Chennai’s bolt-on parking plans will not work

Can a well-defined parking policy set right the parking problem in Chennai. At least, that is what this report in The Hindu seems to say.

Only if cars were made of cloth could all of them be parked in a crowded city. The problem is that they are big metal, glass and plastic objects that occupy precious space. What is more, the problem of finding parking space is growing at the rate of 4,000 cars and 24,000 motorcycles a month, not counting the highly mobile and wealthy cruisers who drive into the city from outside everyday.

We have no idea what a defined parking policy is all about, but City Connect the NGO quoted in The Hindu report will be going down the wrong road if it prioritizes parking over mobility. Anyone making a visit to crowded commercial centres such as T.Nagar, Mylapore, Parrys, Triplicane or even the leading corporate hospitals such as Apollo know that it is impossible for any policy to equitably distribute space to car owners and other road users alike. You simply cannot bolt-on a neoliberal "have car, will drive" automotive culture on an old city with 7 million people.

Given the cost of real estate in Chennai, any ‘well-defined’ parking policy of eliminating street parking and requiring people to use multi-storeyed structures is bound to raise costs so high that the real cost of car use within the city would exceed politically sustainable levels. That may explain the still-born ventures so far, including much-publicised ventures in the amorphously growing gold and textile district of T.Nagar.

In reality, the entire debate on parking is misplaced, given the fact that there can be no perfect market for car parking. What would indeed work is a robust taxi market. The absence of a reliable taxi service (and the lack of regulation in the autorickshaw system) has raised car dependence in Chennai. This must be reversed. Any attempt at rational use of the city space would require governments to consider the fact that public space is being subsidised by people who do not own cars. Quite strangely, the NGOs which concern themselves with parking are not quoted in media reports as calling for more robust public transport systems which would eliminate the need for extensive and costly parking infrastructure (which inevitably would have to be subsidised by the government).

For the parking policy that is ultimately decided, the best course is to opt for the more advanced technology in the field. An example of this is IBM’s Smarter Planet sensor-based intelligent information systems. In any case, mobility has to be the priority, and parking only secondary to it.

The tragedy is that the question of allocation of public space is being pursued not by people-based institutions, such as the elected civic councils and the members of the legislature, but by "soft agencies" such as NGOs who have no real stake in the population of a particular area, and who will never need to face questions. The silence of the better-informed academic community, and the corruption in governmental institutions has led to the centre-staging of dubious reports that essentially call for subsidised public land to be made available to a small sub-set of the population.

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