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Car parking in cities: What are the social challenges to mobility and infrastructure?

Following her Lunchtime Lecture in June on the same subject, Karol Kurnicki from the Institute of Advanced Study, Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at the University of Warwick reflects on the need to understand car parking through the lens of everyday experiences of the people who live in our towns, villages and cities.

It is a problem for drivers, who struggle with the availability of spaces and prices. It is an issue for pedestrians and cyclists, who have to manoeuvre around vehicles parked incorrectly or in undesignated areas. It is a challenge for public authorities as large sections of cities and towns have to be assigned to the single-purpose of accommodating stationary vehicles.

This can have a negative impact on the safety of an area and its aesthetic. Moreover, on a larger scale, parking is difficult to control. It also aggravates the introduction of new transportation policies, inhibits reduction of car use and, moreover, the transformation towards sustainable modes of mobility.

The existing solutions to the car parking problem rest on a general assumption that a parking space is a commodity. As such, it must be provided as conveniently as possible for the most competitive price in any given area.

The increasing use of big data and artificial intelligence by private companies developing applications for parking allocation and payments, as well as the growing use of sensors and cameras by local authorities are indicative of the persistence of this assumption. Parking clearly has a business aspect. But in a wider sense, it is also closely related to urban planning and policies that have to be reoriented to address environmental challenges, for instance, pollution and the adverse effects of fossil fuel consumption. In recent years, many cities, including London, have decided to change planning regulations and abandon parking minimums or include car parking in their transportation policies. Some European cities plan to limit car use significantly over the course of the next few years. One of the mechanisms that will help them do so is the reduction of available parking spaces.

Parked cars are part of the urban landscape

Huge swathes of our cities have been built with cars in mind. The emergence of the car gave rise to road-building projects, the standardisation of road laws, growth in oil production and many other factors that continue to shape urban and suburban life. This has been famously characterised by John Urry as the “system of automobility”. But given the fact that cars spend more time parked up is an important, and often overlooked, facet of our everyday urban experience. With that in mind perhaps we should also talk about “autoimmobility” and its impacts, key amongst them being the ‘car-scapes’ created by stationary vehicles, as well as the time and money expended to manage the large number of stationary cars that litter our densely populated areas.

Building on that assumption, car parking can be considered in a two ways: both as an everyday (im)mobility issue, and as a part of our urban infrastructure. A sociological mindset can help grasp those two distinct aspects together: whilst parking a car is a relatively simple and mundane activity, it always involves the interaction of a human with a vehicle and will take place in locales that frequently draw upon specific knowledge of road law and local regulations as well as an orientation in the area.

Looking more broadly, the pressure to create more parking spaces can very much influence social meanings and personal emotions which in turn can define how it is done and its consequences for other drivers and pedestrians. A better understanding of how those components of social practice interact with parking can help deal clarify many of its inherent complexities and reveal the deeper role it can play in people’s lives. Parking might be simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s not complicated – it can affect our interactions with other people, limit our mobility and frequently requires us to reorganise our daily schedules and adjust plans.

Parking is part of our infrastructure

Parking must also be understood as a kind of urban infrastructure that is both obdurate and creates a network of spaces in need of constant maintenance. However, unlike other types of infrastructure, it is also very fragmented, often un-standardised, has different type of providers – from local administrations to private companies – and costly. It also very often fails at what it is supposed to do. Despite that, it needs to be seen as one of the core systems that makes cities work and as such should be carefully regulated and organised in response to the challenges of today’s urban areas.

Another interesting characteristic of parking is that it is not only provided by public and private actors – councils and car park operators – but it is also produced by drivers themselves. One example of this is turning front yards or driveways into parking spaces, as often happens in the suburbs. But it also happens that parking infrastructure is produced by practice itself – for example when people stop or leave their vehicle illegally or semi-legally. Therefore, when it comes to parking we need to talk about “infrastructuring” as an active and constant process of creating infrastructure by many different actors.

Parking is a policy and planning issue that will constantly have to change in the transforming reality of urban transportation. As with any change, it will depend not only on technological innovation but also on the social capacity for adaptation. Big data and new, inventive solutions to the “parking problem” have to be combined with a better understanding of what it means to park a car and how it is related to the maintenance and emergence of parking infrastructure in cities.

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