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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Black & Blue - Black Friday Parking Blues

Charles Marohn at the Strong Towns blog had a great idea last week when he asked followers of that blog to Tweet photos of Black Friday parking lots around the country with the hashtag “#BlackFridayParking.” The Strong Towns blog then ran a live feed of the results as lots of folks from around the country posted pics of vastly underused parking lots to help emphasize the need for reform of minimum parking standards.

Here are some shots I took at South Mall in Allentown, PA, around 9:30 AM on Black Friday. Not much going on there.
Front (east side) of Allentown's South Mall. Around 9:30 AM Plenty of
available parking. (photo by author).

South end of South Mall. More wasted spaces. (photo by author).

Who would even want to park here if the rest of the lot was totally full? This
photo is the side lot of the Ross department store shown in the preceding
photo. There is not even an entrance anywhere on this entire side of the
building. Wasted spaces. (photo by author).

My friend Ron Beitler took this photo in the early afternoon on Black Friday at the Caramoor Village strip mall in Macungie, PA. Again, overkill on the parking spaces. Ron also blogged about Black Friday Parking at: http://www.ronbeitler.com/2013/11/29/the-ridiculousness-of-minimum-parking-standards/.

Dozens of photos from other shopping centers around the country showed similar scenes – deserted asphalt at all but the couple hundred feet immediately surrounding big box stores and strip malls. I think Strong Towns had a great idea in organizing this Twitter event, because it hopefully will help to spark discussion around the country about how minimum parking standards waste both dollars and space, creating eyesores that are daunting to pedestrian traffic while they create unnecessary stormwater runoff. We all need to let our local officials know that we demand intelligent design standards for new developments and redevelopment projects.

I also will acknowledge that these #BlackFridayParking Twitter pics certainly do not constitute a scientific study of this problem. I don’t think that Charles Marohn intended this experiment to be anything more than an exercise in anecdotes.

However, these photos from around the country got me thinking back 30+ years ago to when I worked part time at the Sears store at Montgomery Mall near Lansdale in suburban Philadelphia. I remember jam-packed parking lots at the mall on Black Friday as well as in the evenings 3-4 days before Christmas Eve. I have to wonder whether the week before Christmas in the first dozen years of the 21st century has continued to max out parking capacity at Montgomery Mall. Specifically, I wonder if the explosion of on-line shopping over the past 10 years has relieved some of the load on mall parking lots during the holiday shopping season. I’m not sure how a researcher could actually go back to look at parking density throughout holiday shopping seasons over the past 15 years to try to identify trends that could be correlated to the increasing popularity of or dependence on internet shopping (unless NSA would be willing to share some historic satellite images with us).

Frankly, I would be surprised if the advent of the on-line economy has not relieved some of the parking pressure at mortar & bricks retail establishments. And in that likely case, how crazy would it be for municipalities to continue to rely on minimum parking standards that were written for a pre-internet world?


  1. I think online sales certainly have something to do with it. I believe there are two other issues at play here, too.

    1) Sales are creeping into Thanksgiving Day, and
    2) Black Thursday was once the ONLY time you could get a great deal. Today, I feel like you can wait it out and still find excellent deals.

  2. I agree to some point with this but I know I was out for a very short time on Friday to Kohls in Trexlertown and I had to park along the road because anything closer was parked full. I hate the parking lots also, but what happens if you need them and they aren't there?

    1. "what happens if you need them and they aren't there?"

      There are two issues here: 1. how often do we 'need' them, and 2. do we actually 'need' them?

      1. If a parking lot is completely full even a generous 5 times a year, but only reaches even 80% capacity on the busiest days outside of those 5 times a year, then that would mean the business is maintaining 20% of it's parking lot in order to pull in 20% more revenue on ONLY those 5 days a year. Considering there are 365 days in a year and that the 5 times a year & at most 80% full the rest of the year is a generous example, the value just isn't there for private businesses.

      Some businesses, like Walmart and other national big box retailers, will gladly play the oversupply-parking game because they are already adept at squeezing maximum profit out of their high overhead costs. Forcing their smaller competitors to also have high overhead costs frequently puts those competitors out of business, benefiting the big national chains at the expense of locally owned businesses. More often than not, only a few specific locations ever fill out their mandated amounts of parking, meaning that other stores (usually small ones) are not only forced to have higher overhead than they can handle, but a higher percentage of unproductive overhead than the national chains!

      Which brings me to my next point...

      2. We only 'need' these excess spots at a few locations on a few days a year, yet all businesses have to pay for all of the mandated parking's associated costs over the entire year. For most businesses, and especially the small locally-owned ones, if they didn't have that parking they would probably be more profitable over the course of a year. If a business had less parking and its lot filled up completely every now and then, studies show that instead of people just not spending money at that location, they will learn and adapt to the lack of parking and do things like shop at different times of day/of the week, plan trips more efficiently so they can be dropped off in that location on someone else's way to something else, or even choose to get their via other means. Considering the costs associated with owning that excess parking all year long just to squeeze a few more sales out of the small handful of busiest shopping days of the year, excess parking is not a business's need, but rather a luxury service they are forced to provide to their customers.

      Not only is the parking not needed by businesses, but on the societal level excess parking is hugely detrimental. An overabundance of parking again means locally-owned businesses can't compete with national chains, effectively ensuring the community's money is syphoned off to line the pockets of people like the world's richest family (the owners of Walmart, the Waltons (5 people), are collectively worth as much as the entire bottom 40% of the US population (120 million people)). Meanwhile, the oversupply of parking ensures that businesses are further apart from each other and are thus more dependent on people driving to and from each of them. This means the community needs to support an even larger road network and more personal expenses on motor vehicles per capita than otherwise. Excess parking is not something any society needs, instead it is something our society chooses to do that has severe negative feedback loops that make our communities less economically viable.

    2. You make excellent points, Skyler. You clearly "get it." In my opinion, the most efficient model is the old-fashioned Main Street model, with on-street parking and a few scattered municipal parking lots to handle overflow from curbside. People are more likely to walk to the stores or to adapt their shopping events to times that the parking load is less. It works because enough of the shoppers would live close enough to adapt, so that shoppers who live a 20+ minute car ride from the destination could still make their less adaptable shopping trips and find parking. The 21st century shopping mall model (Lifestyle Center model) seems to be working as well, primarily because their anchor stores tend to not be Big Boxes.