Parking is the third rail of local politics. Touch it, and you die.
(Andrew Gilligan, Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s “cycling tsar”)
This bloke walks into a pub. The barman says to him “Good afternoon, sir, what will you have?” The bloke says “Thanks. I’ll have a pint. Have you seen parking’s gone up another 10p? I think I might have to stick to a half next time”.
OK, I know, as bloke-walks-into-pub jokes go, it isn’t very funny. But that’s because I thought it up myself. Why? To illustrate the calibre of “evidence” supporting the demands by small shopkeepers, “Queen of Shops” Mary Portas, and now Communities & Local Government Minister Eric Pickles to reduce or remove charges or restrictions on town centre parking.
I am sure that when small shopkeepers complain that parking charges are hurting their business, they are not simply making it up. They do get customers coming in, complaining about the cost of parking, or how far away they had to park. But, as Mandy Rice Davies might have said if asked why, “Well, they would, wouldn’t they?” One thing I am sure they don’t come in complaining is that they couldn’t find a parking space – think about it, and I’ll explain later.
What about evidence of the opposite proposition, that parking charges and restrictions do not harm retailers, indeed help them? This is actually quite extensive, and can be found in various places such as the Transport Research Laboratory “ParkingMeasures and Policies Review” and “The relevance of parking in the success ofurban areas” review for London Councils. Of course it is comprehensive, scientific and, well, a bit dry so it tends to be drowned out by the noise of the parking lobby’s dog whistle.
One thing it does tell us is that what people say about their response to parking charges, eg in opinion surveys carried out by that obviously non-partisan body the RAC Foundation, and what they do are not the same thing. People say that increases in parking charges will drive them away from a town centre, but what is then observed is that they keep coming.
They also show that time restrictions and charging, correctly applied, not merely don’t harm retailers, they support them, by optimising the use of parking spaces, increasing turnover and discouraging “bay blocking”. Put simply, two shoppers both parking for one hour will spend more in the shops than one shopper parking for two hours. At the extremes, charging or time limits prevent parking spaces being occupied all day by motorists who quite possibly are not visiting the shops at all. Underpricing of parking spaces leads to them being saturated so new arrivals can’t find somewhere to park, or have to cruise round for some time hoping to be in the right place at the right time to grab a space just as it is vacated. That really can cause business to be driven away from a town centre – as I say, you don’t hear shoppers complaining they couldn’t find a space, because in that case they wouldn’t even be there, or they wouldn’t have come by car.
One retort I have had thrown back at me on this is that the research all relates to cities, and so is not relevant to small towns. Possibly it is less relevant to a small town than to the cities in which the research was undertaken, but conceptually it strikes me that much of it is every bit as apposite, and in any case, it is evidence, which is a lot more than can be said for the other side of the argument.
Does it matter? Yes, it does. Town centre parking creates town centre traffic, and underpriced town centre parking creates more traffic, more congestion and pollution, and more road danger. It also reduces the attractiveness of the town centre as a destination. After all, one of the attractions of Bluewater or Westfields is that once you are there, you enjoy a clean, safe traffic-free environment. More traffic-choked streets discourage walking and cycling, and discourage shopping visitors. In extreme cases, on-street parking uses up space which could be devoted to wider pavements and/or cycle tracks to promote more visitors to come by bike. A lose-lose situation all round, don’t you think?