A photo of an empty parking lot.
The United States has as many as two billion parking spots for about 250 million cars. Matt York/AP

Even the biggest shopping day of the year can’t fill up the enormous oversupply of parking lots that ring U.S. shopping centers.

Is post-Thanksgiving shopping mayhem a fading American holiday tradition? This year, even as overall spending increased between Thanksgiving and Black Friday, foot traffic to brick-and-mortar stores reportedly fell by as much as 9 percent compared to 2017. That’s consistent with consumer trends since 2014, thanks to retailers widening the window for holiday bargains and more shopping migrating online.

A downturn in traffic appears to be accompanied by fewer of the fistfights, stampedes, and storefront brawls for which Black Friday is justly famous. Parking lot accidents tend to spike the day after Thanksgiving, USA Today reported in 2017, as do claims of thefts from homes and vehicles—presumably, fewer shoppers butting heads and bumpers would mean less of those, too.

A less-anarchic shopping experience is probably something we can all be thankful for. But the ebbing chaos outside America’s big-box stores and shopping centers has revealed the true dimensions of another apple-pie-American sort of appetite: the physical footprint of retail itself, and specifically, the parking.

The United States has as many as two billion parking spots for about 250 million cars, a ratio that many planners and economists describe as overbuilt. “The area of parking per car in the United States is thus larger than the area of housing per human,” writes Donald Shoup, the UCLA transportation scholar and founding father of parking economics, in the introduction to his most recent tome, Parking and the City. He estimates that 14 percent of incorporated land in Los Angeles County is devoted to parking, as is nearly 5 percent of urban area in the Upper Great Lakes region, the book states. The total area of paved lots in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin is roughly equivalent to half the area of Rhode Island.

With malls and big boxes, it’s common to see more than half the store’s parcel frosted in asphalt for shoppers to station their vehicles. Urban zoning codes frequently require a higher minimum number of spots per square foot for commercial property than other kinds of properties, and many stores (though not all) fret that insufficient parking will keep shoppers away. That’s why the disproportionate ratio of parking to cars—and indeed, parking to people—is maybe most noticeable in the great lakes of black pavement surrounding retailers nationwide.

As Strong Towns noted, a lot of those lots weren’t filled on Friday, either. The urban planning blog is in its sixth year of #BlackFridayParking, a photo contest that calls attention to the surfeit of vacant spots, mostly in smaller cities and suburban communities, on the big shopping day. Caveat: Plenty of urban parking lots around the U.S. were packed. But as the hashtag makes clear, many more were half-empty.

That excess space comes at a high premium. A single spot can require tens of thousands of dollars to build. Adding five parking spaces per 1,000 feet can increase the cost of building a large shopping center by roughly 37 percent if they’re located above ground, based on Shoup’s analysis of average construction costs from 2012, and by more than 50 percent the cost if the spots are underground. Those expenses are baked into the total cost of development, which get passed onto consumers who shop there, not to mention the people who pay higher housing costs to live nearby.

Since not everybody owns a car, people who don’t or can’t drive are essentially forced to subsidize those who do. And any shopper who’s fought for primo spots at Best Buy or Target won’t ever know how their Black Friday savings (or their purchases on any day of the year) stack up against the parking fees hidden in the price tags to begin with.   

Historically, Black Friday was a day that highlighted the idea of parking as hotly contested space. Disputes over spots on the busiest shopping days of the year have fueled brawls, and worse. Looking at the sheer quantity of parking data, it’s as if retail developers planned to accommodate holiday hordes, every single day of the year. But as Black Friday’s grip on shopping weakens at brick-and-mortar stores, even the annual shopping mega-event appears destined to fill them up even less. For communities, big-box-style retail has never been much of a bargain—and now, for so many reasons, it’s even less of one.  

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