Exposing the Black Friday Parking Myth

Image credit: Strong Towns
Image credit: Strong Towns

by James A. Bacon

The Strong Towns blog has published a brilliant piece of crowd-sourced content on the topic of Black Friday parking.

Here’s the issue: Smart Growth advocates are highly critical of local government regulations that mandate a minimum number of parking spaces around retail establishments. The resulting expanses of parking lots, they say, push buildings farther apart and create pedestrian-hostile settings. The ultimate irony, they add, is that most of the parking goes unused.

Defenders of Business As Usual say, true, the spaces may be empty most of the year, but they are needed for peak holiday traffic. They fill up on Black Friday. God forbid that shoppers endure two or three days out of the year where they have difficulty finding parking. God forbid that they conduct their shopping a few days earlier or later.

Chuch Marohn at Strong Towns decided to test the proposition that parking lots fill up on Black Friday. He sent out the word on his blog to readers around the country to take photos of malls and shopping centers in their communities on that most unholy of days. Some 70 photographs, which you can view in a slide show, highlight one empty retail parking lot after another. So much for the Black Friday myth.

Who supports parking minimums? Big retailers like Wal-Mart. Writes Marohn: “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).”

Amazon, Fed-Ex and drones… But there’s one retail category that Wal-Mart does not dominate — online retailing. IBM Digital Analytics asserts that 2013 Cyber Monday sales were on track to rise 21.4% from last year, reports Yahoo! News. Seems like demand for Fed-Ex and UPS delivery trucks is up, demand for mall parking lots is down. And you ain’t seen nothing yet. Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos told the “60 Minutes” news show that his company is exploring the delivery of light-weight packages by octocopter drones. Assuming he can get Federal Aviation Administration approval, says the Associated Pressthe service could become functional within four to five years.

Parking regulations are one of the most destructive land use policies ever devised. With the rise of online shopping, they are rapidly losing whatever usefulness they ever had. It’s time to get rid of them.

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19 responses to “Exposing the Black Friday Parking Myth”

  1. Tysons Engineer Avatar
    Tysons Engineer

    Very important topic. Here in Tysons the big hub bub is the continued purposeful removal of long term parking for metro stations within Tysons. Complainers want multi-thousand person garages, but don’t want to pay the $600 million it would cost to build them. They also don’t understand the impact to the tax revenue that is lost by taking the most prime real estate and instead making it a useless revenue-losing form like parking. And lastly they certainly don’t understand the aggregate effects on creating car dependency by spreading every property out.

    The more voices come out (showing its not just the granola spandex crowd) the more people understand that the reforms are good and reduce over planning and constraints to the market.

    1. Tysons Engineer Avatar
      Tysons Engineer

      I should correct to say removal (or lack of) proposed parking. No one is removing parking spaces (despite the glut of 112,000 spots in a city of 17,000 people)

  2. I used to make trips to a DOD sponsor in Crystal City. If it had not been for the parking garage…there would have been no place to park within a reasonable walking distance…

    I would worry that some businesses without provisioning for parking would find Tysons not competitive to other locations that do offer parking.

    what would happen, for instance, to the Pentagon if they converted the parking lots to office towers?

    How many people would visit the air and space museum in Chantilly if there was no parking?

    How many would go to Wolftrap if no parking was available?

    look at the Mark Center is Arlington, it got it’s own exit ramp… how would that center “work” if it were Metro only?

    I’m a bit of a skeptic…but I guess you have to start somewhere..

    1. Tysons Engineer Avatar
      Tysons Engineer

      This isn’t about removing parking. In Tysons all of the new developments have parking. The point is to stop the subsidization of poor forms of parking.

      1) End publicly funded parking garages because they never return the operation/capital expenses, often because they are below market rate

      2) End poor zoning/planning policies that encourage surface parking and cheaper forms of parking due to lack of density compensation. If a developer believes they will lose leasers from parking, they will provide parking via structural garages. How they do this is the important thing. They will charge appropriate prices so that when someone needs to park, they can park. Rosslyn/Pentagon/Crystal City all have these things, they dont have muni parking, and they work great.

