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Parking in the UK – forget it!

Parking is one of those “Don’t get me started” topics. Everyone has a story and everyone, but everyone, has an opinion whether it’s the cost, the evil nature of traffic wardens, the lack of free spaces, the insidious spread of parking meters into residential and suburban streets, or the fact that machines will never give change (one parking meter I use has a sign saying “This machine does not give change. You may overpay” …well, gee, thanks). Idly drop a parking story into a faltering conversation and you can enliven even the most tedious of encounters.

I’m not sure why, but over the past few months I’ve had an unusual number of parking conversations and as a result, I’ve collected quite a number of aggravating and/or entertaining parking-related tales – a few of which I shall now share with you: just to enliven my faltering column, you understand.

The malfunctioning ticket machine

A car at a car-park ticket machine
This is a common enough story, but still annoying nevertheless. Last month, whilst on a camping trip to Devon, we decided to travel on one of the local trams. We left the car in the long-term car park and, having been advised that we would need at least two hours for the trip, paid for three at a cost of £2.10. The coins gaily tinkled down into the machine, the green button was firmly pressed. No ticket. Hmm. The button was pressed again, firmer this time: still no ticket. The reject button was pressed: no refund. The green button, the reject button, the green button, the reject button. The side of the machine was bashed. No ticket. No refund. Nothing. And as I watched the tram go trundling on its way with happy passengers (no doubt the smug possessors of valid parking tickets) I stood in front of the machine looking baffled, bemused and angry at the same time. An elderly gent passing by cheerfully told me that a man had lost £4.00 in the machine earlier, and never got it back.

Dire scenarios whirled through my mind. We could get clamped, fined – or worse, have to pay for another ticket and lose the £2.10. Fortunately, Alex came to see what was taking me so long. He borrowed some paper from a nearby information centre, wrote a note saying we’d paid, wrote another note saying “Out of order” to put on the machine, rang the parking company whose number was on the machine (why didn’t I notice that?), gave our name and vehicle reg number and told them how much we’d paid. Sorted. That took all of 20 minutes – yeah, 20 minutes of our precious parking time, and we missed the tram.

Of course, malfunctioning machines can work in your favour if there are no other working meters nearby. But this is so rare it hardly counterbalances the aggravation of them in the first place. Our local paper has printed a number of letters from resentful residents moaning about the paystation parking system. Some have been fined when the machine was out of order, and others have actually bought a ticket, but it’s either been ignored by the traffic warden, or has blown off the dashboard when the door was closed.

Narrow parking spaces

Most car parks in this country have ridiculously narrow spaces, but the very worst of all are the underground or covered car parks. Parking in these makes me really anxious. The spaces are so narrow and awkwardly angled that merely getting your car in and out of a space becomes a major exercise in manoeuvring and vehicle control. If you’re blessed with an estate car (as I am) you need at least three backward and forward movements, much whirling of the steering wheel and a certain amount of neck-craning to get your car somewhere between the two lines. But unless you and the neighbouring cars have parked perfectly centrally, then it’s difficult to get out of the car without banging and scratching the car next to yours or having to clamber out through the boot.

Then there are those strategically placed concrete pillars. They not only block your vision but present a major obstacle which you could scrape your car against, if you’re not careful. The pillars always seem to bear terrible and hideous warning scars from previous scrapings. I’m so paranoid of hitting one that if I am parked next to a pillar (which I usually avoid at all costs) I end up taking ages wiggling the car in and out, inching forward and back in the most painstaking way. This is all very well when the car park’s empty, but when it’s one of those really busy ones, like the IKEA car park in Bristol, where people cruise and then hover while you muck about getting your car out, the pressure is really on: endless wiggling could easily spark off a terrible road rage incident. No, give me an open-air car park any day.

Having said this, I’ve never actually had an “incident” in an underground car park. However, my track record in open-air car parks is not so spotless. Most past incidents occurred abroad and can be blamed upon lack of rear vision in a 4×4 car (really, I didn’t see those saloons as I reversed into them), but the latest one occurred here in the UK, with my Citroën estate.

At our local recreation centre there are some very weird, angled parking spaces which for some reason are narrower at one end. One evening, on my way to take Lucy swimming, I slipped carefully into one of these spaces. As I got out, an Aussie bloke in the next-door car got out and claimed, boldly: “Yer hit me caa!” (trans: you hit my car). It was dark, and you could barely see anything, but I’m sure I’d have heard something or at least felt it if I’d touched his car. We peered blindly at the side of his vehicle. You could just about make out a small scratch on the wheel arch. It was a hire car and he’d end up paying for it, so he said.

We weren’t sure what to do. The scratch wouldn’t be more than any insurance excess, so he asked for my number and said he’d call to tell me how much it cost. I worried about it all week. I felt such a fool…how could I bump another car…and when the driver was in it?? But the call never came. Either he made it all up to try to get someone to pay for a scratch already there or the scratch was so insignificant he didn’t bother to repair it – or maybe he just felt sorry for me because I was so harassed and apologetic. Even so, I won’t park in those funny spaces any more, just in case.

Job’s-worth attendants/swindling parking computers

This isn’t really my story but my friend’s, and she heard it from her friend. If I remember it properly, it goes like this: my friend’s friend, Mrs X, parked in a local car park where you get a ticket as you go in and pay on your way out. She had her son in the car, but just as they parked, he was sick all over the car. Lovely. Quite sensibly, Mrs X decided against going shopping, or whatever she was doing and went to drive back out.

