How to Save Time Hunting for a Parking Spot, South Korea Edition

Our recent podcast “Parking Is Hell” explored the high costs of free parking. Transportation scholar Donald Shoup described one study, from L.A.:

We made 240 observations. When you add it up, the average time it took to space was only three minutes, that’s two and a half times around the block, which doesn’t seem like very much. It’s about half a mile hunting for parking. But when you add up all the people who are parking in Westwood Village, if they had the same average that we had, that adds up to 3,600 vehicle miles of travel a day. That’s the distance across the U.S., and that’s just in the 15-block area of Westwood. If you add it up for a year, that’s equal to 36 trips around the Earth or four trips to the moon hunting for underpriced curb parking in a little 15-block area. 

In South Korea, an oil company has started a campaign to reduce parking search time. The HERE campaign states that South Korean drivers wander 500 meters everyday for parking spots; by cleverly installing a balloon that indicates exactly where open spots are, it reduces search time for drivers. The balloon dips down when a car is parked, and floats back up when the spot is free. The video is worth watching:

(HT: Dan Gibson)


Great idea to save gas and money. Which is why the oil companies in the US will never allow this. They'll legislate the wasting of gas before they'll let this happen. Even if this did get installed in the USA, what's the over/under on how long before they are stolen or popped?


If a municipality wanted to enact similar policy in their downtown parking, or a big department store wanted to implement this in their parking, there's nothing the oil companies can do about that short of bribing said stores/municipalities to not do it.


We do have something similar in the US actuallyactually. In a parking structure in LA they had lights above the parking spots. Green if it was free, red if it was taken. Easy enough haha. It was awesome because you new to skip a row by looking down and seeing all red :) The balloon idea would be great to save money but you would waste time daily replacing balloons.

Jeremiah Stanghini

Looks like we were on the same wavelength.

I opened this tab, but didn't read it right away so my comment seems unnecessarily duplicative. Ah well.


Using balloons is cute, but floating balloons will contribute the helium shortage.

Don't use helium balloons: Save the helium for research and cooling MRI machines instead!

Jeremiah Stanghini

I'll piggyback on the less cynical point that J makes -- popping.

While the idea in principle is great, I worry about the "maintenance" for the balloons. That is, will heavy precipitation pop them? What happens when they lose their air and are no longer buoyant?

A better idea that builds on this principle be some sort of electronic system that you see in parking garages these days. The series of green/red lights tell you whether there are parking spaces down certain aisles. I realize that the cost of this system requires a greater upfront cost, but it'd probably be more successful.

Then again, there's probably only one place for "S Oil" to put there name (upon exiting/entering) whereas with this balloon idea, they can put it in every parking space.

Nicole G.

I'm just wondering why the balloons are written in English?

Elliot Krane

It may save oil but it consumes a lot of helium! The idea is obviously a clever marketing ploy for a cynical oil company, but is not scalable, or even feasible in limited areas considering the attrition rates for strings and balloons.


I like it, though I think a better idea would be to have posts next to each spot that light up when the spot is free.


Labor rates influence the country's system for dealing with parking. In China, parking attendant is a sought after job. Every block, or at least Chinese equivalent of a block, has 24-hour parking attendants, who efficiently control the whole process including collection of parking fees. With bloated labor force in a state controlled economy, the Chinese solution works. The use distinctive traffic cones to signal open spots. The traffic cones double as visual ques for a parking driver when the attendant is engaged elsewhere.

In Mexico, every block is "owned" by a car-parker. The person is homeless and lives on the block. The parking fees is their income. In addition to parking the car owner gets security. Anyone parking a car on an unattended block will likely not find their car upon returning. The car-parker also is the de-facto community bulletin board. He, I have never seen a female car-parker, has all the information, including gossip, for any house or business on his block. The distinctive twirling red towel highlights the car-parker for the driver.

South Korea needs balloons only because of the lack on an excess labor pool.


Taylor Marks

This is cute, but I see a lot of issues with it, such as it being tempting for vandals (it's a balloon, for crying out loud. Raise your hand if you've never even been tempted to pop a balloon.)

I'm sure there's an equally effective method (if not better) that's less tempting to vandals, and maybe doesn't lead to helium shortages.


It would seem a better solution is using cellphones and direct drivers to open spots that way. Better spots can be picked based on where you are going next. It also neatly avoids the problem of multiple drivers trying to go for the same spot. Taken further it also allows for ondemand pricing (eg a spot 20m away is 50c/hr while 200m away is 10c/hr).


I live in South Korea. I once went out with a friend with a car. It took us more than an hour of driving around the same block to find a parking spot. When I asked him why he didn't seemed bothered by it he said that this was part and parcel of living in Seoul. After that I decided I would never own a vehicle in Seoul. You will spend as much time looking for a spot as you will driving to your location. And there aren't many open parking lots in Korea where this balloon idea could work. The photo looks like a service centre along the highway somewhere. There isn't a single parking lot in Seoul that's public.


In the video they are all backing in! Proof that South Koreans are better drivers than Americans!


A little off topic, but I read once (forget where) about a North Korean who defected to South Korea. He decided to leave when he heard a South Korean radio comedy sketch that involved two people arguing over a parking spot. At first he thought the very premise must be part of the joke, but when he realized that the South really had that many cars, he wanted out!