How our cars outgrew our car park spaces
The Guardian, 23 November 2016
If you haven’t had a ding, you’ve probably had a job squeezing yourself out of your car, pushing limbs through the door like an octopus escaping an aquarium. At its worst, car parking can be a trial of stress and bodily contortion. What’s to blame? Fat cars.
A vehicular obesity epidemic is reportedly putting a strain on the nation’s multistoreys, where accidents are on the rise. According to Accident Exchange, a courtesy-car firm, there are now almost 2,000 parking prangs a day.
Cars are growing, thanks to the addition of safety features and our demands for more space, but, like airline seats, parking spaces are not keeping up. In the 1970s, when the earliest VW Golfs were a modest 1.6 metres across, the Institution of Structural Engineers and the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation recommended a standard bay size of 2.4 metres by 4.8 metres. Including mirrors, a new Golf today is 2.027 metres wide, almost as fat as a Range Rover.
“The standard hasn’t really changed since then and we generally still work on that basis depending on usage type,” says Glynn Rhodes, a partner at Hill Cannon Consulting. The Harrogate firm, which has designed or consulted on thousands of car parks since the 1960s, goes for 2.3-metre bays in airport long-stays, for example, or 2.5 metres in, say, a shopping centre.
NCP, which has more than 600 car parks, says it also observes the 2.4-metre standard, but is adding 2.5-metre bays in some sites, including the new Grand Central shopping centre in Birmingham. “It is an extremely fine balance between a demand for wider spaces versus complaints over a car park being full,” the company has said in a statement. (See also: profits.)
Having parking wedded or close to where people spend time, that’s going to be a thing of the past
Rhodes says Buckinghamshire county council has approved a new guideline of 2.8 metres. “That is an absolutely incredible size,” he adds. But wait, there’s bigger. Q-Park, a Dutch firm with more than 60 sites in the UK, has introduced a small number of 3.6-metre “superbays” (its own standard is 2.5 metres). “We are also introducing angle bays because they’re much easier to enter and exit,” says John Denton, head of sales and marketing. Prangs are bad for business, he adds.
But the future of parking is, like everything else, robotic. At Düsseldorf airport, premium parkers enter flight details on a touchscreen and hand their cars to a robo-valet called Ray. The machine slides under the wheels and slots the car into storage, monitoring arrivals to retrieve it at the right time. Unitronics, an Israeli company, builds automated car parks with lower head heights and tight packing. The company claims its 373-car project in New Jersey occupies the space of a four-storey building, whereas a traditional car park would have required 10 storeys.
Self-driving cars will reduce the space required for parking even further, particularly if we agree to share them. “Having parking wedded or close to where people spend time, that’s going to be a thing of the past,” Prof Alain Kornhauser, a transport expert at Princeton University, told design website Curbed in August: “If I go to a football game, my car doesn’t need to stay with me. If I’m at the office, it doesn’t need to be there.” And if it does need to find an automated car park for a robo-rest, it’s not going to bump into anything.