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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.

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Get Your Cameras Ready for Half-Empty Black Friday Parking Lots

If the parking lot at your local big box store looks like this on Black Friday, you're doing it wrong. Photo: Strong Towns

Does the parking lot at your local big box store look like this on Black Friday? Photo: Strong Towns

It’s standard practice to build parking lots to accommodate the maximum number of vehicles expected on the busiest shopping day of the year.

As a result, acres and acres of unnecessary asphalt make communities less walkable, waste land, funnel polluted runoff into our groundwater, erode tax bases, and drive up prices for lots of other goods that aren’t car parking. Incredibly, a lot of these parking lots are so large they don’t even fill most of the way up on Black Friday, America’s high holiday of retail shopping.

Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns came up with an ingenious plan to help highlight this rather unsexy issue last year. He encouraged people to take pictures of half-empty parking lots on Black Friday and tweet them with the hashtag #blackfridayparking. Last year’s contest produced some eye-poppers.

Chuck is encouraging people to do the same this year. If you’re out there holiday shopping and come across one of those sad, empty parking lots, please tweet it and show the world the foolishness of our parking policies. For more information, check out the Strong Towns blog

In the meantime, Streetsblog USA wishes everyone a happy Thanksgiving, and looks forward to reviewing your spectacular pictures Monday.

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Congress Gives Itself More Free Parking Than Its Own Rules Allow

How much are these free parking spots worth? Probably more than the $250 parking benefit Congress allows. Photo: ##http://www.jmt.com/project-portfolio/us-senate-parking-lot-study/##JMT##

How much are these free parking spots worth? More than the $250 per month in tax-free parking benefits that Congress allows. Photo: JMT

As TransitCenter and the Frontier Group reported last week, the federal government pays a huge $7.3 billion subsidy to people who drive to work by making commuter parking expenses tax exempt. There are countless reasons for Congress to scrap this poorly-conceived, congestion-inducing subsidy. While policymakers consider the big picture, they also ought to examine how their own parking benefits are administered.

Here’s the short version: Congress is breaking its own law, and it’s shorting the Treasury hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, by providing free parking far in excess of the allowable limits.

USC 26 Section 132f of the tax code allows employers to provide each worker with up to $250 in free parking per month tax-free, which can add up to $3,000 in tax-free perks per employee each year. That’s a pretty big amount to pay people for exacerbating congestion, but the parking at the U.S. Capitol is worth significantly more than that.

It’s hard to know exactly how many free parking spaces we’re talking about. The Architect of the Capitol and relevant committees don’t like to talk about it, but Lydia DePillis reported in the Washington City Paper a few years ago that a plan for the southern part of the Capitol complex completed in 2005 shows that the House office buildings alone have 5,772 parking spaces assigned to them.

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SF Voters Reject Measure to Enshrine Free Parking and Stop Livable Streets


In case you need a little pick-me-up this morning, here’s some good news out of San Francisco. Voters resoundingly rejected Proposition L, a local ballot measure designed to halt the city’s progress on improving streets for walking, biking, and transit. As of the most recent available count, with nearly all precincts reporting, 62 percent of San Francisco voters had said “No” to Prop L.

The Prop L contingent, backed by internet billionaire Sean Parker and the local Republican Party, framed their measure as a way to “restore balance” to San Francisco streets by enshrining free parking and elevating traffic flow as a decisive factor in street design. This in a city that has only taken modest steps to reclaim street space for transit, biking, and walking, and where the mayor recently reneged on a shortlived policy to charge for metered parking on Sundays.

While Prop L was a non-binding policy statement, it could have put a serious chill on livable streets policies in the city. The campaign strategy was to turn car-based populism into votes — handing out flyers in parking lots was the most visible tactic.

As the closest thing to an up-or-down vote on transit-priority lanes, bikeways, and pedestrian improvements ever put before the electorate, the Prop L results are going to make an impression on local officials who decide the fate of those projects. Instead of rejecting the nascent reforms happening on the streets of the city, voters sent a signal that they want more.

For more on the Prop L vote and its implications, check Aaron Bialick’s reporting at Streetsblog SF later today.

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Progress on Parking Reform Could Make DC More Walkable and Affordable

A few key changes to the DC zoning code could help make housing more affordable, streets more walkable, transit more convenient, and healthy foods more accessible. Years of debate and delay have watered down the reforms somewhat, but they still represent substantial progress. And now it looks like they will pass.

New zoning rules will require 50 percent less parking by metro stops and frequent bus corridors. Photo: Virtual Tourist

New zoning rules will cut parking requirements in half near metro stops and frequent bus corridors. Photo: Virtual Tourist

Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth files a status report at Greater Greater Washington:

The DC Zoning Commission has been deliberating on the zoning update this week. The commissioners embraced most of the DC Office of Planning’s proposals while even rejecting at least one of OP’s recent steps backward.

