Parking is politics

Parking is politics

Heading into the local elections in Northern Ireland, we’ll hear about health, the climate crisis, the housing crisis, anti-social behaviour, dereliction etc. We’ll hear very little about parking. But we should, because it affects all of us and contributes directly to those issues.

The word “parking” has its roots in Washington DC. In 1871, the Washington Parking Commission was established – not to park cars as they didn’t exist then – but to to plant trees, bringing shade, birdsong and clean air into the city. “Parking strips” were leafy green areas at the sides of Washington’s city streets.

By 1920 there were 120,000 cars in Washington and the city began removing the trees from the ‘parking strips’ to make room for the cars. The first “car park” opened in Detroit in 1923 and by 1971 - 100 years after the Washington Parking Commission was established – NASA started parking cars on the moon.

Image of car parked on the moon - 1971.

©NASA on the Commons “The Lunar Roving Vehicle is photographed alone against the lunar background during the Apollo 15 lunar surface extravehicular activity (EVA)“

Flow of Traffic

Why the obsession with parking and why do we need so much of it? Let’s look at the main roads into Belfast. The Lisburn Rd, Malone Rd, Ormeau, Falls, Newtownards and Antrim roads are known as arterial routes. Similar to arteries in the body that pump blood, oxygen, and nutrients around - keeping us alive – arterial routes pump people, money, ideas & opportunity around the city, keeping it alive.

When people don’t exercise and eat the wrong things, fatty deposits build up in arteries, constricting the flow and causing heart attacks and strokes. When car deposits build up in arterial routes the entire city can have a cardiac arrest. Parking quickly removes car deposits and keeps the flow… flowing. If you’re in the business of moving cars around a congested city, more parking means more flow.

Parking and minimums

To ensure we have enough parking to maintain the flow, we have an enormous amount of parking laws and regulations. We also have a concept known as ‘minimums’ or ‘standards’. These are a set of rules that state the minimum number of car park spaces you must provide when constructing certain types of building.

A new golf course = 4 parking spaces per hole. Building a new theatre or bingo hall will cost you 1 parking space for every 3 seats. A new secondary school = 1 space per member of staff + 1 space for every 10 pupils over 17 yrs. Car free developments “may be considered” in built up urban areas - but you can see how space gets quickly swallowed up.

Parking minimums shape and define how our villages, towns and cities look. They devour land – a finite resource – that could be used for more productive purposes. Ask your UUP candidate about parking minimums.

Parking, speculation and dereliction

Walk along Belfast’s Gt. Victoria St. and witness the dereliction and anti-social speculation. Property speculators buy buildings – not to renovate or build anything useful – but to gamble that its price will continue to increase.

Too often heritage buildings are left to rot, or more often bulldozed to create a surface car park to help service the debt. As car park spaces help increase traffic flow – particularly in congested city centre areas – permission is granted. As a result more cars are attracted into the city, creating a demand for more parking and the conditions for more speculation, dereliction and bulldozing. See how surface parking eventually devoured Kansas City, USA.

Ask your SDLP candidate about parking and dereliction.

Parking and housing

A parking space measures 4.8m x 2.4m (11.5m²). The office I’m sitting in was once a small terraced family home. It has 2 bedrooms, sitting room, kitchen with dining area and bathroom. At one time a family of 8 lived here. I’ve just pulled out a tape measure and the floor space takes up just over 2 parking spaces.

It’s not unlike the 100s of terraced houses demolished in Belfast’s Sailortown in the 1960s to create the M2. Many people who lived in Sailortown were moved to multi-storey accommodation in the New Lodge. They now look down at 100s of car parking spaces along Corporation St. where their homes once stood. Multi-storey for the people, pied-à-terre for the cars.

Ask your Sinn Fein candidate about parking and housing.

Parking and playing

In the early 1970s children in Northern Ireland played in the street while soldiers crouched in their doorways aiming machine guns. The troops have left the streets – and so have the children – ironically the streets are no longer safe to play in because of traffic.

In the early 1970s Amsterdam was choked with cars and parking. The children decided they wanted to play in the street like their parents did. Take 10 minutes out of your day and watch how communities in Amsterdam fought to create the city we know today.

Now compare that with this recent campaign in North Belfast.

Ask your DUP candidate about parking and playing.

Parking, health & safety

In 2020 a landmark case in London found the air pollution from traffic responsible for the death of a young child. London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, called the coroner’s conclusion a “landmark moment” and labelled pollution a “public health crisis”. This saw the acceleration of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) across the city.

The current culture wars over LTNs resembles the smoking ban of 2007 - only with an awful lot more social media. As creatures of habit we know that old habits die hard, but bad habits die a lot harder. Not blowing cigarette smoke or exhaust fumes in other peoples faces may seem fairly reasonable things to do – it seems not when you’ve been allowed to do it for a lifetime.

LTNs reduce pollution, traffic accidents, street crime (including sexual offences), provide space for children to play and dramatically improve the lives of people who live there. Residents love LTNs. Some drivers detest them, because they can’t use them to shorten a car journey and it removes their free parking.

Ask the Greens (they’ll be all over it…) and PBP about parking, health and safety.

Getting high on their own supply

The Department for Infrastructure (DfI) control both supply and demand for parking. In 2015 the NI Audit office advised DfI to stop getting high own their supply, as it was "inconsistent with the aims of promoting sustainable public transport choices and reducing reliance on the car.” In 2015 there were 910,270 private cars in NI. At the end of September 2022 there were 1,015,730 private cars - an increase of 11.6% – unsurprisingly, parking continues to increase.

5 successive ministers for infrastructure have come and gone since 2015. They all started off in the driving seat - promising to increase active travel and reduce car usage. They all ended up in the boot – bound and gagged, hostages to decades’ old plans and policies while active travel flatlined and car use increased.

Nicola Mallon spent 2 fruitless years trying to wean her department of an addiction to cars. She attempted to push through the Belfast Bicycle Network – essentially reallocating 100km of on-street parking and arterial road space to active travel. It was pointless, because nothing cures the pain of congestion quite like on-street parking. DFI recently announced yet another cut to the Belfast Bicycle Network budget – the build schedule has slipped from 10 years to 200 years. The opportunity presented by the pandemic - seized by cities across Europe – was squandered in less than 18 months.

So when the candidates come knocking over the next few weeks, ask them about their parking policies. Tell them why parking is political. They mightn’t have an answer - but don’t blame them. They aren’t in control. Neither are your MLAs. Neither were the last 5 ministers.

That should be alarming.


This article was first published on Slugger O'Toole on 20/04/23