Trick Question: Is Your City Half Empty or Half Full?

If someone gave you $1,000, what would you do? Would you invest it? Spend it? Stuff it in the mattress for safe keeping?

Whatever your choice, I’m betting that you wouldn't throw half of it out the window. That would be a ridiculous waste, and no sane person would do such a thing, right?

Does this seem like an efficient use of land to you? (Photo: Google maps.)

Does this seem like an efficient use of land to you? (Photo: Google maps.)

Before you answer that question, think about most cities in America. The economic strength of a city comes from its land and how that land is utilized. Regardless of how big it is, every city must generate revenue and provide public infrastructure and services to the people who live and work within its boundaries. Its solvency depends on the productivity of the land and the systems it controls.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that cities are throwing away half their value, thanks to a series of bad habits we developed during our suburban experiment.

Picture a city, neatly organized into clearly defined commercial, residential and office districts. It’s all very tidy and it looks quite scientific on the zoning map. In fact, we’re so used to this system of single-use zoning that most people never give it a thought.  And yet, you would have to work very hard to create a more inefficient, illogical, and wasteful way to organize a city.

A typical zoning map

A typical zoning map

Why? Because for at least half of every day, the land within each one of these zoning districts will be vacant and underutilized.

Think about some examples in your own hometown, especially areas built in the past 50 years or so. Picture a suburban office building, a shopping mall, a commercial shopping center, and a residential neighborhood.

The Office Building

I’m willing to bet the office building and associated parking lot are busy from about 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. This means the land is fully utilized about 28% of the time. Otherwise, it’s pretty much empty.

Office parking lot: 10:21 a.m. and 6:15 p.m. (Photos by Sarah Kobos)

Office parking lot: 10:21 a.m. and 6:15 p.m. (Photos by Sarah Kobos)

The Shopping Mall

Next, consider a shopping mall which is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day of the week, except Sundays, when store hours are 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. This means the mall is utilized 73 hours a week or 43% of the time.

But that doesn’t count parking. Mall parking lots are at least twice as big as the buildings they serve. And in my experience, they’re rarely more than 40% full, even on peak shopping days. (Check out Strong Towns' #BlackFridayParking event to witness this in action.) More typical utilization is closer to 25% of capacity. (Don’t believe me? Go count for yourself.) When the mall is closed, these enormous parking lots sit completely empty. This means that most of the land associated with a suburban shopping mall is vacant a vast majority of the time.

The Commercial Shopping Center

A commercial shopping center may perform better than the mall depending on the mixture of businesses it contains.  If professional offices are mixed with bars and restaurants, the development might be utilized both day and night. The best-case scenario for this type of commercial property is when daytime uses (banks, offices) and nighttime uses (restaurants, bars) can share the same parking. Unfortunately, old-school zoning codes typically require each building to have its own dedicated parking spaces, even when adjacent businesses have opposite hours of operation, eliminating an important opportunity for better space utilization.

The stores are all open, but where are the cars? Minimum parking requirements waste space in commercial shopping centers. (Photo by Sarah Kobos)

The stores are all open, but where are the cars? Minimum parking requirements waste space in commercial shopping centers. (Photo by Sarah Kobos)

This impacts city coffers because off-street parking lots are taxed at about the same rate as unimproved land — which means that up to two-thirds of a city’s commercial space is basically unemployed, like your freeloading brother-in-law who drinks all your beer and never helps around the house.

Unfortunately, the real estate "product" known as a “community shopping center” typically includes stores and restaurants, but not office space. Conversely, an office park rarely includes retail shops or restaurants. (Even though people who work also need to shop and eat.) Neither of these commercial developments will typically include housing, due to commercial lending standards and local zoning laws.

The Residential Neighborhood

Finally, there’s the residential neighborhood. Since zoning laws prevent any commercial use within the residential district, anyone who needs anything will have to go somewhere else. Work, shopping, dining out, visits to the doctor's office, and hanging out at a coffee shop all take place elsewhere, and people will often travel long distances just to meet their daily needs.

