Parking Madness: Portland vs. El Cerrito, California

The contenders in today’s Parking Madness competition prove parking craters can happen anywhere, even in progressive metro areas where the regional economy is booming and transit is a solid travel option.

This face-off to get one step closer to the Golden Crater pits Portland, Oregon, against El Cerrito, California.

First let’s take a look at bike-friendly Portland:


Minus 50 points for proximity to a MAX light rail station.

Reader Byron Palmer submitted this photo, which shows where the Morrison Bridge — one of Portland’s most heavily used — empties into the city. The heavy traffic and highway-like design depress land values and lead to low-value uses like surface parking. Who would want to have lunch, or take a walk, in that area?

“Part of the problem,” adds Palmer, “is that for many owners it is cheaper to tear down the building and have parking than to pay taxes, and they are waiting for the economy to improve before selling.”

Our next contender is El Cerrito, California, a San Francisco suburb located north of Berkeley.


This location was one in a series sent to us by the anonymous author of Systemic Failure, who goes by the pen name “Drunk Engineer.” All of the photos were of parking craters at Bay Area Rapid Transit stations. You can see the line and the station highlighted in red.

“Almost every one of its suburban stations is a parking crater,” Drunk Engineer says of BART. “The surrounding properties are generally auto-centric as well.”


Which of these eyesores deserves to advance to round two? Vote below!

Which city has the worst parking crater?

  • El Cerrito (64%, 236 Votes)
  • Portland (36%, 133 Votes)

Total Voters: 368

  • PandaMomentum

    El Cerrito Plaza is an eyesore but would note that as a kid I rode my bike to and around that location hundreds of times — beneath the elevated BART tracks is a rails-to-trails walk/bike path that is heavily used (

  • Amy

    This is absolutely nuts. El Cerrito is one of the most transit-friendly, low-parking suburbs in all of California. Yes, El Cerrito Plaza has a lot of parking, but at least it is next to a major transit hub, and a lot of people use transit to go there, or park there and then take transit.

    If the parking lot pictured here, which is at a transit hub that features a BART station, a bus station, and a dedicated bike/walk path, counts as one of the top 16 “parking craters” in the nation, that seems like transit absolutism that does nothing but detract from the cause that you purport to champion.

    Has the person who submitted El Cerrito ever been to suburban Texas? Have the writers and editors who declared El Cerrito as one of the 16 worst parking craters in America ever been outside a densely populated city center?

    I’m not an urban planner or transit enthusiast, just a normal consumer of news who came across this site at random via twitter. Does the transit and urban planning community really believe that “park and ride” parking lots next to public transit hubs are a vile bane on society?

  • Paul

    “Does the transit and urban planning community really believe that “park and ride” parking lots next to public transit hubs are a vile bane on society?”

    Well, if the alternative is to have a transit hub more like a city/town center with shopping, living, & working amenities, then yes.

  • J

    One of the major advantages of major transit station is that they support dense, walkable, urban living. You can think if each mass transit station as a mini-downtown. Instead of a downtown, though, here you have a huge parking lot. So yes, big parking lots near transit stations are a huge waste of space and a drain on what could and should be one of the more liveable areas of a city. Just think of how many people could live and work there and compare that to how many cars are stored there instead.

  • Aaron Priven

    I don’t think that’s the worst parking crater in El Cerrito, much less in the nation. I agree with J that metro stations should be surrounded by walkable areas and not by parking. But I was surprised to see that it’s this station, rather than El Cerrito del Norte, that was listed. ECDN has more station parking and similar big box stores surrounding it — without even the one street wall along Fairmount Avenue that gives just a smidge of urban vitality to the area around the plaza. And El Cerrito del Norte is a much more important regional transit hub, with lots of different bus agencies coming together (Golden Gate, FAST, SolTrans, WestCAT), from all over the North Bay.

    Having said that, at one point the Prince of Wales Institute came to town and planned all kinds of great improvements for El Cerrito Plaza. Unfortunately, they went nowhere, which is a shame. ( One article is ) El Cerrito Plaza would definitely be a good place to re-establish the street grid and build some walkable development.

