November 23: No time for the city to alienate motorists

It can be a hard station when you’re in the firing line simply for doing your job, but the life of a traffic warden has never been for the thin-skinned. Certainly not in Limerick, where tempers have been rising for weeks at a perceived escalation in tickets being slapped on car windscreens. Trawl through the archives of the Limerick Leader for front-page stories and one of the constants since the motor car became our favourite mode of transport has been parking. Too expensive, too hard to find, too rigidly policed ... you name it, every possible angle has been followed up and here we are at the end of 2013, with the same grievances being aired once again.

It can be a hard station when you’re in the firing line simply for doing your job, but the life of a traffic warden has never been for the thin-skinned. Certainly not in Limerick, where tempers have been rising for weeks at a perceived escalation in tickets being slapped on car windscreens. Trawl through the archives of the Limerick Leader for front-page stories and one of the constants since the motor car became our favourite mode of transport has been parking. Too expensive, too hard to find, too rigidly policed ... you name it, every possible angle has been followed up and here we are at the end of 2013, with the same grievances being aired once again.

There have been accusations from some motorists that tickets were issued to them only a few minutes after they had told the warden hovering with menace around their car that they were running into the shop to buy a parking disc. If true, that is unacceptable. One shop owner who spoke to the Leader believes there has been a marked change in policy and that wardens have been aggressively targeting motorists who are not legally parked, rather than adopting a more practical approach that punishes those flagrantly in breach and cuts some slack to others.

Those responsible for policing parking in the city are in defensive mode, arguing that fewer tickets were issued over an identical period last year. However, statistics can be produced to back up or to demolish almost any argument. No matter where the real truth lies, the real problem here is one of perception. If the average motorist has been angered by a ticket or becomes convinced that parking wardens are lurking behind corners waiting to pounce, then the big losers will be the city centre itself and the traders who depend on busy footfall for their livelihoods.

There will – we hope – come a day when the city has been transformed to the extent this subject becomes much less thorny.

Nobody would expect to find a convenient parking space outside a bookshop or a butcher’s in downtown Dublin. Motorists hit with tickets in the capital do not swear that they will never come into the city centre again. In a way, the regression of Limerick’s city centre can be explained by the expectation that parking should be readily available within a block or two of wherever the motorist wants to go. That is the kind of situation one finds in a quiet country town, not a city that has its sights set on rejuvenation and expansion. The problem for the local authority is that Limerick is stuck somewhere in between, and can ill-afford even the perception that a €40 fine could be the price paid for supporting city centre traders.

This weekend, the bright lights will be switched on and the countdown to Christmas will begin in earnest. With excellent out-of-town retail centres wooing customers with free parking, the city centre simply does not offer enough – as things stand – to run the risk of turning people off in this way. Around the county towns, fine local businesses are depending on local support this festive season. We highlight many of them in Leader 2 this week. So when it comes to local spending this Christmas the competition has never been as fierce. Against that background, the city needs all the incentives it can muster to draw people in, not disincentives.

It goes without saying that without the deterrent of wardens there would be parking anarchy. It’s too easy – and simply wrong – to join the chorus of those who say tickets should be abolished for Christmas period or that parking on the street should be free anywhere and everywhere. But trying to win an emotional argument like this by flourishing cold statistics about the number of tickets being issued is not the way to go.