LARKSPUR, Calif. — Every weekday morning, Edward Robinson sees them, cruising slowly and ever-watchfully, like motorized land sharks in search of a meal.
Before dawn, they begin converging on the busy transit terminal here, these frustrated Marin County commuters in their Land Rovers and minivans--scouting out free parking spaces before hopping a high-speed ferry to jobs in San Francisco, a 30-minute ride away.
By 8 a.m., sometimes sooner, all 1,350 spots are filled, leaving nervous motorists with the devil's decision between two distant lots or risking a ticket by parking illegally along nearby streets.
Then the real tension starts.
"This place is a war zone every morning," says Robinson, a 50-year-old terminal assistant who supervises the parkers. "I've been threatened. People offer bribes; they tell lies. They beg. They'll run me over if I don't watch myself. Anything to get a parking space."
So Robinson engages in what he calls creative parking: directing cars to line up on sidewalks and even in red zones--those once-taboo places that in most communities would scream for a tow truck or a fat citation.
But this is the hyper-crowded Bay Area, a community bursting at the seams with too many vehicles with no place to park. Compared with Los Angeles, where freeways are jammed but parking is often easier to find--although at a price--cars often become a Bay Area liability.
In San Francisco, where waits for garage rental space can last two years and street parking is considered a cruel joke, police issue 100,000 tickets annually to residents with no other choice than to leave their cars on the sidewalk--often to find themselves boxed in later by other parking scofflaws.
But nowhere is the space crunch more pressing, officials say, than at the area's public transportation outlets. In a region that boasts a world-class alternative to driving--including ferries and commuter trains and the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway line that moves 335,000 commuters daily--the parking shortage is a weak link that many fear could soon create car chaos.
"There's no question parking is at a premium, especially in the early morning," said BART spokesman Mike Healy. "We could add 10,000 new spaces tonight, and they'd all be filled by tomorrow. We're desperately looking for answers."
With little room to create more expensive parking lots, transportation officials have been forced to get creative to meet the demand. Some are promoting neighborhood shuttles--even private van services--trying to persuade ferry and subway commuters to leave their cars at home.
Of BART's 42,000 parking spaces at its 39 stations, only 211 cost money--and all of them are at one station near downtown Oakland. The cost? Only 25 cents a day.
But that could soon change as the agency entertains deals with private parking companies to build new pay lots near its stations.
BART also has a carpool program that guarantees preferential parking spaces to vehicles with two or more passengers and allows bicycles on its subway cars during off-peak travel hours. The agency also wants to develop Smart Cards that can be used on most public transportation to encourage bus-subway links for commuters.
This month, Marin County officials introduced an idea even they admit sounds a bit wacky: off-site valet parking that includes lube jobs, carwashes and perhaps even dry-cleaning service to keep cars out of the crowded Larkspur ferry lot.
"This is a ginger step in the right direction," said David Clark, deputy general manager of the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District. "Through valets, we're looking to take a few cars out of the mix. But this is a major headache that won't be solved overnight."
The growing shortage has led some Bay Area commuters to reconsider their long-held view of subways and ferries as a less-stressful way to get to work in one of the nation's most traffic-clogged cities.
By taking public transit, East Bay commuters avoid the long lines and daily bottleneck at the Bay Bridge, which clogs with hundreds of thousands of cars and often backs up for hours.
"These daily parking nightmares at the transit stations have changed the whole atmosphere of going into the city," said Marin County resident Janie Reimemund as she waited for a San Francisco-bound ferry. "It's not the fun or efficient thing it used to be. It's just stressful. But I guess it's still better than taking the freeway."
Don't tell that to the weary commuters who must park a mile from the Vallejo park-and-ride lot. After the long hike to the transit lot in the working-class community northeast of San Francisco, they board a bus to the nearest subway station a dozen miles away for the last leg of their marathon commute into the city.
"People get up earlier just to get a parking space--as early as 5:30 a.m.," Healy said. "They park illegally and consider the $25 ticket the price of commuting."