The Two Percent

by Gary Gordon

A humorous column related to my job in Santa Monica, and the universal problem of parking.

At the first meeting of the new Downtown Parking Task Force, a city staff person mentioned the following statistic: Of Santa Monica residents surveyed as to how they got downtown (car, bus, walking, bike), 2% said they didn't know.

Many people laughed, but this is serious.


Okay, I know. In the larger realm of important issues, parking does not rank high. A sound dollar, public education, Mideast Peace, a tasty chocolate chip cookie, taking the pennant away from the Yankees forever; all of these have much more importance.

But parking is a concern to many throughout America, and Santa Monica is no exception.

And parking is probably a good subject for a column.

But I'd like to take the hard way out and write about an exceedingly less important topic.

I'd like to focus on the 2% who didn't know how they got downtown.

It would be easy to write off these folks, to say 2% doesn't matter, to say since we know how 98% got there (2/3 by car, 8% by bus, almost 20% walked), it's just not statistically important to know about that 2%.

The thing is, this is America. And you never know what or where the next trend is gonna be. What if, looking back at previous research, only 1% or even 0% didn't know how they got there? If that were the case, then we might exclaim "My God! The number of people who don't know how they got downtown has doubled in the last year!"

And what if next year 3% say they don't know how they got there? Remember, lines that go up on charts mean something.

This kind of thing calls for everything from a philosophy to a contingency plan. And by all accounts, time is of the essence!

Philosophically, our culture has placed a great value on origin myths. Knowing how we got here is of primary importance. Judeo-Christian stories take the lead, and speak of a time when there were no committees and things got done in seven days. Others believe humans are the result of the long, torturous journeys taken by DNA. Others have stories involving volcanoes, flowers or large birds whose names are short on vowels. The relevant point here is most people know or believe they know how they got here.

Geographically and historically the same applies. Some people believe their ancestors originated here, or journeyed here across land formations that are now sunken under water, or came by boat.

If only the 2% had said "boat" instead of "I don't know."

We have taken the attitude, as part of our identity, that we know who we are and how we came to be where we are, so much so that 98% of the people were able to respond with a presumed high degree of accuracy that they knew precisely how they got downtown.

But it's important, probably-- well, at least maybe-- to understand that knowing how they got downtown may be just as important to the 2% who didn't know as it was to the 98% who did. It's just... they don't know.

It would be easy if these people had amnesia. Too easy. Like a cheap film loaded with hard-fisted private eyes, watered-down booze, scantily-dressed chorus girls, dreary flophouses, fast car chases, soundtracks with lots of eighth notes, and blurry lenses that signify flashbacks to a more innocent time. So let's rule that out.

It would be easy to assume that these 2% are made up of folks that, well, you wouldn't want your daughter to marry. But absolutely no information was presented to warrant this assumption. So let's take the high road and presume you would want your daughter to marry one of these people. Okay, sure, they may lose their way to the Church or forget the ring or forget why they're there, but remember, marriage is give and take.

So, your daughter has married one of these folks, and you're worried, trying to figure out what the relevance is of concentrating on this seemingly small but growing percentage of people.

Of what importance is this 2%? Why the alarm?

Here's the thing. Suppose you're an urban planner. Suddenly you see a growing trend: people are downtown and they don't know how they got there.

How do you plan for that? Do you widen roads or increase pedestrian walkways? Do you build parking structures or buy buses hand over fist?

You see the problem.

It's no longer enough to plan for the 2/3 who are driving and having difficulty finding parking where there isn't enough parking, it's no longer enough to improve public transit in the hopes that more people will use it; now you've to plan for the growing number of folks who can't account for their presence.

But wait, you might say, it's only a presumption that the figure 2% is up from a previous year or that it will go up again. What if it's down from a previous year? What if the figure used to be 5% or 6%?

Well, if it used to be higher and did go down, the question must be asked, why did it go down? And what's to stop it from going up again?

The fact is, 2% is significant. 2% milk is milk. 2% blood alcohol content is enough to do damage, unless you're running for President.

Clearly this 2%, even if it simply remains constant, must be taken into account.

That is why any proposals for solving the downtown parking problem must not only include a realistic employee parking plan, a significant number of additional parking spaces, reinforcement of pedestrian practices, and a continuing commitment to public transit, they must also include a heli-pad, a railroad hand-car, some hitching posts, a Stargate, a transporter room, a harbor, a space-dock, and the periodic participation of Robert Stack, Carlos Castenada, and John Edwards.

And, perhaps, the next time a survey is conducted, it will be necessary to hire additional people so that when someone says they don't know how they got there, they can be followed and we'll know how they left.