The Spectacular Waste of Half-Empty Black Friday Parking Lots

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A retail parking lot in Palm Beach, Florida, on the busiest shopping day of the year. Photo: @aGuyonClematus

If there’s one thing American planners fear, it’s that someone, sometime, somewhere, won’t be able to immediately find a parking space. Gigantic manuals have been devoted to avoiding this “problem,” and laws have been passed in nearly every community in the nation to ensure that no one ever lacks for parking.

Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns started an ingenious, crowd-sourced photo collection to show how absurd the obsession with parking construction has become: pictures of retail parking lots on Black Friday, one of the busiest shopping days of the year. We’ve built so much parking that a lot of spaces remain unused even when demand is at its peak.

For the last two years, Marohn has urged people to take photos of half-empty Black Friday parking lots and tag them on Twitter with the hashtag #blackfridayparking. Here’s what they turned up last week.

Marohn himself snapped this Target parking lot (presumably somewhere near his hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota), which at 75 percent occupancy, was actually more full than most the other lots he photographed.

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This is a Kohl’s in Conroe, Texas, at 10:45 a.m. on Black Friday, captured by Erika Ragsdale:

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Peoria, Illinois, resident Erik Reader snapped this shot of the Big R western clothing store:

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Reader also captured this majestic asphalt expanse at a Big K Mart in the same region.

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At 3:15 in the afternoon, this Target parking lot in suburban Pittsburgh was less than half full, reports Bob Gradeck:

Did any of you make it out to the stores on Friday? Did any of you have trouble finding a parking space? Did anyone in America have this problem?

  • Peter L

    Pretty much the same everywhere. “We have to require that much parking because Black Friday” is bogus. No more parking minimums.

  • mplakus

    I tried to stop by my local *-Mart on Thursday evening to try to get some eggs for the morning…I never saw a legal space in the lot. The overflow had also filled the nearby fast food restaurant’s lot (that restaurant was closed at the time). It seems North Carolina MIGHT be on to something. I tried again the next morning after 10AM, all sections of the lot were in use but nothing like the night before.

  • Komanoff

    Looks like we’ve reached Peak Parking.

  • Mike

    I can’t drive, so I’m far from advocating for parking, but just curious — how much of the emptiness in these lots was the Ferguson-related Black Friday boycott? I know sales were down across the country by a noticeable amount.

  • Canarsie Yankee

    It was something I noticed on the way home from the inlaws on Thursday night at about the time the earliest big boxes were opening. Endless expanse of lots in Minnesota’s endless suburbia yet the father in law said Target’s looked full. If by full you mean having to walk a bit more then yes. Lot was still about 40% empty.

  • Canarsie Yankee

    I would attribute that to fatigue and cannibalization before crediting the Ferguson protest with that. “Black Friday” sales had been going on for well over a week prior to the day.

  • Gezellig

    And this is precisely how you get standard suburban shopping centers (not even malls) like this one in Union City, CA compared to San Francisco’s shopping-heavy Union Square:

    http://mapfrappe.com/?show=24830

  • I would say that Black Friday isn’t necessarily the most-full parking lot day in the country (I think December 21-ish would give it a run for its money)….. but then again I also remember being out one Black Friday at 3 AM finding myself essentially sitting in rush hour traffic.

    That was a few years ago. Haven’t done it since.

  • Andy

    “Pics or it didn’t happen”

  • Michael Klatsky

    Maybe in other places, but in the NYC area malls like Roosevelt Field and Garden State Plaza, they are filled to capacity pretty fast due to high demand,

  • EastBayer

    it would surprise me if the Ferguson boycott accounted for even one half of one percent of potential Black Friday shoppers

  • Mike

    I was a the WalMart in a large rural town (Kirksville, MO) on the morning of Black Friday and the lot was about half-full. But since they opened on Thanksgiving, I’m not sure when the peak customer base would have been.

  • Kevin Love

    Angie Asked:
    “Did any of you have trouble finding a parking space?”

    Kevin’s answer:
    Yes, I did have trouble finding a parking space. I had to lock my bike to a sign. Not exactly secure parking.

    So put me down as someone who did have trouble finding a parking space on Black Friday.

  • I see what you did there….

  • davistrain

    It was a bit late in the day for photos, and I didn’t have a camera with me, but the WalMart in Duarte (about ten miles east of Pasadena, Calif.) appeared to be nearly full as seen from the street (no way would I be shopping there at this time of year). About five miles west of Duarte, in Arcadia, the Santa Anita (Westfield?) mall next to the racetrack appeared to have a full parking area (if things really get busy, they open up the racetrack parking area–the hayburners won’t be running until Dec. 26.)

  • jared

    And high land costs.

