French v British Car Parking

There’s a decent discussion going on over at Tim Worstall’s about the state of car parking in British towns and cities.

One of the things I have noticed over my years in France is the presence of large underground car parks in French towns and cities, even the very old ones with lots of heritage buildings. People complain about not being able to find a parking space in Paris because they are looking for the free ones at street level, not the ones in dedicated car parks. When I was in Bordeaux last weekend I came across the entrance to an underground car park in a small square surrounded by old buildings:

According to the website there are 196 places down there.

You almost never see these municipal underground car parks in British towns and cities. Instead, you get surface or hideous multi-storey car parks. The same is true for residential buildings. In France, most modern apartment blocks come with two or three layers of basement parking (plus an extremely useful set of storage rooms). When I’ve looked at these I imagine construction starts by digging a gigantic hole and pouring a lot of concrete to make the car parks, then putting the building on top. You rarely see this in the UK. Most apartment blocks there have a ridiculously undersized surface car park and residents who don’t have their own space are expected to park on the streets.

I have heard various excuses for this. Apparently parking cars at street level is safer, as criminals have to operate in full view of everyone. Which British criminals appear to do anyway, so this is a stupid idea. Other people mumble about the water table or proximity to a river. I don’t buy this, either. There is an underground car park in Annecy which spirals downwards into the ground for at least a hundred metres, possibly more. It is located right beside a canal that leads to the lake some 100m away. The car park in Bordeaux pictured above is about 200m from the river. Proximity to water and geology doesn’t seem to be much of an impediment to building underground car parks in France.

My guess is that underground car parks (both municipal and residential) require specific civil engineering skills that British construction firms lack, and they cost money. British councils and developers being what they are, they will use every excuse in the book to avoid spending money on a quality job. If there is a corner to be cut they will do so, the consequences down the track be damned. So a developer will seize on any reason not to build an underground car park if they can get away with a strip of tarmac instead. It’s not like they can’t flog the apartments for a king’s ransom anyway. Continue this for a while and soon you’ll not be able to find any contractors who have the skills and experience to do build them anyway. And here we are.

I’ll wrap this up by saying French civil engineering is extremely good, and I could cite many examples in support of this statement. I may return to this topic in future.


59 thoughts on “French v British Car Parking

  1. Hi Tim! Does seem to have been a topic worth discussing, got kicked off at the other Tim’s place.
    Not sure if I haven’t used that Bordeaux carpark pictured.Certainly one very much like it. My only quibble was trying to get my Yank people carrier down the access ramp. Went round the corner & through the ticket collection with about an inch to spare. The prospect of having to back it out of a hole in the ground pushing aspiring Frog parkers aside doesn’t bear thinking about.
    But all this stuff about the difficulty of underground construction. In London. FFS! The city’s full of underground construction. Been doing it for more than a century. The Tube lines, their stations & the pedestrian access tunnels, for a start. Much of far deeper than necessary for carparks. The Drain. Then there’s all the tunnels you’re not immediately aware of. The Post Office Railway runs through Mount Pleasant. The private tunnels connect buildings across roads The wartime stuff. And a lot of the buildings in Central London, built around & after the turn of C20th go down a long way. I did exploration work on the fabric of the building across from the Ritz. Cellars in that one go down three levels. And none of these seem to have problems with water or subsidence.
    The Spanish city I live in, almost every substantial building has at least one level of car parking. And many of the squares have parking under.
    Like I said on TimW’s site, the Brits are barking. For doing bugger all about solving their parking problems. For grovellingly accepting the planning shite & the unnecessary restrictions. For communally not growing a pair.

  2. “In London. FFS! The city’s full of underground construction”

    My thoughts exactly, Civil Engineering was created in the UK and centered in London with Britain being the undoubted world leaders in construction and underground construction both at home and around empire since the demise of the Roman Empire. Brunel (father and son) Telford, Smeaton and so many more would turn in their graves at any notion of a simple underground structure being too difficult for its modern day inhabitants. If it is, then it certainly isn’t due to a lack of civil engineering capability.

    I bet you London to a brick that no piece of mud anywhere in the world has been studied and conquered more so than the London Clays have.

    At least the British legacy of civil engineering survives in some areas as I have insisted that the picture below is shown on page three of our internal Civil Technology Training Package, which is delivered in three continents across the world.×344.png

  3. @Bardon “So from an earthquake point of view, if you are wary of an underground car park in France then you should be very concerned about entering an above ground structure.”

    Funnily enough that does concern me too. The fact that, even in fairly recent buildings, it seems to be common to have large cracks from subsidence or similar scares the $#!+ out of me. I take comfort in the fact that I no longer live there and just visit now and again.

    Breezeblocks, even with a bit of rebar on the corners, does not inspire me with any confidence at all, but that’s how most modern villas on the Riviera are built. Somewhere I have a photo of one where the builder was “hiding the decline” in the middle of a wall with a layer of cement and whitewash (well yellowwash).

  4. I am used to earthquakes and I have a lot more confidence in both Japanese building standards and the likelihood that the building conforms to them.

    French building standards have certainly been upgraded over the years so I’d probably prefer to be in a new building compared to, say, a 1950s one, when a quake hits but I’d prefer it even more to be in a Japanese one.

    I’ve seen the Sydney sandstone. I’d like an excuse to see it again

  5. So what would that excuse be, I don’t think our elections would be interesting enough for you to cover.

    Keeping it in the civil infrastructure space maybe the second airport which is long overdue, especially in a country that has 136 aircraft per million people, the highest ratio in the world. Or the French connection where the city of Reims light rail inspired the enhancement of sandstone building facades like Sydney Central Station for the new light rail.

  6. Things that make you go hmm……..

    The article talks about this foam expanding when wet, I doubt this. I think the foam is floating in the floodwater. Either the design or the construction has not allowed for the buoyancy of this foam compared to the flood water and it has just ripped up through the thin car park surface.

  7. Either the design or the construction has not allowed for the buoyancy of this foam compared to the flood water and it has just ripped up through the thin car park surface.

    I concur.

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