Saturday 18 May 2013

The third rail

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?

Monday 13 May 2013

Isn't it "aggravating"?

A man (isn’t it usually a man?  That is not a sexist observation, but evidence-based) gets clocked for speeding.  As he has been clocked a few times before, and quite recently too, he fears that he will have his licence suspended which will be practically inconvenient but also terrible PR for his imminent candidature for a parliamentary election – true, his predecessor deceased tragically as a result of a sex-game gone wrong, but that might not make the electorate any warmer to him if he is a convicted speeder – so he suborns his wife to cough for the offence on his behalf.  His relief however is short-lived:  he went on to do it again!  This time he didn’t pass the points on, he got his ban and he was evidently forgiven by the good burghers of Eastleigh.  (You will recall that the good Burghers of Eastleigh got perilously close to electing a UKIP candidate, admittedly a rather more electo-genic one than most, so perhaps that is not altogether surprising)

Now Vicky Pryce is not some down-trodden barefoot-in-the-kitchen hausfrau, but a prominent economist whom I recall as a fellow partner at KPMG, a big 4 accounting firm where I worked at that time, and you don’t get to be one of them by being a shrinking violet.  One has to wonder how she fell so far under the spell as to do something which she must have known, in the highly regulated world of the City and the professions, with their annual “Fit & Proper” interrogations, was career suicide.  Nevertheless, the courts determined that she did.

Today, we learn that Mr Huhne and Ms Pryce, who both entered prisons at much the same time, have both been released, presumably to some form of parole and curfew regime, after a mere two months each of their matching eight month sentences.

In other words, one was sentenced to eight months, and served two months, for a fraud, aggravated by another offence and by a “pattern of behaviour” which indicated a somewhat elastic view of compliance with the law.  The other was sentenced to eight months, and served two months, for participating in the fraud - period.  No evidence was adduced of other motoring offences and as far as I am aware she is otherwise of unimpeachable character.

Isn’t there something terribly wrong here?

Saturday 4 May 2013

What's in a name?

Over the last few months I have been indulging in a  bit of a twitter exchange with another tweep, over a local car parking battle and the personalities engaged in it, including two current (Tory) councillors and one newly elected (non-Tory) one.  This tweep is evidently a Tory, but has quite acidic views on one of those councillors and rather dewy-eyed views about the other – in my view entirely misconceived in both cases.  (Personally, I have a problem with both of them in that they are Tories, but one is an open, straight and plain dealing individual, whatever your feelings about his politics.  The other is not.)

The newly elected councillor is an independent.  She narrowly beat the Tory (the latter of the two I refer to above) which around here is an achievement in itself – a donkey with a blue rosette would expect to be elected here.  It attests to her personal qualities and her drive and determination, and also to her openness – what you see is what you get, even if you don’t like all of it.  I certainly don’t like all of it, but I liked enough to give her my vote.  The bit I don’t like is a campaign to prevent local residents obtaining relief from parking problems, visited on them by outsiders, by resident-only parking schemes.  The rest is a progressive view on transport policy, especially cycling and 20mph, and the civil realm generally.

My tweep thinks that her victory is a victory for the parking objectors.  I doubt it.  If the parking lobbyists had stood full square behind her, what happened to the 4,000 people who apparently signed a petition on the matter last year?  She got 1,208 votes.

From the general tenor of his tweets, I have to assume that his position on the parking issue is that he wants to be able to drive to the station and park in one of the neighbouring streets**, without charge, and possibly at some inconvenience to the residents of that street, and he resents attempts by those residents to escape from this blight – through no fault of their own, these people live in a car-dependent area so have few other transport choices and they think it would be nice if they could park their cars somewhere near where they live, and could exit from their own off-street parking, for example to collect their children from school* without finding the way obstructed by someone else’s parked car.

Anyway, to the point:  this individual styles himself on his twitter page as a cyclist.  Not just by-the-way – cyclist is the first word he uses.  I gather he is heavily into cycle road events, like sportives.  From reading his Twitter home page and his tweets, I learn that he lives in my town, and like me he (apparently) commutes from the local railway station, he lives about the same distance from the station as I do but in a different direction.  I can manage it on a bicycle despite getting perilously close to pensionable age, he appears to be much younger and is clearly fitter, so why can’t he?

It takes me back to AlternativeDfT’s post, “Cyclists, you have an image problem”.  The term clearly means rather different things to different people, and public policy, if the recently published Westminster cycle strategy is anything to go by, hasn’t caught up with that yet.
*  It’s a rural area, many schools are several miles from the communities they serve
** Indeed he has now confirmed this, in a subsequent tweet