  • LAifer

    I totally get your perspective on El Cerrito, having lived in the Bay Area for years. And, given the other contenders for the “Golden Crater,” it does seem a bit ridiculous to include El Cerrito on this list.

    That said, BART has a responsibility to the communities it serves to encourage TOD on the land that it owns. It has moved in that direction around stations like Fruitvale, Pleasanton, and Oakland Coliseum. That’s encouraging. And it needs to continue to do this.

    Frankly, the surface parking lots are not only a waste of space, they’re also a huge subsidy to park-and-ride users of BART paid for by everyone in the BART system, regardless of whether or not they drive to BART. Given BART’s original design, as a commuter rail system, it made sense once upon a time. But it doesn’t make sense in 2014.

    You know land in the Bay Area ain’t cheap, and just think about the value of all that land being used for the sole purpose of storing cars, primarily during only half the day, and primarily just on weekdays. Yes, El Cerrito is a bikable, walkable community, which is more than most of the other contenders in this “competition” could claim, but the large parking craters still exist and, particularly in the case of El Cerrito, you’d expect land economics to push toward better use of this space.

  • EastBayer

    El Cerrito is a bikable, walkable community? My goodness, I hope not.

    It’s a disaster. Seas and seas of strip malls and parking. Every intersection has a long left-turn cycle, probably with double-stacked left turn lanes. It even has an adult helmet law! All things considered, it’s probably the worst place in the East Bay, especially since next-door Albany shows what might have been. And El Cerrito Plaza is its crown jewel…

    On the plus side, the guys pulling donuts in all the unused parking spaces at night seem to like it. Been looking forward to voting on this pairing…

  • What do you all think, should it be illegal to double park in a bike lane? Or is it already… we see it so much here in nyc it’s certainly not enforced. – Jack

  • Amy

    But this contest isn’t, “which would be better, a transit hub with a parking lot, or a transit hub like a city/town center?,” it is “which is the worst parking crater in America?” You honestly believe the parking crater at El Cerrito Plaza is one of the top 16 worst parking craters in America?

    I’m still flabbergasted that a parking crater at a suburban transit hub is in the running for the worst parking crater in America. If this is really what urban planners are wringing your hands over then we’re all screwed.

  • Aaron Priven

    “worst in the East Bay” — I invite you to Fremont sometime.

  • Paul

    I think you need to take another look at why you’re asking this question. Hints: parking craters, mass transit hubs…parking craters, mass transit hubs.

  • Amy

    If you don’t think El Cerrito is bikable and walkable you need to get out of the Bay Area for a while and see how most of the country lives. What a spoiled, entitled attitude to look down your nose at a community that has 2 BART stations, ample bus connectivity, and a dedicated walk/bike trail. Wake up, the vast majority of the country has little or no transit, no bike lanes, not even contiguous sidewalks.

    On top of that, El Cerrito is far from the worst place for biking and walking in the East Bay. Try Pinole, El Sobrante, North Richmond (around the Rose the Riveter monument), Castro Valley, Union City, Hayward.

  • Amy

    I have no idea what point you’re trying to make with your “hints.”

    My impression is that this “parking crater” contest is intended to encourage debate about auto-centric land use in cities, and encourage transit and transit-oriented development. So it seems counter-productive to use this as an opportunity to attack a transit hub of any kind, even one that includes a parking lot.

    There are probably hundreds of thousands of ugly parking craters across America that are not next to public transit hubs–because most of America has strip malls and big box stores, not public transit hubs!

  • EastBayer

    The fact that El Cerrito has all of those things and yet STILL manages not to be walkable or bikable is precisely the point.

    Fremont, Pinole, etc, don’t really feel like fair comparisons. Albany, Richmond, and Berkeley are, however, and that’s the context that makes it so obvious why this parking crater is such a tragedy. Because of what it could have been.

  • david vartanoff

    So if Portland gets a 50 point handicap for a Max station where is the one for BART. As it happens I came through there Wednesday. Arrived by bus (BRT Lite along San Pablo Ave), shopped @ a food store (1 0f 2), then walked to the BART station where I caught a local bus to my next errand location.
    There was a proposal to build some further housing on the SE corner of the parking lot–seems to have gone nowhere. And the crater hosts a farmers’ market Tuesdays and Saturdays.
    As for ECDN, as Aaron points out it is a major transit hub with an ugly multistory parking structure, but over the last 2 decades town houses, and apartments have been built close by allowing walking commutes to BART and the recently opened Safeway just south of the station.

