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Paying the price for parking


Overheard recently on a Kent coast commuter train. First man: 'I've been waiting five years for parking space near Sevenoaks station. Second man: 'Well, I've just put my child's name down for one - she won't need it till 2010 so that should be OK.'

I think the second man was joking but it was a good way of expressing the frustration many commuters feel when trying to find somewhere to leave the car. We are all being encouraged to park and ride on public transport to ease congestion on the roads. But for those people who try to oblige, the only car parks available are full by 6.30 in the morning.

So it was good news last week to see that the Highways Agency has called in Brown & Root to investigate ways of providing adequate parking to encourage people to use park & ride commuting schemes.

The bad news is that they are thinking in terms of underground car parks. True, we are promised valet parking, benign but perfect security, shops, doctors and creches even, all in a futuristic, fresh and clean environment.

And I have no doubt that we could actually build these things and they could even work for a few years.

But how long before financial pressures cause a cut back in security, the cctv breaks down, the shops go bust and the doctors move out? Then all commuters will be left with will be dark, frightening spaces smelling of urine and foxes. The car parks will become no-go areas and in 30 years we will be tearing our hair out trying to decide what to do with them.

We have, after all, been here before with mass high rise housing estates. The lesson from that experience was that, on the whole, people are best left on the ground and that anything else works only if you are prepared to pay an awful lot towards maintenance and security.

I'll take a guess that the commuters targeted to use these underground car parks won't be prepared to pay the prices needed to keep them secure. And most operators will no doubt value engineer out a lot of the necessary measures in the Highways Agency's vision, so they can maximise profits.

Research by the AA shows that more than 70% of people would drive out of their way to avoid using a multistorey car park because they are unsafe, frightening places. There is nothing to suggest they would feel differently about underground multi- storeys.

Instead, it might be better to create low maintenance, high security, unfussy ground level car parks at new park & ride stations outside town centres.

If that means that the combination of reduced congestion and personal safety benefits outweighs the environmental disbenefit of asphalting over fields then we should not be afraid to make that choice.

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