This story may be anecdotal, but at the beginning of the 20th century a leading motor vehicle manufacturer predicted that there would never be more than 1 million cars in the world, because that was the maximum number of chauffeurs.
For a fascinating read about the history of the motor car, architecture and landscape in England, a recommendable book is “Carscapes” by Kathryn Morris and John Minnis, published 2012 in association with English Heritage. The history of the car’s impact on the physical environment, including the many structures designed specifically to accommodate cars, the transformation has shaped and in some places swamped if not ruined the quality of life for the inhabitants.
Nowadays, when most people drive themselves and many families own at least 2 cars, the problem of how to cope with traffic congestion has serious implications for the property market because the fact we have become accommodating seems to be lost on many people. The problem is compounded by the fact that in many residential areas of cities and major towns the properties were not built for people with cars so somehow we think that’s okay and have learned to live with it.
Yesterday, I inspected 6 shop properties in London. The first in North London, the second in East London, the third in closer to Central London (Notting Hill Gate) and the fourth also in West London, the fifth in SE London, the sixth in SW London. From my office, a round-trip of approximately 320 miles, some 13 hours including parking. En-route to several places, we cut through side-streets to avoid traffic delays on the main roads. Weaving our way in between rows of cars parked on pavements, it occurred to me that London’s vehicle congestion could be solved if people with cars were not allowed to buy or rent residential properties that do not have garages or off-street-parking. Such a proposition (not retrospective, of course) would be bound to meet with fierce opposition and be regarded as utterly daft, yet there is something to be said for the idea that occupational life-style really ought to be commensurate with the type of property and environs, rather than expect the property and environs to be accommodating of changes in life-style.
Accommodating is a form of artificial expansion, pushing the boundaries past their natural limits, giving in for a quiet life. A dilemma, property (real estate) is fixed, but how property is used is not. Having developed a building, the only future possibilities are to adapt, extend, modernise, or demolish and start again. But property is also a store of value, so any changes are likely to have wider consequences for the parties involved and any other interested bodies.
Amongst the wider consequences that the impact of the motor car has had is in a physical separation of pedestrian from road. The pace of life at pedestrian level is generally slower than for that of a moving vehicle. The relationship between people and motor cars is a cause of stress between the direction that people would go if left to their devices and the direction imposed upon us as a result of the need to accommodate moving vehicles and where to park them.
Having a car has two advantages over public transport: with a car, you can go where you want (assuming a road of some sort), whereas with public transport you are taken where they want; with a car, you don’t have the share the journey with just anyone, with public transport you do. Whether a car is more expensive to run than using public transport depends upon not only upon comparing actual running costs, but also how much you value your health and sanity!
Those of us that do not live in towns and cities cannot manage very easily without a car. Those that do inhabit towns and cities are quite possibly representative of a report in last Saturday’s FT (about car sharing) which said that “a 2010 study of 3,000 UK city dwellers found that the average car was parked for 97% of its life”. With that in mind. I have become more aware of something my cousin said to me, after I had queried why when I know she has a car she would be coming by train to visit us, so might not make it if there were a cancellation, that it can now take much longer to drive the 14 miles on a Sunday afternoon from where she lives in London than travel by train. The study was also brought home to me yesterday afternoon when. while sitting in a traffic jam along Fulham Palace Road, London SW/W heading towards Hammersmith flyover, I noticed a house looking like it had had a lot of money spent on it including an electrically-operated gate to a small shallow forecourt upon which a shiny car was parked. The way the car was parked made me think the driver must have reversed in off the main road, there being not enough room to turn on the forecourt itself. What interested me in particular was that there was no drop-kerb on the public pavement so the car’s wheels must have had to tolerate bumping up and down whenever driven from and to the main road. In short, leading a stressful existence.
There’s traffic and there is traffic and our perception of jams and congestion can vary depending upon the reason for the journey and the inconvenience of any delay. If like me you like to be on time then it is often necessary to allow more time for a journey. When arranging appointments to inspect, I estimate time of arrival, to allow for traffic conditions. Usually for a first inspection in London I expect to arrive on time because the 120 miles or so to get there can be achieved with more certainty than for the second inspection between one London suburb and another. Yesterday’s marathon excluding travelling to and from London planned just over 5 hours on paper, but almost 7 hours in practice because of traffic jams in East and SW London.
I can remember when driving the short distance along the London’s North Circular Road from Ealing to Kew Bridge increased from about 15 minutes to half an hour or more; it was after road widening to accommodate increasing flow of vehicles. In the just over 20 years since I emigrated from NW London, the population of London as a whole has grown from about 6 million to 8.8 million, with 10 million predicted by 2030. As for cars, the figures don’t seem to have increased that much, but it does feel more hectic and perhaps pro-rata it is. According to a Transport for London report in 2012: “there are 2.6m cars registered in London. 54 per cent of London households have at least one car. Londoners are more likely to own a car if they live in outer London, live in an area with poor access to public transport, have a higher income, have a child in the house, and are of Western European nationality.”
Many in-town shops are adaptations of 19th century houses or older and even with mid 20C shops the number of cars envisaged was in sync with the surroundings. Not any more: there are too many cars for the streetscape and not enough room for them all to hide. Of the 6 shop properties I inspected, only one has rear vehicle access and its on-site parking right is managed by a parking company able to clamp unauthorised vehicles. Of the other 5 shops, none has on-street parking outside, in two cases all day prohibitive, which means both (motorist) customers and shop staff must find somewhere else to park while shopping and /or working.
In cities and towns, where off-street car parking space is at a premium or non-existent, the lack of facility doesn’t seem to have deterred incomer occupiers or investors, even though entering into a property commitment where what has become a necessity for most people strikes me as rather short-sighted.
As any landlord with property in areas where it is difficult if not impossible to park will surely confirm, the only alternative to parking tickets is public transport. For workmen, tradesmen, delivery drivers, not being able to park a van without risking a parking ticket, there is no alternative. For others, well, they can walk or use public transport but removing car users/owners from an important part of the market rather limits the potential for the property. As for people who inspect or visit occasionally, just something to put up with.
As if to exact revenge on their naivety in being supportive of out-of- town shopping centres and retail parks and the consequently adverse impression on the nation’s high streets, local councils operating in-town public car parks charge disproportionately. Symptomatic of being over-accommodating, motorists are fed-up. Not so much recession (or recession-within- recession, as some commentators are saying) but depression. It’s not that we are unable to attract customers, small shopkeepers tell me, but there’s nowhere for them to park or too expensive when they want to visit, so they shop out of town or on-line. On-line? It might be thought that buying on-line, having goods delivered, reduces demand for parking spaces but it doesn’t seem to have impacted generally. On the contrary, roads and streets that were almost guaranteed to offer parking space are now almost certain not to: demand from motorists, and from local authorities liberally yellow-lining or metering in the vain hope of driving more cars to their car parks.
Car parking is an important source of revenue for cash-straped local authorities and providing spaces is lucrative for car park operators. With commercial property, on-site car parking is rated for business rates but, with 2010 Rateable Value based on April 2008 values, the space is often substantially undervalued, so taxation is losing out. Which may be thought a good thing in the context of tax minimisation, but the less tax revenue from one source, the more needed from another, and the more cuts to make up the shortfall.
In the same way there are types of residential property that are more risky to invest in because they are not the sort of property any decent tenant would want to rent, so too does the lack of car parking provision rub off on the marketability of commercial property, both from prospective tenants and investors.