In the retail and service industries, parking is always a concern. The consensus of the general population will make this statement as an argument for more parking the majority of the time, leaving the maximum side of the spectrum wide open. However, providing too much parking can have adverse effects on demand, not to mention the multitude of other issues caused.

This becomes particularly important in areas that have experienced depreciation and increased safety concerns, or perhaps even more so, places with perceived depreciation and perceived safety concerns.

Let’s take the scenario of redeveloping a site in an area where crime rates are high relative to the community. A conventional suburban developer, along with their finance team may provide a development pro forma with an 80,000 square foot grocery store and an additional 50,000 square feet of complementary retail/service strip buildings, perhaps a couple 1/2 acre to 1 acre pad sites for a restaurant, bank or gas station. We’ve all seen this development plan, it’s Everywhere, USA.

This development, by conventional wisdom and often City Code, demands one parking space per two hundred square feet. By providing 130,000 square feet of building area (excluding the pad sites for this scenario), 650 parking stalls are necessary. In your typical parking lot, 2 parking spaces (including the drive lane between) require approximately 540 square feet. When we multiply that by 325 (650/2), we see a land requirement of 175,500 square feet for parking. By the way, this number excludes area also necessary for landscape islands, perimeter vehicular circulation, and irregular lot sizes.

Sorry to bore you with the numbers, but they’re important to see when setting minimum code requirements for parking. This building to parking ratio of 260:351 (130,000:175,500) is shocking when we look only at parking minimum requirements… especially when this number is set for that peak demand day, Black Friday. Arguably, Black Friday isn’t nearly as concentrated of a day anymore with midnight shopping, two days of “Black Friday” and before online shopping became the preferred mode.

Let’s explore the major concerns of having too much parking before we discuss what can be done:

  • Economics: When the majority of a site is given over to automobile storage, the site is grossly under-utilized. Compounded on a city-scale, the majority of these commercial areas are effectively parking lots. Research has been shown on the national level that for every automobile in the country, at any given time, there are 7-8 free parking spaces available.
  • Stormwater Management: Previously, I broke down the requirements for parking. Parking is often times provided with either concrete or asphalt, both impervious surfaces (yes, there are porous alternatives granted they are substantially more costly upfront and to maintain). Thereby, more parking means more land necessary for the conveyance and storage of stormwater.
  • Water and Air Pollution: Associated with stormwater management is the pollution and the cleaning of the stormwater. We would all like to believe that all stormwater will be cleansed by the water quality facility before it is sent downstream. And generally speaking in the early days of a water quality facility or directly after it is maintained, this is mostly true. The reality though is that pollutants still make their way downstream and maintenance does not occur as often as needed. Most of these pollutants are directly related to the parking lots and the polluting vehicles that occupy them.
  • Air pollution is a similar, yet different beast completely. The combustion of fossil fuels continues to be the biggest contributor to air pollution in the United State. Industrial factories and power plants, once considered to be be the biggest violators, are becoming less of the issue when compared to vehicular traffic. When we have large automobile-centric land uses (parking lots), psychological demand for other modes of travel (walking, biking and transit) is reduced and vehicular travel is increased. Outside the pollution caused on a daily basis by our own personal vehicles, we must also account for the maintenance of these parking lots and water quality facilities when discussing air pollution.
  • Heat-Island Effect: The greater the area of impervious surface, especially dark surfaces, the hotter that it gets. Asphalt parking lots can be absolutely miserable to be within in hot climates or the summer months of most of the country. This cannot be disputed, however it can be reduced. Many cities have codes requiring trees to minimize the heat island effect, including Colorado Springs. Some cities that I work in, are more strict than others, effectively requiring cover in just a few years.

All of these systems work together and stem from unnecessary and counter-productive minimum parking requirements.

Back to the original question, how much parking is too much parking? How do we plan for parking areas to be right-sized? How do we avoid large areas of empty parking to become a repellent for consumers?

As with many situations, the variables of development code, location and economics make these questions vary. To answer these questions, we must look more globally and first understand that too much parking is bad for economics for not only the land developers but also for Cities as a whole.

Last question to ponder, are we providing and requiring, something (parking) that will become unnecessary in the next decade?

Happy Thanksgiving friends, check out for the hashtag #blackfridayparking to see how the parking surplus is working out in real-time.