Paying the price for parking

There are two theories about paying and parking. The first, outlined by the fictional character George Constanza from US hit show Seinfeld and backed up by many motoring groups and individuals, is that parking should be free for everyone – after all, who has the right to charge for the use of space? The second, which has been quoted extensively in the past few years is that no-one has the right to park for free, because providing parking of any sort comes at a cost. But, while the free parking lobby gets the popular vote with many motorists, it is worth having a look at the reasons why it is only fair to charge; and not just charge a nominal amount, but actually put a premium on parking.

Long term parkers

Let’s take a town centre example. Users will include shop staff, office workers, visitors and shoppers. A cheap or non-existent parking charge will lead to people parking for long periods of time. The majority of parking spaces will be taken by office workers and shop staff who turn up at 8am and leave at 5pm. This means one vehicle will have taken a parking space for nine hours. That’s fine if there is no demand for the space, but what if a number of shoppers turned up looking for a space for a couple of hours, couldn’t park and so went to the out-of-town retail park instead. The result of a poor pricing policy is a disgruntled visitor, another vehicle circling the town meaninglessly for a period of time and another nail in the coffin for the town centre.

By introducing short-term car parking and high prices, people will still use the parking space, but will leave after one or two hours, leaving it free for another motorist. The result: more visitors to the town centre.

A sensible strategy

This might appear harsh to the town centre workers, but by adopting a transport strategy that embraces all forms of transport then it is a workable and reasonable solution. Park and ride, trams and buses all cater for people who want to leave their car in one place all day at a cheap cost.

The obvious results are more visitors to the town centre and less environmental pollution. A side effect might be an increased number of walkers and cyclists, which has a public health benefit.

Example from the West-side

Then there is the environmental cost of parking. Here, we can look to San Francisco for a neat solution to a problem that was proving life-threatening. Pollution in the American city at the start of the 21st century were at dangerous levels and a lot of this was down to the sheer volume of traffic circling the city looking for parking spaces.

A private company, SF Park, joined forces with the San Francisco state transport department to introduce demand responsive parking. This meant that the prices were hiked when demand was high and lowered when demand dropped. The result of this initiative was two-fold: more people used public transport; and there was a 50 per cent drop in cruising traffic at peak times, leading to a dramatic improvement in air quality in the city. Parking charges were actually helping to improve the environment and influencing the way people planned their travel.

And this pattern was not limited to San Francisco. Across the US, higher parking prices meant that public transport use went up significantly.

All’s fair

All of this means that parking charges should be considered very carefully. There will be accusations that high parking costs are prohibitive to people on lower incomes, but there is already inequity in the cost of motoring. If we take a look at the bigger picture, a low cost and efficient public transport system, supporting a fair rate of parking charge, will mean a healthier environment and a greater ease of movement for everyone – now that is worth paying for!