  • valar84

    That is a very good point. Objectively, a parking lot that is full is one which has no more parking space in it. However, subjectively, most drivers consider parking lots “full” if there is no more available parking space within what they consider a close distance to the store they’re going to. I think if they have to walk more than one minute to get to the store, they often consider the parking lot “full”, some will even turn back rather than park too far away.

    So for many drivers, a parking lot that is full isn’t defined as one in which there is no parking place left, but one where there is no GOOD parking space left.

    Two consequences of that:

    1- Increasing the number of parking places past a certain point is largely useless, because most drivers will not consider these places good places to park. What really matters to drivers is how many parking spaces are within one minute walking distance from the store’s doors, and that number of parking is strictly limited by geometry. Requiring more parking than that amount just means having plenty of parking spaces most drivers consider inadequate.

    2- Considering that most stores are located at the back of their lot, with the parking in front, this should tell you all about the contempt with which current planning practices consider pedestrians and transit users. Indeed, these people start off at the sidewalk then have to cross the entire parking lot to get to the door. So to the driver whining about the parking lot being so full they have to tolerate a parking space far from the door and close to the curb, remind them that this is what pedestrians and transit users have to deal with every single time, for them, the parking lot is always full.

    If increased delay in trips is an externality of congestion, then the increased trip time to pedestrians and transit users should definitely be considered an externality of parking lots. Unfortunately, only drivers’ time seems to be valuable, and most planning regulations seem to suppose that there is no negative externality to more parking, which is why most of these default to asking for way more than is necessary.

  • Benjamin Patience

    It would seem that the shopping centers where parking is the tightest, would be at locations that are also well served by mass transit, like say Macy’s in Manhattan. Whomever might attempt to drive to a store like that and then not find parking begs the question, “whose fault is that”?!

    As someone who graduated with a degree in Urban Planning, but never went into the field largely because of bureaucracy and backwards politics, my mantra has always been “if a shopping center/district has ample parking, it’s probably not worth going to”

  • C Monroe

    online sales has hurt the traditional black friday sales. Strong Towns has a great podcast about how Amazon Prime and clones might destroy the late 20th century big box and we are seeing the beginning of it.http://shoutengine.com/StrongTownsPodcast/amazon-prime-4387

  • C Monroe

    It happened at the Walmart near me. the stores nearby were all close but Walmart and its customers were using the parking lots, but this Walmart was also rebuilt recently as a super Walmart on the same size lot as a small store and had to get a variance on loss of parking.

  • Joe R.

    If we were sensible, we would use most of that parking lot space for residential construction and then shoppers could walk right from their homes to the stores. Of course we don’t because that would make too much sense. Instead we put the homes in some subdivision ten miles away, with little but empty space between them and the stores.

  • Andy

    Just put some 200sqft apartments above Walmart, dock half their pay, and they’d never need to go outside again!

  • davistrain

    I suspect that a lot of “planners” think that the only people worth catering to are motorists; in their mindset, bus riders, pedestrians and bicyclists don’t have enough disposable income to be of interest to retailers. This type of thinking goes back to the days when one could buy a serviceable car for $200 or so, fill it with 25 cents a gallon gasoline, and not worry about passing a smog check.

  • Joe R.

    Other than the dock half their pay part, that’s not a horrible idea so long as living in worker housing isn’t mandatory. Why not put some apartments above a Walmart (decent apartments, not 200 square foot closets), and then allow any worker who wants to live in them to do so for free? The cost to Walmart would probably be very little when you account for the fact that it’s a legitimate business expense, and you’ll have a more reliable work force if some workers live on site. Moreover, the workers wouldn’t need cars, at least for commuting or shopping. Walmart pays their workers so little most probably have nothing left over after paying for housing, food, and transportation. Free housing would be a nice perk which would let them get ahead.

    I know company housing got a bad rap, but that was primarily because it was both mandatory and charged for at an exorbitant rate.

  • Joe R.

    The sad part here is we’ve become such a nation of coach potatoes that walking for more than a minute is considered a burden. We’ve focused solely on diet as the cause of obesity when the real cause, automotive dependency, is staring us right in the face.

    Your last point is valid also. Especially in large cities, accommodating cars vastly increases the delays to cyclists and pedestrians because you need traffic signals which otherwise wouldn’t be needed. If we counted the cumulative delay to all users, we might conclude we’re betting off not going out of our way to meet the needs of drivers.

    Sadly, the rationale for only counting driver’s time stems from people’s attitudes. I’ve even had this discussion with people. For example, I was once talking to a family member who was pissed off when cyclists take the lane and force them to go slower. I explained that cyclists take the lane when the road is too narrow for motor vehicles to safely pass them. They asked why couldn’t the cyclist just pull over into the parking lane and wait until the cars behind them passed? My answer was why do you think a cyclist should be forced to do that-namely incur unnecessary delay just so drivers can save seconds, if that (or most likely just end up at the next red light faster)? Is their time less valuable than a driver’s time? Their answer was yes. They felt if the cyclist valued their time, they would choose a faster mode, like driving. That seems to be a prevalent attitude here in the US. A lot of people here think if someone walks or bikes, then they’re in no big hurry, so it’s perfectly OK to delay them so drivers can get where they’re going faster.

