Durable Growth, Transportation

Calling Friday Black for a better reason

North Bay shopping center parking lot on a busy Sunday afternoon

North Bay shopping center parking lot on a busy Sunday afternoon

About this time of year, perhaps a decade ago, a coworker described the day after Thanksgiving as Black Friday.  I was puzzled by the reference.  To me, Black Friday referred to the 1929 stock market crash.  I assumed my coworker was mistaken.

Although I still remain dubious about the cultural references of the coworker, it turned out that he was right and I was wrong.  In fact, I was doubly wrong.  In the stock market, Black Friday refers not to the 1929 crash, but to the much earlier 1869 crash.  The worst day of the 1929 crash was a Tuesday, now known, predictably, as Black Tuesday.

Meanwhile, when I wasn’t looking, the Black Friday name had been co-opted in the past few decades to describe the pre-Christmas retail frenzy of the day after Thanksgiving.

Even with knowing that bit of common culture, I’m puzzled by the ascribing of “black” to a pre-Christmas retail event.  I would have expected red or green to be better color choices.  However, I’m told that black refers to how the day helps ensure that retailers will finish their years with a profit, or “in the black”.  As much as anyone, I value the need of businesses to be profitable in order to remain in business.  But I still find it perplexing that we use a bookkeeping benchmark to describe a mass of people descending upon malls and big boxes.

Luckily for common sense, StrongTowns and others are retasking the name Black Friday with a definition of “black” that seems more appropriate.  Their subject, and the target of their frustration, is retail parking.  In particular, the surfeit of retail parking.

Having spent years participating in the land-use process, both working with developers and reviewing projects from the public perspective, I have a good handle on how developers view surface parking.  They love it.  And they love having lots of it.  Their affection has several reasons beyond the obvious one of providing places for customers to leave their cars while spending money.

Developers like having surface lots that are half empty because those lots send a message to consumers that the stores aren’t busy.  Even if the aisles inside are packed tight, a half-empty parking lot is an advertisement for drivers to stop and to join the throng.  So large parking lots allow developers to more easily attract retail tenants.

Also, parking lots aren’t considered very productive spaces, so don’t carry large property tax assessments.  (Those who have read the StrongTown Curbside Chat booklet will remember the Taco John example of recent redevelopment having a lower assessed value per acre that the previous
“blight”.  Much of the pervasive anomaly is the result of redevelopment including lightly-taxed parking lots.)

So, with a good reward and a low cost, it’s not surprising that developers want lots and lots of lots (parking lots, that is).

However, urbanists have a different view on the subject.

Harkening back to what Jeff Speck, author of “Walkable City”, wrote about walkability, three of his four essential elements for walkable places are comfort, interest, and usefulness.  Parking lots undermine all three.  There’s not much comfort in walking on a sidewalk bounded by speeding cars on one side and an expanse of asphalt with scattered cars on the other.  The setting also lacks interest.  And even usefulness doesn’t thrive when useful places are separated by open expanses.  There’s a reason that few folks arrive at shopping malls on foot.

At a more visceral level is the challenge faced by transit riders when the stores are pushed to the back of their sites behind parking lots.  Transit riders, who often have less personal mobility than average citizens, must navigate their way from a bus stop to a distant store and back again, a longer walk than anyone arriving by car must traverse.

To make the situation even worse, the parking is often described as free, even though we all understand that the costs are folded into the retail pricing.  So transit riders are paying for “free parking” they don’t use both at the cash register and in their knees.

(A frequent question at this point is why transit buses aren’t routed through parking lots to bus stops closer to stores.  It’s a fair question, but the problem is that bus routes through parking lots are usually slow and often prone to delays, which inconveniences the transit riders with destinations elsewhere.  Delivering one passenger directly in front of a store might result in another passenger missing a connection needed to reach a place of work on time.  It becomes a Hobbesian choice for transit managers that is usually resolved in favor of curbside bus stops.)

Now that the developer and urbanist sides of the parking question have been introduced, we can look at how parking resolution is typically reached in the drivable suburban world.  Virtually all zoning codes specify minimum parking requirements, but far fewer put a cap on the maximum number of parking spaces.  That fact alone gives developers more power than urbanists.

Furthermore, the oft-stated goal of parking standards is to accommodate the peak day parking demand.  It’s a curious and perverse standard, putting the one-time convenience of the last driver to arrive on the busiest day of the year on a higher plane than the everyday convenience of transit riders, but it’s the standard we have.

But it needn’t be the standard that we keep forever.

Many, including StrongTowns, as an entry into the argument that we can survive with less parking, contend that we don’t even meet the busiest day standard with much accuracy.  They argue that many parking lots are less than fully utilized on the day after Thanksgiving.  So StrongTowns is retasking the name Black Friday to describe this phenomenon of demonstrable overparking.  As a reference both to the color of asphalt and to the land-use implications of too much parking, it seems a more reasonable use of “black”.

To make their point, StrongTowns use Black Friday to highlight the role of parking in our communities.  Taken from their words, “Black Friday Parking is a nationwide event drawing attention to the harmful nature of minimum parking requirements, which create a barrier for new local businesses and fill up our cities with empty parking spaces that don’t add value to our places.

“On Black Friday, people all across North America will snap photos of the (hardly full) parking lots in their community to demonstrate how unnecessary these massive lots are.  Participants will then upload those photos to Twitter, Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #blackfridayparking.  More can also be learned here.”

Unfortunately, I’ll be traveling between family holiday commitments on Black Friday, so will have limited opportunities to take photos of half-empty parking lots, although I may be able to sneak by a mall or two in the college town of Chico.

But I encourage those who care about their towns to look around on the day after Thanksgiving, to ponder how much parking we really need, and to follow the StrongTowns campaign on social media.  Even if you’re an urbanist of long standing, I promise the experience will still provide an eye-opening insight or two.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

Comments are closed.