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.

Evan Pondel
In Los Angeles, valet service is offered everywhere from the gym to the farmers' market – and in some cases for bikes. The Santa Monica Farmer's Market reserves parking spots for bikes on Sundays.
Evan Pondel
Bike rack: Holding an ear of corn, Paul Newman waits to hand his bicycle to a valet at the Santa Monica Farmer's Market, which reserves eight parking spaces for bikes on Sundays.

Andy Dunbar is usually anti-valet parking, preferring to spend several minutes searching for a space on the street rather than pay $5 for someone else to park his car. But on this particular morning, Mr. Dunbar has decided to buck his do-it-on-my-own ethos and give in to the valet parking attendants in front of the Santa Monica Farmers' Market.

A line of road-weary commuters queues up in front of the attendants in their trademark orange vests, dutifully going about parking the various modes of transportation – Raleighs, Treks, and Schwinns. "This is one of those opportunities I can't pass up," says Dunbar, a local attorney. "The valet parking is free, and what a great excuse to get on your bicycle and go for a ride on a Sunday morning."

In the city that considers parking your own car oh so yesterday, valet service is expanding to the Farmers' Market and other unusual venues for whatever form of transit people seem to use – be it car, Cannondale, or camel.

Personal convenience, growing gridlock on the roads, and a status-oriented culture have helped turn valet parking into a phenomenon here well beyond a few high-end restaurants. Now health clubs, supermarkets, and outdoor shopping bazaars are offering either paid or free parking service. Perhaps nowhere is the practice more entrenched than in LA.

"Los Angeles is the kind of place where some people enjoy the notice of getting out of their car," says Barbara Gross, a professor of consumer behavior at California State University Northridge. "But I believe functional value is mostly at play here, and people see valet parking as utilitarian and an efficient use of time."

A combination of recreation and relief on the roadways was what lay behind the Farmers' Market move. Eight parking spaces are reserved for bicycles on Sunday morning at the open-air market. A crew of three valet parking attendants can squeeze about 120 bikes into the spaces. More than 350 bicycles take advantage of the service on a busy day.

"Bicycle valet parking is effective on many levels," says Luis Morris, a transportation specialist with the city of Santa Monica, who came up with the concept a couple summers ago. "It encourages people to exercise, it's environmentally friendly, builds a bond between family and friends, and helps the city reduce traffic."

Colleen Craig and her daughter meet every Sunday to go for a leisurely 15-mile journey to the site. "We like riding our bikes to the market because we don't have to deal with looking for a parking meter and squeezing into a parking space," says Ms. Craig, manager of a medical office in Redondo Beach.

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Most valet services remain focused on travel modes without spokes – many of which are venues where self-parking once prevailed. At the überchic Sports Club/LA, for instance, valet service is offered to members for $3.50 for three hours. A Range Rover, Mercedes Benz, and Lexus line the curb outside the club as the valet stands at attention.

"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."

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."

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