I’m going to start today by thanking all of our new and renewing members. Last week was a great member drive. I had the opportunity to speak personally with many of you and it’s always uplifting. Sincerely, thank you.
And for those of you who are new since last year, the end of the fall member drive means that it’s time for us to kick off our annual Black Friday parking campaign. Black Friday Parking is a national crowd-sourced event that we host here at Strong Towns. The idea came from countless meetings I sat in where huge parking lots were proposed by engineers, planners, and site designers on the basis that “we’re going to want that parking on Black Friday.”
And the problem didn’t stop at those conference room walls. Years ago when we started doing Black Friday Parking as a crowd-sourced event, it seemed like our broad cultural awareness of the problem with parking minimums was infantile. Indeed, it was only the brilliance of Donald Shoup, some anti-zoning libertarians, and a few random cranks who seemed willing to question the status quo.
Fast forward to today, and it’s astounding how far this conversation has come. Parking requirements are one of those lightbulb moment kind of things. Once you grasp how utterly destructive, indefensible, and baseless they are, there is no going back. More and more people each day are making that discovery.
Most people understand, intuitively, that sizing a parking lot for an annual peak event is utterly ridiculous on its face, especially given how financially strapped our cities are. Yet our Black Friday Parking event did not challenge that belief. Instead, we took the farce a step further. Here’s what our thinking was:
If you are sizing your parking lot for the one day of the year you think you’ll need all that parking, well, we have some bad news for you: you aren’t even using it on Black Friday.
So we sent people out with cameras and we told them to go to their malls, their big box stores, those strip malls, and all the places that expect to see a rush of parking demand on this peak day and take a photo of the parking lot. Hundreds of photos were shared each year since, with the hashtag #blackfridayparking to document the folly.
Of course, in the intervening years, shopping habits have changed. We now have Thanksgiving evening shopping specials, early Black Friday specials, and online shopping as well. Some people have even sent me critiques of our #blackfridayparking event as no longer relevant given that shift, not grasping that the shift makes our point even more profoundly. A decades-long investment in asphalt and concrete looks even sillier when there is not even a pretense of it being used.
Parking lots are the worst land use a city can choose. They generate little in terms of tax base and thus generate little in terms of tax revenue. On top of that, they cost a ton to service and repair. Here in Minnesota, I simply point out that you still have to plow parking lots when it snows—where I live, that’s not a negligible cost. But even if you’re not in a place where plowing is a factor, you can look at all the other infrastructure in the ground. That parking lot may not be using electricity, gas, or running water, but those utility lines have to traverse it to get to a business that does. Those are real costs without any comparable benefit.
Parking lots depress walking. Those huge gaps in the streetscape, and the feeling of desolation they create to anyone outside a motor vehicle, deters many from traveling on foot—and that suppresses the value of our places. Along those same lines, parking lots induce more driving and nudge a community more towards the financially-unproductive, auto-oriented end of the development spectrum.
Parking lots drive up housing prices. Parking makes a great speculative land use for people who want to park money (pun intended) in something with a low tax burden and modest cash flow while they wait for others to do the hard work of improving the neighborhood so they can cash out later. In that sense, they drive up housing prices by artificially holding land in reserve that would otherwise be put to productive use.
Parking minimums are brutal for small business. Your big box store or international retailer is getting their money from Wall Street, and they are gleeful whenever cities force their more local competitors to spend their limited resources on parking. Nobody can out-park Walmart, and so forcing your local startup to play that game is merely forcing them to compete in a contest they can’t win.
Incremental development expert John Anderson has said that the first thing he does to determine whether a city is ready for investment is to see if they have repealed their parking minimums. If they still have minimums in their code, then why bother? It’s a clear signal that the city isn’t ready, that the conversation there isn’t mature. I could not agree more.
This week we’re going to take some time to look at parking requirements and get everyone ready to participate in the annual Black Friday Parking event. If you’re looking for something to talk to your family about around the table this Thursday, let them know why the best thing their community can do to increase services and lower taxes is to stop building parking lots.
Then invite them to grab their smart phone and hit the mall parking lot with you on Friday.
How Can I Participate in #blackfridayparking?
Tell your friends about this event via social media. Share a link to a Strong Towns article so they can learn more.
On Friday, November 23, 2018 get outside and take pictures of the parking lots in your town.
Upload your photos to Twitter, Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #blackfridayparking. Bonus points if also include a note about how that parking lot could be put to better use in your community. (Housing? Offices? Park? You decide!) It's also helpful if you note the location of the parking lot and estimate how full it is.
Visit our website on November 23 to view other peoples' photos from across the country. Head to strongtowns.org/blackfridayparking to see all the action.