In Defense of Parking Lots


By Don Shor

Over the last few days we’ve been treated to some discussion of basic principles of urban planning. We’ve seen great illustrations of how to make a downtown area more walkable and more accessible. But as I’ve been looking at those pictures, I keep thinking, “Hm, I have a parking lot, and I kind of need one. I didn’t know that was a bad thing.” Hibbert Lumber has a parking lot that gets a lot of use from the contractors and homeowners who shop there, and Davis Ace wants to add some more parking on an under-utilized part of their property. Everybody loves to hate parking lots. And nearly everybody uses them.

Going carless is considered the ultimate admirable goal of any good Davisite. We shouldn’t need those parking lots, right? Well, that’s true. Except for old people, young families, people doing home and yard improvement projects, people with pets, people with complicated schedules, etc. Some might say that going carless is kind of a luxury of people who have plenty of time and limited constraints on their mobility. My guess is that even the mayor has a friend with a truck he needs to borrow a favor from now and then.  Bike mode share of 25% may be an official goal somewhere, but I guarantee it isn’t going to be how 25% of my customers will arrive, ready to take home shade trees, bags of planting mix, and flats of vegetable starts.

There’s nothing new about any of the urban planning concepts being presented. I took some courses in urban planning here at UCD in the 1970’s out of interest in the subject and as context for some of my landscape architecture courses. UCD happened to have an outstanding professor in that field, Dr. Seymour Gold. Much of what is being discussed now is grounded in principles that were being articulated by Dr. Gold and others back then. Build at the human scale. Plan for people to live downtown. Mix retail, commercial, and housing.

One key principle of those classes was defining urban areas and how they interact with their surrounding population centers. Metropolitan areas grade from urban to suburban to exurban, with differing population densities, employment centers, and lifestyles. Really, the downtown of Davis is not a typical urban center. Many of the principles being illustrated apply more readily to very dense urban cores that are parts of larger metropolitan areas, downtown areas that serve as anchors to large suburban satellite developments, often with large numbers of workers commuting in each day. In such areas, just as one example, parking fees can be significant sources of revenue.

Davis is, at best, a miniature version of that. Yes, it seems dense and moderately congested at times. The demand for parking continues to increase. But anybody who has spent time in a true urban center would consider the traffic situation in Davis to be pretty tame. Our inward-bound commuters go straight to campus, not downtown. So not every urban planning principle is going to have applicability to what amounts to a small semi-rural city without suburbs. Some stores are going to need on-site parking. And any fee structure will have to be supplemented by other revenue sources in order to provide extra parking, if that is the goal.

More to the point, any urban planner is likely to agree that there is a gulf between principle and practice, and that the bridge over that gulf is acknowledging the facts on the ground. Every situation is different and planning should recognize and adjust to that.

Transit in Davis is uniquely tied to the university, with ASUCD providing the main bus service. Unitrans will work with the city, but attempts at shuttle services in the past have petered out due to lack of demand. It will be a challenge to integrate better and more efficient transit options for people visiting downtown. Trolleys and shuttles are pipedreams that simply don’t have the funding base or demand locally.

The demographics of the population are unusual: Davis is skewing both younger and older than nearby cities. That affects the type of retail provided and the nature of how people avail themselves of those stores. For the student-age shoppers, bike access should certainly be a priority. For the increasing number of senior citizens, it’s important to realize that they will choose to drive elsewhere if they cannot drive to the stores they want to shop at, or if they can’t park near them. Merchants and the city will lose revenues.

The nature of the existing retail will be a factor in how well changes in traffic flow will work, and how well they will be received by merchants and customers. If a city has a lot of little specialty shoppes, drawing customers regionally, it may be more amenable to the plaza-like pedestrian concepts that are often put forth as ideal. But there will also be businesses that primarily serve the residents, and those may have different requirements based on their product mix.

Davis has a strong downtown compared to nearby cities. We are fortunate to have a lot of specialty businesses along with an increasing number of restaurants.  Our planning principles should strive to keep that downtown strong. We also have some solid retailers with long histories, businesses that provide reliable sales tax revenues and provide much-needed products and services.

