Parking Adventures in Warsaw
The last time I saw my birth city Warsaw was over 27 years ago. I was a kid back then who was much more interested in my skate board, fashion, soccer and most of all, getting out from the prison of Communism and moving abroad. In those days, neither driving nor parking occupied even a sliver of my mind. I was one of the privileged children whose parents owned a large high-rise apartment and two cars.
Most of my friends’ families didn’t own a car. The owners of even a meager Russian Lada or the East German cardboard Trabant, were the chosen few. Most people in Warsaw took public transport. Street cars, (tramwaje,) were the most popular way of getting around. They were safe, cheap, easy and ran across the entire city.
I don’t remember ever seeing a meter or an underground parking garage in Warsaw. Our 12 story building had an outdoor parking lot. The parking was located next to the community gardens. Not only were the gardens much larger than the parking lot, there were many more cucumbers basking in the summer sun than cars. The lot had space for about 20 cars. The apartment building had 72 units. On any given day, no more than eight cars filled in their spaces.
After almost 30 years away, I was excited about my trip to Warsaw University and couldn’t wait to sit in Lazienki (Baths) Park and listen to Chopin Concertos. I was eager to venture to the Old Town and visit some of my favorite churches. I was thrilled to take in a play in Warsaw’s National Theater, the very place where my mom used to drag me to transform me into a lover of arts. (By the way, Shakespeare in Polish simply doesn’t work. They should just stick with all those Slavic playwrights like Mickiewicz.)
Each experience reconnected me with my heritage and made me fall in love with the city all over again. Every thing except parking. Lets face it: Parking in Warsaw sucks! Yes, those blissful cucumbers and emerald green lettuces of my childhood are long gone. And no, they didn’t just “paved paradise and put a parking lot” as Joni Mitchell sings, they simply put up more high-rises. High rises that don’t have garages or parking lots. So where is a person to park in Warsaw?
After the communism collapsed in 1989 and Poland quickly became a free market economy, the unavoidable happened: Poland became a car culture. Currently, Warsaw is the 9th largest city in Europe with the metropolitan area of over 2,300 square miles (200 in the city proper) and a population of almost 3 million. In the late 90’s Poland had the highest demand for new cars in all of Europe.
These days, despite higher interest rates and slower economy, the demand is still high, the roads narrow, in bad shape and parking limited or often nonexistent. Still, as a grown up in this “phoenix city” of my childhood (Warsaw has risen from the ashes of World War II and rebuilt the majority of its historic buildings), I wanted to experience it all for myself.
My cousin graciously loaned me her Opel but insisted on accompanying me on my adventure. She explained that because she lives in a communist era building, she has to park almost half a mile away from her apartment. No wonder the majority of Warsaw women are so svelte; they walk for miles in stilettos.
The parking lot she used was an outdoor one. Fenced and with 24 hour guard on duty. Security is extremely important since breaking in and vandalism of cars are a daily occurrence. The monthly cost is 180 PLN/zl ($60).
I noticed that the new developments with their western style apartments do have underground garages. Nevertheless, larger part of the city was built in the era where cars nor parking were a part of daily MO. My cousin insisted that I experience some Polish parking insanity. Its perfect example was her work place, Ministerstwo Sprawiedliwosci which means Ministry of Fairness. That is the Ministry that handles various traffic violations including some parking tickets.
Some, because Warsaw has three parking enforcing organizations: Parking, Municipal and the National Police. Communism might be resting peacefully with Stalin, yet, bureaucracy is alive and well. My cousin emphasized that although she is a lawyer, parking laws baffle her.
Next to the Ministry is a huge parking lot. It is an empty lot. For some reason the ministry and the private company that runs it cannot reach an agreement to keep it open. Subsequently, most of the employees or folks trying to find “fairness” in their legal matters park on the sidewalks. The sidewalks are packed and the cars are issued parking tickets (mandaty) daily. Most don’t care about those tickets because they are myriad loopholes to get out of paying them.
One is that “any correspondence” left under the windshield wipers is invalid. They must be handed to the driver or mailed to the owner. The parking enforcement often takes photos of the car however, the owner of the vehicle can question either the date of the ticket or deny driving the car that day. Considering that some parking tickets are issued to cars parked at a pedestrian crossing which didn’t exist at 8 am when the car was originally parked but was painted at 2 PM, the driver usually carries his camera phone and takes a snapshot to verify his innocence. The average parking ticket is about $60.
Our next stop is the New Town of Warsaw. Shops, offices, cafes, hotels and residential buildings pepper the area. July 1st brought on an installation of hundreds of pay stations. The leading Warsaw Newspaper reported that residents of the area can purchase monthly permit cards at under $10, 30 zl a month. Nevertheless, the article was on a back page and went unnoticed. Also, there was a waiting period of 7 days and a need for the proofs of residency, registration and ownership of the car. Subsequently, most people ignore the need for those parking permits and chance not getting a ticket or throwing it away.
I questioned my cousin about the ethics of Polish people. She said that most believe that since the government is still corrupted and basically thieving, that allows the people to practice dishonesty. I can see that after decades of Russian occupation, folks see the government as nothing but a bunch of crooks. There is a deep distrust of any government officials and police. The later being the unequivocal enemy.
The end of our day brought me into the picturesque Old Town Warsaw. My cousin informs me we must drive first to the Theater Square. I am excited because I spent many evenings in Warsaw’s National Theater as a child. That is where I fell in love with Chekhov. She explains that our trip to the square isn’t for sightseeing but to park.
The Theater Square lot has a large underground parking that is safe and not too expensive, at 75 cents an hour. From there we can hop on a trolley and be in the Old Town in no time. Parking in Old Town is non existent.
I ask my cousin where the shopkeepers and the residents park. She shrugs her shoulders and says that they don’t. I mention that in New York parking is tough also. She says, Warsaw isn’t New York; it is the city filled with ghosts of Uncle Vanya but all the Cherry Trees are gone. And not because they “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” They simply never grasped that for this new economy and this young car culture to thrive, there has to be some parking infrastructure.
Upon returning home with wonderful Polish memories, I realize that the parking meter has just celebrated its 75th birthday. I used to think the meter was one ugly dude. After my Warsaw trip and after realizing how precious, elegant and easy it is, I am ready to give it a cake and celebrate its anniversary by feeding it some quarters. Free at last to park as I please.
Astrid Ambroziak writes periodically for Parking World. She can be reached at Astrid@parkingworld.com.