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Notes from Big Ben …

Woolworths, ITS and Rushmoor (no, not the Mount)...

By Peter Guest

It’s the beginning of a new year and traditionally a time for reflecting on the old year.
Nothing to do with parking, but for many people of my age (almost dead), one sad memory will be the disappearance of F.W. Woolworths from our streets. I believe that “Woolies” stopped trading in the U.S. many years ago, but for more than 90 years, every high street in every UK town seemed to have a magic place called Woolworths, where you could buy just about anything.
It was said that the difference between a town and a village was whether or not they had a Woolworths. There was something about Woolworths; in my childhood, being a “Woolworths Girl” was in some way one-up on being a mere shop assistant. Sadly, the realities of the credit crisis, plus the Internet, finally caught up with the business, and just short of 100 years, the company has gone bust, with the last few UK stores closing within days.
Nostalgia aside, this was one of the USA’s better exports, and we shall be sorry to see them go.
Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) are the saviour of mankind, according to those that sell ‘em. To me they are, and always have been, a solution looking for a problem.
The government has spent enough money on information signing on the national motorway network to cancel the national debt. I believe that each ITS sign cost about half a million dollars, and they are totally useless!
Every time I see those signs, they are either switched off or tell me completely pointless information, such as it will take me X minutes to travel Y miles. Well, since it’s a motorway travelling at 70 mph – I can work that out.
Just after Christmas, we took a friend back to Leicester, which is a journey of about 150 miles. All the way there, we drove slowly because the roads were busy and congested. The billion dollars worth of ITS contributions to helping me ease my journey was to tell me that I shouldn’t drink and drive, and occasionally that the road was congested just in case we hadn’t noticed.
The true value of ITS became clear on the return trip. As soon as we joined the motorway, we were given warning that the road ahead was congested and we would experience 20 minutes extra delay about 15 miles ahead. Option A, divert; Option B, carry on and accept the delay.
I have no faith in the information-signing system and duly drove through the “congested” area at 65 mph with no delay. As we approached London, the ITS signs told us that the M25 London Orbital Motorway faced “Severe Delays” from where we joined it to well past the junction where we would leave to head off back to the country, probably about 25 miles.
We slowed down for about three miles and drove the rest at the speed limit. Finally, we reached the jewel in the crown: the variable speed limit at Heathrow. The ITS supposedly measure the speed and volume of traffic, and if congestion starts to build up, they slow people approaching the back of the queue and thus smooth the flow and reduce total delay.
That’s the theory. We drove through at the signed 40 mph with one lane empty and about 100 yards between cars. It’s total rubbish.
Oh yes, this is supposed to be about parking, so before JVH bursts a blood vessel, here are some local headlines:
Surrey Heath is just about the richest borough in the UK. The Council caught a cold in the 1980s when they bought up about half the town centre to redevelop just as the property market took a nose-dive. For the next 20-odd years, they operated what was probably one of the most expensive surface car parks in the world. This has now been redeveloped as a shopping mall with a brand-new shiny parking garage.
I used it just after Christmas, and they have a novel way of welcoming customers. As we queued on the ramp (it’s the January sales), I smelt and then saw that the building’s gas central heating system vents onto the enclosed car park ramp. They say that your car park is the gateway to your town; spraying people with toxic fumes doesn’t seem the ideal welcome to me.
Rushmoor, is there anything you can get right?
The law changed here to allow councils to prosecute drivers who block crossovers where landowners access their property by car. It’s always been an offence but dealt with by the police; now it’s done by councils.
There are a few problems, not least of which are that people often park across their own driveways, rather than put the car off-street. However, my borough – never one to miss an opportunity to make a problem worse – has gone one step further. They have put formal, legal (as in right to park) parking bays across some crossovers. This means that I have a right to park there but commit an offence if I do.
Bring back the stocks!
Southampton is a big city, and their parking manager, Stuart Chivers, is a really, really nice man who seems to be poorly advised at present. Credit card rules say that if you pay for something by card, the transaction must be processed within 90 days; after that, the transaction is void.
Unfortunately, the city’s bankers screwed up and processed 900 charges incurred on Nov. 29, 2007, a full year after the event. Although Southampton City Council has admitted the mistake, which was put down to the authority’s foreign-based merchant bank (which should therefore be responsible for fixing it), they say drivers will get a refund only if they ask for their money back. Wrong!
The city can take the money only if they are entitled to it. If they make a mistake and take money they are not entitled to, they are obliged to repay it. The onus is on the city, not the driver.
Taking money that you are not entitled to and keeping it is called theft, and you can go to jail. There also are Local Government Finance Laws that make it an offence. So, Stuart, get some better legal advice pronto.
Peter Guest, past President of the British Parking Association, is a parking consultant and PT’s reporter on the scene in Europe and the Middle East. He can be reached at peterguestparking@hotmail.co.uk.

Article Abstract from February, 2009




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