They Paved Paradise...'
You know how the song goes: "... and put up a parking lot." For those of us who spend our professional lives contemplating the journey from the street to the space between the yellow lines, it may be disconcerting to find ourselves exiled to the paved margins of the perfect world. For most people, however, paradise is neither our most recent point of origin nor our immediate destination. We are simply trying to move as efficiently as possibly from here to there given the means at our disposal and with a reasonable expectation of having a place to park the car.
My own corner of the parking industry has to do with moving people and cars in and out of garages by means of judiciously placed and worded signs. "Wayfinding" is the official term for my specialty, and it consists largely of breaking vital information down into discrete packets so that choices can be made at "decision points"; e.g., Park or Exit, Floor 4 or Floor 6, Pay by Cash or by Credit. Another way of understanding wayfinding is that its job is to make complex systems navigable without necessarily imparting a full understanding of the system.
Parking garages are complex nonlinear structures -- multi-leveled and multi-optioned -- but the user's path in, through and out can be made to appear linear through the proper application of wayfinding tools. By way of analogy, I have an 18th century British map at home that provides directions from one point on the British globe to another (for all I can remember, Leicestershire to Worcestershire) without actually representing any part of geographical England. It consists instead of a ribbon that folds back and forth on itself from start to finish, and that depicts landmarks and decision points -- where to turn, what one will see, which inns and pubs to stop at, etc. This, of course, is not unlike the directions one now gets from MapQuest or Yahoo, minus the advice about pubs. Turn a three-dimensional situation into a two-dimensional process and you're more than halfway home.
But back to paradise lost. One of the limitations of wayfinding as a lens through which to view the parking "problem" is that it is value-free -- it passes no judgment on whether or why parking should be; it only seeks to simplify the how. Much of a city's or even a country's character can be determined by how it deals with the issue of parking. Cities, which were never intended as a substitute for paradise, must address parking, just as they must address sanitation, mass transit and teachers' contracts, because, like these other "problems," it is an issue ignored at great peril to public and private well-being.
In paradise, of course, the parking is free and underground (under-cloud?). But in what passes for the real world, our devotion to personal modes of transit leads us inevitably to a meter that is running or a ticket with a time stamp. Those nostalgic for a simpler, purer time I can only refer to Mackinac Island, in the upper Midwest, which has banned the automobile in favor of the horse, and where, on a hot summer afternoon, you can smell the 19th century (and the 18th and 17th and so on). It's not that I'm squeamish -- in Denver and Los Angeles on practically any day you can smell the present, and on the whole I'd probably pick what the past smelled like. Cars powered by hydrogen or fuel cells may radically improve air quality but will do nothing to alter the equations of congestion, accessibility or where to park.
However, a model for what parking may evolve into in the virtual world sits on my desk. I imagine a GPS-equipped car that has access to an online, real-time database of available parking based on my destination, down to the garage stall and space on the street. I will know, before I set out, the least congested route, how long the trip will take, where I can find parking and how much it will cost. This knowledge will only serve to land me in a parking spot -- not in paradise. Because paradise is the place where even a little knowledge can get you expelled. You don't know what you've got till it's gone, right?
I advise those who opt for eternal innocence that, on the off chance paradise doesn't turn out exactly as advertised, when the gates swing open to let you in, don't forget to take your ticket with you -- you may need it to get out.
Arne Weingart is the president of Weingart Associates Inc., an independent graphic design firm specializing in identity and image development, marketing implementation, and architectural graphics and wayfinding systems. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.