Want more parking? Careful what you wish for!

The #BlackFridayParking exercise was a striking crowd-sourced effort organized last week by the Strong Towns movement.

It highlighted the absurdly excessive parking supply around suburban retail in the United States. It thereby pokes fun at ludicrous minimum parking requirements.

One of the #BlackFridayParking photos via Strong Towns blog

Latin American cities please take note. South Asian and Southeast Asian cities please take note. Australia and New Zealand please take note. In fact, everywhere with parking minimums please take note! When it comes to parking, be careful what you wish for.

Strong Towns called for photos of retail parking lots on Black Friday to be shared via Twitter under the hashtag #BlackFridayParking.

The parking relevance of Black Friday, the day after the USA holiday of Thanksgiving, arises because this is traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year in that country.

Parking requirements (at the centre of the conventional suburban approach to parking policy) aim to match the peak parking demand of the year (or nearly that level). And when is that peak parking demand? Black Friday!

So surely retail parking lots should fill up on Black Friday right? Wrong. 

Please read the Strong Towns blog post that debriefs after the event. It makes numerous excellent points.

And scroll down to the slideshow of photographs from the day. Image after image (70 of them) show huge expanses of empty parking around numerous retail outlets across the USA.

Charles Marohn brings home the key message:
If you want to build a strong town, get rid of your parking minimums. Any chaos that ensues will be healthier for your city than the acres of unproductive, wasted space we have justified with a veneer of professional expertise.
Chaotic on-street parking problems can be managed. Priced public parking can be built if the demand and willingness to pay justify it.

But vast oceans of parking cannot easily be reversed. Multiple underground or podium levels of parking cannot easily be put to better use.

You may think that parking requirements are not really why retailers like Walmart are almost always set in a vast parking lot. 

And you might be right. Here is Charles Marohn on this issue:
Do you think Wal-Mart opposes parking minimums? They may on an individual site here or there, but in general, parking minimums are one of their best advantages. They simultaneously raise the cost of entry for competitors while further tilting the marketplace in favor of businesses catering to people who drive (a segment Wal-Mart dominates). It is a self-reinforcing, downward cycle. If you are pro-biking, pro-walking or pro- transit, you are anti- parking minimums.

Was #BlackFridayParking a scientific exercise? No, of course not. 

It was striking and suggestive but you might say it proves nothing. Presumably the most enthusiastic participants were parking reform supporters who went out looking for empty lots and may have been reluctant to share images of full ones.

Nevertheless, I am assuming for now that what we see here is not too extremely misleading and that plenty of suburban retail locations have very far from full parking, even on Black Friday.

But, you say, there may be other reasons for that empty parking! Perhaps many of the photographed retail outlets may be struggling and in decline. That would help explain it.

But, if that is true, then it would actually highlight another theme of the Strong Towns movement - the economic vulnerability of the car-dependent buildings-set-in-oceans-of-parking development model relative to more traditional patterns of development.

Traditional retail development in town cores can also decline of course. And many town centres across the US are indeed in a sorry state.

Yet, Strong Towns has repeatedly highlighted that even blighted town cores generate value and tax revenue that far exceeds those of even thriving suburban retail strips. Something is wrong with the whole suburban car-dependent model of development.

In any case, parking policy is again central to many of the problems of traditional neighbourhoods. Here is Charles Marohn again:
... For small businesses -- especially a startup -- providing parking is a huge, expensive burden. When the parking required is excessive to the actual needs of the business, a local government is forcing that business owner to allocate scarce capital to unproductive uses. If you are pro- small business, you are anti- parking minimums.
... And parking minimums force some of the most ridiculous land use decisions I have ever seen. An individual wants to take a vacant storefront and open a business but then city hall tells them they need five parking spots. Where do they get that? Well they either don't (likely) or they buy a neighboring property, tear down whatever is on that lot and convert it to financially unproductive parking. This decimates the tax base when it happens and encourages horizontal expansion when it doesn't. If you are pro- environment or if you advocate for a strong, healthy tax base, you are anti- parking minimums.

I would really like to see more exercises like #BlackFridayParking.  

Do you have an idea for a similar event where you are? Please share!


  1. I'm from New Zealand, I'm taking note, and I'd also like to add some comments.

    As you say the black friday excercise wasn't at all scientific - the photographs could have been taken before the centers opened, in communities hard-hit by recession, and a variety of reasons - but it does raise some interesting points for consideration.

    Here in NZ the accepted best-practice design target for retail (mall) parking is not to target the busiest day but the 30th-highest hour accepting that for the 30 busiest shopping hours there will be insufficient parking. That may or may not match with the local parking minimums.

    It is also not unknown for larger retail centres to provide parking above the minimum if they think it will make their centre more attractive than competing centres.

    I have seen centres built to the same minimum parking requirements with very different parking demands over time - here older centres tend to see a decline in customer numbers when ever a new centre is opened - the latest centre is bigger and better and the "place to be". Where under-utilised parking is at-grade it is relatively easy to convert to another use, but I would agree multiple-level parking structures present a more expensive barrier to redevelopment.

    The use of parking minimums for storefronts in established neighbourhoods is the wrong approach. Aside from the barrier highlighted in your post it is inefficient for small stores to each provide 5 spaces. It is far more efficient to group that parking into a communal area - parking is easier to find, easier to manage, less parking is required, and the resulting area generally works a lot better. This is not an argument to get rid of all parking minimums - it is an argument for authorities to provide better solutions as it is impractical to leave the provision of communal parking areas to property owners in areas with fragmented ownership.

    I some of the arguments for getting rid of parking minimums, arguments like "let developers decide their own provision"; however I have yet to be convinced on the merits of that argument, at least in some areas. Many developers are likely to provide insufficient parking - and in many cases that will change demand for travel or move people to other modes; but in some cases, particularly where large retail malls are located in residential neighbourhoods the result will be different. In those cases the overall parking demand will remain unchanged but it will be located throughout the residential street network. This moves the cost off the developer, off the motorist, and onto the residents and other users of the residential street who are left with no parking and severely reduced amenity. Measures to manage parking in favour of residents have been tried but are difficult to do well.

    Parking minimums may have been introduced for all kinds of poor reasons, but there is at least one good reason for having some parking minimums - set at an appropriate level of course.


Post a Comment