Culture

Americans are pretty ugly when parking their cars

The worst part of driving will never get better.

Culture

BEEP BEEP

Culture

Americans are pretty ugly when parking their cars

The worst part of driving will never get better.

On November 8, a New Jersey man was found in a parking lot with a gunshot wound in his left thigh — the result of a fight over a deli parking lot space between him and another man. On November 20, a woman in Northampton, MA attempted to pull into a restaurant parking space, only to be blocked by another woman standing in the spot. After being asked to move, the standing woman keyed the car, got back into her own vehicle, then ran down the other woman and a passenger who were trying to record her license plate number. And in 2015, a man in Hawaii used parking spots outside Lincoln Park to spread the word of God by displaying signs of aborted fetuses on his truck. A community of parents rallied against him and staged a “Take Back” movement, where they woke up early to occupy all the spaces around the park so he couldn’t display his inflammatory and graphic signs.

Parking lots inspire a unique rage in Americans. They’re one of the few public spaces citizens feel emboldened to police themselves, and reprimand those who don’t follow an assumed set of etiquette. Americans spend an average of 17 hours a year parking, but rather than get used to it, drivers allow themselves to become entitled and aggressive — emotions that don’t bode well in communal spaces, but which Americans are very good at showing. A 2014 study found that 20 percent of men and 12 percent of women have had a verbal confrontation with another driver in a parking lot, and 8 percent of men and 2 percent of women have actually gotten physical over a parking incident.

The industrial parking industry is barely a century old: It’s thought that the first American multi-story parking garages were built near the end of World War I, with New York City not getting its first until 1929. Now, there are somewhere between 105 million to 2 billion parking spaces in the United States. It is estimated that there are three parking spots for every vehicle in America and for every 1,000 people, 785 of them have cars. This proliferation of public parking spaces happened gradually over the early and mid 20th century, mirroring the proliferation of privately owned automobiles. The early cars weren’t weather-resistant so initially, garages were just storage units used to protect vehicles from the elements. As cars became essential machines woven into the American lifestyle, the demand for user-friendly garages increased. Car lifts, a device used to move vehicles from one floor to another, managed by parking attendants, were invented in the 1920s; ramps that connect garage levels soon followed so drivers could park without assistance. Automobiles becoming climate-resistant quickly created a need for street parking, which led to the invention of the parking meter, a device installed in Oklahoma City in 1935 after downtown business owners called for a way to decongest traffic in their streets. More recent parking garage innovations include automatic parking systems, and license plate recognition systems.

You’ve been waiting for a spot — therefore, it is yours.

Parking is a common, monotonous activity during which a driver can experience a full range of emotions — anxiety about finding a spot, pride when they find a good spot and, of course, anger when the spot they were eyeing is taken by another driver. This anger can manifest itself as a profane exclamation, middle finger out the window, or a harmless glance through a windshield. When you’re trying to get to where you’re going, everyone on the road is a potential enemy. “Why do you check to see if the car in the handicap space has a handicap sticker?” author of Politics of Parking: Rights, Identity and Politics Sarah Marusek told The Outline. “What qualifies someone to park in a handicap space? You have to have a permit, but informally you have to also look handicapped. People are expected to be on crutches or a wheelchair even though the ADA protects a whole spectrum of disabilities.” Meditate on this goofy standard: Not only does a driver have to be handicapped, they have to be the right type of handicapped for others, who are not eligible for the handicap space at all, not to feel cheated or angry.

