Visit an apartment complex in Seoul at night. Cars are not just parked; they are packed in every corner of the compound. You could see any conceivable way of using space to leave a car for the night. The remainder are lined up on nearby streets until the next morning. Inside the complex, a small lane is left where one car can just barely pass. Passages for fire trucks have been narrowed and hydrants have been blocked. People push cars backward and forward the next morning to “dig out” their cars. Many of these vehicles are of course illegally parked overnight.
Every time we check our cars for valet parking at cafes and restaurants in Seoul, we see the cars disappear and leisurely forget about them. The cars are probably parked somewhere around the corners or along the alleyways, most probably many of them violating traffic regulations. Or how many times do we have to change driving lanes hurriedly because of stopped trucks (for loading and unloading) and parked sedans in a moving lane? On the streets, vehicles are frog-parked - parking a car with one side on the road and the other side on the curb side. Right, sometimes cars are just blatantly parked on public walkways. We could meet “kind” shop owners who deliberately cover up the license plates by hanging something over the plates. All these parking practices implicate legal problems, of course.
People can find an interesting commonality here. Drivers who park their cars liberally or illegally barely show any sign of apology or guilt. In some instances drivers even behave as if they were entitled to park that way, almost asking back, “what else can I do?” They may roll their eyes, saying this is an inevitable and permitted practice in this crowded city, and treat you as a stubborn person out of touch with reality. Moreover, parking related laws and regulations are loosely enforced. Even if enforced, administrative fines are modest, roughly within the range of $30-$40. As a matter of fact, when purchase and ownership of vehicles do not require proof of parking space as in some crowded countries, an obvious signal is that you find your own way of parking your vehicles. All these factors have fostered the nationwide spread and tacit acceptance of random parking.
Belatedly, everyone now realizes just how dangerous a threat this problem poses. We have learned that in the deadly blaze in Jecheon City in December, 20-plus cars were lined up along the alleys and passages, only to block the access of fire trucks and delay rescue operations. As what happened there may repeat itself elsewhere in major cities in the country, the public now perceives it as an important social safety issue.
In response, relevant laws have been recently amended to provide firefighters on the field with more discretion and authority in emergency situations: Illegally parked cars can be pushed out of the way, towed or even destroyed, when necessary, without a concern over associated liability and compensation problems. An appropriate amendment, indeed.
There are other regulatory changes that need to be done. Penalties should be made effective and more strictly enforced. Requirement for proof of parking space should be imposed on constructors of at least certain sizes of buildings and facilities. Perhaps, restaurants that do not have their own parking spaces should be required to show how they will handle their customers’ cars before they run valet parking booths. Right now, owners make money because of increased customers, valet parking operators also make money if they park as many cars as possible, and customers benefit as well because they can forget about their cars after arrived at a restaurant. The price for these gains and benefits is being paid by all of us.
Most importantly, the public attitude should change. Random parking or liberal parking, whatever you may call, is not an inevitable or condoned practice in Seoul. It has now become a serious social safety issue.
By Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Ed.