Sunday 8 December 2013

Stands to reason, dunnit?

“Stands to reason, dunnit?”

Often this is just about the entirety of an argument put forward in support of a proposition, by a proponent who considers the proposition to be so blindingly obvious that no evidence is necessary to support it.

A good example is cycle helmets.  Proponents of helmets and helmet compulsion evidently believe that wrapping a couple of centimetres of expanded polystyrene around your head must surely protect your head from damage.  After all, it stands to reason – electrical goods get shipped packed in expanded polystyrene to protect them, so it must be good.  Real evidence of course is harder to come by.  The evidence tends to be fairly inconclusive but it does suggest that head injuries don’t really decline much when helmets are made compulsory, even when cycling levels fall as a result.  Other adverse effects are also observed to come into play, such as rotational neck injuries, or health impacts of reduced physical activity – as in Australia, home of cycle helmet compulsion and apparently second-most obese nation in the world after the USA.

Moving on, a more topical example of the Stands-to-Reason assertion relates to car parking.  In thisdocument, on which the Department for Transport is asking for your comments in a consultation exercise, it is asserted that reducing charges, easing restrictions and obstructing penalties for illegal or inconsiderate parking will benefit town centres.

There is no evidence for this.  Nil, none, nada, zilch, aucune.  It just  ‘stands to reason’ that if people can get parking for free, or for less than they pay now, if they can park for longer than they have actually paid for, or if they can abuse yellow lines and other parking restrictions for example to park within two paces of a shop, that will motivate them to shop more, and more often.  There is however no academic or scientific, empirical evidence or report to support this proposition.  Appeals have gone out on the Twittersphere (from John Dales?  I forget) for information on any such documents.  As far as I know, no-one has come forward.

There is however evidence for the converse, and for the opposite.  Here and here, for example, from Transport Research Laboratory and London Councils respectively.

The converse is that, rather than pricing of parking or the availability of free parking impacting the vitality of a town centre, the vitality of a town centre impacts on the cost of parking.  This was summed up neatly two years ago, shortly before Christmas, when retailers in Wokingham were reported in the local paper demanding concessions on parking charges to boost trade.  The chairman of the local chamber of commerce, however, dismissed this as “putting a sticking plaster on a broken artery” and pointing out that in nearby Reading, parking charges were much higher and yet cars were queuing around the block waiting for access to a car park.

The opposite is that reducing parking charges can actually have the opposite effect.  Maintaining the correct level of charge for the area is an art which local authorities aim to refine, so that they can maximise the number of visitors to a town centre by discouraging excessively long stays during which purchasing activity tails off.  Avoiding “bay-blocking” in other words.  If people who stay an hour spend more than twice as much as those who stay 30 minutes, and more than half as much as those who stay two hours, then pitch the pricing at one hour minimum and high enough to encourage people to get on, shop, and leave so a new shopper can take the space.

An example, it seems to me, of how different parking areas in my own home town sustain different charges and so (probably imperfectly) optimise the use of spaces, is that a car park next door to the supermarket (which has no free parking of its own) charges at 80p per hour while another a hundred yards or so further way charges at 50p per hour, and yet in the former each space is sold twice as many times per day.

All of this of course falls on deaf ears as far as Mr Pickwick is concerned.  He persists in his bleedin’-obvious prejudice that a parking free-for-all would be good for towns, proposing to permit motorists to overstay their time by a “few minutes” (can they not afford a watch?  If not, surely they can see the time on their mobile phones?), or to park “briefly” on double yellow lines – never mind the inconvenience to other motorists, the danger to pedestrians who are now hidden behind parked cars and so  invisible to those motorists as they attempt to cross the road, or the impedance to emergency services attempting pass down congested streets.  Just tie both hands behind the council’s back in its efforts to keep things under control.  Just end up like Aberystwyth, where all parking controls were initially lifted, then after a year of total chaos, anarchy, accidents, arguments and punch-ups, they were re-instated to the profound relief of all, including the usual troublemaker in this matter, the local rag.

Parking controls do matter.  Inconsiderate parking obstructs the highway.  It impedes elderly and disabled pedestrians who need access to dropped kerbs.  It places children in danger when they can’t be seen by passing cars as they try to cross the road from between parked cars.  It blocks cycle lanes, forcing cyclists to swerve out into traffic and put themselves at risk.  Cheap parking, apart from not doing what it says on the tin, attracts more traffic so more congestion, more pollution and more road danger, making the town centre even less attractive to pedestrians and unfairly disadvantaging people who have no access to a car.

Go to the survey, and tell Pickles where he can stuff his parking free-for-all proposals.


  1. Good article. I have just responded to the consultation, and quoted from one of my recent blogs, Why the bicycle?

    "It is very far from the case that the vitality of commercial enterprises is dependent upon a High Street which is easily accessible to motorists. The contribution made by customers who arrive by public transport, bicycle and on foot is greatly underestimated, as indeed is the negative impact on our town centres in particular, and on the urban environment in general, as a consequence of providing for the car.

    "A study carried out in Bern, Switzerland, established the ratio between the value of purchases made and the parking area used by each customer, expressed as an annual average. The results showed that the ratio of profitability to parking was highest in the case of cyclists: €7,500 per square metre. Motorists came next with €6,625 per square metre.

    "On the face of it, this would seem paradoxical given that cyclists have no boot in which to put their purchases, meaning they are thus constrained by how much they can carry home. However, a separate study carried out in Munster, Germany, reaffirmed that motorists are not in fact better customers than cyclists. Indeed, in most situations, cyclists actually make for better customers. Because they tend to buy in smaller quantities, cyclists go to the shops more regularly (11 times a month on average, as opposed to seven times a month for motorists).

    (Just to add, Cllr Tim Ward told Cambridge News: "Retailers want people coming in spending two to three hours shopping." Little surprise then that the council is investing much more on cycle parking.)

    "It must be stressed that what the High Street values most is activity. It would therefore be more accurate to say that the vitality of commercial enterprises is much more closely linked to the quality of the environment (rather than to the ease with which the town centre is accessible by car)."

  2. Popping to the shops for a pint of milk or a newspaper in a car would not make me want to spend another couple of hours buying a new suite or doing the Christmas shop. They are very different enterprises and require very different personal logistics. Pickles is really just trying to find a way to avoid walking a few feet to collect his Daily Mail.