Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
"It’s the American expectation that’s creating the problem," says parking guru Donald Shoup.
Parking lots at Trader Joe’s: Like a case study in primate aggression, an elaborate car insurance fraud scheme, or proof that evil really is banal.
A recent Buzzfeed article bore witness to the emotional freight shoppers carry (no doubt in reusable bags) as they navigate the otherwise beloved grocer’s notoriously cramped parking provisions. Some sample tweets:
It's been 7 days, 15 hours and 3 minutes since we entered the Trader Joe's parking lot. Tell my family I love them.— Hana (@HanaMichels) March 10, 2016
I'm like 99% certain when you go to hell you just have to find parking in a Trader Joes parking lot for all eternity. 🔥— Lily Williams (@lwbean) May 24, 2015
When I have some free time I like to hop in my car and just cruise the trader joes parking lot. U know add to the confusion and mania— Cornell Reid (@CornellReid) January 14, 2016
So, Trader Joe’s, why all the narrow spaces, the hairpin turns? I know, I know: As the planning blog Strong Towns points out, less parking keeps overhead costs to a minimum, which translates to lower food prices. But is there something else going on? Some social commentary, some demonstration of consumer psychology?
I asked Trader Joe’s reps to provide an explanation, but was told repeatedly that they do not comment on “real estate or business practices.” So I asked Donald Shoup, the UCLA scholar of transportation and economics widely renowned as the “rock star” of parking. He lives in L.A. and shops at the Trader Joe’s in Westwood. In his view, all that frustration is the fault of American drivers’ expectations—not of Trader Joe’s.
Donald, speculate with me: Costs aside, why are Trader Joe’s parking lots the way they are?
I have thought about this. And as you say, this is speculative. But as I understand it, Trader Joe’s is owned by a German family, which also owns Aldi. So I think they have a lot of experience in the grocery business. In Germany, their grocery stores aren’t surrounded by acres of asphalt. They come from a different tradition where, with urban stores in dense areas, you don’t give free parking to everyone. It would be a strange idea.
It’s the American expectation that’s creating the problem. The expectation that there will be free parking and plenty of it, and if there isn’t, there’s something wrong.
So even though Trader Joe’s has always been based in the U.S., its owners continue to operate by non-American parking standards.
That’s right. You know, Trader Joe’s has to comply with the same minimum parking requirements that all other stores have. But what’s different is that they have a lot more customers. They’re such a good store. They have more sales per square foot than other chains. They could respond to this by providing more parking, but that’s not their style. So they’re successful at creating a problem for drivers who expect to find free parking. I think it’s the driver’s problem.
Is Trader Joe’s secretly pushing an active-transit agenda?
No, I don’t think so. I just think they don’t want to buy a lot of extra land and pave it with asphalt and raise prices in the stores. I don’t think it would be fair to force Trader Joe’s to buy more land around their stores and demolish houses or shops so that people can park for free. That wouldn’t be fair to those who don’t drive. And maybe it would make Trader Joe’s a less special place.
I do think people who are willing to walk or bike or carpool or take transit certainly get a better deal there. And I think the world would be a better place if more places were like Trader Joe’s, with lower prices and less free parking. For walkable neighborhoods and environmental purposes and food security and a lot of other reasons, they’ve made the right decisions.
Any other lessons to take away from the Trader Joe’s parking experience?
Just because parking is free doesn’t mean no one has to pay for it. And Trader Joe’s has made a decision to not make more parking than the city requires. They have a different business model, which is why people go. People like the benefits of Trader Joe’s. They’re are so happy when Trader Joe’s comes to their neighborhoods. It’s usually in dense areas, not in suburban locations. It couldn’t be that way if the stores were surrounded by acres of asphalt.
And by the way, if you don’t like Trader Joe’s, you can always shop elsewhere. You can go to Whole Foods or Ralph’s, where usually there are lots of empty parking spaces. If that’s what you prefer then you should shop there. But if you want Trader Joe’s lower prices and different products, that comes with more crowded parking. I don’t see why we should object to that.