There is a significant amount of anecdotal evidence, opinion and speculation over the relationship between car parking provision and town centre prosperity. I was recently asked by a regional newspaper to comment on the question of ‘free parking’.

Ultimately there’s no such thing as a free parking space: someone has to pay. The cost of land, pavement, street cleaning etc., comes directly out of tax. Each on-street parking space costs an estimated £1,350 to build and £300 to maintain annually. These charges need to be covered by someone, somewhere, somehow. That said, tax aside, I see there being five key consequences of making parking ‘free’:

  1. The capital and operating costs mean non-drivers pay for other people’s parking. Every time we take public transport or walk, to some extent we’re getting ripped off
  2. Free parking forces cruising for spots, adding to traffic and carbon emissions. As the University of Essex showed in 2019, council measures to incentivise late-night shopping through free evening parking directly impacted air quality
  3. It’s often not optimal land allocation: with 3-4 million non-residential spaces in the UK, parking is the single biggest city land use
  4. From a carbon neutrality standpoint, the energy and materials associated with creating and maintaining parking infrastructure are extensive (some sources suggest this may exceed the environmental costs of vehicles themselves)
  5. There’s evidence that subsidised parking increases demand and miles driven

Shoup, the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, gives a simple recommendation. 'Charge the right price for on-street parking,' he says. Several American cities have recently begun experimenting with variable pricing, based on researched supply, demand and environmental factors. Studies have confirmed that this cuts cruising and congestion.

The London Plan takes a pragmatic approach, favouring a balance between promoting development and preventing excessive parking provision that can undermine cycling, walking and public transport. The Mayor supports Park and Ride schemes in outer London (if they will demonstrably lead to overall reductions in congestion, journey times and vehicle kilometres) and promotes a need for car-free developments in locations with high public transport accessibility.

Parking policy, both in terms of provision or regulation, can have significant effects in influencing transport choices and addressing congestion. It can also affect patterns of development, economic success, and liveability. since 2011, parking policy has been broadly left to the market. The National Planning Policy Framework holds that local planning authorities should only impose local parking standards for development ‘where there is clear and compelling justification that it is necessary to manage their local road network’.

In my view, aligned with the NPPF recommendation and key industry reports, planners should use a fact-based approach to ensure destinations are accessible by as many people as possible — Why are people using car parks? Does the journey have to be made by car or can incentives encourage alternatives? — and work towards reducing parking demand through viable alternatives, including improved public transport and shared-space schemes to accommodate pedestrians and cars simultaneously.

Abigail Blumzon — Client Project Delivery Advisor at Pick Everard

Photo credit to Ryan Searle on Unsplash