Notes from Big Ben …


Notes from Big Ben …

News is like buses, sometimes. You wait for months and nothing really happens, and then suddenly everybody is doing something interesting, and I don’t know what to tell you what’s going on over here.
I suppose the big item is the 13th meeting of the European Parking Association Congress in Madrid. This is a once-every-two-years event where, over three days, the cream of the European parking industry gets together to talk about matters of great importance to our industry. That’s the theory anyway.
I didn’t get to all the sessions, but what I did see was a bit of a curate’s egg (e-mail me if you need a translation). There was a very good paper from Hungary that drew some interesting contrasts between what’s going on in Eastern Europe and what has happened in the West. These guys are way behind us but start at the front of the learning curve, which leads to some interesting and innovative ideas.
At times, however, I seemed to have walked into some parallel universe. A (well-respected, locally) Spanish car park designer talked about the four rules for designing car parks, but illustrated his talk with pictures of people buying fruit, of beauty queens and of cyclists. The few pictures of car parks that he used were distorted and accompanied with references to “smoking.” It got better.
This gentleman was followed by an Italian lady who described herself as an interior architect (she paints car parks) and talked about – and seemed to be getting quite excited by – the sexuality and eroticism of the car park (no, I am not making this up). Her judgment was that one of the car parks she had worked on in Madrid was a success, not because of anything to do with its usability as a car park, but because Madonna chose to hire it to hold a party in. So that’s where I have been going wrong!
We also had the conference gala dinner and the biennial EPA awards for new and refurbished car parks and several other categories. It is strange that in Europe, nearly all car parks are built underground, whereas in the UK, virtually all car parks are above ground. A friend working for a European parking company gave me an explanation, but it wasn’t convincing. If you want to see the papers for the Congress and the award winners, they are on the EPA website (
Back here in the old country, we had the launch party for the annual British Parking Awards, which is our version of the Oscars. The party was an excuse for a good time, and was a cross between a night at the Moulin Rouge and a Vegas Casino. It was held in the magnificent surroundings of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The actual awards will be made in February, when we will have another party.
Meanwhile, the fair city of Nottingham is getting close to implementing a “radical, new” scheme aimed at reducing car use in the city. London has “congestion charging,” where drivers pay $16 a day to drive in central London. This idea was first looked at in the 1970s, so it’s hardly new.
About the same time, we also looked an alternative plan where the city would charge a tax on all those parking spaces at workplaces that were being used by commuters who had maximum impact on traffic congestion. The idea was that the site owners would be given the option of either paying this “workplace parking levy” or stop using the parking spaces. The plan never progressed in London, not least of all because of the expected redistributive effects. If traffic destined for the centre was reduced, then through-trips would change routes to take advantage of the reduced congestion and the benefit to the centre would be lost.
Nottingham, which has been working on its plan for several years, has announced that it will go ahead with it. Watch this space.
Meanwhile, the city of Westminster is going to try a “radical new” approach to charging for its car parks. The head of its parking department came from the airline industry, and is going to try to sell his parking using the same techniques as the economy airline that he used to work for. So it costs $50 a day to park, but if you turn up when the car park is empty, you can get the day’s parking for less than $10.
One of the motivations for this is the loss of business that followed the introduction of the congestion charge. One problem I see is that since the charge varies from minute to minute depending on how full the car park is, drivers will be shown the tariff on a variable screen when they arrive. Thus, there is no fixed tariff board that both sides can refer to if there is a dispute. Not sure how it will work in practice, but I will keep you informed.
There is a saying about paying peanuts and getting monkeys. My wife works in the local hospital and, like most people in the public health service here, she certainly is paid peanuts. However, she is no dummy (I suspect this may not be true of the people who run the hospital’s car parking).
Two years ago, the hospital had to reduce the number of staff parking spaces on the site as part of a planning deal with the local council. My wife agreed to be moved to a site about a 15-minute walk away because it was more convenient to access from where we live and she got a bit of exercise walking to and from the car each day.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a small operation in the hospital (yes, there is a brain; I have the MRI scan to prove it) and stayed overnight. My wife has an identity card, which also acts as an access card to secure areas and the car park. She drove on-site to pick me up: Two years after relocating to the other site, her card still opens the main site car park. It’s not rocket science!

Peter Guest is PT’s Correspondent for Europe and the Middle East.
He can be reached at

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