In UKIP’s “policies for people”, I find two mentions of Free Parking. The first under “The National Health Service”,
“…UKIP will commit to spending £200m of the £2bn saving to end hospital car parking charges in England”
The “saving” they’re talking about comes from not treating migrants, so the free parking at the hospital is paid for by dead foreigners. It’s a fantasy this money exists, that charging migrants would raise anything like £2bn, and in order to do so, you’d have to set up a payment collection bureaucracy, which cannot be had for £2bn. Do you really think the NHS, whose hospitals are often near town centres should be in the business of providing free parking? Now, there’s a case for providing free parking to some patients, but clearly not visitors, who’ll also “pop to the shops” after seeing granny. And this is why free parking doesn’t work. It’s abused.
The second is under “Employment and small business” where
“UKIP will Encourage councils to provide more free parking for the high street”
There is no doubt this is popular. It’s a common complaint that parking charges discourage people from visiting the high street in favour of out-of-town stores because of the availability of parking. Parking fines make people angry. Some people feel It’s all part of a “war on the motorist”. Free parking is a simple policy, easily sold. And massively, demonstrably counter productive. If you allow free parking, it will accelerate the decline of the High Street as a shopping venue.
UKIP is entitled to its own opinion, but not it’s own facts. And this policy, like so may others is based on beliefs that are to put it simply, false. Most business owners on any given street over-estimate the percentage of people arriving by car, often significantly. Retailers think car drivers are richer, and therefore more valuable as customers. They aren’t. Business owners think people drive, park in front of their shop, get back in their car and leave. They don’t. People tend to park, mooch about, visit a number of shops, have a coffee, before heading home. Retail is a leisure activity on the high street. Retail in an out of town store is much more focussed. because who wants to go to the wind-swept car-park outside PC world and DFS unless you want a laptop or a sofa? Out of town retail is not a substitute for high-street shopping.
The key to making parking a part of a successful high street is turnover. A high street might contain parking for twenty or thirty cars. If those cars are there all day, the thousands who will be needed to keep those shops open will, if they are coming by car, find somewhere else to leave it, and in circulating to find a spot, will cause congestion. Parking charges are about valuing that scarce space, so that people come, for thirty minutes, or an hour or two, do their shopping and leave, freeing space for someone else to do the same. (This is also the logic behind encouraging cycling – twelve bicycles can be parked in the space occupied by one car) The first 30 minutes of most parking is nominal. The second hour might cost a lot more than the first. That is certainly the case with the town centre car-park where I live. And there is a vibrant high street here.
The key is to see what people do. If it is routinely “impossible to find a space” then the parking charges are too low or more parking needs to be provided (but who pays for this…?). If you can find a space easily, then they are too high and can be reduced. The other consideration for retailers is the leisure component of high-street shopping. The reason pedestrianisation works is because it encourages people to come to an area to spend time and money. Cars make an area hostile to people and leisure. Remove the cars, foot traffic increases, and business benefit. Of course people need to park, but most towns have multi-story car parks, which are out of sight. On-street parking impedes the flow of people. Remove the on-street parking (usually insignificant in towns with multi-story options) and it makes the area more attractive.
Why do people think free, on-street parking is so much more important than it actually is? The answer is the availability heuristic. Cars dominate our urban space. Most town centre streets are lined with them. Other people’s car journeys are more noticeable to us through noise, and time spent crossing roads (externalities) than are journeys by foot or bicycle. Everyone can recall the feelings of frustration in circulating to find a space. We do not recall the visits to the multi-story car park, where space is near limitless (how often have you parked on a roof?). Thus the importance of on-street shop-front parking is over-estimated, next to the paid, limitless off-street option. Count the cars parked down one high street. Twenty? Thirty? Then go to the multi-story behind the shops and look at the spare capacity. On-street parking isn’t necessary or even desirable for a vibrant high street, especially when it’s free.
The answer to high-streets is to provide the right amount of parking, in the right place, at the right price. This does not always mean less, or more expensive parking, but it does require thought about what has been tried, and what has worked elsewhere. Suggesting parking charges are part of a conspiracy to deny the people the use of their car is either dishonest, or stupid. And this is exactly what UKIP are doing. Their simplistic policies are clearly by people who have no interest in public policy beyond their own unexamined prejudices. ‘Free parking’ is a soundbite, designed to buy a vote from someone who’s never thought about the issue in detail, spoken by someone who isn’t interested in public policy and lacks the wit to find out. It might just be ‘Free parking’, but it demonstrates exactly why UKIP shouldn’t ever be allowed to get control of anything.