Durable Growth

Black Friday Parking in the rearview mirror

Petaluma Market on a busy day

Petaluma Market on a busy day

A week ago, I introduced Black Friday Parking, an effort by StrongTowns to document an error within many municipal parking codes.

As StrongTowns notes, many parking codes set minimum parking requirements to ensure that all shoppers on the busiest shopping day of the year can find a parking space.  (I have a philosophical difficulty with that standard, noting, as I did in my earlier post, that it implicitly gives priority to the last arriving shopper on a single day of the year over the daily needs of transit riders who must tromp across expanses of largely vacant asphalt on every day of the year.  But that’s a topic for another post.)

The StrongTowns folks, although they may agree with my philosophical point, make a different argument.  They contend the busiest day standard isn’t set correctly.  They observe that, even on the day that many consider the single busiest day, Black Friday, many lots are far less than full.

To add strength to their observation, they ask StrongTowns members and friends to take parking lot photos on Black Friday and to post them to Twitter with the tag #BlackFridayParking.   I suggest looking through the postings.  They give insight to the uncertain function of parking standards.

Although I think that the StrongTowns’ argument is valid, my personal Black Friday Parking experience was anticlimactic.  Because of family obligations, I couldn’t set aside much time to sightsee in parking lots.  But, in the middle of the afternoon, I found a couple of free minutes to drop by one of the older malls in the northern California town of Chico.  I expected to find what others were reporting, a parking lot that was barely half full.

That’s not what I found.  The lot I visited was functioning much as the code intended, not quite full, but darned closed.  With only a handful of open spaces in the furthest rows, I’m guessing that the lot was at 95 percent capacity.

I can still make the argument that a correctly-sized lot would have been completely full with many folks deferring their shopping to another day, but within the intent of many zoning codes, the mall parking lot was working well.  (When time permits, I’ll use aerial mapping to count the parking places versus the mall retail space to calculate the apparent ratio for comparison with typical zoning code ratios.)

Although my Friday experience didn’t buttress the StrongTowns argument, I had a different parking-related experience over the holiday weekend that was insightful in its own way.

With the drive from the North Bay to Chico scheduled for the day after, my wife and I planned a modest Thanksgiving Day dinner, but there was still shopping to be done.  With the awareness that before-Thanksgiving grocery store crowds would likely rival the post-Thanksgiving gift shopping crowds, we planned an early outing.

The plan was mostly successful.  We returned with groceries in the mid-morning after jostling with only moderate crowds.  Then my wife realized that she’d forgotten the horseradish.  So I found myself heading back into the teeth of the mobs.   I visited a small grocery store near our home with a one-item list just as the last-minute grocery shopping crowds descended.

It’s a fine little store, nicely meeting the needs of its part of town.  It’s perhaps a third the size of a modern full-service grocery store, with a parking lot that is probably less than a sixth the size.

Most days, parking is available, although it can sometimes be close.  But on the day before Thanksgiving, the lot was in full failure mode.  Cars were circling in hopes of spaces opening and other cars were blocking the adjoining streets, awaiting a chance to join the circling cars.

I quickly made the decision to park elsewhere, pulled into the municipal lot across the street, and found a parking space after only one loop.  As I walked back to cross the street to the grocery store, I chatted with another shopper who had made the same decision as me.  And when I returned to my car, I was able to flag down another driver who was circling in frustration and to point him toward my soon-to-vacated space.

Overall, it was a pleasant experience, with the extra time I spent crossing the street probably less than the time I spend waiting in a long line to pay for my little bottle of horseradish.  It was proof that the parking lots can fail without the world ending.

(Although not relevant to parking, the horseradish had one more adventure to go.  On the way home, another driver, perhaps overeager to begin her stuffing, ran a stop sign in front of me.  I braked hard and the horseradish flew off the passenger seat.  By the time I reached home, it had rolled under the seat and was jammed in the slider mechanism.  I spent several minutes kneeling in my driveway, working through the rear door to free the bottle.  Rarely has a one-dollar bottle of horseradish been so hard-won.)

My Wednesday horseradish outing gave me grist for thought during my drive to Chico on Friday.  The question I posed was “If we modify the minimum parking requirements to more closely match the peak day demand or, even better, be 25 percent less that the peak day demand as the grocery store may have been, would should happen to the people with the excess cars?”   There are several answers.

  • They stay home, pushing off shopping to another day. (This is a workable solution for the Black Friday folks, but not for the day before Thanksgiving grocery folks.)
  • They park in nearby parking lots or in curbside parking, assuming that either exists.
  • They walk, bike, or ride transit to the store, assuming that they live close enough to do one of those and that the sidewalks, bike routes, and/or transit routes exist that will accommodate their travel.

Not surprisingly, the latter two are straight from the urbanist playbook.  Reducing parking lot sizes, or even eliminating parking lots, can be a good urbanist approach.

Parking, especially free parking, can be a canary in the coal mine of good urbanism.  It’s a topic to which I intend to return in 2016.

Before closing, I have several links to offer.

In my earlier post on Black Friday Parking, I puzzled over the origin of Black Friday as applied to the day after Thanksgiving.  Digg.com gives a credible explanation that it was first applied by the Philadelphia Police Department to the traffic jams that occurred on the day.

Also, StrongTowns founder Chuck Marohn tells the story of his journey to Black Friday Parking.  As a fellow civil engineer, I can appreciate the frustration he felt with the parking provisions of zoning codes that appear unrelated to good town planning.

Regular StrongTowns contributor Andrew Price writes about Hoboken, which could become an urbanist delight if parking minimums aren’t allowed to undermine its direction.

Lastly, StreetsBlog looks in from the outside and commends StrongTowns for the Black Friday Parking idea.

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.

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