Ruth Brandon: We're paving the way for parking chaos

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Indy Lifestyle Online

The other day I went back, after 30 years, to the suburb where I grew up. That everything seemed smaller and shabbier than I remembered was hardly a surprise. What I hadn't reckoned on, though, was the almost total demise of the front garden. Who needs prize roses and flowering cherries these work-harried days?

What everyone wants is parking - somewhere to put the second or third car. So everyone's front garden has been paved over. Hard standing doesn't need upkeep and it's worth money when you sell your house.

Our parking problems can be traced back to the moment in the 1920s when some genius realised the car was an ideal shopping basket, and that shops no longer needed to be near homes as long as there was room to park nearby. It goes without saying that this realisation took place in Los Angeles: the result was the world's first large city with no real centre, and where the space devoted to automobiles - driving and parking them - far outweighed that taken up by homes.

LA from the air is a mass of asphalt, roads and parking lots interspersed with tiny pockets of greenery. Once, when living in Pasadena, I foolishly tried to walk to the nearest supermarket. It wasn't far, perhaps half a mile. Who needs a car for that? But crossing the road was like crossing the Amazon. And nothing came in bite-size chunks - you could only buy half a ton at a time, enough to make it worth bringing the car.

I scuttered away, shamefaced, staggering beneath my vast load, an anachronism from the old world.

Most European cities, of course, pre-date the car and are built on a pedestrian scale. The crunch comes when Los Angeles habits invade the pre-Los Angeles town. Where, exactly, are all those cars to go? When I drive into some large town, I panic about parking. Will it be possible? Will the spot be anywhere near my destination?

In London, at least, the answer is probably not. One reason you can't find tradesmen in central London is that it ¿s impossible to park there. Plumbers rush out in mid-job to feed the meter, or (even worse) move their van to a different spot, possibly never to return. I tell them there's an NCP near where I live, and they can add the cost to the bill; but they still have to walk to my flat, carrying their ton-weight box of tools.

Even residents can no longer park in London. I have a Camden residents permit but it operates only in my part of Camden. When my daughter, who lives in another part, wanted to move some furniture, I had to choose between dropping her, and it, and driving off, or parking illegally and risking a huge fine if the omnipresent warden paid too much attention to the small print. (I dropped and ran.)

It's deliberate policy, of course - part of the drive to discourage cars in central London: the same policy that means Camden no longer allows builders to provide car parking when converting office buildings to flats. And it's very effective. What's the point of bringing in your car if there's nowhere to leave it when you get there?

All this is yet another of the bad fairy's tricks that dot the history of the car. You think it's just what you want but when you get it, things turn out not quite as you'd hoped.

Meanwhile parking is doing its little bit for climate change. All those front gardens used to absorb the rain; now they're paved over, the run-off exacerbates flooding problems. And all that black asphalt adds to the overheating in cities.

It won't be long before some genius comes up with a solution: daily shopping, on foot, in the high street. And shopping baskets on wheels, like mother used to drag.

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