In the early days of my professional career, when I did municipal engineering and zoning work, parking was one of those easy things to deal with. Every code I encountered had elaborate tables that would spell out, with great precision, the exact amount of parking that was needed for each type of application. Who could argue with a ratio as refined as 4.5 stalls per every 1,000 square feet? Not me.

I remember sometimes that people would complain about just how much parking was required. The conversation would go back and forth through all kinds of logic until, like some kind of law of parking debates, someone would end the conversation by saying:

Come Black Friday that lot is going to be full and people will be parking in the streets. 

In other words: what are we even debating here. Just build the parking already. 

At some point it began to occur to me just how ludicrous this approach was. I wasn't aware of Professor Donald Shoup's seminal work, The High Cost of Free Parking, where he pulls back the curtain on (among other things) the so-called "science" of recommended parking minimums (there is more science behind my daughter's sorting of her sock drawer than the typical parking standard). No, I simply started observing how, despite my assumptions, the parking lots really weren't full on Black Friday. Not even close.

And if they weren't full on Black Friday, when would they be full? 

These observations made me upset over a number of things. In parking minimums, I saw an approach that was comfortable for me -- the bureaucrat -- to administer but was simply fraudulent. My job was made easy, and I was provided some arbitrary power, only because of a distorted cultural belief, not because of reality. That's a rather fragile and destructive construct.

I also realized how parking minimums were another way the scales are tipped in favor of the corporate chains and against the local upstart. For the big box store, the huge parking lot we required was just advertising. We've got plenty of parking spaces. For the small business owner trying to make use of that old building in the historic neighborhood, the parking minimum meant buying the building next door, tearing it down and converting that space to parking. Parking minimums stop a countless number of projects before they even get through the dream phase. The big box stores and strip malls never fought the parking minimums; it was just another way they raised the ante.

The value of each side of South 6th St. in downtown Brainerd, MN.

The value of each side of South 6th St. in downtown Brainerd, MN.

I was also frustrated over the cost. In a property tax system like we have here in Minnesota, all those parking lots were not paying their way. For sales tax states, it's even less. Yet we still provided them a street, a sidewalk and full utilities. We still had to plow the snow off the street in front of them. We still had to mow the ditches and repair the curbs. Why are allowing our city to decline, and why are we building more stuff out on the edge, when all of this potential is untapped?

Finally, the local politics of parking just made no sense to me. People who go on and on about the free market -- and I'm largely with them -- all of a sudden became flaming communists when it came to parking. We could not have enough, we could not charge for it and it was largely the government's role to provide it, or at least have pages of regulations to require it. The entire concept of a price mechanism was suspended when it came to parking. 

My wife, a news reporter, generally works the day after Thanksgiving and, in recent years, I've made it a fun day with my daughters. We go out for pizza, do a little shopping for mom and perhaps take in a movie. I decided three years ago to start taking pictures of the empty lots. A year later -- 2013 -- I invited others to do the same in what became our first #BlackFridayParking event. We're now in our third year and are going to take this entire week to shine as bright a light as we can on the issue.

Consistent with the recommendations of Professor Shoup, there are three things a strong town needs to do in relation to parking:

  1. Get the right price for curbed parking.
  2. Spend all the metered revenue on services on the block with the meters.
  3. Eliminate off street parking requirements.

This week's #BlackFridayParking event is focusing on the third, which is really the easiest to accomplish as well as a catalyst for coherent local conversation on the other two.

Last year I was in Queens with Strong Towns board member Ian Rasmussen. We got off the subway and, as we surfaced to the street, he paused to point out the parking to me. Multiple parking ramps and garages, as well as the curb cuts and disruption in the streetscape to accommodate them, all required because of new development in the vicinity of one of the busiest transit stops in the country. As Ian -- an attorney who did some work for one of the developments -- said, if they are screwing this up here, they are screwing it up everywhere. 

I hope you find a lot in the upcoming content stream that you can share with others. We also invite you to participate in #BlackFridayParking at the end of this week and do what you can to change our nation's conversation on parking regulations.

(Top photo by Joe Shlabotnik)

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