Cross posted at Strong Towns Network.
On Black Friday- traditionally a day marked by a surge of post-Thanksgiving shopping- our friends at www.strongtowns.org launched a nationwide appeal for members to send in photos of parking lots in their local areas. Photos flooded in, with a common theme- even on this busiest of shopping days, malls across the country had parking lots that were half-empty or worse. How can this be possible? And what does it mean? Walkable Princeton participated, focusing on malls along Route 27 north of Princeton. The results were amazing.
Route 27 is not your average road. It is literally one of the most historic roads in America. The “King’s Highway” (as it was then known) was built starting 1686 on Native American trails. It was extended to New York through New Jersey in 1756. Before there was any University in Princeton, local hostelries and taverns catered to travelers making the 3-day journey back and forward from the great cities of New York and Philadelphia.
The “King’s Highway” subsequently became part of the ‘Lincoln Highway‘, the first transcontinental highway for cars in the United States, which opened in 1913. Since then, new highways have surpassed Hwy 27 for inter-state traffic, but it remains a busy road connecting communities in Central Jersey. Despite its history, much of Hwy 27 is now lined with strip malls indistinguishable from any drag route in the country. It’s not much of a place to linger, especially if you’re on foot or a bicycle, as there are no sidewalks and the retail is set back far from the road behind huge parking lots.
There is an idea that ‘you can’t have too much parking’, but clearly, there is too much parking here. If the parking doesn’t fill up on Black Friday, when is it going to fill up? Not only are these lots not full, but in many cases there are office parks and medical offices right next door, where the lots are entirely empty (because they are closed on Black Friday). These lots could act as spillover parking for shoppers, but that’s hardly needed when even the proper mall lots aren’t even half full. Excess parking has costs. The parking degrades the local environment, making it unpleasant and dangerous for walkers and cyclists. Run-off from the impervious surface creates challenges for stormwater management, and requires costly retention basins to be added- which further break up the walkable fabric of the area, and contribute nothing to municipal ratables.
This is not a uniquely Jersey problem. Strong Towns found examples of excess parking all over the country. This raised several objections from nay-sayers, who couldn’t believe that so many lots would sit empty on Black Friday. Although we can’t speak about all the examples that Strong Towns found, we can talk about what’s happening here around Princeton, NJ:
- The photos of empty lots were taken at dawn, which is why they look so empty. Not in our case- the photos were taken around 4 p.m., which should be prime shopping time.
- The photos were taken in declining areas, or in communities in the middle of nowhere. Not here- although parts of New Jersey are under pressure (e.g. Trenton, Camden), the Greater Princeton area is thriving. There are also 150,000 local people who could shop in these malls, or even more depending on where you draw the line. This is one of the densest areas in terms of population in the US.
- That mall just has a nail salon and a bagel store in it, of course people aren’t shopping there on Black Friday. That might apply to one or two of these malls, but we saw the same pattern at every place we passed. There was not one mall with a full lot.
So what is going on? According to Chuck Marohn, founder of Strong Towns, vacant lots on Black Friday are evidence of absurd zoning policies which require minimum parking levels that are totally out of whack compared to what is required. Our local zoning laws are certainly restrictive, to the extent that we overbuild parking pretty much everywhere. But we can’t say for sure that parking minimums are to blame for the empty parking at these malls. It is just as likely that the mall designer figured that all the parking was necessary, or at least desirable. This just goes to show how wrong traffic engineers can be. The guys who laid out these empty parking lots are probably comfortably retired now, but we’re stuck with the asphalt desert.
The other clear message is: free and easy parking does not make a business successful. There is an idea that taking away on-street parking in downtown Princeton to make it friendlier to walkers and cyclists would cause businesses to suffer. This is almost certainly not true. People shop where there are businesses that sell things they want to buy, and where the shopping experience is pleasant. That place is downtown Princeton, despite the perception of limited parking. There are no shortages of spaces in malls along Hwy 27 where commercial rents are cheaper and parking is freely available. But people aren’t shopping there and businesses aren’t moving there. As urban analyst Aaron Renn puts it:
“The reality of the matter is that parking has virtually nothing to do with whether people do or don’t come downtown. It is a deciding factor at the margin in the worst case…concentrate on building a unique urban environment that will draw locals and visitors alike to a thriving downtown full of highly desirable attractions people are willing to walk a couple of blocks to get to.”
The message of #BlackFridayParking in Central Jersey is clear: people want pleasant, walkable spaces to shop. When people obsess over parking, they invariably overbuild it, and create desolate spaces where businesses don’t succeed and land goes wasted. Locally, other municipalities ‘get’ this: in Plainsboro, the new, mixed-use ‘Plainsboro Village Center’ thrives while across the road, Plainsboro Plaza, with its sea of free parking, is a ‘dead mall’. In 2013, a friendly, compact, walkable location is a far better predictor of business success than excessive free parking.
Why do you think malls have empty lots on Black Friday? How much does free parking influence your decision about where to park? And is it a bad thing if parking lots are empty 365 days a year? Have your say in the comments section below!