When talking about what is wrong with suburban planning, many (including myself) will tell you about how damaging the enormous (and enormously underused) parking lots that front strip malls can be. Many urbanists will tell you that a great way to fix ugly sprawl is to mandate that parking being forced to the rear of new and redeveloped retail. That way, customers get their ample free parking, but it's not as detrimental to the landscape, because it's hiding out back. But what if suburban cities decide to half-ass it, and send only some parking to the rear? Apparently, that's what's mandated in commercial development here, and it's a failed policy.
The acres of parking in front of a store were probably developed in the late 1940's when the new suburban retailers wished to differentiate themselves from the established city ones. Parking in front sent a message to households with brand new cars that their fancy purchases were more than welcome. An endless sea of parking up front says "Shop with us! We have plenty of room for you! Don't go downtown where you'll never find a spot!"
Today, over half a century later, advertising the free and ample parking is no longer necessary. Suburban dwellers expect parking at their destination, and quite frankly it's never a question if it will exist. No one ever says "hey, before we head to Target, let me check their website to see if they have a parking lot". We all know Target is going to have too much parking. Oddly enough, every new development seems to be designed with the idea that providing these lots will be a surprise, and they must be the first interaction the customer has with the store.
When I talked about one of the reasons Shaw avenue in Clovis has a 20%+ vacancy rate, I pointed out that parking in front is detrimental to business. Because the stores are located so far back, they lose visibility from their driving customers, quite the irony I think. That hasn't stopped these retailers from building every new store and center with the same format.
One tweak to the format, which I believe is mandated, is that some parking always is provided in the rear. In cities like Fresno and Clovis, retailers are required to provide parking based on a certain magical equation that was designed a few decades ago. The equation takes into account projected customers and employees.
Something that you may not notice when you shop at a suburban store is that every modern box and center has many spaces directly behind the store. Presumably, these spaces are there for employees. Employees can enter through the back, and having employees park behind the store ensures more spaces are available by the entrance for customers.
The problem is, this is a failed policy. There may be a mandate to install parking in the rear, but there's no mandate that anyone actually use it. So employees continue to park out front, taking all the prime spaces, and a whole lot of spaces remain empty and unused in the back. The way these employee lots are designed make it so that even if a customer wanted to park there, because every other space was taken, they really wouldn't be able to.
At around $8,000 per surface space, all this parking is a real waste of money. It's also a waste of land, and bad for the environment, as it stores heat in the summer and prevents rain-water from enter the soil.
There are two easy ways to see how these spaces go to waste. One, is to stop by a retail center shortly before or shortly after it opens or closes. You might be surprised to see that at 10:15pm, after a store like Target has closed and almost every customer has gone home, there are still 30 or so cars taking all the best spots in front. Or try passing by the mall 10 minutes before it opens in the morning. I guarantee there's nobody anxiously waiting for the doors to open, and yet all the best parking spots are already taken.
Another way to see all this wasteful parking is with one of my favorite tools, google maps. Shall we take a tour of the enormous waste?
Here's a Home Depot, with over 100 employee parking spots. I don't think 100 people ever work at a Home Depot at the same time, and yet they've gone ahead and built all these employees lovely spots. Only two spots are taken by actual cars here. That's about $800,000 in construction costs, by the way, just sitting there, never to be used.
This Toys R Us And Office Depot has a rear parking area for around 80 employees. About three are using it, I'd assume the senior managers.
This supermarket-anchored center has a smaller lot, so percentage wise, it's actually quite populated. That's not saying much. This shall be the most successful rear-parking in this post, so enjoy it!
Compare it to this other supermarket-center
The employee parking area even gets its own entrance from the street, but that doesn't mean anyone will use it.
Indeed, it seems like the employee-rear-parking requirement keeps increasing. This Target/Best Buy shopping center opened in 2006. Again, private rear entrance, but no takers. Target has a long employee lot on the far left, and Best Buy has the back. Two smaller stores have access to an employee lot on the far right. Doesn't matter, they're all empty.
And here we have a very recent Winco. A MASSIVE employee parking lot, with multiple private entrances. And maybe 5 cars total?
This Costco example is particularly frustrating because unlike almost every other retail store whose parking never fills more than 50%, their main parking area does manage to "almost" fill up. And Costo DOES have 100 or so employees, each one of them taking up a nice parking spot up front, while their private lot sits almost completely empty. A private lot that even has three convenient access points.
This Costco example shows that "fail" can come from all directions. In one direction, we have a government fail, where the government is requiring employee parking lots that nobody wants.
But the wonderful private sector fails as well. Costco is massively popular, and their parking lots are highly competitive. But Costco fails because it doesn't require their scores of employees to use the ample parking in the rear. Instead, the employees take all the best spots when they show up in the morning.
They're hurting their customers by making their parking harder to access. It's somewhat ironic that this store format is so auto-dominated, presumably to serve their customers, but they force the customers to use less convenient parking because management can't be bothered to instruct employees to park in the rear.
Finally, here's the the oddest example. This rear-parking area is massive, and never used. I just don't know what they were thinking when it came to this one.
The moral of the story is, parking must stick together. Isolating parking, even for a specialized group like employees won't work because it's less convenient.
If parking is to go in the rear, it must be ALL the parking. The only exception would be handicap parking, because there's a stick (fines) to make sure the best parking is used by those that have proven that they need it.
PS: Gas prices hit $4.00 average in California today, ahead of my prediction by two entire weeks.