Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Connecting Places: What is the cost of free parking?

In this series, Connecting Places, we explore the spaces, places and sustainable transport systems in Belfast and beyond, with an aim to generate critical debate on the design of our towns and cities.

Series curated by Aaron Coulter

Last week Transport Minister Danny Kennedy announced free on-street parking in Belfast, Lisburn and Newry city centres, coming into effect from Monday 5th December until 24th December, with fees being suspended from 4.30pm Monday to Friday and all day on Saturdays.

The decision has been largely met with approval by consumers and retailers alike, with retailers anticipating an increase in sales in the run up to Christmas due to the perceived ease of access to the city centre for those arriving by car.

However, is there a cost associated with free parking, and if so, what is it?

'No Coins? No Problem!'

While some would argue that on-street parking charges, and the enforcement thereof, exist solely as a means of government profiteering, they actually play a vital role in the control and flow of traffic through our city centres. The theory is that if on-street parking charges are applied in any given area, less cars will be found and, conversely, if no car parking charges exist more cars will be found. We only need look towards the inner city residential areas at the boundary of the on-street parking charge zone in Belfast to see this theory in effect.

Professor Donald Shoup, in his acclaimed book, 'The High Cost of Free Parking', makes the argument that,

'Free parking has contributed to auto dependence, rapid urban sprawl, extravagant energy use, and a host of other problems. Planners mandate free parking to alleviate congestion, but end up distorting transportation choices, debasing urban design, damaging the economy, and degrading the environment. Ubiquitous free parking helps explain why our cities sprawl on a scale fit more for cars than for people, and why American motor vehicles now consume one-eighth of the world's total oil production.'

But what lies ahead for Belfast, Lisburn and Newry?

Undoubtedly the decision will mean an increase in the numbers of cars coming into, and circulating throughout, our City Centres in the search for a free parking space, ultimately increasing the overall level of traffic congestion. In a period when many Cities across the world, including Belfast (albeit on a somewhat less productive manner), are trying to rid their City Centres of the privately owned car it is hard to understand the reasoning behind the decision.

Naturally, there are significant economic factors at play. Retailers are not only being hit hard by the ongoing recession - but the mild weather has also had an impact on top and bottom lines. In questioning Danny Kennedy's decision, I am not arguing that we shouldn't be prioritising economic concerns or not making it easier for retailers (I wouldn't have my part time job otherwise), but that there could be alternative solutions to the issue.

If simplified, the issue is one of supply and demand. It's Christmas - there is, and always will be, high demand for access to our City Centres throughout December as people carry out their Christmas Shopping. What Danny Kennedy is doing (and rightly so) is not only trying to meet this 'demand', but also trying to increase it by maximising 'supply'. However, the method of 'supply' (removal of parking fee enforcement) is a poor and ill conceived choice with little consideration of the longer term implications.

In the age of internet shopping it is unquestionable that we need to encourage people into the City Centre and we need to make it as easy as possible to do so. But at this particularly busy time of year, after investing significant public resources into the decoration of our City Centres with trees, lights etc, why then undo the hard work by congesting the very same streets with cars and traffic? Both the theory and practice have shown that if we invite cars and traffic into the city, that is inevitably what we will get.

However, if we approach the situation in a different way, we have a higher than average demand of people wanting to come into the city centre - why then, do we not use this demand to act as a catalyst to encourage higher consumption rates of our public transport network? Encouraging Translink to lower fares or increase services over the holiday period could very easily generate the same, if not higher, levels of potential consumers entering our City Centres - particularly in Belfast - the most accessible point in Northern Ireland via public transport.

Doing this would not only make the city centre a more pleasant place to be over the Christmas period but could more importantly act as a starting point in the lifestyle change needed to move towards a less car dependent society by showing people just how much easier, cheaper and less hassle it is to take the bus.

While increasing services or lowering fares may create short term costs for Translink (potentially offset by increased uptake), in the long term there would be significant benefits for the company as many new users of public transport could be generated. Undoubtedly some will say that ideas like this would never work, however it is only through attempting measures such as this that the use of public transport will increase in our Cities.

Instead we have resorted to opening up our City Centres to the car, the easy option. Does this initiative show that our transport Minister has little faith in our public transport system at present? Danny Kennedy's decision is a real kick in the teeth for Translink - however, the question is will they take it lying down and continue with the same old service? In the monopoly that is public transport in Northern Ireland, the car is Translink's biggest competitor - surely they should respond by adapting their service over Christmas, beyond the token late night bus from Belfast to Larne?

Compounding these issues we have an inequitable balance of interests occuring with the decision favouring, and benefiting, car owners at the cost of public transport users (who will suffer from delayed bus services due to congestion). The potential long term result may be that the increased traffic congestion may only serve to put people off venturing into the city - the very reverse of what is intended. Change is needed.

In essence, free city centre parking is a lazy initiative acting primarily as a 'good news story' for Danny Kennedy on one hand and a severe step backwards, undermining public transport alternatives and initiatives implemented by Translink on the other. If Belfast is to compete on the international stage, and in the context of the recent announcement from National Geographic Traveller Magazine, surely more imagination is needed among our decision makers.

This time each year an excellent opportunity presents itself to capitalise on the increased demand for access to our city centres. Through collaborative efforts we could not only increase footfall in the city centre via more sustainable means, but we could also use this potentially catalytic action for a longer term positive change in how we access and move through our Cities.

When will we take this opportunity, and who will have the courage to do it?

This Christmas, don't get annoyed if you can't find a parking space - remember you're not in traffic, you are traffic. Save the stress and take the bus instead!

Continue the conversation with Aaron on Twitter #connectingplaces

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