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Sunday, February 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The incredible shrinking parking space

Special to The Seattle Times

Janice Hoffart was trapped. She only had three minutes to get out of her car at Seattle's Oak Tree Cinema and get into the theater before the movie started. And she suddenly realized she only had inches between her car and the enormous SUV to her left.

So she performed a maneuver they never teach in driver's ed. She stuck her foot out of the door and began rocking back and forth to create the momentum she'd need to hurl her wedged torso from her vehicle onto the pavement.

"I have a big purse," she said, "and it was full of microwave popcorn and a giant water bottle and I could barely pull my purse out of the car!"

All over Seattle crowded lots, tight garages, skinny stalls and giant vehicles are conspiring to create a parking experience that ranges from unpleasant to downright harrowing.

And nearly everyone who owns a vehicle has an opinion on the subject.

"Parking spaces are getting smaller," says Susan Curhan, who had just nudged her red Toyota SUV into one of the spots in the Trader Joe's parking garage in the University District.

She'd returned from a relaxing day of skiing to find herself fending off other drivers, including an SUV that pulled in next to her, missing her car by centimeters.

"It's crazy," she said.

Got a parking horror story?


Want to nominate your own "worst lot" in Seattle? Share the loathing at talktous@seattletimes.com

Actually, parking spaces haven't been shrinking. Seattle's current parking code was established in the early 1980s following the oil shortages of the '70s, when people scooted around in Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas.

A commercial lot with more than 20 spaces can designate about two-thirds of its parking as "compact" — spaces that are 7.5 feet wide and 15 feet long, about 5 inches narrower and a foot shorter than the average space.

Problem is, drivers usually ignore the compact designation, parking their big vehicles (a Ford Expedition is 6.5 feet wide, not including mirrors) into whatever space is available.

"Until we're safely away from the SUV trend, we're going to have problems," says Peter Hockaday, an architect with the Seattle firm Perkins+Will.

SUV drivers wish parking spaces were wider, too.

Chip Vance, who often commutes to Seattle from Mount Vernon, drives a Ford Expedition. He recalls the time his 5-year-old daughter threw open the door and banged the side of an immaculately polished Lincoln Town Car.

Vance looked over to see an elderly couple simultaneously glaring with 70 years of repressed parking rage.

"I know they were mad, but I just couldn't give them the satisfaction of watching me get out on the other side of the car," he says. He carefully opened his own door and gyrated his body like a circus performer to avoid making contact with the Lincoln.

"Actually, I found out how flexible I am," he said.

While parking can be a squeeze even in large suburban lots such as Lowe's in Bellevue, it's an exercise in misery in Seattle's congested neighborhoods.

In the Trader Joe's garage, mild-mannered citizens with bumper stickers that read "Peace is the Answer" and "Live Simply So Others May Simply Live" laid their fists on their horns on a recent Sunday as they waited for other parking-impaired shoppers to navigate the narrow maze of concrete.

In all of its Seattle locations — Capitol Hill, Queen Anne and the University District — the specialty grocer's parking lots are among the toughest to navigate in the city. Spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki says the store tries to find locations that offer ample parking, but it's not always possible.

"We like to think that having a store with less than ideal parking is better than having no store at all," she says.

Auto-body shops have also noticed the parking crunch. Rod Biell, owner of Carriage Rebuild in Bothell, has been in business 32 years, but he's seen a significant jump in parking-related repairs in the past five or six years.

The cost to repair a door ding can vary anywhere from $500 to $2,000, depending on where the damage occurs. Biell says carmakers are using thinner metal, which contributes to the damage, but he also points to the decline of angled spaces, a design that makes parking easier.

These days most parking designers use the straight, or 90-degree, stalls. The belief is that the 90-degree spots are more cost effective, says Mary Smith of Walker Parking Consultants in Indianapolis. She has been designing parking structures for over 30 years.

"Architecture schools teach that 90-degree parking is always most efficient," says Smith, "so less experienced architects always start out using 90-degree spaces."

The most natural angle, however, is 60 degrees, says Smith. She bases this on her own unscientific study — watching how drivers parked in a lot where the stripes had worn off. "But to design anything below a 75-degree angle just isn't efficient at all."

So the question becomes how to navigate the treacherous parking lots.

"It's all based on gambling, and you can reduce the risk," says Paul Davis, who created www.parkingbydesign.com, to help people improve their parking ability and avoid "door wounds."

"Remember that not all spots are created equal," says Davis, who lives in Southern California and won't even park in the Trader Joe's lot in his neighborhood.

He recommends using gravity to one's advantage by parking on the upward side of a slope, taking the spot opposite the driver's side, and parking next to concrete barriers to reduce the risk of damage. Something as simple as parking farther away from the entrance is one of the easiest and most overlooked parking strategies.

"When I see a spot with concrete on three sides, I get goose bumps," says Davis. His inspiration for the site was getting his door dinged by a large Oldsmobile at the entrance to a trailhead.

"It was the middle of nowhere!" he marveled. "Why I was trying to park as close as possible to the trail when I was actually going on a hike, I don't know."

Diana Wurn is a Seattle freelance writer: dianawurn@hotmail.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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