Magazine

Notes from Big Ben …

Musings From the Scepter’d Isle

By Peter Guest

My friend Bob writes me letters, on paper, puts them in a stamped envelope and mails them; he doesn’t do electronic correspondence, apart from phones. He is older than me, but since in his youth he was chairman of one of the world’s biggest investment companies, I guess he’s working with the “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” model.
Me, I am supposed to be techno-savvy, but I don’t understand the Internet and all its machinations. I am too old, and it’s too complex.
Take “Facebook,” for example. Some time ago, someone told me that I could track down a friend living overseas using Facebook. I “Googled” Facebook – there’s another one – and got on to a website that allowed me to trace my friend. Trouble was, I got onto the site only because my daughter had been on my PC, and she got pretty mad when my friend tried to contact me via her connection. (No, didn’t ask to use my PC, but I was in the wrong – goes with the territory.)
Anyway, my daughter “signed me up” to Facebook, and now I am apparently able to talk online to the world. Or not, because I should be doing that via LinkedIn, to which I have also managed to get registered/enrolled or signed up. I am not quite sure how. But it seems a pretty daft thing, because I have more than one e-mail address, and it seems that every time one of my friends wants to be linked to me via this system, if they don’t use the “right” e-mail address, it blocks them.
I can’t deal with this, so for anyone out there who thinks I am snubbing them: It’s not me, it’s the bloody system.
Recently, I asked someone for a copy of a presentation I had seen them make; they gave me a link to yet another website where I could download the required PowerPoint file. Doing this apparently linked me to another network called Spludge or something, and next thing I get an e-mail from a friend who wants to be my Spludge buddy. The weird thing is that this was the very person I tried to track down six months ago; go figure.
Learning English
Customer service is all important when you run an airport, and a year or so ago, Her Majesty’s Government decided that the Spanish-owned British Airports Authority (BAA) had too big a slice of the action and was not operating a good enough service. The government forced BAA to sell off airports, starting with Gatwick, London’s No. 2 airport and about the eighth-busiest in Europe.
Gatwick was bought by Global Infrastructure Partners, an investment fund that already ran London City airport (one of the most pleasant airports that I have used).
The new owners announced their intention to proceed with a ­previously agreed £1billion investment program to upgrade Gatwick and expand the airport’s existing infrastructure to transform the passenger experience. They certainly have transformed the parking experience.
At a time when many other airports are being squeezed for business and dropping their charges, Gatwick has increased the cost of parking by nearly 70%. And the reason for doing this? A spokeswoman for Gatwick said prices were put up “to ensure there was space for travelers, by discouraging people who were not using the airport from using its car parks.”
So I have now learned that “transforming the customer experience” means “putting the price up.”
‘Lovely Rita Meter Maid ...’
Here in Big Ben land, we are “celebrating” (not sure if that’s the right word) the 50th anniversary of parking enforcement. It was in September 1960 that the first “traffic wardens” were employed by the Metropolitan Police.
Previously, in July 1958, the Westminster had installed Britain’s first parking meters, which were enforced by city-employed parking attendants, but they could do nothing about the no-waiting yellow lines.
This established a blatantly ridiculous situation where, as a motorist, you were more likely to get a ticket for parking at a meter than for parking in a no-parking area – very British.
In 1960, legislation created traffic wardens who were employed and deployed by the police to patrol the no-waiting/parking yellow lines. In a classic case of getting it wrong from the start, the police decided to pay the wardens 5% less than the established parking attendants for what was a more complex task.
Eventually, the pay differentials were sorted out, and the wardens started to take over the parking attendants’ role and absorb the borough’s staff. Eventually, only 3 out of 33 London boroughs kept their own parking attendants.
On Day One, the 40 male traffic wardens issued 434 tickets. The difficulty of the task was perhaps highlighted by the first parking ticket issued, to a Dr. Creighton, who immediately and successfully appealed the ticket because he had been called to a hotel to deal with a patient having a heart attack. Talk about a good start!
That the traffic warden service started as a male-only preserve is hardly surprising, given the prevailing male chauvinism of the day. During the law’s scrutiny in the House of Lords, the Earl of Bathurst is reported to have said: “I cannot believe that one would find many women of a suitable physique, character and type who would be able and willing to carry on such a job. The adversarial aspects of the occupation would be unsuitable for feminine sensibilities.”
Although no less chauvinistic, Lord Merrivale was perhaps more near the mark when he commented that female sensibilities would defuse gladiatorial confrontations between wardens and male drivers, referring warmly to the meter maids employed by the city of New York.
Fifty years on, I think it is hard to judge street parking management as anything other than a continuing failure. That is not to criticize the people involved, many of whom work hard at an awful job and some of whom go way above and beyond what anyone might expect.
The problem is that, in more than 50 years, we have never convinced the Great British Motoring Public that parking regulation is really needed. Indeed, I don’t think that we really believe it ourselves.
If you drop a penny in front of an average Brit, they will chase you up the road to return it. The same person will lie and cheat to get away without paying for parking. Why?
A system where we penalize less than 10% of the rule breakers and yet penalize millions of people a year can hardly be said to be working, so what do we do next? (Maybe that’s an issue for the next PIE, JVH.)
Peter Guest is Parking Today’s correspondent for all things British and European. He can be reached at peterguestparking@hotmail.co.uk.

Article Abstract from February, 2011




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