The secrets of Black Friday parking

The secrets of Black Friday parking

Before you can shop on Black Friday – you have to park on Black Friday.

Dismal driving conditions have always gone hand in hand with holiday shopping – in fact, the term 'Black Friday' was coined by traffic cops in Philadelphia to describe the dark mood on the streets.  And this year, a typical shopping mall will see as many as 10,000 shoppers vying for valuable parking space.

But there are ways to steer clear of frustration and actually speed your shopping process. A parking lot isn't just black top and white lines – it's the product of careful study that combines urban engineering and retail architectural theory, says Portland State University Professor Jeff Schnabel.

"Even if you take the farthest spot on the lot, a shopper is never more than a five-minute walk away from the stores," says Schnabel.

Designers know five minutes is about the maximum amount of time we'll tolerate for convenience if we're on foot. So, in effect, even the worst spot isn't all that bad. 

It also helps to picture the traffic inside the parking lot as a river: the current is fastest on the edges, where there are fewer traffic snarls, and slowest in the center, where an entire line of people can be held up by a single driver waiting for another shopper to back out.

And think of the stores as 'tributaries' that add more cars to the flow, depending on their hours. When they're closed, they can act like safe harbors. For example, the Nordstrom at Clackamas Town Center doesn't open until 8 a.m. on Black Friday, so the covered parking facility there could be overlooked and under-used.

But the focus should be on finding the first available spot – very much like finding the first available seat when you board an airplane; waiting for a window can delay everyone around you.

"You're there to shop, not park," Schnabel says.

And it's not just time – but money being wasted if you fixate on finding a 'better' spot, closer in.

"You're cutting down your savings, right? You're there for a sale, but you're burning fuel. So your savings is kind of dwindling as you're circling around that parking structure."

All that idling also means more air pollution – so think green.

Worse yet, you’re putting your whole trip at risk of a wreck: statistics gathered by the International Parking Institute show that one out of every five accidents occur as we park. Even if you beat the odds and escape without a fender bender, the experience of fighting for a closer spot will almost always leave you frustrated as you try to navigate what amounts to a second traffic jam in the parking aisles.

Better, Schnabel says, to give up the fixation on finding the perfect spot for just one day.

"Even if you do walk by an open space, don't say, 'Darn it, I could have had that space.' The way to think about that at the holidays is, 'You know, I left that for somebody who has got small kids. I left that space for somebody who has an elderly parent. Somebody will need that space more than I do.'"

But no matter how well-designed, no mall parking lot is designed to handle the surge of Black Friday shoppers – a lot that size would be too big to walk, Schnabel says, and actually be a waste of space since the rest of the year it would sit mostly empty. Instead, local retail locations strive for – in Schnabel’s words – "controlled chaos." For example, they radically redesign their shopping schedule by changing the timing of traffic lights near the interstates and directing drivers to overflow lots and mass transit options.

That's the plan at the Woodburn Company Stores – management there started putting together their parking plan six months ago with the help of ODOT, local traffic engineers and law enforcement. They've put together a guide for shoppers and is part of a collection of helpful links we've put together for you ahead of Black Friday: