Archive for the ‘Parking’ Category

Can Parking Lots Be Great?

My latest Slate column is up, and via Eran Ben-Joseph’s book Re-thinking a Lot, considers the humble surface parking lot.

The parking lot is one of those forms so visible that we no longer see it (or indeed, what lies beneath: Everything from Hitler’s bunker to Henry VIII’s “lost chapel” has been covered by parking). Of course, another reason we do not see it is there is not much to see. The Onion captured the kind of shabby banality we associate with the parking lot in a story headlined “Wal-Mart Parking Lot Puts Municipal Parking Lot Out of Business.” “I’ll miss the old lot,” The Onion quotes a patron. “There were some oil stains, but there was character.” This comment invokes one by Ed Ruscha, who in works like Thirty-four Parking Lots was one of the few artists to ever make an artistic claim for parking lots, at least from above (and at least before a parking lot claimed, with cosmic irony, his very studio). “Architects write me about the parking lots, because they’re interested in seeing parking lot patterns and things like that,” he said. “I’ll tell you what is more interesting: the oil droppings on the ground.” The bigger the spot, the more desired the space.

Posted on Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012 at 3:17 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Park on Parking

By the (appropriately named) June Bum Park, a piece of art after the hearts of transportation engineers (seen earlier today at the ‘Otherworldly’ show).

Posted on Friday, June 24th, 2011 at 2:04 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Rear-entry Parking Revisited

Thanks to the voluminous response from blog readers that I received in light of the earlier query on this blog, I’ve expanded the thoughts on rear-in parking into my latest Slate column, in case you haven’t seen it.

Posted on Thursday, February 10th, 2011 at 9:08 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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A Question of Parking

Reader Jeff poses this query, which I admit has puzzled me as well (but to which I have no convincing answer):

“What makes some people back into parking spaces’ [in parking lots] rather than pull straight in? Is this a regional thing (in the south)? I’ve always thought that it takes much longer to back into the space and pull straight out than it takes to pull straight in and back out of the space.”

Is it some Starsky and Hutch move for maximum preparedness, to be able to whisk out at a moment’s notice? Is it something they teach security professionals in evasive driving techniques? As Jeff notes, either way you’re backing up, so there’s no overall time saved. Anyone have an idea?

[P.S. As usual, great responses here; and I’m wondering if we’re on to some deep, if absolutely unscientific, personality indicator here — are you a nose-in or tail-in parker?]

Posted on Thursday, January 20th, 2011 at 6:28 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The End of the Parking Meter?

The parking meter turns 75 years old this year, and I welcome the occasion in my latest Slate column. For such a seemingly mundane object, there’s a lot to say about it; and, alas, for space reasons, I could not go into things like the idea of using meters for charitable donations (see here for a recent example).

I was also unable to use an interesting quote from none other than Robert Moses, writing in the New York Times in 1951 (when, almost unbelievably, meters had yet to reach the shores of Manhattan), about the political fortitude required to end (don’t tell Lew Fidler) what had been seen as an inalienable right — e.g., “free” parking:

“Sobs and howls will rise from the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker with customers to serve, the doctor who can always plead emergency, the store owner who caters to teh carriage trade, the man who came to dinner, the private garage operator who will welcome meters but not competition of offstreet public parking facilities, and the public official whose time is absolutely invaluable (including of course the present writer), not to speak of the lame, the halt and the aged, and loudest of all will be the cries of crusty curmudgeons against infamous regimentation, unbridled bureaucracy and invasion of the king’s highway.

Those who must ride this storm until the benefits are apparent must have the zeal of a Savonarola, the incorruptibility of Caesar’s wife and the hide and temper of a black rhinoceros. Even those attributes will not avail unless they have luck. The seal of the City Parking Authority, if it survives, should feature a rabbit’s foot rampant.”

Echoes here of the congestion pricing debate?

Posted on Tuesday, October 19th, 2010 at 7:29 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘Parking lots are also surprisingly civic…’

Notes Witold Rybczynski, in an interesting slideshow of “ordinary places”:

Parking lots are also surprisingly civic. People politely observe rules of behavior for the sake of the common good, parking between the lines, staying out of the handicapped spaces, driving slowly. It is one place where cars and pedestrians happily coexist.

I’m not sure how happy that coexistence is (e.g., “bad parking”). To wit, this piece from the Washington Post:

[Montgomery County] Employees calculated the numbers and were surprised by the frequency of parking lot accidents. Of the 1,496 pedestrians struck between January 2006 and June 2009, 324 had been hit in parking lots.

Posted on Friday, August 20th, 2010 at 8:01 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Nimble Cities, Week One: Putting Parking Under Scrutiny

They are all around you. They influence the way you live, and the look of where you live. They cost you whether you drive or not. They are minimum parking requirements. This week, over at the Nimble Cities project, I write about the idea, proposed by a number of readers, to reform or even abolish parking minimums.

Relatedly, and I’m late to post this, but Paul Barter over at Reinventing Urban Transport explains that while building/zoning codes often treat parking curiously like toilets — a big necessity — there are reasons why this comparison is flawed.

Posted on Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010 at 4:46 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

Almost thought this was some kind of viral outdoor advertising for Mercedes.

(thanks Karl)

Posted on Friday, April 30th, 2010 at 6:51 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Unintentional Parking Acceleration

Imagine if those were people, is all I can imagine, watching this monster truck-style event (lacking only the mud and the flash-bulbs in the background). Reader Jeff writes to alert me that the driver in the above video, the putative “world’s worst parker,” has been sentenced.

Posted on Thursday, April 22nd, 2010 at 7:24 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Shoppers Walk Further Than Workers When It Comes to Parking

Parking Today reports on a curious piece of information from a parking study conducted by a California town:

… TJKM uncovered in a survey that asked business owners, their employees and customers the greatest distance they would be willing to walk from a parking space to their destination. Business owners and their staffs said zero to 900 feet, “with an average of 375 feet or slightly more than one city block,” TJKM’s report says. Customers, meanwhile, said they’d walk “100 to 1,500 feet … for an average of approximately 600 feet.”

Something to consider when you hear, as one often does, that introducing dynamic, occupancy-based parking meters and the like in downtowns or shopping streets will hurt business because shoppers won’t be able to find anywhere to park. Often the reason shoppers can’t find anywhere to park is that business owners and employees have commandeered the best spaces. As PT notes, in shopping malls store employees are typically prohibited from parking in the spaces closest to the mall.

Why would shoppers report a greater willingness to walk? I would guess because shopping trips are less frequent, and thus people are more willing to put up with a longer walk (not to mention that they probably have less information about available spaces).

Posted on Sunday, April 18th, 2010 at 7:01 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Predictably Irrational Parking Politics

One of the challenges in rationally implementing higher parking fees for periods of higher occupancy is the instinctive feeling, typically by merchants, that this will hurt their business. I’m all for the plight of the small merchant but, as per John Van Horn’s usual line of thinking (e.g., this post), there’s usually a problem with this: 1.) Charging more for places where parking is dear helps create more parking, and more customers; and 2.) Those same small merchants are often the ones occupying the parking that scarce parking. This latter observation is drawn from many sources, including what’s right in front of me: The white Lexus that the guys at the pork store across the street tend to park there for hours on end (they drive in from one of the islands, Staten or Long).

This usual dynamic was on display in an article about (no) Park Slope’s recent “Smart Parking” demonstration program, as reported by my local rag:

Schaller had come to the meeting seeking feedback on the Park Smart program, which hiked parking fees last April as part of an effort to reduce traffic and create turnover at parking spots on Fifth Avenue between Sackett and Third streets, and on Seventh Avenue from Lincoln Place to Sixth Street.

But the feedback from the roughly 25 people in attendance was near-unanimous: “Don’t raise the fee!”

“Merchants are suffering,” said Irene Lo Re, the director of the Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District. “I’ve never seen a year as bad as 2009. People change their behavior over a couple of dollars — are you going to completely push us out of business?”

Couple of problems here. Merchants are suffering, indeed, but so is everyone else: There’s a recession on. Second is that given that driving in New York City is a decidedly luxury endeavor (I’ll send you my insurance bill), people driving cars shouldn’t be worrying about spending an extra 50 cents to park at peak hours — and if they are, they need to examine their finances a bit more carefully. Lastly, another way to look at this is that many people, myself included, go out of their way to avoid Park Slope for any kind of consuming activity, precisely because there is never anywhere to park.

Given all the opposition (or at least the 25 people), the program must have failed, no?

Still, Lo Re had to admit that the numbers did show that Park Smart had improved available parking in the neighborhood, thereby opening spaces for more potential customers.

A study by the city compared parking behavior before the program was implemented and November — and found that people parked for five minutes less on Fifth Avenue and nine minutes less on Seventh Avenue.

Success equals failure — only in parking.

Posted on Thursday, April 1st, 2010 at 7:31 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Passive-Aggressive Parking

Townmouse points to this wonderful series of passive-aggressive “winter dibs” notes.

And, yes, we do think highly of ourselves here in NY — so much so that we wouldn’t think to claim ownership of a parking space, leaving it sitting vacant the entire day, just because we exhumed our car from it.

Posted on Monday, February 22nd, 2010 at 1:30 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Parking Incentives (Wall-E Edition)

Whet Moser, writing in the Chicago Reader, comes across this blog post:

Here is where the larger state of the City’s economy comes in to question. While driving around Chicago yesterday I decided it would be nice to have a hot latte from Starbucks. I pulled up outside, and luckily, I found a spot right in front of the store. I then realized the parking meter pay kiosk was halfway down the block. I sat in my car for a second and thought, “if this were the old days, I could throw a quarter in a meter run in and I would have my wonderful hot latte in my hands.” The walk to the meter in the cold weather led me to pull away without my hot latte.

It gets better:

I was happy to run out and feed my meter every couple of hours. It only cost me $1.00 for one hour of parking. Now, because the pay kiosk is almost half way down the block, I will drive around to find free parking within the neighborhood. Again, the parking revenue is lost.

How can a planner/engineer even begin to take this sort of behavior into account? (and one can’t help wonder if this person pays for a gym membership — at a gym with free parking, of course!)

Posted on Friday, February 19th, 2010 at 9:12 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Winter Dibs, Continued

I’m enjoying all the tales of ‘winter dibs,’ even as I dare not move the Outback from its Brooklyn ice tomb, instead merely waiting for it to emerge like some paleolithic lichen. Josh sends along this link from Boston, of someone doing anticipatory ‘winter dibbing,’ and I’m now tempted to try and introduce the phrase ‘that’s not Southie’ into the national lexicon. It could be the new “that’s not cricket”!

The picture above is strangely fascinating to me; first, there’s the white ‘monobloc’ chair, that ubiquitous global icon, cluttering terraces and garages from Brixton to Buena Vista, which has spawned any number of Flickr groups and blogs, my favorite being this one. It is a curious type of product, existing at the barest margin of any sense of worth or value (or why would you put it on the street?) yet still able to perform its function (or several, it seems). Then there’s that curious detail — what Roland Barthes dubbed the ‘punctum’ — the bricks resting atop each chair, as if they commanded some extra authority — without the brick, sure move the chairs, but with brick, well it gives you pause.

Posted on Friday, February 12th, 2010 at 8:17 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Does Your Town Do (Winter) ‘Parking Dibs’?

Just something on my mind given the battering the eastern seaboard is taking. I know Chicago (above) does, and so too does Boston, Pittsburgh too. But this is an alien concept in New York City, at least in my neck of the woods (though I’ve seen friends of drivers standing in spaces to reserve them temporarily). Put chairs out to reserve a spot and you’ll probably see them listed on Craigslist within the hour.

Why does the ‘parking dibs’ culture work in some places, but not in others? Does it actually work in the aforementioned towns, or has increased demand (or whatever) put strains on the custom? Any ‘dibs’ tales to tell?