Davis Ace Hardware and Hibbert Lumber have been serving the community for decades. Like my own business, they require access for large delivery trucks, often double-semi’s that unload via forklift. We are talking about several such deliveries each week. Each of those businesses, like mine, primarily serves customers who arrive by auto or truck and who need reasonable access to the delivery gates so they can take away their products. Housewares, appliances, lumber, landscape plants, bags of compost and fertilizer, doors, furniture, and numerous other large and bulky products require ready access.

Until there is a sea change across our society and economy in how goods are delivered and distributed, the personal automobile or truck is going to be how those things get home. And those businesses simply aren’t amenable to a park-and-walk solution to customer access for much of their product lines. They need parking lots, and they pretty much need them on site if the city is not going to provide them reasonably close to their storefronts.

We would do well to avoid harming key downtown anchor businesses. There are parts of the downtown where pedestrian and bike access can be prioritized. There are certainly many ways downtown parking can be improved; that has been studied and recommendations have been put forth.  But due to the nature of our businesses, some of us need the inelegantly named “parking craters” because that’s how our customers come and buy stuff from us. Such parking areas should certainly be attractive, be shaded by trees or solar panels, and not detract from the ambience of the pedestrian spaces. But any changes to parking policies and any review of on-site parking should consider the impact on the businesses that are here right now, and should minimize harm to the existing retailers.

Don Shor owns a retail nursery located on Fifth Street, outside of the downtown.

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20 thoughts on “In Defense of Parking Lots”

  1. Keith O

    Good article.  It’s about time we have someone defending people using their cars and having a place to park when they travel to our downtown area.

  2. Michael Bisch

    Thanks for sharing your perspective, Don. Many of your thoughts echo the input I provided on the Transportation Element update to the General Plan on behalf of Davis Downtown a few years ago. It would be helpful for you to forward this piece to the city when the CASP update gets underway in a couple months.

  3. Todd Edelman

    Compared to Davis, a higher percentage of retirees in certain advanced countries ride bikes to all sorts of activities in all weather at distances of up to a few miles. Compared to Davis, a higher percentage of parents take children too young to bike on their own – so below age 8 or so – to all sorts of activities in all weather at distances of up to a few miles. Much of the growth to the current levels of 30 to 50% bike modal share in cities and towns in these places has taken place over the last 40 years, so the starting point was in some cases worse than Davis in 1977.

    They do infrastructure better then here, they have more appropriate bikes than here. No kids in helmets in the Netherlands but it’s the safest place in the world for cycling… why is that?  They have more rain and ice, we have more hot yet low humidity days.

    In Davis, if only contractors and others who need cars to carry more than a few bags were driving, there would be so much less traffic. There does not have to be a “sea change”. C’mon that’s just lazy! If everyone started with that we’d still be living in caves. There is absolutely no rocket science involved in creating and preserving necessary access for large delivery vehicles, vehicles operated by contractors and other types of vehicles to take goods from the store to home or a worksite. The stores you mention are peripheral — that’s a good start. Deliveries can help. There are possibilities for different egress points to both Ace locations and what can be shifted to the Rockyard? Isn’t it a crazily-inefficient use of space at the edge of Downtown like the car wash? Or Ace can sell ⅔ of their property and build to three stories and rent space for a cafe on the roof so that they can generate money all day long. Imagine covered Bluetooth-controlled robot carts holding large purchases that follow a person to a vehicle a block from a store, help them load the materials by e.g raising them to the correct level, and then return to the store on their own? If performing limited actions on more or less fixed routes, there are multiple firms that can provide these kinds of solutions.

    Everyone needs to consider access, before parking access. What’s are the most efficient, cleanest and quietest solutions that allow people from before and after driving-age to go to and enjoy, shop and socialize in Downtown independently? Cars can have a role (keep them on the periphery), better bikes have a big role to play and like you mention the City has already committed to that, transit and shuttles will work if parking is properly priced and not entitlement-based, and so on. If we design for people who are 8 and 80 then everyone can get around safely.

    Downtown was already destroyed once and it’s taking forever to bring it back to the 3 and 4-story model that’s not only popular but good in so many ways. Parking craters are open wounds — necrotic flesh that’s actually the worst interface for access to retail because they are ten times less space efficient than cycle parking and if they are fare-free it makes transit un-competitive. Make them the lowest-priority interface tool.

    1. Keith O

      If everyone started with that we’d still be living in caves. 

      Good point, I’m glad we’ve evolved and got out of the caves and modernized to where we have cars now.

    2. Ron

      Todd:  “Or Ace can sell ⅔ of their property and build to three stories and rent space for a cafe on the roof so that they can generate money all day long.  Imagine (text bolded by me) covered Bluetooth-controlled robot carts holding large purchases that follow a person to a vehicle a block from a store, help them load the materials by e.g raising them to the correct level, and then return to the store on their own?”

      “Imagine” being the key word, here.

      Your ideas range from the “fanciful” (above), to the (possibly) “practical” (e.g., lockers/more secure bicycle parking).  Nothing “wrong” with presenting either of those.  (But some aren’t going to happen anytime soon.)  For what my opinion is worth, your writing is becoming clearer and more concise, though.

      We need people with imagination, even if goals are not always shared.

  4. Ron

    Slightly-off topic, but wondering if there’s any further information regarding the Davis ACE “housewares” store, and the adjacent parking lot there.  I recall that Matt had mentioned that this store would soon disappear. If true, what is planned to be there?

    1. Howard P

      “Soon” is a key (and, relative) word, and don’t think that’s accurate if one means 1-3 years.  There was an apparently viable proposal to redevelop all of the Ace property, and the adjacent city parking lot a few years back… then the economy tanked… didn’t get past the concepts/issues identification level… suspect it is still on a shelf, somewhere, waiting for time, place and manner.

      As I recall, ReDev Agency was a key funding component at that time.

      1. Ron

        Thanks, Howard.

        I’m not sure what Matt was referring to.  I recall that he mentioned it twice (within the past week or so), and was asked if he could provide more information.  Although I don’t think he provided further information, it seemed that Matt knew something that others don’t (based upon his two comments).

        Wondering why he’d state this twice.

  5. Jim Hoch

    Topical article in The Enterprise today

    “The downtown aquarium store Rivers to Reef will move to South Davis later this summer. After five years, owner James Krause is excited to find a larger space with more available parking”

    Maybe some of the posters here could call him and explain how people can carry aquariums home on communal cargo bikes.

        1. Matt Williams

          Keith, cost for your own car starts with a $300 per month amortization ($3,600 per year and a useful life for a car of 7 years = $23,497 present value at 2% inflation per year.  Then add in $75 per month for insurance ($900 per year), and $10 per month for registration.  So if you use your car once a month the cost per trip is $385 per trip plus gasoline.  Once a week trips bring the cost down to $89 per trip plus gasoline.  How does that compare to ZipCar or Lyft?

        2. David Greenwald

          Instead of getting a third car, I’ve had my niece drop me off downtown and when I need to drive somewhere like Woodland or Sacramento, then I use a Zipcar. Works beautifully.

        3. Keith O

          Matt, my car is 17 years old, completely paid for.  My insurance on it is only $25/month.  I drive it everyday.  I can drive my car a whole month for about the cost of a one day ZipCar rental.

        4. Matt Williams

          Keith, no one is expecting you to give up your car.  You aren’t in the target demographic cohorts that Zipcar and Lyft are targeting.  Those demographic cohorts have much younger cars than you have.

          You are an outlier.

          That will come as no surprise to you.

        5. Ron

          Average age of cars on the road (as of a couple years ago):  11.5 years.  I suspect it’s higher than that, in Davis.  I’ve got this beat with my vehicle (which is a compact/economy vehicle), by far.  Also dropped the collision/comprehensive insurance on it, some time ago. Still running like a champ, and looks decent, as well.

          Matt, if you want to see an “outlier”, you probably should look in the mirror. 🙂

          And sorry, but services such as Uber and Lyft do not eliminate driving (and are likely less efficient, due to the need to travel to pick up passengers), and are not going to replace car ownership in valley towns.

    1. Ron

      ”  . . . Bluetooth-controlled robot carts holding large purchases that follow a person to a vehicle a block from a store, help them load the materials by e.g raising them to the correct level, and then return to the store on their own?”

      🙂  (No offense intended.)

  6. Alan Miller

    Good article, Don.  Thanks for the perspective of a business owner.  If you write five more articles on the subject, you might catch up to the prolific (this week and this week only) Mr. Bisch.

    For those wishing to support the ACE project, there is petition behind the counter in hardware.


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