  • baklazhan

    Instead, you have workers who pay more for their transportation than their housing, and if they can’t afford it, they’ll lose their jobs. But hey, at least they get free parking!

  • valar84

    Good post. I’d add that there is also a mentality that supposes that people are biking for pleasure, not to actually get somewhere, since biking in North America is much more seen as a recreational sport rather than a full-fledged mode of transport used to get somewhere. I’ve often seen drivers argue against bike lanes or other bike amenities saying that the road should prioritize “workers” and not cyclists… as if no one ever got to work on a bike.

  • Dan Sullivan

    A lot of the stores with empty lots are basically unsuccessful stores. Target is not really a great source of low prices, and K-Mart is nearly on life support. WalMart is the king of Black Friday retailers, and only at their Super-Stores.

    The bigger question for me is whether we would even have all this Black-Friday silliness if there were less parking – and whether we would even have these big-box monstrosities. Stores would offer sales more often (or not at all), designed only to fill what would be smaller lots, and we would do our shopping in a more rational, even-handed way. (Trader Joe’s does not have sales, and Black Friday is their slowest day of the year.)

    Meanwhile, if we taxed the value of land in a way that is analogous to Donald Shoup’s proposal to charge market rates for public parking, small shops would be far more competitive than big-box stores, and Black Friday would be just another day.

  • Andy

    My Trader Joes has a tiny parking lot. Even on the Monday before Thanksgiving, people would going nuts trying to finding parking in the small lot.

  • Michael

    Living above a Walmart would also make the standard less-than-4-hour retail shift more palatable. I know many people who commute up to an hour to their 4 hour retail shift.

  • Gezellig

    Trader Joe’s is an interesting case study in general…their smaller store sizes allow them smaller parking lots, too. In addition, TJ’s clientele tends to buy smaller amounts of food more often–meaning many of its customers can get away with carrying home what they bought that day in a bag or backpack. Pairs well with walking or biking.

    When I lived in Silver Lake (central neighborhood of Los Angeles) I avoided that TJ’s parking lot like the plague and usually just walked the 15 minutes. I noticed a lot of other neighborhood residents did the same, too. Lots of people bike there, too:

    http://flyingpigeon-la.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/TraderJoes_Hyperion_corral.jpg
    “Take a look at the two photos below, which I snapped yesterday, a cold and grey Tuesday, between 10:00 and 10:30 in the morning. There were hardly any cars on the roads…but there were bicycles parked at the private racks in the parking lot of the Trader Joes on Hyperion”
    (http://flyingpigeon-la.com/2013/03/money-the-other-green-in-cycling/)

    Part of the appeal, too, is that as you can see the store comes right up to the sidewalk, encouraging pedestrianism. The more standard supermarket across the street (Gelson’s) is a bigger box back-of-lot affair and has a more typical pattern in that more people seem to drive to it. It also has a much bigger parking lot which of course further encourages driving.

    This shows how even on the same block a couple differences in setup design can greatly influence how many people walk.

  • ohnonononono

    “What really matters to drivers is how many parking spaces are within one minute walking distance from the store’s doors, and that number of parking is strictly limited by geometry”

    Well obviously you can “beat” geometry by adding a 3rd axis there and building structured parking, although yes, even with 3 dimensions you hit that 1-minute walk wall. Next step is to pack cars closer together with mechanized lifts. This is popular in Japan and not unheard-of in Manhattan. Tourists like to take photos of one of from the High Line.

  • ohnonononono

    But people even circle the parking lot for a spot really close to the entrance to the gym where they’re going to work out for 2 hours. It’s not just that they aren’t physically able to walk in their daily routine, it’s that we’ve built an environment where it’s not normalized.

  • whittx

    It’s not the planners so much as the politicians and engineers.

  • Anne Mallin

    A friend is the alarm maint. person for ChinaWall-mart stores.
    He said they were almost empty Friday……….nobody wants Chinese made crap anymore he said, especially now the businessmen will be manufacturing in Africa for CHEAPER labor, (min. wage went up in Asia) but goods may be infected with Ebola virus. (omg)

    Make sure you buy only from owners who are local and/or American citizen companies to support labor here!
    Smithfield Hams is now owned by China, chickens..etc. fed plastics and garbage.
    Support your local farmers and local fabrics….get a seamstress if needed.
    Toxic UN-Godly Asians selling toxic shi_ to make their ALMIGHTY dollar.

