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?


  1. "time restrictions and charging, correctly applied, not merely don’t harm retailers, they support them, by optimising the use of parking spaces"

    This ^ spot on.

    Parking within a reasonable distance of a shopping area is a finite resource and is subject to the laws of supply and demand.

    Underprice it and you waste the resource, overprice it and you will have excess. Parking should be charged for at a rate that creates the maximum amount of revenue. This may even in fact increase the amount being spent in the shops a person going to the shops for a mars bar will not spend £1 to park for 30 mins, but a person going to buy a tablet computer will do so because proportionally it is a small cost of the journey. If parking is too cheap Mars bar buyer might prevent tablet buyer from being able to access the shops.

    People will bitch and whine about the price of parking, it doesn't mean they won't keep paying it. When revenues/occupancy reach the top of the laffer curve then you know you have the most optimally priced parking and the council is getting the best return on its asset which I would hope they are obliged to do.

    If councils don't get the best return they can on the land they own then that has to be made up elsewhere, typically council tax. This means that everyone who doesn't park is subsidising cheap parking for those who do.

  2. No question that a private enterprise will (should?) price its offering, such as parking, optimally for the best returns to itself. You see this being referred to regretfully by, for example, hospital trusts apologising for parking price increases imposed by the PFI companies they engage to build and run their visitors' car parks. Where parking is owned by the local authority I guess they have two competing aims. One obviously is to maximise revenues, because as you say they should not be calling on non-driving taxpayers to subsidise driving ones, or indeed drivers from other areas who don't actually pay tax to them at all, and they should be optimising the use of publicly owned assets. They wouldn't undersell spare commercial property in their portfolio, or council housing, so why parking?

    That does however compete with another obligation which is to enhance the amenity of their residents, which might well mean going easy on parking in some parts of town to support the businesses there, in the interests of their residents as customers.

    In both cases though they should be using charges and restrictions to optimise the usage of the facility. Perhaps that means slightly weighting charges against very short or very long stays because neither is economically productive - the notion that town centres benefit from free parking for the person who "pops in" for a pint of milk or a newspaper, when someone else is struggling to find a parking space near the supermarket so they can do a weekly shop, is absurd.