Posted on Monday, February 8th, 2010 at 5:41 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘Parking Availability Bias’

Driving home from the Yale event last night (which was packed, and filled with all kinds of interesting traffic types, ranging from Norman Garrick to Anne Lutz Fernandez), as I was listening to various renditions of La Boheme on Doug Fox’s wonderful program (Mr. Fox, I didn’t catch the details on that second act), which I discovered for the first time, a warm presence amidst the eerie fog-tinged, arc-lighted Stygian gloom of I-95, I was thinking back to Donald Shoup’s reply to a question I had posed to him, which itself was related to Brian Pijanowski’s study of parking-lot sprawl in Indiana. Despite a huge and quantifiable overabundance of parking in the county he studied, he was interested to note that people still complained “there wasn’t enough parking.”

I asked Shoup, who of course from the groves of academe has helped ignite a quiet but fomenting revolution in parking policy, to what extent this question of perception in the parking equation had been studied or quantified — keeping in mind that perception is a crucial, if often under-appreciated part of the traffic/planning nexus (e.g., commute times, etc.). One part of Shoup’s answer stuck with me: He talked of studying a parking garage in West Hollywood. On the bottom floors, there were cars, and in the empty spaces, plenty of oil stains to indicate past users. On the upper floors, he noted, it looked as if the spaces had never been graced by a single car. And yet the word from drivers was that there was ‘nowhere to park.’ But the problem, Shoup noted, is that drivers’ perception parking supply is informed by the parking spaces they can actually see. Call it “parking availability bias” (ode to Tversky and Kahneman). And the spaces that are most easily seen, of course, are curb spaces, hence the importance of rational market pricing policies to ensure turnover and vacancy. A few empty spaces (15%) can go a long way.

This perception is a powerful force and leads cities into all kinds of policies that turn out to be misguided and rife with unintended consequences; take the “free holiday parking” approach. Towns hoping to lure shoppers downtown, away from the big boxes, offer up free parking. But beware the power of incentives: Given that many of the best parking spaces in front of local businesses are often occupied (it happens right here in Brooklyn) by the store keepers themselves, the free parking bonanza ends up actually enticing local employees (who would have parked elsewhere or not driven) to grab some free real estate for the day — leaving would-be shoppers with the perception (all-too-real in this case) that there’s ‘nowhere to park.’ Here’s how it went down in Providence.

This is a case where ITS may prove quite useful: Let the algorithms, not fallible human perception, guide the driver to the (properly priced) parking. In the meantime planners and politicians should take parking complaints with a healthy dose of salt.

Posted on Wednesday, January 20th, 2010 at 9:00 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Drive-Through Parking

In my drive-through piece a while back, I speculated the numbers about drive-throughs somehow being environmentally superior to parking lots might be off for a number of reasons, including the idea that some drivers use the drive through and then park. In any case, I came across this curious sign that seems to connote just that behavior, rather paradoxically.

Posted on Tuesday, January 12th, 2010 at 10:10 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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On Gender and Parking

As I note in Traffic, there has been some research into parking and gender, ranging from the indefatigable John Trinkaus’ “informal looks” at “No Parking — Fire Zone” violations at a shopping mall (women driving SUVs were the leading offenders), to suggestions that female drivers spent more time searching for the “best” parking spot (to which the above cartoon alludes).

Now, Claudia C. Wolf and colleagues at Germany’s Ruhr University-Bochum have explored the idea of parking ability, in a new paper in Psychological Research titled “Sex differences in parking are affected by biological and social factors.”

As the authors note, some previous work has found men to have a slight edge on certain cognitive tasks involving spatiality, in particular the “Mental Rotation Test,” while women have, in some cases, outperformed men on more language oriented spheres, like the “phonological retrieval in the letter fluency task.” But real-world equivalents for things like mental rotation have not been in abundance. Which is why the authors headed to the parking lot.

During everyday life—and obviously especially during parking—individuals are required to imagine themselves from different perspectives, which involves mental rotation. A driver who steers towards a parking space must predict the outcome of spatial relationships between objects (including own car, parking space, further cars, and kerb) after changes in viewpoint, which arise from the car’ s—and thus the driver’ s motion.