      What this ends is the inducing of park/ride, not the ability to park and ride. You can still park, but on a daily basis you won’t by default think it is the best solution.

  3. accurate Avatar

    Man am I glad I don’t live in your neck of the woods. Yup, we’ve got parking and parking and more parking and it IS used. I had a WalMart build about 2 miles from me and YES, the parking on Black Friday was FULL. However, as we know, I don’t live downtown. Out here in the suburbs a car is the primary mode of transportation no matter what.

    That said, as far as Tysons Engineer statement about taking up valuable real estate – when I had to do stuff in down town Portland (which I avoided as much as possible due to lack of on street parking) typically I ended up parking in a parking garage (ditto here in Houston to a lesser degree). Always thought it would be a goldmine to have a garage. On the same land foot print I’m parking 30, 60, 100 more cars per floor. As for tax values, just change the tax code and if the use turns out to be a parking garage he gets taxed X amount more than if it was say a office building. But of course, if your outlook is that you want to get rid of cars … then keep making it difficult for the car owners. Nice plan.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      “I had a WalMart build about 2 miles from me and YES, the parking on Black Friday was FULL.”.

      Well, why didn’t you send a photo off to the Smart Towns blog?

      Oh right …. that blog is just for smart growth dilettantes who would only take pictures of half empty parking lots.

      Here’s a photo line-up from the CatholicsToday blog entitled, “Pictures of ALL the great saviors throughout history.”


  4. Though I can’t find my article on Don Shoup in the international transport journal, Thinking Highways, right now, UCLA’s parking guru has been arguing for 30-40 years for “dynamic parking charging,”* and his work in “The High Cost of Free Parking” is the Bible about parking. He notes that most parking requirements are adapted from other areas without any real rhyme or reason. For example, once years ago some area put a zoning requirement in that a restaurant must have 20 parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of food-service space, other jurisdictions picked it up as the easiest way to come up with their own standards. Today, that means that someone wanting to renovate an old downtown building for a restaurant usually must buy two buildings and tear one down for the necessary parking which, of course, helps destroy the ambience that the restauranteer sought and often makes the restaurant not economically viable. In a bizarre twist, some areas require funeral homes to have more parking than the entire space required for the deceased, the mourners, the preparation, the offices, everything.

    Surprisingly, many areas which have thrown out the (now) old parking regs are showing a major boost in economic activity. Old Pasadena CA was pretty much a slum when they adapted Shoup’s thinking in the early 1990’s and began charging for on-street parking and began heavy enforcement of the meters. What happened was that clerks and waiters quit parking out front of their stores and cafes and began to take mass transit, bicycle or park in off-street parking decks (for a lot less money than the meters) for their longer stays. Drivers and buyers came in and out quicker to the now free, close parking spaces because they were more aware that the meter might be ending — meaning that tables and purchases turned over faster. Both acted to boost economic activity. Meanwhile, Old Pasadena gave the parking meter money to a business improvement district (while keeping any fines) and the BID used those dollars to provide what appeared to be — but weren’t actually — additional security guards in the small commercial areas. After a while, the BID began to actually “tax” itself MORE money (voluntarily) to do more things in its own neighborhood; housing occupancy climbed dramatically; commercial rents skyrocketed and soon even the alleys — which had once been only places for dumpsters and bums — became prized commercial locations. When I wrote this article about two years ago, Old Pasadena enjoyed the highest sales tax return rate in the state of California and economic boosters from places like La Jolla, that famous high-end area near San Diego, were coming to find out how to duplicate the “miracle.” Old Pasadena demanded, and got, a stop on LA’s new “Gold” metro line which when I rode it was full of people leaving Old Pasadena overwhelmed with shopping bags.

