cost. Louis Sherman partakes in valet parking at Gelson's, an upscale supermarket in Century City, because it is more convenient when she shops with her husband, who struggles with health problems.

"The valets help you with your groceries and that reduces stress," says Ms. Sherman, pushing a cart full of produce with her husband in tow. "It's not that expensive, either." Valet parking is free at Gelson's when purchases total at least $25.

But most valet parking, especially at trendy restaurants and hotels, isn't free. John Van Horn, editor and publisher of Parking Today, believes it should stay that way. "A majority of people think parking should be free, but they don't hiccup when they go to Dodger Stadium and pay 20 bucks to park," says Mr. Van Horn, whose trade publication is based in Los Angeles. "Parking is a resource that needs to be nurtured, and you don't nurture resources by giving them away for free."

Still, convenience and cost aren't the only reasons LA is a citadel of valet parking. Government rules play a role, too. The city requires restaurants and other commercial establishments to provide about 10 parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of store space. Many don't have that much room, so the city allows them to institute valet parking instead.

"Valet parking is a byproduct of the city's minimum-parking requirement and isn't always a result of demand from consumers," says Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at the University of California Los Angeles. "The city would not allow a restaurant or a new gym to open up if there wasn't enough on-site parking."

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Diego Alvarez doesn't necessarily care why people valet park, just as long as they do it. He's more concerned about how an anemic economy may affect what ends up in his pocket. Mr. Alvarez parks bicycles on the weekend at the Farmers' Market and cars during the week at a popular shopping mall in Pasadena. He worries some people may find valet parking too costly now.

"Many times the tips are how we make a living," says Alvarez, noting that bicyclists generally tip a little better than motorists because the bicycle valet is free.

But Stu Lord, a graduate student, doesn't care whether he has the option to valet his bicycle or his car.

"I will avoid valet parking at all costs," says Mr. Lord, waiting for his car with his mom and dad at Spago, Wolfgang Puck's fashionable flagship restaurant in Beverly Hills. "If I wasn't taking my parents out to dinner tonight, I would have no problem parking several blocks away. It's the principle behind parking. It should be free."