  • BBnet3000

    Yep. As someone who is no real fan of El Cerrito plaza (and who reads the blog of the person who submitted it), I kind of want to jump in here to defend it. Theres so much worse stuff in the Bay Area. Oakland Coliseum or anything off Hegenberger Road by OAK airport anyone?

  • david vartanoff

    So back in the 70s I used to bike from North Oakland to a dairy on San Pablo halfway between the BART stations. The bikeway/walkway under the BART el was a lovely route for much of the distance. Of, course the steep roads up into the hills are a different issue, but the flatter sections are fine.

  • Wanderer

    It seems to me that if you ask the question “Where is the parking crater most destructive?” you’ve got to answer that it’s in the city centers. What’s sad about the Portland site (which I’ve been to) is that on the other side of Downtown, Portland has largely avoided/erased the parking crater which often exists between Downtown and inner ring neighborhoods. El Cerrito is bad, but there are plenty of these along BART and, I’d bet along WMATA in metro Washington and MARTA in Metro Atlanta.

  • Alexander Craghead

    >>“Part of the problem,” adds Palmer, “is that for many owners it is cheaper to tear down the building and have parking than to pay taxes, and they are waiting for the economy to improve before selling.”

    Um, no. The problem is that the bridge wiped out huge swaths of structures more than half a century ago, and the remainder were torn down in the dark days of the mid 20th century when that section of town was viewed as “skid row” and a future urban renewal 100% clearance zone. The use of that space for parking has more to do with the extreme difficulty of developing in this oddly-cut-up space.

  • Len Conly

    Unfortunately, the El Cerrito BART station was not run underground when it was built so that people could enter and leave from the center of the Plaza. At present the Plaza is very unfriendly to transit riders: there is no convenient pedestrian access to the Plaza from the BART station; the buses stop a long way from the shops (why don’t the bus lines run through the Plaza). I call the Plaza the El Cerrito Parking Lot – it’s quite unfriendly to pedestrians. At least at Hilltop Mall, when you’re in the shopping area, there’s no need to navigate through a sea of cars every time you want to go to a different store – the shops are clustered together in one walkable area.

  • Len Conly

    Thanks for the link to the Chronicle article about the Prince of Wales Institute presentation. (

    I’ve heard about this over the years, but have been unable to find anything like this article. It could be urban legend, but I’ve been told that the presenters were booed off the stage when they appeared in El Cerrito. It all sounds so sensible now.

  • Len Conly

    Cars just don’t mix with pedestrians, transit, and bicycles. We have designed our transportation system around the car – walking, biking, and buses are an afterthought. It’s quite unpleasant to walk or bike around El Cerrito Plaza – you’re clearly meant to arrive by car. Only the intrepid use the bus to shop at the Plaza. The 72 bus lines, which stops at the BART station, are over at least a 3/4 mile from the center of the Plaza. it’s a long walk from the bus stops at Carlson and San Pablo to the shops at the Plaza. There’s also no bus stop between the Carlson and San Pablo bus stops and the BART station – a walking distance of almost a mile.

  • Sanfordia113

    “El Cerrito BART was designed around the car…” because it serves low-density suburbs. This is exactly how it should be. Just that in the future, developers should be forced to put all parking underground/below grade.

  • Sanfordia113

    Isn’t El Cerrito Auto Mall the car sales capital of the Bay Area?

  • Nathanael

    Personally, I think BART Ashby is the worst of the BART parking craters. The crater exists *solely* as a BART Parking Lot. The surrounding area is quite built up with very tightly packed little houses, and would probably build up further very quickly, if *permitted to*. Buses extend in all directions. For this lot, the price to park… is $2/day.

  • Nathanael

    It’s not that it’s a particularly egregious crater. It’s the context which makes it such a gross waste of property.

    BART is a case where BART policy is actively preventing urbanization around the stations.

  • Nathanael

    Isn’t it interesting that everyone’s reaction is “The Bay Area has worse than that!”

  • Charles_Siegel

    I was following that process in El Cerrito, and I had a friend on the El Cerrito planning commission at the time.