As far as I understand it, the “computer” which calculates how long you’ve been in the car park charged her 80p, claiming she’d been in there 10 minutes. She queried this with the parking attendant (Mr PA) who sided with the computer, and asked her to pay up. Mrs X explained her situation, saying that there was no way she could have been more than five minutes and that she needed to get her son home quickly. Without the slightest spark of human kindness or understanding, Mr PA rudely demanded 80p, stating “Computer says 10 minutes”. Mrs X paid, just to get out, and later went to complain to the relevant authority.

They discovered that the computer had been wrong (a quick look at the in and out times on the ticket showed five minutes only   so why didn’t Mr PA do that?) and they offered to refund the 80p. But there was no apology offered. Ho hum, there’s a surprise.

Unreasonable fines and unsympathetic traffic wardens

Cartoon of an angry traffic wardenThis is an old story, but happened to both myself and a friend recently.

In my case, I parked in a residential street in the sleepy town of Fleet with a two-hour limit on the parking. I doodled around in the local shopping centre trying to find something for my mum. I wasn’t too concerned about the time as I’d never been fined in that area before and the street I parked in was practically empty. But when I got back to the car I’d received a whopping great £40 fine for being only five minutes over. OK, I was over the time, but £40? £15 or maybe £20 I could have taken. But £40? I wasn’t parking in a metropolitan centre, but a semi-rural backwater.

What are they doing fining people £40 for five minutes’ extra parking? Needless to say, I rang the number given on the ticket and aired my views, but the man on the other end may as well have been reading a cue card: “If you have a complaint, you can write to Hart Council traffic department in person” or words to that effect. And there was no persuading him off this litany.

My friend Dawn had an even worse experience. After meeting friends for coffee morning in Hartley Wintney (another ruralesque backwater), Dawn arrived at her car, again only five minutes late, but in this case found she’d been given a £60 fine. Talk about excessive! As the warden was there she tried to persuade and cajole, but he was clearly insensitive to her charms. Ringing up to complain, she triumphantly got the fine reduced, but it was still £40. As Dawn says: “What are they doing, penalising visitors to local shopping areas at a time when they are meant to be encouraging them?” Next time we’ll go to one of the large out-of-town stores which don’t charge at all for parking.

Forgetting where you’ve parked

A couple of months ago, my mum came to stay. As we were chatting, Mum told me an amusing story about a friend of hers who had to attend a funeral some distance from his home. He’d decided to drive there and managed to park in a car park near to where the funeral was held. The ceremony over, he returned to the car park, only to find that his car had gone. Needless to say, he phoned the police and they took down his details. He then got a train home and claimed on the insurance. Two weeks later, he received a letter telling him that as he’d left his vehicle in the car park for over a week he was liable to pay £80. He’d gone to the wrong car park. “What a nana!” I thought, and laughed.

The very next day we went to the new shopping mall in Basingstoke, and parked in the dreaded covered car park. I found a spot away from the concrete pillars, we got out, found the lift, and I made a note of where we came out in the shopping mall. About 40 minutes before school pick-up time, we thought we’d better go. Back up in the same lift and out on the floor we thought we’d come in on.

Still relaxed and chatting, I scanned the car park for my roof rack. Mmmm. Couldn’t see it. My pace quickened, I looked around further. No, I didn’t recognise anything. Mum trailed behind asking randomly unhelpful questions, as mothers often do, like “What colour is it?” or “Is it that one?” “Look, if it was that one, I’d have stopped by it!” I snapped (as daughters often do).

Perhaps we were on the wrong floor after all. With ever-quickening pace, I dragged mum up a floor further. No, neither of us recognised it. Back down again. I tried to remember what I’d done when I came in. I’d remembered that I’d definitely driven up at least one floor. I also remembered parking by a peculiar metal crossbeam, but I couldn’t see any around. Faster this time, I looked again. No joy. I walked further into the depths of the car park, but no, that got us into the C car park (or whatever it was) and if we’d been in the C part then we’d have got a different lift. And anyway, that would mean we would have had to cross an odd sort of metal bridge thing and I definitely didn’t remember that.

I began to sweat and panic slightly. I wasn’t worried the car had been stolen (no-one would steal our car, surely), but what if we never found it? How could we find it in this massive monstrosity of a car park? How would we get back, and what about the kids? The kids! I looked at my watch. There’s no way we would make it for school pick-up time. I rang a friend who laughed at my idiocy, but promised to pick them up for me. So we had a bit more time.

Mum was getting tired, but I decided to be methodical. I would scour the floor we were on. A couple of minutes later, I bumped into Reg (or Bert or similar), the car park attendant. He was kind, and he was reassuring (unlike the “computer says 80p” attendant). He took the registration and description of the car, looked at my ticket, worked out where we would have come in, and once I mentioned the weird crossbeam thing, took us straight to the car. It was in the C zone and we must have walked over the odd metal bridge, but both of us were so tied up in chatting and being mutually divvy, that we just hadn’t noticed. Why on earth we hadn’t gone to the nearest lift, I don’t know.

Good old Reg didn’t preach (he said it happened at least once a day, which made me feel better), but he pointed out that next time, we should just write which zone we parked in, on the ticket. Not sure I can be quite that organised, but it’s good advice.

When it came to going out of the car park of course, we expected problems. I’d paid for my ticket over 20 minutes ago, and these kind of car parks usually only allow about 15. Reg told us that if we had a problem, we were to press the “assistance” button at the barrier and say: “Reg says it’s OK”. I was all keyed up to deliver my lines, but as it happened, the barrier swung up without a problem.

So what have we learnt from all this? Parking in the UK is one big hassle. My advice is: where possible, park in a street with no restrictions and walk. Or if your destination is quite local, cycle.

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