    We are holy in the eyes of Jesus. Depend on Him ,you holy brothers and sisters. God said– – read Psalm 37:25 – – He will never allow his children to be begging for food , nor forsaken.
    God bless all reading this and the word of the Lord stands forever….within you He will dwell….in Jesus’ precious name alone.

  • Anne Mallin

    You’re a rock star, my brother.

  • It depends what urban area and where you shop I suppose. Here in metro Denver newer malls were very busy as was Walmart, and yet K-Mart and Sears were virtually dead in the water. I don’t find that unusual, as the same thing has been going-on for many decades, some retail companies make it big and others don’t. What happened to Uncle Bill’s or Circuit City, Kresge or Forest City, Halle’s or DIY? Whole bunch of empty parking lots there.

    Come to the new Orchard Mall near here on Saturday, a place that looks like an old downtown area rather than a traditional mall, with parallel parking on the street out in front of stores, a 12-screen AMC stadium theater, four major stores and maybe 100 smaller ones plus a a couple dozen restaurants and 90% says that you will be parking in an outlying lot. Have to get lucky to get a space close in. Downtown Denver has lots of trendy shopping too but don’t count on parking for less than $10-$15 either. The Cherry Creek Mall and even our local Costco were crowded as all get out on Black Friday too.

    I remember when Southgate in Cleveland was dead in the water and half-vacant, and Randall Park was the latest Mall rage. Fast-forward 30 years and Southgate is back and Randall Park is dead. Here in metro Denver our unemployment rate is only 4.3% whereas in Cleveland the city has lost 150,000 people since I moved away in 1991, and 2/3rds of the population since 1960 also. Would the malls there be dead if you still had one million people living there in the city? No, the streets would be choked with traffic as they are here, even though we have built 60 miles of light rail here over the last 15 years and have another 50 miles under-construction right now too.

    Metro-Denver is a much different world than Cleveland or Detroit, where I lived my first 34 years. Here the urban area has almost tripled in size since the late 1970s, and quadrupled since the mid-1960s. Remember when all the naysayers were telling us that DIA would be a financial boondoggle, that nobody in the right mind would drive over 30 miles from downtown to go to the new airport? Now there are huge subdivisions and new shopping centers north of DIA, even further from the city. They are having to build more new gates again and already had to build another new runway. The place has 5 runways over 12,000 feet in length and over 200 boarding gates too. Good luck finding a parking space near the airport around holidays too.

    You want to find some crowded malls near there might I suggest driving over west of O’Hare Airport and see if you can find a place to park there. Back in 1998 and 1999 I remember when it was tough finding a place to park at the Mall of America too. I also remember back when the West Shoreway was choked with traffic, and back when I lived in Ohio City in 1986-1987 or in Tremont after that I would have opposed tearing it up for any reason, but today it probably doesn’t matter any longer either.

    Heck, they could tear down half of Detroit and it probably wouldn’t matter either, and I remember when every road there was choked with traffic too, but you can only lose so many middle-class jobs and not fairly raise the minimum wage for only so long and pretty soon more and more people have to ride bicycles as that is all that they can afford to do. I did a study earlier in 2013 that showed that average retail prices were up by 1300% since 1968 but that our minimum wage was only up by 453% since 1968 too, which resulted in a minimum wage retail purchasing power 18 months ago of only 34.8% of what the minimum wage paid 46 years ago.

    At the age of 18 I got paid $4.50/hour to be a night manager at a Mobil gas station in suburban Detroit, which was about double the minimum wage then, and in 1979 I was paid $9.31/hour to be a metal machinist at the age of just 22 in Cleveland, almost triple the minimum wage then too. In 1974 I bought a 1970 Mach One Mustang with a 351 Cleveland engine for $800 with a clean body and only 70K miles, and in 1976 I bought a 10 year old Riviera with a high-performance V-8 in it for only $200 with 80K miles on it and my car insurance was only $200 per YEAR too. Even though my Riviera only got 8 mpg we drove it to Daytona Beach for spring break. In 1977 some friends and I rented a house for only $200/month and split it four ways. Now that same house is probably 5 or 6 times that too.

    You want the malls in Cleveland to be full of cars again? All that has to be done is to attract enough decent-paying full time jobs to make people want to move there again, and/or get rid of internet shopping too. I got tired of having 20 or 25% unemployment too many times and I moved somewhere that had a better economy. Glad that I did too, as my net worth is up by 15 times over what it was in Cleveland early in 1991 too. You get what you pay for I guess. Cleveland and Detroit were fun while they lasted anyway. Used to be a regular at the Pirates Cove and at the Harbor Inn too, and then one day Shooters opened and I couldn’t find a place to park within 1/2 mile of the Harbor Inn when the day before I parked nose-in outside the bar. Whatever happened to that?

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