Find parking spot. Pull in. Stop the car. Unbuckle the seat belt. Gather belongings. Open the door. Left foot first. Then…
SPLASH!!! You’re in the parking lot ocean. Do you know how to swim?
I do. I watch for cars pulling in and backing out of spaces whose drivers might or might not see me. I dodge the cars that circle endlessly to get the spot closest to the storefront. (I always park in the faraway spots because I hate circling, even once, which drives my husband nuts.) I hop over curbs. I cut across landscaping. I’m a good swimmer now, I know how to ride the waves, but I hate it.
I’m thinking specifically of navigating the gross, suburban big box parking lots. (The stores themselves are a whole other topic.) Rant Alert: This will be a rant on specific parking lots. If this is going to make you tired please skip to the next paragraph. When I was living in San Jose my most dreaded parking lot was at the stripmall on Coleman by the airport. Sometimes I would want to go to both Trader Joe’s and to Target, but if you map that distance it’s .3 miles, far enough to make you wonder if it’s really in the same lot. I would never drive from one to the other because that would make me feel irresponsible and silly, but pushing a heavy cart across a parking lot not made for walking makes me feel silly too. My most hated parking structure in San Francisco is at 9th st and Brannan. Yes, again at Trader Joe’s! That structure is always a cluster-cuss, so I tried parking outside on the street one day. The only way for pedestrians to enter or exit any of the stores, however, is by first walking into the structure via the lanes with the cars. All the storefronts face internally to the parking structure and it’s dark and depressing. Plus, once you’re done shopping and trying to make it back to your car, the cart locks 20 feet shy of the exit. So secure!
More often than not, when my feet hit the pavement I’m in a parking lot ocean, especially now that I’m back in the burbs. And now that it’s winter, I opt to drive instead of riding my bike to work because I’m a baby, according to my cube neighbor, Steve. I work right next to 101 in an industrial-esque part of Menlo Park. There’s nowhere to walk. So I find myself walking in the parking lot to get to my car, to take a break from work, or to walk .5 miles to a really wonderful taqueria down the sidewalk-less street (the only place within walking distance worth eating at).
I want to drain the parking lot oceans. I want to tear away the painted lines, curbs, fences, streets, and freeways. I want to live a parking lot-free life. But how? If only there were models to follow.
A couple months ago, I watched Gary Hustwit’s latest documentary, Urbanized, and was struck by how so many so-called developing countries have gracefully surpassed the San Francisco Bay Area’s transportation systems in terms of efficiency and look and feel. It’s embarrassing that the people living in the heart of Silicon Valley drive long commutes on ugly freeways and walk more in parking lots than anywhere else all day. We care so much about how technology can improve our lives, yet we make very little effort to improve how we move our bodies from place to place. (Actually, I’m sure some people make a big effort, yet we – as a community, region, responsible citizens – are making very little progress.)
Why do so many people still insist on driving themselves all alone in their cars to work every day? Because it’s inconvenient to not do so. Whereas in Bogota, buses feel like trains and have dedicated traffic lanes. In Copenhagen over 30% of the population commutes to work every day by bike because their bicycle lanes are safe and protected. Projects to revitalize walkways connecting townships on the skirts of Cape Town are making it safer for people to walk to work and school.
So what’s up Bay Area?
Let’s infuse our public transportation with a little creativity. If we’re having problems because the Bay Area is too spread out, let’s squish together. I have this idea that we can all move our homes and workplaces to San Francisco and live like real city-dwellers walking on the streets, taking buses and trains, and maybe car sharing for those trips to the grocery store. Even if we won’t all move, we obviously have way too much available space if we’re still laying surface level parking lots. If we have to have parking lots, build up or, better yet, build down. And think about walkability when creating new services. Human bodies aren’t born with cars. We don’t need them to live. Let’s work on evaporating the parking lot oceans.