Just put the parking in the back

April 7, 2021

I moved to the suburbs recently.
This is not normally noteworthy for most people, but I’m an urbanist - a big fan of cities. I’m so big on urbanism I spent 6 years on the board of a non-profit improving public transportation in San Francisco. 
But here I am in the burbs.

Kids, pandemic, it happens. 

I’m seizing the upside of the suburbs though. Like,
it’s a lot of fun to bike around the neighborhood with my kids.
The kids can just run out and play in the backyard.
It’s quiet. 

There is one thing that really grinds my gears in the burbs though.

Retail parking lots 

Wait, what? 

Within major, dense cities, retail is always positioned at the street. If there’s parking it’s metered spots in front, or a parking lot behind the store. 

Here in the suburbs there’s a massive parking lot right off the street. The store is always at the back of the lot, with the parking up front. To make matters worse, there’s always more parking than needed. Every single time I go to a retail outlet in the suburbs I think -- jeez, this is an obscene amount of boring, cracked dark grey asphalt. What an eyesore!

I have a small retail strip with a coffee shop in it, exactly half a mile from my house. I take a walk there most mornings of the week for a little exercise before I start work. Every time as I’m walking across the huge parking lot it’s a reminder of why I’m the only one walking. We design our cities for cars, not people.

Why do retailers do this?

Oh there’s a number of factors for this, one is the car centrism of the US.
Another is perceived benefits of the retailers.
Another is zoning laws and regulations. 

I suspect the primary culprit is just status-quoism. No one’s really rethinking it, pushing a counter-narrative, and so we just keep doing what we’ve been doing. Over and over again in suburb upon suburb across the US. I did some trawling on Google maps in new developments of the Phoenix metro area for example, same song second verse. Status-quo.

There’s got to be more reasons

Yes. Retailers and developers have a handful of excuses reasons they prefer parking in front. In an excellent write up by Kirby Snideman he outlines a handful of them. The two that make the most sense are visibility and store layout.


Imagine you have a little corner strip mall with 3 or 4 small retailers.

Parking lot in front for maximum visibility
Retail fit to the curb limits visibility

In the first image, as a car drives by they can see all the shops at once, since the shops are recessed from the street. 

In the second image with the parking around back, a car driving by can only see one or two stores at a time.

It’s a reasonable argument for the retailers, but the upside doesn’t outweigh the downsides for the citizens, it’s not attractive, and it’s extremely pedestrian unfriendly. 


When the parking is in the front, the only customer entrance and exits are in the front. This makes it really easy to lay out a store. But when there are pedestrian entrances in the front and car parking entrances in the rear, the developers have to account for multiple entrances and exits. Of course a store is only designed at the beginning and rarely is redesigned throughout the life of the store. Essentially delivers saddle citizens with a lifetime eyesore and perpetually inconvenience pedestrians because they want to simplify their one time design process. That’s crazy.

Do people prefer parking in front? 

Well, most people aren’t even thinking about it, but when prompted they’ll cite safety and convenience as reasons they prefer parking in the front. 


When talking with friends, they mention that parking in the rear would be less safe. This assumption comes from the present scenario, where behind retailers in the suburbs it’s kinda sketchy and full of loading docks. In cities where retailers design the parking in the rear it’s completely safe. You have all the same foot traffic, lighting, etc you’d have in the front, just in the back. 

OK, what about convenience? 

For pedestrians it’s much more convenient to have retail in the front. Walking across an enormous parking lot. Waiting at a light. Crossing the street. Then walking across another enormous parking lot is crazy. It’s why suburbanites don’t walk to run errands, even if the retail strip is walking distance from their house. In a car though, it takes no additional effort to drive to the back of the store.  

Given the status-quoism, some visibility and layout concerns of the developers, some convenience and perceived safety benefits for motorists, it’s little wonder that retail always has parking out front. Additionally people don’t envision the alternative, and that’s exactly why things are the way they are.

But do we all want to live in a sea of parking lots?

To the citizens of the suburbs, having the retail in the front and parking in the rear is all upside. The town looks nicer, since all the parking is out of sight, and the town instantly becomes more pedestrian and transit friendly. With the only tradeoff being 2 extra seconds of drive to pull through to the back.

Let’s just look at two simple examples.

Here’s the coffee shop in the strip mall by my new house in the burbs. That’s a lot of asphalt. You can barely even see the coffee shop from the street! No one on the sidewalk or at the bus stop. A handful of trees in the parking lot help, but this image is lifeless.

Jackson Drive at Navajo Road, San Diego

Now let’s take a look at the strip mall by my old house in San Francisco. Same basic amenities:  coffee shop, grocery store, and hardware store in both strips. In the SF one though it’s much more attractive from the street. There’s life on the sidewalk. Some folks are walking by. This is more inviting to people.

This scene tells you, “hey, if you don’t live far away, just stroll on over”.

There’s a reasonable amount of parking in the back if you need to drive - but you can’t see it, because that’s ugly (see the blue arrow in the photo, that's the entrance to a back parking lot, accessible from the side street).

California Street at Spruce Street, San Francisco

 There are tons of discussions to be had on the suburbs:

  • How to combat suburban sprawl 
  • Do we need all that parking at all?
  • What to do with existing suburban parking lots
  • How to incorporate the best aspects of city life to the suburbs without losing the benefits of the burbs
  • So many other related topics

But we can save those for another day.

I posit that from here on out we should just always build the parking in the rear. We can have our cake and eat it too. We can take one of the nicest aspects of urban living - walkability - and bring that to the suburbs with no cost to those that would never walk. As a major bonus our suburbs would look so much more inviting, interesting, and pleasant if we drove through them to the sites of storefronts and people walking their dogs.

A beautiful, pedestrian friendly suburb with the same amount of parking as before will always outweigh the drawbacks to the retailers. 

If you live in the suburbs and they’re planning a new shopping center or retail outlet, urge your local politician to insist on putting the parking in the back. I know I'll be emailing my local rep, right before my morning trudge through the massive parking lot to the local coffee shop. 

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