Why Do Bars Have Parking Lots If We Aren't Supposed To Drive Home?

At the other end of the spectrum I have nothing but amusement and admiration for Louisiana’s stubbornly post-modern response to modernist prescriptive rule making. Rather than require parking for bars, Louisiana allows drive-thru daiquiris. Their solution to this apparent design flaw? A requirement to tape the straw down for the driver.

At the other end of the spectrum I have nothing but amusement and admiration for Louisiana’s stubbornly post-modern response to modernist prescriptive rule making. Rather than require parking for bars, Louisiana allows drive-thru daiquiris. Their solution to this apparent design flaw? A requirement to tape the straw down for the driver.

When it comes to drunk driving, America may have a bigger driving problem than a drinking problem. Sometimes I tell people that I became a planner in order to ensure everyone can safely imbibe and safely get home. When you step back and think about it though how well do we really think through our development decisions regarding drinking establishments? I contend that the way typical code treats drinking establishments is indicative of the kind of misguided positivism that is pervasive in modern planning. The kind of prescriptive guidance that can specify how many trees you need in a parking lot but completely misses the simple practical relationship between how people use the site and their ability to stay safe. Modernist standardization erases the creativity and common sense that come from small scale solutions.

I have never understood how a zoning code could, in good faith, permit a drinking establishment that could only possibly be reached by car. In doing so are we not creating a scenario in which people have no option but to drive to a place where they then become unable to safely drive home? I am hardly the first person to comment on the absurdity of this arrangement. 

One thing is clear, that we expect them to regardless of design. I suppose we are to assume that taxis and designated drivers make this possible. Safe ride options such as Uber and those folks who drive your car home and then bike back are filling the gap too. I suspect that, in reality, the difference is a mix of these options and intoxicated driving. My challenge to organizations like MADD is to consider the extreme recklessness of encouraging drinking in places where there is no practical way home without a car. 

Westville Pub

Westville Pub

Let’s take a practical comparison. Allow me to set the mood. First let’s start with a traditionally located local pub in West Asheville called Westville Pub. Westville is located in an old brick row building at the traditional center of the West Asheville neighborhood. This block has always been at the commercial epicenter of the outwardly growing community but was built in such a way that it could evolve and adapt. Simply put, you’ll find it at the heart of downtown West Asheville.

Buffalo Wild Wings

Buffalo Wild Wings

Buffalo Wild Wings, however, exists in a Euclidian wonderland of single use commercial boxes that is the traditional center of nothing. One might assume that in crossing the eastern threshold of Asheville’s Tunnel you have travelled through a worm-hole into a dimension populated with chain stores and simultaneously present in every city in America. The buildings and their design might as well have been downloaded from the internet.

Comparing Bar Designs for Safety

Now let’s compare the two from the perspective of someone how wants to drink and needs to get home without a car. Even qualitatively the differences are quite clear. One thing that immediately becomes apparent is the drastic difference in parking opportunity at Westville. While people might often complain about the lack of parking in downtown environments, in this case its entirely the point. Look at the ample parking around Buffalo Wild Wings. Look how convenient it makes driving to a place where people want to drink.

Westville Pub

Westville Pub

Put another way, only Westville offers an alternative to driving. Look how many houses and small streets surround Westville. This makes it at least possible to leave the bar without getting in a car at all. You could conceivably walk to Buffalo Wild Wings just like you could conceivably walk through barbed wire or a swamp. My point is that it is far from practical. As I point out in a moment there are multiple barriers to getting home safely without a car. There is little you would be likely to walk home to unless you were staying in the Hampton Inn. Even if you did walk you would have to deal with car spaced distances and poor infrastructure. Take, for example, the brambles that surround the site like a barb-wire fence and lack of sidewalks.

Buffalo Wild Wings

Buffalo Wild Wings

If we Do The Math and try to put numbers to this comparison we can start to see the difference. As a simple metric we can take the relative Walkscores of the two sites. Wild Wings is a modest 52 (somewhat walkable) while Westville is 82 (very walkable). I, once again, call out to MADD to consider the inverse of bar Walkscores a measure of drunk-driving potential. In reality, the disparity is far greater than Walkscore is able to process. This is the composite score which under-weights things like terrain and infrastructure and assumes that any address you type in is residential.

Another way to compare the sites is to consider how many people could walk home in half an hour. In theory Buffalo Wild Wings could get you as far as downtown or Kenilworth in half an hour but this is unlikely. The travel time fails to take into account the kind of dangerous roads you would be walking (e.g. no sidewalks, lack of light), the mountain you would be climbing, or the tunnel you would be walking through. Furthermore, as you can see in a wider aerial view, there are few non-commercial areas within range. Most of what you can walk to, ironically, is more surface parking. Westville’s compact, gridded (comparatively) design, by contrast, gives it access to basically all of West Asheville. 

Buffalo Wild Wings

Buffalo Wild Wings

Westville Pub

Westville Pub

Designed For Drunk Driving

The point that I would like get through is that drunk driving is a design problem and one which is driven by homicide-ally misguided policy. What is astonishing is that many of these problems are not just overlooked by code but actually exacerbated by it. Who called for all those parking spots and brambles around Wild Wings? It was likely built into standard zoning practice. Parking for bars is required while roadside memorials for those killed by drunk driving are illegal. Westville Pub is probably illegal in most zoning jurisdictions. Complex parking and zoning requirements are a barrier to small businesses, like Westville Pub, all over the country

Just like roads are designed for mobility and then saddled with inappropriate speed limits, the design and practical function of drinking establishments are at odds. We try to fill the gap with education and enforcement but ultimately people tend to do what they feel like they are able to do.

Somewhere in an engineer’s manual is a ghoulishly wrong standard that calls for a certain number of parking spots per square foot of bar. Ghoulish because if we extend that standard we can assume a certain number of those parking spots will be filled with drunk drivers and a certain number of those drunk drivers will kill someone. Our slavish inability to see that driving is not a requirement is literally taking lives.


Joshua McCarty is Urban 3’s Chief Analytics Researcher specializing in tax analysis and data visualization. Joshua’s experience has been a mix of academic and professional research. At the core of this work is an ongoing effort to quantify, measure, and communicate patterns of urban development and the outcomes of design choices.

Josh blogs regularly at Urban 3 and is a must read.