In her book, Marusek investigates how Americans exercise law in everyday life and use parking to display power. Through her research emerges the one ideal that truly enrages Americans: ownership. Americans possess a John Locke-esqe mentality that labor is connected to property, and they apply it to things that don’t actually belong to them. In parking, it means we think that seeking out and waiting for a spot means we own it, and others should recognize that. If we are closer to a parking space than another person, then we have more right to it. Even though parking lots are communal, transient spaces, the belief that you even saw a space before anyone else translates to you owning it, and then feeling robbed if someone else takes it. The next step is the middle finger thrown out of the window — something 27 percent of men and 20 percent of women have admitted to doing

What’s perceived as immoral parking also aggravates the deep-rooted obsession Americans have with justice. Though citizens may not want to engage in a high-speed car chase to reprimand a reckless driver, they will feel that leaving a snarky note on a dashboard is a reasonable expression of justice. “In ways, stealing a parking spot is more like cutting in line at the grocery store,” Marusek says. You’ve been waiting for a spot — therefore, it is yours. Cars can communicate taste, political leanings and income, and of course, cars can be used as weapons. They protect you and give you an enormous amount of power — power we all seek in our intensely moderated lives.

Today, apps like SpotHero, Parkmobile, and BestParking are aiming to take the guesswork and, ultimately, the rage out of parking by giving drivers the ability to reserve spots ahead of time. With the rise of smart cars and the possibility that many cars will be completely autonomous in the near future, vehicles could become shared modes of transportation that drive around all day, never parking. In his essay The Future of Parking, SpotHero CEO Mark Lawrence said he believes humans will be taken out of the equation, but not for different reasons. “Seventy percent of cars are fueled by coal and natural gas,” he told The Outline. “Cities aren’t going to want that pollution or the wear and tear of empty vehicles riding around. Then there is wear and tear on the actual vehicles and whoever they are owned by doesn’t want that. That is just so unlikely although, it keeps being brought up.” Another prediction is that cars will drive to the outskirts of cities to park, which Lawrence is also positive won’t happen. Even if the land existed, thousands of cars moving to the outskirts of cities at the same time would create a traffic jam and cars would no longer be where they are needed, which is by people.

Smart garages — garages that can park autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles — might be an answer. Unlike standard garages, these contain automated features like laser scanners to record information about the vehicle so it can be stored into an appropriately sized spot. They also use robotic dollies to valet cars in and out of tight spaces, as there doesn’t need to be room for drivers to enter and exit the vehicle. For most of these garages, all the driver has to do is pull into the ground floor, then surrender the car. “The technology exists for the car to park itself,” Lawrence said, but what isn't implemented — even though that technology exists as well — is the ability for parking facilities to receive these cars without assistance from parking attendants and drivers. For a garage to be fully “smart” it must be able to do is move a car to its spot and administer time on its own.

Today, public smart garages, which can only accept non-autonomous vehicles, are peppered throughout the country, with companies like Unitronics building them in large cities including New York and Los Angeles. In Unitronics’ West Hollywood structure, drivers can park in an automated, solar-powered garage where all they have to do is pull into the ground floor, exit the car and lock the doors, as robots slide the car into an empty space. If the features in smart garages can be implemented into existing parking structures, in the future nobody will have to circle a megamall garage ever again.

This being said, smart garages have caused conflict: In Miami, one was forced to shut down because people reported waiting an hour for their car. As with any technological fix meant to solve modern life, it’s entirely possible that the rage aroused by parking will never vanish — it’ll simply be displaced. Smart garages could become a modern parking meter: a neutral third party that administers time and space, but still becomes the target of people’s ire. (Parking meters are frequently destroyed even though their expiration leading to a ticket is a completely valid catalyst to administering law.) It’s as if people feel even more upset that something meant to be objective is turning them to the police — and while human error is an acceptable if infuriating concept, the idea of supposedly infallible tech nonetheless screwing us over is possibly even more maddening, as anyone who’s had an Apple computer freeze on them can attest to. Maybe, in the end, Americans just like being angry — and that’ll never change no matter how convenient the future of parking. But at least robots can’t have their feelings hurt.

Aditi Shrikant is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in Eater, Rewire and Smithsonian Magazine.
Hey you! We want to know what you think about The Outline (and you can win some cool swag too). We know you love to answer questions, so take our 5 minute survey.