    Bottom line: Parking does matter but not in the way most American policymakers think.

    *Shoup calls it “Goldilocks pricing.” Not too high, not too low, but just right to keep 15 percent of spaces free.

  5. Oh, another thing, a few years ago — 2008 if I remember correctly — Copenhagen opened a huge new theater without building a single parking space. Think of the cost savings for the building developer. Shoup says that parking for an American building, if under or over, ground hikes the construction cost 67 percent so, in effect, a $10 million building here with a parking deck costs almost $17 million. How much could one undercut competitor prices if you were saving that kind of money?

    There is no existing parking deck or lot near the new Copenhagen theater and Copenhagen, overall, does not have oodles of parking as most who travel know. The city has been removing parking for years and turning city streets into pedestrian malls. What Copenhagen does have is bike lanes going almost everywhere and today almost half of all commuters arrive on two-wheels — though 3-wheel “Christiana” bikes are also popular. Not only do these people avoid parking costs, as travel writer Bill Bryson brilliantly puts it, “You could cast a Pepsi commercial in 20 seconds on any Copenhagen Street.”

  6. If parking is, in the view of a business, an important aspect of their business… making rules to restrict it or dynamically price it could have economic harm to that business.

    Walmart wants parking in part because people buy shopping carts full of stuff that most could not easily hand carry to their cars. Ditto Home Depot and Lowes… other businesses could do with less parking and truth be known the smaller strip venues with several stores sharing a couple of linear lines of parking do fine.

    I’m just believe the business is a better judge of parking needs for their particular business than someone who is not in business and is thinking in a different way about the legitimacy of parking.

    Some fast food places – and WaWa and Sheetz, don’t have enough parking sometimes.. the lot is full and people leave and go elsewhere when that happens. If they pull in and there are already 2 other cars queued up – they leave – and the manager is watching profits walk.

    I do not defend our car-centric world.. it’s bad. It’s even worse when people choose to SOLO commute every workday on heavily congested roads and resent HOV and HOT tolls and consider the use of HOT and HOV to be a govt promoting social policy.. ( I said this just for our friend Accurate).

    but we ought to recognize that some kinds of restricted parking do harm some kinds of businesses and they’ll locate elsewhere and if your goal is economic development – you’re in a quandary.

    You want to cut visitors to the Smithsonian or Washington Monument in half ? just restrict parking…. Wanna watch the Redskins or UVA Wahoos play to 1/2 a stadium – just dynamically price the parking.

    what we also need to be careful of – is rules that harm some …and exempt others.

    in terms of parking itself, the only substantiative harm I see is storm-water runoff and if that is mitigated .. I’m not sure what else is the problem.

    I would agree that parking encourages people to drive but we’d also have to admit – if you take away the parking, some are not going to come so using parking as a tool to reduce driving is.. in my view… misguided.

    and this is from a guy who will park his car in Springfield and pay $20 to ride metro to the Smithsonian – and note.. I’d drive the whole way and park in front of the Smithsonian if I could not park at Metro in Springfield.

    1. “I’m just believe the business is a better judge of parking needs for their particular business than someone who is not in business and is thinking in a different way about the legitimacy of parking.”

      Outside of a couple of Smart Growth hot spots, nobody proposes to *restrict* how much parking Wal-Mart can install. If Wal-Mart wants to put in massive parking lots, that’s Wal-Mart’s business. (It shouldn’t expect public subsidies for longer water/sewer lines but that’s a different issue). Let Wal-Mart balance the cost of the land and maintenance of the parking lot versus the benefit of accommodating those few extra customers at peak season.

      The issue we’re discussing here is whether Wal-Mart (and other businesses) should be required to install *more* parking than they want or need.

      1. Tysons Engineer Avatar
        Tysons Engineer

        Bingo. In Fairfax for years (and still to date in all areas except Tysons) they required minimum parking.

