The war of parking in South Korea

Heavy traffic is seen on the highway linking Seoul and Busan on May 20, 2018. The increase in the number of vehicles on the road, the lack of parking space and inadequate regulations are contributing to South Korea's parking issues. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Ever felt a sense of total devastation? How about trying to push a giant SUV forward so that it can make room for your car to drive out of a parking spot in a triple-park situation - while running late to work.

Such a conundrum is routine for many Seoulites who live in a congested city with limited parking spots at their residences. To make things worse, such conflicts often lead to violent confrontations among neighbours.

In South Korea, where cars are viewed as a symbol of socio-economic status, the number of registered vehicles continues to rise as the economy grows. However, space to house these vehicles remains limited.

The number of vehicles registered here as of last year was 22.5 million units, up 3.3 per cent on-year, according to the Transportation Ministry. This is similar to the number registered in California, which is about three times bigger than South Korea in terms of land size.

Fraught with a lack of parking space and inadequate regulations, South Korea grapples with chronic parking issues; vehicles are parked on sidewalks, fire lanes, or any possible nook and cranny one can find.

"After I got my driver's licence, my biggest fear was not in driving on a fast expressway, but to find a parking spot large enough to fit my car," said Lee Joo Hyun, a 30-year-old owner of Kia's compact Morning.

Parking is troublesome even for veteran drivers.

"I leave work earlier than I should out of fear that the parking lot at my apartment complex will already be filled with cars by 8pm," said Kim Sung Jae, a 45-year-old director at an internet firm, who has been driving for the past 20 years.

"It's like a race against time. If I fail to find a spot, I have to circle around the parking lot until someone, by pure luck, decides to drive out at night, or else I would have to park illegally along the side of the boardwalk."

The challenge is not limited to residential areas.

"The restaurant in Itaewon I visited for a lunch meeting last week was not accessible by subway, so I drove my car. But the restaurant that accommodates about 30 people had two parking slots and did not provide a valet service," said Kim Sun Young, 31, who works at a local food manufacturer.

"The closest public parking lot was a 30-minute walk. I illegally parked my car on the left lane in front of the restaurant."

Kim is not the only one who has to resort to such actions.

A survey by local market researcher Trendmonitor showed that 52.2 per cent of 1,000 drivers said a lack of parking space is the number one reason for illegal parking.

The number of tickets issued for illegally parked cars jumped nearly seven times from 2,604 cases in 2012 to 15,439 cases in 2015, according to figures from the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency.

Congested parking lots have even led to violent situations. A man in his 20s was arrested in July last year for smashing a neighbour's car with a golf club after the neighbour refused to relocate his double-parked vehicle at a multi-unit house in Incheon.

In 2015, police arrested a 45-year-old man surnamed Han for setting fire to a car that had double-parked on the walkway at an apartment complex in Icheon city, Gyeonggi Province.

There have also been cases in which parking problems led to fatal consequences.

For instance, a fire that broke out at a fitness centre last December in Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province, claiming 29 lives. About 20 cars parked illegally on the side of the street made it difficult for fire trucks to get through, holding back rescue efforts.

Shortly after the incident the National Assembly passed a revision bill on road transport, which allows fire fighters to remove cars without having to compensate for damage that may be inflicted while removing illegally parked vehicles that hinder rescue efforts, starting June.

Ironically, the amount of space allocated for parking in Korea has risen over the years. As of 2016, parking slots in Seoul reached 3.9 million units, exceeding the 3 million cars registered, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

Despite the increase, the parking struggles show a shortage in useful and accessible parking spaces.

"The parking issue in Seoul is caused mainly by a lack of parking space for multi-unit houses alongside regions planned and built during the initial stages of the country's economic development (in the 1970s-90s)," Kim Dae Hong, an officer in charge of Seoul's parking planning at the Seoul Metropolitan Government, told The Korea Herald.

"Regulations for multiunit houses under Korea's Building Act does not require constructors to make sure one parking space is allocated to each household," he added.

As for regions with new high-rise buildings dealing with the same issue, Shim Gyo Eon, a professor of Konkuk University's department of real estate studies, said, "The benefits of increased parking space are unevenly distributed. In business areas in Seoul, where land is expensive, there is a cap on the number of cars buildings can accommodate, banning other drivers from using the facility."

In light of the challenges related to parking, zones set aside for social minorities have often backfired and even been abused.

Some 99.4 per cent of cars illegally parked at handicap parking spaces - usually situated closest to the entrances of buildings - involve vehicles that do not belong to or carry disabled people, according to data from the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

Although the government introduced female-first parking spots in 2009 to prevent crimes against women, the regulation is rarely kept.

"There is no doubt we need parking zones for the handicapped and women. But we need to be smart with allocations by factoring in the ratio of usage of parking space by the disabled and pregnant women for each building," Shim said.

The lack of parking spaces, in turn, has birthed various business models, such as mobile apps that keep track of available parking spaces in nearby lots, and independent valet services that charge up to 3,000 won (S$3.73) a vehicle, regardless of the duration of parking, in exchange for scavenging a slot.

Now, electric vehicles are making their way into the already-crowded world of parking.

Municipal governments have assigned special parking and charging stations for electric vehicles as part of a campaign to promote environment-friendly vehicles.

Furthermore, combustion engine cars parked at electric vehicle chargers will be fined up to 200,000 won, while those that block the chargers will be fined up to 1 million won from Sept 20.

Such "bureaucratic" policies will do little to ease chronic parking problems, experts said, adding that the government must overhaul the way parking spaces are factored into the process of construction approvals.

"Budgets to construct public parking lots in regions with multiunit houses or old apartment complexes often do not pass the final stages of city evaluation.

This is because they are seen to have limited benefits to citizens compared to the amount of money invested, compared to for instance, building a public park," said Kim Do Gyeong, a professor of the University of Seoul's department of transport engineering.

"It is not easy for constructors to secure a larger area for parking spaces in multi-unit houses, where those in the low-income bracket mostly reside, as more land means increased price."

Highlighting the importance of long-term plans for accessible parking space, Shim said, "In theory, parking lots should be built within 150 metres of congested areas. If they are located farther than 150 to 200 metres, drivers will choose to park their car illegally."

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