Buildings near transit (including priority bus corridors) will be able to have half the parking that’s otherwise required if they are willing to forego residential parking permits. Homeowners will be able to put accessory apartments inside their houses without a special hearing, but will have to go through one to use a carriage house. And corner grocery stores will be able to open in residential row house areas if they sell fresh food.

This is a major milestone in the grueling zoning regulations revision process that began in 2007 just after the DC Council adopted the 2006 Comprehensive Plan. Opponents of the update repeatedly asked the commission and the Office of Planning and for more outreach, more meetings, and more delay. In response, officials stretched out the process and added dozens of meetings, fact sheets, and hearings throughout the city. But the process now has an end in sight.

After a few more discussions, a new draft zoning code will be prepared for the city and presented for public comment. These reforms sound like no-brainers to help increase the number of housing units available at lower prices and reduce the share of valuable transit-accesible land consumed by parked cars.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Urban Indy thinks that Indianapolis should hesitate to gloat about all the riders Pacers Bikeshare is attracting six months after opening. ATL Urbanist reports that Atlanta’s MARTA will use elements of tactical urbanism to incorporate public feedback into the redesign of two stations. And FABB Blog shares new data showing how residents of metro DC are flocking toward transit hubs.

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In Tenth Year of Park(ing) Day, Parklets Bloom on Six Continents

Cities on six continents are celebrating Park(ing) Day today, now in its tenth year of temporarily transforming curbside space for cars into public spaces for people. Some of the pop-up parks that caught our eye this Park(ing) Day include:

Providence pulled out all of the stops this year, with 32 parklets — and a pop-up protected bike lane down Broadway — gracing a city with fewer than 200,000 residents. The parklet sponsors include not just local design firms, retailers, and schools, but also the campaign of Jorge Elorza, the Democratic nominee for mayor in this November’s election. What’s more, Park(ing) Day will have lasting policy impacts in Providence. James P. Kennedy of Network blog Transport Providence points out that Elorza has endorsed making the bike lane permanent, and that both major-party candidates have endorsed a parking tax.

The construction process for Resurfaced. Photos by City Collective, via Broken Sidewalk.

One group in Louisville “drew some inspiration from Angie Schmitt’s work with Streetsblog looking at Parking Craters” and decided to tackle a vacant lot amidst the otherwise unbroken line of buildings along the city’s historic West Main Street. Today, City Collaborative will open ReSurfaced, a six-week plaza and beer garden, on a vacant lot where a skyscraper had been proposed. The plaza offers interactive computer games laser-projected onto adjacent walls, a portable makerspace, and even its own brewed-for-the-occasion Kentucky Common beer.

The NoMa neighborhood BID in Washington, D.C. offered $200 micro-grants to individuals or groups who set up parklets along 1st Street NE, the main street of the developing neighborhood (and already home to a curb-protected bike lane). The BID’s Ali Newman said that having “a network of parks means that so many more people can interact with and enjoy the public space,” and that having multiple groups programming the space “gets people outside and engages the neighborhood in a new way.” One organizer, Do Tank DC, set up an outdoor game room to celebrate the successful launch of its new card game, Cards Against Urbanity.

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Al Jazeera America Talks Parking Craters With Streetsblog

The term “parking crater” made its cable news debut last week, when I was invited to appear on Al Jazeera America’s “Real Money with Ali Velshi.” Here’s the segment that aired on the show.

Velshi wanted to discuss recent research out of the University of Connecticut showing how too much parking harms a city’s tax base. If Al Jazeera, owned by the Qatari royal family, can get serious about parking policy, then maybe there’s hope for American news outlets funded by car company advertising. We’re waiting for the call from Anderson Cooper.

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Portland Tackled Disabled Parking Placard Abuse, and It’s Working

Disabled parking placards used to be ubiquitous in Portland. Until very recently, the city provided unlimited free street parking to placard holders, estimated at a $2,000 annual value. Many cars bearing these placards would remain in prime spots for weeks or months without moving.

New rules on disabled parking in Portland have made parking much easier. Photo: Wikipedia

New rules on disabled parking in Portland have kept scammers from gaming the system. Photo: Wikipedia

In some parts of the city, cars with placards would occupy 20 percent or more of the on-street parking. This generates traffic by causing other drivers to cruise for spots, and it makes curbside meter management less effective. Putting the right price on parking is tough when 20 percent of the spaces are free to some people.