        Small businesses and restaurants would have to build expensive parking, buy more land than they really wanted, despite being located in good neighborhoods where most of their business could be supported simply by the local environment.

        That cookie cutter approach is what is being removed. I am not saying (and most smart growth folks except for fringers) there should be no parking, but that parking should be dictated by what the business actually wants, not some antiquated and one size fits all solution.

        The only caveat I make is that I believe there should be limits on the FAR/Parking ratio for surface parking. Expansive canyons of parking may benefit one parcel but directly affect the quality of the adjacent parcel. Time and time again properties next to strip malls with massive parking lots see their marketability reduced by non-walkability: ie theres 22 acres of parking between my house and your restaurant, and the view is awful.

        If massive parking allotment is needed, atleast in town regions, then the business should have some penalties for choosing surface vs structural.

    2. accurate Avatar

      “… resent HOV and HOT tolls and consider the use of HOT and HOV to be a govt promoting social policy.. ( I said this just for our friend Accurate).”

      Huh, what??? I don’t recall saying that use or development of HOT or HOV lanes were a way of promoting social policy – when did I say that? For the record, I travel a toll road to and from work each and every day. I also car pool with my wife as she works only about 10 miles from where I work. Now, if one of us were to change job locations … No, we’re doing this because it works for us, not to save the earth, or any other platitude.

  7. “The issue we’re discussing here is whether Wal-Mart (and other businesses) should be required to install *more* parking than they want or need.”

    and I doubt seriously that is the case when the business has to size and pay for the storm water mitigation.

    I think this is an urban myth.

    you can bet your bottom socks that the right wing would go apeshit if WalMart complained they were being forced to put in more parking – and build bigger storm ponds than they wanted.

    This morning for Giggles and Grins, I met a friend for breakfast and is my practice, I stack my errands..

    so we start with Friendly’s which has about 80 parking spots – as well as about 50 tables. Then the WalMart parking lot which is adjacent to a Lowes lot and across the street from a pod of about 10 businesses… lots of parking…. and a gigantic storm pond.

    then we went to the Courthouse to the public safety building which is next to the District Court building – hundreds of parking spots but using low impact runoff facilities…

    then to the local Post Office which has more than 50 parking spots…

    does anyone really believe that the county forced the county to build all those parking spots for the courts? or that the county forced the Feds to build those 50 parking spots ?

    What we need to do here – in my view – is get to the truth of the matter and my suspects are this. There are algorithms for traffic generation for different kinds of land-uses … like 10 trips per day for a basic single family residence – and I suspect there are standards for parking also – like how many parking spaces a standard 10-trip per day home should have.

    The movie theatre, like Friendly’s probably need a minimum amount of parking to handle popular movies. Kings Dominion probably needs a certain amount of parking for all those who travel there by care since virtually no one walks to KD.

    Dulles, National and Richmond all have to plan for parking for the max capacity of their flights…

    I do not think the locality is driving this…. I think the industry has standards for different land uses for parking just like they have for trips per day.

    we can’t get to reasonable solutions when we start out with your basic “govt causes this” canards.

    1. Tysons Engineer Avatar
      Tysons Engineer

      Its funny because from 2006 to 2009 I was the civil consultant for 7 wal-marts in the Mid-Atlantic for expansions and for new sites.

      Guess what

      They cried bloody murder over the storm ponds they had to put in, despite the fact that if they didn’t build them to correct standards there would be direct impact from runoff/flooding of tributaries on many endangered waterways (the worst of which was one in specific near the Rappahanock).

      They constantly want to cut corners.

      End of the day, even the really massive storm drainage system that was required, (an extended detentions basin, 3 bioretention basins, and a filter chamber), wal-mart easily absorbed that cost of ~$400,000 because it got them 550 parking spaces on surface lots for ~$6.5million as opposed to 550 parking spaces in garage for ~18 to 20 million.