In this way, residential neighborhoods are the inverse of commercial districts; they're occupied at night and vacant during the day. Pay attention to neighborhoods with predominantly working-age adults and school-age children. You'll observe the daily tide, as people flow out in the morning and back home in the afternoon and evening.

Non-Stop Service for Barely Used Space

Why do I care?

Because, while each individual zoning district experiences limited hours of use each day, the city must provide infrastructure and services 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to every property within the city limits. And taxpayers foot the bill.

Streets, water, sanitary sewer and stormwater systems, police and fire services, signalized intersections—all are provided every hour of every day—even in places that are empty most of the time. 

So wouldn't it make more sense if every public investment was utilized both day and night? Wouldn't it be logical to build places that serve residents' needs without forcing them to travel long distances? These are concepts our forefathers understood instinctively. Explore any old city and you'll discover a model of productive land use, where people could live near the places they worked and obtain the goods and services they needed, all within a reasonable walking distance. Public infrastructure was utilized both day and night since people lived near commercial spaces, and a compact development pattern maximized the efficient use of land by building up instead of out.

Healthy places are busy both night and day. Photo by Sarah Kobos

Healthy places are busy both night and day. Photo by Sarah Kobos

We should have stuck with it. Today our cities struggle to pay the bills because of the unsustainable development patterns we continue to replicate. In addition to single-use zoning, which separates people from the places they need to go, cities exacerbate an already inefficient system with auto-centric design. Two of the main offenders are off-street parking requirements and traffic engineering standards focused on maximizing the speed and volume of cars.

While single-use zoning districts separate commercial from residential uses, off-street parking requirements expand the gaps between buildings. When two-thirds of every commercial lot is dedicated to parking, it creates a lot of dead space between destinations. In addition, the massive scale of these asphalt oceans makes it impractical and unpleasant for people to walk and bike. They’re such uncomfortable places, you’ll often see people drive from one store to the next, just to avoid walking across a parking lot.

Yeah, no duh. Photo by Sarah Kobos

Yeah, no duh. Photo by Sarah Kobos

A Cycle of Car Dependency

These two zoning habits (single-use zoning and minimum parking requirements) are enough to set a self-perpetuating cycle of auto dependency in motion.  Because destinations are far apart and empty spaces are unpleasant to traverse, walking, biking, and transit become impractical. As a result, everybody drives.

And as soon as everyone becomes auto-dependent—once cities have made it impossible to function without a car—the streets themselves must be widened to accommodate peak demand as drivers criss-cross the city to meet their daily needs.

City streets, like the zoning districts they serve, experience alternating periods of heavy use and dormancy. And just like surface parking lots are designed for the busiest shopping day of the year, our streets are designed to facilitate the free flow of traffic during the busiest 15 minutes of the busiest travel day of the week.

If it's only busy a few hours each week, why does it need to be so big and expensive? (Photo by Sarah Kobos)

If it's only busy a few hours each week, why does it need to be so big and expensive? (Photo by Sarah Kobos)

In a lot of places, massive, multi-lane streets are operating at a tiny fraction of their capacity most of the time. We may not be driving on them during off-peak hours, but we’re paying for them just the same. It takes years to pay off the initial capital cost to build streets to highway dimensions. Plus, we have to build more lane miles to connect all those spread out businesses and far-flung residential neighborhoods. In the meantime, our streets continue to expand and contract with daily temperature fluctuations and freeze-thaw cycles. They continue to develop potholes from heavy traffic during peak usage. And they’ll still need to be replaced in 25 years. 

This leads me to the conclusion that we’re doing a pretty lousy job of maximizing the productivity of our investments. Depending upon your level of personal optimism, much of the public and private land within your city limits is either half empty or half full. Either way, it’s only functioning at about 50% maximum efficiency.

Rigid adherence to a calcified system of zoning and traffic engineering standards has resulted in the cities we now call home. We’ve become adept at building expensive, inefficient, inflexible and inequitable places. The question is: what next?  

Are we willing to spend political capital to challenge the status quo? Are we willing to fight and fail, then find the strength to fight and fail again? Can we face our fear of change to build a better future for our kids?

It's going to take a lot of strong citizens to get it done. No pressure, but it's going to be up to you.