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Notes from Big Ben …

Summertime Means Europe Closes Down

By Peter Guest

It’s that time of year again, what journalists call the silly season, when people take off on vacation and “real” news stops. In the UK, we get more time off than you guys, typically 25 days, but our European friends tend to do even better. France closes down for August, and a few days ago when I was in Brussels, restaurants in the heart of the tourist area were closed for summer holiday.
For us mere mortals in the UK, we know it’s summer: The rains get warmer, and people are playing cricket or, more correctly, not playing because it’s raining.
So, with the European world in recess, how do I fill this column this month?
Let’s start with Brussels. The European Parking Association has a long-established quality mark for car parks called the European Standard Parking Award, or ESPA. The award judges factors such as geometry, lighting, cleanliness, security and so on.
The original ESPA was written about 10 years ago, and I have been part of a pan-European group updating it. The draft is out for consultation, and the Belgians got a bit hot under the collar about some of the proposals.
It’s a bit of a tightrope: ESPA is not a design brief for new car parks, and we want to encourage garage owners to invest in upgrades to make their older buildings better. Therefore, we try not to set the standard so high that they are put off. However, we also have to recognize that some older car parks (and, depressingly, some new car parks) are no longer fit for purpose and must be outside the scheme.
Particular features that cause a problem are basics such as the bay size. You can upgrade the lighting, but you can’t move the columns to make the bay bigger, and changes in car design over the decades mean that what might have been OK in the 1960s doesn’t work now.
The Belgians had some good points and some I suspect we won’t move on, but it was interesting to see a different perspective on what we all do. Contact me if you want to see what Europe considers an acceptable car park.
One thing I did realize during our talks was that, although we are all Europeans and all in theory exchange ideas via our national organizations and the EPA at the biennial EPA Congress, parking people in the different countries do not really talk to each other. I have sown the seed of a European meeting program at which, in a low-key way, people can meet to talk and share ideas.
Perhaps this is something for you, John, since I don’t think the EPA will, and any national association attempting this would be seen as trying to usurp the EPA role?
I don’t usually comment on things American – that’s JVH’s job – but I saw something recently the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper that rang a bell. “Barbara” wrote to the Click and Clack auto column about her experience parking on a hill (I think you have some of those in SF).
She had parked her car and visited a nearby museum. While she was gone, her car had started to roll, and a Good Samaritan had blocked the wheel to stop it. Tom and Ray Magliozzi went on to explain good practice for parking on a hill.
Some years ago here in the UK, she who must be obeyed borrowed my shiny new red Volvo to visit a friend who lived on a hill. When she came back, no car. She thought that it had been stolen, but a passer-by pointed her to the bottom of the hill, where the car was lodged against a tree. The front had been pushed in 18 inches, but being a Volvo, it was still driveable.
The tree was alongside one of the busiest roads in the area where if the car had carried on, it could have caused a really bad accident, so things could have been a lot worse. Unfortunately, the insurance company had no sense of humor, and when I filled in the “who was driving at the time of the accident” box with “no one” they got really sniffy.
Wokingham is a typical small English town near me. In the town center, there are 240 street parking spaces where you can stay for a maximum of 30 minutes for free. The trouble is that no one makes sure that the rules are obeyed, so parkers stay for as long as they want. The council is proposing to levy a charge to solve the problem.
Now we can argue the rights and wrongs of free parking, but I don’t think that’s the issue here. The parking is for 30 minutes, and the council has the power to regulate it and to ticket offenders. They don’t do that because it’s “too difficult,” so they are going to charge the locals for their failure.
It is very easy and cheap to introduce a regime to make short-stay visitors comply without paying, and the enforcement is funded from the fines for rule breakers, but that way the town can’t make any money out of parking. Right or wrong, the local people expect free parking and are happy to pay for it through the council tax – that’s democracy.
The new regime will make the people using the town center look at using the edge-of-town superstore – to the “dis-benefit” of town center traders, and some shops will be closed. Oh, and the council won’t make money, because they will find that the cost of setting up and running such a small paid-parking scheme is way higher than they thought. And so guess what? The charges will go up, and the whole negative effect will feed on itself, at least until the next election.
Remember “the Biggest Parking Project in the World” in Abu Dhabi? The city center was going to be brought under control in a project that was the equivalent of the whole of Central London. However, whereas London was evolved over 50 years, Abu Dhabi was going to be rolled out in just two to three years.
After a whole lot of internal wrangling, the scheme is now scheduled to kick off in October. The problem is that during the delay, the vehicle fleet has probably increased by over 50%, and I am not sure the solution is still the right one. We shall see.
The council in Nottingham recently got the go-ahead for its workplace parking levy. I have spoken about this before. The council will charge an annual “tax” of about $375 for using each workplace parking space in the city center.
The law exists to manage travel demand, not to raise money. However, the only evidence I have been able to find is where the city talks about raising money to fund public transport. When this was looked at in London 30 years ago, it was shelved as unworkable.
Will people stop using cars for a dollar-a-day tax? No. So the scheme will raise money but will not change travel patterns.
The start is planned for 2012, and between now and then, there will be a council election. Wonder what will happen?
Peter Guest is PT’s correspondent on all things European and Middle East. He can be reached at peterguestparking@hotmail.co.uk.

Article Abstract from September, 2009




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