Posted on

Parking Lot Oceans Swallow Me Up

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.

7 thoughts on “Parking Lot Oceans Swallow Me Up

  1. This is a super fantashtish article! I too share your parking lot disdain (who wouldn’t? though, it is such a part of American culture maybe some are numb to it). Not only parking lots, but that homogenous parking lot/strip mall “aesthetic” that looks like it could be anywhere in America and has the same Target, pho place, and liquor store every time.

    That is something I think about too, the fact that yes parking lots are made for cars but obviously people have to use them too. How do they expect you to go from your car to the store? There are rarely any sidewalks or cross walks. The only partly decent one I have seen is in the Seattle Costco pretty close to downtown. I guess because there are so many more people, they are forced to think about the design a little more. There are different sections of the parking lot so you can’t just fly through the whole thing plus there are crosswalks and sidewalks in the middle of the parking lot that actually lead to the store and I are actually big enough for the carts. I will snap a photo next time I am there.

    In Seattle, the public transportation is terrible! San Francisco’s could definitely be improved upon but Seattle’s is pitiful. You can especially feel it now, during this record breaking snow storm and the whole city is shut down. People don’t go to work, streets are shut down, and government businesses and schools are closed. Why? because there is no effin underground system and barely an above rail system (I am not even sure if there is one). The city relies on buses and though they did have snow chains, many of them were stalled and they didn’t even go on all of the routes since some of the streets were shut down. The most shown bus photo on the news is a double bus that was jack-knifed and was blocking an entire street. If you have public transport, you need to be able to count on it otherwise there is no point.

    I am not sure why there is no underground system other than cost. San Francisco’s makes sense in that when Muni goes downtown, it goes underground. A friend told me once that Seattle was petitioning to get an underground system in the 40’s maybe? but Ford lobbied against it, obviously pushing their agenda to create a car dependent society (it worked!). I am not sure if this is true but I would not be surprised.

    In short, maybe the US is just not over populated enough to concern themselves with sprawling parking lots. Land is cheaper than building up or down so without regarding the future at all our suburban landscape is an asphalt desert (or ocean!).

    1. Lots of good points panka. I especially like, “If you have public transport, you need to be able to count on it otherwise there is no point.” One of my favorite bloggers, Jarrett Walker wrote a new book called Human Transit in which he describes several criteria transit has to meet if real people are going to use it, and reliability was a big one. If you can’t count on it being there when you need it, if you can’t be late or change your plans without being stranded, you’re not going to use it.

      Human Transit blog and book:

  2. I think its a pretty great and important observation that you made and I remember the last time i went back to the bay area i felt the same way. The bay area just has a way of making their lanes extremely wide and their parking lots too unnecessarily big. The bay area, as well as all over California, is an “xy” kinda place where it seems where everything is sprawled on the x and y axis. And only in the large metropolitan cities like SF can we see building on the z. But personally living in Los Angeles now, I think the bay area has it much better than we do. Los Angeles is one of the most congested cities in the world and its recent development of public transportation doesn’t seem to be making too much of a difference. We are still a car-centric city and until the day that we strip the inherent mental relationship that low income= public transportation, I don’t ever see Los Angeles changing too much. I can only wish in my wildest dreams that LA will someday be like Hong Kong where everyone no matter rich or poor will willingly take our public transportation and say that they don’t even need a car. But in our society full of car lobbyists and such I dont ever think we will see that in the near future. Progression in the US is simply too slow and simply too biased.

    1. Yes, LA traffic is heinous! I do have to say though, at least LA owns its traffic, you know? It’s almost proud of it. Except for the High Speed Rail that creates a ruckus from time to time around these parts, the Bay Area is all hush hush about our traffic, we like to sweep our transportation dirt under the rug.

      A friend pointed me to this great video of Ice Cube on LA in which he says, “The good, the bad, and the ugly of LA…the bad – the traffic. Each freeway has its own personality. The 405 – bougie traffic. 110, haha, that’s gangsta traffic right there. There’s a difference, you gotta know where you at.” The blogger that posted this video is a self-proclaimed “walker in LA” so maybe you’ll like her blog.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Public transportation has to change. I think this goes well with your previous post about workspaces, cubicles, and needing to move around more. It’s all feels related. It’s strange, but we seem to have made “physical activity” scarce. We can only buy it at 24 Hour fitness in discrete chunks, with a monthly membership.

    1. Yes, that’s what bothers me. “Activity” is this separate thing I put on my to-do’s, something that I actually count in terms of time or calories if I’m trying to lose weight, something that takes away from other tasks, a chore, a bother. It should be cleverly integrated throughout the rest of my day. Instead, I sit all day at work in a cubicle, take a break by walking around in the parking lot during lunch, and I literally feel sick at the end of the day. So I go run around or take an “activity” class but it hardly makes up for the costs of being “comfortable” the entire rest of the day.

  4. […] Lather, rinse, repeat until you are obese because the only walking you are doing is to the bathroom and to your car if you couldn’t find a close enough parking spot. More about parking lots here. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *