Parking Minimums Must Die

A few years ago, I came up with the idea that we should go out and take photos of half-empty parking lots on Black Friday and post them online just to show people how silly parking requirements are.

For me, this was a byproduct of sitting through way too many planning commission meetings where parking was always a major issue. If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times: Somebody arguing for more parking would always say, "If there isn't enough parking, on Black Friday, they're going to be circling around the lot trying to find a place." As if circling to look for a parking spot on the busiest shopping day of the year somehow constitutes the greatest evil known to mankind.

Our member drive week has ended but we're still working towards 2000 members by the end of the year. Thank you to everyone who signed up. I have a ton of calls to return today; please be patient. If you missed out, it's not too late to sign up today. I'm looking forward to interviewing Member #2000 sometime later this week. Who will that be?

Earlier this year, I was having coffee with some people who had brought me to their community for a presentation. One of the people in the group added to the conversation by describing this spontaneous social media campaign where people went out the day after Thanksgiving and took pictures of empty parking lots. He described in detail how it worked and how effective it was.

He had no idea that it was Strong Towns who orchestrated the day. Others may call that poor branding on our part. We call it a small victory. 

There has been a lot of progress made on removing parking minimum laws in recent years. The consensus among urban planners and designers is that we've gone way too far down this regulatory path for no justifiable or defensible reason.

That understanding has started to leak out into the general conversation. Parking minimums have become a sort of litmus test for knowing how enlightened — for lack of a better term — on urban design issues the person you are talking to is.

Nearly everyone who has taken any substantive amount of time to ponder or research parking minimums is generally not able to escape the following conclusions:

  1. Americans spend an enormous amount of money building parking that is rarely used—a bizarre luxury in places where families, businesses and governments are struggling financially.
  2. The more parking we build, and the lower our tax base is relative to our public expenses, the higher our taxes ultimately will be and the more financially stressed our communities are likely to become. 
  3. Parking minimums — the kind you find in your local zoning code — are based on sham science and are not in any way defensible beyond citing their existence in a code book.
  4. Parking minimums are a huge obstacle for small businesses and create a competitive advantage for corporate chains, particularly big box stores. 

If we took the entire Strong Towns Strength Test and boiled it down to one indicator, it would be parking minimums. If your city doesn't have them, then I'm really optimistic that you've got people in the right positions making thoughtful decisions and your community's future is bright. If your city is still clinging to parking minimums, then I'm going to be pessimistic and doubt your seriousness, and I'm really going to doubt whether you'll be capable of dealing with issues that are far more difficult.

And yet I know how hard it can be, too. I've personally been working since August in my capacity as a planning commission member here in my hometown of Brainerd to get one simple parking provision repealed — just one out of a long list of such archaic provisions — and I can't seem to get it done. We're even in the process of tearing down an historic school building and turning the gateway into our city into a huge parking lot for high school kids. Part of the justification is the city's parking requirements. I'll have more on that later in the week.

Last year one of our board member's, Ian Rasmussen, contributed a bizarre story about a vacant parking ramp at a casino. Ian does zoning law in New York City. Every time I visit and spend time with him, he can't help but point out all the places where buildings have been cut back, affordability thrown out the window and urban design compromised just to add parking. And that is in New York City, a place where walking, biking and mass transit are infinitely easier than driving, where there really is no excuse for a regulatory body to care at all about parking.

Our most expensive real estate is made even more so by the burden of providing parking. I spent a week with my family in Washington DC this summer. We didn't rent a car — never dreamed of getting a car — because there was no need. It would have been a burden. Yet I got off the Metro amid some of the most expensive real estate in the nation and was greeted by surface parking. All week I came across free parking everywhere. How is this possible?

What hope does Brainerd have — let alone Omaha or Santa Ana or Richmond or all places I've been this year — if New York and DC, where all the incentives are in place to make a change, can't get this figured out?

We've come a long ways with Black Friday Parking, but we've got quite a ways to go still. Join us this Friday and help raise awareness about why parking minimums need to die. Get all the info about how to participate here.

A final note: For some reason there is not an insignificant number of you who contact me to suggest we move Black Friday Parking to some other day (most suggest December 23) when statistically more people are shopping. It's as if you think we're trying to conduct some type of scientific survey instead of merely running an awareness campaign (which would be rather unsuccessful on December 23). Watch; someone will not read this article but will make the remark here in the comments or on our Facebook page. I've had two people contact me on this in the last week. Seriously?

If you have a hard time participating with Black Friday Parking because it no longer is the busiest shopping day of the year, that more people are shopping online, that more people are shifting to small businesses, etc.—and you can't see how that is actually part of the point we're making and trends we're hoping to accelerate—take this week off. It's okay. We got it.

For all the rest of you, hope to see your photos this Friday. #blackfridayparking 

(Top photo by Dean Hochman.)

Related stories