no parking

Some say there is nowhere to park. You’re puzzled aren’t you? I’m an architect who lives in a city. I don’t live in a large urban center like New York, Chicago, LA or even….Pittsburgh. I live in a small city of 15,000 people 30 miles east of Pittsburgh. The surrounding township has another 45,000 people. The downtown isn’t what it used to be since “them there shopping malls” came in. There are efforts to revitalize it, but the progress is slow. As conversations lead to discussing either visiting downtown or opening a business downtown a common phrase that typically erupts is “there is nowhere to park.” I can see their point if you just wish to make a quick stop at the post office.

Nevertheless, this is not true in the absolute sense; there is on street parking in places and several surface lots. There is even a parking garage. Since we are the county seat, the courthouse and related workers claim many of the spots as do those that work in the state office building. So “leased parking only” is a common sign intensifying the disdain of the suburbanites who question whether to leave their cul-de-sacs and Ryan homes to venture into the big city. Driving a few more miles through traffic and lights to reach the strip malls and venture across a sea of asphalt is apparently not a problem.

I am lazy enough to understand the convenience of parking directly outside of my destination and walking to the door, especially without getting wet. We are a pampered people aren’t we? Have you ever read any of the research drawing parallels with obesity and how little we walk…anywhere? I don’t think it would hurt us if we had to walk more than a few steps to get to our destination, especially if it is somewhere to eat. It only takes a few visits to Wal-Mart to discover people who could do with a brisk walk…daily. So as I pondered this, it hit me that as a culture we do walk long distances at times and we are actually willing to walk long distances. It just depends on the place. We just don’t want to walk outside or we don’t want to walk “downtown.” I understand the small cost of parking meters and driving around looking for a spot and parallel parking….ugh. If you are a true urbanite, you are probably missing where I’m going with this since you probably walk everywhere. In fact you may not even own a car so you don’t have to worry about parking.

So my experiment here is to compare an average path one might take on their weekly (daily for some of you) trip to Wal-Mart. Did I ever mention I hate Wal-Mart? Okay, that’s another topic another day. Regardless, it is interesting to compare the size of our Wal-Mart plaza against downtown of my city. I wanted to compare how far one might walk when they park and visit Wal-Mart versus the distance one might encounter by parking and walking to their destination in a city environment. It may not prove much since I’m only measuring one location, but it makes a profound point. Here is what I found.

In this first photo, we see our local Wal-Mart plaza with two rough walking path measurements. One is the length of a recent trip (in red) where I had to go in to return something and buy one thing. The other is a rough estimate of an average trip to buy groceries. This trip length is probably severely underestimated.

The next photo shows my downtown area. One trip (in red) is a recent visit where I parked and walked to a coffee shop for a meeting. I rarely have to walk that far. The other line indicates that to match the same length of trip downtown to an average trip to Wal-Mart, we could circle the entire downtown area – a trip around at least 6 city blocks.

Just look at a direct size comparison between the Wal-Mart building and parking lot compared to the downtown area. The building alone is larger than two city blocks. The parking lot takes up more than three city blocks. So we’ll walk around the Wal-Mart plaza, but we don’t want to walk downtown. It’s okay, just admit it.

Let’s not let the mall off of the hook. This comparison shows the same Wal-Mart trip of 3600 feet overlaid in the mall. It’s about one full loop around.  It’s common for mall shoppers (and wandering high school kids) to make multiple loops around. The line in red indicates the length I walked recently to park in the parking garage and walk to Panera for lunch. People regularly do that but will avoid eating downtown if they can’t park out front.

In all fairness, let’s compare the size of the mall with downtown as we did with Wal-Mart. This photo super-imposes the size of the mall over downtown. Again, we cry about walking a block or two, but we’ll walk almost a mile if it’s in the mall.