But curiously, they note, “the cognitive mechanisms involved in parking have never been investigated.” Of course, it’s not just innate spatial ability that’s involved; confidence in one’s ability to do the task matters as well. This belief is “domain specific,” and can socially conditioned by stereotypes, etc.

For the test, the authors asked subjects, divided into similar levels of driving experience, to park an Audi A6 in various ways (back in, parallel, etc.) in a closed-off multi-story car park. The result? “The present data revealed a sex difference in parking performance in driving beginners as well as in more experienced drivers.” Women took longer to park the car, which might be seen as an offshoot of lesser risk-taking behavior by females in driving, but interestingly, even though men parked more quickly, they also parked more accurately, as measured by distance to neighboring cars.

Before we get into a whole “are men or women better drivers” argument, let’s remember that men also come out on top on another variable of driving performance: The tendency to get oneself killed or injured. And this was a relatively small sample. And it’s just parking, after all. And then there’s that question, raised by the authors themselves, of how much this is in any sense innate — always a dangerous word — and how much is generated by social expectations or other feedback loops along the way:

Additionally, unequal base levels of parking performance — which could be due to unequal spatial skills in unexperienced drivers — may have resulted in differential feedback during training of parking skills, leading to a change in self-assessment and thus differential behaviour and achievement… [I]n a recent driving simulator study, it was found that women, whose self-concept was manipulated by confronting them with the stereotype that females are poor drivers, were twice as likely to collide with pedestrians as women who were not reminded of this stereotype.

Strangely, just after reading this paper early yesterday, I came across an item in the BBC about new ‘car parks for women’ in China.

The women-only car park in Shijiazhuang city is also painted in pink and light purple to appeal to female tastes.

Official Wang Zheng told AFP news agency the car park was meant to cater to women’s “strong sense of colour and different sense of distance”.

The parking bays are one metre (3ft) wider than normal spaces, he said.

Were the Chinese government ministers reading Wolf, et al’s paper? And are they taking a potentially biologically innate, and perhaps marginal, difference, and whipping it up into an ever-perpetuating, and debilitating, social construct of drivers with particular, gendered needs? (not to mention the environmental impact of all that extra asphalt — three feet times the soon to be many, many millions of Chinese women drivers).

(thanks Peter)

Posted on Tuesday, December 29th, 2009 at 6:04 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Park Department

Some interesting parking-related figures I came across today, in a forthcoming paper in the journal Land Use Policy, “The environmental and economic costs of sprawling parking lots in the United States,” by Amélie Y. Davis, Bryan C. Pijanowski, Kimberly Robinson and Bernard Engel:

A large proportion, over 6.5%, of the urban footprint, is allocated to parking lots in Tippecanoe County, Indiana. We estimated that this is the same size as 1075 American football fields. In our mall study area, we found that parking lots exceeded the footprint of buildings they service by 20%.

There are many more spaces than registered vehicles (1.7×), households (6.3×) or people living in the county of driving age (2.2×). This implies that if all of the vehicles in the county were removed from garages, driveways, and all of the roads and residential streets and they were parked in parking lots at the same time, there would still be 83,000 unused spaces throughout the county. Annual ecological services value of these parking area represents over $22 M if they are all replaced by wetlands.

If the percentage of parking lot area in the county (0.44%) is scaled to the area occupied by the conterminous United States, the entire states of Connecticut, and Massachusetts (12,550 + 20,305 = 32,855 km2 ) would be paved over with parking lots.

Posted on Tuesday, December 15th, 2009 at 3:47 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Paralello-Parking: The Geometry of the Curb

If only Fermat had lived to the age of the automobile, he too might have grappled thusly:

How much extra length (above the length of your car) do you need to parallel park?

Maths (as they say in the U.K.) professor Simon Blackburn, working on behest of Vauxhall, has cracked the code (study can be downloaded at his page). Though much of it was beyond me — I suffer from horrible innumeracy — I was happy to learn about such things as “The Ackermann Linkage” (Ludlum-esque, that!). The footnotes also reveal that Blackburn is not the first to take a calculator to the curb — or kerb.

(Horn honk to Nathan)

Posted on Monday, December 14th, 2009 at 3:48 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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