      The order of magnitude difference in impact of stormwater as a control on parking makes it utterly ineffective in dissuading bad parking policy.

    2. Tysons Engineer Avatar
      Tysons Engineer

      As far as the jurisdictions requiring it. Yes they really are, atleast in my experience in Fairfax, PWC, Stafford, Fauquier, Loudoun, MoCo, PG, Baltimore County and DC from 2003 to 2009 (I cant speak for industry feelings today or in other areas).

      I had client after client complain about the amount of parking required with the exception of big boxes who couldn’t have enough parking to satiate them. Small restaurant sites were the biggest impacted, second to small offices. The problem is that the cookie cutter 1 space per x sf is really too standardized. If a company could show that its use would not require that many spaces via logical proof there were two avenues for them

      1) Apply for a waiver, of which very few would be approved and still in the case of one waiver that was approved the # of spaces was still nearly double what my client wanted.

      2) Try to get their specific land use or scenario incorporated into the facilities manual or zoning (good luck haha see you in 20 years).

      The idea was that the county wanted to assure that even in the worst case scenario, with possible future occupancy, that parking would never ever be a problem. What that ends up in is massive under used parking which hurts the viability of what else could have been put there by the applicant.

      Now often the max FAR would set that standard, but I had 3 cases where the client was forced to build higher, incurring additional cost for structure and in 1 case to include an elevator system, which otherwise they would have reduced the amount of parking and located two shorter buildings of 3 stories.

      What you end up with is Corbusier wet dreams of disconnected taller than they should be buildings with vast swathes of unusable parking… ie beautiful downtown Houston.

  8. Again, please see Don Shoup’s, “The High Cost of Free Parking” for a discussion of the issue and its depth.

    Here, in Cville, we have a lawsuit underway (I realize that in America this is hardly earth shattering news) but it’s over, in effect, the parking lot of one shopping center dumping onto the parking lot of another! Ya’ gotta love it. The old guys who drained their asphalt into a watershed which needs, according to the Rivanna River water plan, to decrease runoff by 45 percent now are now paying big dollars to lawyers to keep the upstream parking lot from sliding more water down the hill (after overflowing the retention pond). Somehow no one seemed to have realized that water runs downhill and that asphalt absorbs very little of it before the lawyers figured out how to argue over it. Makes you proud to be an American…and causes you to push your kids towards law school.

  9. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    All of the above is a terrific discussion. It all points the complexity of many parking decisions that often are highly dependent on the circumstances of each individual case that in turn can depend on facts unique to that case.

    And that this is further complicated by the fact that parking needs, and strategies to meet them, are often subject to constant change. For example changes dictated by transitions through stages of a community’s growth. Thus Ballston’s parking needs were wildly different in 1985 from 2000. Or that strategics change if one is to best get Tyson’s corner from suburban office park with open lots to more density served by structured above ground garages to underground garages with density uses over top.

    Cultural and technological changes external to local conditions also drive change. Thus internet sales impact the parking needs of bricks and mortal retail stores. And every use or mix of uses is affected differently.

    This supports Jim’s and TE point about the need for strictly locals decisions made by those impacted, and those with the best sense of their needs. Rote rules never work, and typically are destructive. Informed flexibility is key. Likely too locals need better tools for the job, the one’s I seen could be greatly improved. And people have to be constantly reminded that parking used right can drive benefit into the community through all its stages. Used right it’s not bad but good.

    See also https://www.baconsrebellion.com/2013/10/the-quest-for-smarter-parking.html#comments

    See also https://www.baconsrebellion.com/2012/11/black-friday-internet-retailing-and-the-shiftin-tax-base.html#comments

  10. good article. thanks!

    but I’m not quite understanding. once would presume that any shop that gets customers, those customers would need parking – somewhere.

    so if you don’t have the parking… where do they park?

    do they end up parking somewhere else nearby that takes away that spot from businesses in that location?

    how does this work?

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