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Too much of a good thing?

by | Aug 25, 2020 | Parking

In my previous blog, I argued that when we think about the role that parking plays in placemaking, that we leap to two unfounded assumptions.  Firstly, that the provision of parking in city centres is a cause of excessive traffic and pollution rather than an effect. After all, people don’t drive into city centres simply to park there. Secondly, that parking is essential for local business and local authority revenue. Assumptions like these soon become pervasive myths that lead to what one local authority director recently described to me as ‘policy paralysis’. There is only one way past this and that is to challenge these assumptions.

To challenge an assumption, we need two things; irrefutable data and a credible alternative interpretation of what we currently perceive to be ‘true’. In 2016, the British Parking Association’s ‘Parking 20:20 – our vision for the future of parking’ paper placed the creation of a parking database for the UK as a top priority.

“By connecting data collection and presentation, we can ensure data is more credible. It also paves the way for enhanced standards, making it easier for operators and local authorities to provide their data.” ‘Parking 20:20 – our vision for the future of parking’ – BPA 2016

They’ve made a good deal of progress on this and the Department for Transport’s LAMP project is creating a vital enabling platform. What’s still missing is not the data but the means to act upon it.  Many local authorities collect and publish parking data, notably Hull City Council, which maintains an open file that is updated every 5 minutes with detailed information on each car park, such as capacity, current number of occupied spaces, free spaces and a total for all monitored car parks. Guildford Borough Council has been working with us at Ethos VO to monitor its car parks and collect the same level of data since 2016.

What has been lacking though is an answer to the ‘so what?’ question. What local authorities need are tools that will enable them to interpret this data to support placemaking and decarbonisation at a local level. Ironically, having access to too much data may be what’s preventing the realisation that we currently have not too little parking provision but far too much.

In June, Glasgow City Council announced that it would create 25km of extra space to enable physical distancing in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. It did so by closing 33% of the city’s street parking bays, a measure that was judged to create no problems as:

“The city has 12,000 spaces in car parks and the council said these were rarely more than half full” BBC – 4th June 2020

This public recognition by a local authority that there is too much parking provision is rare but other evidence suggests that it’s an issue that’s not confined to Glasgow. A July 2020 study by Knight Frank‘s Geospatial team, conducted on behalf of the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), identified 103,000 public and private surface car parks across the country, which comprise a land area of 20,000 hectares. Of this, some 7,555 hectares are owned by the public sector. For me, the most surprising findings were that:

91% of public sector surface car parks actually have another such car park within a 5 minute walk. 21% offer parking for a primary retail centre, 13% only offer provision for secondary retail, and that the remaining 66% don’t appear to support any retail centre whatsoever. Knight Frank – 2020

Click to expand

Click to expand

This isn’t evidence of bad planning, it’s evidence that town centres are dynamic, changing environments.

The decline in driver license uptake amongst 18-30 year olds proves to be a lasting trend, with the uptake of driving licenses later in life being the new ‘normal’ across generations. Mobility as a service has become central to the travel habits of the urban young. City centre workplaces, core working hours and face-to-face meetings continue to be important aspects of working life but, even before the COVID-19 pandemic created what appears to be an irreversible shift to greater levels of home working, ‘portfolio’ career structures and ‘third-place’ working (such as coffee shops and co-working spaces) meant that fewer people were spending 5 days per week working in the same place. Most significantly, shopping has shifted online such that it is the primary method of purchase (of all kinds) for 70% of the population.

The combination of these factors suggests that the UK has an over capacity of parking. What it does not have is an over capacity of affordable housing and this map from the same Knight Frank study makes a compelling visual case for change.

Clearly, coping with these changes will involve the recognition of important trade offs. Councils should reduce their redundant parking capacity and recognise the economic, social and environmental opportunities that this opens up, but important questions remain which most local authorities will struggle to answer without, not just the data, but the tools through which they can analyse that data and present it as a compelling case to understandably cautious stakeholders within the administration and community. Which car parks can be re-purposed? How do we ensure that remaining car parks serve the needs of those visitors that do still need to use private cars? How do we provide for electric vehicle charging? How can we be sure that any reduction in local authority income from a reduction in parking capacity is going to be compensated for through other revenue sources and social benefits? We simply cannot expect local authorities to make these decisions without the data capture and analysis tools that they need.

That’s why the purpose of is to develop them.

Adrian Segens

Adrian Segens


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