For reasons I comprehend perfectly intrinsically, but have trouble putting into words, many of my worries and fears about whether Durham and Raleigh can succeed as real, honest-to-goodness urban areas comes down to one word:
Of course, my radio show co-host Barry and I often go back and forth on the question of downtown parking. I note that we're still going to have parking decks in the urban core for some kind, since most people don't live in downtown and will drive to and fro.
Barry argues that it's like building horse stables downtown in the late nineteenth century, and that just as cars supplanted the buggies, he feels transit will (or at least ought to) make today's investment in structured parking obsolescent.
Still, while I accept the need for parking decks, two things worry me relative to our urban future:
To wit, how people park in them -- and how few people seem to look for anything but the familiarity of those structured parking decks.
I work in the American Tobacco Campus downtown, and as someone who enters or exits the decks at least a couple of times per day, there's a clear difference between "regular" work days and those on which (my mythical constructs) Bahama Bob, Wake Forest Wally, and Mebane Mabel come to town for a show or game.
I may be a Southerner born and bred -- from a family whose lineage doesn't veer north of the Mason-Dixon line until I went to Boston for college in '94 -- but my time in DC and Boston have prepared me for certain facts of life about parking decks.
Like the fact that traffic may come at you from two directions, and therefore, those helpful lessons you've learned about staying on your side of the travel lane is a wise idea.
(ATC deck newbies' mistake #1: taking the turns like you would a tight curving on-ramp. Yes, cutting a turn at the line tangential to the curve is the most efficient way to turn. No, you don't want to do so when there are cars traversing that space around a blind turn, coming at you in the opposite direction.)
Or, in the same vein, thinking that parking your Detroit Diesel EXP-12000 hordemobile ("Great visibility! Seats 12! Consumes the provincial oil supply of Newfoundland and Labrador with every fill-up!") at the very end of a row is a good idea, forcing all the other cars to squeeze around you and, to wit, into each others' path.
One may not be used to encountering these sights in the non-urban America, but that "Compact Cars Only" sign isn't a way of trying to discriminate against you for the car you drive -- it ensures safety in places of tight visibility.
Only in my homeland of the South could one exit their office on a Saturday afternoon to find some kind of "Cornhole Games" event in their office complex, a bizarre ritual whose anthropological identity I will not seek to solve, save to note that the sight of tailgating, barbecuing and cigar-smoking in the ATC South Deck was one of the more puzzling moments of my young life.
It only turned hair-raising when I tried to drive out of the deck. Navigating amidst slightly-buzzed men and women as they meander through parking decks? Priceless.
My urbanity fears, to sum up, can best be described thusly:
I'm not worried that we still need parking decks in the Triangle.
I'm worried that they seem to so many like a foreign construct, something to be navigated without, well, any sense of how to navigate them.
Is parking downtown really so alien an idea?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Apparently, it's not just true in Durham. Raleigh's facing a similar situation, sez ABC 11 news in a story they ran on Wednesday.
The concern? Downtown Raleigh's parking is usually free, but the City of Oaks chooses to charge $7 to park in the decks nearest the city's hotspots like its convention center and theaters.
Fine and well and good, but some drivers are grousing that owners of private surface lots near these destinations are charging even more -- up to $15 for the best spaces, it seems.
Amidst your typical complain-and-respond article, though, comes this bombshell at the story's end (emphasis added):
Local residents and officials alike say take the time to search to parking.
"You should be able to see different deck or even street parking you can find," Harris said. "So just drive around and keep looking and eventually you'll find something that's cheaper or free."
Even city structures just two or three blocks from an event are sometimes considered far enough to be free.
So for a little exercise, patrons can save a whole lot of money.
So let's get this straight. You can park in downtown Raleigh for free for the price of a few blocks' walk -- but people are choosing instead to pay as much as $15 to park closer?
Again, this isn't an anti-Raleigh screed. The same thing happens in Durham.
Sure, we still need decks to handle the traffic we see during downtown happenings. The ATC's South and North decks are full for theatre events and Bulls games. The Durham Centre deck fills for Carolina Theatre events.
But even though we need those decks, you'd expect the surface options to fill up first, right?
I mean, the parking along the southwest end of the downtown loop, between the railroad bridge and Corcoran, is on-street.
And often empty.
I've been able to find on-street parking as much as 15 minutes before a show, right along the Loop near the parking lot for Toast and Teaser's. And it's an almost identical distance's walk to the DPAC from near Toast as it is from the South Deck.
Similarly, at night there are almost always free spaces outside the CCB Plaza downtown for Carolina Theatre events. Cut through the Marriott's lobby and you're there.
So why don't people take advantage of these options more?
It very well may be that many of the visitors to the DPAC and DBAP aren't regular downtown Durham visitors, and that they don't know Durham well enough to navigate anywhere except right in the vicinity of their destination. I can accept that.
But I suspect the Carolina draws in a crowd that's more "regulars," Durhamites and Chapel Hillians who probably make trips there a couple of times a year. Still, I never see the CCB Plaza full of cars.
And that's what leads me to ask -- whither our urbanity?
Is it downtown safety -- perception or actual? This may be more the key, given that downtown businesses haven't yet "filled in" corridors enough so that you have a critical mass of pedestrians and eyes on the street at all times.
That said, things are far more lively downtown now than they were when I first came to town nearly five years ago.
Ultimately, navigating a city like Durham or Raleigh isn't a foreign adventure, though. Our city centers should be places we're comfortable driving, and parking, and walking.
Even if walking a few more blocks than we're used to is slightly outside our comfort zone.
So if you're one of those who's a deck-parker, take my advice. Try it on foot one of these days.
Just, for heaven's sake, don't park your big SUV right at the corner.
Photo of the East Deck snagged from my friend Ginny Skalski's blog.