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Sue Hayward

Why do car parks pack in so many spaces?


Find it tricky squeezing in narrow parking bays without any scrapes? You can have problems getting out too if the car park is badly designed. 

Car park

Last week I got stuck in a station car park at Harlington in Bedfordshire.

It’s a proper station car park, with parking arranged with two rows of bays opposite each other.

‘Epic struggle’

The problem is that the car park gets narrower the further down you go, so any available turning room between the rows gets tighter too. 

Driving in was relatively easy, but the car park was packed when I got back, with vehicles near the line next to me and opposite.

Trying to get out proved an epic struggle to avoid bumping the car opposite because I didn’t have enough turning room. 

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that I’m just not a good driver, except that the distance between the end of my space, and the one opposite, was just 2.8 metres.

Car park

Postcode lottery

That’s a metre shorter than my car and not much wider than the bay itself which I measured at 2.3 metres wide.

For the record, I drive a Peugeot 206, which is not a particularly big car.

And it seems the size of parking bays, along with any room for manoeuvre, can prove something of a postcode lottery.

Who sets bay sizes?

The guidelines on size can be found in a lengthy document called “Manual for Streets” produced by the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

As far as street parking is concerned, it says vehicles typically need spaces from a minimum of 2.4 metres wide by 4.2 metres long.

However with private car parks it’s a different story.

“The parking company and landowner are responsible for the size of spaces in private car parks,” says a DCLG spokesman. However the department admits this is an issue it’s currently consulting on.

Does size matter?

When it comes to parking, it’s not just bay size that counts, but the car park layout too.

“Car parks should be designed as efficiently as possible; not just to maximise revenue,” says Paul Watters, the AA’s head of roads policy. 

“With multi-storey parking, space sizes are often reduced by large pillars yet some open-air retail car parks have very generous-sized spaces.”

Regardless of design, there are a few simple rules to help you avoid scrapes.

Reversing in is best

“Choose your parking neighbours carefully,” says Mark Lewis, director of standards at the Institute of Advanced Motorists. 

“If you’ve got a sports car or two-door car, park on the end so you can open your doors easily and if you’ve got a small car, keep away from larger neighbours.”

Reversing in is best, both for safety so you can see what’s coming, and because “it’s better for your car if you can start up and pull away”.

Station car parks

While many of these are managed by private companies, they don’t own them or set space size.

That usually falls to the rail company, and in my case, that’s Govia Thameslink Railway.

“We have to strike a balance between maximising the number of spaces for our passengers and the area each site has to offer,” says a spokesman for Govia Thameslink.

Are car park spaces fit for purpose?

In some cases, it seems they’re not.

A row broke out in Newbury, Berkshire after one resident, retired architect Stan Green, measured the council designed parking bays to discover they were a metre shorter than government guidelines. 

Meanwhile West Berkshire Council had been busy fining motorists for overlapping these bays, despite the reduced size.

However if it’s super-size spaces you’re after, head for Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire.

Its West Street multi-storey has some of the biggest bays I’ve seen at over 3 metres wide and nearly 5 metres long.


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