    I think the problem was that El Cerrito insisted on getting a single developer for the entire El Cerrito Plaza. The developer they got couldn’t afford to build anything more than another shopping mall in a parking lot.

    They would have done much better if they had defined a street grid in the plaza and had adopted a form-based code for it. Then they could have gotten a large number of developers to gradually fill it in with pedestrian-oriented development.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I attended several presentations in El Cerrito about New Urbanism around this time, and the audience generally was very sympathetic.

    There was a minority of angry NIMBYs who might have booed these planners. I don’t know. But the majority liked the idea of Traditional Neighborhood Development. They just could not find a developer who could afford to do it.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    I just learned about this one in Manhattan!
    If it hasn’t been built by next year, it should definitely be in contention. Not that it’s a particularly huge or awful parking crater, but it’s in Manhattan, and has been kept vacant by NIMBYs for 47 years!

  • david vartanoff

    Using google maps the entire Plaza appears to be 1200′ x 1200′ feet 4x 4 city blocks. Thus the extreme distance from the BART station to the furthest point is more like 1/2 mile The real mistake by BART (in their long list) was not putting the station directly adjacent the Plaza.

  • david vartanoff

    Have a look again. The Ed Roberts center which houses many disability service groups (Ed was IINM the first seriously disabled student to attend UC Berkeley) has now taken the east side of Adeline and most of the parking lot. Getting rid of the open air fencing operation known as the Ashby Flea Market will be harder. For perspective one needs to remember that BART was a proud participant in “urban renewal” which in fact was used to destroy many African-American ‘hoods–South Berkeley was only one.

  • BBnet3000

    A suburb that is doing better than most should be commended, even as it should be pushed to improve more given its potential. Its a hard balance. Yes, they should be criticized for having this shitty shopping center instead of a real downtown, but i dont actually think this qualifies as a parking crater like the rest.

  • ComradeFrana

    “along WMATA in metro Washington”

    The thing is that in Washington the park and ride stations are usually in places with suburban street layout, where any sort of TOD would be inherently difficult. On the other hand the areas around stations in more grid-ish part of city are pretty well developed (just look at aerial maps of Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rosslyn-Ballston).

    In El Cerrito and other similar BART stations, there’s the grid yet no development. It can be quite disheartening to see the wasted potential of these stations in comparison.

  • David D.

    Actually, the station was placed directly east of downtown, which is anchored by the Cerrito Theater. Downtown El Cerrito is between the same blocks as the station, extending from the edge of the parking lot to the top of the photo.

  • David D.

    El Cerrito is a transit-friendly, bikeable, walkable community. It has an excellent bike trail network, wide sidewalks with forward-thinking runoff catchments, a heavy rail line with two stations (despite its small size!), and a series of frequent bus routes (including one BRT line).

    Is El Cerrito perfect? No. Its commercial areas (El Cerrito Plaza, pictured, and especially surrounding Del Norte BART) were designed and built when car was king, but otherwise it’s pretty darned good for a suburb. It sounds like you haven’t spent much time there or in other suburbs–most of which really are hostile to anything but cars.

  • David D.

    I am not sure why you are picking on El Cerrito here. Despite the presence of a car-focused suburban shopping center in its downtown area, the area is still a great place to be a pedestrian, bicyclist, or transit user–especially considering the competition. One of the best multiuse trails in the Bay Area runs along the BART tracks, there is another trail along the creek, San Pablo Avenue has wide sidewalks with bike racks and environmentally responsible drainage, there is a BART station there, and there is a BRT-lite line on San Pablo as well.

    Should El Cerrito Plaza be replaced by a development that respects the area’s traditional street grid? Sure! But even the existing shopping center has a better-than-average network of sidewalks. Why not pick on Fremont or Walnut Creek instead? If only they could be as forward-thinking as El Cerrito near their BART stations.

  • Sanfordia113

    Actually, I live in SF, and I much prefer to have suburbanites park their cars at BART parking lots and using public transit to commute to the city, than driving into SF. That is how BART was envisioned, and how it is used. Stop trying to build up the density of the entire Bay Area. Keep development focused on the areas between OAK and SJC, as well as in San Francisco and South City. Everywhere else should decrease density, not increase… perhaps Mountain View, Palo Alto and similar places along El Camino Real could densify, but otherwise, keep these areas with vegetation as is, not removing more trees and farmland.

