Parking Pains

Writer: 
March 31, 2003

 

 

Traffic Citation

John Gardiner.

In April 14, 1965, Clyde N. Holland M.S.E. '61, a professor in the civil engineering department, and David Hartgen B.S.E. '66, submitted to the Duke Traffic Commission "A Comprehensive Survey of Parking on Duke's West Campus." "The present conditions on campus relating to parking and traffic are, on the whole, good," it read. But there would be problems in the future. There would be many more cars than places to put them. In a prescient recommendation the authors advised the commission to "consider as a solution the provision of multi-deck parking facilities."

Their advice wound up in the library archives, and parking remained confined to ground level. Over the following decades, places to park became places to put a building. What was known as "the ocean," the largest lot on campus, evaporated in a single summer, replaced by the West-Edens Link. Construction on the new engineering buildings and extensions to Perkins Library and the Divinity School sent parkers to distant "blue" lots. The effects have been felt campus-wide. With the ocean gone, the smaller ponds have overflowed.

The same thing would have happened with books, but Duke started stacking them long ago in Perkins and Lilly. And now, appreciating the merits of the libraries, Duke is building, and will have by June, a 545-car-capacity, five-story parking garage, a concrete testament to the state of parking on campus, which is, on the whole, not so good.

Last year, as reported in the September-October issue of this magazine, 39,633 parking tickets were inserted in yellow envelopes and pinned under driver-side windshield wipers (so you're certain to see them). By year's end, the tickets yielded a gross revenue of $762,729, most of which, it could be said, was parted with grudgingly. Debbie Marshall, traffic enforcement supervisor, who oversees the patrolling of all campus lots, says that students at Duke are as destructive of property as any she has ever seen. "They break gate arms every weekend almost," says Marshall. "It's amazing. They pull the signs out of the concrete."

Renee Adkins is the adjudication officer in the Traffic and Parking Office. She says that she doesn't put up with stuff (nor does she say "stuff"). One time, in 1999, a student from Texas, who had gotten a fire-lane ticket, came in swearing and ranting. "He was out of control," Adkins recalls. "All of a sudden, he picks up this chair here and throws it at me." The Texan missed Adkins, but the chair went through the window. "That was crazy," she says. "So ever since, my policy has been, If you come in here and you're crazy, I won't deal with you."

When the first parking meter was fixed to a pole in Oklahoma City in 1935, the citizenry was not very happy. The "park-o-meter," dubbed the "armless bandit" and the "nickel grabber," once it was revealed what the critter was up to, was an unwelcome contribution to the street corner. And if you didn't know any better, you'd think the same of the SW 90 handheld ticket processor with Radix 40i Infrared portable printer, holstered by Duke traffic controllers, who, in safari hats and sunglasses, patrol the campus lots.

Ironically, the Radix, as its handlers refer to it, has only contributed to a more merciful brand of enforcement. Traffic controllers can pull up all of a driver's information, including telephone number, address, record, and permit type by entering a plate number. So, for instance, if your permit were to drop behind the seat, out of view, the traffic conroller would know that you do, in fact, belong. Or, if you were parked in a tow zone, the traffic controller might try calling you first to tell you to come and move it yourself. Such is the blessing of recent advances in enforcement technology.

But there was a problem. For students, ticketing was an unusual work-study occupation, different from barbell picker-upper or paper shredder. It was one of the few jobs, if not the only job, wherein levers of admonishment switched hands.

Students were responsible for sending a very authoritative message to people who were, in many cases, their authorities. Until the Radix was adopted, they couldn't know the driver. But the identity that the Radix made handy presented the ticketer with a bit of a dilemma. What if the offender were a good friend? Or a professor? Or the president of the university? President Nannerl O. Keohane, for example, once received (and paid the following day) a fine for parking in the fire lane behind Wannamaker Drive. The students' power, if it could be called that, derived from their discretion. They could write the ticket or not--no one would know the difference.

Students were no longer hired after 2002, just as the Radix was coming into use, and even now, in the face of staff shortages, there are no plans to resume the practice. "Honestly," says Marshall, "they just weren't dependable. You couldn't count on them to write the tickets."

John Drobis '02, last of the student-traffic controllers, acknowledges seeing a considerable gray area in his former line of work: "If someone was to come up to me while I was writing a ticket, or if I were to recognize the car as a friend's, I would rip it up, no question." Marshall adds that neither group stood to gain from the situation. "Ticketing wasn't going to help you make any friends. When you take a job like this, you have to expect you're going to be hated."

So reviled are parking officials that the six members of the Traffic Appeals Committee, sole recourse for the accused, requested that their names be withheld and descriptions be limited. "We could be targeted, you understand," said one.

All who are ticketed, no matter how severe the offense, get the chance to appeal. First, you must fill out the appeal form, which recommends that you "avoid the temptation to editorialize," though you may "draw a sketch" if you think it would help. On your assigned day, you get to take the stand in your own defense.

The stand is a chair at the head of a table in a dingy conference room with an orange carpet. One wall is adorned with an aerial photograph of the campus. You wait outside the door while, inside, the committee reviews your story. There is some snickering. Then, the woman who heads the committee says, "Come in." You come in and take the stand. "Do you have anything you want to add to your statement?"

On one particular day, Keith Sexton, a divinity student, was standing trial. "Do you have anything to add, Mr. Sexton?" Sexton had lots to add. "I have eight Polaroid pictures I would like to share with you today," he said. "But let me begin by saying that I parked in what appeared to be a space. The snow and ice covered the white line. If you would observe picture number three, you'll see that there was no cone in front of said area, while there was a cone in front of another space. Clearly, we have a case of cone inconsistency."

Sexton went on and on and finally: "I assert that I am innocent by incident of snow and ice." And just in case: "I am as sorry as I can be. I will never park there again."

The committee appeared unmoved. There was a pause and some whispering. And then the committee head stood up: "You said this happened on a Tuesday. Didn't it snow on a Friday?"