"NOW remember, we're in the Itchy lot."
So said the sage Homer J. Simpson, and as the camera panned back to show that there were, in fact, only two mammoth parking lots (the other being the Scratchy lot, of course), we all got the joke. Parking lots are the worst.
In perhaps an even better known example, the humble parking lot got a comedic Waiting for Godot existential treatment, courtesy of Seinfeld. It was a simple concept, with George, Kramer, Jerry and Elaine spending the entire episode wandering around a parking garage in search of their missing car. Well, not missing really, just that they couldn't remember where they parked.
We all laughed. Who among us has not done the same in a parking garage: got off on the wrong floor and wandered about in a maze, dazed and confused. Even worse, how do you ask for assistance? "Excuse me, I've misplaced my car." How embarrassing.
And then there are all the other little joys of the car park. The scratches. The dings. The endless waiting for somebody to put on their seatbelt and get the heck out of the spot you're
waiting for. The guy that steals your space. The car that follows you around the lot at a crawl like the predatory Christine - I'm just going back to get my Save-On card, I'm not leaving yet!
The lot is a universality of our driving lives, and yet we seldom think of it.
These huge, vast expanses of concrete fade right into the background when filled with shiny cars, and we think nothing of circling them endlessly, looking for the perfect spot.
Half the time, it's like we check our brains at the entrance. I've parked in some far off corner of the lot, walked past somebody waiting for a spot, shopped for groceries, waited in line at a slow till, bagged my stuff up myself, run back to get one additional item as per text-from-wife, and then gone outside to see the same hapless soul with their blinker still on and the will to live fully absent from their blank stare.
Courtesy in a parking lot? Good luck, sunshine. Driving already brings out some of the most aggressive survival of the fittest responses you can feel, and entering a parking lot is just like pulling the plug on the watering hole.
Here we see a flock of gnus in a Honda Civic, waiting their turn patiently. Suddenly, the lion in the Toyota 4Runner swoops in for the kill! He's got the spot: looks like these gnus will have to wait until another day.
In the evening, there's that merciless heat as the tarmac vomits all the solar energy it's absorbed through the day back into the city streets. The petrochemical smell of a hundred dripping oil-pans, the Rorschach rainbow of antifreeze in a puddle, the ground littered with crumbled plexiglass, sure evidence that your car isn't going to be safe.
Like I said, parking lots are the worst. Almost universally they're places of misery and a lack of common human decency, and when you think of the outrageous fees they charge for the privilege, why, it fairly curdles your stomach. And yet it needn't be like this.
The simple expedient of planting proper tree cover in a lot - rather than the usual wizened twigs that seem to come directly from some wind-blasted nursery somewhere atop a Scottish mountain - could cut the thermal heat-soak radically.
Want some numbers? The total number of parking lot spaces in the United States is estimated to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 500-800 million. Almost one-and-a-half spaces per person. All that paved space dedicated to the theoretical convenience of being able to park your car and walk around a mall for three hours.
With such an amount of space tied up in service to the automobile, surely some of it can be reclaimed in various different ways. For instance, rather than the eerie glow of sodium lamps lighting up the abandoned lot, perhaps integrated solar panels might transform the simple lot into an energy source.
I know, I know: we live in a country better known for dogsleds and snowshoes than solar energy: people even move here if they're allergic to sunlight. Still, the cost on photovoltaic cells is dropping radically, and seeing as the space is going to waste. . . .
And then there's the latest environmental bugbear, one that we West Coasters rarely think about: water reclamation. Pure tarmacadam makes for poor runoff, as well as forcing the water to pool and collect all the chemicals that leach out of the undersides of our cars. A more porous material would allow water to filter into the ground, rather than run off, washing pollution into the ocean.
Cost is, as always, the deciding factor. Beyond planting trees and setting up expensive solar panels, perhaps there is something to be done to reclaim these paved spaces for other uses than just cars. Nominally speaking, these are public spaces, available at a pinch to be converted to farmer's markets or autocross racetracks.
It's funny that it doesn't happen more often, given the demand to appeal to the loca-vores, and the ample supply of local producers in the Fraser Valley. In many places, the outskirts of malls, big-box stores and furniture warehouses are transformed, with temporary tents and stalls, into a place that you might actually want to hang out in. Not just on Sundays either.
Then, for the gearheads among us, there's the other thing that springs to mind when we see unused swathes of paved surface: racing. Auto-cross requires little but a few dedicated organizers and a bunch of orange cones. Well, that and a rule book.
What else? Bicycle skills courses for the legion of new riders that are taking to the roads? Impromptu ball-hockey courts? A roller-derby rink? All this and more.
All it takes is a bit of creativity to look past the whitepainted grid and see a blank canvass. Free parking: what would you do with it?
Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at mcaleeronwheels@gmail. com. Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.
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