Monday, September 19, 2016

The Semiotics of Parking on the Street

City Hall, Philadelphia.
The other day I was walking down 19th Street near Pine. It was a beautiful day, around lunchtime. Sunny, about 80 degrees, low humidity. I'd run some errands and walked through Rittenhouse Square, and now I was walking home, thinking about the subject of this article.

As I crossed Pine there was a loud noise behind me, and to my right. I was startled and actually jumped a bit. It was a car horn, of course.

A middle-aged man, accompanied by a woman who was presumably his wife, was driving a nondescript sedan. He actually had plenty of room to turn onto Pine behind me, which he proved by accelerating dramatically as he passed by.

So, why the honk? Was he concerned for my safety, thinking that I might for some reason start running backwards? If that had been his concern, he could easily have used his brake instead of his horn, and much more certainly avoided the nonexistent danger.

But no, I'm afraid I don't believe that was his motive. I think that he, like a bull elephant, was honking to assert his dominance.

Of course, from a legal point of view he was not in a dominant position. I was in the crosswalk with a green light, and I had the right of way.

Driver's Ed, Philly-Style
Anyone who lives in Philadelphia knows that none of these things matter. I sometimes think there's a class hour in Philly driver's ed courses where the instructor sits his charges down and explains the way things really work.

"Listen, kids, the streets are there for the cars. It's always been that way, and it always will be. Pedestrians tend to forget, though, so you need to remind them. Otherwise they might start insisting on their rights, and that would be bad."

The instructor looks around the class and, noticing that there are no girls, shifts his language into a rougher gear. The message, though, is always the same:  Assert dominance, discomfit other occupants of the street, and make sure you are the focus of attention.

The instructor then summarizes with the same words for all audiences: "Remember, kids, when you're sitting behind the wheel, just keep repeating to yourself, 'It's all about me.'"

And at the end, if the audience is right, the instructor will channel Sean Connery in The Untouchables and say, "Look, intimidation doesn't always work. But if you feel it's the right thing to do, you can always put them in the hospital - or the morgue."

On to On-Street Parking
So what does all this have to do with curbside parking? Well, the cars get tired. They can't spend 100 percent of their time cruising and looking for pedestrians to intimidate. In fact, cars spend 95 percent of their time parked. But that doesn't mean they're useless. They can still intimidate.

Here's what the parked cars say: I won't kill you while I'm sitting here. But if my driver comes, and he or she is late for work, or hung over, or pissed at a spouse, I will kill you on orders.

Even the parked cars know that the police and the media will probably blame the victim.

There are other reasons for parking on the street, of course - for one, it's cheap. And, if you're a big shot, you can give yourself a dedicated parking spot in front of the building where you work. (See photo at beginning of story.) Then nobody is likely to accuse you of having a small ego.

But if you want to look at the underlying message that all those lines of parked cars convey - the semiotics of parking on the street - it's not a warm and cuddly message. Those cars are saying, We own the street.

View them as an army of occupation. After all, they're big, they're powerful, and they're everywhere, all the time. They never go away. Walk down a sidewalk, and depending on the time of day, there may not be a lot of cars driving down the street. But the lines of parked cars are always there, always reminding you, always dominating the streetscape.

Think about it. What did you see more of on the street today - cars or people?

Stop Sign, Philly-Style. Corner of Uber and Ringgold Place.
For developments in the street culture of Paris, London, and Amsterdam, click here and here.

See also Cars and Bikes - the Back Story, Measuring the Health of a Parking System, The Parking Dream, Zombie Arguments in Bike Safety.

No comments:

Post a Comment