Navigating the rat race 

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I've quipped in the past about having left the rat race in Toronto to race with a better breed of rats in Whistler. Some days though, I wonder...

One of the better aspects of having ping-ponged around the humanities in university for so many years — though not better enough to offset the student loans that took a decade to repay — was some of the bits of trivia that pop into my head every now and then.

One long dormant bit of trivia that recently came to mind was the concept of behavioural sink. I'm sure I filed it away because it had something to do with the ultimate destruction of humanity, a subject dear to my heart.

Behavioural sink is the name John Calhoun coined to describe the breakdown in social norms of behaviour as a result of overcrowding. Naturally, Dr. Calhoun wasn't allowed to experiment on humans — more is the pity — and did his early research on Norway rats, which, given the current state of humanity, seem more and more to be an apt stand-in for humans, particularly those with orange hair who happen to be president of the U.S., and his Greek chorus of wilfully blind followers. Later research was conducted on mice.

In his experiments, space was the only limiting variable. The rats and mice had ample amounts of food and water. There were no predators. In the presence of abundance and absence of predators, the rats and mice did what they do best — breed. Populations increased, though they never reached the theoretical maximum for the amount of space available because their society broke down. Mama rodents stopped caring for their young, there were increases in both aggressive and passive behaviours, a decline in courtship and breeding and, after peaking, populations declined precipitously toward extinction.

Calhoun concluded, extrapolating to human populations, that in a social grouping, when available space is taken and normative social roles filled, competition and stress result in social breakdown and the demise of the population. This, he postulated, was the trajectory mankind was following.

Maybe yes; maybe no. But if the current social unrest in Tiny Town is any indication, he may be on to something. As Harold Hill might have said —The Music Man, if you're wondering — Friend, either you're closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge or you are not aware of the calibre of disaster indicated by the Son of Pay Parking in your community. Well, ya got trouble, my friend, right here, I say, trouble right here in Tiny Town. With a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for... you know.

The social media hills are alive with the sound of whinging and bitching and moaning. Last musical allusion, I promise. You'd think this was all a grand conspiracy of council, staff and rich bastards to Destroy Our Community if you spent much time reading the rantings of the dozen or so posters. Of course, you'd also think it was the end of spelling and grammar as well. And I'm guessing that's closer to the truth.

Pay parking is never going to win friends, except perhaps among those who don't own cars. The municipality wraps their efforts up in promises of increased transit, free transit on weekends, low rates — too low to really dissuade people from driving — and less congestion on the highway.

That may be the case. But as crazy as it sounds, there was nothing going on in Whistler last weekend. No festival, no event, still lots of animation, and still lots and lots and lots of visitors all vying for parking. As few or none of them knew, they were searching for the plentiful... in the wrong place!

By noon on Sunday, the day skier lots were full. People circled and circled, windows up, A/C blasting, vainly searching for that one overlooked slot, hoping they'd chance on someone leaving. Others, having presumably grown tired of circling, simply waited, stationary, idling, enjoying their A/C, hoping they'd see someone leave and slip into the spot before someone else. Lot rage simmered just below the boiling point. Behaviour was sinking.

Walking through the lots, I found this amusing. And frustrating. Full lots, no event to hang it on, few locals — most of whom had biked or bussed in — and hundreds of empty, shaded, cool parking spaces just across the street. Underground. Unknown. Poorly signed.

When the municipality held their transportation open house last winter, many folks attended. We were told there were more than enough parking spots in Whistler. But part of the problem was no one knew about them. Or they were too inconvenient. So armed with knowledge, the Transportation Advisory Group and muni went to work on the problem. What we ended up with — and I'll excuse TAG from most of what follows since, as per history, many of their recommendations were acknowledged but not taken up — is what we currently have. Pay parking and no end in sight to the problem of too many cars trying to squeeze into too few spaces while too many spaces sit empty.

Signs on the highway last weekend directed people to turn right on Lorimer road and head for lots 4 and 5. Which filled up pretty quick. No signs mentioned the alternative. And the signs that do exist for all those underground spaces are either obscured, obscure, confusing and/or incomplete.

Assuming you can find the sign for the ramp leading underground between MY Place and muni hall, you have to look carefully and read quickly to catch the "Public Parking" message. If you are one of the very few who parked down there last weekend you had your choice of spots, shaded and cool for $15 for the day. Five bucks more than lots 1, 2, and 3. With so many people willing to pay for parking but not finding it, why weren't they clued in?

If you want the answer to that question, next time you're headed under the pedestrian overpass on Village Gate Boulevard look to your right. See the entrance to the underground parking? See the sign? Public or private? Confusing, eh? Now imagine you're a tourist/visitor.

With all the dough we've spent on wayfinding signage, all the dough squandered on Gateway Loop, all the social unrest around pay parking, all the pissed-off people wondering why buses are now parking in their frontage, all the folks threatening to boycott Marketplace because they can only have one hour of free parking, not two — why with all of that can't we seem to direct people to underutilized parking space? Sure, there's a public/private interface required since those aren't muni lots, but there's revenue being missed and, more importantly, people being pissed off for no good reason.

We're better than that... aren't we?

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