The third annual Middle East Parking Symposium, which concluded on Tuesday, was advertised as "the largest parking event in the Middle East ever." Still, marketing has its limitations. Three days on the subject of where to leave your car inevitably attracts a select crowd. "If you are serious about your parking business - you need to be there," read the invitation. I was there. "Parking is never free, even though people think it is," announced Doug Holmes in a stern keynote speech. Mr Holmes is a CAPP, a certified administrator of public parking, and a consummate parking professional. He manages the parking facilities at the University of Pennsylvania. The 44,000 students at the main campus, he said, hate to pay for parking. It's easy to see why they might think they are being taken for a ride. The main campus is in a rural area of the state, and despite having acres upon acres of empty land there never seems to be enough places to park.
"You can't solve parking in a vacuum," Mr Holmes insisted. "You can't solve parking by just building more parking." If he was to create enough spaces to accommodate all the drivers, the greenery on the campus would be replaced with acres of tarmac. So, he banned students from parking on campus and made them leave their cars at an off-site lot. Now they have to take a bus to class. Cue legions of furious undergraduates.
As far as freeing up central Abu Dhabi is concerned, Najib al Zarooni might be able to learn something from his counterpart in Pennsylvania. Mr al Zarooni is the general manager for Mawaqif, the paid-parking scheme of the Department of Transport. Then again, the centre of Abu Dhabi is already to some degree one large car park, so it is perhaps too late for the island. Still, Mr al Zarooni might sympathise with aspects of Doug Holmes's situation. In the year since Mawaqif began operating, it has been flooded with complaints from people who find having to pay for parking too much of a chore.
Judging by the number of exhibitors at the conference promoting one particular approach, the answer to all these problems may well be automated parking. Nearly half of the vendors in the hall at Adnec were hawking various models of robotic car parks - giant warehouses for cars where robotic elevators pick your car up and store it on a shelf. In addition to being a nifty piece of kit, they also save space.
"You can get two times the amount of cars in the same amount of space as in a conventional car park," explained the chief operating officer of Robotic Parking Systems, Christian Haag. His company built the automated car park near Ibn Battuta mall. With a capacity for 765 cars, Mr Haag claims that it is the largest in the world. I tell him that I first saw an automated parking garage in Japan, 15 years ago. While it is not unusual to see new technology first in a country like Japan, a decade and a half is a long time. If the technology was so great, why didn't it catch on sooner?
"It depends on the part of the world. In Japan, they need it," said Mr Haag. "However, in New York City, there is still a lot of influence from the mafia, who won't build a system that monitors all the comings and goings." Alternatively, it could simply be a case of sticker shock. The Japanese are known to shell out money for hi-tech gizmos but the construction cost of the car park near Ibn Battuta came to a jaw-dropping Dh73,450 per space. At that price, Mr Haag should hope none of his potential clients use Google. A quick search turns up stories of the fiasco surrounding a prior Robotic Parking Systems project in Hoboken, New Jersey, which periodically broke down, leaving hundreds of cars sealed inside the garage, impossible to retrieve.
Luckily there were other options. Apex Skypark, an American subsidiary of the Emirati-owned Spacegate, is building the Al Hikma (wisdom) tower in Dubai. This, according to Harold Ashworth, director of sales and marketing, will be "the tallest tower in the world with a bust of a person on top". That person is Sheikh Zayed, and his visage will be visible from 12 miles out, Mr Ashworth boasted. If that were not incentive enough to get in on the ground floor, future tenants will also be able to park in "the largest automated car park in the world". The car park will hold around 1,300 vehicles.
Mr Haag would no doubt be disappointed to hear that his record is threatened. But there was still another contender at the conference. Two booths down from Spacegate's flashy display was a small booth for Precision Automated and Robotics India (Pari). By the time Al Hikma is finished in 2012, its claim of having the biggest automated car park in the world may have already been eclipsed. "We are on the verge of completing the biggest automated car park in the world in Delhi," said Tarun Sengar, a Pari sales rep. The car park in New Delhi's Connaught Place will hold 2,432 cars, he said. Perhaps Al Hikma should rest content with its other distinction.
Tim Haahs is head of the engineering firm Timothy Haahs & Associates, and something of a guru in parking circles. He has designed around 300 parking facilities and edits several parking-related publications. But he will probably have taken a dim view of these gadgets and rivalries. "The job of a parking professional is to not only make sure parking demands are met, but to reduce demand," he said. Before cars, claims Mr Haahs, neighbourhoods contained most of what people needed on a daily basis because they had to. People just couldn't travel long distances as they do today.
All around the conference centre were banners touting Adnec's slogan: "We build destinations". This, according to Mr Haahs, was symbolic of a mindset that has destroyed many modern cities. "[Modern city planners] like to build destination places like malls that concentrate people and traffic. In Europe there are no destinations because every street has something to offer," he said. "We need to go back to the way we used to live before cars." If Mr Haahs's philosophy catches on, this year's parking symposium could yet stand as a high-water mark in the history of the parking space.