Let’s call a spade a spade. If you prefer the strip malls, Wal-Mart of your local shopping mall, who am I to change your mind? However I find it inconsistent or disingenuous to discount small downtown areas merely on the premise that one cannot often park directly outside their destination. Am I unfair…inconsistent…then just think about this before you complain again that there’s no place to park.

no parking

14 thoughts on “no parking

  1. CC Hampton says:

    Could this be a case of the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know? Our preconceived notion is, Wal-Mart has plenty of parking in that vast expanse of asphalt. We have taken it all in, surveyed it, and are sure of its abundance. The unknown at Wal-Mart is, how close can I get or if you care about your car how far away do I have to park.
    Parking downtown requires special attributes. All the “good spaces” are taken by those with privileged information, extraordinary driving skills (the ability to parallel park) or parking karma.
    The rest of the parking spaces are hidden. The are unknown and feared to be nonexistent. Searching requires the ability to control the vehicle, survey the area and plan a route and calculate the distance your destination. All beyond the ambition of many to whom the assurance “always low prices” (that’s it isn’t it?) beckons.

  2. Ha! I love it! I’ve definitely never equated walking downtown v.s. walking in Walmart but you make a great case that downtown parking isn’t as much of a problem as some tend to think it is.

    I wonder if Walmart could increase the fitness level of the US by changing the layout/making larger stores.

  3. And I used to hate when my wife wanted to go to the mall! Actually she just wants me to lose some weight.

    Well, Lee, this was an amazing post! What was striking to me was the way that the malls and the hypermarkets make us think we are comfortable: feel sure that there’s parking space, then giving us the shopping carts to carry as many useless items we can what, showing them to us in the right order. First the media and electronics, then toys, some pieces of furniture, the cosmetics and about the last the butcher’s and the grocery. After that, the fast foods!

    You must admit that the architects couldn’t design such shopping itineraries! We would put the butchery and the grocery just near the entrance (because they are the most wanted, right?). The downtown is not properly designed for spending money! It is a living organism with old shops, new ones. The downtown makes us explore it, search for the coffee shop, it is an arcade game. And no shopping carts!

    Congratulations once again!

    1. Octavian, thanks, but you’ve given me more to think about. The contrast between how mega-markets are set up to market their goods versus how downtown shops work…interesting. I love the way you stated downtowns make us explore, search…it’s an arcade game. Profound.

      1. This article will make waves. I will ask for your permission to let me translate it in Romanian and publish it to my blog. Really! My colleagues were reading it today in the next room with a loud voice spreading comments. And they are engineers!

        It is one of the first time when I really share an article. It was really revealing for me.
        What is interesting is that quite often malls try to copy the downtown. They mimic streets and boutiques. But till I was reading your article (twice) I didn’t realized how manipulative these hypermarkets are. I didn’t think to compare the distances inside malls and downtown areas.
        We are always too busy designing things loosing the big picture.

  4. Roxanne Button AIA says:

    Love this post, Lee – you nailed it. I hear people complain all the time about the absence of parking in my city’s downtown (but just look at an aerial photo and you’ll see a sea of asphalt). Yet they have no problem making laps around the mall. Astonishing leap in logic. This is a great way of putting it all in context.

    1. leaps in logic or illogical arguments make me cringe…i trust i’m not equally guilty. it’s ok to complain, but be honest about the complaint…it’s probably one’s own fault, not the city.

  5. Sam Bontrager says:

    This is great! My wife and I always laugh at those that wait for five minutes with their turn signal on waiting for a parking stall to open close to the entrance, while we park at the end and walk in before they open the car doors. One disappointment though, you actually bought groceries and other items at Walmart even though you say that you hate the place. I would think that a town of 15,000 has other options for groceries and hardware.

    1. aaah, you caught me. i could explain…i really don’t like it there, but i had to return something that i found cheaper elsewhere…imagine that! the grocery stores “in” the city aren’t the greatest, but i do shop at a hardware store downtown. (i ought to, it was a design renovation project of mine).

  6. Doug Burke says:

    Great article and analysis. It just proves perception is everything.

    An old book but still relavant and a great read is “Edge City” by Joel Garreau if you don’t already have it.

    In the back he has a section called “The Laws” and one of them is the “600 foot law” being the farthest distance the average American will walk before getting into a car. Some corollaries list like you might get the distance to 1500′ if the walk is pleasant and attractive but at substantial risk of everyboby saying “forget it’.


    1. I’ll have to check out that book. My distances were purely random and calculated after the fact. However, knowing that someone has already calculated the 600′ law is fascinating. My research was largely intuitive and a reaction to peoples inconsistent logic for their behaviors.

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