In the world of urban planning, few relationships matter more than that of the car and its parking space. While the former has grown to accommodate our modern lifestyles, needs and tastes, the latter remains unchanged, reducing door clearance and, with it, the gracefulness of our disembarkation.
But just like squeezing into a favourite pair of jeans that seem to shrink with each wear, there comes a point where something has got to give. Returning to cars and their spaces, either cars will need to stop growing, urban planners will need to adapt, or the proverbial button is going to pop off, leaving many of us looking for a suitable-sized space that simply doesn’t exist anymore.
To better understand this trend, coined by many news outlets as ‘autobesity’, we’ll first look at its specific causes before turning our attention to ways it can be solved. First, there is a fundamental question to answer.
How does the size of the average car in the UK compare to the past?
The size of the average car in the UK today compared with yesteryear varies depending on who you ask, but it can be effectively illustrated by looking at Europe’s most popular hatchback – the Volkswagen Polo.
In the 1970s, the original measured 3.81 metres long and 1.63 metres wide; today, those measurements have jumped to 4.28 metres and 1.78 metres respectively, an increase of 12% in length and 9.6% in width.
These measurements tell us that the dramatic increase in car size is not owed exclusively to the popularity of SUVs (sport utility vehicles). Instead, we are witnessing an overall increase that has affected even the most modest cars.
Why the change?
Pinpointing a single reason for the increase in a car’s size would be almost impossible. That being said, below we have highlighted three of the main driving forces.
Legislation governing the safety requirements of a car’s design has changed a lot in the last 30 years. Take the Peugeot 106 (1991-2003), for example; its doors were very thin, making the hatchback lightweight and affordable. Today, however, cars must have a certain amount of protection from side-on collisions, requiring additional material that can significantly reduce space inside. To maintain comfort, many car manufacturers simply choose to increase the vehicle’s width.
Safety measures have also changed the shape of the bonnet, too. It used to sit directly on top of the engine, but now there must be a certain level of clearance between the two. This space ensures that in the event of a collision, there is a buffer zone to absorb and dissipate impact forces, protecting the vehicle occupants. To match the increased height at the front, designers often insist that their cars be made longer and broader.
An international market
What we might consider to be a large 4X4 in the UK is likely to be dwarfed in an American parking lot by much bigger vehicles. After all, our island home requires efficiency and an economy of size. The USA, on the other hand, is home to historically lower fuel prices and a vast network of wide-open freeways to explore. As a result, the choice between a big or small car is largely academic (despite the undeniable environmental impact of the latter).
To compete with these behemoths from across the pond, UK car manufacturers that export to an international audience have felt the pressure to scale up their offerings. The American preference for larger vehicles has, therefore, influenced not only the domestic market but also global automotive trends. As a result, we’ve witnessed a gradual shift towards larger vehicles in regions where compact cars once ruled the roads.
Advertisers working on behalf of car brands have skillfully equated larger with better. Whether you’re witnessing a robust 4X4 effortlessly navigate challenging terrain or a compact SUV gracefully weaving through bustling city streets, television visuals convey a consistent message of luxury and adaptability, emphasised by celebrities and influencers who further reinforce the allure of larger vehicles as a symbol of status.
While these large vehicles certainly deliver on the promise of luxury – often offering unparalleled comfort – they are, ironically, more likely to struggle with adaptability than their smaller counterparts. After all, much of the UK’s infrastructure was built long before cars grew to the size they are today. Returning to this post’s central theme, it is why we regularly see cars sticking out of parking bays, causing urban havoc and, sometimes, accidents.
But let’s look at the humble parking space in more detail.
What is the size of a car parking space in the UK?
According to the British Parking Association, the standard size of a car parking space in the UK should be approximately 4.8 meters in length by 2.4 meters in width. While this is the accepted norm, there are some exceptions to the rule, such as on a private development, parallel parking bays (6 meters wide and 2.4 meters wide), and disabled parking spaces.
How big is a disabled car parking space?
The dimensions of the disabled parking bay mirror those designated for non-disabled motorists (4.8 meters by 2.4 meters). However, its distinct feature is a surrounding hashed area, extending 1.2 meters. This critical addition safeguards against any encroachment by other vehicles, a situation that might otherwise impede the entrance and exit of occupants with disabilities.
Has the size of a car parking space changed?
No. At least not significantly. The size of a parking space in the UK has remained roughly the same (4.8 meters X 2.4 meters) since the publication of the Institution of Structural Engineers’ guidance on the subject back in 1976. At the time of writing this, however, there are parliamentary plans to increase the minimum size for spaces to accommodate the modern world’s larger vehicles.
But why is that increase important? To answer that we have to look at the consequences caused by insufficiently sized parking bays.
What happens when spaces are too small?
Aside from the personal inconvenience of making your entrance and exit a little less graceful, and the added frustration of not being able to find a suitable spot, car parking spaces that are too small can also pose significant safety concerns.
A vehicle sticking out of a bay might, for example, inhibit the visibility of pedestrians, cyclists, or other drivers in the parking area, increasing the risk of accidents and collisions. In the event of an emergency, a congested car park filled with vehicles that are too big for their bays could also prove to be an obstacle course for first responders in a situation where time is of the essence.
Then, of course, there is the structural damage to property that could be caused by oversized vehicles dealing with small spaces. While unlikely to cause personal injury, such structural damage can lead to costly repairs and maintenance for property owners. Therefore, addressing the issue of small parking spaces is not only a matter of convenience and safety but also a practical concern for property owners seeking to maintain the integrity of their parking areas.
Modern solutions to fitting within the lines
As we’ve already mentioned, the UK government is considering proposals to increase the minimum size of parking spaces to meet the needs of modern vehicles, but that’s just one solution.
Others include in-built smart technologies, such as parking sensors, cameras, and autonomous capabilities. These things can help you to stay within the lines, even when such a feat appears to be impossible, and reduce the inevitable frustration when manoeuvring in a tight space. You can also download apps which tell you well in advance of your arrival at a car park whether your vehicle is likely to fit within the bays, eliminating the guesswork that sometimes accompanies parking.
Finally, alongside technological, and legislative solutions, urban planners can also implement flexible layouts that adjust to meet the demands of motorists. For example, the line markings for 10 spaces in a high street car park designed for smaller cars can double up as eight spaces for larger SUV-style vehicles when the need arises.
Whether it’s due to enhanced safety requirements, international influence, or an aspiration to emulate the lifestyles of the rich and famous, modern cars are bigger than ever before. So big are some of the largest of our vehicles that many struggle to fit inside the lines of a regular parking space.
In response, the UK government is considering plans to increase the minimum bay size, but many experts think the increase will simply prolong the problem, rather than deal with its root cause. Nevertheless, something has got to change. Whether the solution is a technological one, an urban planning one, or a legislative one, the urgency of its implementation cannot be understated. If cars continue to push the boundaries of parking, spaces – or at least their management – must adapt to meet the challenge.