Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Car parking: I'll just leave this speedboat here

I've got a really big wooden crate -- it's a little over 4 metres long and just under 2 metres wide -- and it won't fit in my house. I'm the only person who gets any benefit from my having this crate -- indeed, my ownership of the crate is actually bad for you. I didn't really care about the fact I had nowhere to keep the crate when I bought it; I wanted it and so I got it anyway. So now, because it won't fit in my house, I'm just going to leave it in the street. It'll block half of the road, but so what? I need somewhere to keep my crate and that's where it's going.

If you heard me say this, you would quite rightly brand me a selfish bastard who deserves to be beaten soundly with rolled-up copies of the Daily Mail until I learnt a little civic responsibility. But hold fast! What if, instead of a crate, it was a saloon car I was talking about? A car has exactly the same dimensions as my crate, but you'd think absolutely nothing of my saying "I don't have anywhere to store my car and I knew this when I bought it, but I'm just going to leave it in the street where it'll block half the road".

Parking cars is a topic which, more than most, gets people angry (certainly more than the World Bank's policies or the invasion of Iraq, as far as I can see). I've been dwelling on the subject since, about a year ago, I had an email from somebody wanting my expert endorsement for a policy of greater freedom for motorists to park where they like. This got me thinking, and I soon realized that car parking is a nice illustration of the bizarre level of freedom given to motorists. (I turned down the request, incidentally.)

Because here's the question: why should I be allowed to own a car if I have nowhere to store it? I am not permitted the same freedom to store anything else on the road. If I own a caravan, or a speedboat on a trailer, I am obliged to have off-road storage facilities for it. If I want to place a skip outside my house when doing building work I have to take great care that this hazard is brightly lit and removed as soon as possible. These are all relevant comparisons, as skips, caravans and speedboats on trailers are all are more-or-less the same size and construction as a car.

You might at this point be thinking that you pay about £100 a year to tax your vehicle, and that this sum makes cars different from all these other items. This argument is fallacious in so many respects that I think I'll devote a whole post to it soon. For now, let me put it this way: I pay masses of tax every time I buy a bottle of whisky, but I can't thereby expect the State to provide me with a shelf to store it on or a glass to drink it from.

So I'm left unable to see a rational reason why I should be allowed to own a car when I have nowhere to store it, leaving me with no option but to dump it in various bits of the civic landscape. I'd be genuinely grateful for any suggestions.

Edit: To offer one more important comparison, I used to live on a narrowboat on the Kennet and Avon canal. As anybody who has ever tried to buy one with know, it is impossible to own a boat on the inland waterways without either proving you have somewhere to keep it, or issuing a solemn promise that you'll keep on moving indefinitely without leaving it at the canalside. Our canals are a public transport resource just like our roads, but apparently the rules are very different...

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Don't watch Newsnight on Monday...

...unless you want to risk seeing me talking about Shared Space road design principles. Shared Space is the intriguing idea that traffic management is best handled with as little regulation as possible -- no traffic lights, no road markings, no pavements even -- and it's something I've had my eye on for quite a while as it claims to offer considerable benefits to the more vulnerable users of our roads. Indeed, the approach promises towns in which everybody gets to where they want to go faster and with fewer accidents. It sounds great.

My position, which I hope comes across after the interview is edited, is that Shared Space is a very intriguing idea but that it urgently needs a proper evaluation to tell us whether or not it really works better than the current approach. The problem the Shared Space advocates face is the two curses of road planning. The first curse is that authorities and town planners tend to be very conservative and often won't try new things, sticking to rigid road-design guidelines which are handed down from above and which, in many cases, are essentially based on little more than guesswork.

The second curse is that new developments in road design or usage are hardly ever evaluated properly: when somebody tries something new, it's not often the effect of the innovation is properly measured. So let's have more science and less blind faith: that's my basic argument (and not just as regards road design). BBC 2, 2230 on Monday 14 January.

On a more awe-inspiring note, I entered a great email discussion this morning in which Michael Carley and I decided there really should be a product like Bovril, but pork-based and from Germany. Here's how I imagine the advertising might look...