Joseph Rose, the Oregonian’s transportation reporter, said he couldn’t help but feel like some drivers were pulling a fast one. ”After a while, you get the unshakeable feeling that a lot of able-bodied commuters are getting their hands on disabled permits and scamming a compassionate city out of millions of dollars in parking revenue each year,” he wrote recently.

All the city needed to do to solve the problem, it turns out, was to start charging disabled placard holders to park. That took effect July 1. In an informal poll by the Oregonian, 74 percent of readers said they thought the new rules had increased the number of parking spaces available.

Disabled placard holders are now charged $2.40 for 90 minutes of parking. Those who violate the rule will be given two warnings and then fined $39. As of mid-July local officials reported only about 10 such tickets had been issued, but the policy seems to be having an impact.

“We have so much more parking,” enforcement officer J.C. Udey told the Oregonian. “It just goes to show the program is working.”

Portland’s case is promising for other cities struggling with the same problem. San Francisco is considering almost exactly the same intervention: eliminating free parking privileges for disabled placard holders. Raleigh, North Carolina, recently did something similar.

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What’s the Best Way to Tax Parking?

Taxing parking, the way Pittsburgh does, can make downtowns livelier and encourage a healthier mix of transportation options.

A visual inventory of parking in downtown Providence. Image: Greater City Providence

An inventory of parking in downtown Providence. Image: Greater City Providence

Of course, implementing these policies can get tricky. A recent report from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute [PDF] delves into the issue and sorts out the best way to go about it.

At his blog, Transport Providence, James Kennedy considers what the conclusions mean for his city:

The long and short of it is that it’s politically easiest to tax parking on dedicated lots, rather than to do a “per space” tax on all parking, but this way of taxing parking has problems. We might be tempted, for instance, to tax the lots in downtown Providence but not tax the lot attached to, say, the Whole Foods, because our instinctive thought would be that though we don’t like a surface lot next to a grocery store, it’s much better than a bare lot serving nothing but parking alone.

The problem comes with the fact that the lot parking attached to businesses is free to customers and employees. Of course, it’s not actually free. It costs money which is passed into lost wages or higher prices. But to the worker or consumer, it appears free. When the price of commercial parking, i.e., the lots downtown that charge per hour, becomes more expensive without putting an equal burden on these other parking lots, it gives a stronger incentive for businesses to include free parking into their design as a benefit to customers or workers. This is not what we want.

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Streetsblog SF 73 Comments

Facebook Billionaire Sean Parker Bankrolls Free Parking Ballot Initiative in SF

Sean Parker spent $100,000 to support Mayor Ed Lee’s 2011 election bid, and $49,000 on a 2014 ballot initiative to maintain free parking and build new garages in SF.

Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook and a major contributor to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, has spent $49,000 of his personal fortune to propel a ballot initiative that seeks to enshrine free parking as city policy, according to the SF Chronicle. Parker gave $100,000 to Lee’s mayoral campaign in 2011.

The ballot initiative, which proponents frame as an attempt to “restore balance” to city transportation policy, first surfaced in April. While the measure would be non-binding, if it passes it could further slow much-needed policies to prioritize transit and street safety in San Francisco. One stated goal of the campaign is to kill Sunday parking meters for good. The SFMTA Board of Directors, which is appointed entirely by Mayor Lee, repealed Sunday metering in April, after Lee made unfounded claims about a popular revolt against the policy.

Mayor Ed Lee with Facebook-founding billionaire Sean Parker (right) and Ron Conway (center), both major campaign donors. Photo: The Bay Citizen/Center for Investigative Reporting

Several veteran opponents of transportation reform in San Francisco are aligned with the ballot initiative. And, in addition to the backing from Parker, another $10,000 for the measure reportedly came from the San Francisco Republican Party.

Parker’s funding for the ballot initiative apparently helped pay petitioners to get out and collect the 17,500 signatures submitted last week to place the measure on the ballot. Two Streetsblog readers reported being approached in Safeway parking lots by petitioners who falsely claimed that the SFMTA had not repealed Sunday parking meters. A flyer distributed for the campaign [PDF] claims the measure calls for “restoring free parking at meters on Sundays, holidays and evenings.” Campaign proponent and previous Republican Assembly hopeful Jason Clark told SFist that the allegations were “hearsay,” but that the non-binding resolution would “ensure [SFMTA] can’t” bring back Sunday meters.

Parker has a reputation for selfish extravagance at the expense of the public realm. In February, he denied accusations that he had workers bulldoze snow from in front of his $20 million home in New York City’s Greenwich Village onto the street. The snow was reportedly cleared so a high-speed internet cable could be hooked up to the home. Last year, he was fined $2.5 million for damaging a Big Sur redwood grove that served as his wedding backdrop.