  • berkeleygirl

    As someone who grew up going to El Cerrito Plaza, and one who was in high school when BART opened, I second that sentiment. What the article fails to mention is that the lot serves as a transit hub for many people who’d otherwise drive to their jobs in San Francisco. With AC Transit cutbacks, there are far fewer transbay bus alternatives.

    Most of all, the photo doesn’t show is that El Cerrito Plaza sits at the bottom of some fairly steep hills. (I speak from experience.) The idea of biking to/from BART from the El Cerrito/Kensington hills can be formidable for all but seasoned cyclists, especially in inclement weather.

  • ComradeFrana

    “keep these areas with vegetation as is, not removing more trees and farmland.”

    cars in parking lots aren’t vegetation

  • ComradeFrana

    “This is exactly how it should be.”

    If your goal is rapid transit with low ridership and low return on infrastructure.

  • Sanfordia113

    No, and parking lots should be undergrounded with either buildings or parkland above. However, most of the sleepy suburbs between Fort Bragg and Salinas are mostly landscaping and nature, despite being carved up in a 1950’s cartopia society. Pro-growth/urban planners/SPUR/ABAG folks want to turn the entire 9 county region into a medium density concrete jungle. I say increase density on the existing concrete farms, and preserve vegetation-rich development (natural or manicured) as is.

  • Wanderer

    Actually, El Cerrito Plaza’s current state serves as a warning about the dangers of utopianism. Prince Charles and his institute came in and produced a utopian, unbuildable plan for rebuilding the shopping center. The city government became so panicked that nothing would get built that it wound up approving a more autocentric plan than the pre-existing plan. They created a center where people drive from one part to another, which hadn’t been done before. Not there aren’t plenty of other horrorshows throughout the BART system, like Serramonte Shopping Center in San Bruno.

  • berkeleygirl

    You have to take into context that El Cerrito Plaza is as old as I am – we’ll both be 56 this year. In fact, I remember when Hilltop Mall opened. (It was the final nail in the coffin for downtown Richmond.) At the time, it was the standard.

    Again, having spent much of the first three decades of my life around El Cerrito Plaza, I never found it inconvenient. If I’d driven, I found it far more comfortable than the vast Hilltop Mall, where I always had to take care to remember exactly where I parked my car. At the same time, I often preferred to ride my bike from home – first, in Richmond; later, close to the del Norte BART station – made easy by the wonderful bike path which was created along the BART tracks when they were built.

  • berkeleygirl

    But there are many parks and, along the BART tracks, a wonderful bike/walk trail… If memory serves, you won’t find nearly as many near BART around Hayward/Union City/Fremont or Walnut Creek/Concord. If you’re truly concerned about parking craters, head out to those parts of the Bay Area. El Cerrito is far better served by transit options than Central Contra Costa county and is far friendlier to those who prefer two feet or two wheels.

  • berkeleygirl

    When BART opened in the early 1970s, Richmond was still served by a transbay bus route. The del Norte station as seen as one that served not only El Cerrito, but commuters on I-80 who’d otherwise travel across the Bridge – most specifically those in Pinole/El Sobrante.

    Sadly, the Richmond station location was always problematic. Located in a low-income neighborhood, more prone to crime, it had less use. There simply was nothing around it. By the time BART opened, downtown Richmond was one mall (Hilltop) away from being a ghost town. Businesses had already pretty much abandoned most of Richmond.

  • berkeleygirl
  • poncho

    Cafe Unknown, a great blog about Portland history has a whole post about this Portland site and what was lost:

    Two items to share about the Portland site…

    How much worse it looked in the 1960s:

    And to add insult to injury, right in the heart of this very location is this longtime giant billboard for a car dealership has two married cars and says “for the love of cars”

  • PDX_foodie

    The area in Portland is slated to become a hotel and a public market that is breaking ground in 2016: market

  • Len Conly

    Why doesn’t BART charge the going rate for parking in their lots? If the lot is filled at $2/day, raise the rate until there are vacant spaces left.


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