A narrow tarmac road choked with motor vehicles and parking lots cordoned off by dirty drums, rough rocks and heavy chains welcomes motorists to Limbe.
The rusty busy town in Blantyre City brims with vehicles and unlucky motorists cannot figure out where to park.
Some drivers angrily press the hooter while others spit expletives as they try to squeeze their vehicles into overcrowded parking spots left by vehicles with reverse taillights glowing. The infuriating scramble favours businesspeople and corporates who barricade the foreground of their buildings and deploy guards to secure the public space for themselves.
Patrolling traffic police fine unlucky motorists for wrong parking, offering no alternative space.
Parking in Malawi’s minute cities has become a tale of widening inequalities ripping a population that has surged from 13 million to about 19 million in the past decade.
The 2018 census shows that the slow-evolving cities of Blantyre, Zomba, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and other urban areas play home to about 16 in every 100 Malawians. The cities are bursting under population pressure, with pedestrians from all walks of life, bicyclists with fingers on ringing bells, unlicensed motorcyclists without crashhelmets and drivers fruitlessly figuring out where to park their vehicles.
Over two decades ago, the brains behind the former National Bank of Malawi (NBM) former headquarters, Umoyo House, Unit House and Development House in Blantyre, saw the parking saga coming. In their wisdom, they tucked the high-rise building’s car park in the basement. As vehicles of their executives and customers disappear into their bowels, the old buildings stubbornly scoffs at the modern-day architects, investors and town planners who pay little or no attention to end the rising scramble for parking space.
Poor city planning—coupled with hazy regulations and common obsession for personal vehicles over public transport, cycling and walking—makes the cities unfriendly to motorists.
The chaos is aided by the rapidly growing citizenry’s appetite to own motorcars, mostly pre-owned imports.
Directorate of Road Traffic and Safety Services (DRTSS) spokesperson Angelina Makwecha says the directorates’ power to regulate parking spaces does not apply to privately reserved spaces.
“We have a mandate to handle wrong parking issues, but privately reserved spaces are handled by the city councils,” she states.
Interestingly, Dennis Chinseu, the director of commerce and industry at Blantyre City Council (BCC), knows that shortage of parking space remains a big and growing concern in the city.
He says everyone has a right to space, but owners of street-side businesses reserve parking spaces for their own convenience and to boost “a favourable business image”.
“Once we have marked the space, the owners partially take care of it as a private property. They have to put in place measures to regulate the space,” Chinseu states.
With blurry laws that come short of splitting public zones from private property, some business owners have hijacked shrinking spaces for all as plans to expand car parks remain a mere lip service.
“Every day, council officials collect parking fees from motorists, but we don’t know where it goes. Carparks remain few, congested, potholed and unmarked,” says Angella Mwale, who was forced to wrongly park on the pavement.
Chinseu says the council uses part of the said revenue to maintain existing carparks and the remainder for other essential services in the city.
He explains: “The parking fees we collect go into a pool of resources the council has and it is shared to meet various needs of the city.
“While some people expect us to use the money for roads infrastructure, such thinking has to be matched with the resources that are available.”
Chinseu says the money is not ring-fenced for the upgrading of carparks “because it is collected as a tax in the first place”.
Jimmy Gondwe, the honorary secretary of the Malawi Institute of Physical Planners, calls for an end to continued delays to address parking regulations and expand parking zones as the scramble for contested spaces fuels accidents, crime and chaos.
He urges city councils and investors to adopt yard parking to solve the problem that slows business in cities.
“Look at the problem holistically, not just demarcating or reserving strips on street parking spaces,” he says.
To the expert, holistic planning does not disregard activities underway in the designated spaces, including street vending, pedestrian tracks and biking lanes.
He says: “Instead of using allocated vertical and horizontal parking spaces on temporary basis, some shops park long vehicles horizontally for a long time—leaving others desperate, especially during rush hour.”
Gondwe finds it ironic that most parking spaces are often used as lanes for pedestrians, bikers and street vendors.
Apart from providing ample parking space as is the case at Delamere House in Blantyre, the expert urges city councils to normalise the construction of high-rise buildings with underground parking as did the brains behind the Old NBM headquarters and the new NBM Towers and other buildings.
Amid rapid population growth, Memory Sagawa, from Lilongwe, says the uncertain hunt for parking space is not for the fainthearted.
She states: “When I had just learnt to drive in the capital city, I basically had to drive over two kilometres searching for secure parking spaces.
“At times, I use public transport because I do not want to put my vehicle at risk of being smashed by reckless drivers and thieves.”